Martin Esslin: Artaud was not “Woke”

Learning the fact that “woke” is actually a Beat term brought back my frustrating memories of the arguments about Artaud between me, who had actually read Artaud’s works, and my ex, who had never read Artaud but was a fan of Allen Ginsberg. While I admire “Howl,” Ginsberg is a disgusting distorter of Antonin Artaud’s works. Ginsberg portrayed Artaud, a drug addict who continuously warned his friends against experimenting with drugs (even as he argued for their decriminalization until he could finally be free of them), as a drug experimentalist, a happy indulger of opium and peyote. Nothing could be further from the truth. Artaud hated his addiction to opiates, willingly detoxed many times (most famously, and dangerously, during his long trek on a mule in rural Mexico), took the peyote in order to cure himself (and failed), and briefly conquered his addiction when he was engaged to his fiance, Cecile Schramme. Such was his astounding will, when he felt (as he rarely did) that he was loved.

Tragically, it did not last. Artaud complained that while opium placed a wall between him and the world, it also made life endurable, because, as he confessed to Lise Deharme, “I’m not crazy because I take drugs; I take drugs because I’m crazy.” Life with opium was despair, a “deception and a void,” but life without drugs, due to his psychological and physical issues, was unbearable.

Artaud did not “enjoy” his addiction: he reviled it. And this man, often homeless, penniless, living on the streets, did beg for money but never stole, never threatened anyone (though he did at times, teetering on the edge of paranoia and mental illness, insult people on the street), and never expected the government, Church, or society to bail him out (though he did believe society should spend its time and resources on a ritual trauma that would awaken people, which underpinned his Theatre of Cruelty). All his life, since his illness at five years old until his death at fifty-one, he suffered migraines, bone pain, neuralgia, mania, depression, uncontrollable erections and impotence. Yet his works and his poetry are not pleas for pity; they are outrageous, incisive, thoughtful, and often hilarious exhortations to remake life itself.

Yet Artaud has been portrayed by shallow hangers-on as a hedonist, a sensualist, a Marxist/communist (!), and a liberal. He wasn’t. But nor was he right-wing, although some of his ideas approach fascism. Yet he wasn’t a fascist. He was primarily concerned about consciousness and its life in the body, its tie to the body, and the future of the body. Artaud didn’t care if the body was white or of color (and he was mixed race himself) or male or female. Artaud’s thinking was original. Like Robert Desnos, the only other true surrealist, Antonin Artaud was free.

Reproduced here are excerpts from Martin Esslin‘s excellent (and highly recommended by me) biography of Artaud, from the chapter “Irrationalism, Aggression, Revolution”:

During the night of 16 May 1968 crowds of insurgent Paris students flooded into the Odéon-Théâtre de France, then under the artistic direction of Jean-Louis Barrault, and occupied the venerable old building. As the first of the revolutionary youths burst into Barrault’s office and saw the portrait of Artaud above his desk, he exclaimed: “He has stolen Artaud.”

That young revolutionary who had never known Artaud almost certainly had no idea that Barrault had been Artaud’s comrade-in-arms, had shared many of his most intimate thoughts, had been his friend and disciple, had responded to his appeals for help in the dark years of his confinement, and was continuing Artaud’s work in the theatre. To the student revolutionary that Artaud did not exist. For him Artaud was the embodiment of his own rejection of society as constituted in 1968, the scourge of the bourgeoisie, the source of a stream of invective and abuse against established institutions. An abstract image of Artaud had swamped the real Artaud, whom Jean-Louis Barrault had known and loved, and was not floating ahead of the teeming masses of rioting young people, a lodestar of their revolt…

It is a though Artaud’s pent-up frustrations, which had exploded in writing of unparalleled aggressiveness, retained their power beyond the grave and were able to engender and energize aggressive forces of a similar nature across space and time. So great were the psychic energies stored in Artaud’s brilliantly written poetic outbursts, so powerful was his style, so potent his expressive force that, like the initial release of energy in an atomic bomb, they were able to unleash a veritable chain reaction in the minds of countless individuals who in turn inspired similar aggressive sentiments in scores of others they encountered on their paths.

Ironically enough, all those who knew him intimately agree that in his personal life Artaud was an exceptionally mild, sweet-natured man. All the more powerfully, it seems, did his suppressed aggressions issue into his writings. Only in one sphere, that of the theatre, was he ever concerned with propounding a positive vision: His proposals may in some respects have been impractical or difficult to implement, but they were constructive and amounted to an alternative blueprint. But when it came to the iniquities of the contemporary established social order and culture, Artaud’s criticism was purely negative. He denounced industrial civilization, machines, science,* medicine,** the pedantries of the law; but all he could advocate to replace them was a vague idea about returning to the Middle Ages, ancient Mexican civilization or – at certain points of his career – the supposedly happier life-styles of ancient China or Tibet…

The danger of such a surrender to the Dionysiac life force and its creative ecstasy lies in the blindness of such raptures. It is energy without a defined direction or aim, and ultimately might lead to violence as an end in itself…

Precisely because Artaud’s ideas are totally incarnated in Artaud’s life and personality, they make sense only in the context of his own experience, above all his own suffering [emphasis mine]. His rage and aggressiveness are, ultimately, merely poetic metaphors for his suffering and can only be understood as complementary to it. He had the right to utter those heart-rending screams of pain we can still hear in the last recording, because he suffered the pain from which they sprang. But that does not give others, who have not felt that pain, the justification to start uttering equally loud and strident cries [emphasis mine]. Without the suffering such screams are hollow, empty, superficial, and fake. And what is true of the screams is equally true of violent talk and violent action. The middle-class student revolutionaries of the Paris riots of May 1968 who used Artaud’s aggressiveness to power their own frustrations did not share these sufferings but merely exploited them for their own shallow ends and to provide cheap thrills for themselves [emphasis mine]. In that sense, they, not Jean-Louis Barrault, had stolen Artaud.

And as such, I’m not listening to nonsense such as “too many white people in this multicultural center” and other self-righteous, “we’re just trying to exist” twaddle. What a load of malarkey. Unless you’ve suffered like Antonin Artaud, shut up – you’re lucky. There’s not enough of Artaud – the real Artaud – in society. He would sneer at today’s Social Justice Warriors just as he sneered at Lise Deharme for her shallow, smug liberal activism and literary salons. Antonin Artaud today would angrily denounce both today’s liberal wokier-than-thou shallowness and Trumpian hyper-nationalism.

Antonin Artaud went around, touching people and inspiring them, who in turn inspired others to produce their own works. He inspired creative artists – Barrault, Jean Genet, David Tudor, Samuel Beckett, André Jolivet, Patti Smith, and many, many others – as original as himself. Unlike Andre Breton, who died not speaking to some of the most important friends of his life (Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault), Artaud died alone yet surrounded by friends new and old who not only devoted to him, but devoted to each other. (I get into this in my final novel of the series.) He never forgot Genica Athanasiou and may in fact, through Roger Blin, have saved her life.

By their works may ye knew them. This, I think this (and will say this in the final novel) is the true genius of Artaud: he united people. Breton, the “woke” intellectual of his day who joined the Communist Party, divided people. Antonin Artaud was many things, including aloof, strange, cloying, self-effacing, selfish, vulnerable, conceited, self-accusing, arrogant and generous to a fault (he blew through his royalties mostly due to his generosity to his friends) and he was wrong about many things: a belief in magic (which he ultimately rejected), tortured by religious guilt (ditto) and revulsion of sexuality later in life, a rejection of science and medicine (yet he sought out the latest treatments, so this is complicated), and angry, bitter outbursts that I find more due to a wounded heart than real hatred or malice. But he also, unlike Andre Breton, created at the end of his life the “Artaud network” that would culminate in the rescue of the woman he never stopped loving: Genica Athanasiou.

*One outcome of this novel series is that Artaud and Geoff (me) have numerous conversations and arguments about science, which the real Artaud did not enter into.

**Artaud had a complicated relationship to medicine, since he constantly sought out doctors for advice and insisted upon trying new treatments, and used medical metaphors in his poetry.

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