From Book 2: Baudelaire and Artaud

What a curious relationship the reader has with a writer, I thought one day as I sat in my office reading Charles Baudelaire. When a writer’s work was broken off as Baudelaire’s was due to his drinking and carousing, the reader resented what Baudelaire had not written, what he could have written. But what man, even if he could be certain of publishing fame, would sacrifice life’s pleasures in order to become someone else’s history? I looked at the book’s cover again: Flowers of Evil. I tried to imagine me a year ago reading anything like this. In contrast to his legend. Charles Baudelaire struck me as a man deeply concerned with human goodness, a man in search of a deep, true morality.

            Urged on by Desnos and by Picasso, I picked my way through the bizarre writings of the Surrealists, the love-stricken obsessions of Paul Éluard who still pined for his ex-wife Gala, the theories—in rather high-flown language—of André Breton, Philippe Soupault’s hilarious garble, and Desnos’s own playful, perverse fairy tales. The Surrealists condemned the Great War as a great fraud but did not blame Germany or the defunct Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Instead they denounced France’s chauvinism in victory and praised the works of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Therefore my real introduction to these Austrian and German thinkers came through France’s Surrealists. I worked to improve my French, keeping a French-German dictionary at hand to help me also wade through the works of Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire—and Antonin Artaud.

            “Listen to this,” I said to Roger when he stopped by one afternoon to say hello to me at the hotel. Artaud had only reluctantly surrendered his manuscript to me that very morning, his hands fluttering over the pile of papers on the counter when I thanked him. His fingers had then curled into nervous fists that he withdrew and pressed to his chest, staring at the pages as if ready to grab them again. “I really want to read it,” I had assured him, and was rewarded with that smirk. More and more I saw past the harsh face Artaud presented to the world.

Roger folded his arms with a wary look. I read aloud:

                        I watch within me the shaping of thought which erupts with its own light and limbs, a conception which appears with a cry of birth. No vision is complete for me unless it is also Knowledge, uncovering its substance as well as its clarity. My mind, exhausted by the waverings of reason, longs for a new, an inescapable orbit. What this means is an absolute restructuring around the laws of Illogic and the claim to a new Meaning, an Intelligence which manifests itself between the contradictory phantoms of sleep, and which has been lost to me in the distractions of drugs. This Meaning arrives when the mind defeats itself, and though it cannot be observed in steps it is real, but only in the mind. This Meaning is order, it is lucidity and chaos, chaos which it does not accept, which it interprets, and in the act of interpreting, loses. It is the logic of Illogic.

            “Logic, logic, logic,” Roger snapped, “Artaud and you. You’re both making the same mistake. Without logic, we wouldn’t have poetry. Or music, or anything—”

            “Yes, but,” I countered, “music is based on the tones of the harmonic scale. We didn’t derive that logically. If we had, each tone would be equidistant—and they’re not—and we couldn’t have music. Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. No one argued that; we react to it. Yet it’s the basis of music theory. Is that logic or illogic?”

            Roger opened his mouth, shut it, and scowled at me. I went on reading aloud:

            I think about life. All my constructions can never do justice to my screams, the screams of a man rebuilding himself.
I aim for a true construction out of all man is, man in his corporal flesh and his fragile tower, the intellect, his higher mind.
My first consideration is that imponderable quiver of Science and Sense which I must misname, for lack of a precise word, man’s essence…. There is consciousness in the body, a mind lightning-quick, but the actions of the body also engage in our cumbersome higher thinking.
And yet, ‘body’ means sensation. That is, the coital, occult, unavoidable, and tyrannical swallowing of my own pain, and therefore my solitary nakedness before that pain.

            “I can’t understand a word of it,” Roger grumbled.

            “Sure you can. He’s talking about pain. He traces our aloneness, and the motion of life inside us. He’s talking about how flesh is mind and mind is flesh, and both are linked in him by pain, pain he would banish if he could seize the body’s secret.”

            “Geoff—” Roger sounded as if his teeth were clenched. Troubled, I looked up at him. He looked really angry! “You’re getting sucked into his world…”

            “I am not getting sucked into his world. It’s where I’ve already been. You’re making this into an argument, but it’s a description, a landscape. His landscape. If you were to sit and be quiet with yourself for ten minutes, you’d learn much more than trying to quibble with his words.” But Roger stalked away, irritated for some reason, unable or unwilling to understand how much it meant to me to find someone else as profoundly lonely within himself as I was within myself, someone who knew the loneliness was not solved simply by forming relationships with people, by talking, by finding some pleasant distraction. Someone for whom the words “sorrow” or “pain” did not begin to convey his sorrow or his pain.

            Artaud’s thought, like his penmanship, was indeed “sucked in by secret whirlpools” in the words of Jacques Riviere. His descriptions stalked his concept, pursued it until he finally surrounded and trapped his idea. He distrusted both academic mystification and glib chat. When I read Artaud, it was not a fight to untangle the words but to suspect them, to imagine the reality between them. It was to regard his words as mere signposts on his journey. Artaud mapped his way while knowing it only a map, not the world, not the thought, and not his life.

            I wondered why scientists had not taken the step Artaud had, to declare consciousness a physical reality. They merely dismissed the mind, called it a machine, the collection of drives of a rational actor yet having no free will, not endowed with the unpredictability that the simple electron was showing itself to have. On the other hand, religion championed man’s soul but banished it to the supernatural realm, unwilling to admit it had a carnal source. When I read Artaud, I used not my intellect but my experience: silence into words into silence again, but a new silence, flashes of insight beyond words. It was not argument; it was presence. Artaud too was a whirlpool; his writing pulled the reader inside of him, this dolorous, remote, yet timorously kind friend who was becoming my teacher.

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