September 4, 1896 - March 4, 1948
The Pain of Botched Adjustment
"I have only aimed at the clockworking of the soul; I've only transcribed the pain of botched adjustment"
Artaud's credentials as a madman are impeccable. By age 21 he had already suffered a bout of meningitis, hereditary syphilis and a nervous breakdown. Furthermore, he spent approximately 15 of his 52 earthly years inside various mental institutions. His art has recently been described as:
...one long scream of protest at the inadequacy of language, of human society, of the body and the mind. (Luc Sante, Slate Magazine, October 15, 1996.)
In her biography of Artaud, Bettina Knapp writes:
Artaud's unique theatrical invention was a direct result of his malady. His physical and mental torment was so acute as to make it impossible for him to see the world except through the dark prism of his tortured Self. (Knapp, page 198).
The "unique theatrical invention" referred to is Artaud's creation of the "Theater of Cruelty." It was an antidote to the "terrible lack of imagination" Artaud perceived in the contemporary western theater of the 1930s. Between 1931 and 1935 much of what Artaud wrote had to do with his theories about this new theater form. Specifically he wrote two manifestos called "The Theater of Cruelty", an essay entitled "The Theater and Cruelty" and several letters detailing what he meant by the word "cruelty.":
I employ the word "cruelty" in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor, an implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness, in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not continue; good is desired, it is the consequence of an act; evil is permanent.(Artaud, Letter to J.P., November 14, 1932.)
Artaud's metaphysical and poetic theories for the theater were never fully realized. His play, "The Cenci" which applied his theories only lasted 17 days and was panned critically. As a result of his failure in Paris, Artaud set sail for Mexico on January 10, 1936. In Mexico Artaud sought enlightenment in the mystical peyote-induced visions of the Tarahumaras.
Whether or not his experience with the Tarahumaras enlightened him or frazzled his already very delicate mental state is an open question. Upon his return to France in November 1936, he seemed buoyed and hopeful. So much so that he decided to become engaged to Cecile Schramme, a young Belgian woman he had met before his trip to Mexico. His romance with Cecile can be tracked in his love letters written during a five month period beginning in January 1937. However, the engagement was broken off by the Schramme family in May after Artaud's bizarre behavior during a lecture about his Mexican trip. The lecture had been attended by Cecile's father. According to one witness Artaud told his audience that since he had misplaced his lecture notes, he planned to talk instead "about the effects of masturbation among the Jesuit fathers."
During the summer of 1937, Artaud began a descent into mental illness that would result in his confinement in mental institutions for the better part of the next 10 years. He was arrested during a trip to Ireland for freaking out at a Jesuit convent. The police were called and he spent six days in an Irish jail. He was then sent back to France. On board the ship taking him home, Artaud got into an altercation with some crew members and he was placed in a strait-jacket. When the ship arrived in France, Artaud was taken to a mental institution. For nearly a decade Artaud would be moved to various institutions, undergoing electroshock and insulin therapy. He was diagnosed as an incurable paranoid, who suffered from coprophilia (an abnormal interest in feces). In 1946 he was released and went to live in a private rest home where he lived until he died in 1948.
There are many strands that inform the imperative that the artist must be mad in order to be an artist. At least one of those strands passes through the life of Antonin Artaud. Anaïs Nin, who met Artaud in early 1933 was intimate with this madman, although, as she describes it, he was impotent with her. She found him intense and complex. In a diary entry for June 19, 1933 she writes:
Artaud haunts my imagination and arouses fever, arouses the supernatural efflorescence straining in space, aspiring upward.(Anaïs Nin, Incest.)
Artaud is important to us today because his vision and his illness, so personal and individual has as, Knapp says, become today our "collective malady." The fabric of society and language, so intensely studied by Artaud, has become even more unraveled. Making Artaud's vision even more compelling.
|Antonin Artaud External Links|
|Selected Bibliography- Works by Artaud|