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Antonin Artaud

One of my Opera friends, Scott Cumming, reminded me today that it is
National Poetry Month. I used to do a series of posts here for Poetry
Month, but last year I was sadly amiss. So I thought I would do one this
year — although just one post and not the normal three.

Background research for writing fiction takes some strange turns
sometimes, and one of the turns that it most frequently takes — although
I guess that if it is frequent that it is not all that strange — is that
suddenly you are thrown down an unexpected path into a subject that you
never expected to cover. This happened to me the other day, as I was
looking through a list of French poets that might have been floating
around and popular during the Vichy years in France.

Some of those names, mostly older Symbolist and newer Surrealist poets,
were familiar to me; some were not. Among those new to me was Antonin
Artaud (1896-1948). You can read a bit about him on Wikipedia if you
want; but let's just say this man had a very rough life. And yet he had
the flame of genius in him. I am no expert on him. But it seems that the
central element of his poetry and his plays was a type of iconoclastic
and immensely skeptical rejection of established bourgeoise values that
served to trap people into an illusion. His concept of the Theater of Cruelty
was an attempt to shock people out of that illusory world propagated by
the Earthy Powers and their idea of control.

These ideas hit me with great power, especially given the subject/period
that I am working on in the new novel — Vichy France and World War II.
And even though it would certainly be a misinterpretation of Artaud's
work, I could not help but see in this Theater of Cruelty a metaphor of
what was going on in the world at that time: A theater of war stretching
across Europe, a stage of cruelty and death. And I cannot either not find
it metaphorical that during the war years Artaud, a man of intense artistry,
was confined to a mental asylum and was receiving shock treatments.

from THE NERVE METER

by

Antonin Artaud

An actor is seen as if through crystals. Inspiration in stages.
One mustn’t let in too much literature.

I have aspired no further than the clockwork of the soul, I have
transcribed only the pain of an abortive adjustment. I am a total
abyss. Those who believed me capable of a whole pain, a beautiful
pain, a dense and fleshy anguish, an anguish which is a mixture of
objects, an effervescent grinding of forces rather than a
suspended point —and yet with restless, uprooting impulses which
come from the confrontation of my forces with these abysses of
offered finality (from the confrontation of forces of powerful
size), and there is nothing left but the voluminous abysses, the
immobility, the cold— in short, those who attributed to me more
life, who thought me at an earlier stage in the fall of the self,
who believed me immersed in a tormented noise, in a violent
darkness with which I struggled —are lost in the shadows of man.

In sleep, nerves tensed the whole length of my legs. Sleep came from
a shifting of belief, the pressure eased, absurdity stepped on my
toes.

It must be understood that all of intelligence is only a vast
contingency, and that one can lose it, not like a lunatic who is
dead, but like a living person who is in life and who feels
working on himself its attraction and its inspiration (of
intelligence, not of life). The titillations of intelligence and
this sudden reversal of contending parties. Words halfway to
intelligence. This possibility of thinking in reverse and of
suddenly reviling one’s thought. This dialogue in thought. The
ingestion, the breaking off of everything. And all at once this
trickle of water on a volcano, the thin, slow falling of the mind.

To find oneself again in a state of extreme shock, clarified by
unreality, with, in a corner of oneself, some fragments of the real
world.

To think without the slightest breaking off, without pitfalls in my
thought, without one of those sudden disappearances to which my
marrow is accustomed as a transmitter of currents. My marrow is
sometimes amused by these games, sometimes takes pleasure in these
games, takes pleasure in these furtive abductions over which the
sense of my thought presides. At times all I would need is a
single word, a simple little word of no importance, to be great,
to speak in the voice of the prophets: a word of witness, a
precise word, a subtle word, a word well steeped in my marrow,
gone out of me, which would stand at the outer limit of my being,
and which, for everyone else, would be nothing. I am the witness,
I am the only witness of myself. This crust of words, these
imperceptible whispered transformations of my thought, of that
small part of my thought which I claim has already been
formulated, and which miscarries, I am the only person who can
measure its extent.

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