Antonin Artaud’s Writing Bodies 248pp. Clarendon Press. £50. 0199277494
Nobody has yet argued that the mauvais esprits that tormented Antonin Artaud were real, but in Antonin Artaud’s Writing Bodies Adrian Morfee goes further than most in reading Artaud on his own terms. “On the whole,” says Morfee, “the best working hypothesis is to consider that Artaud’s texts do not truly purport to describe reality (that is, elaborate a delusional philosophy), but rather are concerned with working out an imaginary and dramatised textual world and presenting this as if it were reality (that is, inventing a fictional philosophy).”
Almost three-quarters of Artaud’s total output come from the five years between his arrival at the asylum of Rodez in 1943 and his death in 1948, yet the major texts of his final years – Suppôts et Suppliciations, Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, Artaud le Mômo and Ci-gît, as well as the numerous Cahiers he filled at Rodez – are usually regarded as in some way marginal to his best known work Le Théâtre et son Double (1938). In this book, they are granted their full importance.
Artaud is hardly a systematic thinker, but there is an impressive structuring force at work in his writing; “a burning-up of ideas”, as Morfee puts it, a “dance of ideas”. Even the most insane incantatory rants have an underlying logic within Artaud’s literary universe. As Morfee explains, by the late period “Artaud is against everything: family, religion, spirit, rationalism, ideation, language, biology, mind, intellectuality, society [and] anything that enters or leaves the body.” His late poems have become “personal, phantasmal”, and far removed from any common shared reality. Nevertheless, the chief characteristic of Artaud’s free verse is control, even in the midst of what he clearly wanted us to regard as his delirium. This raises a fascinating question: are literary virtuosity and insanity mutually exclusive? Artaud’s mastery of his medium never falters, but this conscious artistry undermines any suggestion that he is delirious.
Above all, Morfee is keen to emphasise the sheer pleasure to be had from reading Artaud. Forget all those dreary theses on the dissolution of the Self: Artaud’s “frenzied rhetoric of abjection” is only half-serious and Morfee fully appreciates his “gleeful black humour”. In one letter from Rodez, for instance, Artaud complains – or pretends to complain – about a small group of Parisian occultists who indulge in “le luxe de me gôuter de loin avec leur langue et toute la lippue libido de la gourmandise d’accapareurs qu’ils peuvent y mettre”. This is “written with typical relish”, notes Morfee: “we can hear the salivating licking and sucking of the thick-lipped gourmands”. Morfee delights in “the sheer pleasure the texts take in rolling in ‘la merde’ . . . the greedy delectation [Artaud] takes in naming God’s depraved activities with a mincing, false prudishness [and] the voluptuously gleeful savouring of rolling the language of ‘caca’, ‘cu’, and ‘sperme’ on the tongue”.
Morfee is also more sympathetic to Artaud’s Christian turn than many postmodern commentators, for whom it is an embarrassment. This brief return to faith is important, argues Morfee, because it helps us to understand the later texts in which God is violently accused and mocked. Following the “strangely compelling logic” of Artaud’s later writings, Morfee shows how Artaud’s need to protect himself from God’s salacious vampirism led to probably the best-known idea in the late writings: the corps sans organs. Morfee’s analysis of Artaud’s “corporeal mysticism” – the paradox of an impenetrable body without boundaries – is faultless.
Morfee is not uncritical of Artaud. He knows he can be pretentious and boastful and even at times illisible. (As he says, “Artaud is off the scale of the Modernist linguistic crisis.”) He also admits that there is much “rebarbative verbiage” in the Cahiers and he distances himself from some of Artaud’s more extreme “crescendos of rant”. He even frowns at Artaud’s “infantile delight in naming lower bodily fluids and processes”, though this high-mindedness sits uneasily with his enjoyment of Artaud’s scatological language.
All in all, this impressive and possibly unique contribution to Artaud studies properly appreciates the “coherent delirium” of the later works, most of which remain unread (although English translations exist, notably Clayton Eshleman and Bernard Bador’s Watchfiends and Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period). Antonin Artaud’s Writing Bodies is, above all, an extremely well written, lucid and intelligent account of a gifted writer too easily regarded as insane.