Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Voice from Elsewhere

Maurice Blanchot
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
146pp. State University of New York Press. $14.95. 978-0-7914-7016-9

This 1992 essay collection by the French philosopher, novelist and literary critic Maurice Blanchot (1907–2003) contains three reflections on poets and one on a philosopher. Quite what connection “Michel Foucault as I Imagine Him” (1986) has to the other essays is hard to fathom. The link is perhaps a relation to the Outside: a rejection of subjectivity or “interiority” and a receptivity to what Foucault called the “unimaginable” and René Char, one of the poets examined here, called “la vie inexprimable”. Nevertheless, “Michel Foucault as I Imagine Him” marks an almost complete shift of tone from what has gone before, where poetry is the prime concern, in particular “the movement that is the gift of the poem”.

Paul Celan called it “the swelling movement / of words that are always going” and Blanchot’s weighty encounter with Celan, “The Last to Speak” (1984), is surely the best piece here, merging his notion of the Outside with Celan’s concept of the Open. Almost as impressive is “The Beast of Lascaux” (1958), the essay on Char, which begins with a discussion of Plato’s Phaedrus that reads like the seed of Jacques Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1968). As with Celan, Blanchot admires “the flight of speech” in Char’s work. (He has written elsewhere of Char that “the impossibility of singing itself becomes the song”.) There is a sense, too, that Celan and Char provide a moral bearing for Blanchot, each poet in his own way responding to the menace of Nazism.

The opening essay, “Anacrusis: On the Poems of Louis-René des Forêts”, is a cryptic meditation on music, birth and nonbeing, but it somehow lacks the intensity of Blanchot’s encounters with Char and Celan. The translator Charlotte Mandell appears entirely comfortable with what the Blanchot scholar Leslie Hill has called the “impenetrable clarity” of Blanchot’s prose, but the absence of a contextualising introduction and the spare critical apparatus are a disappointment. In “The Beast of Lascaux” Blanchot suggests a common origin for the language of thought and the language of poetry. They are often indistinguishable in his writing and no more so than in this slim but important collection.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Antonin Artaud's Writing Bodies

Adrian Morfee
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.

The Anti-Oedipus Papers

Félix Guattari
Edited by Stéphane Nadaud
Translated by Kélina Gotman 437pp. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents. £11.95. 1584350318

In the summer of 1971 the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) and the psychoanalyst and political activist Félix Guattari (1930–92) finished writing Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia I in a rented villa in Le Brusc-sur-Mer in the south of France. They met in 1969 and Anti-Oedipus was the first fruit of their collaboration, followed by Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (1975), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia II (1980), and What is Philosophy? (1991), a considerable body of work that placed them among the most important intellectual figures of their generation. “Félix sought me out,” said Deleuze. “I didn’t know who he was.” “I went looking for him,” admitted Guattari, “but ultimately he was the one who suggested we should work together.”

Guattari, who practised at La Borde, an experimental psychiatric clinic, had never written a book. Deleuze, Professor of Philosophy at the Université de Paris VIII-Vincennes, had written several – important works such as Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962), Difference and Repetition (1968) and The Logic of Sense (1969) – so it fell to him to organise the material and “finalise” it. “I don’t know if the method we found was the right one,” wrote Guattari to Deleuze. “The bulk of the work, the most unrewarding, falls onto you, while I go freely all over the place.”

Guattari sent hundreds of texts to Deleuze – via Deleuze’s wife Fanny, who typed them – which Deleuze annotated and returned for further revision. In this way they made successive versions of the chapters that became Anti-Oedipus. The manuscripts, letters, and journals assembled in The Anti-Oedipus Papers were sent to Deleuze between 1969 and 1972 and form a part of the “Guattari Papers” deposited at the Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine at l’Abbaye d’Ardenne, near Caen. In publishing them the editor Stéphane Nadaud hopes “to recover some portion of the Anti-Oedipus puzzle”.

It is fascinating to see Guattari groping around for the best formulation of his ideas, but for this reader at least it is the final section consisting of his journals that is of most interest, providing a rare glimpse into Guattari’s troubled love life and his relationship with Deleuze. The irony of this is that a strong strain of impersonality runs through Deleuze and Guattari’s writing and they are fiercely critical of the craze for “the dirty little secret” (as D. H. Lawrence put it) in the life of an author.

Deleuze always maintained a certain distance with people, even Guattari (they never tutoyed), but Guattari, the more emotionally volatile of the two, poured out his feelings in his journals. A succession of failed love affairs (Micheline, Arlette, Catherine, Nicole) is charted and over the course of these journals it becomes obvious that Deleuze and Fanny are increasingly worried about Guattari’s heartbreak and depression. There are lyrical passages recalling the shape of Arlette’s eyes or the curve of her lips, Catherine’s hair and freckles. “Goddammit,” writes Guattari, “if only I could fall in love like everyone else, or something!” In fact, his tortured love life provides some of the most tantalising material in The Anti-Oedipus Papers. “Nicole just called. I’m still furious [. . .] Her threats about the kids, money [. . .] I told her she was a fucking bitch and everything . . . Straight out of Miller. She might attack Arlette. We’ll see! Now there’s no turning back. It’s like I had a cyst pulled out. An old oedipal cyst.”

Anti-Oedipus was a succès de scandale when it appeared in 1972, a surprise bestseller that was hailed as a philosophical reaction to the events of May 1968. The book’s heady mix of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche excited a younger generation of theorists (Foucault, Lyotard), but its uncompromising attack on the church of psychoanalysis – in particular “the imperialism of Oedipus” – dismayed many of Guattari’s own colleagues, not least his mentor the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

In an amusing episode in The Anti-Oedipus Papers Lacan asks to read Anti-Oedipus in manuscript. “I retreated behind Gilles who only wants to show him something completely finished,” writes Guattari. “I told him that I still consider myself to be a front-line Lacanian, but I’ve chosen to scout out areas that have not been explored much.” Lacan offers to intervene “before it’s too late” and Guattari reluctantly accepts a dinner invitation to discuss the thesis of Anti-Oedipus. “I reassured him,” writes Guattari, “there will still be analysts . . . The point is to know if analysts will be agents of the established order or if they will stand up to their political responsibilities [. . .] But it was too late! Something had already broken. Maybe things had always been broken between the two of us.”

Freud regarded the Oedipus complex as a breakthrough, but for Deleuze and Guattari it is a shameless cop-out. “The great discovery of psychoanalysis was that of the production of desire, of the production of the unconscious,” they write in Anti-Oedipus. “But once Oedipus entered the picture, this discovery was soon buried beneath a new brand of idealism: a classical theatre was substituted for the unconscious as a factory.” Freud’s “idealist turning point”, they cynically suggest, made psychoanalysis marketable and immensely profitable. All kinds of neurotic fixations, sexual aberrations and debilitating guilt feelings could now be traced back to an “unresolved” Oedipus complex, reducing sexuality and desire to the monotonous family triangle of mummy-daddy-me.

In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari argue that “the unconscious is totally unaware of persons”. There can be no unconscious desire to sleep with one’s mother or father because the unconscious recognises no parental figures, no family relations or people of any kind. This is the anarchic, impersonal unconscious that Freud originally discovered, a domain in which everything is possible and permissible. “It is as if Freud had drawn back from this world of wild production and explosive desire, wanting at all costs to restore a little order there,” they write in Anti-Oedipus, “an order made classical owing to the ancient Greek theatre.” How to escape from Oedipus, oedipalisation, and “familialism” is one of the main themes of the book.

“Freud doesn’t like schizophrenics,” they note in Anti-Oedipus. “He doesn’t like their resistance to being oedipalised.” So Guattari (who encountered many schizophrenics at La Borde) proposes schizoanalysis as a cure for psychoanalysis. “Schizoanalysis tends to make the neurotic break his moorings and, as far as I’m concerned, get him re-connected beyond the perverse familial,” he explains in The Anti-Oedipus Papers, “sometimes with a brutality you can’t imagine [. . .] schizoanalysis must be violent, brutal: defamiliarising, de-oedipalising, decastrating; undoing theatre, dream, and fantasy.” In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari complain that “the subjects of psychoanalysis arrive already oedipalised, they demand it, they want more”, an insight that can only have come from Guattari, whose hostility to the “oedipal” comments of his patients in The Anti-Oedipus Papers is comically irreverent: “I’m not your father, or your mother . . . fuck off!”

The authors of Anti-Oedipus never claimed to be immune to Oedipus, the sticky trap of familialism. “You see me as personally, domestically trapped,” wrote Deleuze in 1973, responding to a personal attack from the gay activist Michel Cressole. “You explain I’ve got a wife and a daughter who plays with dolls and potters around the house. And you think that in the light of Anti-Oedipus this is a huge joke. You might have added I’ve got a son who’s almost old enough to go into analysis. If you think it’s dolls that produce the Oedipus complex, or the mere fact of being married, that’s pretty weird . . . Non-oedipal love is pretty hard work. And you should know that it’s not enough just to be unmarried, not to have kids, to be gay, or belong to this or that group, in order to get round the Oedipus complex.”

In The Anti-Oedipus Papers Guattari – a father of three – also understands that non-oedipal love is hard work. “My material dependence, my economic liberty, mixed in with a concern to ‘have enough for the kids’, perpetuate my contamination by familialist rot and oedipal anxiety,” he complains in his journal. Elsewhere he admits to missing Bruno, Emmanuelle and Stephen: “The kids are gone. Feeling of lack. It’s the first time, since the separation, that I have had them for a whole month.” Defining desire as a lack, incidentally, is robustly rejected in Anti-Oedipus.

Even his friendship with Deleuze has its oedipal traps. In one entry Guattari worries that he might be becoming too dependent on Deleuze, and when Fanny is hospitalised with septicemia he records this fantasy: “Fanny is dead [. . .] Gilles would be left alone, overwhelmed by the problem of caring for the children. Consequence: even greater closeness between us [. . .] Cocktail of oedipalism and homosexuality.” Later he writes: “On the theme of Fanny’s death and my love for Gilles, I could even compose an opera, something dark, thick and muddy.”