Exercises in Exorcism: The Paradoxes of Form in Artaud's Early Works

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   He who has to be a creator has always to destroy.
   Nietzsche

This essay will consider four collections of Antonin Artaud's early literary works--L'Ombilic des limbes, Le Pese-nerfs, Fragments d'un journal d'enfer, and L'Art et la mort (1)--through a formal approach, performing a much-needed close reading in order both to come to a fuller understanding of them as literary productions and to expand upon our understanding of Artaud's larger project. I am taking my cue partly in response to a call issued by Alain and Odette Virmaux in 1997--a plea to bring Artaud's entire oeuvre into critical discussion, to not focus on the later, more well-known works to the exclusion of all else. (2) These early writings reveal much about Artaud's craft as a writer. They demonstrate a remarkable fusion of language, theme, imagery, and action. They execute Artaud's struggle with symbolic forms and literary devices via symbolic forms and literary devices. They enact, on all levels, Artaud's move from "literature" to the realm of the physical. As I will show, they begin the "desperate wrenching away" of the self (3) that Artaud grappled with throughout his life: they are exercises in exorcism.

These writings lead from the moment of Artaud's discovery of the central concern of both his life and his work (which occurs during the correspondence with Jacques Riviere) to his start in the practical theater. (4) These pieces have not received as much critical attention as have other works by Artaud. (5) Because of Artaud's wide-ranging significance, we often seem too impatient to read his individual works. The explicit formulations of his dramatic ideas (the manifestoes and writings about the Theater of Cruelty) have been explored extensively in theatrical terms; (6) and the letters and howls from his last years (Rodez, Ivry) have been investigated at length in terms of psychology, biography, madness, and modern society. (7) But the difficult hybrid texts I am tackling have been treated only in limited sources, perhaps testifying to a belief in their minor status in Artaud's oeuvre. It is my hope to establish them as crucial texts both in their own right and in our understanding of the full complexity--and even clarity--of Artaud's work.

It should be noted that these works, while scarcely treated elsewhere, or at all recently, (8) provided Derrida with much of the basis for "La parole soufflee," an essay that wrestles with Artaud's protest against exemplification and interpretation and the author's desire to respect that wish in the course of the (interpretive) essay. (9) Derrida argues, rightly, that Artaud was in "pursuit of a manifestation which would not be an expression but a pure creation of life" (10) and that Artaud's project, which was focused on nothing less than life, and only incidentally on art, could never be embodied in a work. But are these works to be read as "loss" or "matter without life" because of this? (11) Can we read them as more than betrayals of Artaud's ideal? These works, perhaps even more than many others by Artaud, can stand on their own once they have left his body. These internally conflicted entities continually enact the battle Artaud was waging in his life, they enable and necessitate Artaud's inexorable move toward the theater, (12) and yet they are, at the same time, exceptionally complex and well-crafted works of written language. It is with this is mind that I analyze L'Ombilic des limbes, Le Pese-nerfs, Fragments d'un journal d'enfer, and L'Art et la mort.

Reading these works closely, we can appreciate the fullness of Artaud's project in the way that the Virmaux have called for. Only at the end of this essay will I make suggestions as to how these readings can be explicitly linked to Artaud's later projects and his person. I will begin my analysis by setting forth the initial move of these works: the thematic and structural attack on existing forms. Secondly, I will read the works with a view to establishing their desired next move: the creation of a process of communication beyond language that would lead to unity and wholeness--a nerve-connection between bodies. …