SACRED MATTER: A MATERIALIST READING OF ANTONIN ARTAUD’S WORK
by Léopold Lambert
Archipelagos 01 / November 22nd 2011 / Brooklyn (USA)
The life and work of Antonin Artaud is so rich that there seems to be hundreds of different approaches on what can be said about them. Michel Foucault, for example, was greatly influenced by Artaud’s related experience in psychiatric hospitals as well as the problematic power exercised by doctors. Deleuze and Guattari, as we will see later, based their book Anti-Oedipus on his concept of body without organs. Several architects saw, in his very spatial description of his Theater of Cruelty, an architectural embodiment of surrealism. His translation of Through the Looking-Glass as an anti-grammatical attempt about Lewis Carroll and against him also constituted the topic of various academic papers.
Those approaches are not the one discussed in this paper which proposes instead, to give a materialist reading of Artaud’s work. Before going any further, I would like to define here what I mean by “materialism” since this word has been connoted in recent history. By “materialism” I understand a philosophy of immanence that envisions the world as a whole entity, liberated from any exteriority –God or whichever other transcendental figure- in which everything is continuously included in processes of interactions within the matter.
In that reading, the very notion of sacredness seems obsolete; however, what is extremely interesting in Artaud’s materialism is that he reintroduces this very notion of sacredness but understands it in a very novel way for a Western author. In fact, influenced by his trip in Mexico in which he was initiated to the social life and rites of the Tarahumaras, he then developed a poetry celebrating forces of the earth. My ignorance in anthropology about this people and its rituals is wide and nothing that I could say about them could escape from generalizations or simplifications. However, what I can say about it consists in what Artaud recounts about his experience there, as centered on the consumption of peyote, this cactus that allow an access to the state of trance when ingested. This experience greatly influenced him in this elaboration of what I called here, sacred matter.
What is this sacred matter in Artaud’s work? The book that is the most illustrative in that matter, at least in my opinion, is expressing it via a very interesting mean. The book, Heliogabalus, or the Crowned Anarchist, published in 1934, mixes the traditional mediums of documentary and fiction to tell the story of this Roman Emperor who acceded to the head of the power when he was only fourteen years old and was assassinated four years later. In this narrative, Artaud describes life in the city of Emesa in Syria where Heliogabalus grew up, its market, its temple and more importantly its religious rituals that deserve that we stop here to hear directly from the book itself:
All around the temple, in multitudes issuing from huge black-sewer-mouths, stream forth the servants of the rites, as if born of the earth’s own sweat. For in the temple of Emesa, this service entrance is below the ground, and nothing must disturb the empty space bordering the temple beyond the outermost wall. A river of men, animals, objects, supplies, victuals, originating in various corners of the commercial town, converges towards the underground passages of the temple, creating around its supply rooms something of the tracery of an immense spider’s web.
This mysterious intersection of men, of live or flayed beasts; of metals humped by a species of little Cyclops that only once a year sees daylight; of foodstuffs, of things fabricated –creates at certain hours of the day a paroxysm, a cluster of complaints and of noises, but it never actually stops.
Below ground, butchers, bearers, carters, distributors –who emerge from the temple’s depths and rummage around the town all day long so as to provide the greedy god with his four daily feeds- crowd past the sacrificial priests drunk with blood, incense and molten gold; passing the smelters, the timekeeper heralds, and the blacksmiths pinned inside their narrow cells the year round who leave them only on the prophetic day of the Pythian Games, also called Helia Pythia.
Heliogabalus. Solar Books, 2006.
Can you feel already how much Artaud’s description is linked to the earth and not to the sky? He emphasizes on the bodies –animal and humans- the built environment –mostly underground- and the substances offered to a God who cannot be understood in a transcendental way. In fact, a bit further in the text, he explains that the word god here has to be understood as forces, or later solid manifestations of an energy whose heavier aspect is the Sun.
I thus go back to the previous question: what can be said to be sacred in his work? In fact, what is sacred for Antonin Artaud is the matter produced by the body –blood, shit, sperm, urine, sweat, saliva, etc.- and expelled from it to nourish the rest of the material world. If we remain with Heliogabalus, he describes in his text what happens to the blood of human sacrifices in a magnificent piece of text:
[…] beneath the temple of Emesa there is a system of special sewers wherein the human blood rejoins the plasma of certain animals.
Through these sewers, coiling into broiling corkscrews whose circles diminish the further they descend to the depths of the earth, the blood of those sacrificed according to the needful rites will find its way back to the geological seams, the congealed cracks of chaos. This pure blood, thinned and refined by the rituals, and rendered acceptable to the god of the underworld, splashes the groaning deities of Erebus, whose breath finally purifies it.
Heliogabalus. Solar Books, 2006.
From here, an observation needs to be made: Artaud is very far from idealizing this sacred matter and his books always carry their smells and challenge our common aversion for them. In Heliogabalus he evokes the mingled emanation of blood, sperm, sweat and menses, combined with that intimate stench of putrefying flesh and unclean sex rising from the human sacrifices as being part of a violent spirituality. The bodies themselves become sacred after life ceases to animate them and that they go back to the earth. In that matter, Artaud insists very much on the ritualistic aspect of Heliogabalus’ death: stabbed after having desperately plunged in a tranche of excrements, his dead body is then thrown by the populace in Rome’s sewers. The inversion of what is normally understood as being sacred and what Artaud describes, touches here its paroxysm.
THE BODY AS A MACHINE AND ITS PRODUCTION
In my introduction, I evoked Antonin Artaud’s influence on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in the elaboration of their book Anti-Oedipus. It might now be a good time to introduce this work in relation with what we saw in the previous “chapter”. This book is a counter-manifesto against the dogmatic model of Freudian psychoanalysis which constraints neuroses and deliriums in the triangle of “daddy-mommy-me”. The unconscious –and by extension the body- is not a theater, it is factory they claim. A factory implies a production and, as you can understand, that is why this text interests us regarding Artaud’s sacred matter. What Deleuze and Guattari called desiring machine as a body continuously producing fluxes of matter is nothing else than the same body Artaud is celebrating in his writing. The very first paragraph of the Anti-Oedipus is highly expressive of this influence:
It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. […] Everywhere it is machines –real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. An organ-machine is plugged into an energy-source-machine: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth a machine coupled to it.
Anti-Oedipus. University of Minnesota Press, 1983
If we continue with this assumption that the body is a machine, or rather an assemblage of machines, a factory, we can understand that Artaud is particularly interested in what he calls himself an overheated factory. He likes to talk about a perpetually explosive body from which the very matter we have been talking about erupts out of the body like lava erupts from the earth.
In this regard, in his book The Theater and its Double, he draws a parallel between the diseased body, more specifically the plague-stricken body and what should ideally be the body of the actor in theater. Both of those bodies are for him hosting a strong force that ends up in a spasm thus expelling violently the power of this same force from the body.
That is very likely in this understanding that, in his 1947 radio broadcast To Have Done with the Judgment of God, he asserts that he has been sick all his life and he asks only that it continues. He indeed does not deny the social status of the sick person. He however claims it as the character who is able to extract the power of the body’s production as he wrote in another text: To emit the cry I empty myself. Not of air but of the very power of sound. This can seem fairly abstract for somebody who does not necessary share this materialist vision of the world, but it might become more expressive for this same person when listening to Artaud’s voice itself:
Audio excerpt from To Have done with the Judgment of God.
The power of sound is thus liberated the same way that a body shits, sweats, spits, or ejaculates. Such declamation leads us to understand the ambiguous sentence in which Artaud explains that his entire work is nothing else than his waste. From what we now know, such claim is clearly his confession of him having reached his goal.
CONCLUSION: TOWARDS THE CONSTITUTION OF A REVOLUTIONARY BODY
In 1973, Felix Guattari wrote a text whose title does not leave much doubt about Antonin Artaud’s influence on it: To Have Done with the Massacre of the Body. In this text, he describes simultaneously how the body and its production of desire is continuously being hijacked and dispossessed by capitalism as well as the needs for a revolutionary body to be (re)invented. In the following excerpt, he calls for us to reclaim the property and freedom of use of our own body-machines of production:
We can no longer sit idly by as others steal our mouths, our anuses, our genitals, our nerves, our guts, our arteries, in order to fashion parts and works in an ignoble mechanism of production which links capital, exploitation, and the family.
We can no longer allow others to turn our mucous membranes, our skin, all our sensitive areas into occupied territory –territory controlled and regimented by other, to which we are forbidden access.
Chaosophy. MIT Press 2009
Capitalism is a system that exploits the production for another end than itself. By attributing a finality that ignores the essence of its materiality, including the body itself, it recreates a transcendence similar to the one developed by monotheist religions. The constitution of a revolutionary body implies therefore a materialist practice of its capacities. Artaud shows us the way by inviting us to be the snake that music acts upon, as he feels and reacts to the vibrations of the earth in which sound is transmitted. As an architect, I would like to believe that the modification of the matter that we order can be thought in such a way that it acts as this same music. If this belief is founded, Antonin Artaud is probably the right person to follow.