By Robert Bohm
1. Dante and Genet Fuck All Night in a Bed of Transcendent Ideas: Prologue to a Few Words on Artaud
In order to understand language, one must be wary of it, as if it were a wolf. One can’t treat a wolf with trust. You must give it the respect of fear. Only after this, is it possible, but never guaranteed, that you can calm it somewhat and develop a better, although still cautious, relationship with it. Similarly with language. It has a wolf’s personality. It is violent and not afraid to rip the entrails from meaning’s belly. Therefore, one must be cagey and never overly trusting in one’s relationship to it. Only then might the wolf (language) become, as the Cherokee say, “The teacher of new things.”
Language, even when it does our bidding and communicates what we want it to communicate, suffers from what everything else suffers from: impermanence. Only specialists know how to read Old English or Sanscrit now. Those vocabularies’ poetries and nuances are locked into eras too long gone for the average person to grasp. Even in today’s world languages disappear at an alarming rate. Already, of the twenty Eskimo/Native languages indigenous to Alaska, only two are still spoken. A variety of organizations including UNESCO and the American Association for the Advancement of Science estimate that by the beginning of the millennium’s second century at least half of the languages currently spoken in the world will disappear.
The two facts just cited — i.e., that language can’t be blindly trusted to communicate our intended meaning and that even at its most useful language is transient — add a sense of resignation or even mourning to much communication. My religious mother used to say, “The body turns to dust, words turn to air.” More formally, the Argentinean writer Olga Orozco wrote in “En El Final Era El Verbo” —
My words disperse, retreating
from me like the shadows of shadows
or gusts of nomadic smoke blown from the wind’s mouth;
they disappear behind silence’s doors.
Less substantial than a color’s faint remains or a whisper in the grass,
they are ghosts bearing no resemblance to what they once
Whereas Orozco’s tone here is elegiac, taking the form of a somewhat traditional resignation to life’s transience and the difficulties of communication, much 20th century and early 21st century writing about the obstacles to communication have been bleaker and more nihilistic. Thomas Adorno’s statement, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” exemplifies the degree to which last century’s atrocities brutalized not only their immediate victims but also the capacity of nonvictims to believe in the significance of writing and other artistic activities. At Wall’s Chili Shack Thelonius Monk’s fingers may have gotten the house ivories to produce some amazing harmonics-reinventing sounds but certainly none were more hypnotizing than those produced by children subjected to Josef Mengele’s non-anesthetized Auschwitz medical “experiments” — e.g., spinal surgeries, the removal of sexual organs, amputations, etc. Those kiddos were a chorale that could out-bebop bebop’s inventors and also give Stravinsky a lesson or two in how to strip sound of all melody, leaving nothing but pulsations. And so in WWII’s wake, a war which Hannah Arendt saw as incarnating “the breakdown of all German and European traditions,” disillusionment was rampant, traditional ideas about art were upended, and the west’s alleged civilizational supremacy was in question. On the one hand this questioning of white superiority was intrinsic to many of the period’s anticolonial struggles (India, Puerto Rico, the Congo, Guatemala, etc.) while on the other hand it was voiced by the west’s own internal critics. Sartre’s insistence, for instance, that within history there is no meaning or intrinsic moral direction other than human-created meaning and direction denied to the west precisely what it wanted most to believe — that its various rationales (“God has ordained it,” “it’s human nature,” and so on) for capitalist exploitation, colonialism and institutionalized bigotries like anti-Semitism and U.S. racism expressed some overall design that was built into the species’ relationship to itself and the planet.
In opposition to the comfort of belief in ethical order, Sartre offered a concept of freedom as a form of despair in which doing is always a personal choice subject to the anxiety of uncertainty because it can’t be justified by moral absolutes, since they don’t exist. His point: will, as opposed to anything a priori, shapes the species’ history. Sartre’s vision at the time exemplified the latest stage in a western philosophical trend that had been evolving for centuries. From Copernicus’ proofs that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe to existentialists’ argument that human history possessed no a priori moral center, western philosophy wrestled in ever newer ways with what it meant to live in history. Sartre was adamant: we did not carry with us at birth a secret built-in essence, but rather, from birth onward, we ourselves created ourselves (our identities, our fundamental natures).
What do we mean by saying existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because, to begin with, he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature … Man simply is … he is what he wills.
It is difficult to overestimate the disruptive impact such a concept, not merely in Sartre’s formulation but also as a growing fear (in response to the chaos of two world wars) within Caucasian populations, had on western society. Although many realism advocates and believers in the need to study the world objectively without emotion considered the existence-precedes-essence argument sensible, this doesn’t reflect the argument’s chief historical characteristic: as an idea, it hinted not at the coming of a new period of historical stability but rather at the development of intellectual restlessness, the breakdown of restraints on troubled sections of society, and philosophical hysteria among many of those whose attempts to hold onto traditional religious and social beliefs were shaken by the new philosophy which seemed (to them) to suggest that their adherence to old orthodoxies was a sign of mental disrepair. The feeling of disorientation that could plague someone whose belief in their own ideas was unsettled in this way is evidenced in the words of one of the speakers in Robert Lowell’s 1940s poem “Thanksgiving’s Over.” In the poem the speaker, in nervous breakdown type language, parodies the Christian concept of the Holy Ghost in a way that suggests not a critique of religion but a descent into self-laceration and loss of self-control —
I knew the Third
Person possessed me, for I was the bird
Of Paradise, the parrot whose absurd
Garblings are glory.
This is Christian imagery turned against itself, the dove of love transformed into an imbecile parrot babbling in a cage. It is frightening how well Lowell depicts the mind, in a state of fevered playfulness, degenerating into pure mess, madness. In his telling, this dysfunction inevitably possesses a linguistic dimension — i.e., the bird’s gibberish — since a mind deprived of its idea of order is a mind destined to endure language’s fragmentation into vocabularies and syntaxes incapable of expressing meaning in any ordinary sense.
To the protectors of the status quo, such a reality is not allowable. The “madness” of chaos, of the absence of absolutes, of the nude will haughtily displaying itself in public, is the ultimate pornography: the naked mind indulging all its blasphemies as it parades across the ruins of the million thou-shalt-nots that once hemmed it in. This, it is consequently proclaimed, is the definitive psychosis: to accept God’s absence and the rule of disorder.
The fear of such a fate, of the possibility that one might accept the insane out of weakness or exhaustion, initiated a Christian sub-movement that aimed at reclaiming the world for Christianity by ridding the faith of modernistic tendencies and returning it to its fundamentals — i.e., literalist biblical exegesis combined with hierarchical views of human power relations. Not the mind or science but faith, as defined by evangelicals, would be heralded as the true “way of the world.”
It would take decades but eventually this movement would come to fruition in the New Right.
But whatever came later, the nature of post-WWII despair over the philosophical implications for western societies of the death camps or Hiroshima was soon obscured in the U.S. by the McCarthy period. Nonetheless, these other concerns lived on in the shadows, reframing how many people looked at issues like progress, democracy’s internal contradictions, nuclear weapons, and the relationship of western governments to each other and the rest of the world. Maybe even more symptomatic, however, was the deification of attitude. Hipster cool, i.e., the lack of surprise when faced with any excess or abomination, was born of a black culture long used to the violent underbelly of alleged Caucasian superiority. When disaffected whites, despairing of middle class values and gravitating toward the belief that mental liberation resided outside the mainstream in a subAmerica inhabited by society’s unwanted, the beat movement was born. From William S. Burroughs’ junkie anti-epiphanies to Diane DiPrima’s take on the underground hero as the ultimate source of wisdom (e.g., “One cool trumpeter whose beat / tells real bad tales for the elite”), the post-WWII angst that the 1950s tried to repress morphed into an anarchist bohemianism that turned out to be only the beginning of a rising surge of discontent with the status quo. By the 1960s this discontent had ripped free from beat havens like San Fran’s North Beach and NY’s Greenwich Village and had established outposts not only on college campuses but also in workplaces, churches, family dining rooms, etc., all of which became zones of heated debate about race, Vietnam, American values, etc. These dialogues eventually midwifed what was left of post-WWII’s self-questioning legacy into a youth-driven critique of capitalist culture. While rebelling students and workers in Paris demanded that the rule of dead ideas be overthrown and replaced by the power of the imagination (i.e., creativity), U.S. students burned ROTC buildings while in India the Naxalite movement, a left guerrilla formation that declared itself free of Soviet influence and the subcontinent’s other left parties, launched an uprising against what it believed to be India’s corrupt social-economic system. Everywhere, or so it seemed, old was challenged by new. It wasn’t just society, but meaning itself, that was in upheaval. In the U.S., the sexual liberation craze, Jimi Hendrix’s radical experiments in making a music that included ecstasies of sound distortion and instrument destruction, the increasing mainstreamization of the idea that law-breaking represented a type of spiritual breakthrough to a higher level of meaning, the black upsurges in America’s ghettos, antiwar poet Robert Bly’s biblical-sounding surrealistic chants against Pentagon and White House, all represented efforts to chainsaw through old umbilical cords, wrench free from traditional restraints, and create new vocabularies, gestures and symbols for the purpose of articulating unmediated jubilation and unmediated despair. In terms of meaning and linguistics, “the world as it is” was rapidly being disrupted by the power of repressed realities to reconfigure the familiar, turning it into the unexpected. “Peace” as a countercultural greeting didn’t only mean “absence of war and other hostilities” or “freedom from quarrels” but also meant, ironically, a flip declaration of war against any force that resisted the alleged moral authority of the counterculture. From this perspective, every free-sex copulation, every dropped tab of LSD, every grunt M16 aimed at an LT’s back, every Black Power salute and every ghetto uprising, and every unwashed hippie’s declaration of eternal love for even the fleas on his pet dog’s body was an Oswald bullet aimed not at an individual president but at the head of Uncle Sam himself. There was nothing pretty about what was going on. Sixty years earlier Nietzsche had spoken of a “transvaluation of values.” This was how such a reinvention of meaning looked in practice.
Of course, what the rebels got for their efforts wasn’t the revolution some of them believed was coming. Instead, they received a new line of products informed by countercultural styles. Clothing companies began selling tattered jeans and brightly colored dashikis for high prices, and more and more often words like revolution and revolutionary were used to advertise electric drills, blenders, cars and new medications, not hunger for positive political change.
But if the sixties’ dreams of a new world seem dated now, the same cannot be said of the forces that made that time such a cultural tinderbox. Although the mainstream media’s packaging of the sixties is now rooted in the era’s entertainment value as a form of baby-boomer nostalgia, the period was the product of forces that have destabilized western culture ever since the Copernican revolution.
Gradually evolving into an awareness that humankind doesn’t inhabit a morally predictable human-centered universe, Copernicus’ proofs that the earth wasn’t the center of creation set in motion an evolution in thinking that increasingly compelled western societies to deal not only with the possibility of humankind’s aloneness in the universe but also with the prospect that human will, not God or any other transcendent force, was the ultimate arbiter of the planet’s destiny. From the American revolution onward, the very concept of political activism, of the idea that human self-organization determines human fate, must be viewed not just in political terms but also as a psychological response to the fear of meaninglessness in a disordered world. Increasingly the idea took hold that the only way for oppression to be dismantled and suffering diminished was for those who bore these afflictions to throw caution to the winds and possibly even sacrifice their lives in an effort to battle the real in the name of the not-yet-real (i.e., more freedom, etc.). When the sixties is viewed as part of this historical process and not merely as a cultural aberration characterized by a bunch of LSD-popping antiwar naïfs running around in bellbottoms and beads, only then can we comprehend the full historical significance of the Kent State deaths in 1970 or the despair of Janice Joplin’s haunting “freedom’s just another name for nothing left to lose” the same year.
1970 was also the year of Jean Genet’s articulation (in his Introduction to George Jackson’s Soledad Brother) of what amounted to a poetics of unburial. Viewing accepted language-use as more of an obscuring of the real than an evocation of it, Genet argued that, in order to liberate the hidden, it was necessary to redeem language/communication by stripping it of all nicety and pretense and restoring to it the savagery of expressing the real even if doing so meant giving up all desire to be integrated into the world of the so-called normal. In order to be a prophet of virtue, Genet proclaimed, one had to demythicize the status quo and adopt, indeed even wallow in, an outsider vocabulary that included only “words covered with blood, the unwritten words of spit and sperm … the dangerous words, the padlocked words, words that do not belong in the dictionary.”
Genet’s point was that only in the creation of an (apparent) moral pornography could one find the cleanliness necessary to transcend untruth and political manipulation. There was nothing trifling about such a concept. Far from simply being an example of another disposable idea from that flamboyant period, Genet’s words struggled with the paradox of how to get language to communicate reality rather than obfuscate it. In many ways there was nothing new about this concern. Dante, for instance, argued at the beginning of the 14th century in his De vulgaria Elequentia (The Eloquence of Common Language) that a writer’s preferred language should not be the official grammar of the upper classes or literary languages like Latin since knowledge of such languages’ “rules and theory can only be developed through dedication to a lengthy course of study.” Dante instead argued that writers should use everyday language as employed by ordinary people in their daily lives.
I shall try, inspired by the Word that comes from above, to say something useful about the language of people who speak the vulgar tongue, hoping thereby to enlighten somewhat the understanding of those who walk the streets like the blind, ever thinking that what lies ahead is behind them …
But since it is required of any theoretical treatment that it not leave its basis implicit, but declare it openly, so that it may be clear with what its argument is concerned, I say, hastening to deal with the question, that I call ‘the common language’ that which infants acquire from those around them when they first begin to distinguish sounds; or, to put it more succinctly, I declare that vernacular language is that which we learn without any formal instruction …
This, in truth, is our primary language.
Although Dante’s comments aren’t characterized by the same level of violence against good taste as are Genet’s, he nonetheless stands at the beginning of the tradition that Genet continued. The French writer’s vision of a transgressive, truth-spewing vocabulary consisting of “words that do not belong in the dictionary” is an outgrowth centuries later of Dante’s commitment to rejecting elite literary language in favor of a “vernacular language … that … we learn without any formal instruction.” What Genet and Dante have in common is a willingness to counter the official language standards of their day in order to draw (literary) strength from allegedly nonliterary sources.
2. Artaud and the New Innocence: An Epilogue
1. Something easy to do. 2. An unimportant or trivial matter.
For the writer Antonin Artaud, nothing was child’s play. Or maybe everything was. Either way, he brought a bleak but peculiarly ecstatic relentlessness to the idea of confronting the real. In doing so, he bludgeoned his mind into an instrument not like most minds. Whether there was anything “playful” about his assault on traditional logics is up to dispute.
In childhood, Artaud was wracked by pain. He endured crippling headaches. He was stricken with meningitis. As an adult, he transformed in a matter of two decades from an extremely handsome actor and drama theorist into a prematurely aged toothless man in his forties who spent three-quarters of his final years in and out of insane asylums. Still, in the last three years of his life, he achieved a state of childlike freedom of the imagination that indeed made tapping into the terror of all that constricts us seem like child’s play. He roamed at will in a land of wild-eyed insights that reverberated with the haunting power of truths dredged up from society’s nightmares. As a poet of pain who aimed to triumph over what he believed to be the insanity of all existing epistemologies, Artaud had no match.
Reversing the usual vision of spiritual development as an ascent, Artaud envisioned transcendence as a going-down, as not a flight toward a distant above but rather as a burrowing into an always-present near. In his Manifesto in Clear Language, he described such a mental trajectory as a violent one that required the butchering of all of reason’s constructions so that the self which is estranged from itself can finally become whole through its descent into a state in which “lucid unreason … is not afraid of chaos.” In his flight from the dominant logics, Artaud was after a home theoretically less rarified: the house which holds the mind’s impulse to structure things, the flesh itself. This is what he trusted, nothing else. “I destroy.” he proclaimed in the Manifesto, “because for me everything that proceeds from reason is untrustworthy. I believe only in the evidence of what stirs my marrow, not in the evidence of what addresses itself to my reason. I have found levels in the realm of the nerve.”
Those levels were seen by some as a madman’s hallucinations. But others more astutely recognized in Artaud’s descent into the so-called mess of the flesh an unflinching reverence for truth no matter the cost, even if that cost included what Artaud dreaded most: the mind’s metamorphosis into a state of constant awareness but without thought. Above everything else, Artaud feared the mind’s alienation from itself, its existence as a passive lucidity without the capacity to act upon or think through issues As Artaud wrote in his notebooks in 1930 or ’31 (Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1988, p. 192), he felt that, although his mind was “still conscious, lucid, capable, if necessary and at certain moments, of weighing and judging its own thought,” it was nevertheless “as if dead” and had “become, truly and literally, incapable of thinking.” Artaud described this state as an experience of “full desolation” during which the “mind is present at the profound decline and non-manifestation of its own powers.” For Artaud, such disorientation wasn’t, as terrifying as it was for him, the end of hope, but rather the price of hiring the assassin needed to slay the need for hope.
In spite of Artaud’s instability, the irrational did not bar him from the rational or prevent him from mastering logic’s vicissitudes. Instead, he pursued these goals much in the same way that quantum physicists at the time unearthed, in the apparent senselessness of all order, not the triumph of disorder and senselessness but rather the existence of a type of sense and a type of order that previously had been considered, if considered at all, illogical.
Artaud understood, with more force than most, that there was no such thing as meaning, not, anyway, in a singular sense. Meaning for him was instead more like a hypothetical four-dimensional object collapsing in on itself while still retaining its structure: there was more to it than meets the eye. For him there was no doubt: the prefabricated path of philosophical convenience and shallow cleanliness was a dead end. Therefore, he thought, one must go off-road to find the road — that is, the snubbed thing contains the very liberation (or the route to it) that the snubber aspires to but in her/his ignorance disdains. “Where there is a stink of shit,” Artaud insisted, “there is a smell of being.” (italics mine)
Artaud did not pontificate on these things from a smug distance. He recognized that what he hated in the world at large was incarnated in his own inability to think outside of the very logics he loathed. In fact, as Susan Sontag correctly suggests in her essay on his work, in Artaud’s writings we confront a mind that creates literature out of its very inability to create literature — that is, out of its failure to bring to fruition its own artistic goals.
Never has a body of writing been so infused with triumphs built from the mind’s inability to triumph over its own limitations. This is why Artaud’s view of art rips open whole new tunnels in creativity’s flesh. For him the person of vision was one who possessed “the strident extravagance of a man who walks around with his lyricism in his left or right side, an avenging and shameless wound.” (p. 469) Furthermore, such a person was, Artaud stressed, not only a seer but also the status quo’s scapegoat , thereby becoming the target of “that surreptitious hatred with which middle-class stupidity gets rid of every great name” (p. 470). To Artaud, the phenomenology of truth/creativity was like a theological noir in which the hero, a hunted antipriest, celebrates the possibility of redemption by blessing the only sign of creativity available: “that little black mucus, that waxen fart of horrible pain from the bleeding tourniquet” of life. (p. 474)
The excessiveness of Artaud’s language in these quotes barely begins to suggest the degree to which he craved to get outside status quo logics in order to re-see the world/society from a deconditioned perspective. If there ever was a goal designed to test the mind’s limits, this was it. No wonder Sontag saw in Artaud’s work a way of “thinking and using language” that had “become a perpetual calvary” for him. As the poet of failed thought, as the neoHomer who brings us an epicless epic of systemless rantings, he was not only the founder of the so-called theater of cruelty but was also the creator of a writing style that evolved toward a culmination that existed more eloquently in its incompletions and fragments than in anything apparently “whole” that may have been produced along the way.
For Artaud, thought’s failure didn’t take the form of an absence of thought but rather the form of an abundance of it. Still, because Artaud experienced thinking itself as a snare and existing linguistics as a descent into distraction and incoherence, he saw himself not as rationality’s spokesperson but as the prophet of “all the disinherited of language and the word, the pariahs of Thought.” About these outcastes he proclaimed, “I speak only for them.”
Artaud did what rarely, if ever, had been done so bleakly or scarily before: accepted incoherence as the only form of lyricism, fragmentation as the sole totality, and the mind’s plunge into chaos as the only stability the mind will ever know.
Whether or not this vision is true in an ultimate sense is unprovable That it is possibly true is all that matters. Artaud’s work is monumental testimony to the tragic degree to which humankind has squandered so many chances to move toward greater clarity about the monstrosity we have created: human history.
In a world changing politically and technologically at an unprecedented rate, the fact that the failure to communicate reality is the primary form of communication that the species has developed so far is a debilitating meal for us to digest.
Still, the only thing the sane person can say is, “Waiter, I’m ready to eat!” Dining on disaster is our last hope of gaining strength.
“Mucous” is an adjective, Mengele’s given name was Josef, therefore “incoherence (is) the only form of lyricism.” Q.E.D.
Although I think (hope) what I’ve written deals in some depth with the issues covered and is therefore of use to the reader, this doesn’t excuse me from making mistakes, minor or otherwise. “Mucous” should be “mucus” and Mengele’s given name was “Josef,” not “Joseph.” Both these mistakes were mine, not the editors.
Very powerful and thought-provoking essay, Robert. Thank you.
Thanks a lot, Margaret.