Reflections on teaching Artaud
For many years now I have been giving visiting lectures on Antonin Artaud.
I have been fascinated by Artaud’s life and works for many years, since the time I write my MA dissertation on him back in 1994. At first, it was mainly the mental health issues that he experienced and the electro-shock treatments that interested me most.
Then, I progressivley came to be interested in the very real possibility, articulated by Artaud, of a ‘new’ theatrical language that bypassed the need for words and could bring other aspects of theatre into the forefront of the imagination – for example, gestures, especially those associated with Eastern theatre (Chinese and Japanese).
Throughout my academic life I have studied women characters in Artaud’s theatre and I have tried to read his works in the light of the psychoanalysis of Freud and others.
Just lately, though, I realise that my thoughts about Artaud have changed quite significantly, so much so that I had to admit in my last lecture, in January, that I had probably misjudged and underestimated the importance of Artaud’s use of verbal language.
Far from being an insignificant relic of logocentrism, which he seeks to displace, I am starting to believe once again that verbal language is somehow central and pivotal in Artaud’s works.
Take le theatre et son double (The theatre and its double), for example. Some see this as a manifesto for introducing a new kind of language to the theatre. This is more or less the traditional view of Artaud. However, I see it increasingly as a playing with words, or logopoeia , which is not specifically referential but which enjoys enticing the reader down dead ends and closed off pathways.
Why should we always assume that Artaud is serious when he makes proclamations about the theatre? Couldn’t he just be enjoying playing with language and having’ intellectual fun?’ Maybe there is a bit more humour in Artaud’s works than people realise?
I went through this book again some months ago, and found that Artaud seems to take the greatest pleasure in building up the categorising force of language, only to destroy it again. For example, what does Artaud mean when he says that ‘the actor is the athlete of the heart’. Sounds impressive, but really it means little or nothing. His writing is full of these apparent gems of wisdom that mean nothing. At once, such phrases mean everything and nothing. Language is inflated to categorising and classifying proportions, and then bursts rather like an overblown balloon. Or perhaps, to use another image, the sandcastle, constructed on shaky foundations, collapses and falls apart.
This ‘building up and self-destruction’ of language on Artaud’s part is relevant for us in the twenty-first century because, as we all know, verbal language cannot equate with truth. There is always an approximate and tenuous link between words and their reality, and we cannot represent the ‘world’ through the wor(l)d.
Rather like a lifelong illness, I have been obsessed with the issue of how we can be what we are, and how we can go on, given that language does not ‘work’ and betrays us at every turn? Language is not a mere reflecting device, innocently mirroring some objective reality, but plays a role in letting us down just at the time when we need it most. But what are the solutions to this? We can either side with Artaud and show a sense of misplaced confidence in the ability of language to convey meaning; or we have to remain filled with self-doubt that nothing says what we want it to say.
For me, these issues mainly manifest themselves in the following way:
- Finding it hard to express my real meaning through language;
- Worrying about whether others are expressing their real meaning to me;
- (In fact) anxieties and self-doubts about most things;
The beauty of Artaud’s writing is that one never really knows what his intentions are. Which is why I will keep studying him for some time to come!