A rage against the dying of the light : Antonin Artaud's struggles to convey his schizophrenic experience, 1920-1926
Ireland, Patricia Daly, Department of English, University of Virginia
Russell, Charles R., University of Virginia
A careful and strictly chronological reading of Antonin Artaud's early letters, essays, parables, play;· and other writings from 1920-1926 reveals habits, characteristics and obsessions in him which his. major biographers and critics have not adequately explained, e.g., his opium intake; his unpredictable aloofness; and his periods of extreme ennervation, "spreading numbness" and mental blankness. \ Before his well-known "Letters to Riviere," he complained that he had never possessed his mind "in entirety" (1921) and he questioned whether his poems conveyed a "real 11 state of mind (1922). "Paul the Birds," his first major essay (1923-24), dramatized his deliberate identification with a dual existence, a "stuck" mind and a cryptic, fearful process of becoming.
In his "Letters to Riviere" Artaud insisted that his problems with thought and language stemmed from a "frightful ~ disease of the mind" but Riviere and subsequent critics have suggested other explanations: physical or metaphorical illness, and wider theoretical frameworks which align Artaud with such roles as secular mystic, visionary rebel or disciple of "pure" consciousness. None of these interpretations explain why he felt so helpless; so uncertain of the literal existence of his mind.
The best explanation for Artaud's problems and singular experiences is offered by schizophrenia. A composite picture, carefully culled from the literature of a variety of psychiatric authorities and schizophrenic testimonies of pre-psychotic schizophrenia, coincides very closely with that of the picture Atraud gave of himself.
From 1920-1926 most of his works, ,which are, contrary to the general opinion, obsessively autobiographical, do not discuss universal problems of Mind" and "flesh" but strive to convey the singular problems and anxieties engendered by his steadily increasing schizophrenic split between his mind and his body. His major essays after Umbilical Limbo (Nerve Scales, The Situation of the Flesh, Manifesto in Clear Language, Heloise and Abelard and Fragments from a Diary in Hell) chronicle the nature and effects of a major schizophrenic crisis which he experienced in mid 1925. Much of the bitterness expressed in these works arose. from his failure to successfully explain himself to his contemporaries, including, apparently, the Surrealists. His experience of reduced being after his crisis and, in particular, the epistemology he constructed for himself then, significantly influenced him to found the Theater Alfred Jarry. His subsequent schizophrenic developments have not yet been fully narrated, but a general awareness of them tends both to illuminate and to complicate any assessment of the Theater of Cruelty.
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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Artaud, Antonin, 1896-1948
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