What Artaud wanted was seemingly impossible: to shift the foundations of human experience. Because his vision was so ambitious, with each effort to locate the right medium for expression, Artaud would repeatedly fail. Naomi Greene explains that Artaud “believed that any writer who used language traditionally could not reveal metaphysical truths to man, for ordinary language obscured the spiritual realities of the universe.” Artaud began with poetry, expanded the scope of his writing during his time with the Surrealists, then split with the Surrealists. The theater, then, became Artaud’s next venture — the new mechanism through which one could become awake in new language.
Artaud’s seminal theater text, The Theater and Its Double, took a long time to publish. Although the essays were composed between 1932 and 1935, the book didn’t appear until 1938, once Artaud had already been institutionalized.
If refraction reorients boundaries and shapes that we take for granted, then this literal impulse lies at the center of the well-known cut-paper silhouettes of Kara Walker, which I now examine through the lens of translation and refraction. In Gone: An Historical Romance of Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of a Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), the title itself is an off-center re-naming of Gone with the Wind, the famous romance novel set in the South during the Civil War. What do the contents of such an intentionally unsettling translation entail?
[Re-posted from a previous publication in Poems and Poetics, to mark Dennis Tedlock’s unexpected passing earlier this year. My admiration & debt to him – & that of so many others – is hardly in need of explanation, though the note below provides some of it. (J.R.)]
Artaud’s separation from the Surrealists was not amicable. A rough break was perhaps inevitable considering the Surrealists’ tendency toward confrontation and disruption, a disposition further provoked by the view that Artaud was a sell-out.
Luis Buñuel, who joined the Surrealists after Artaud left, describes this rebellious spirit in his memoir, My Last Breath: