Alejandra Pizarnik: 'The Incarnate Word,' an essay on Antonin Artaud and others (1965)
Translation from Spanish by Cole Heinowitz
I blame the men of this age for causing me to be born by the most infamous magical maneuvers into a world I wanted no part of, and for trying by similar magical maneuvers to prevent me from making a hole in this world in order to leave it. I need poetry to live, and I want to see it around me. And I do not accept the fact that the poet who I am was committed to an insane asylum because he wanted to realize his poetry in its natural state.[i]
Antonin Artaud, Letters from Rodez
That assertion of Hölderlin’s, that “poetry is a dangerous game,” has its real equivalent in several famous sacrifices: the suffering of Baudelaire, the suicide of Nerval, the premature silence of Rimbaud, the mysterious and ephemeral presence of Lautréamont, the life and work of Artaud…
These poets, and a few others, are linked by having annulled—or having tried to annul—the distance society imposes between poetry and life.
Artaud still hasn’t entered university curricula, as is the case with Baudelaire. So it’s appropriate, in this precarious note, to appeal to a mediator the caliber of André Gide’s, whose testimony gives a good account of the convulsive genius of Artaud and his work. Gide wrote this text after that memorable evening, January 13, 1947, at the Vieux Colombier, where Artaud—recently released from the asylum at Rodez—tried to explain himself with—but it couldn’t be “with,” rather “before”—the others. This is the testimony of André Gide:
“In the back of the auditorium—that dear old auditorium of the Vieux Colombier that could hold about 300 people—there were half a dozen pranksters who had come to the event looking to have a laugh. Oh! I still think their insults could have gotten them locked up by Artaud’s fervent friends, scattered throughout the auditorium. But no: after one very timid attempt at a ruckus there was no need to intervene. ...We were present at an astonishing spectacle: Artaud triumphed, deflecting the mockery and insolent jeers; he dominated …
“I had known Artaud for a long time, both his anguish and his genius. Never before had he seemed more admirable to me. Nothing remained of his material being but expression. His tall, gangly silhouette, his face consumed by an internal flame, his hands flailing like a drowning man’s, now stretched toward some unreachable aid, now twisted in agony, but most often clasped tightly over his face, alternately hiding and revealing it—everything in him displayed the horror of human misery, a damnation without appeal, with no possible escape but a furious lyricism which only reached the public in bursts of obscenity, imprecations, and blasphemy. Here, without a doubt, we encountered the astonishing actor this artist could turn himself into: but it was his own person he offered to the public in a kind of shameless farce that disclosed a total authenticity. Reason fled in defeat, not only his own but that of the entire audience, all of us, spectators at that hideous drama, reduced to the roles of malevolent stage extras, jackasses, and yokels. Oh, no! No one in the audience wanted to laugh anymore; and what’s more, Artaud extinguished our desire to laugh for a long time to come. He had forced us into his tragic game of revolt against everything that we accepted but that he, who was purer that we, permanently refused:
We haven’t been born yet.
We aren’t in the world yet.
There isn’t any world yet.
Things aren’t made yet.
The reason for being hasn’t been found yet…
“At the end of that memorable event, the public was speechless. What could they have said? They had just seen a miserable man, brutally beaten by a god, as if on the threshold of a deep cavern, the secret den of the Sybil where nothing profane is tolerated, or rather, they had seen, as if on a poetic Mount Carmel, the vates stripped naked, offered up to the storm, to birds of prey, at once victim and priest…And we felt ashamed to take up our places again in a world where comfort consists of compromise.”[ii]
A writer who signs himself “The Alchemist,” after tracing a convincing parallel between Arthur Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud, discerns in their works a white period and a black period, separated in Rimbaud by the “Letter of the Visionary” and in Artaud by “The New Revelations of Being” (1937).
What is most astonishing about Artaud’s white period is his extraordinary need for incarnation, while in the black period there is a perfect crystallization of that need.
The writings of the white period, be they literary, cinematic, or theatrical, all attest to that prodigious thirst to liberate and restore to the living body that which remains imprisoned by words.
I entered the world of literature writing books in order to say that I could write absolutely nothing; when I had something to say or write, thought was what abandoned me the most. I never had ideas, and two or three little books of sixty pages each revolve around this deep, inveterate, endemic absence of all ideas. They are The Umbilicus of Limbo and The Nerve Meter.
It is particularly in The Nerve Meter that Artaud describes the narcotically confused state (and it’s painfully ironic to be unable to stop admiring the magnificent “poetry” of this book) of his language in relation to thought. His central wound is internal paralysis and the hideous privations that result from it: the inability to feel the rhythm of his own thought (in its place lies something that has always been shattered) and the inability to feel that human language is alive: All the terms I choose to think with are for me TERMS in the proper sense of the word, absolute terminations…
There is a word Artaud repeats throughout his writings: effectiveness. It is closely related to his need for metaphysics in action, and as used by Artaud it means that art—or culture in general—must be effective in the same way that our respiratory system is effective: I don’t believe the most urgent task is to defend a culture whose existence never freed a man from concerns about living a better life or going hungry, but rather to extract from this so-called culture ideas whose vital force is the same as that of hunger. And if you ask what that consists of, at the level of poetry, that effectiveness Artaud desired as nobody else and found as nobody else, this statement from Marcel Granet (Chinese Thought) may be a useful response: To know the name, to say the word, is to possess the being or create the thing. Every beast is tamed by the man who knows how to name it…I have tigers for soldiers if I call them: “tigers!”
The principle works of the black period are: A Journey to the Land of the Tarahumaras; Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society; Letters from Rodez; Artaud the Mômo; Indian Culture and Here Lies; and To Have Done with the Judgment of God.
They are indefinable works. But to explain why something is indefinable may be a way—perhaps the noblest way—of defining it. This is what Arthur Adamov does in an excellent article in which he lays out the impossibilities—which I sum up here—of defining Artaud’s work:
Artaud’s poetry has almost nothing in common with poetry that has been classified and defined.
The life and death of Artaud are inseparable from his work to a degree that is unique in the history of literature.
The poems of his last period are a kind of phonetic miracle that ceaselessly renews itself.
One cannot study Artaud’s thought as if it had to do with thought since what Artaud forged wasn’t thinking.
Many poets rebelled against reason in order to replace it with a poetic discourse that belongs exclusively to Poetry. But Artaud is far from them. His language has nothing poetic about it even though a more effective language doesn’t exist.
Given that his work rejects both aesthetic and dialectical judgments, the only key that can provide a reference point is the effect it produces. But this is almost impossible to speak of since the effect is the equivalent of a physical blow. (If one asks where such force comes from, the answer is, from the utmost physical and moral suffering. The drama of Artaud is that of us all, but his defiance and his suffering are of an unparalleled intensity.) Reading the late Artaud in translation is like looking at reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings. And this, among many other causes, is due to the corporeality of the language, to the respiratory stamp of the poet, to his absolute lack of ambiguity.
Yes, the Word was made flesh. And also, and above all in Artaud, the body was made word. Why then his old lament over his separation from words? Just as Van Gogh restores to nature its forgotten nobility, and to manmade things their maximum dignity, thanks to those sunflowers, those old shoes, that chair, those ravens…so too, with identical purity and identical intensity, the word of Artaud, that is to say Artaud himself, rescues “humanity’s abhorrent misery” by incarnating it. Artaud, like Van Gogh, and very few others, leaves us works whose primary difficulty is rooted in the place—inaccessible to almost everyone—where they were made. Any approach to them can only be real if it takes the terrifying roads of purity, lucidity, suffering, patience…
… returning to Antonin Artaud after his ten years of misery, to begin to glimpse what he meant, what this sign cast among us means, perhaps the last one worth deciphering …
Buenos Aires, 1965
[N.B. Eight poems of Pizarnik’s, also translated by Heinowitz & with additional commentaries & bio notes, appeared earlier on Poems and Poetics and Jacket2. "The Incarnate Word" was first published in the journal Sur (Buenos Aires, no. 294, May-June, 1965) & republished as the Prologue to Pizarnik's translations of Artaud, Texts of Antonin Artaud (Buenos Aires: Acuario, 1972).]
[i] Trans. Helen Weaver. Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. Ed. Susan Sontag. UC Press, 1976. p. 455. Excerpted from a letter to Henri Parisot, October 6, 1945.
[ii] André Gide, “Antonin Artaud,” March 1948.
Poems and poetics