Laura Wetherington

Language and its double

Artaud Through the Looking Glass

Dr. Ferdière and Antonin Artaud at Rodez

While Artaud was interned at the Rodez asylum, Dr. Ferdière suggested he work on a translation of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass as a part of his therapy. Since Artaud didn’t speak English, he worked alongside the chaplain, Henri Julien, who was also an English teacher. Father Julien explains the process the two undertook, saying that “during his visits, he listened to me read and translate the text. He then took up the translation and suggested different words and phrasing. It was in reading the resultant translation that one can sense his soul of fire, the grand actor …”[1]

Artaud: From the theater to the asylum

Lucas Van Leyden, "Lot and His Daughters"
Lucas Van Leyden, "Lot and His Daughters"

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.”[1] Artaud began with poetry, expanded the scope of his writing during his time with the Surrealists, then split with the Surrealists.

Artaud & theater

Still, The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928

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:

Artaud and the surrealists

Pablo Picasso's skyscrapers and boulevards costume for Parade
Pablo Picasso's costume for Parade, depicting skyscrapers and boulevards

Artaud joined the Surrealist movement in October 1924, just as their journal was launched and André Breton’s first manifesto appeared. Artaud was a frequent contributor to the journal, La révolution surréaliste, and edited several issues. He also managed the Bureau of Surrealist Research. Like many of the original members, Artaud was expelled from the group by Breton. This happened around 1926.