Laura Wetherington

Language and its double

Artaud's correspondence with Jacques Rivière

Portrait of Jean Paulhan, 1938
Portrait of Jean Paulhan, 1938

Jean Paulhan was the son of a doctor and had been Dr. Toulouse’s assistant for some time, working on the review Demain. By 1923, he had become Jacques Rivière’s assistant and was working on one of the most famous literary journals in Paris, the Nouvelle Revue Française. Perhaps Artaud’s editing relationship with Paulhan, which would last for the rest of their lives,[1] led Artaud to send several poems to Jacques Rivière for consideration. Rivière sent one of the friendliest rejections imaginable—inviting Artaud to stop by his office some Friday afternoon so the two could talk. After Artaud paid him a visit, the men took up a correspondence that spanned almost a year—from 1923 to 1924.

Artaud arrives in Paris

Antonin Artaud moved to Paris in 1920 and boarded with Dr. Édouard Toulouse and his wife. They had been introduced by Artaud’s doctor in Switzerland in hopes that Artaud would be able to live close to Paris under the indirect supervision of a man with some medical expertise and an artistic inclination. Dr. Toulouse, who had also been born in Marseilles, was an ideal candidate for Artaud’s supervision. Toulouse’s 1896 book outlined a study of the connection between superior intelligence and nervous disorders, based on clinical observations of Émile Zola.[1] The critic Bernard Baillaud notes that “Toulouse’s work as a therapist crossed over easily into the literary and social domains. He saw himself as a novelist whose work was based on exact observations, and said that he had come to science through literary activity.”[2]

Antonin Artaud's early years

Marseilles 1896, by Charles Bertram Black
Marseilles 1896, by Charles Bertram Black

Antonin Artaud was born in the metropolitan port town of Marseilles on September 4th, 1896. His parents were Levantine Greeks. His mother, Euphrasie Nalpas, hailed from Smyrna, now İzmir, in Turkey. In his younger years, Antonin spent summers there with his maternal grandmother. Antonin’s father — Antoine-Roi Artaud — worked as a ship-fitter in the family business, which often took him away from home — up and down the Mediterranean and up into the Black Sea. Within his familial constellation, adults spoke French (including Provençal,) Greek, Turkish, and Italian.[1] During his youth Antonin was, in Alain Paire’s words, “bathed in multiple languages” — a fact that Paire links to Artaud’s later glossolaliac writing.[2]

Those biographers who detail Artaud’s early life cast his childhood as a string of health crises and tragedies. The death of his maternal grandmother deeply affected the young Antonin. Bettina Knapp characterizes his summers with her in Turkey as filled with “a closeness and a calmness, a sense of belonging and an inner joy,” which contrasted with the “tense atmosphere” at home “created by an over-solicitous mother and an anxious father.”[3]

Antonin Artaud's 'Hyper-Negation'

Image 1: Watchfiends and Rack Screams. Image 2: Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision.
Image 1: Antonin Artaud, Watchfiends and Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period, Tr. Clayton Eshleman and Bernard Bador, (Boston: Exact Change, 1995.) Cover art: Nancy Spero, detail from “Codex Artaud XXIII,” 1972. Image 2: Bettina Knapp, Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision, (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1969.) Cover art: Still from La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1928.

When I asked the poet David Abel what first drew him to Antonin Artaud’s work, he said, “At least one dimension of that work is a grand negation. A gigantic no, which at a certain time in my life was absolutely thrilling. […] I feel like ‘no’ is a landscape that now is very rich and three-dimensional. And what I got from Artaud is foundational, a part of the architecture or a part of the geology of the no, but which now has lots of other structures in it.”[1] David Abel’s response captures a fundamental celebration of Antonin Artaud’s writings.

Antonin Artaud's 'Contradictions'

Nancy Spero, "All Writing Is Pigshit." Photo: Courtesy of Sophie Kitching.
Nancy Spero, "All Writing Is Pigshit." Photo: Courtesy of Sophie Kitching.

Two and a half years before his death, Antonin Artaud declared that he was “born otherwise, out of my works and not out of a mother.”[1] This assertion appears in a letter to Henri Parisot, Artaud’s editor at Editions Flammarion, who was soon to publish A Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara. The letter to Parisot was intended to supplant an earlier preface to the book in which Artaud had stated his conversion to Christianity.