Peter Valente: From 'The Artaud Variations,' with commentary by Cole Heinowitz

Drawing with text by Antonin Artaud
Drawing with text by Antonin Artaud

There is a Hole in things
that resists classification
and cannot be understood in the terms
that explain it 

because the Hole
resists being determined
and cannot be understood as part of a system. 

The noise in the head is an ache. 

Doubt gives birth to invention
which sodomizes it from behind. 

These beings do not exist
and yet they continue to provoke Artaud. 

There are no questions or problems
worth the blood from a dirty needle
and nothingness
is just this stink
from the anus of a God
who is against Life.
Best to give it up.
Don’t want anyone
getting too close,
don’t need to be surprised or astonished.
I, Artaud, have had enough of this incessant pollution
of my vital substance by spectral intelligences
that resist being nailed down,
that are the result of an arbitrary calculation in the mind of God
which let loose a battalion of craven ghosts
It’s just the laundry of human toil:
fear of death.
And the defecations of Science:
Fuck these bourgeois values.
In reality,
nothing keeps.
It’s a fools game no grail no end to suffering
just filthy lucre
and that’s nothing new.
The eye flickers before God
and then closes for good.
It’s just too much when you get that near
the rim of the pit,
your face smeared with shit for leaning too close.
God is this clot of black blood in the anus,
food for angels.
It makes me sick to think.
I rage against the obscenity of God
whose pure spirit is the light of Satan.

Commentary by Cole Heinowitz, as Part of an Introductiion
 “I Piss on the Machine of Being”:  Peter Valente’s Artaud Variations 

The poems you hold in your hands are not translations in the conventional sense of the word. They emerge from a deeply personal, sustained, and rigorous engagement with Artaud’s corpus, taking the “Interjections,” composed during Artaud’s confinements at Rodez and Ivry-sur-Seine (1946-47), as their immediate point of departure. Like Christopher Logue’s Homer, Paul Schmidt’s Rimbaud, and Stephen Rodefer’s Villon, Valente’s Artaud builds on the Poundian tradition of “criticism by translation,” a practice that demands “an intense penetration of the author’s sense” and “an exact projection of one’s psychic contents,” one that privileges “the fervour of the original” over semantic fidelity. Valente’s poems embody what Haroldo de Campos has called “transcreation,” a strategy of deviation from the literal that aims for “a greater solidarity with the final ‘gestalt’ of the [original] work” than can be achieved through “servile” translation.  As Jerome Rothenberg phrased it, these poems are at once “commentary,” “extension,” and a “legitimate form of othering.”

It is in this way that Valente is able to bring us an Artaud who is frequently thought of as untranslatable, if not entirely undecipherable. Valente’s Artaud is not the “shaman,” as Susan Sontag would have it, whose works “yield nothing for the reader except intense discomfort of the imagination.” Nor is he Clayton Eshelman’s “shaman in a nightmare,” whose “madness…means little to anyone but Artaud.” Valente gives us an Artaud who very lucidly critiques institutional power in all its insidious manifestations—from metaphysics to rationalism, from communism to capitalism, and from sexuality to the self—an Artaud who wages unceasing war “against God,” “against reason,” “against classes,” “against the feminine, / against the masculine,” “against the organism,” “against psychology,” “against language,” and ultimately “against concepts” themselves.

Valente’s language reveals these “rites of black magic” with extraordinary vividness and directness.We see how unquestioned submission to authority “makes all men into craven, unscrupulous dogs, begging for alms on stoops and bar stools all over Paris”. We see in the clearest terms the torments Artaud suffered in the asylum: “It was hell back there at Rodez”, where he was “electrocuted,” “chained,” “kept in solitary”, and endured the terrifying “bardo state of electroshock”. We see “the filthy police” who “struck [Artaud] down,” who “bludgeoned” him “with an iron bar in Dublin” and sent him back to France in a straitjacket. We see the destruction witnessed by a man who lived through two World Wars: “1,000,000 dead / by fire, / by water, / by air,” “cities razed to the ground, / the upheaval of cultures, / men against men, / women raped, sodomized,” and “the burning of ships on the sea”. And we see the fragmentation of “a self that monitors it- / self in private language” in Valente’s “AR- / TAU,” whose every attempt to assert a coherent identity is interrupted and usurped by another: “it’s me, me listen to us artaud / not my / self, you’ll never find us / it is I, Artaud, / artaud is dead you must listen to us”.

Yet these poems are much more than instantiations of the systems Artaud railed against. They map the complicity and, ultimately, the interchangeability of these systems. God is never merely God in these poems: he is also Satan. Angels are never merely angels: they are also demons. Demons are never merely demons: they are also doctors. Doctors are never merely doctors: they are also capitalists. Capitalists are never merely capitalists: they are also priests. Priests are never merely priests: they are also whores. Whores are never merely whores: they are also the intellect. The intellect is never merely the intellect: it is also the body, that collection of organs “that eats, shits, sleeps,” breeds, and dies. Thus God becomes “piss,” Christ becomes “shit,” the Holy Ghost becomes “sperm”, “and all the shit and gristle of this racket of Being is pulverized in the brain as food for angels who awaken the dead Artaud by electroshock to perform surgery on his hands and scrape words from his tongue with their rusty tools”. The material world is inseparable from the immaterial world: “The unholy trinity enters matter through the anuspussy key and feeds upon the entrails of Artaud” while “[t]he filth of the spirit” drains “its shit / at the rim of matter”.

Valente’s poems scream of this vicious collusion; they “rage against the obscenity of God/ whose pure spirit is the light of Satan”:

Such terminal bullshit has passed for truth in the West
in the name of philosophy,
science, religion, politics, etc.
Dame Sophia
ought to be raped and roasted on a spit in Hell
next to that pig Descartes
and the entire dilapidated Academy
and those secret initiates who enact
vile scenarios of black magic,
having stolen the sperm of Artaud
while he sleeps.


 Looked at politically, philosophically, or spiritually, Valente’s stark revelation of such collusion is indeed formidable. But while they have much to teach in such respects, these poems are ultimately neither political, philosophical, or spiritual. If God doubles as Mammon or the Madonna doubles as the Whore of Babylon, if priests are out for “filthy lucre” and the intelligentsia are simply angling for “a chair in the rotten council of heaven”, even if the Holy Ghost is a satanic ejaculation, as Valente writes, “that’s nothing new”. The constant reproduction and doubling of these forces may expose them for the deceptions they truly are, but the real point of distilling them all “in the alembic” together is to defeat “the machine of Being” that endlessly “reproduces”. Beyond their keen penetration into the travesties of justice, reason, and morality, at their core, these poems are leveled against the very notion of Being.”[1]
[1] As Artaud wrote in September 1947, “There is no greater enemy of the human body than being.” Quoted in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference. University of Chicago Press, 1978. p. 246.