in search of magic: a different route to ecstasy

A route to ecstasy that began by a descent into the demonic. A negative utopia without free will where freedom was attained through an absence of will. …

His 1935 production of Cenci was poorly received. Seventeen performances in a run-down theatre and out. The critics were not impressed, repeating what had already been said of Alfred Jarry, “He may have genius, but he has no talent.” … This is not the case with Artaud, however, who assumes that man’s instincts tend towards the hostile and perverse. Whereas with Grotowski the protagonists are victims, with Artaud, they are victimizers. In his play, The Cenci, adapted from Shelley, the protagonist is a wealthy, greedy, and cruel Count who lusts after his own daughter. As with Grotowski, Artaud wants his actors to be thoroughly convincing, but the response he wants from his actors is empathy with the monstrous Count, not pity for his victimized daughter, at least until she too becomes brutal in her revenge. It is Artaud’s way of cleansing us of our destructive impulses by letting them come to the surface of conscious being. But unlike with Grotowski, the success of Artaud’s theatre depends on the assumption that our instincts are to hurt — not to help — one another.Artaud feels that he can benefit society by making the audience understand that it does not really care about these distinctions. As Auslander says, Artaud wanted us to “recognize and confront our dark impulses so we can be free, or at least in control, of them.” Since Artaud’s theories, if not in actual practice, he expected his “theatre of cruelty” to have universal popularity, he believed that it would purge the evil instincts of every member, rich and poor, in society by letting these instincts enjoy actualization under the safe context of ritualized theatre.

Jean Dubuffet. 1946. Portrait of Artaud. Stephen Barber interview:he Existentialists, who took over all artistic and intellectual circles in Paris after World War II, seemingly did not want anything to do with Artaud. This is strange perhaps, because Artaud more than anyone of his epoch confronted his anguish and did not back down from the burden of becoming a true self. Can you explain this apparent rejection? I think the Existentialists didn’t reject Artaud, though his association with the history of Surrealism (twenty years before the period when Artaud inhabited the same cafés in Paris that the Existentialists did, in 1946-48) placed him, involuntarily, within an intricate set of quarrels between literary and philosophical movements. As mentioned, Sartre made a sympathetic gesture towards Artaud in donating a manuscript to be sold for his benefit, and Albert Camus, who edited the newspaper Combat for part of the time between Artaud’s release from Rodez in 1946 and death in 1948, published extracts on at least two occasions from Artaud’s writings. The hostility actually emanates from Artaud’s side. Artaud rarely liked other writers or artists, and barely tolerated the audience of his own work. As he told Jacques Prevel: “When I hear someone talking about a new poet, I want to shoot him at pointblank range.” Read More: image:

Despondent over the reception of The Cenci, Artaud left for Mexico in January, 1936, to look for a tribe of Indians called the Tarahumaras, which he had heard still practiced Aztec sun rites and used the hallucinatory drug peyote. Armed with a carte-blanche from the Mexican minister of education and accompanied by a metis interpreter guide, Artaud made his way into the Mexican sierra and found the Tarahumaras, who were living, he said, ” in a prediluvian state … they believed they have been dropped from the sky onto the sierra… they sometimes visit the cities in order to see those who went wrong!”

The Peyote Dance opens on Artaud in a village on the mountain, immobilized, out of the body, bewitched by the Tarahumara sorcerers after waiting twenty-eight days to see the peyote rite. Desperate, he writes, “Having come so far, to find myself finally at the threshold of an encounter and of this sight from which I had hoped to extract so many revelations, and to sense myself so lost, so desolate, so cheated”. This moment that he had viewed as the ultimate objective of his journey — to make direct contact with shamanistic traditions surviving from pre-Columbian Mexico — finds him a powerless observer, barely able to get up and walk a few steps, his enthusiasm nearly exhausted: “And all this, for what? For a dance, for a rite of lost Indians who don’t even know who they are or where they come from and who, when interrogated, respond to us with stories of which they’ve lost the secret and the connection”. ( Uri Hertz ) Read More:

Artaud. 1946. Luc Sante: By the end, just before his death from rectal cancer (a grimly appropriate fate for the author of "The Search for Fecality," in which he asks: "Is god a being? If he is he is one of shit"--shit being, in Artaud's view, of human essence and the sole alternative to the void), he was beginning to draw complex, heavily laden constructions that look like architecture made from heads--in the very last drawing they are stacked, as in so many totem poles. They are anything but morbid, though; they possess a vivid, throbbing life. These drawings appear to synthesize all the preoccupations of the phases of his previous three years; they fluidly combine the diagrammatic, the near-lyrical, and the excruciating. Here again, Artaud's ferocity, anguish, and hallucinatory paranoia are matched and joined by his intelligence and paradoxical control. Read More: image:

Artaud arrived during a government crackdown on peyote-eaters and had to wait before he could attend the rites, but when he did, he said, “I felt I had reached a capital point of my existence.” As he watched the Indians perform a dance called the Ciguri, Artaud was given some peyote by a priest. It was, he said, ” enough peyote to see god two or three times.” He felt his mind leaving his body through his various organs, and when he was himself again, the Indians told him that his “skeleton had returned from the dark rite, like the night marching on the night.” Describing the difference between opium and peyote, Artaud wrote: “the first virtue of opium is to allow us to grasp reality, without delirium or hallucination, but with balance and thoughtfulness, while peyote makes intelligence futile and returns us to life purged after a phase of trances.”

Hertz: Artaud experiences a vision of Hieronymous Bosch’s Nativity and, upon returning to his senses, he sees the sorcerers descending the mountain leaning on huge staffs, finally arriving for the peyote rite. His description of the ambiance where the peyote dance takes place, written during or just after his journey to Tarahumara country, is clear and precise in every fantastic detail. He sees fires “rising from all directions toward the sky”, the women grinding the peyote with “scrupulous brutality”, the circle of earth trampled down by the priests where a bush lit on fire is blown upward in whirlwinds, the heart and lungs of two goats killed earlier in the day “trembling in the wind”, hanging from a tree trunk in the form of a cross….

Artaud. 1923. "Artaud sought meaning in another culture yet again in 1936 when he traveled to Mexico and reportedly lived among the Tarahumara people and take part in peyote ceremonies. In his book The Mexican dream, or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio asks the question “Did Antonin Artaud really go to the Tarahumara Sierra?” (17) He acknowledges that Artaud’s biographer Cardoza y Aragon positively asserted that Artaud made the trip in the employ of the Palace of Fine Arts for the National Autonomous University of Mexico, but the University apparently has no record of this fact. Le Clezio sites Artaud’s poor health and the difficult terrain as reasons one might be skeptical that Artaud actually made the trip. In addition, Le Clezio reminds the readers that the Tarahumara would have been under missionary supervision at the time and would most likely have stopped or hidden the rights described by Artaud. And, it would be very unlikely that they would have invited a strange European man to join them. Artaud, speaking neither Spanish nor the language of the Tarahumara, would have been unable to communicate clearly with them regardless. Whether or not Artaud’s account of his time in the desert was accurate, it seemed very meaningful to him. Le Clezio explains “For Artaud, the peyote dance was a way of no longer being ‘white’, that is, one whom the spirits have abandoned”---Read More: image:

…The rite is performed for Artaud. He sees the priests with their wooden staffs and the peyote dancer wearing hundreds of miniature bells. At this point begins his obsession with the staff used by the Tarahumara sorcerers in the ceremony. He wonders what it is the Peyote Master tells them during the three-year initiation in the forest when they learn the secret of the staff. Artaud collapses from fatigue. The dance is performed over and around him. In a state of dissociation, he becomes a “man of stone who requires two men to get him mounted on his horse” when the ritual ends at dawn. His body resists returning to civilization after what he has witnessed, “to bring back a collection of worn-out images which the era, faithful to its system, will take for more ideas for advertisements and models for clothing designers”. ( Hertz) Read More:

Returning to France in 1937, Artaud was so dependent on drugs that he twice

to take a cure with his friend Jean Paulhan from the Nouvelle Revue Francaise paying part of the de-tox treatment.Somehow, he also managed to get engaged to a Belgian, Cecile Schramme, who father whose deep-pocketed father operated the Brussels streetcar system. Not surprisingly, the engagement was broken off after Artaud had a violent quarrel with his fiancees family over the course of a visit to Brussels.

Hertz: Although Artaud reached the goal of his journey to Mexico and Tarahumara country — travel in time as well as space to the rites of pre- Columbian shamanism — his weakened physical and mental condition prevent him from grasping the secret of the peyote dance. He leaves the site of the ceremony with the resolve that “from now on something hidden behind this heavy grinding and which equalizes dawn and night, this something left out, will serve... in my crucifixion”. Read More: image:

With Artaud we have a different route to ecstasy. On this route, like the punk protagonist in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, who empathizes with the Christ-flogging Roman soldiers, the audience identifies with the persecutors rather than with the persecuted. Therefore we are supposed to empathize with the incestuously lustful count in The Cenci or the bloody and greedy conquistadors in The Conquest of Mexico. The actors play out all our evil until they are exhausted out of us, leaving both actor and spectator cleansed. There should be a feeling a spiritual purity….Free choice, however, has no place in Artaud’s aesthetics. According to Artaud, our passions and impulses are too strong for us to do anything about them. Brechtian alienation techniques, with their implied attitude of how we are free to change the world, would make no sense in Artaud’s theatre. It is these uncontrollable impulses with cause problems for man, according to Artaud. Rather than trying, like Brecht, to make us think, or like Grotowski, make us think and feel, Artaud only wants us to feel. That is why Artaud’s theatre is manipulative in it’s attempts to, as Auslander says, trigger “psychic activity …by the exposure to certain kinds of universal images.” Not only the visual, however, but the aural was used for such as purpose. For instance, in Artaud’s 1935 production of The Cenci, both music and sound effects had a rhythmic beat to so as to induce a hypnotic trance effect.”…Read More:

Antonin Artaud left Europe on a ship bound for Mexico in January, 1936, and arrived on a Friday in the following month. He was charged with the official mission of studying Mexican art and culture. He had left Paris under a cloud of poverty during the depths of the Depression with fascism on the rise. Even on his arrival he was in dire financial straits. In a letter dated March 25, Artaud writes to Paulhan that he is being well received in Mexico, where “… all the doors of government have been opened to me”. He lectured at The League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists and participated in a Congress of Children’s Theater where, according to his report to Paulhan, “they told me I was speaking of things they had never thought about before in their lives”….

…Artaud warns against “the prostitution of action” in propaganda. In closing, he identifies the objective of his journey to Mexico as a quest “for the basis of a magical culture which can still gush forth the forces of the Indian earth”. Man against Destiny is an attack on Marxism and on the rationalist tradition of Europe. Placing his allegiance in the magic of an ancient world with no points of reference in contemporary institutions, he calls for destruction: “what is necessary to let culture ripen is to close the schools, burn the museums, destroy the books, break the printing presses”. Artaud valorizes Chinese nondualist philosophy and the science of acupuncture, Paracelsian medicine, and homeopathy, proposing a synesthesic means of healing history through color and sound based on these ancient arts.

At the opening of The Theater and the Gods, Artaud identifies his alternative to European civilization as a “culture in space” and correlates
the four points of the theater space with the six branches of the Mexican cross found on the walls of certain churches. Other writings by Artaud which appeared in the Mexican press during the following months were his main source of income. The spirit of Artaud’s reception by the Mexican intelligentsia is indicated by the fact that these pieces were translated by various hands out of good will at the last moment in order to make it possible for him to extend his stay in Mexico.

…Beneath his semi-official objective of learning from “the lost soul” of ancient Mexico in order to report his findings back to Europe, Artaud admits that his goal is the harnessing of shamanistic forces of pre-Columbian sorcery to subvert European ideology and heal what he
perceived to be a plague threatening the collective body and psyche. Read More:

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