Sunday, January 26, 2014

earliest post of the latest year

Artaud's Error

Antonin Artaud's “theater of cruelty” was more theory than theater, more influence than event. It involves the dismal notion that life and being operate according to principles of terror and agony. Behind the curtains of normality (forms of experience metabolized into culture) brood implacable energies that propel stuff through tortures of time, pathologies of space. Hence the new theater – spectacle as stimulation of and participation in brute awareness. Life and art in a frenzied marriage of anti-ecstasy. God not only dead but a dangerous psychopath.

Speaking of influence, Artaud wouldn't have had very much to get himself worked up about if not for Schopenhauer. I find it striking that Kant still reverberates into so-called philosophy – Continental directly, Analytical indirectly – while Schopenhauer's thought echoes through actual philosophy (music, literature, film, poetry – possible venues of extant wonder). So it seems fitting that Artaud would recast Schopenhauer into a form of art – theater. The problem is that both Schopenhauer and Artaud are wrong about aesthetics.

For Schopenhauer, the experience of art is for transient moments of equanimity – a calm distraction from the chronically blistering absurd of undifferentiated noumenal force (whether creator or auditor, a prophylactic zen trance). For Artaud, the experience of art is for mirroring the horror of the situation.

Neither approach to art is artistic. The former is about therapeutic coping, the latter agonistic mimesis.

Yes, life and being tend toward the sucking, stinking maws of pain and death. But human beings happen to be very strange creatures. We are potential transformers of the hopeless macabre into the unsettling beautiful. There is something mystic afoot that contradicts the rotting regions of despair and darkness. Where would we find the deepest impressions of this mystical afootedness? Let's go to Poland!

Frederick Chopin and Karol Szymanowski in music. Bruno Schulz in literature. Wojciech Has in film. Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, and Adam Zagajewski in poetry. Why is Poland an incubator of aesthetic transformation? I really don't know. I live in Arkansas.

Chopin's music is pure sublimation. He inhaled the deathly, diseased hours after midnight and turned them into quietly ecstatic melodies, beatified the darkness into pensive waiting:

Szymanowski's own Song of the Night (Symphony No. 3) expresses mysterious fantasy rather than harrowing nausea from the netherfolds of consciousness: 

Schulz's story "Tailor's Dummies" from The Street of Crocodiles is an alchemical working of language and yesterday into an infinite mythology. Via hilarious melancholy and metaphysical stupefaction, the reader is made skeptical of a claim that the world is merely quotidian principles, merely cruel manifestations.

Has's film The Saragossa Manuscript -- a large tale of nested tales -- is also imbued with visionary humor. Life as curvaceous adventure:

Miłosz's poems question the environment of memory to the extent that loss itself is crowned with a halo of spiritual beauty:


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Szymborska's poems explore the uncanniness of mere presence and the privilege of mere experience:

Miracle Fair

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it's backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

Zagajewski's poems are like no other poems being written these days. They are jaw dropping in their subtle spiritization and aesthetization of time and being. This from his book Unseen Hand: Poems:


You must take up the world’s whole weight 
and make it easier to bear.
Toss it like a knapsack
on your shoulders and set out.
The best time is evening, in spring, when
trees breathe calmly and the night promises
to be fine, elm twigs crackle in the garden.
The whole weight? Blood and ugliness? Can’t be done.
A trace of bitterness will linger on your lips,
and the contagious despair of the old woman
you spotted in the tram.
Why lie? After all rapture
exists only in imagination and leaves quickly.
Improvisation – always just improvisation,
great or small, that’s all we know,
in music, as a jazz trumpet weeps happily
or when you stare at the blank page
or try to outwit 
sorrow by opening a favorite book of poems;
just then the phone usually rings, 
someone asking, would you like to try
the latest model? No thank you.
I prefer the proven brands.
Grayness and monotony remain; grief
the finest elegy can’t heal.
But perhaps there are things hidden from us,
in which sorrow and enthusiasm mix
non-stop, on a daily basis, like the dawn’s birth
above the seashore, no, wait,
like the laughter of those little altar boys
in white vestments, on the corner of St. John and Mark,

What's disheartening is that today you find music, literature, film, and poetry still under the conscious or unwitting influence of Artaud. Consciousness is considered a curse, life a toxic extract, abjectness the persistent cool. Today, you find music as aggression, literature as smirkingness, film as violence, poetry as abyssal complaint. What's so silly about all this “profound” artistic misery is that it preens with such egoistic gusto. Apparently, you can become famous if your avant-gardism is rebellious, doomy, and pretentious enough. There's something out of kilter about that.

If the world is a cruel and reckless berserking, then it's best not to dwell on that stuff. Better to sublimate and reconfigure. Better to transform our dystopian tears into aesthetic substance. Real art lives and breathes in the quizzical region, in moments that modify the actual into a symbolic otherness – space and time become perplexed rhapsody. Frowning while holding up a theatrical mirror to the vicissitudes of chemical and organic immanence is anti-art; actual art is a gesture toward paradox and transcendence.

Artaud presumed to impose his view of a nihilistic reality on the audience via scene and sound. To shake people awake. That's megolomania and guruism rather than art. Real art suggests and is uncertain. Real art is a transmutation of dark materials into evocative shadows, into substrates of possible light.  

1896 - 1948


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. AND Chopin. And Szymanowski. And Szymborska. It seems a virtual tour of Warszawa is in order.

  3. And Schulz: "Via hilarious melancholy and metaphysical stupefaction, the reader is made skeptical of reality's claim to firm quotidian principles, to merely cruel insinuations." Hear, hear.

  4. A bit of reading on Artaud has assured me that the title of your post befits the subject. However; my head went 'round and 'round while chasing Derrida, Deleuze and Artaud through a philosophical text.

    What if one has not been exposed to Artaud as such, but has been exposed to Artaud's influence. I began seeking examples of Artaud's influence, but have returned to your post as a concise description of what one might glean:

    "Life and art in a frenzied marriage of anti-ecstasy. God not only dead but a dangerous psychopath."

    Neither a "Theatre of Cruelty" nor Marquis de Sade-like approach appeal to me, as a reader, or as a human being.

    I began wondering on the Polish-ness of Poland. Have you ever read the biography of Marie Curie by Eve Curie? That was one of my early incursions into Poland, so many years ago that I can't remember the words, but the sense, in Eve Curie's descriptions of her mother's childhood--that Poland, although carved up by empires on all sides, managed to maintain a sense of its own identify, a passion for Pólsha and its language in spite of this. Marie Curie was not an artist--she was a scientist, but she applied a similar passion to her "art."

    There may be a clue to the emergence of these creative expressions in the origins of the Polish language and its history--the language became a cloak of Polish identity even when the country did not exist, similar to the situation of Yiddish or Ladino.

  5. One more comment. I stumbled on this article by a "recovering critic" this morning:

  6. Just what I needed today. I'm grateful I happened upon your blog, Tim.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Avery, and for the comment.