Hurlements de l'Histoire

by R. Artaud (kenosis)

I am compelled to exorcism, if not exactly purification. All my life I have struggled against what I believe to be an enormous lie foisted upon us by the Judeo-Christian West, this notion of original sin which weighs upon our conscience and soul like the China blue sky above Beijing, crushing us under its oppressive platitude. Our fate, I say, is not weakness or depravity but exactly the opposite: omnipotence, the boundless mastery over a planet where our mere shadow can spread like a dark wing from Sydney Heads to Tierra del Fuego. But one illusion destroys another: having freed ourselves from millenarian dread, we succumb instead to what might be called libidinous anticipation, expecting everything to turn out right because we are so phenomenally equipped, and becoming disillusioned when it doesn’t quite come to pass… until finally we retreat into schizoid aggression, attacking whatever presents itself as Other because we can’t stand not being god and yet cannot bear responsibility for it. In reality we drift helplessly amidst our triumphs and mistakes. Our power over Nature turns out a myth, our freedom a nightmare, so we lash out at what remains of innocence on earth.

And meanwhile the information keeps piling up. It wasn’t always thus, though the rate of change was already accelerating fast when I began writing, back in the Twenties. From the outside it seemed rather gradual, yes, but I had some inside knowledge, as it were – in fact I’d stumbled into dadaism in Zurich during a period of psychic crisis which sent me halfway round the world before I was twenty-five… then came surrealism and antiphrontication – ways of dreaming deliberately and living according to nightmares – the plan was to re-engineer consciousness but things got out of hand… So when I settled at Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris in 1934 with my pharmacy full of strange drugs and regimens for metamorphosing the self, ready at last to transform myself (or die trying), I knew already how unforgiving history could move; not long after my arrival Hitler occupied most of Europe, and even though my anti-authoritarian paranoia always told me Stalin was waiting in the wings too, at least superficially I had to set that worry aside and fight Nazism head-on.

During the war my mobile pharmacy became an antifascist medical unit – at night we made propaganda broadcasts to Italy. As soon as France fell I abandoned Paris and spent most of ’40 in Spain at the psychiatric hospital in Saint Alban-Leys, observing the inscriptions carved onto the walls by former patients decades ago: they’re all still here, you see… When Petain surrendered Germany occupied southern France but left me alone because of my German grandmother; Maman Antoinette escaped from the Drancy camp just before she died, she never said how. The war reached Vincennes anyway when Jews fleeing Paris took refuge with me. I took risks supplying them with mandrake and Indian hemp but kept out of politics – had enough troubles with local police over drug-dealing.

It was only after liberation that paranoia really started to get interesting – what with Malraux in Buchenwald (where they must have been teaching him Zen Buddhism) claiming to represent a global resistance movement (a bit far-fetched even for surrealism!) which needed my services as medic and propagandist: I saw right away he wanted to use me as a front-man for his own inter-war Oriental obsessions…

Still things were okay till 1949 when Algeria intervened – suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Artaud-the-anarchist-expert-in-everything due to a rumor circulating in police circles that I advocated terrorism: this owed something to the attention Simone de Beauvoir gave me after a Dora Maar photograph of me appeared in Les Temps Modernes; it owed more to Malraux spreading untruths about me within his ‘organization’, probably on behalf of French Intelligence Services who wanted some pretext to get rid of this renegade fascist turned Communist stooge, why not a dangerous anarchist instead? Nothing surprising there – by now American paranoia had infected the whole planet through NATO and its satellites. But it would escalate fast – talk about hate-societies… Between 1950–55 half-a-dozen attempts were made on General de Gaulle’s life – bombings, poison-pen letters, assassins crawling under his bed at night wielding revolvers stuffed into tubas… Nothing succeeded but the sixth attempt involving yet another failed writer so one day (March 17th 1957) while taking a tranquilizing draught at Milly-la-Forêt nearby a group of strangers attacked me with phials of acid – someone kicked me repeatedly in the stomach (nothing broken); later in the prison-hospital at Annecy an X-ray revealed a tiny splinter of glass embedded near my lung so close to my heart that surgical removal posed unacceptable risks. Five days later I wrote that my prognosis was ‘six months’ – I may as well have written ten years.

In between spasms of torture at the hands of doctors (including having both legs immobilized in plaster casts for two months) and going through withdrawal symptoms from barbiturates on which I was addicted when admitted, plus hallucinations caused by LSD given to quiet me down and anemia produced by constant blood-loss into my pleural cavity (an open bleeding hard to control) I realized something crucial – that attacks against my person weren’t political at all, but rather reflections of my marginality within structural paranoia which is where everybody’s ended up since Hiroshima. Sure enough as time went by many ordinary people around Annecy started saying exactly that: ever since Nagasaki humanity’s gone mad – a notion confirmed whenever we visit our planetarium or television screen.

Incarcerated amongst paranoid Others – government agents, drug-dealers, hit-men and crazies – when my mind was scrambled by medication, pain, bad nights, poor sleep and recurring terrors of dying slow off gas from some internal leakage, sometimes (at worst those times) I thought my enemies might be right about me – except that I knew I’d willed these events on myself in order to break free from destiny which never binds except when we choose it as our style: I mean ‘I am Schreber’s demon,’ wrote Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s famous patient in the late nineteenth century. We are our own monsters unless we do violence to ourselves, which is perhaps why they tried every means available short of lobotomy to drive me insane… the famous electro-shock therapy began in June ’58… memory loss started straight away. Exactly the same fate awaited Alexander Lautremont Montez whose autobiographical account survives anonymously because he chose it that way, preferring his books burn unread than be seized by censors who’d punished even Artaud with official indifference… He joined us briefly at Tarascon-le-Busserolles where security police interrogators tortured him systematically over several weeks until he forgot his name…

On April 30th 1965, after seven-and-half-years’ silence during which I re-invented myself as a body without organs under Rêve séditaire à la lyre courtoise (in which work schizophrenia functioned as creative technique), in prison no less, suddenly getting better (that is, regaining identity) every time visitors came… on this anniversary of Hitler’s suicide thirty-one agents and cops surrounded the maximum-security wing of La Santé Prison where I was being held on trumped-up charges dating back twenty-two years and tossed another dose of LSD… just after arrival at Lariboisière Hospital I fainted; no painkillers would be allowed – great fun lying awake thinking each vertebra fractured and spine severed… I only recovered awareness during surgeries to fix splinters of shattered bones in arms and legs.

When consciousness returned, apart from severe pain there was nothing wrong with me physically; not long after discharge from hospital some enthusiastic doctor decided my liver was failing and sent me straight into Tarascon asylum. That winter began my association with Dr. Gisèle Halimi who had been a medical student when her brother disappeared under de Gaulle. Her efforts led eventually to release from hospital in Spring ’66.

At this point, still completely hallucinating day-and-night but trying to make sense of it all through writing (at last able to think coherently again thanks to the treatments), despite knowing how discredited antipsychiatry would leave me isolated and helpless once it was published, I jotted down a note suggesting an interesting connection between mental illness on the one hand and what used to be called information overload on the other – noted how we treat all yesterday’s news like last week’s garbage though only a few decades ago every scrap of it was precious. Today all news sticks like fliespaper, till tomorrow arrives clogged with fresh muck and more trash to come.

Then a pause – eight years – before realizing it was becoming critical mass… This digital detritus we swim in today corresponds to precisely what used to happen among primeval peoples with their increasing populations pushing resources out to peripheries, finally exceeding the capacity of their waste management techniques – then began the inexorable spread of toxic landscapes such as Dutch polders. In other words we’re looking here at ecological disaster occurring inside culture proper.

My experience has always been characterized by sudden switches from elation through despair all the way to terror without any logical mediation whatsoever… Similarly the notion that media are losing their power has never taken hold of me: far from abandoning us, information envelops us like smoke from burning ozone. So what kind of crisis can be brewing if not merely one more panic? There is none really: we know quite clearly what happened with population-pressure-and-waste-management on Earth before technology; it’s happening now within Culture itself. We simply throw-out old narratives as polluted garbage, as we did myths and heroes in the last century. Just look at Conan Doyle or Zola or Verne… How could there not be an end of narrative? There’s never been enough real life for stories anyway. Yet literature keeps accumulating like nuclear waste too… We tell ourselves things will change naturally with time, as always they have done so far…

They won’t. Our story-telling power was always linked with the past in a peculiar way, unlike that of tribal cultures where myth carried the weight of both past and present because their history was continuous, no need for narrative structure there – whereas our memory was disjointed so stories tied things together; and since our memories were fragmentary and provisional due to migrations and mutations of civilization throughout recorded time narrative became its memory-keeper. Hence our veneration for The Storyteller whether Homer or Scheherazade, Cervantes or Dickens – he was godlike because he gave form to chaos.

But what kind of storyteller do you need when you carry around your own world-history on a PDA?

How much narrative can you tolerate when every moment comes embedded in infinite narrative already? The sheer opacity of cultural accumulation is strangling us. My point isn’t ‘post-story’: no more lies about some End of History or consummation by Theory or final Truth either… On the contrary it’s time for exorcism: against those saccharine teleologisms implying all’s well that ends well… it ain’t over yet and never will be.

Not all notions of apocalypse imagine destruction followed by rebirth: this would demand at least something still intact to transform, that something should find value in metamorphosis, and who can guarantee it doesn’t choose for ruin instead? Take Ernst Bloch, for example: he imagined a long Promethean struggle up to the instant when the New Human arrives… But perhaps humans aren’t needed any longer? They’ve done their job; or done it badly; it’s possible to envision perfect nanomachinery taking over seamlessly while humans slide gently into senescence…

We were designed by Nature (or whomever) to react instinctively to novelty pattern threat; if these conditions change drastically so must intelligence and whatever common sense derive from it – however crudely embodied in heuristics such as Occam’s Razor. Lacking guiding principles in science and art today – we miss a thread and fall prey to giddiness…

This inability to stop processing information isn’t exactly anxiety: it resembles anxiety rather than resembling anything rational enough to calm us down. Our style used to be phlegmatic because dangers arrived in patterns which our brains knew how to recognize as threats – nowadays everything feels threatening in principle because everything’s arrived all of a piece: viral, imperceptible and lethal (we thought atomic war would fit this description but hasn’t); 99.9% benign data swirls around minute particles capable of wiping out entire cities. There just isn’t enough intelligence left over to sift wheat from chaff.

The absence of meaning is still nothing like true Nothingness.
There is still entropy waiting patiently outside.

On top of this flood of data our instincts struggle blindly, vainly, as ever they did, like creatures fighting drowning in quicksand: rage builds against whatever moves suddenly or unexpectedly amidst the background of monotony; primal fear grips us stiff with immobility whenever anything stays still long enough to register as shape… Each stimulus forces itself upon us with the imperiousness of trauma – what escapes attention dies away fast but leaves an ache that will never fully heal: how many people feel haunted by random images from childhood whose reference has rotted away leaving them meaningless but painful nonetheless?

No doubt nostalgia will play its part here but we cannot deceive ourselves that this pile-up is a premonition of extinction.
We are all terminal schizophrenics living on borrowed time.
Those particles will get us.