Succubations & Incubations: Selected Letters of Antonin Artaud (1945-1947)
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, June 2021
In exquisitely electrifying English prose, Peter Valente and Cole Heinowitz have translated a selection of Antonin Artaud’s letters from the years 1945 to 1947 that were first published in their original French in Suppôts et Suppliciations (Henchmen and Torturings). Reading them in Succubations & Incubations Selected Letters of Antonin Artaud (1945-1947) is a creative plunge into Artaud’s final mad years that I highly recommend.
Jay Murphy, who I interviewed about his book Artaud’s Metamorphosis: From Hieroglyphs to Bodies Without Organs, intelligently and delicately opens this lapidary theatrical tour of the cruel and tragic; stressing these letters as a source of avuncular fertility and renewal for those interested in the re-enchantment of art. True, they are a wild read where magical myths and methods and metaphors may manifest. The letters are delusional, scornful, and full of flair and audacity and have been masterfully illustrated by Martin Bladh and Karolina Urbaniak.
An unholy apocalyptic vision led Artaud, the doyen of dream drama, on a trip to hallucinogenic Mexico in 1936; which ended, tragically, in Ireland in 1937 with a mental breakdown, silence, and long internments in asylums. A prolific late period of drawing and writing ensued there, from which these letters were drawn. Some are truly intrusive to the psyche: over-emphatic, panicky. All are tragic-comedic, as distortions of divine magical ideas turn fanatical and farcical. Behind sections of glossolalia lay a fearful silence.
As Céline described in Journey to the End of the Night, when reading these letters “one lives in a suspense between stupefaction and frenzy.” But finally, these fearfully difficult letters enliven creativity, as they bridge the divide between the happy human and the magically mad. Always the outsider, Artaud recounts his tortures and violations in asylums, his self-acclaimed crucifixion two thousand years ago in Golgotha, his deception by occult initiates and doubles, and his intended journey to Tibet. For Deleuze and Guattari aficionadas, Artaud also speaks of a “body without organs” and extends this idea to the visual arts, where he argues that painting and drawing must wage a ceaseless battle against the limits of representation. I agree.
In January 1948, Artaud was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and died shortly afterwards on March 4th, 1948 in a psychiatric clinic in Ivry-sur-Seine. Knowing this, there is an unmistakable shrinking magical mania that permeates the letters: a paranoid vision of an unceasing, ubiquitous, and malignant plot against lucidity. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author