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Reviewed by:
  • The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud
  • Brian Singleton
The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud. By Jacques Derrida and Paule Thévenin. Translation and preface by Mary Ann Caws. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998; pp. xviii + 157. $25.00 cloth.

Neither Derrida nor Thévenin is a stranger to the subject of Artaud. Derrida’s article on “The Theatre of Cruelty” in Writing and Difference is an incisive deconstruction of Artaud’s theatrical position, and Thévenin’s work was informed by her friendship with Artaud and her work as former executrix of his literary estate. Mary Ann Caws provides an English translation of their 1986 joint volume, Antonin Artaud: Dessins et portraits, which highlights the importance of art in Artaud’s œuvre, as allegory, metaphor, and therapy for theatre as part of culture. Thévenin’s text is pure and occasionally idolatrous, Derrida’s a wrestling match with language, already beaten into submission by his subject, and twisted even further by translation. Shockingly, the successors to Artaud’s estate continue to demonstrate extraordinary myopia and refused Caws permission to publish any artwork to accompany her translation. A book about Artaud’s art without the art: Art(audian) irony. For a truly sumptuous edition of this book, check out the French edition published by Gallimard.

In “The Search for a Lost World” Thévenin charts the life and career of Artaud through his art, from early sketches completed under psychiatric care, which reveal his own probable appearance at that time, to his writings on art and their validity for a scenic language as put forward in “The Theatre of Cruelty,” to the last years of his life when the graphic representation of the human face became a site for the struggle of life and death forces. She makes the relevance of his artwork for the theatre artist abundantly clear: “Theater, poetry, writing, drawing are so inextricably mingled, still more in the last two years of his life, that it is scarcely possible to speak of writing without evoking drawing or of the latter without theater or poetry coming forth” (37).

The expected references are made to Leyden’s Lot and His Daughters and Bruegel’s Dulle Griet, but most interesting is the attention paid to Artaud’s calligraphy and his preoccupation with what he calls “written drawings” (ideographic writing), displaying a profound reality which cannot be represented in words. Thévenin describes some of Artaud’s own work in this vein, and alludes to their accompanying written commentaries but leaves us without the image to confirm his point. Artaud’s message is that writing, written drawings, and theatre are all alphabets which decode “unrevealed mysteries” (42). These alphabets do not help us spell, construct, or represent, and they are far from being aesthetic. One can draw the conclusion that the ideal pictogram (artistic or theatrical) contains signs of a destiny which the (theatre) artist reconstitutes through the human sign-vehicles of pulses and breaths which act and are active.

In “To Unsense the Subjectile” Derrida takes Artaud’s paradoxical “subjectile” in relation to his artwork which is both subject and object, yet which denies both, and also which has not yet been invented. The “subjectile” is a notion which dates from the 1920s, and used in painting, designating a subjectum—“a substance, a subject, or a succubus” (64). Derrida’s idea of “unsensing” comes from Artaud’s wish to destabilise the “intonation” of art: “Solidity and hardness always betray intonation which should, on the contrary, move and mobilize stroke, gesture, and color” (84). The dynamism inherent in the “subjectile” is apparent in Derrida’s analysis of Artaud’s description of Tarahumaran dancing in which the body becomes the living subjectile, a body which both draws and writes, a living pictogram, rather than a receptacle for the exteriorization of something dead (such as words).

“The figures on the inert page said nothing under my hand. They offered themselves to me like millstones which would not inspire the drawing, and which I could probe, cut, scrape, file, sew, [End Page 94] unsew, slash and stitch . . .” (136). Derrida painstakingly deconstructs the double value of each of these gestures of Artaud’s artistic...

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