Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 25, September 2002

 

 

Jake Kennedy

 

Avant-Garde Meat

 

 

 

Stephen Barber

_Artaud: The Screaming Body_

London: Creation Books, 1999

ISBN 1840680091

126 pp.

 

If Antonin Artaud has come to represent a kind of grand locus for discussions of avant-garde modernity -- the spectacular collision-point of the modern and its burgeoning post-; the at once beautiful and ravaged *face* mapping the vicissitudes of twentieth-century history -- this has come at the expense of an even grander irony. For Artaud's multi-genre aesthetics depend crucially on his private war with representation, his virulent disgust with the inevitable gap between the body and its loss once translated into aesthetic form. In this way, Artaud is (and perhaps always was) his own best example: his reduced, compromised, manipulated, electrocuted, *liminal* body constitutes the ultimate proof of the brutal reductions of the signifier. He's become theoretical meat.

 

Stephen Barber's recent work, _Artaud: The Screaming Body_, is part biographical tour and part conceptual documentary that sympathetically, and provocatively, addresses this herding of Artaud. Concerning himself almost exclusively with Artaud's non-theatrical work, Barber charts Artaud's war of the body, especially as it becomes subsumed by the realm of modern psychiatry. Barber argues for a chaining-together of Artaud's cinema projects, his drawings, and his fascinating voice-work for radio, suggesting that all of Artaud's non-theatrical expressions (from film scenarios to primal screams) seek to apprehend, or visualize, the human body (6). That there is no escape from the body is, for Artaud, the impetus for, and the crux of, his battle with art (it is as close to the body as he can get -- and yet still that 'art' betrays the body) and perhaps, finally, the cause for much of his notorious, gruelling bouts with insanity.

 

Barber's concise chapter on Artaud and cinema, 'The Extremities of the Mind: Artaud's Film Projects, 1924-1935', persuasively establishes Artaud as one of the first significant avant-garde film theorists. Setting up Artaud's film scenario _The Seashell And the Clergyman_ (eventually directed by Germaine Dulac), for example, alongside Luis Bunuel's _Un Chien Andalou_ and _L'Age d'Or_, Barber places Artaud in the forefront of revolutionary surrealist cinema. Artaud's original scenario for _The Seashell And the Clergyman_ narrated the sexual and psychical torment of a clergyman as he shifts through surreal, fragmented landscapes. Yet Artaud, as Barber documents, was seriously unhappy with Dulac's final realisation:

 

'Dulac filmed the images of the scenario with scrupulousness, but, for Artaud, neutralized their virulence by treating them as being simply the representation of a dream . . . This infuriated Artaud, who had an intricate theoretical concern with the workings of dream images. He objected also to the way in which the film had sutured together the raw and disjunctive images of his scenario, so that the film flowed easily for the spectator' (12).

 

Artaud desired not merely a filmic equivalence to dreaming, something that would approximate oneiric sensations, but a living cinema of images that would possess all the violent force of actual reverie. At the heart of Artaud's theories about the avant-garde cinema then is a concerted effort to make supreme fictions by utterly demolishing passive spectatorship. In this way, Artaud anticipates much post-structural film theory and in particular Laura Mulvey's call for an attack on the 'satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represent the high point of film history . . . to make way for a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film'. [1] Moreover, what Barber suggests is that Artaud's dissatisfaction with Dulac's film lay not so much in the specifics of her realisation (which were, in fact, rather faithfully attentive to his original ideas) but more generally in the theoretical abyss that separates the film scenario from the film proper. The gap, the chasm, stretching between the conception and the production, is not only always theoretically present in Artaud, it *is* Artaud.

 

Barber makes abundantly clear in this first chapter that Artaud's relationship to cinema was one that vacillated between significant extremes: on the one hand Artaud glimpsed the very real revolutionary potential of moving images to radically challenge visual passivity, and on the other hand he understood the cinema as a constant (or at least potential) source of shame and aesthetic despair. As an actor, especially, Artaud had experienced the humiliating demands of commercial realist cinema, citing his role as the monk Massieu in Carl Dreyer's stunning _Joan of Arc_ as the only professional moment in which he felt above the ignominy of popular filmmaking. Significantly, in Artaud's own theorizings about the cinema there is a pathological corporalizing, so to speak, of the filmic process. In his essay 'Cinema and Reality' he writes: 'The human skin of things, the epidermis of reality: this is the primary raw material of cinema. Cinema exalts matter and reveals it to us in its profound spirituality, in its relations with the spirit from which it has emerged'. [2] The cinema, for Artaud, *could* be another dynamic body, a transubstantiating corpus for the display of the profundity of the flesh.

 

Despite Artaud's (wholly fitting) reputation as both psychically and literally tortured artist, an artist so often disgusted with the compromises and basenesses of conventional narrative film, his writings on cinema actually suggest that he was an early aficionado of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Marx Brothers films. Indeed, a 'sense of humour' seems key to Artaud's at times mystic conception of cinematic power. He concludes his essay on cinema and its relation to the real in this way:

 

'[the cinema] does not detach itself from life but rediscovers the original order of things. The films that are most successful in this sense are those dominated by a certain kind of humour, like the early Buster Keatons or the less human Chaplins. A cinema which is studded with dreams, and which gives you the physical sensation of pure life, finds its triumph in the most excessive sort of humour. A certain excitement of objects, forms, and expressions can only be translated into the convulsions and surprises of a reality that seems to destroy itself with an irony in which you can hear a scream from the extremities of the mind'. [3]

 

Only Artaud could trace the passage of Keatonesque/Chaplinesque humour back to the extremity of the scream -- but this connection seems absolutely correct as it reveals the relationship between the radically funny and the radically terrifying.

 

Barber suggests that of Artaud's 15 film scenarios, his final scenario, _The Butcher's Revolt_, is by far the most extraordinary and the most powerfully prophetic. The scenario, written in 1930, involves a tormented 'madman' at the Place de l'Alma who is waiting to meet a woman. While waiting on the street he notices a butcher's truck racing by and then watches a carcass of meat fall from the van. Barber writes, '[the madman] becomes fascinated by the rapport between the texture of the meat and that of human flesh. He immediately provokes a brawl in a nearby cafe, and then takes part in a sequence of headlong chases (recalling those from Hollywood silent comedy films) which culminate in his arrival at a slaughterhouse and his humiliation there at the hands of the police' (17). As Barber points out, Artaud's final scenario is uniquely affecting because it was written at the vital moment when silent cinema was waning and sound cinema was beginning to develop in terms of popularity and technical innovations. In all of Artaud's previous scenarios he had maintained a strict adherence to silence in his filmmaking ideas, seeing very little connection between the sound and image -- in fact, he understood sound as just finally too powerful, too overwhelmingly *real* in comparison with the flash of the image. In _The Butcher's Revolt_ Artaud for the first time embellishes his scenario with numerous outbursts and screams, even the odd, enigmatic sentence, such as 'I've had enough of cutting up meat without eating it'. Barber reveals that Artaud desired his film-voices to possess the physical quality of objects: he wanted *seeable* cries, and *tangible* noises to take up a literal space. _The Butcher's Revolt_ is important because of its fascination not simply with the body, but with the modern, urban body reduced to meat. Artaud's scenario invokes the miserable scene of a suffering madman, but the protagonist is of course also the suffering modern, industrialized subject. The 'madman's' obsession with the visual resemblance between meat and his own humanity is an unforgettable (and again prophetic) scene. It seems to encapsulate an aesthetic-filmic revelation while hinting at the brutality of modern 'bureaucracy', and specifically psychiatry: as if the madman is here staring into the medical-societal perception/degradation of his own attenuated body. This jettisoned hunk of meat can also perhaps be seen as the visual equivalent of the scream itself.

 

Barber reminds us that Artaud's cinema 'is all theory and written images, and no films' (30). This lack of visual product is however strangely appropriate, if only because Artaud's cinema must then be hallucinated -- one of the very few ways of escaping the Artaudian horror of direct mediation/representation. To bridge the unbridgeable gap, that excruciating, body-breaking dilemma for Artaud, is perhaps only possible as this impossibility: imagining the unimaginable film, or dreaming the make-believe body, is the only real, complete *thing* there is. But as Barber's fascinating book continues, exploring Artaud's asylum-drawings and his final radio-work _To Have Done With the Judgment of God_, it becomes obvious that Artaud's physical body was both beautifully and miserably *inescapable*. His rage against representation was necessarily a rage against the facts of the untranslatableness of bone and nerve -- so that Artaud's very body, especially his face, becomes, *has* become, the art-work proper.

 

It is a gruesome, but not altogether surprising, development then that the experimental Artaud should collide head-first with another form of experimental modernity -- 'avant-garde' psychiatry. Part of the power and finesse of Barber's work is how it blends Artaud's biographical detail with intricate theoretical-aesthetic problems. Barber traces Artaud's descent from artist to artist-patient with impressive sensitivity, on both a life-writing and art-critical level. We learn that during the last years of Artaud's life he came under the care of Dr Gaston Ferdiere, a psychiatrist, who was also, Barber tells us, 'a Surrealist poet who had self-published several volumes of his sexually-oriented work. He was intensely interested in pornography and drug addiction as well as in innovations in psychiatric treatment' (41-2). Barber documents that within a half-year period Ferdiere and his assistant administered over fifty-one sessions of electroshock to Artaud. It is a chilling, ironic fact that the treatment had been invented but five years earlier when an Italian doctor had observed the pacifying effect of electric shocks applied to the skulls of pigs awaiting processing in a slaughterhouse. As Barber reveals, the electroshock process was considered innovative and thrilling psychiatry. Artaud had met not only his own prophecy of the modern body attenuated as meat but he had become meat at the hands, or electrotrodes, of another 'radical' form of art.

 

McMaster University

Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Laura Mulvey, _Visual and Other Pleasures_ (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 16.

 

2. Antonin Artaud, 'Cinema and Reality', trans. Helen Weaver, in _Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings_ (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), p. 152.

 

3. Ibid.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Jake Kennedy, 'Avant-Garde Meat', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 25, September 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n25kennedy>.

 

 

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