Visiting his friend Antonin Artaud at the Ville-Evrard asylum in a Paris suburb in 1943, the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos barely recognized him. Artaud had become an excited lunatic spouting mystical texts by St. Jerome and invoking magical forces in the universe to protect and avenge. “It was painful for me,” Desnos con€ded, “to witness his exaltation and his madness… He seems to be settled in his fantasies and I doubt he’ll ever be cured.” Dr. Jacques Lacan, an authority on paranoiac delirium, made a similar diagnostic a few years earlier after briey examining the patient. “This man will never write again,” he said. “His delirium is nailed.”
No one would ever have doubted this judgment had Artaud remained at the mental hospital. Paris, gripped by food and fuel shortages during the German occupation, was governed by the back market. It was sauve qui peut, and these patients became virtually no one’s concern. Crowded into the asylum, starving, infected with typhoid and lice, they were rapidly dying. By neglect more than design, Ville-Evrard had become a soft-extermination camp. In fact, Artaud’s salvation was due to another doctor far less inhibited by theory than Lacan. And this doctor was to ultimately prove Lacan’s hopeless diagnosis wrong. Appalled by Artaud’s condition, Desnos made a desperate plea to a mutual friend, the psychiatrist Gaston Ferdière, who’d been a surrealist acquaintance. And Ferdière complied by having Artaud transferred to the Rodez asylum, of which he was the director, in the unoccupied South of France. Ferdière, at the time, had no idea how much animosity he would receive for the rest of his life as a result.
Unlike Lacan, who had returned to Freud’s analytic model with a vengeance, Ferdière was drawn to new practical treatments which were then being devised. Ferdière, who in his youth had been a poet himself, favored art therapy. But in order to implement this, he €rst had to unlock the patient’s delirium. He decided to throw Artaud into a series of “electric convulsions,” as electroshock therapy was called then, which apparently worked. The three years Artaud spent in Rodez and the two years that followed his return to paris, until his death in 1948, turned out to be the most proli€c in his life.
And yet once released from Rodez in 1946, Artaud turned on the doctor and accused him, to anyone who would listen, of having tortured him with electric shocks. This kind of behavior, of course, is to be expected by anyone who deals with the mentally ill. Desnos himself was realistic enough to expect that Artaud would eventually turn on him as well (but this never happened, because Desnos was deported and died in a camp in 1944). Artaud’s attack on Ferdière for having attempted to “straighten out” his poetry, sparked off a debate that still rages within the “Artaud industry” to this day. Ferdière vainly reminded his detractors that he was the one who saved the poet’s life and returned him to sanity. But no one paid attention to his claims, so dramatic and globally damning were the poet’s words. Artaud, at this point, was
barely talking about the person, Dr. Ferdière: in Artaud’s mind, Ferdière became a vessel in which to crystallize his aperceptions of all the evil inuences of that time.
Ferdière’s aversion to the social behavior of the mentally ill and his mix of benevolence and high-handedness, didn’t help. My wife, he stated years later, certainly deserves many praises “for having welcomed with open arms and let herself be kissed by this repulsive-looking individual.” Responding angrily to Artaud’s new defenders in the cultural avant-garde, among whom the young Lettrists were by far the most rabid, Ferdière proclaimed Artaud’s behavior “anti-social, dangerous for the public order and the security of the persons.” It is a logic that has long been used to rationalize the permanent institutionalization of those considered disturbing. How dangerous really was Artaud? His manners at Ferdière’s table certainly were peculiar, even offensive to common decency: he noisily swallowed his food, burped rhythmically, spat on the ground and kneeled to sing psalms before the meal was over. Embracing a Christianity which to him equalled a damnation of all human sexuality, Artaud routinely spit behind the intern’s pregnant wife and muttered mantras every time he crossed her in the corridors of the asylum to exorcise the daemons of an impregnated female. But these acts were not really damning, let alone dangerous to anyone, including the patient himself. Artaud pointedly defended these behaviors to Dr. Ferdière as an aspect of the actor’s training which he had developed during the 1930s, for which he was
celebrated in the avant-garde. Many people, including Artaud, accused the doctor, a minor Surrealist poet in his own right, of envying his patient’s genius. A cheap shot though not unconceivable. Behind every psychiatrist, it seems, a repressed artist lurked and many were part of the Surrealists’ entourage. But it was Dr. Latremoliere, who at the time was an intern at the asylum, who would go on to fully enter the delirium. Latremoliere, a Christian mystic of sorts himself, spent years after the poet’s death attacking his mind and his work in the name of God. Ferdière was a declared anarchist and atheist.
But because Ferdière was ultimately in charge at Rodez, he now stands forever accused of having used shock “therapy” excessively, even viciously. And it is true that Artaud was terri€ed of its effects and vociferously complained about the treatment, subsequently enlisting everyone on his side. And yet I believe it was to Ferdière’s credit that he would have tried something to extract Artaud from his terminal condition. The diagnosis travelling with the patient was “chronic hallucinatory psychosis, with luxuriant, polymorphous, delirious ideas of multiple inuences.” Late admirers of Artaud tend to forget that there was no chemical treatment available at the time, that there was actually no treatment to speak of. Psychiatrists simply let their patients wither away in crowded mental wards… These terminal patients were “institutional rots.” This is the condition to which Artaud was consigned during the six years following his €rst glaringly psychotic public episode, in which he broke down on a passenger ship after attempting to “return St. Patrick’s cane to the Irish.” The imposition of electric shock was not a punishment, but the €rst faltering attempt to alter a patient’s make up. Electroshock therapy, which originated in Italy and had just been introduced in France three years before, was still in an experimental stage. Ferdière should have been commended rather for being at his profession’s cutting edge. Artaud loudly protested the treatment, and there’s no doubt that he experienced it as an indefensible violation of his personal integrity. He was admittedly one of the €rst human subjects for electroshocks. Before him only pigs in Roman slaughterhouses had bene€ted from this treatment.
The procedure was innocuous enough, a brief burst of electricity between two electrodes applied at the back of the patients’ skull. The response, though, depending on the curve and intensity of the current, could be extremely violent. Patients experienced a seizure that closely resembled epileptics’s petit mal and would remain confused and bewildered during the post-shock stage, jerking and starting, wildly gesticulating. Waking up, they would feel intense anxiety and pain accompanied by delusions and hallucinations somehow mimicking schizophrenia. Loss of memory could last for weeks, or months after that. Some claimed it was irremediable. Artaud experienced anew the harrowing sense of dispossession he had so brilliantly described in his Letters to Jacques Rivière some twenty years before. But this time it was medically induced. Moreover, after the second session, he started complaining of violent back pains. Muscle relaxants being unavailable as well at the time, he broke one rib, which forced him to spend two months in bed and walk bent all over forward for months after that like an old man.
Artaud’s life long pendulous attitude toward religion throughout his life and the blasphemous and violently anti-Christian nature of many of his later writings confused his devout family and his devoted Parisian friends. Artaud’s thundering condemnation of God and the Christian era remains unparalleled in Western culture. It goes far beyond anything perpetrated by Nietzsche’s, whose impact Artaud intensely felt . Throughout his life, Artaud passionately embraced and renounced Christianity. During his fateful trip to Ireland in 1937, he became an exalted “convert” only to renounce his faith in 1945, calling his previous conversion “a horrible bewitching which made me forget my own nature.” And yet, Artaud’s violent renunciation of Christianity in 1945 hardly justi€ed the attempts of the poet’s last followers, who took the master’s words literally, to suppress his earlier Christian texts. To someone as deeply religious as Antonin Artaud, devotion and blasphemy were merely opposite sides of a single pole. There was not a moment in Artaud’s strange “career” that was not deeply engaged with religion.
To Artaud, Virginity was the thorniest point of Christian dogma. He recognized it as one of “the deepest Mysteries of Catholic religion.” Because to Artaud, sexuality was not just sin which could be redeemed through the sacraments, but Evil incarnate. It was unconceivable then to him that God would have wanted a humanity whose esh would macerate for nine months “in the midst of sperm and excrements.” Originally, he alleged, humans had been created without sex or bowels; food was eliminated through lumbar evaporation after assimilation by the stomach. He never doubted, like St. Hildegard, that God intended humans to remain eternally pure. Sexuality might be an unfortunate accident of nature, but really Artaud suspected the worse: orgasm, defecation were just Satan’s design to keep the human organism in a permanent state of abjection. Therefore it behooved true Christians to practice abstinence in a partial attempt to restore the immaculate condition once bestowed on them by God. In this as in everything else, Artaud’s position was nothing short of absolute. And his solution was equally radical: integral chastity, even in marriage. He couldn’t believe that the newly married Roman Catholic intern, Dr. Latremoliere, with whom he had endless theological arguments, would not share his total abhorrence of sexuality. But the young doctor, whose wife was then pregnant, was not in a position to agree.
Artaud had always considered WWII a war of religion, a €ght between Ormuzd, the principle of light, and Ahriman, the principle of darkness; only Jesus-Chris could save the world from Hitler. Like Dr. Schreber, Freud’s famous paranoiac case study, Artaud believed that in order for the world to be saved, someone had to offer themselves up to the enemy as a sacri€cial victim. Humanity, he believed, would be redeemed only when a single chaste being died and its carcass was inhabited by another soul. This was the job Artaud signed for. In 1940, he renounced his father’s name, “Artaud,” for that of his mother’s Greek family name, “Nalpas.” By doing this he believed that he was harboring in his body a conscience different than his own. Since the nation of France had been sold to the Anti-Christ, only he, Antonin, who had lived
successive lives, was in a position to €ght for the immaculate empire of God. Artaud’s delirium affects us so powerfully to this day because it was a mirror for the delirium in which Europe, at that time, was engaged. Like earlier modernists Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball, who saw their fragmented lives as paradigms of the coming industrial age, Artaud’s madness was not merely personal. But unlike the more analytic dadaists, Artaud responded paroxysmally to the monstrous travail that was bringing the civilized world to the brink of disaster. What was, after all, Artaud’s universe of conspiracy, secret poisoning, demonic forces combating divine will, Jewish and Nazi police, per€dious Albion, cosmic catastrophes, vengeful fury, if not the echo chamber of what was happening throughout and beyond the second world war? In the not-so-distant future, he prophesized, “the history of persecution I suffer here will end up in a generalized blaze.” (Letter of June 10, 1943)
The last round of electric shocks administered to Artaud—he received €fty-one over a period of two years—as well as restoring his ability to write, must have shaken his religious constructions. In January 1945, the hallucinations of a world-wide conspiracy instigated by sneaky Initiates and involving a “sexual black magic” performed every night against his will on his immaculate body, started dissipating. On April 1, 1945 Artaud €nally declared a “liberation” of his own. Discarding “communion, eucharist, god and his christ,” he of€cially renounced the Catholic faith and all his religious beliefs and declared to be himself, “that is, simply Antonin Artaud, an unbeliever irreligious by nature and soul who never hated anything more than god and his religion.”
Artaud may have been cured of his faith, but the religious impulse or the “intentions of purity” which formed its foundation remained. For years he had been haunted by the idea of sacri€cing himself to save the world. This is admittedly a common delusion among asylum populations. But it also happened to be Christ’s. The paradox is that Artaud would €nally have owed this mythical status not to God, and certainly not to Jacques Lacan, but to the electroshock treatment administered by his arch-persecutor, Dr. Gaston Ferdière.