Antonin Artaud and the Beat Generation

I. The Persona

Beyond all the mundane details, I place all my faith in Antonin Artaud, that man of prodigies. I salute Antonin Artaud for his passionate, heroic negation of everything that causes us to be dead while alive.
André  Breton, A Tribute to Antonin Artaud

It's easy to see why the Beats liked Antonin Artaud. Born at the end of the 19th century, moving in the French avant-garde and surrealist circles of the 20s and 30s, and dead by 1948, Artaud embodied a familiar figure in the history of literature: the poète maudit. Mentally ill, destitute, living in and out of asylums, addicted to opiates and experimenting with harder drugs, Artaud had probed the depths of human experience. He was the artist outside the system, the artist against the system, rejecting "everything that causes us to be dead while alive." He even rebelled against surrealism and left Breton's circle in 1927 (he rebelled against the rebellion, as Carl Solomon, who identified quite strongly with Artaud, admiringly put it).

Artaud's works and lifestyle made him unlikely to appeal to the bourgeois and be recuperated into mass culture, the way Dali or Breton had. This was a point in his favor with the American literary circles, which despised the commercial appropriation of surrealism. But there was another aspect that might have made him attractive to Beat writers in particular: his emphasis on (rather woo-ish) spirituality, which, like in their case, came with a hefty dose of cultural appropriation. Before Kerouac and his friends made it to Mexico to wax poetic about the "Fellahins," Artaud was there, living with the Tarahumara people, eating peyote and denouncing Western civilization. (His experimenting with peyote, documented in his memoir, fueled Ginsberg's own.) His most famous book, The Theatre and Its Double, praised the virtues of Oriental theater, still based (according to him) on magic, spirituality and ritual. His reformed theater, the theater of cruelty, was designed to bring Western theater, tainted by the domination of words and psychology, closer to this model.

II. The Works

Artaud alone made accusation
against America
Before me.

Allen Ginsberg, journal entry from 1961

Artaud's influence on the Beats was based on more than simple admiration for his lunatic-saint persona. Two titles by him are mentioned in the Celestial Homework, Ginsberg's recommended reading list: Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society and To Have Done with the Judgement of God. The first is a long, long poem/essay arguing that it was the world that was abnormal and not Van Gogh ("who, in the course of his whole life, cooked only one hand and did no more, as for the rest, than slice off his left ear only once"). Society created psychiatry to defend itself against lucid minds like his that see its basic injustice. At the moment of his death, it was the general consciousness of society that entered Van Gogh and "suicided" him precisely because he had managed to temporarily tear himself away from it.
No, Van Gogh was not mad, but his paintings were flame-throwers, atomic bombs, whose angle of vision, compared to all the other painting that was going strong at the time, would have been capable of seriously disturbing the larval conformism of the Second Empire bourgeoisie and the myrmidons of Thiers, Gambetta, Félix Faure, as well as those of Napoleon the Third.
It is a disconcerting piece, with its rapid transitions from hyperbolic condemnations of society to anti-psychiatry rants that read very personal and more than a little paranoid (not surprising, given Artaud's history) to analyses of Van Gogh's paintings and denunciations of cosmic evil. It is, as people usually say about things they don't entirely understand, an experience. You have to read it once, though, because there are beautiful passages in it, and I say this as someone who was very skeptical about it at first. In any case, it's easy to see what in this poem could speak to the Beat Generation. Ginsberg's vision of Moloch seems especially close to Artaud's mad, evil world.

(And of course, on a different note, I'm not going to miss the chance to quote this passage from Burroughs' Junkie, as a rather funny parallel to Artaud's theory about madness and society: "I decided I was not going to like the Army and copped out on my nut-house record-I'd once got on a Van Gogh kick and cut off a finger joint to impress someone who interested me at the time. The nut-house doctors had never heard of Van Gogh. They put me down for schizophrenia, adding paranoid type to explain the upsetting fact that I knew where I was and who was Pres­ident of the U.S.")

To Have Done with the Judgement of God is a radio play Artaud recorded in 1947. Radio France famously banned it from transmission the day before it was due on air. Faithful to Artaud's ideas about the theater, the play is a melange of all sorts of sounds, cries and, yes, howls, in which the text is almost drowned. You can listen to it here, and remember, it's an experience. If you go to the written version, you see the Artaud that "made accusation" against America. His America is a country that collects sperm from its male school children because it wants to "make and manufacture soldiers":
Because one must produce,
one must by all possible means of activity replace
nature wherever it can be replaced,
one must find a major field of action for human inertia,
the worker must have something to keep him busy,
new fields of activity must be created,
in which we shall see at last the reign of all the fake
manufactured products,
of all the vile synthetic substitutes
in which beautiful real nature has no part,
and must give way finally and shamefully before
all the victorious substitute products
in which the sperm of all the artificial insemination
will make a miracle
in order to produce armies and battleships.
While sharp, the social critique is just part of what might have influenced the Beats or otherwise resonated with them. There is another aspect that is really important and that I'll talk about in the next (and last!) section of this post: Artaud's intonation.

III. The Voice

To make metaphysics out of a spoken language is to make the language express what it does not ordinarily express: to make use of it in anew, exceptional, and unaccustomed fashion; to reveal its possibilities for producing physical shock; to divide and distribute it actively in space; to deal with intonations in an absolutely concrete manner, restoring their power to shatter as well as really to manifest something; to turn against language and its basely utilitarian, one could say alimentary, sources, against its trapped-beast origins; and finally, to consider language as the form of Incantation.
Antonin Artaud

Artaud firmly believed in the importance of prosody, of patterns of stress and intonation. For him, the role of these patterns extended beyond creating an esthetic effect or transmitting a message parallel to that of the text itself. Its rhythm is what gives a text the possibility of influencing the mind and of allowing it to escape reality, perhaps even to communicate with the transcendent. If you listen to To Have Done with the Judgement of God, you'll see that Artaud has a very distinctive, and weirdly cadenced, despite its exaggerations, style of reciting. He also puts his entire being into the performance.

This, of course, brings to mind Ginsberg and his famous readings of Howl. We know that he must have been aware of Artaud's style, because Carl Solomon, the guy to whom he dedicated Howl, had seen Artaud reading Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society in 1947 and expressed his enthusiasm to Ginsberg. And Artaud's theoretical pronouncements, like the one above, could have also influenced Ginsberg's style of reciting. (It's unclear exactly when Ginsberg first had access to The Theatre and Its Double.) In any case, his readings seem to come really close to Artaud's ideals of what performed language can achieve and the effect it can have on the public. There is this very nice description of Ginsberg' first reading of Howl as giving the impression that "a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases."

This being said, did all Beats embrace Artaud as a patron-saint? Well, Jack Kerouac didn't, although his frustration also goes to show how widespread the cult of Artaud was:
Artaud was the cookie that was always
in my hair, a ripe screaming tight
brother with heinous helling neck-veins
who liked to riddle my fantasms
with yaks of mocksqueak joy
'Why dont you like young Artaud?'
always I'm asked, because he boasts and boasts,
brags, brags, ya, ya, ya,
because he's crazy because he's mad
and because he never gives us a chance to talk.
Bonus: A recording from an Allen Ginsberg and Jerome Rothenberg class on the voice. You can hear them talk about Artaud, play a recording of him and actually recite the two poems I mentioned.

Recommended reading: I read and listened to a bunch of stuff to write this post. By far the most interesting and relevant material as far as the connection between the Beats and Artaud goes is this paper by Joanna Pawlik called Artaud in Performance: Dissident Surrealism and the Postwar American Literary Avant-garde. It explores Artaud's influence on Howl in more detail than I was comfortable going into here without adding footnotes to my already gigantic post. I try not to steal from people, so I should mention that the info about how the Americans despised the commercialization of surrealism, that description of Ginsberg's reading Howl and Kerouac's anti-Artaud poem came from her :)

Also, for Ginsberg on Artaud, make sure to check out this wonderful series of posts on The Allen Ginsberg Project


  1. I'm studying Artaud's theories on theatre right now but I honestly didn't know he had such a bond with the Beat generation. It was a very interesting read :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it :) I read Theatre and Its Double too. It was a frustrating read for me, a lot of ups-and-downs. I might write a post on it soon, to recap it for myself mostly.