In my undergrad theater classes we occasionally read selections from the 1958 Grove Press edition of Antonin Artaud’s book The Theater and Its Double, but there was an unspoken implication that he was not a figure worth further study, and certainly not imitation. I was always intrigued, but never managed to pursue any further reading about him, nor of his work, which I never knew included poetry. A month or so ago, a photo of Artaud the Mômo crossed my timeline and I ordered it immediately out of curiosity. As it turns out, the publisher, Diaphanes, is releasing a series of Artaud’s work and letters, all translated by Clayton Eshleman. Artaud the Mômo is one of five volumes that will be published by the end of this year. All of these volumes contain work from the last part of Artaud’s life, a period that included an almost decade-long incarceration in psychiatric institutions.
Artaud the Mômo was written beginning in 1946 following his release and published shortly before his death in 1948. These are difficult poems, fluctuating between ferocious critiques of the concept of insanity and grounded observations of his own physical perceptions. “‘Mômo’ is Marselles slang for simpleton, or village idiot,” Eshleman writes in his notes, and the character of “Artaud the Mômo” grows out of the ashes of “the old Artaud,” burned away by electroshock. Comprised of five sequences, the poems in Artaud the Mômo are resentful of authority figures, from doctors to god. Here is an aside from the opening pages:
(You lift nothing from it, god, because it's me. You never lifted anything of this order from me. I'm writing it here for the first time, I'm finding it for the first time.)
There’s a sense that Artaud was desperate to be seen and see himself as autonomous after so long under the authority of doctors, and in the context of the opening piece, “The Return of Artaud, the Mômo” the author seems to be reclaiming the figure of The Fool. He is returning to an artistic practice and community with the stigma of being held against his will in a psychiatric institution, railing against the limitations imposed on him. “Insane asylums are conscious and premeditated receptacles of black magic,” he writes at the beginning of the final sequence of the book, “Alienation and Black Magic.”
Formally, the book is in a lineage with Stéphane Mallarmé, whose typographical experiments in Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard surely inspired Artaud, and come a decade before Henri Michaux’s experiments with typesetting and mescaline. Eshleman writes in his translator’s note that the poems were “begun in notebooks [. . .], then dictated to an assistant, after which it was corrected in typescript and in several sets of proofs.” A result of Artaud’s process is that the book feels partly improvised, several times becoming Dada sound-poems. Here is the first ending of “Alienation and Black Magic:”
farfadi ta azor tau ela auela a tara ila
T H E E N D</strong></pre></div><p>I say “first” ending of the poem because there are six more pages after “<strong>T H E E N D</strong>,” including a blank page, a final drawing, and a postscript. The very next page following the “first” ending is a sort of author’s note/ars poetica:</p><div class="preformatted-block"><label class="hide-text" contenteditable="false"></label><pre class="text"> A blank page to separate the text of the book, which is finished from all the swarming of Bardo which appeared in the limbo of electro- shock And in this limbo a special typography, which is there to abject god, to background the verbal words to which one wanted to attribute a special value Antonin Artaud 12 January 1948</pre></div><p>These multiple endings are the poetic equivalent of saying, “and another thing!”</p><p>The afterword by Stephen Barber, along with Eshleman’s notes, provide context to the writing of <em>Artaud the Mômo</em>, as well as elucidating Artaud as a person and artist. It’s also clear that Eshleman’s understanding of Artaud is deep, and his research influenced the creation of this work. Barber notes that <em>Artaud the Mômo</em>’s French publisher donated a set of proofs for the book to Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 1981, which were consulted in the design of this volume. The proofs were “corrected by Artaud on 18-19 April 1947 using several different coloured inks; it’s clear he became infuriated at one point, on the final page, and lacerates the proofs’ page with his pen’s nib or another implement, creating voids on in the paper.”</p><p>Barber and Eshleman’s insights are a superb complement to the work which, again, isn’t easy. Artaud was a troubled, difficult writer, and the scope of his vision was impressive. His life is certainly not something to imitate, but I find there’s much to learn from his artistic technique and experimentation. I’m glad to have finally expanded the two-dimensional understanding I had of his work and I’m looking forward to the other volumes in this series as they come out this year.</p>