The Theater and Culture
Never before, when it is life that is in question, has there been so much talk of civilization and culture. And there is a curious parallel between this generalized collapse of life at the root of our present demoralization and our concern for a culture which has never been coincident with life, which in fact has been devised to tyrannize life.
Before speaking further about culture, I must remark that the world is hungry and not concerned with culture, and that the attempt to orient toward culture thoughts turned only toward hunger is a purely artificial expedient.
What is more important, it seems to me, is not so much to defend a culture whose existence has never kept a man from going hungry, as to extract, from what is called culture, ideas whose compelling force is identical with that of hunger.
We need to live first of all: to believe in what makes us live and that something makes us live – to believe that whatever is produced from the mysterious depths of ourselves need not forever haunt us as an exclusively digestive concern.
I mean that if it is important for us to eat first of all, it is even more important for us for us not to waste in the sole concern for eating our simple power of being hungry.
If confusion is the sign of the times, I see at the root of this confusion a rupture between things and words, between things and ideas and signs that are their representation.
Not, of course, for lack of philosophical systems: their number and contradictions characterize our old French and European culture: but where can it be shown that life, our life, has ever been affected by these systems? I will not say that philosophical systems must be applied directly and immediately: but of the following alternatives, one must be true:
Either these systems are within us and permeate our being to the point of supporting life itself (and this is the case, what use are books?), or they do not permeate us and therefore do not have the capacity to support life (and in this case what does their disappearance matter?).
We must insist upon the idea of culture-in-action, of culture growing within us like a new organ, a sort of second breath: and on civilization as an applied culture controlling even our subtlest actions, a presence of mind; the distinction between culture and civilization is an artificial one, providing two words to signify an identical function.
A civilized man judges and is judged according to his behavior, but even the term "civilized" leads to confusion: a cultivated "civilized" man is regarded as a person instructed in systems, a person who thinks in forms, signs, representations – a monster whose faculty of deriving thoughts from acts, instead of identifying acts with thoughts, is developed to an absurdity.
If our life lacks brimstone, i.e., a constant magic, it is because we choose to observe our acts and lose ourselves in consideration of their imagined form instead of being impelled by their force.
And this faculty is an exclusively human one. I would even say that is this infection of the human which contaminates ideas that should have remained divine" for far from believing that man invented the supernatural and the divine, I think it is man's age old intervention which has ultimately corrupted the divine within him.
All our ideas about life must be revised in a period when nothing any longer adheres to life; it is this painful cleavage which is responsible for the revenge of things; the poetry which is no longer within us and which we no longer succeed in finding in things suddenly appears on their wrong side: consider the unprecedented number of crimes whose perverse gratuitousness is explained only by our powerlessness to take complete possession of life.
If the theater has been created as an outlet for our repressions, the agonized poetry expressed in its bizarre corruptions of the facts of life demonstrates that life's intensity is still intact and asks only to be better directed.
But not matter how loudly we clamor for magic in our lives, we are really afraid of pursuing an existence entirely under its influence and sign.
Hence our confirmed lack of culture is astonished by certain grandiose anomalies: for example, on an island without any contact with modern civilization, the mere passage of a ship carrying only healthy passengers may provoke the sudden outbreak of diseases unknown on that island but a specialty of nations like our own: shingles, influenza, grippe, rheumatism, sinusitis, polyneuritis, etc...
Similarly, if we think Negroes smell bad, we are ignorant of the fact that anywhere but in Europe it is we whites who "smell bad". And I would even say that we give off an odor as white as the gathering of pus in an infected wound.
As iron can be heated until it turns white, so it can be said that everything that is excessive is white; for Asiatics white has become the mark of extreme decomposition.
This said, we can begin to form an idea of culture, an idea which is first of all a protest.
A pretext against the senseless constraint imposed upon the idea of culture by reducing it to a sort of inconceivable Pantheon, producing an idolatry no different from the image-worship of those religions which relegate their gods to Pantheons.
A protest against the idea of culture as distinct from life – as if there were culture on one side and life on the other, as if true culture where not a refined means of understanding and exercising life.
The library at Alexandria can be burnt down. There are forces above and beyond papyrus: we may temporarily be deprived of our ability to discover these forces, but their energy will not be suppressed. It is good that our excessive facilities are no longer available, that forms fall into oblivion: a culture without space or time, restrained only by the capacity of our own nerves, will reappear with all the more energy. It is right that from time to time cataclysms occur which compel us to return to nature, i.e. to rediscover life. The old totemism of animals, stone, objects capable of discharging thunderbolts, costumes impregnated with bestial essences – everything, in short, that might determine, disclose, and direct the secret forces of the universe – is for us a dead thing, from which we derive nothing but static and aesthetic profit, the profit of an audience, not of an actor.
Yet totemism is an actor, for it moves, and has been crated in behalf of actors; all true culture relies upon the barbarism and primitive means of totemism whose savage, i.e., entirely spontaneous, life I wish to worship.
What has lost us culture is our Occidental idea of art and the profits we see to derive from it. Art and culture cannot be considered together, contrary to the treatment universally accorded them!
True culture operates by exaltation and force, while the European ideal of art attempts to cast the mind into an attitude distinct from force but addicted to exaltation. It is a lazy, unserviceable notion which engenders an imminent death. If the Serpent Quetzalcoatl's multiple twists and turns are harmonious, it is because they express the equilibrium and fluctuations of a sleeping force; the intensity of the forms is there only to seduce and direct a force which, in music, would produce an unsupportable range of sound.
The gods that sleep in museums: the god of fire with his incense burner that resembles an Inquisition tripod; Tlaloc, one of the manifold Gods of the Waters, on his wall of green granite; the Mother Goddess of Waters, the Mother Goddess of Flowers; the immutable expression, echoing from beneath many layers of water, of the Goddess robed in green jade; the enraptured blissful expression, features crackling with incense, where atoms of sunlight circle – the countenance of the Mother Goddess of Flowers; this world of obligatory servitude in which a stone comes alive when it has been properly carved, the world of organically civilized men whose vital organs too awaken from their slumber, this human world enters into us, participating in the dance of the gods, without turning round or looking back, on pain of becoming, like ourselves, crumbled pillars of salt.
In Mexico, since we are speaking of Mexico, there is no art: things are made for use. And the world is in perpertual exaltation.
To our disinterested and inert idea of art an authentic culture opposes a violently egoistic and magical, i.e. interested idea. The Mexicans seek contact with the Manas, forces latent in every form, unreleased by contemplation of the forms for themselves, but springing to life by magic identification with these forms. And the old Totems are there to hasten the communication.
How hard it is, when everything encourages us to sleep, though we may look about us with conscious, clinging eyes, to wake and yet look about us as in a dream, with eyes that no longer know their function and whose gaze is turned inward.
This is how our strange idea of disinterested action originated, though it is action nonetheless, and all the more violent for skirting the temptation of repose.
Every real effigy has a shadow which is its double; and art must falter and fail from the moment the sculptor believes he has liberated the kind of shadow whose very existence will destroy his repose.
Like all magic cultures expressed by appropriate hieroglyphs, the true theater has its shadows too, and of all languages and all arts, the theater is the only one left whose shadows have shattered their limitations. From the beginning, on might say its shadows did not tolerate limitations.
Our petrified idea of the theater is connected with our petrified idea of a culture without shadows, where, no matter which way it turns, our mind (esprit) encounters only emptiness, though space is full.
But the true theater, because is moves and makes use of living instruments, continues to stir up shadows where life has never ceased to grope its way. The actor does not make the same gesture twice, but he makes gestures, he moves; and although he brutalizes forms, nevertheless behind them and through their destruction he rejoins that which outlives forms and produces their continuation.
The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything – gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness – rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations.
And the fixation of the theater in one language – written words, music, lights, noises – betokens its imminent ruin, the choice of any one language betraying a taste for the special effects of that language; and the desiccation of the language accompanies its limitation.
For the theater as for culture, it remains a question of naming and directing shadows: and the theater, not confined to a fixed language and form, not only destroys false shadows but prepares the way for a new generation of shadows, around which assembles the true spectacle of life.
To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theater; the essential thing is not to believe that this act must remain sacred, i.e., set apart the essential thing is to believe that not just anyone can create it, and that there must be a preparation.
This leads to the rejection of the usual limitations of man and man's powers, and infinitely extends the frontiers of what is called reality.
We must believe in a sense of life renewed by the theater, a sense of life in which man makes himself master of what does not yet exist, and brings it into being. And everything that has not been born can still be brought to life if we are not satisfied to remain mere recording organisms.
Furthermore, when we speak the word "life", it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from the surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach. And if there is one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.
by Antonin Artaud (1938) – Copyrights Grove Press Inc. 1958, translated by Mary Caroline Richards