[preface to ‘The Theater and its Double’]
At a time when life itself is in decline, there has never been so much talk about civilisation and culture. And there is a strange correlation between this universal collapse of life at the root of our present-day demoralisation, and our concern for a culture that has never tallied with life but is made to tyrannise life.
Before saying anything further about culture, I consider the
world is hungry and does not care about culture and people
artificially want to turn these thoughts away from hunger and
direct them towards culture.
The most pressing thing seems to me not so much to defend
a culture whose existence never stopped a man worrying about
going hungry or about a better life, but to derive from what we term culture, ideas whose living power is the same as hunger.
Above all, we need to live and believe in what keeps us
alive, to believe something keeps us alive, nor should every
product of the mysterious recesses of the self be referred back to our grossly creature concerns.
What I mean is this : our immediate need is to eat, but it is
even more important not to waste the pure energy of being
hungry simply on satisfying that immediate need.
If confusion is a sign of the times, I see a schism between
things and words underlying this confusion, between ideas and
the signs that represent them.
We are not short of philosophical systems ; their number and
contradictions are a characteristic of our ancient French and
European culture. But where do we see that life, our lives, have been affected by these systems ?
I would not go so far as to say philosophical systems ought
to be directly or i mmediately applied, but we ought to choose between the following:
1. Either these systems are a part of us and we are so steeped in them we live them, therefore, what use are books ?
2. Or we are not steeped in them and they are not worth
living. In that case what difference would their disappearance make?
I must insist on this idea of an active culture. a kind of
second wind growing within us like a new organ, civilisation
as applied culture, governing even our subtlest acts, the spirit alive in things. The distinction between civilisation and culture is artificial, for these two words apply to one and the same act.
We judge a civilised man by the way he behaves-he thinks
as he behaves. But we are already confused about the words
“civilised man”. Everyone regards a cultured, civilised man as someone informed about systems, who thinks in systems, forms, signs and representations.
In other words, a monster who has developed to an absurd
degree that faculty of o urs for deriving thoughts from actions instead of making actions coincide with thoughts.
If our lives lack fire and fervour, that is to say continual
magic, this is because we choose to observe our actions,
losing ourselves in meditation on their imagined form, instead of being motivated by them.
This faculty is exclusively human. I would even venture to
say it was the infection of humanity which marred ideas that
ought to have remained sacred . Far from believing man invented the supernatural and the divine, I think it was man’s eternal meddling that ended up in corrupt ing the divine.
At a time when nothing holds together in life any longer,
when we must revise all our ideas about life, this painful
separation is the reason why things take revenge on us. and
the poetry we no longer have within us and are no longer able
to rediscover in things suddenly emerges on the adverse side.
Hence the unprecedented number of crimes, whose pointless
perversity can only be explained by our inability to master
Although theater is made as an outlet for our repressions, a
kind of horrible poetry is also expressed in bizarre acts, where changes in the facts of life show its intensity undiminished, needing only to be better directed.
But however we may cry out for magic, at heart we are afraid of pursuing life wholly under the sign of real magic.
Thus our deep-rooted lack of culture is surprised at certain
awe-inspiring anomalies; for example, on an island out of
contact with present-day civilisation, the mere passage of a
ship carrying only healthy passengers can induce the outbreak
of diseases unknown on that island, but peculiar to our countries; shingles, influenza, grippe, rheumatism, sinusitis and polyneuritis.
Similarly, if we think negroes smell, we are unaware that
everywhere except in Europe, we, the whites, smell. I might
even say we smell a white smell, white in the same way as we
speak of “the whites”.
Just as iron turns white hot, so we could say everything
extreme is white. For Asians, white has become a mark of final decomposition.
Having said this, we can begin to form an idea of culture,
above all a protest.
A protest against the insane constriction imposed on the idea of culture by reducing it to a kind of incredible Pantheon,
producing a culture idolatry and acting in the same way as
idolatrous religions which put their gods in Pantheons.
A protest against our idea of a separate culture, as if there
were culture on the one hand and life on the other, as if true culture were not a rarefied way of understanding and exercising life.
Let them burn down the library at Alexandria. There are
powers above and beyond papyri. We may be temporarily
deprived of the ability to rediscover these powers, but we will never eliminate their energy. It is also a good thing too many facilities should disappear, and forms ought to be forgotten, then timeless, spaceless culture constrained by our nervous capacities will reappear with renewed energy. And it is only right that cataclysms should occur from time to time prompting us to return to nature, that is to say to rediscover life. The old totems ; animals, rocks, objects charged with lightning, costumes impregnated with bestiality, and everything that serves to catch, tap and direct forces are dead to us, since we only know how to derive artistic or static profit from them, seeking gratification, not action.
Now totemism acts because it moves, it is made to be enacted.
All true culture rests on totemism’s primitive, barbarous means, whose wild, that is to say, completely spontaneous, life is what I mean to worship.
It was our Western idea of art and the profits we sought to
derive from it that made us lose true culture. Art and culture cannot agree, contrary to world-wide usage!
True culture acts through power and exaltation, while the
European ideal of art aims to cast us into a frame of mind
distinct from the power present in its exaltation. It is a useless, lazy idea and soon leads to death. The Serpent Quetzalcoatl’s multiple coils give us a sense of harmony because they express balance, the twists and turns of sleeping power. The intensity of the form is only there to attract and captivate a power which, in music, produces an agonising range of sound.
The gods that sleep in the museums; the Fire God with his
incense burner resembling an Inquisition tripod, Tlaloc, one
of the many Water Gods with his green granite walls, the
Mother Goddess of the Waters, the Mother Goddess of the
Flowers, the unchanging expression echoing from beneath
many layers of water of the Goddess robed in green jade, the
blissful, enrapt expression, features crackling with incense,
where atoms of sunlight circle around the Mother Goddess of
the Flowers. This world of obligatory servitude where stone
comes to life because it has been properly carved, a world of
organically civilised men, I mean those whose vital organs also awaken-this human world enters into us, we participate in the dance of the gods without turning round or looking back under penalty of becoming, like ourselves, crumbling figures of salt.
In Mexico, so long as we are talking about Mexico, there is no art and things are used. And the people are continually exalted.
Unlike our idea of art, which is inert and disinterested, a
genuine culture conceives of art as something magical and
violently egoistical, that is, self-interested. For the Mexicans collect the Manas, the powers lying dormant in all forms, which cannot be released by meditation on forms for their own sake, but only arise from a magical identity with these forms. And the ancient Totems exist to stimulate the communication.
It is difficult, when everything impels us to fall into a sleep, during which we look about us with fixed, attentive eyes, to wake up and to look about as though in a dream, with eyes that no longer know what use they are and whose gaze is turned inward.
This is how our strange idea of a disinterested action came into being, tough and active nonetheless, the more violent for having skirted around the temptation to rest.
All true effigies have a double, a shadowed self. And art fails the moment a sculptor believes that as he models, he
liberates a kind of shadow whose existence will unsettle him.
Like all magic cultures displayed in appropriate hieroglyphics, true theater has its own shadows. Furthermore of all languages and all arts, it is the only one whose shadows have shattered their limitations. From the first, we might say its shadows would not tolerate limitations.
Our fossilized idea of theater is tied in with our fossilized
idea of a shadow less culture where, whatever way we turn, our minds meet nothing but emptiness while space is full.
But true theater because it moves and makes use of living
instruments goes on stirring up shadows, while life endlessly
stumbles along. An actor does not repeat the same gestures
twice, but he gesticulates, moves, and although he brutalises
forms, as he destroys them he is united with what lives on
behind and after them, producing their continuation.
Theater, which is nothing, but uses all languages (gestures,
words, sound, fire and screams), is to be found precisely at the point where the mind needs a language to bring about its
And confining theater to one language, speech, written words,
music, lighting or sound, heralds its imminent ruin, since
choosing one single language proves the inclinations we have
for the facilities of that language. But one effect of a single language’s limitations is that it dries up.
For theater, just as for culture, the problem remains to
designate and direct shadows. And theater, not confined to
any fixed language or form, destroys false shadows because of
this and prepares the way for another shadowed birth, uniting
the true spectacle of life around it.
door Antonin Artaud
tekstbron: The Theatre and its Double
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