Places: Phoenix Park

Looking at the three Places we’ve already covered,  a straight(ish) line can be discerned connecting them, passing from Italy through France to England. That’s pure coincidence, but warming to the idea that our Strange Flowers are pointing the way I herewith add another daisy to that string in Ireland (and unless I can find something in Greenland to write about, that’s as far as it goes).

French writer, theatre director and actor Antonin Artaud was, in the words of Susan Sontag, “one of the last great exemplars of the heroic period of literary modernism”. His harrowing writing forms a dark, precarious monument teetering at, and sometimes over, the edge of sanity. Like Nietzsche, his conception of what art could and should do for society and the individual started where most artists’ ended; like Nietzsche, as well, he would spend the last decade or so of his life in pitiful psychic disarray.

It was in the mid-1930s that the mental instability which had accompanied Artaud for much of his life, aggravated by drug usage, started to overwhelm him. “He didn’t laugh, was never puerile and although he didn’t say very much,” reported Georges Bataille, “there was something emotionally eloquent in his rather grave silence and terrible edginess.” Artaud’s efforts to bring his theatrical vision to skeptical Parisian audiences and horror of compromising his work had exhausted his neural reserves. Having acted in films since 1917 he played his last role in 1935. He abandoned an opium cure, and instead underwent gruelling abstinence on a boat to Mexico in early 1936 (taking part in a Voodoo ceremony in Haiti en route).

Once in Mexico, Artaud’s hope of finding some revolutionary spirit there to echo his own revolt against society was disappointed and his stay was marked by terrible drug withdrawals (although his experience of peyote was, he claimed, “the happiest three days of my existence”).

Back in Paris, Artaud’s mental and material decline accelerated and he was reduced to begging and sleeping on the streets, haunted by the threat of imminent apocalypse whose minutely timetabled progress he predicted. One day the wife of an artist with whom Artaud was acquainted gave him a cane, claiming it had once belonged to Saint Patrick. It was a dangerous thing to tell someone like Antonin Artaud. He was overtaken by a need to “return” “Patrick’s” staff to Ireland, whose population he hoped were more apt to rebel than the Mexicans. He arrived at the port of Cobh in August 1937, made his way to Galway and from there to the Aran Islands.

What exactly happened on his route through Ireland is difficult to determine, much of it pieced together from scant evidence and Artaud’s later testimony which frequently careened into incoherence. Like the fate of Arthur Cravan, it is a largely undocumented void which fiction has attempted to fill.

Patrice Trigano’s 2010 novelised account of Artaud’s life, La canne de Saint Patrick, imagines the writer’s erratic progress. Artaud, “vagabond of the absolute, exile from life”, obsessively counts each footstep, terrified that some disaster will befall him or the entire world if he should stop. “He trusts in the stick which accompanies him, because it’s the stick of Saint Patrick and of Jesus Christ […] he, Artaud, King of the world, Artaud-become-God, will finally be able to reveal the derided truth.”

Irish artist Patrick Jolley explores his own conception of this delirious pilgrimage in the 2011 super 8 feature The Door Ajar. The text is drawn exclusively from Artaud’s own text, or as much as the director could “bear to read”. According to its creator, The Door Ajar “describes an adventure that is in part black joke, solitary performance, Mephistophelean pact, creative quantum leap, act of faith, calculated self martyrdom, and catastrophic delusion.”

September 1937 found Artaud in Dublin. He called on a publisher who concluded that his visitor “was travelling light in the upper storey” (just one of the moments of surreal comedy from the Irish Department of External Affairs’ Artaud file, as quoted in The Dublin Review). Artaud attempted to gain admission to the Milltown Institute, a Jesuit college; the police were called and in the ensuing mêlée his cherished staff went missing, much to his distress. He wandered the streets of the city and three days later he was arrested in Phoenix Park as a vagrant.

Comprising a huge green swathe of West Dublin, Phoenix Park was established in 1662 as a royal hunting ground on land which once belonged to the Knights Templar, its name having nothing to do with the mythical bird, rather a corruption of the Irish term for “clear water”. Successive powers have left their traces, from a viceregal residence to an obelisk dedicated to Wellington to the more recent giant cross marking a visit by Pope John Paul II.

Lucia Joyce

The park appears frequently in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book whose long gestation was coming to a close at the time of Artaud’s arrest. Joyce draws extensively on the park’s long history and illustrious associations in the book. During 1937 Joyce was also making regular visits to his daughter, Lucia, who was being treated for schizophrenia in Paris by a certain Dr Achille Delmas, whose written works included Pathological Psychology of Suicide. Just two years earlier she had been found wandering the streets of Dublin, filthy and manic, just like Artaud.

Declared “a destitute and undesirable alien”, Artaud was deported to France where he began a grueling ordeal of asylums and therapy which would include primitive shock treatment. His most sympathetic carer turned out to be the same Dr Delmas in the same Paris clinic as Joyce’s hapless daughter.

Dr Delmas’s death in 1947 signalled the start of Artaud’s own terminal decline. The following year he died alone in the clinic, holding a shoe. He had been taking huge doses of chloral, but it is unclear if he deliberately killed himself.

Lucia Joyce, still institutionalised, died in 1982.

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16 comments

  1. Having just this minute finished reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s,”My debt to Ireland” (NYT).
    The thematic core of the piece–though it is poetically discurvisely digressive;a rambunctious ramble–is Sullivan’s pilgrimage to the Aran Isles and the protean genius of John Millington Synge.
    Then I check my mail and you share Artaud, with his not dissimilar gaelic peregrinations; his madness bookended with the madness of Lucia Joyce and right away I am remembering and grieving over the madness of Zelda Fitzgerald, the terrifying paintings she produced and her horrible death in a North Carolina asylum.

    Three lives embodied in the Image of Artaud :silent, immovable and holding a shoe. I cannot imagine a more eloquent visual metaphor for the truth of the human condition.

    A rich morning indeed…

    by the by: James it is my feeling,has been for awhile–I detect more than one writerly voice in these dispatches, Not grousing mind you, yet there are discernable and distinct syntactic, stylometric differences that manifest themselves in the slyest of ways.

    • The shoe is very vivid, isn’t it? It makes it somehow much more tragic and real.

      Oh John, you have stumbled on my dark secret. This blog has been outsourced to Bangalore, each post written as piecework by a different disgruntled employee. I pay them in iTunes credits…

      Actually for better or for worse it’s all me. The stylistic variance is probably just a barometer of my mood swings.

  2. Artaud was so handsome as a young man. Not so much later on…

    Tragic, indeed.

  3. Linda Hollander

    JHC, James, you should have a contest for the strangest flower of all! You have so stretched the parameters of deviance, don’t you ever want to write about…say…Pollyanna??

    Just to make a change, because we need you as the tour guide to the bizarre.

    I studied Artaud in Drama class, but no one mentioned the chloral, among the many other things they didnt mention. “Method”, my a**!

    Keep up your unstinting effort.

    Linda

    • Pollyanna? The dirt I have on that tramp!

      Artaud belongs to the category of people I hesitate to write about, such is their deviation from the path of the merely singular, veering right off into the undergrowth of literal madness.

  4. Regiuss

    Where can one find Bataille’s writings about Artaud ?. I’m not used to write in english, but i can say that I enjoyed your article, so please excuse these childish expressions. I hope you can share the name of book, essay or whatsoever. Thank you and good day to you.

    • Hi, and thanks for the comment. You could try Bataille’s The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, which has a section on Artaud. It is a translated extract from Bataille’s complete works in French.

      • Regiuss

        Thank you very much Mr. Conway ! I really appreciate your suggestions Mr. Hastings since I’m a young and yet obsessed reader of must of the authors you recommend, so it’s good to know that my readings are not too, how to say it… disperse ? I’ll look for Sontag’s essay right away. Thank you again to both of you, I’m very grateful.

  5. Regius, I would humbly suggest you start with the Surrealist Manifesto which is online, just type it in and click:: it will emerge. Nietzsche is also a necessary read and as entertaining to apprehend as it is cathartic. If you want to go even deeper read Lautreamont. Maybe after this foundation you would be better armed to confront that gaggle of gallic post-modern blatherskeits. I would also suggest Sontags’ essay, The Aesthetics of Silence. This will take you to a new geography, a place to breathe in the commodious surrealismo of all existence. A generous dollop of Borges would also well serve you in your explorations.

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