The Last Words of Antonin Artaud

By Stephen Barber

antonin-artaud.jpgAntonin Artaud

On the cinematic dimension of the envisioned final notebooks

At the very end of his life, in 1946-8, the legendary French Surrealist film-theorist and director Antonin Artaud created a sequence of 406 notebooks, the pages relentlessly damaged by knife-wounds and cigarette-burns, and incorporating elements of image and text in hostile interaction. The notebooks, recently revealed after storage in a private collection for 45 years, recast Artaud’s 1920s film-projects in an intensified, extreme form, one which interrogates and overturns the status of the human anatomy (inspiring Deleuze and Guattari’s theoretical project for a ‘body without organs’) and also the nature of vision, perception and the human eye.

Artaud’s notebooks, with their charged spatial form, possess a filmic dimension, as though he himself, who had worked extensively on film projects and on a theoretical reinvention of the medium of cinema throughout the second half of the 1920s (as well as working as an actor with the most prominent European directors of the time, in such films as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Fritz Lang’s Liliom and Abel Gance’s Napoleon), were returning, at the terminal moment in his work, to the medium which he had imagined as one that could circumvent representation, through its potential for an immediate transmission of its corporeal images to its spectators’ perception.

Film is, in many ways, an obliterated presence for Artaud at the time of his final notebooks: one which he had repudiated in 1932, when he abandoned his (never-realised) film projects shortly after the worldwide introduction of sound technologies to the image-driven cinema he had always advocated; at the same time, a preoccupation with film intermittently resurges into Artaud’s notebooks, as he registers a cinematographic resonance in his arrangements of image and text, or denounces the representational processes that annul all media, encompassing film, radio, and performance, as well as threatening his current work. Artaud always perceives the transformational momentum of his work (instilled pre-eminently in his images and in his preoccupation with the human anatomy) in intimate conjunction with the representational diffusion that will destroy that momentum, if a way to elude or move beyond representation cannot be found.

Exactly twenty years before the period of his final notebooks, that dual obsession with transformation and representation had already been evident in an essay he had written about his film projects. “I’ve always recognized in cinema an essential quality of secret movement and of material images. Cinema possesses a distinctive element of surprise and mystery which you never find in the other arts. It’s certain that every image - however dry, however banal - arrives on the screen transformed… The film camera creates deformations, makes extraordinary use of the things which you give it to record. The image disappears and at that moment, a detail appears which you had never imagined, igniting with intense force, and heading off in search of the impression you were yourself searching for. There is in cinema a kind of physical intoxication which communicates the movement of images directly to the brain. The mind is set into upheaval, beyond all representation.”


Twenty years on, the seminal distinction which Artaud would attach to his notebooks’ aimed impact is that they must act on the entire corporeal field, and not, as in his film-projects, on the mind or brain, which, for him at the end of his life, are organs to be expunged in his anatomical reconfigurations.

Artaud wrote many film scenarios in the years between 1924 and 1930, most of them comprising relentless successions of assaults, acts of attempted murder, and facial or corporeal transmutations, endured by figures who exist solely to form the target for those attacks and metamorphoses, and who are often un-named - as in Artaud’s final scenario, The Butcher’s Revolt, where the principal figure is simply ‘the madman’ - in order to avoid the narrative-characterisation which he detested.

In many ways, these final notebooks constitute a parallel kind of fragmentary scenario, in which a figure - Artaud himself, and once again, ‘the madman’, now definitively named as such by the psychiatrists who had processed and defined him during his asylum-incarceration of 1937-46 - incants the infinite assaults he has received, and formulates strategies of reprisal, while envisioning the corporeal transformations that will soon render him invulnerable to future assaults.

The Butcher’s Revolt was the only one of Artaud’s film-scenarios for which he foresaw the introduction of a sonic element (he had previously rejected sound, and allowed the presence only of the image), and he emphasises, in a note written about that scenario, the distinctively spatial dimension of the sound to be used (cries, screams, protests, exclamations). “The voices are there in space, like objects. And it’s in their visual dimension that you must, so to speak, accept those voices.” As with his notebooks, where the voice is that of Artaud himself, the multi-dimensionality and corporeality of that filmic space forms the vital impetus which revivifies the vocal and allows its textual trace to be projected.


Artaud’s notebooks, in a filmic sense, form impossible visual spectacles, their drawings amassing apparently-irreconcilable visual and physical components by a constant process of re-assembly, permutation, subtraction, wrenching, forcing, meshing, and inversion, so that what would habitually appear un-visualisable about the human body becomes immediately visualised, and what would habitually appear known about the body, now becomes unknown and primed for reinvention. Just as film can gesturally incorporate and manipulate the body, through its editing strategies and its powers of rhythmic repetition (as in the 1960s films by the Austrian filmmaker Kurt Kren, which documented the work of the Vienna Action Group of performance artists), Artaud’s notebooks, too, are instruments for corporeal spectacle, in which each fragment of image or text, like each frame of a film, comprises an autonomous element that can be combined or separated at will, in order to find its place in the confrontations and transformations which he aims to materialise on his notebooks’ surfaces.

He always imagined his film projects of the 1920s as having an audience of some kind, even if that audience were to be one that he intended to subject to extreme perceptual upheavals; when his scenario The Seashell and the Clergyman was actually filmed (the only one of his scenarios to move beyond its written form, into film, and directed, against his intentions, not by Artaud himself, but by the filmmaker Germaine Dulac), then projected for an audience, at the Studio 28 cinema in Paris, on 9 February 1928, the event ended in violent rioting by the audience and the wrecking of the cinema’s space. But by the time of his work on his final notebooks, twenty years later, Artaud’s distrust of an audience for his work had intensified, along with his opposition to representation.

The notebooks, then, might be seen as the raw material for terminal films: the last projections of Artaud’s obsessions before the extinguishment of their images and texts, which perversely survive into the contemporary moment, enduringly disputing their own medium and rejecting their own audience, but still impacting disruptively on the human eye that may, even so, come into contact with those pages. In the final text he wrote about his notebooks, 50 Drawings to assassinate magic, Artaud begins to narrate the way in which he approaches the composition of their pages, before suddenly abandoning - like a film with an abrupt ending, or one whose celluloid has snapped-apart during its act of projection - that momentary aberration of narration: “then I move close to/the written/page/and/…”.

Artaud: Terminal Curses will be published in May in Creation Books’ new Solar imprint (

Stephen Barber is a prolific writer on urban and counter-cultures. He is published regularly by Berg, Creation and Reaktion. His most recent books are Tokyo Supernova and London Eyes.