Fiery Purification: Artaud’s Theater of Metamorphoses

  • Max Statkiewicz
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 81)


The idea of purity is a metaphysical, cosmological, political, and religious idea — an idea directed against the danger of chaos and indetermination. Any kind of pollution “offends against order.”1 The purpose of the process of purification is to establish a manageable structure, a system of distinctions, of “degrees” (in Shakespeare’s Ulysses’ words),2 that would prevent a struggle of all against all. A difference of status that leads to limited tension, far from destroying the whole, the “empire,” contributes to its preservation: diuide et impera, the Romans used to say. Various cosmological, political, and religious systems of values unite their forces in order to maintain the cosmos of differences and hierarchies. They all perform their function of connecting and cementing (re-ligare) the world through the rites of separation between the high and the low, the governing and the governed, the pure and the impure. Western philosophy and art, as a part of the cultural process of cathartic differentiation, is inevitably involved in the creation of cosmic and political order. The notion of catharsis epitomizes — from Plato and Aristotle to Freud and Breuer — this involvement in the creation of order in the West. But there are also in the Western tradition traces of another notion of purification, a notion related to alchemical and poetic metamorphosis. This form of purification, an important idea of ancient and medieval, but also modern and modernist poetics, violates the order of strict separation of realms and thus can hardly find a place among the dominant metaphysical and aesthetic ideas. The notion of “metamorphosis” that grounds alchemical and poetic purification should not be understood as a concept, as another binary opposition to catharsis, but rather as a challenge to the order of binary oppositions in general — a challenge to the order of the “proper order.”3


Western Philosophy Binary Opposition Everyday Reality Limited Tension Religious Idea 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 49ff.; cf. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966; repr. London: Routledge, 1976 ), pp. 2f.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, act I, scene III.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The analysis and critique of the semantic cluster of the “propre” belongs to Derrida’s deconstruction of Western metaphysics; see, e.g., J. Derrida, “Le théâtre de la cruauté et la clôture de la représentation” in L’écriture et la diVérence (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967); English trans. Alan Bass, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing and DiVerence (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), and “La Mythologie blanche: La métaphore dans le texte philosophique” in Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1972); English trans. Alan Bass, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy” in Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    In Platonis Opera, ed. John Burnet (1903, reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 66b–67b; English translation consulted: Plato, Phaedo, in Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997); numbers and letters conform to the Stephanus pagination, adopted by most translators; where not specified translations are mine.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Plato, Phaedo, 81a.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Plato, The Republic, 399e.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Or, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, a weaver playing Pyramus, or Thisbe, or a lion.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Plato, Republic, 414-15.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    See St. Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. George E. McCracken (1957, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), vol. I, book xxxiii, pp. 132-35; cf. Antonin Artaud, “Le Théâtre et la Peste” in Oeuvres Complètes [henceforth ŒC] vol. IV. (Rev. ed. Paris: Gallimard, 1974-79), p. 25. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double [henceforth ThD]. trans. Mary Caroline Richards ( New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958 ), p. 26.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See, e.g., Gerald F. Else, Plato and Aristotle on Poetry, edited by Peter Burian (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), p. 69: “It has always been acknowledged, in principle, that the Poetics is a reply to Plato’s attacks on poetry.” 11 See, e.g., Aristotle, Poetics, 1454a16-36.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Slavery, for example, and inequality of genders are said to be natural in Aristotle’s Politics, 1254b13-1255a3.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    See Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981; Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1999), p. 4; Paul Valéry’s writings (for example “Poésie et pensée abstraite” in Œuvres [Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1957], vol. I, pp. 1314ff.) testify most clearly to the subsistence of the Cartesian ideal in modern poetics.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Some interpreters, although pointing to the specificity of Artaud’s “theory of catharsis,” eventually assimilate it to the Aristotelian tradition; Sellin for example writes: “Artaud’s concepts to some extent repeat those of Aristotle, but if the ultimate intent is the same, namely catharsis, the means by which Artaud thought catharsis might be achieved differs on several major points from that of Aristotle… The fundamental differences between the two theories may be attributable in part to the passage of time…”–Eric Sellin, The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 96 and 99; cf. Franco Tonelli, L’esthétique de la cruauté (Paris: Nizet, 1972), pp. 42-8; Naomi Greene, on the other hand, inscribes Artaud’s work in the general movement of Surrealism, preoccupied with the purification of language, see her Antonin Artaud: Poet without Words (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), pp. 104ff.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Antonin Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 80; ThD, p. 82.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    Antonin Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 80; Helen Weaver translates more literally–actually transliterates–the French sublimation by the English “sublimation”–Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, [henceforth Selected Writings], ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976 ), p. 259.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 80; ThD, p. 82.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    The word “chemistry” comes from “alchemy,” the etymology of which is uncertain, but it certainly has its roots in the domain of metallurgy: khemein, an Egyptian word meaning ‘‘the preparation of the black ore or powder”, or kheuma, a Greek word for “smelting,” “casting”–see Julian Franklyn (ed.), A Survey of the Occult (London: Arthur Barker, 1935), p. 2, and Bettina L. Knapp, Theater and Alchemy (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1980), p. 4.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    Mircea Eliade, Forgerons et Alchimistes (Rev. ed., Paris: Champs-Flammarion, 1976), pp. 9-11; cf. Gaston Bachelard, La formation de l’esprit scientifique ( 7th ed. Paris: Vrin, 1970 ), pp. 46f.Google Scholar
  19. 20.
    I change gold into iron/ and paradise into hell”: Charles Baudelaire, “L’alchimie de la douleur,” in Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Claude Pichois (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1961 ), p. 73.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    Carl Gustav Jung, “Psychologie und Alchemie” in Gesammelte Werke (Olten: Walter-Verlag, 1972), Vol. 12, pp. 365-67; English trans. R.F.C. Hull, “Psychology and Alchemy” in The Collected Works ( London: Routledge, 1953 ), Vol. 12, p. 306.Google Scholar
  21. 22.
    Theobald de Hoghelande, Liber de alchemiae dfficultatibus, in Theatrum Chemicum vol. 1 (Ursel,1602) 178f., quoted by C.G. Jung, ibid.Google Scholar
  22. 23.
  23. 24.
    Julius Sperber, Isagoge de materia lapidis, quoted by Michel Caron and Serge Hutin in Les Alchimistes (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1959), p. 163.Google Scholar
  24. 25.
    C.G. Jung, op. cit., p. 258.Google Scholar
  25. 26.
    Caron and Hutin, Les Alchemistes, p. 95f.Google Scholar
  26. 27.
  27. 28.
    René Alleau, Aspects de L’alchimie traditionnelle (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1953), pp. 143-44.Google Scholar
  28. 29.
    Eirenaeus Philaletes, an alchemist of the 16th century, cited in Julian Franklyn (ed.) A Survey of the Occult ( London: Arthur Barker, 1935 ), p. 5.Google Scholar
  29. 30.
    Roger Bacon, The Mirror of Alchimy, edited by Stanton J. Linden (1597; rep., New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc.), p. 4. Cf. R. Ambelain, L’Alchimie spirituelle: La voie intérieure ( Paris: La diffusion scientifique, 1974 ), p. 52.Google Scholar
  30. 31.
    Antonin Artaud, “Lettre à Comoedia” (September 18, 1932), in ŒC, vol. V. p. 33.Google Scholar
  31. 32.
  32. 33.
  33. 34.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, pp. 77 and 81; ThD, pp. 79 and 83.Google Scholar
  34. 35.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 49; ThD, p. 51.Google Scholar
  35. 36.
    Artaud, ŒC II, p. 245: “et quand elle [poésie] n’est pas si peu que ce soit anarchique, quand il n’y a pas dans un poème le degré du feu et de l’incandescence, et ce tourbillonnement magnétique des mondes en formation, ce n’est pas la poésie.” 37 Sethon, the Cosmopolitan, “Novum lumen chymicum de lapide Philosopharum,” quoted in R. Ambelain, Alchimie spirituelle ( Paris: La Diffusion Scientifique, 1974 ), p. 52.Google Scholar
  36. 38.
    Albert le Grand, Le Livre des huit chapitres, ibid., p. 53.Google Scholar
  37. 39.
    Artaud, Héliogabale ou l’anarchiste couronné in ŒC VII, p. 106.Google Scholar
  38. 40.
    Arthur Rimbaud, ‘‘Letter to Paul Demeny” in Poésies, Une saison en enfer, Illuminations (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), pp. 202-03; ‘‘Le Poète sefait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. Toutes les formes d’amour, de souVrance, de folie; il cherche luimême, il épuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n’en garder que les quintessences. IneVable torture, où il a besoin de toute la foi, de toute la force surhumaine, où il devient entre tous le grand malade, le grand criminel, le grand maudit,–et le suprême Savant!”; see also Œuvres (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2000), pp. 364-65, and the note of Suzanne Bernard and André Guyaux on the double (anarchic and demurgic) aspect of Rimbaud’s poetics.Google Scholar
  39. 41.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 120; ThD, p. 124.Google Scholar
  40. 42.
    The secret of theater in space is dissonance, dispersion of timbres, and the dialectic discontinuity of expression”–Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 109; ThD, p. 113.Google Scholar
  41. 43.
    Artaud, ŒC IV p. 121; ThD, p. 125.Google Scholar
  42. 44.
  43. 45.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 48; ThD, p. 50.Google Scholar
  44. 46.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 49; ThD, p. 51.Google Scholar
  45. 47.
    Plato, Seventh Letter, p. 341d; Deleuze compares the Platonic method of dialectical division to the search for gold: ‘‘La recherche de l’or, voilà le modèle de la division”–Gilles Deleuze, DiVérence et répétition (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), p. 84; English trans. Paul Patton, DiVerence and Repetition ( New York: Columbia University Press, 1994 ), p. 60.Google Scholar
  46. 48.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 50; ThD, p. 52.Google Scholar
  47. 49.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 98; ThD, p. 102.Google Scholar
  48. 50.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 48; ThD, p. 51; cf. Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 77; ThD, p. 79: ‘‘We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created in order to teach us that first of all.”Google Scholar
  49. 51.
    It is this view of theater that functions as a model for Deleuze’s ‘‘philosophy of difference”–see Gilles Deleuze, DiVérence et répétition, p. 17; DiVerence and Repetition, p. 8; cf. Michel Foucault, ‘‘Theatrum Philosophicum” in Critique 282 (November 1970), pp.902ff. and Martin Puchner, ‘‘The Theater in Modernist Thought” in New Literary History, vol. 33, No. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 523ff.Google Scholar
  50. 52.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 52; Selected Writings, p. 215.Google Scholar
  51. 53.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 54; Selected Writings, p. 217.Google Scholar
  52. 54.
    c’est par la peau qu’on fera rentrer la métaphysique dans les esprits.”–Antonin Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 95; ThD, p. 99.Google Scholar
  53. 55.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, pp. 55-6; Selected Writings, p. 219.Google Scholar
  54. 56.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 56; Selected Writings, p. 219.Google Scholar
  55. 57.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 57; Selected Writings, pp. 220f.Google Scholar
  56. 58.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 46; ThD, p. 48: ‘‘It is that alchemy and the theater are so to speak virtual arts, and do not carry their end–or their reality–within themselves.”Google Scholar
  57. 59.
  58. 60.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 64; Selected Writings, p. 226.Google Scholar
  59. 61.
    Giorgio Agamben, ‘‘Note on Gesture” in Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 49ff.Google Scholar
  60. 62.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 26; ThD, p. 27.Google Scholar
  61. 63.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 24; ThD, p. 25.Google Scholar
  62. 64.
    Paul Valéry, Variété II (Paris: Gallimard, 1930), p. 156; cf. Ruth Zabriskie-Temple, The Critic’s Alchemy. A Study of the Introduction of French Symbolism into England ( New Haven, CT: College and University Press, 1953 ), p. 14.Google Scholar
  63. 65.
    W.B. Yeats, Selected Criticism, ed. A. Norman Jeffares (1964: London: Pan Books-Macmillan, 1976 ), p. 48.Google Scholar
  64. 66.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, pp. 115-16; ThD, p. 119.Google Scholar
  65. 67.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, pp. 86 and 88; ThD, pp. 89 and 91.Google Scholar
  66. 68.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 217.Google Scholar
  67. 69.
    Logos is identified with muthos in Aristotle’s Poetics, e.g. 1454b35,1455a17.Google Scholar
  68. 70.
    See Aristotle, Poetics, 1448b9-12.Google Scholar
  69. 71.
    Le théâtre est le seul endroit au monde où un geste fait ne se recommence pas deux fois, Artaud, ŒC IV, p. 73; ThD, p. 75.Google Scholar
  70. 72.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, pp. 83-84; ThD, p. 86.Google Scholar
  71. 73.
    Cf. Monique Borie, Antonin Artaud: le théâtre et le retour aux sources ( Paris: Gallimard, 1989 ), p. 126.Google Scholar
  72. 74.
    Artaud, ŒC IV, pp. 28-9; ThD, p. 29.Google Scholar
  73. 75.
    ŒC IV, p. 28; ThD, p. 28.Google Scholar
  74. 76.
    Artaud. ŒC IV, p. 14; ThD, p. 13.Google Scholar
  75. 77.
    Varro, On the Latin Language, trans. Roland G. Kent (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), VI, VIII 77, p. 245, in Giorgio Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics, pp. 56 - 7.Google Scholar
  76. 78.
    As to the image of death as supreme purification, see Artaud, ŒC I, p. 204; and “L’éperon malicieux, le double-cheval” in Botteghe Oscure, No. 8, 1951, p. 11; cf. Green, op. cit., p. 111.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Max Statkiewicz
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Comparative LiteratureUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonUSA

Personalised recommendations