Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Stubborn Interests

Raymond Roussel, c. 1926

"It's true that I've maintained a very continuous, very stubborn interest in the work of people like Roussel and Artaud, or Goya for that matter. But the way in which I question those works isn't entirely traditional. In general, the problem is the following: how is it that a man who is mentally ill or judged as such by society and by contemporary medicine, can write a work that immediately or years, decades, centuries later is recognized as a true work of art and one of the major works of literature or culture? In other words, the question becomes one of knowing how madness or mental illness can become creative.

That's exactly my problem. I never ask myself about the nature of the illness that may have affected men like Raymond Roussel or Antonin Artaud. Nor am I asking about the expressive relationship that might exist between their work and their madness, or how through their work we recognize or rediscover the more or less traditional, more or less codified face of a specific mental illness. Finding out whether Raymond Roussel was an obsessive neurotic or a schizophrenic doesn't interest me. What interests me is the following problem: men like Roussel and Artaud write texts that, even when they gave them to someone to read, whether that person was a critic, or a doctor, or an ordinary reader, are immediately recognized as being related to mental illness. Moreover, they themselves established, at the level of their everyday experience, a very deep, ongoing relationship between their writing and their mental illness. Neither Roussel nor Artaud ever denied that their work evolved within them from a place that was also that of their uniqueness, their particularity, their symptom, their anxiety, and finally, their illness. What astonishes me, what I keep wondering about, is how is it that a work like this, which comes from an individual that society has classified  and consequently excluded  as ill, can function, and function in a way that's absolutely positive, within a culture? We may very well claim that Roussel's work wasn't recognized or invoke Riviere's reticence, discomfort, and refusal in the presence of Artaud's early poems; nonetheless, the work of Roussel and Artaud began to function positively within our culture very, very quickly. It immediately, or almost immediately, became part of our universe of speech. We see, then, that within a given culture, there's always a margin of tolerance for the suspicion that something that is medically treated with suspicion can play a role and assume an importance within our culture, within a culture. It's that positive function of the negative that has never ceased to interest me. I'm not asking about the problem of the relationship between the work and the illness, but the relationship of exclusion and inclusion: the exclusion of the individual, of his gestures, his behavior, his character, of what he is, and the very rapid, and ultimately rather straightforward, inclusion of his language."

 Michel Foucault (1926-1984) from Foucault/Bonnefoy interview transcript of 1968, published for the first time in French in 2011 as Le beau danger: Entretiens avec Claude Bonnefoy. The English translation, Speech Begins After Death only recently appeared from University of Minnesota Press. The bold jacket design was illustrated and extolled here.

Antonin Artaud, 1923