Antonin Artaud : Years of Incarceration | by Stephen Barber


The asylum incarceration which Artaud underwent in the years from 1937 to 1946 has as much contradiction and productivity as the other phases of his life. But it was certainly the most deeply painful phase. The internment began with a period of self-preoccupation which Artaud broke only to berate his doctors and to demand external confirmation for the hallucinations he was experiencing.

During the early part of Artaud’s internment, at Rouen and Sainte-Anne, his behaviour gives the impression of great austerity and of a profound, self-sufficient calm. Although he spent his time in the company of the many different kinds of patients interned in the psychiatric hospitals of that time, he managed to enforce a degree of isolation and seclusion for himself. These first years of his internment, when Artaud was often kept in a cell, appear in some ways as a self-imposed recuperation and reconstitution after the mental shattering and the physical exhaustion of his sequence of journeys to Mexico, Brussels and Ireland. Artaud’s attitude and bearing acquired a monastic quality. His condition was not a textbook psychosis; the many contradictory and wide-ranging medical diagnoses of his mental state indicate its flexibility and elusiveness. Within months of the total collapse which Artaud suffered after he was put in a strait-jacket on board The Washington, he was alert and lucid again. He became creatively preoccupied with the project of reformulating his identity, to the extent that he denied his identity as the interned Antonin Artaud to medical and social bodies, and even to his mother and friends.

This sense of a harsh but necessary convalescence soon evaporated. With the onset of the Second World War, his physical condition deteriorated seriously. Up to 1939, Artaud’s principal grievances were against the drugs he was being administered, and the patients with whom he was kept.

From the time of his transfer to the asylum of Ville-Évrard in February of that year, his position changed. He experienced a moment of exhilaration in August, when he finally formulated the new identity he had been working towards since the summer of 1937. But the outbreak of the Second World War in the following month, and the Fall of Paris to the Nazis in May 1940, led to starvation rations; Artaud became terribly emaciated. Ville-Évrard was one of the largest asylums in France, which meant that Artaud’s individual demands and hallucinations disappeared into an ocean of psychoses. The sharp hunger and uncertainty of this time precipitated Artaud’s return to writing at Ville-Évrard; this new language was made up almost exclusively of desperate pleas for food, heroin and liberation.

With his transfer to the asylum of Rodez in 1943, the parameters of Artaud’s internment were suddenly transformed. He found himself being fed regularly and well. He was treated by doctors who were aware of his work, and wanted to have literary or theological discussions with him. They also encouraged him to start writing creatively again, and almost immediately they began to suggest the possibility that Artaud’s internment could be brought to an end (although that would not happen for three years). Artaud was allowed to go into the town’s streets and was able to meet local writers and painters. But these same doctors also administered fifty-one unanaesthetized electroshock treatments which caused Artaud the greatest torture of his life. During the same period, he underwent a religious crisis, which oscillated between a kind of gnostic Catholicism and an apocalyptic fury. At the beginning of 1945, Artaud again began to write in a sustained way. Having started his internment with a silent interior dialogue that was indecipherable and incommunicable to those around him, Artaud ended it with a torrential creative output, which pulled him back into the outside world and re-established his notoriety. He wrote more in the final year of his internment at Rodez than in the entire seventeen years of his literary, theatrical and filmic career in Paris. He also began to draw, creating vivid images of his physical fragmentation. This state of intense productivity never diminished. It crossed the border between Artaud’s long asylum internment and his final period of freedom.

At the General Hospital in Le Havre, Artaud lay on a bed in a strait-jacket for seventeen days. From his cell, he could hear armies fighting in the hospital grounds, trying to break through the walls and release him. The armies were led by his friends; Breton was at the head of one of the assaults, and was shot dead. Artaud’s hallucinations were all violent. He could hear the sounds of an actress he had known in Paris, Colette Proust, being hacked to death with an axe in the cell next to his. For Artaud, these experiences were so authentic that he could never believe they had not happened. In 1946, when he met Breton again in Paris, Artaud reminded him of the incident, and of Breton’s death. When Breton gently contradicted his memory, Artaud wept: the person he was talking to could not be the authentic André Breton who had fought for him at Le Havre. So, the true Breton had been replaced with a double.

Artaud was officially institutionalized on 16 October 1937, and transferred to the nearest psychiatric hospital, Quatres-Mares, at Sotteville-lès-Rouen in the southern suburbs of Rouen, halfway between Le Havre and Paris. His mother and friends were not informed. It was November before they decided to look for him. Paulhan wrote to the French Consul in Dublin on 18 November, and was told that Artaud had been deported on 29 September and shipped back to France. After trying the Le Havre hospitals, Artaud’s mother discovered that her son was at Sotteville-lès-Rouen. She went to see him there, in a cell in the incurable patients’ section; he refused to recognize her.

On 7 February 1938, The Theatre and its Double was finally published by Gallimard. Paulhan had excluded the essay The Theatre of Séraphin from the collection, despite Artaud’s wish that it be included. Artaud was transferred to the Sainte-Anne asylum in Paris on 1 April 1938, at his mother’s request. There, he was shown the one and only review of his book, which appeared in the newspaper Le Jour on 27 April. It was a favourable review, but its author was anxious to mention her recent holiday in Finistère before dealing with Artaud’s book.

At Sainte-Anne, Artaud was kept in the Henri-Rousselle clinic, where he had stayed before as a voluntary detoxification patient in 1932 and 1935. The doctors charged with supervising Artaud were named Nodet and Chapoulaud.

After Artaud had been at Sainte-Anne for a fortnight, a provisional (and unintentionally ironical) assessment of his condition was made: ‘Literary pretensions, which are perhaps justified to the extent to which the delirium may serve as an inspiration. To be maintained.’ Artaud must have had considerable contact with Jacques Lacan, the head of the clinic, since in a list compiled at Rodez, he included Lacan among the doctors who had treated him. Artaud would remember his time at Sainte-Anne as one of solitary confinement and poisoning: ‘For 48 hours I was between life and death after swallowing a so-called powder against diarrhoea, which immediately gave me a terrible bloody dysentery, during which I fell on the edge of my bed.’[1] He refused to see his mother. His only other visitor was Roger Blin, who received the only known letters from Artaud of this period; one of the letters was spattered with blood and burned.[2] Blin was able to speak to Lacan about Artaud’s condition through his contacts with Lacan’s wife, the actress Sylvia Bataille (the former wife of Georges Bataille). He later described his visit to Sainte-Anne:

I went to see Lacan one day, and I showed him the letters. He said that didn’t interest him. I asked him if I could see Artaud for a moment, and he replied that Artaud didn’t want to see anyone, which I believe was true… Lacan said to me: ‘You can see him in the courtyard, there with the others.’ And I saw Artaud, with a beard, although he had always been impeccably clean-shaven; he was leaning against a tree. Around him, the others were playing football. I tried to attract his attention, without success, but probably he wouldn’t have wanted to talk to me.[3]


After eleven months at Sainte-Anne, Artaud was transferred to the far larger asylum of Ville-Évrard – an entire city of the insane, surrounded by vast grounds, on the eastern peripheries of Paris – on 27 February 1939. At Sainte-Anne, the only diagnosis that had been made as to his condition was that he was chronically and incurably insane. For the journey to Ville-Évrard, Artaud was again put in a strait-jacket. He would complain many times that one of the male nurses accompanying him had brutally kicked him in the testicles during the journey. At Ville-Évrard, Artaud was again kept in a cell, and he was constantly moved from ward to ward of the huge nineteenth-century buildings during his stay: ‘I passed three abominable years at Ville-Évrard, transferred without motive or reason from the maniacs’ ward (the 6th) to the epileptics’ ward (the 4th), from the epileptics’ ward to the cripples’ ward (the 2nd), and from the cripples’ ward to the undesirables’ ward (the 10th).’[4] His hair was cropped very close to his head, and he was given an asylum inmate’s uniform to wear. The doctors at Ville-Évrard who treated him were named Chanès and Menuau; Artaud detested them. Two young house-doctors were training at Ville-Évrard, Michel Lubtchansky and Léon Fouks, and Artaud had more friendly relations with these men. Lubtchansky was the only one of the doctors from Artaud’s previous asylums who would write to him at Rodez to see how he was getting on. At Ville-Évrard, Artaud was diagnosed as exhibiting a syndrome of delirium, of the paranoid type, and as being incurable. (Lacan had written his doctoral thesis on paranoid psychosis, but no such diagnosis was made at Sainte-Anne.) Although Artaud was kept at Ville-Évrard for almost four years, until January 1943, it appears that no attempt was made to apply any particular treatment; to a large extent, he was left to himself as a patient who calmly complied with orders. In July 1942, Artaud’s mother asked his doctors whether the new, and increasingly used therapy of electroshock might be applied on her son; at this time, electroshock was widely seen as an innovative way of inducing apparently miraculous results.

Artaud’s doctors ignored the suggestion, on the grounds that the treatment would not be beneficial.

Soon after arriving at Ville-Évrard, Artaud stopped refusing to see his mother. He also accepted visits from his sister, Marie-Ange, who brought her two children to see him. In the period leading up to the Fall of Paris in May 1940, Artaud was able to see a number of friends who made the journey out from Paris to visit him: Roger Blin, Sonia Mossé, Anne Manson, Pierre Souvtchinsky and Génica Athanasiou. (Artaud was so eager to see Génica Athanasiou that he even invited her to bring her lover Jean Grémillon along.) He also demanded heroin – which he believed would help him to resist the malicious forces of magic holding him captive – especially from Génica Athanasiou and from Roger Blin, whose father was a doctor. In June 1941, he begged Anie Besnard to come and visit him:

My beloved Angel

it’s now eight months that I’ve been waiting for you here day after day hour after hour and by moments second after second.[5]

He told her that she had to leave Paris, which had become ‘a centre of demoniac infection where you must not set foot again.’[6] He also sent her a great list of various foods which he wanted her to bring to the asylum, in addition to heroin. A week later, on 3 July, Anie Besnard visited Artaud in the company of René Thomas, in whose studio Artaud had stayed before his journey to Ireland. Anie Besnard considered that Artaud looked like a monk, with his shorn hair, austere clothes, and his isolation from the other inmates. Artaud was not happy with the visit: Anie Besnard had not come to release him from the asylum, as he demanded, and so she must be a demon who had seized his friend’s body. On the same day, he wrote to her:

This is to say that neither you nor René Thomas can come back here neither next Thursday nor ever because those who carried their names in 1937 and who sheltered Antonin Artaud are dead…[7]

Artaud would again make the same demands upon Anie Besnard in 1945 at Rodez, and impose the same rejection.

Towards the end of his time at Ville-Évrard, the circumstances of the war made it increasingly difficult for Artaud’s friends to get there, and only his mother made regular visits.

In August 1939, Artaud decided to put an end to the existence of Antonin Artaud, the forty-two-year-old writer from a bourgeois family who had suffered such humiliation from the Parisian literary milieu, and who was now being imprisoned, deprived of opium and heroin, in an insane asylum. Rather than committing suicide, Artaud executed the transformation of identity which had been seething in him since the time of The New Revelations of Being. The new identity Artaud chose was that of Antonin Nalpas. Nalpas was his mother’s maiden name, and he had a distant cousin named Antonin Nalpas. By this act of overturning his parents’ marriage (and, therefore, his birth within it), Artaud began a huge operation of genealogical inversion and familial reformulation, which eventually led to the creation of his new family of ‘daughters of the heart to be born’ at Rodez. The operation was completed, back in Paris, with Artaud’s final assertions of absolute self-responsibility and self-generation for his own identity, body, birth and death. Antonin Nalpas was conceived at Ville-Évrard as a new, pure, virginal and miraculous body. Although Artaud signed his letters with just ‘Antonin’ during the subsequent two years, by December 1941 he was signing them ‘Antonin Nalpas’; he refused any other identity. He would write to Dr Gaston Ferdière at Rodez in 1943:

Antonin Artaud died from sorrow and pain at Ville-Évrard in the month of August 1939 and his corpse left Ville-Évrard during the course of a white night, like those which Dostoyevsky speaks of, which took up the space of several days… I succeeded him and added myself to him soul for soul and body for body in a body which formed itself in his bed, concretely and in reality, but by magic, in the place of his body… My own name, Dr Ferdière, is Antonin Nalpas…[8]


In addition to this internal work of self-recreation, Artaud wrote many letters during the early part of his stay at Ville-Évrard, especially during the first three months. In a letter of 4 March 1939, only a week after his arrival, Artaud complained to the Parisian bookshop owner Adrienne Monnier about the violence of his transfer from Sainte-Anne.

He developed a complex historical narrative about malicious doubles who invaded the bodies of writers and musicians, to steal their work. He asserted that he was himself a victim of this; his writings on the Tarahumaras were the fourth project to be stolen. And he concluded that his work would have to be started all over again. The letter possessed a furious lucidity, despite its sudden shifts in scope and attitude.

Adrienne Monnier had never met Artaud, but she published his letter in her magazine, La Gazette des Amis du Livre, thereby angering Paulhan, who felt that Artaud’s internment should be treated with greater discretion.

Two months after writing his letter to Adrienne Monnier, Artaud produced a new set of the ‘spells’ which he had sent as threats and protections from Galway and Dublin in September 1937. (The letter from Sainte-Anne which Blin described as being blood-spattered and burned may also have been a ‘spell’.) These new ‘spells’ had a much more intricate design, and Artaud’s young doctors put different coloured inks at his disposal. The ‘spells’ were meticulously constructed, using drawings of signs and layers of colour. A violent element of chance was then put to work: Artaud inflicted cigarette burns upon the paper of the ‘spell’, which served as an intermediary for the body of the person who was under attack. The text of the ‘spell’ was often burned almost to the point of obliteration. Artaud gave one ‘spell’ to Dr Fouks as a protection, and Dr Lubtchansky kept a ‘spell’ which Artaud had produced as a warning to an occultist, Grillot de Givry. Artaud believed that Grillot de Givry (who had actually died in 1929) was persecuting him with magic, and the ‘spell’ contained a declaration of its own power:

Its efficacy of action
is immediate
and eternal.
And it breaks every

Blin received a ‘spell’ which contained a ferocious warning to the people whom Artaud believed were preventing him from receiving heroin. Sonia Mossé was sent ‘a Force of Death’.[10] The final ‘spell’ was sent to Adolf Hitler, probably at the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.

Its content oscillated between cordial advice and threatening invective:

P.S. Of course, dear Sir his is hardly an invitation! it’s above all a warning.[11]

After the name Antonin Nalpas had entered Artaud’s letters in December 1941, he went through a period of hardly writing at all. However, he continued to make demands for food parcels from his mother (whom he addressed by her first name). On 23 March 1942, he wrote:

And I repeat to you, my dearest Euphrasie, it is absolutely false that provisions are scarce in Paris. All the other inmates receive an abundance of provisions in the form of butter, cheese, dates, real spice-bread, figs, apples, pears, REAL jam, sugar, chocolate, bananas. Your maid and your supplier have, moreover, lied to you in claiming that chocolate, bananas, walnuts and hazelnuts are reserved for children. I know all about this: there is no law, no regulation, not even any police recommendations in that direction, for the good reason that all the children of France are eating in my own belly.[12]

The onset of the war – which Artaud viewed with detachment as being apocalyptic – had brought severe food shortages to Ville-Évrard, where the death-toll from malnutrition-related disease was extremely severe (in each of the final two years of the Nazi Occupation, nearly half of the asylum’s inmates died); added to this, there was the real danger for an ‘incurable’ mental patient like Artaud of deportation to the concentration camps and death there. The asylum’s starvation rations – cabbage soup – continued relentlessly, and Artaud himself began to suffer severely from malnutrition; by the spring of 1942, his weight had dropped to fifty-two kilogrammes. He believed that his survival, among the increasing aura of mass death at the asylum, was due principally to his physical resilience: ‘If I am still alive, Euphrasie, it is because of an abnormally resistant constitution… In reality, Euphrasie, I am no more than a living corpse who sees himself surviving and I live here with the anguishes of death.’[13]

In September 1942, Artaud’s mother approached Robert Desnos to see if he could find a solution to Artaud’s increasingly precarious situation; if Artaud had still been incarcerated at Ville-Évrard during the final years of the Occupation, it is highly likely that he would have died there.

Desnos had not been to see Artaud at Ville-Évrard, but he responded quickly to the appeal. He had a friend named Gaston Ferdière, an atheistic Surrealist poet with anarchical political beliefs, who was then head psychiatrist at the mental hospital in the rural town of Rodez, in the south-west of France. At this time, Gaston Ferdière was thirty-five years old. (Rodez would be the last asylum at which he held the post of head psychiatrist; always in conflict with the medical establishment, he failed to find another senior post after Rodez was closed down in 1948, the year of Artaud’s death, and instead went into private practice; however, he continued to practice psychiatry – finishing his career at a clinic in Aubervilliers, in the northern suburbs of Paris, where he specialized in the nervous disorders of children – up until his death in December 1990 at the age of eighty-three.


Throughout his life, he also continued to write Surrealist poetry, which he regarded as being ‘too obscene to be published’.)[14] Rodez was situated in the ‘Zone’ of France that was officially still unoccupied by the German army. Although a considerable military presence was visible there, life for the inhabitants was much more stable than in Paris. Desnos knew that Artaud would be better cared-for and, above all, fed at Rodez, than at Ville-Évrard. He contacted Ferdière, who immediately agreed to accept Artaud as a patient at his asylum. He even suggested that he could pick up Artaud personally, since he would be in Paris over Christmas 1942.

But administrative problems arose, and this plan became impossible. It was forbidden to transfer a patient from the Occupied Zone to the Unoccupied Zone. Ferdière overcame this with a ruse. He had previously run an asylum at Chezal-Benoît, close to the border between the two Zones. He used his remaining influence there to arrange for Artaud to be transferred initially to Chezal-Benoît, before being imperceptibly transferred again to Rodez. Desnos went to visit Artaud at Ville-Évrard on the day before his transfer to Chezal-Benoît, and was shocked by Artaud’s malnourished physical state. Artaud was also terrified that by leaving Ville-Évrard for yet another, unknown asylum, he would become defenceless against the magical forces which harassed him.

He was transferred from Ville-Évrard on 22 January 1943, after nearly four years there, accompanied by two nurses. At Chezal-Benoît, where Artaud remained for nineteen days, he was examined and diagnosed as suffering from paranoid psychosis and a delirium that was ‘very active but badly systematized’. It was noted that he spoke of Antonin Artaud as though he were a stranger. Artaud still complained of being desperately hungry at Chezal-Benoît: ‘I am bedridden and dying from the lack of sugar, hazelnuts, walnuts, dates, figs and chocolate.’[15] Having heard about Gaston Ferdière from Desnos, Artaud claimed that he had already met Ferdière in 1935 at Desnos’s apartment (Ferdière himself believed that he had not met Artaud before his arrival at Rodez). He was already anticipating that Ferdière would be his liberator.

During his covert transfer from Chezal-Benoît to Rodez on 10 February 1943, Artaud lost the sword he had received in 1936 at the voodoo ceremony in Cuba, and which he had kept with him ever since.

Situated at the end of a long avenue that sloped down from the town’s vast cathedral, the Rodez asylum’s extensive grounds surrounded four main wings and a central building surmounted by a clock-tower; the brick constructions were old and decrepit, and would be demolished five years later (a school now occupies the site). On Artaud’s arrival at Rodez, Ferdière took a photograph of him in his Ville-Évrard uniform and with his shorn hair. At Rodez, Artaud wore old second-hand suits donated by charities, and grew his hair long. During his time at the asylum, he would be kept both in open wards and in one-person cells. Ferdière’s initial diagnosis was that Artaud was suffering from ‘a chronic and extremely intense delirium characterized by persecution… Transformation of the personality, of his official identity. His personality is double, etc…; ideas of persecution with periods of marked violent reactions.’ Artaud was treated kindly.

Ferdière invited him to dinner with his wife (although she was appalled at how rapidly and noisily the still-starved Artaud ate), and tried to give him all the food he wanted; Artaud quickly regained weight. In addition to food, he demanded a daily bath and a toothbrush for his eight remaining teeth. (His other teeth had all been lost at Ville-Évrard through the wretched diet there.) Although Ferdière attempted to satisfy Artaud’s demands, he had other, more pressing priorities and dilemmas. He constantly had to scour the countryside, to find and purchase enough food from the local farmers to feed all of the asylum’s inmates; although Rodez was in a rural agricultural region, the Aveyron, food supplies were disrupted both by the effects of the war and, in wintertime, by the severe winters in the region, which often left the town cut off by snow. In order to be allowed to travel around the countryside to gather food, Ferdière needed to ingratiate himself with the German authorities, and so incurred the wrath of the Resistance fighters active in the region. He also covertly sheltered partisans and refugees in the asylum buildings, thereby provoking the German authorities. On some days, he would receive death threats both from the Resistance fighters and from the German authorities.

Soon after Artaud’s arrival at Rodez, he wrote to Jean Paulhan demanding royalties for a huge edition of The Theatre and its Double which he believed had appeared in November 1937, to great acclaim. This imaginary edition had sold one hundred thousand copies; the actual edition of the book published in February 1938 had consisted of only four hundred copies. His demands upon Ferdière also increased.

In June 1943, he urgently equested opium, on the grounds that it would cure the bout of dysentery he was suffering from; Ferdière refused. Artaud was spending a great deal of his time humming, gesturing and spitting to defend himself against the demonic figures he could see. He had also done this at Ville-Évrard, but it had been completely ignored in the generalized mass-cacophony of cries there. Artaud would justify his activity by relating it to the ideas about breathing and gestures he had explored in his essay An Affective Athleticism. He told Ferdière that ‘if it is a sickness for me to engage in this, then Antonin Artaud has always been sick because all of his theatre direction consisted of nothing other than that’.[16] Ferdière detested Artaud’s noises and gestures; he wanted Artaud to return to sustained literary writing. His position was that Artaud was ‘violently anti-social, dangerous for the public order and people’s security’.[17] He believed at this time that Artaud could never be cured, but that he might be returned to a more creative and socially useful life. For this reason, Ferdière took the decision in June 1943 to give Artaud a series of electroshock treatments.

Electroshock treatment was still in its infancy; its aura of innovation attracted Ferdière. The treatment had been developed from initial research in 1934 by Laszlo Meduna on the links between schizophrenia and epilepsy. In 1938, the Italian doctor Ugo Cerletti went to the Rome abattoir and watched the pigs being slaughtered; an electric shock to the skull subdued them and made it less troublesome for them to be killed. Cerletti applied the principle directly to his patient’s brains and discovered that the shock reduced their symptoms and made them more docile. Cerletti also experimented with injecting the spinal fluid of electroshocked pigs into his patients, but without success. Electroshock treatment, though discredited in the 1960s, is still widely used in many countries to treat conditions such as severe depression, and is applied with anaesthetic. But, in 1943, it was becoming a popular form of treatment for a wide range of mental disorders; many psychiatrists stubbornly believed that the temporary and clinically ungaugeable effects of the often-dangerous treatment were not due solely to the patient’s stunned terror at the prospect of its next application. The prominent historian of electroshock treatment, Max Fink, commented: ‘The resolution of the men who introduced convulsive therapy is astonishing.’[18] At the time of Artaud’s treatment at Rodez, it consisted of attaching electrodes to the patient’s temples and then sending a short burst of electrical current through the brain, without anaesthetic. The patient was tied down to avoid the limbs fracturing during the convulsions that followed. A spatula was placed in the patient’s mouth to prevent the teeth breaking against one another or the tongue being bitten through. A coma of fifteen to thirty minutes followed the convulsions, after which the patient awoke with a memory loss which often provoked a great sense of anguish. A course of thirty to fifty electroshocks was common at Rodez, although courses extending into many hundreds – ‘annihilation therapy’, as it was called in the United States – were recorded at other asylums. Between June 1943 and December 1944, Artaud had fifty-one electroshocks.

Ferdière, who always maintained that the therapy was completely painless, supervised Artaud’s treatment but did not administer it himself. It was executed by his assistant, a young and devout Roman Catholic named Jacques Latrémolière, for whom electroshock was a specialism.

Artaud had many theological discussions with Latrémolière (according to Ferdière, Latrémolière became a deeply disturbed and reclusive man after the closure of Rodez, perpetually obsessed with mystical concerns;[19] he moved to the nearby town of Figeac to take up a post as an anaesthetist, and died there in 1991). In his doctoral thesis of 1944, with the unironic title Incidents and Accidents Observed in the Course of 1,200 Electroshocks, Latrémolière described Artaud’s treatment:

A., 46 years old, former drug addict, suffering from chronic hallucinatory psychosis, with luxuriant, polymorphous, delirious ideas (doubling of the personality, bizarre metaphysical system…). The patient had gained five kilogrammes in weight when the treatment began on 20 June. From the second session on, he spoke of vague back pains, which became violent when he awoke from the third crisis: bilateral, constrictive, increased by the slightest movement, and by coughing, the pains forced him to walk in a bent-over position, with the thorax leaning out to the front.

After this third electroshock, Artaud had to spend two months in bed convalescing, and receiving injections of histamine. One of his vertebrae had been fractured. At his Vieux-Colombier lecture of January 1947, Artaud described a further incident. He said that one of his subsequent electroshock comas lasted ninety minutes instead of the usual fifteen to thirty, and that Ferdière had already ordered that his body be dispatched to the asylum’s mortuary when he suddenly regained consciousness. Once he had been released from Rodez, Artaud’s vocal and written denunciations of the electroshock treatments which Ferdière had applied to him would carry an immense ferocity and bitterness. (In old age, Ferdière would weep at the memory of Artaud’s intensive post-Rodez condemnations of him.) In 1943, after the first electroshocks, Artaud’s appeals to Ferdière were pitiful:

My very dear friend, I have a great service and a great favour to ask of you. This is to cut short the application of electroshocks on me, which my body evidently cannot stand and which are certainly the predominant, revealing cause of my present vertebral displacement. As I told you this morning, my belief in demons has disappeared and I am sure it will not return, but what remains is this unbearable sensation of shattering in the back, which I believe can only be attributed to this violent electrical treatment that has had an undeniable effect, but which it would certainly be undesirable to prolong for any more time upon me, in order not to risk more dangerous accidents![20]


But, as soon as Artaud’s back healed, the treatments started again. Latrémolière’s account in his doctoral thesis continued:

The intensity of the delirium persisted; the good effects of the first three sessions, which had very clearly diminished the bizarre and theatrical reactions of the subject in the face of his hallucinations, encouraged us to resume a new series of 12 electroshocks from 25 October to 22 November 1943. No back pain arose that would have indicated an aggravation of the process of collapse, and the patient can now lead a normal life in the asylum, and devote himself to intellectual works which he would have been incapable of before the shocks.

Nevertheless, thirty-six further electroshocks would be given to Artaud in the course of the following year.

At the end of Artaud’s first summer at Rodez, Ferdière tried another therapy. He gave Artaud written translations to undertake, and requested that he should begin writing sustained texts instead of only letters. Ferdière presented the therapy in the form of a personal service which Artaud could do for him; he was planning to edit a series of books at Rodez, and said that he needed Artaud’s help. Ferdière enlisted the aid of a young Surrealist painter from Marseilles, Frédéric Delanglade – who had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and was hiding from the Germans in the asylum buildings – to encourage Artaud to start work. The first project was a number of translations from the works of Lewis Carroll (a favourite of Ferdière), in particular the chapter from Through the Looking Glass in which Alice meets Humpty-Dumpty. Although this work must have appeared to Artaud as a recapitulation of the translations he had worked on for financial reasons in 1930 and 1932, he began the work with some enthusiasm. This soon dispersed, and he developed a personal animosity towards Lewis Carroll. Nevertheless, the translation provided Artaud with an opportunity to engage with the linguistic games and manipulations of Humpty-Dumpty. (He would return to his translation from Through the Looking Glass in 1947 and revise it, declaring that the chapter now belonged to him, rather than to Lewis Carroll; he subtitled his reworked translation Anti-Grammatical Attempt on Lewis Carroll and Against Him.) Since Artaud knew very little English, he collaborated with the asylum chaplain on a literal transcription, and then used it to make a free adaptation of the text. Other translations followed, of poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Southwell and John Keats.

In October 1943, Artaud wrote a long poetic text entitled KABHAR ENIS – KATHAR ESTI, partly made up from a language he was in the process of inventing. He attempted to send the text to Paulhan, but all of his mail was inspected at Rodez and the poem never reached Paulhan; Jacques Latrémolière kept it. Artaud also wrote a critical account of a story he had read by Marcel Béalu, The Open Mouth, which Ferdière retained. In December 1943, Artaud received the first proposal to publish his writings since he had been interned in 1937. Through the intermediary of the writer and publisher Henri Parisot, a young poet and occultist named Robert-J. Godet requested permission to reprint as a booklet the text On a Journey to the Land of the Tarahumaras, which had been published in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1937.

Godet also wanted to know if Artaud had any unpublished material about his journey to Mexico. Artaud immediately wrote a new text on the Tarahumaras which he showed to Ferdière, who kept it. (In 1947, after Artaud had left Rodez, the publisher Marc Barbezat – already renowned as one of the first publishers of Jean Genet’s fiction – took up the project for a book of Artaud’s writings on the Tarahumaras, and succeeded in persuading Ferdière to send him a copy of this text.) In addition to the new writing on his journey to Mexico, Artaud was also considering a book about his journey to Ireland, which he now believed was the more crucial of his two great journeys. Ferdière began to encourage Artaud to work on images as well as writings. In mid-October 1943, Artaud took his first photograph since the photo-montages he had worked on for the Alfred Jarry Theatre in 1930. The photograph was intended to illustrate a nursery rhyme which Ferdière was interested in, and showed a cabbage on a stick in the asylum grounds.

In the face of the electroshocks and Ferdière’s incessant urging that Artaud resume his identity as a writer, the identity of Antonin Nalpas, which Artaud had sustained for four years, could no longer hold out. Much to Ferdière’s satisfaction, Artaud abandoned it in September 1943 after a ‘terrible upheaval’. Artaud could then state to Ferdière: ‘I am called Antonin Artaud, because I am the son of Antoine Artaud and of Euphrasie Artaud, who is still alive although my father died in Marseilles in September 1924.’[21] But this period, when ‘Antonin Artaud’ grudgingly re-emerged, was probably that of the profoundest fluctuation and loss of identity in Artaud’s life. His short-lived religious convictions arose from this shattering of the self. Often, during 1943 and 1944, Artaud adopted a pious Catholicism and went to pray in the cathedral at Rodez. But his mystical feelings were in a state of great flux, so that he would, on alternate days, pray with and insult the asylum chaplain. At times, he counterbalanced the fearful uncertainty of his present situation by extending his piety back into the past, to produce a sense of stability and continuity: ‘If from Dublin to here at Rodez I have not practised religion, it is because there was no Church at Sotteville-lès-Rouen, Sainte-Anne, or Ville-Évrard.’[22] At other times, his religious feelings would be his own imaginative creation, transformed until they sympathetically served the immediate needs of his position: ‘God, by nature, is a bizarre being who has only ever loved rebels and madmen.’[23] This continual oscillation lasted until 1 April 1945, when Artaud definitively rejected all religions: ‘I have thrown the communion, the eucharist, god and his christ out of the window and have decided to be myself…’.[24]

The return of his original identity had further repercussions, particularly in connection with his conception of society. Struggling to erase all traits which could be construed by Ferdière as anti-social, and therefore the justification for more electroshocks, Artaud suddenly became deeply attached to his family and to the French nation. In October 1943, he wrote to Paulhan: ‘You know I have always been a royalist and a patriot.’[25] (However, both Artaud’s religious protestations and his professed nationalistic allegiances were ill-judged as strategies to placate Ferdière, who was himself a committed atheist and militant anarchist; in any case, Ferdière was thoroughly unconvinced by both strategies.)[26]

Artaud demanded that Paulhan should pulp all of his books, with the exceptions of the letters to Rivière, The Theatre and its Double and The New Revelations of Being. Around the same period, Artaud was also writing letters – which Ferdière kept – to the President of the Nazi-controlled French Government, Pierre Laval. Laval had attended a performance of The Cenci in 1935, and Artaud considered him to be a friend. (Laval was shot as a traitor at the end of the war, for collaborating with the Germans.) Artaud appealed to Laval to help free him from the asylum. With absolute conviction, he denied that he was mad: ‘And really, I do not believe that I have ever been affected by the least shadow of mental disturbance.’[27] He complained about the loss of his cane in Ireland, and expressed his contempt for the English people – whose police he regarded as responsible for his arrest in Dublin – and for their military forces, with the exception of the Royal Air Force (which he believed was composed mainly of Scotsmen). Since Artaud perceived a parallel between the devastation which Hitler was inflicting on the world and the apocalyptic prophecies of The New Revelations of Being, he now dedicated a copy of his book to Hitler. Like Jean Genet and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Artaud had his own individual and contrary reasons for favouring a force that had overpowered French society.

At the beginning of 1944, Ferdière tried another new treatment on Artaud: art therapy. Although the painter Frédéric Delanglade had departed for Paris by this time, he had left behind some charcoal sticks and crayons. Delanglade had also painted a portrait of Artaud in the studio he had set up in the asylum. In February 1944, Artaud executed a number of charcoal drawings on small pieces of paper, showing signs and faces. One drawing was of the sword Artaud received in Cuba and had recently lost. Ferdière set much importance by this therapy, and would later claim to be one of the great pioneering figures of the Art Psychotherapy movement. Ferdière’s approach was that the patient’s image should serve principally as a diagnostic indicator. (This view runs in contradiction to other concepts of art therapy, such as that developed in the 1980s by Dr Leo Navratil at the Klosterneuberg mental hospital near Vienna; Navratil arranged for the construction of a special pavilion in the asylum grounds for patients who wanted to live there and draw, without their work being subjected to clinical evaluation – artists working at Navratil’s pavilion, such as August Walla and Johann Hauser, produced extraordinary and compelling images of the human body in crisis.) Ferdière, who preferred decorative images, disliked Artaud’s drawings and considered them ‘of no interest whatsoever’.[28]

After the first few drawings of February 1944, undertaken at Ferdière’s instigation, Artaud abandoned drawing for a year. When he began again, the drawings emerged from a sense of creative necessity.

From 23 May to 10 June, Artaud received twelve electroshocks; in August 1944, another twelve; and in December 1944, another twelve. By this period, he had long since started the writings which Ferdière had requested of him, and these new electroshocks revived Artaud’s terror of the memory loss which they caused, and exacerbated his back pain. His remaining teeth fell out. The electroshocks appeared to him as a multitude of little deaths – not the ‘ petite mort’ of orgasm of which Georges Bataille wrote, nor the sensation of euphoria at the onset of an epileptic fit, but a period of absolutely cold, senseless loss, repeated without a determinable end. There have been numerous reports of psychiatrists becoming addicted to the electroshocks which they gave to their patients. The December 1944 electroshocks were Artaud’s last. On several occasions after his release from Rodez, Artaud asserted that he had had to threaten violence against Ferdière to bring the electroshocks to a close. At his Vieux-Colombier lecture in January 1947, Artaud said: ‘I do not think that I can let myself be taken for a coward, and on a certain day of December 1944 I threatened to jump on top of Dr Ferdière and strangle him if he did not immediately forget the idea of the new series of electroshocks which he wanted to apply to me.’[29] However, Ferdière was still prepared to intimidate Artaud with the prospect of further electroshocks whenever Artaud tried to convince him of the authenticity of his hallucinations, or practised his humming techniques in the asylum grounds. It was also in 1944 that Artaud suffered the first of a number of severe intestinal haemorrhages. He believed that they were the result of the starvation he had suffered at Ville-Évrard, but they may well have been a first indication of the cancer which would remain undiagnosed until February 1948.


It was in January 1945 that Artaud’s creative capacities came back to him with great strength, and he never stopped working from then until his death three years later. The final work threw out images and writings with ferocious force. For Ferdière, this return to work was the result of the treatments he had applied, including the electroshocks – without these treatments, the final phase of Artaud’s work would simply not exist.[30] This is extremely unlikely. Artaud had declared in the 1930s that he could only work through the absence of opium; now, he started to work from the time when the electroshocks were absent from his life. The war was coming to a close, and Paris had been liberated from the German Occupation in August 1944. Artaud was slowly able to re-establish contact with his friends there. He also formed a strong friendship with a young doctor who came to work at Rodez in February 1945, Jean Dequeker. Dequeker gave Artaud great encouragement, and supported his violent creative resurgence. He understood Artaud’s need to battle physically against the forces he believed were oppressing him. In opposition to Ferdière, Dequeker approved of the humming and chanting exercises which Artaud was developing to fortify his new language and images. Dequeker had to leave Rodez temporarily in the spring of 1945 to work at a hospital for repatriated prisoners-of-war at Mulhouse, in eastern France, and he and Artaud continued their dialogue by letter. He then returned to Rodez, and was still there when Artaud was released in May 1946. (In later years, he worked in Algeria with the radical philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, but then suffered from severe depression and was himself confined, in a nursing home).[31]

Artaud began his new work in January 1945 with a series of drawings. The writings would follow on from the drawings, as though hauled back into existence by the power of Artaud’s visual imagery. Working on large sheets of paper and still using the pencils, coloured chalks and children’s crayola crayons that Delanglade had left at Rodez, Artaud began a visual exploration of his physical and mental condition during the years of incarceration. Over a period of seventeen months, the drawings built from impressions of shattered powerlessness to controlled and intricate evocations of physical fragmentation and reconstitution. Artaud drew fields of human dissection and torture, filled with splinters and spikes, cancers and broken, bleeding bodies. In these drawings, he split and broke the human body, grinding it with his crayons into the surface of the paper, as a substance to be collapsed and then reformulated from zero. The body’s inner space was extracted, spat out, with great tension and movement, into the exterior world. Around the principal figures in the drawings, other forms and objects fell blindly through space. In drawings with such titles as The being and its foetuses and Never real and always true, Artaud’s figures appear acutely disjointed, manipulated with precision to occupy a space of dismemberment. Pieces of metal, insects, tiny girls’ faces, penises, internal organs, all spilled out in a painful dispersal across the furrowed surface of the paper. Old machinery and propellers intersected with swollen human shapes and lacerated faces.

The drawings from Rodez project Artaud’s deep sense of his disrupted body and its disintegrated language. This sense was magnified by his recent experiences of electroshock. Short texts were introduced around the edges of the drawings. His language was put back together again as an amalgamation of image and text, in the same period that he was also attempting to put his body and consciousness back together again. As the drawings developed, Artaud often surrounded and penetrated them with phrases from the invented language which he continued to elaborate up until his death, inserting it as an enraged incantation into his work.

The phrases served as protections for his newly resuscitated work, which he felt was vulnerable to malicious suppression and failure. The Rodez drawings carry the corporeal force which would also be present in Artaud’s recorded screams of 1948. The images emerged onto the paper from a process of internal incision and interrogation. They manifest an instinctual articulation of the body in disunity, adrift in an oceanic space of abject negativity and deep desire. Towards the end of Artaud’s internment, his drawings became the raw material for the probing of fears – about the loss of his right to determine his identity, and about the threats to his body – which he would rework in many different ways until the end of his life. In the last of the series of drawings from Rodez, Artaud turned to his own face as the most sensitive site for expressing his fear of attack and his determination to counterattack. He drew his first self-portrait for twenty years.

Dequeker watched Artaud’s work on this image, and later described what he saw:

I was present for several days at the drilling of such an image, at the savage hammering of a form which was not his own. On a large sheet of white paper, he had drawn the abstract contours of a face, and within this barely sketched material – where he had planted the black marks of future apparitions – and without a reflecting mirror, I saw him create his double, as though in a crucible, at the cost of an unspeakable torture and cruelty. He worked with rage, shattering pencil after pencil, suffering the internal throes of his own exorcism. At the heart of the most inflamed screams and poems which had ever emerged from his tortured spleen, he struck and cursed a nation of stubborn worms – then suddenly, he seized reality, and his face appeared. This was the terrible lucidity of the creation of Antonin Artaud by himself – the terrible mask of all the enslaved horizons – launched as an act of defiance against the poor means and the mediocre techniques of painters of reality. Through the creative rage with which he exploded the bolts of reality and all the latches of the surreal, I saw him blindly dig out the eyes of his image.[32]

In February 1945, the month after his drawings began to emerge, Artaud set to work writing short fragments in school exercise-books. He wrote every day, and the number of fragments soon accumulated. Through the sheer relentlessness and driving obsession of this work, he taught himself how to write again with all the force and fluency he had possessed before his internment. Occasionally, these fragments would lead to more developed texts, such as Surrealism and the End of the Christian Era from October 1945. This text (part of which was lost, and another part stolen) recalls his open letters from the time of the collaboration with the Surrealists, in 1925. In Surrealism and the End of the Christian Era, Artaud writes of his realisation, at the age of eight, that his identity was to be threatened by malicious powers, illness and cacophony all through his life. His attitude remained as independent as ever: ‘I have never studied anything, but lived everything, and that has taught me something.’[33] He also wrote a number of commentaries on his drawings. They were mostly requested by Ferdière and Latrémolière, but Artaud always ensured that they veered wildly from such a function. He was also contemplating a reworking of his ideas on the theatre: ‘I am preparing another book on the Theatre, but from a much larger and more general point of view than The Theatre and its Double – it will, I believe, interest an extensive public.’[34]

But it was principally the exercise-book fragments which consumed Artaud and provoked his imagination throughout 1945 and the first months of 1946. He worked over old concerns, such as peyote and the Irish cane, and drew up enormous lists of food, as he had at Ville-Évrard. More vitally, an endless reconstruction took place of his relationship with his friends and enemies in Paris, his family, and also with public figures he had never actually met, such as Stalin, de Gaulle, Churchill and Freud. Jean Genet wrote that Artaud struggled, during his internment, to discover what would lead him ‘to glory… into the light’.[35] Artaud searched for a new, living and liberated body from the material of these multiple reformulations and dialogues, and finally found it towards the end of 1945 with the creation of his ‘daughters of the heart to be born’.


These ‘daughters’ were a highly charged, sexually imbued and manipulable group. Artaud usually imagined six daughters for himself, but he could, when necessary, incorporate other women into the existing children. The daughters combined purely imaginative elements with presences from Artaud’s past life. Both of his grandmothers became daughters, as did Cécile Schramme, Yvonne Allendy and Anie Besnard. The daughters fought for him, and suffered terrible tortures in their efforts to reach him at Rodez and free him. Artaud was always certain of their imminent arrival. He wrote to Anie Besnard on 29 October 1945: ‘I am waiting for you as arranged, together with your sister Catherine, for whom I no longer have an address, and Cécile, Yvonne and Neneka. You have suffered far too much for anything to stop you and hold you back this time…’.[36] Around March 1946, he made a drawing entitled The theatre of cruelty, which shows four of the daughters in coffins, placed across one another at tangents. Their bodies are scarred and mummified, and they are guarded by an immense, distorted, bird-like creature, but their eyes are open and alert. After his release from Rodez, Artaud wrote to Gilbert Lély, the biographer of the Marquis de Sade, describing the origin of his daughters:

I thought a lot about love at the asylum of Rodez, and it was there that I dreamed about some daughters of my soul, who loved me like daughters, and not as lovers – me, their pre-pubescent, lustful, salacious, erotic and incestuous father; and chaste also, so chaste that it makes him dangerous.[37]

The effusively imaginative creation of Artaud’s daughters of the heart gave him a great sense of anticipation and hope, which helped to pull him through his last year at Rodez. It also provided him with allies for his struggle, a new and oppositional family, and a new sexuality.

Artaud dispassionately watched the war coming to an end during the spring of 1945; he considered it to be a manifestation of the apocalypse, but nevertheless of no great concern to him. The Germans surrendered in May, and the war in Europe was over. Robert Desnos died of typhoid fever on 8 June in the newly liberated concentration camp of Theresienstadt. He had been arrested in Paris by the Gestapo for his Resistance work in February 1944, a year after he had helped Artaud to reach Rodez. As Artaud had been moved from one asylum to another, so Desnos had passed through the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Flossenburg and Flora. Artaud heard of his death in August, and wrote a sorrowful letter to Desnos’s widow Youki, inviting her to join with the women who were coming to Rodez to liberate him. Some months later, Artaud heard that his friend Sonia Mossé had died in the gas chamber of a concentration camp.

Around 10 September, Artaud had his first visitors at Rodez: the painter Jean Dubuffet and his wife. (Raymond Queneau had wanted to visit Artaud at the end of 1943, but Ferdière had told him that Artaud was still too ill.) Artaud showed Dubuffet his recent drawings, and the visit made him impatient to return to a life in Paris. Ferdière was now seriously considering his release, but Artaud was aware that Ferdière would require substantial guarantees that Artaud’s future would be financially secure. After Dubuffet had returned to Paris, Artaud elaborated the existence of a bank account containing a huge sum in gold bars, which he claimed to have deposited in 1918. Since Dubuffet was a man with much financial expertise, Artaud wrote to the Bank of France, instructing them to immediately hand over the contents of the account to Dubuffet, to administer on his behalf. But the Bank of France wrote back to say that they could discover no trace of Artaud’s account. He also set Dubuffet to work on locating his real and imaginary ‘daughters of the heart’ in Paris.

On the night of 2 December 1945, Artaud’s publisher Robert Denoël was shot dead in the street while changing a wheel on his car. It is possible that he was assassinated for political reasons (as a reputed Nazi collaborator, and as the publisher of Céline’s anti-Semitic books), but the shooting remained a mystery; he may also have been attacked by a thief, or simply shot at random by one of the wild gangs of American ex-servicemen roaming Paris at the time. Artaud heard of Denoël’s death on 6 December, and soon incorporated it into his conviction that all of his friends were being murdered in order to leave him in a state of isolation. But he also had a financial grudge against Denoël: ‘Don’t forget that Denoël, who has since been assassinated, had me transferred to Rodez in order not to have to pay me my royalties on new editions of The New Revelations of Being and of Heliogabalus (at least 50,000 to 80,000 pre-war francs).’[38]

Between September and December 1945, Artaud wrote a series of inflammatory and caustic letters to Henri Parisot, who re-issued Artaud’s text On a Journey to the Land of the Tarahumaras in November 1945. In these letters, Artaud reformulated the history of his life as an endless succession of torturings, detentions and assassination attempts, starting with the story of the knife-wound inflicted by a Marseilles pimp in 1915. Artaud proudly declared that he had violently returned every assault and bewitchment he had received.

Parisot was the perfect recipient for the letters, since he always expressed mild incredulity and tentative reservations about what Artaud was telling him, thereby impelling Artaud into a state of still greater inventiveness and fury. Parisot also asked Artaud to write in ink rather than pencil, since he was short-sighted; Artaud angrily retorted that he could not use ink-bottles, since the other Rodez inmates would knock them over his writings and books. Artaud’s concerns ranged from his past life to the new excremental language he was now formulating; he placed special emphasis on the capacity of this language to engulf and attack priests, such as the Bishop of Rodez. It was a language that emerged from ‘a tetanus of the soul’,[39] and from a process of grinding anatomical suffering. For Artaud, this substance of physical debris and fragmentation could become a universally transmissible language. He tried to persuade Parisot that he had already used this language in the past:

In 1934 I wrote an entire book in this way, in a language which everybody could read, whatever nationality they belonged to. Unfortunately, this book has been lost. Only a very few copies were printed, and the abominable influences of people in government, in the church, or in the police intervened to make them disappear. There is only one copy left, which I don’t have, but which stayed in the hands of one of my daughters: Catherine Chilé.[40]

With Artaud’s permission, Parisot collected together the letters he had been sent, to publish them under the title Letters from Rodez.

Artaud continued to receive visitors. On 26 February 1946, the young writers Arthur Adamov and Marthe Robert came to Rodez to see Artaud, and to discuss his release with Ferdière. They had known Artaud before his departure for Ireland, and told him stories about how he had outrageously insulted people in the Montparnasse cafes, which made Artaud very happy. Adamov talked to Artaud of a plan to republish all of his books with Gallimard. Artaud was eagerly looking forward to his release from Rodez as ‘the explosion of a dead volcano’.[41] But Ferdière exacted two conditions for Artaud’s release: that he should live in a nursing home, and that he had to be financially secure. When Adamov returned to Paris, he collected a huge quantity of donated manuscripts and paintings – works by Georges Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Alberto Giacometti, Henri Michaux, and many others – to be auctioned to provide money for Artaud. Roger Blin began to organize a special theatre event for Artaud’s benefit. Neither the auction nor the theatre event took place before Artaud’s release from Rodez, but the plans succeeded in reassuring Ferdière. Adamov gave the task of finding a suitable nursing home to a young acquaintance named Paule Thévenin, whose husband was a doctor; after visiting numerous establishments, she chose Dr Achille Delmas’s private convalescence clinic in the south-eastern peripheries of Paris, at Ivry-sur-Seine.

Despite the visit, Artaud was still feeling desperately isolated; on the day Adamov and Marthe Robert left Rodez, he wrote to Anie Besnard (who had not replied to any of his letters for three years):

You can’t imagine how much I miss here – and in my life – a friendship such as you showed me in 1937 at 21 rue Daguerre before your departure for Corsica. I am always so alone, with never a heart nor an affection such as I feel for you, and nobody to follow me as on that brilliant August afternoon when, in an ochre dress and a green turban, you followed me on a visit to the Gradiva gallery and to an exhibition where there were drawings by Sonia Mossé. Who is now dead in a concentration camp. All of my best friends have either died or disappeared. Yvonne Allendy, Catherine Chilé, Neneka, Ana Corbin. I am alone.[42]


It was to this letter, passed on in person to Anie Besnard by Marthe Robert, that Artaud finally received the reply he wanted.

Artaud had been corresponding since the beginning of 1945 with a young novelist named Henri Thomas, about an article Thomas was writing on The Theatre and its Double; on 10 March 1946, Thomas came to Rodez to meet Artaud, along with his wife Colette, who was an aspirant actress. Artaud had already told Thomas that his work was still as virulent as it had been in the Surrealist years: ‘My situation is that of the man who wrote the Address to the Pope in issue 3 of La Révolution Surréaliste, the Domestic Letters and several other invective letters against priests, police and society, and whom they wanted to silence forever because he refused to back down on certain points as Aragon and Éluard had.’[43]

Artaud was extremely happy with the visit; he introduced Henri and Colette Thomas to Jean Dequeker, and read poems by Gérard de Nerval to them. He felt an empathy with Henri Thomas, and told him that he was conscious of all the upheavals in the world – war, famine, German and Russian extermination camps – that had come about since his internment in 1937. After Thomas had returned to Paris, Artaud wrote to confide in him the reasons why the Theatre of Cruelty had disintegrated: ‘In this way I had terrible trouble in writing and publishing The Theatre and its Double, which in 1933 announced and desired war, famine and plague. But it was almost impossible for me to stage and to perform a spectacle. That always ended up in scandal, screams, police and no spectators.’[44]

Artaud was attracted to Colette Thomas (whose marriage was breaking down); his preoccupation with her would extend beyond the time of his internment. For Artaud, she seemed to embody his new life and coming liberation. He was still alive in the face of ill will and a great collective forgetting of him. Though his health had been shattered by the asylums and electroshocks, and his face was toothless, Artaud believed he could still be resuscitated with the help of ‘immortal young girls’[45] such as Colette Thomas, who was twenty-three years old at this time. He began to incorporate her into his ‘daughters of the heart’. Colette Thomas had also suffered asylum treatments after being interned in the mental hospital at Caen during her student years; she had been placed in a strait-jacket and given cardiazol, a seizure-provoking drug generally administered as a prelude to electroshock.

(Colette Thomas’s mental condition deteriorated in later years, until she was in a state of total bewilderment and amnesia, and unable to remember Artaud; she spent the remainder of her life in private clinics.)[46] Naturally, Artaud had immense sympathy for her. During the final part of his internment, he and Colette Thomas wrote many times to one another. Artaud included his letters in a book entitled Henchmen and Torturings which he was beginning to plan at this point, and Colette Thomas used fragments from her letters in the first part of her only book, published in 1954, The Testament of the Dead Daughter. In this work, now almost forgotten, Colette Thomas interrogated her ideas of solitude, separation and sexual catastrophe. She also described how she felt at being incorporated within the volatile, transforming system of Artaud’s daughters: ‘If you do not want me to be one of your actresses, I will be one of your soldiers. If you do not want me to be one of your soldiers, I will be one of your daughters. If you do not want me to be one of your daughters, I will be your Unique daughter.’[47]

During his last months at Rodez, Artaud was writing constantly. In addition to his exercise-book fragments, he produced a fierce article for the Marseilles-based magazine Les Cahiers du Sud on Isidore Ducasse, who wrote The Songs of Maldoror, the book which had been most crucial to the ideas of the Surrealists. Ducasse – who used the pseudonym ‘Comte de Lautréamont’ – had died in obscurity at the age of twenty-four, in 1870. Artaud presented his death as the result of a vicious social suppression which had also caused the suicides of many of the writers he felt solidarity with, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Gérard de Nerval; the following year, he turned this investigation to the death of Vincent Van Gogh.

Artaud was also planning a book, suggested by Adamov, which would include the Ducasse article, a dream description, and a text composed of fragments. The book’s provisional title, For the Poor Popocatepel, resonated with Artaud’s identification with the Mexican volcano, and paralleled its potential explosivity with that of his own body as it neared its liberation from Rodez. He also used the story of Christ’s crucifixion as a ready-made narrative to rework this imagery of a body which could eruptively resuscitate itself. In the case of Artaud’s Christ (who was named Artaud and had an enemy called Nalpas), this physical reworking would happen ‘without the intervention of a god, of a jesus-christ or of a spirit’.[48] In Artaud’s crucifixion narrative, he burst with rage as he came alive again, scattering the soldiers around him just as he had scattered his assailants when he returned from Ireland on The Washington in September 1937.

In March 1946, a writer named André de Richaud arrived for a stay at the asylum of Rodez. He had been a brilliant, precocious novelist and playwright at the beginning of the 1930s, but was now incapacitated by alcohol and drug addiction. Artaud knew Richaud’s work (he had considered staging it for the Alfred Jarry Theatre), and Ferdière decided to give Artaud a trial release by sending him to stay with the drink-sodden Richaud at a hotel in the nearby town of Espalion. Richaud could supervise Artaud, and Artaud could watch over Richaud’s alcohol consumption. Ferdière promised Artaud that, after this trial release, he could return to Paris. Artaud and Richaud left for Espalion on 19 March.

Artaud registered the fact that he was being given a mentor who was an unstable, alcoholic drug-addict, and he was acutely conscious of the many contradictions in Ferdière’s position towards him. He wrote in his exercise-book texts of how Ferdière had welcomed him to Rodez, but had then given him electroshocks; how he had encouraged him to write again, but had then confiscated his work and forbidden him to chant what he had produced.

On arrival at Espalion, away from Ferdière’s control, Artaud became anxious to have drugs (after a forcible and total abstinence lasting nine years, the compulsion immediately overcame him again); he wrote to his friends in Paris, and even to his sister, asking them to send him heroin or codeine. He enjoyed the independence of his life at Espalion, and wrote to Dequeker: ‘The countryside here is just what I’ve been looking for after 9 years of internment. Silent, with nobody who is astonished by my face. My appearance is that of a man who has suffered much, and there are so many idiots.’[49] Richaud was behaving well, taking long walks and watching the local football matches, and Artaud was able to work. He wrote to Roger Blin that his first project upon returning to Paris would be to set the Theatre of Cruelty into movement again: ‘I need actors who are first of all beings, that is to say that when they are on stage, they won’t be afraid of the true sensation of a knife-wound…’.[50] He also completed the text of fragments to send to Adamov, and entitled it Fragmentations. In this text, he constructed a rigorous architecture of active, interconnected fragments to produce an incisive imagery of the violence he had suffered, and of the counterattacks he was preparing with his new ‘daughters of the heart’, Marthe Robert and Colette Thomas:

And I saw Marthe Robert in Paris, I saw her from Rodez to Paris, leaning forward with rage in the corner of my locked room, just in front of my night table, like a flower uprooted by anger, in the apocalypse of life. And there is also Colette Thomas, to blow the police of hatred from Paris to Nagasaki. She will explain to you her own tragedy.[51]

It was to be Colette Thomas herself who delivered these fragments during the readings of Artaud’s texts at his theatre benefit event in Paris, three months later.

At Rodez, Ferdière was having administrative problems in arranging for Artaud’s release. A row arose over the royalties which had arrived for Artaud’s book Letters from Rodez, which was published in April. Ferdière had strongly disapproved of the book and had tried to prevent its appearance; now, the asylum’s governors wanted to seize the money – which Artaud needed to pay his hotel bill at Espalion and for his journey to Paris – as a contribution towards the cost of his treatments at the asylum. This infuriated Artaud, since they had not been treatments of his choice (he had not asked to be electroshocked), and his internment had been compulsory in the first place. On 10 April, Ferdière became exasperated with the situation and sent the asylum’s ambulance and two psychiatric nurses to forcibly bring Artaud back from Espalion.

The difficulties proved temporary, however, and the date of 25 May was set for Artaud’s release. He was still terrified of the possibility of more electroshocks, and was concerned that Ferdière was to accompany him back to Paris. Ferdière had two patients to deliver to Sainte-Anne, and Artaud feared that his own release would turn out to be a disguised transfer to another asylum. But Ferdière was now ready to show his rehabilitated patient to the Parisian literary world. In the days leading up to his release, Artaud wrote to his friends, asking them to meet him on the evening of his arrival in Paris. For the meeting place, he chose the Café de Flore in Saint Germain-des-Prés, which was to become one of the principal creative sites of the final period of his life. A young poet named Jacques Prevel had written to him and sent him some of his work, and Artaud had also received a visit from another writer from Paris, Alain Berne-Joffroy, who was visiting his family near Rodez and took the opportunity to call in on Artaud. The idea of staying at Dr Delmas’s convalescence clinic was disconcerting for Artaud – he wanted now to avoid ‘the atmosphere of sickness’,[52] and would have preferred a hotel. But he had no choice. He packed his drawings and exercise-books for the journey.

On 24 May, a number of photographs were taken of Artaud sitting on a bench in the asylum’s grounds, wearing an oversized woollen suit, alongside Ferdière, Dequeker and the head nurse, Adrienne Régis. Artaud, now almost fifty years old, had aged terribly during his three years at Rodez, since the photograph had been taken of his face with its cropped hair and fearful eyes on his arrival from Ville-Évrard. On the following day, Saturday, 25 May, Ferdière wrote a release certificate for Artaud and a final diagnosis: ‘Displays a chronic, very longstanding delirium; for several months, there has been the absence of violent reactions, his conduct is much more coherent, takes care of his appearance, etc…; it seems that an attempt at re-adaptation is now possible.’ Artaud and Ferdière then took the night train from Rodez to Paris, arriving at the Austerlitz station at dawn on 26 May 1946.



[1] Letter to Jean Paulhan (23 March 1946), OC XI, p.212.
[2] Artaud’s friend Paule Thévenin believed that Artaud wrote no letters at all from Sainte-Anne. It is conceivable that Roger Blin (who did not keep the letters he evoked) was mistakenly thinking of the letters from Artaud which he later received from the asylum of Ville-Évrard.
[3] Blin, Souvenirs et Propos, p.30.
[4] Letter to Anne Manson (27 December 1943), OC X, 1974, pp.157-8.
[5] Lettres à Anie Besnard, p.7.
[6] Ibid, p.7.
[7] Ibid, p.10.
[8] Nouveaux Écrits de Rodez, Gallimard, Paris, 1977, pp.28-9.
[9] ‘Spell’ reproduced in Antonin Artaud: Dessins et Portraits, pp.138-9.
[10] Ibid, pp.136-7.
[11] Ibid, p.26.
[12] Antonin Artaud, Dessins, CGP, Paris, 1987, p.18.
[13] Ibid, p.13.
[14] Interview with the author, Paris, March 1987.
[15] Card to René Thomas, Antonin Artaud, Dessins, p.8.
[16] Nouveaux Écrits de Rodez, p.54.
[17] Ferdière, I Treated Antonin Artaud, in La Tour de Feu, nos.63/64, Jarnac, 1959, p.35.
[18] Convulsive Therapy, Theory and Practice, Raven Press, New York, 1979, p.159.
[19] Interview with the author, Aubervilliers, March 1987.
[20] Nouveaux Écrits de Rodez, p.40.
[21] Ibid, p.59.
[22] Letter to Jean Paulhan, OC X, p.105.
[23] Letter to Gaston Ferdière, Nouveaux Écrits de Rodez, p.50.
[24] Letter to Roger Blin, OC XI, p.120.
[25] OC X, p.104.
[26] Interview with the author, Hérisy, July 1987.
[27] Nouveaux Écrits de Rodez, p.127.
[28] Interview with the author, Paris, April 1987.
[29] And it was in Mexico, p.125.
[30] Interview with the author, Paris, March 1987.
[31] Ibid, and interview with Paule Thévenin by the author, Paris, July 1988.
[32] Dequeker, The Extermination of Proprieties (1950), collected in Artaud Vivant (ed. O. Virmaux), Oswald, Paris, 1980, pp.155-6.
[33] OC XVIII, 1983, p.108.
[34] Letter to Gaston Gallimard, OC XI, p.38.
[35] Introduction (1970, trans. Richard Howard) to Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, Penguin, London, 1971, p.8.
[36] OC XI, p.149.
[37] OC XIV*, 1978, p.148.
[38] Letter to Henri Thomas, OC XIV*, p.48.
[39] Lettres de Rodez, OC IX, p.169.
[40] Ibid, p.171.
[41] Letter to Arthur Adamov, OC XIV*, p.94.
[42] OC XI, p.177.
[43] OC XIV*, p.76.
[44] Ibid, p.84.
[45] Letter to Colette Thomas, OC XIV*, p.84.
[46] Interview with Paule Thévenin by the author, Paris, April 1987.
[47] Colette Thomas, Le Testament de la Fille Morte, Gallimard, Paris, 1954, p.151.
[48] Letter to Colette Thomas, OC XIV*, p.107.
[49] OC XI, p.205.
[50] Ibid, p.216.
[51] OC XIV*, p.21.
[52] Letter to Jean Paulhan, OC XI, p.278.




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