The English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s excellent final novella, A Little Lumpen Novelita, is out this month. The book opens with an epigraph by Antonin Artaud, who was born today in 1896: “All writing is garbage. People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.”
Since I read it about a month ago, I’ve thought of this quotation every day, often as I’m writing—you can imagine the rat-a-tat of my keyboard punctuated with an occasional “All writing is garbage.” It’s a bracing sentiment, taunting and misanthropic, and a truer one than most of us would care to admit. At the moment, it flies in the face of our glad-handing literary culture, where every book is a good book and every writer in every M.F.A. program partakes of a dignified struggle with Art.
Here’s how that quotation, which comes from Artaud’s The Nerve Meter (1925), goes on:
The whole literary scene is a pigpen, especially today. All those who have points of reference in their minds, I mean on a certain side of their heads, in well-localized areas of their brains, all those who are masters of their language, all those for whom words have meanings, all those for whom there exists higher levels of the soul and currents of thought, those who represent the spirit of the times, and who have named these currents of thought, I am thinking of their meticulous industry and of that mechanical creaking which their minds give off in all directions—are pigs.
Those for whom certain words have meaning, and certain modes of being, those who are so precise, those for whom emotions can be classified and who quibble over some point of their hilarious classifications, those who still believe in “terms,” those who discuss the ranking ideologies of the age, those whom women discuss so intelligently and the women themselves who speak so well and who discuss the currents of the age, those who still believe in an orientation of the mind, those who follow paths, who drop names, who recommend books—these are the worst pigs of all.
You are quite unnecessary, young man!
It’s vigorous spleen-venting, to say the least, and if by the end Artaud seems to have blunted the edge of his anger, we can still applaud his rigor. And we must, I think. The world needs its Artauds now more than ever. As Mark Leyner said in his Art of Fiction interview,
Bro, we’re living in the Kali Yuga, a Dark Age of petite bourgeoisie ideology, a petite bourgeoisie ideology whose resources and ruses are infinite and which ubiquitously permeates the world—high culture, low culture, bienpensant media, prestige literature, pop music, commerce, sports, academia, you name it. The only reasonable response to this situation is to maintain an implacable antipathy toward everything. Denounce everyone. Make war against yourself. Guillotine all groveling intellectuals. That said, I think it’s important to maintain a cheery disposition. This will hasten the restoration of Paradise. I’ve memorized this line from André Breton’s magnificent homage to Antonin Artaud—“I salute Antonin Artaud for his passionate, heroic negation of everything that causes us to be dead while alive.” Given the state of things, that’s what we need to be doing, all the time—negating everything that causes us to be dead while alive.
That’s what a line like “All writing is garbage” does for me: negates everything that causes us to be dead while alive. That quotation, too—from Breton’s “A Tribute to Antonin Artaud”—is worth some elaboration. Here’s the bit leading up to it:
Each time I happen to recall—nostalgically—the surrealist rebellion as expressed in its original purity and intransigence, it is the personality of Antonin Artaud that stands out in its dark magnificence, it is a certain intonation in his voice that injects specks of gold into his whispering voice. … Antonin Artaud: I do not have to account in his stead for what he has experienced nor for what he has suffered. … I know that Antonin Artaud saw, the way Rimbaud, as well as Novalis and Arnim before him, had spoken of seeing. It is of little consequence, ever since the publication of Aurelia, that what was seen this way does not coincide with what is objectively visible. The real tragedy is that the society to which we are less and less honored to belong persists in making it an inexpiable crime to have gone over to the other side of the looking glass. In the name of everything that is more than ever close to my heart, I cheer the return to freedom of Antonin Artaud in a world where freedom itself must be reinvented. Beyond all the mundane denials, I place all my faith in Antonin Artaud, that man of prodigies.