Antonin Artaud’s Heliogabalus is simultaneously his most extreme, revolutionary and deranged book, and likely now also to prove his most influential in the contemporary moment with the publication by Infinity Land Press of this first complete English-language translation, by Alexis Lykiard.
Dating from the period when Artaud was preparing his legendary ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ experiments, Heliogabalus anatomises and recreates the sperm and blood-constellated life of the infamous Roman emperor who was assassinated by his own guards at the age of 18 after four years spent relentlessly deriding and disintegrating the empire’s power. Artaud asserts that ‘The entire life of Heliogabalus is anarchy in action… fire, gesture, blood, cry… Fanatical, a real king, a rebel, a crazed individualist.’
Artaud explicitly wrote his account of Heliogabalus’s acts as an embodiment of himself and of his own insurgency in art. Three years after the book’s publication, he was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, emerging only shortly before his death in 1948.
This edition includes an introduction by Stephen Barber and his translations of all of the surviving letters written by Artaud about his work on Heliogabalus.
Translated by Alexis Lykiard
With an introduction by Stephen Barber
Artworks by Martin Bladh
Photographs by Karolina Urbaniak
Hardbound, 196 pages, 190 x 148mm
From the introduction by Stephen Barber
The grandiose and arbitrary abuse of unlimited power, the overriding infinite desire for immediate sexual ecstasy and oblivion especially through violence and subjugation, and the nonchalant eradication of entire populations, are now ever-more familiar preoccupations. Of all the Roman Emperors, it is the figure of the anarchist child-god Heliogabalus (along with the crazed Caligula and the matricidal Nero), with his ephemeral and implosive reign of gold, blood, semen and excrement, which most intimately infiltrates contemporary manias, panics and desires. The four-year reign of Heliogabalus, who was slaughtered by his own guards at the age of eighteen, was characterised by performances and spectacles of incest, sodomy, butchery, debauchery, and an anarchic ridicule for all powers of government. Of all the many responses to the Roman Emperors, it is Antonin Artaud’s extraordinary account of the life and work of Heliogabalus which most exactly aligns those forces of uncontrollable uproar with the seisms that now seize and impel contemporary voided empires, corporealities, audiences and art.
If there was around the corpse of Heliogabalus, tombless, its throat cut by his police force in his palace latrines, a heavy flow of blood and excrement, there was around his cradle a heavy flow of sperm. Heliogabalus was born in an era when everybody slept with everybody; and it will never be known when or by whom his mother was actually impregnated. For a Syrian prince like him, consanguinity came from the mother’s side; – and as regards mothers, around this newborn son of a charioteer was a pleiad of Julias; – and whether or not practising when in power, all these Julias were highclass whores.
The father to them all, to the female wellspring of this river of rape and infamy, must, before he became priest, have been a coachman, since otherwise it would be incomprehensible – the zealousness which Heliogabalus, once enthroned, put into being buggered by charioteers.
A mass of gold flung into a pit fed by the Cyclopeans, at the very instant the Grand High Priest frantically ravages a vulture’s throat and drinks its blood, intimates a theory about the alchemical transmutation of feelings into forms and forms to feeling, according to the ancient Egyptians’ sacred ritual.
But to this notion of bloodletting and the material transmutation of forms there corresponds an idea of purification. It has to do with isolating the very essence of any sensual ecstasy experienced momentarily and individually by the priest, so that this explosion and this rapid outburst of frenzy may return, unencumbered by matter, to the first principle from which it’s been born.
Then there are the innumerable rooms consecrated to a single action or even to one simple gesture, with which the underbelly of the temple and its rumbling bowels seem to be crammed. The rite of ablution, the rite of abandon, diversion, renunciation; the rite, in every sense, of absolute nakedness; the rite of the biting power and unforeseen bursting forth of the sun, parallelling the sight of a wild boar; the rite of the savagery of the Alpine wolf and that of the stubbornness of the ram; the rite of the warm zephyrs and that of the great solar conflagration at the time when the first male scored his victory over the serpent; all these rituals, in ten thousand chambers, are observed daily or monthly, biennially, – they link a robe to a gesture, a stride to a spurt of blood.
With hindsight one can pour scorn upon the blood-drenched rites of the Tauroboli, to which – in a sort of mystical line whose course has never been superseded, running from the High Plateaux of Iran to the exclusive precincts of Rome – the adepts of the Mithraic cult devoted themselves; one can hold one’s nose in horror at the mingled emanation of blood, sperm, sweat and menses, combined with that intimate stench of putrefying flesh and unclean sex rising from the human sacrifices; one can exclaim in disgust at the sexual pruritus of the women stimulated to frenzy by the sight of a member freshly torn off; one can deplore the craziness of people entranced, who, from the rooftops of the houses into which the Galli flung their members, tossed them down onto the shoulders of women’s garments, the while invoking their gods; which is not to say that all these rites didn’t contain a certain amount of violent spirituality that went beyond their sanguinary excesses.
If in the religion of Christ heaven is one myth, in the religion of Elagabalus at Emesa heaven is a reality, but a reality that acts like another, and reacts dangerously upon that other. All these rituals unify heaven – heaven or what is separated from heaven, man or woman, under the sacrificial knife.
That is because there are in heaven gods, forces in other words, which are seeking only to swoop down.
The force that builds up tidal waves, that makes the sea lap at the moon, that has lava rising from the depths of volcanoes; the force that shakes buildings and creates deserts; the force red and unpredictable that sends thoughts like so many crimes seething through our heads, and crimes innumerable, like lice; the force that supports and aborts life – these are concrete manifestations of an energy whose heavier aspect is the Sun.
In the sun, there’s war, Mars – the sun is a warrior god; and the ritual of the Gallus is a rite of war: man and woman melted in blood, at the cost of bloodshed.
In the abstract war of Heliogabalus, in his battle of principles, in his war of semblances, there is human blood as in real war, not abstract blood, unreal blood of the imaginary, but real blood that flowed and can flow; and if Heliogabalus shed no blood in defence of territory, he paid with his own for his poetry and ideas.
The entire life of Heliogabalus is anarchy in action, since Elagabalus the unitary god who brings together again man and woman, the hostile poles, the ONE and the TWO, is the end of contradictions, the elimination of war and anarchy, but by way of war, and that’s also – on this earth of contradiction and disorder – the putting into action of anarchy. And anarchy at the point to which Heliogabalus pushes it, is poetry realised.
There is in all poetry an essential contradiction. Poetry is pulverised multiplicity and it produces flames. And poetry, which restores order, first revives disorder, disorder with semblances ablaze; it causes appearances to clash in restoring them to one singular point: fire, gesture, blood, cry.
To restore poetry and order to a world whose very existence is a threat to order, is to bring back war and the permanence of war; it is to bring in a state of enforced cruelty, to arouse a nameless anarchy, anarchy of things and appearances which awaken before sinking anew and melting into unity. But he who arouses this dangerous anarchy is always its first victim. And Heliogabalus is a diligent anarchist who begins by devouring himself, and ends by devouring his excrement.
Whenever Heliogabalus dresses as a prostitute and sells himself for forty pence at the doors of Christian churches, at the temples of Roman gods, he’s not only seeking the satisfaction of a vice, but humiliating the Roman monarch.
When he appoints a dancer to head his praetorian guard, he’s thereby establishing a sort of incontestable yet dangerous anarchy. He exposes to ridicule the cowardice of the monarchs, his predecessors, the Antonines and the Marcus Aureliuses, and finds that a dancer’s perfectly fit to command a bunch of policemen. He calls weakness strength and theatre, reality. He’s overturning the received order, ideas, the everyday notions of things. His is a meticulous and dangerous anarchy, since he reveals himself to all eyes. To tell the truth he’s risking his own skin. And that’s a courageous anarchist.
He continues his enterprise of the debasement of standards, of monstrous moral disorganisation, in choosing his ministers by the enormousness of their members.
“He placed at the head of his night watch”, says Lampridius, “the charioteer Gordius, and made chief steward a certain Claudius, who was censor of morals; all other preferments were dependent upon the outstanding size of member of those recommended. He appointed as collectors of the five per cent inheritance tax a muleteer, an athlete, a cook and a locksmith.”
It didn’t prevent his taking personal advantage of this disorder, this shameless slackening of morals, nor of making a habit of obscenity; and into broad daylight, like a maniac and a man obsessed, he brought what is normally kept hidden.
There’s a strange rhythm to the cruelty of Heliogabalus; this initiate does everything with art and everything is doubled. I mean that he does everything on two levels. Each of his gestures is double-edged.
From the top of the newly erected towers of his temple to the Pythian god, he scatters corn and male members.
He feeds a castrated people.
There are certainly no theorbos, no tubas, no orchestras of citharas accompanying the castrations he decrees, but which he decrees each time like so many personal castrations, and as if it were Elagabalus Himself being castrated. Sacks of male sexes are cast from the tops of the towers with the cruellest abundance on the day of the festival of the Pythian god.
I couldn’t swear to it, but an orchestra of citharas or squeaky-stringed, hard-bellied nebels might have been concealed somewhere in the darkest cellars of the spiral towers, so as to drown the shrieks of the parasites being castrated; but these shrieks of martyred men almost simultaneously match the acclamations of a rejoicing populace to whom Heliogabalus distributes the equivalent of several fields’ worth of corn.
Good, evil, blood, sperm, rose-wines, embalming oils, the costliest perfumes, all create, alongside the generosity of Heliogabalus, innumerable irrigations.
Letter to Jean Paulhan
1 June 1934
With boredom, I notice that you understand me less and less, and from my side of things, I no longer understand your reactions. Supreme Truth: I’m looking only for that – but when someone starts to talk to me about what is true, I always ask myself what kind of ‘true’ they’re talking about, and I ask myself to what extent the idea that you can have some kind of delimited, objective truth hides another truth which obstinately eludes all capture, all limits, all localisation, and finally eludes what is called the Real.
So that’s what I wanted to say to you – and while your letter irritated me and made me say to myself: whether it’s true or not shouldn’t matter to him as long as it’s beautiful and as long as you can find in this book the idea of the true and of the Superior Real, I’ll tell you anyway that the dates are true, all of the historical events are true in their origins and then interpreted, with many invented details; I intended that the Esoteric Truths are true in their spirit, while they are often intentionally FALSIFIED in their form – form is really nothing; the imagining is excessive and exaggerated, with desperate affirmations; but then, an atmosphere of panicstrickenness establishes itself in the book, the rational loses its footing, while the mind advances forward, armed to the teeth. In the end, a kind of desperate sincerity underpins the book even in my apparent deformation of the truth, which happens rarely in really being a deformation. I’m not going to say anything more to you – but I’m simply astonished that when you are confronted with a book written with my heart and the skin of my entrails, you dare – you – to ask me if it’s true. I believe that you can either feel it, or not.
I’m going to have to tell you that for the past three weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed by demonstrations of authentic enthusiasm. Whether he’s ‘true’ or not, the figure of Heliogabalus is alive, right through to his depths, I believe, whether those depths are those of the historical figure Heliogabalus or those of a figure who is myself. You’ve liked books of mine which are less alive, less accomplished, less complete, and I don’t understand why this particular book – in which I think I’ve been able to incorporate myself, even with my deficiencies and my excesses, as well as with the qualities that I may possess – provokes your resistance. By contrast, I liked very much this letter from Daumal – forwarded on by Vera – whom many passages in the book touched deeply.
Yesterday evening I took charge of the lighting design for the dances of Helba Huara at the Salle Pleyel. The dances were a triumph in that immense auditorium which was almost full and my lighting design contributed to that success, despite the poor means at my disposal.
About the Author
Antonin Artaud’s work has a world-renowned status for experimentation across performance, film, sound, poetry and visual art. In the 1920s, he was a member of the Surrealist movement until his expulsion, and formulated theoretical plans across the first half of the 1930s for his ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ and attempted to carry them through. He made a living as a film actor from 1924 to 1935 and made many attempts to direct his own film projects. In 1936, he travelled to Mexico with a plan to take peyote in the Tarahumara lands. In 1937, preoccupied with the imminent apocalypse, he travelled to Ireland but was deported, beginning a nine-year asylum incarceration during which he continued to write and also made many drawings. After his release in 1946, he lived in the grounds of a sanatorium in Ivry-sur-Seine, close to Paris, and worked intensively on drawings, writings and sound-recordings. He died on 4 March 1948. His drawings have been exhibited on several occasions, notably at the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna in 2002 and at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris
Alexis Lykiard (born 1940) is a British writer of Greek heritage, who began his prolific career as novelist and poet in the 1960s. His poems about jazz have received particular acclaim, including from Maya Angelou, Hugo Williams, Roy Fisher, Kevin Bailey and others. He is also known as translator of Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud and many notable French literary figures. In addition, Lykiard has written two highly praised intimate memoirs of Jean Rhys: Jean Rhys Revisited (2000) and Jean Rhys: Afterwords (2006).
Stephen Barber’s books have been acclaimed as ‘brilliant, profound and provocative’ by The Times newspaper in the UK, and he has been called ‘a writer of real distinction’ and ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ by The Independent newspaper. The Sunday Times newspaper hailed his books as ‘exhilarating and disquieting’.
He is the author of many fiction and non-fiction books, including studies of Antonin Artaud, Pierre Guyotat, Jean Genet and Eadweard Muybridge. Among his recent books are England’s Darkness (SunVision Press) and Berlin Bodies (Reaktion Books). He has also collaborated on books with the poet Jeremy Reed and the photographer Xavier Ribas. His books have been translated into many languages and have won numerous prizes and awards. He is currently a professor of art and film at the Kingston School of Art, Kingston University, London.
Martin Bladh is a Swedish-born artist of multiple mediums. His work lays bare themes of violence, obsession, fantasy, domination, submission and narcissism. Bladh is a founding member of the post-industrial band IRM, the musical avant-garde unit Skin Area and co-founder of Infinity Land Press. His published work includes To Putrefaction, Qualis Artifex Pereo, DES, The Hurtin’ Club and Darkleaks – The Ripper Genome and Marty Page. He lives and works in London.
Karolina Urbaniak is a visual artist and co-founder of Infinity Land Press. Urbaniak’s published work includes To Putrefaction, 2014, Altered Balance – A Tribute to Coil, 2014/15, The Void Ratio, 2015, Artaud 1937 Apocalypse, 2018 and Death Mort Tod – A European Book of the Dead, 2018. Her recent multimedia projects include the soundtrack for Darkleaks – The Ripper Genome and the audio/visual installation On The New Revelations of Being inspired by the work of Antonin Artaud. She lives and works in London.
p.s. Hey. The writer Rob Halpern has written an interesting essay about New Narrative pioneer Bruce Boone’s and my books in the new issue of Tripwire, and anyone can read it in pdf form if anyone is interested (starting on p. 224). There’s also a special section on the amazing writer Renee Gladman and work by all kinds of excellent authors like Robert Gluck, Isabel Waidner, Julia Bloch and many others. Here. ** JM, Hey! Thanks a lot, man. ** David Ehrenstein, Here’s hoping LA-ers pony up for your no doubt great booty before it’s too late. ** _Black_Acrylic, Very happy you liked them. I don’t think that’s a facile comparison at all. I think it’s only interesting to think about club environmental transformation and abstract films in cahoots. Have a great weekend! ** Steve Erickson, That was my situation with WWD until just recently too. Everyone, Steve Erickson weighs in on ‘the Quad’s June series of ’70s and ’80s queer German cinema’ in a place that can be accessed through this. Don’t know about ‘Dare to Stop Us’, or rather didn’t until now. It’s a fiction film, I’m guessing? I’ll look into it. ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. Obviously very happy that the intro/post on WWD stuck with you. I’m glad Julien Calendar is now officially back on the live circuit. That does sound like a tricky and vexing space. Can’t think of any excuse for the fully lit aspect at the very least. No, I don’t believe I’ve even heard of ‘Red Shift’. Of course I’ll a do a hunt to see what’s what. Very interesting. Thank you for the good thoughts. It’s inescapably dire. I don’t really want to go into it because it requires a complicated explanation that isn’t suited to this situation, but, once it settles, it’ll be easier (or something) to elucidate about. Hope your weekend rules. ** Bill, Hi, Bill. I’m very happy you liked his work. Me too, I mean obviously. Happily packed or unpacked weekend ahead? ** Misanthrope, We get those kinds of rain storms here a lot. Not recently because it’s fucking summer, but in most seasons Paris gets rain bursts most days. We’ve crept up into almost horrible heat here, but it’s supposed to get bored with Paris and go fuck with Germany or somewhere starting tomorrow. The talent to save up money is a real talent that I do not have, so respect to Kayla. That place by Hyde Park does sound like quite a bargain. I’m sure there must be a catch, but it’s hopefully a catch that you/we laissez faire Americans won’t even notice. Ah, LPS is up to his old … I was going to say tricks but it’s more like a lifestyle, I guess. Thanks about the Halpern piece. Curious piece. ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, Corey. My pleasure, and thank you again for giving me an ‘in’ with your video. Any news? Cool you watched ‘The Fall.’ It’s been ages since I saw that one. I think Whitehead considered it his best work. Enjoy your folks. Speech therapist, interesting. I interviewed a few speech therapists ages ago when I was trying to develop my writer ‘voice’ and to get the inexpressible-but-linguistically-present thing finessed. Ha ha, nice old guy exercise. Yours. That’s cool. Oh, man, thank you about that poem. Boy, that’s an ancient one. I think I was 16 or 17 when I wrote it. Amazing that it ended up having anything going for it. The weather is supposed to reenter fairly pleasant territory tomorrow. I don’t know if I know that particular Chris Ware book. I can be bad with titles. I’ll check. He’s pretty amazing. What a completely odd TV ad. So much stuff in it I can’t decode. Huh. Thanks for that. That’s got me weirdly thinking. Have a swell weekend. ** Right. The fine people at Infinity Land Press, whose books are always among the most superbly designed and visually presented out there, are just now putting out the Artaud book you see up there. I believe it’s the first translation of that Artaud text, so it’s a real occasion. Be with the book’s evidence over this weekend and see what that leads you to do. See you on Monday.