Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?

That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

It is the interdependent ensemble of our technicised world – which is literally the humanly created world and at the same time the world of a virtually integral subjugation of all existents – of which we must think the truth.

Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Équivalence des catastrophes  

For the first time, an invisible and unknown being, almost immaterial, paralysed the whole of technical human civilisation.  Nothing like it ever occurred before – even less at a global scale.  Old dogmas were pulverised, solid certainties were profoundly shaken.  Everything now changed: economic axioms, geopolitical equilibriums, forms of life, social realities.  But an epochal transformation generates anxiety because it is a true inversion of perspective.  Until yesterday, we could consider ourselves omnipotent among the ruins; the first and the only even in the primacy of destruction.  This primacy was taken from us by a power superior to and more destructive than ours.  That it be a virus, an insignificant portion of organised matter, makes the event even more traumatic.  Even the smallest creature can dethrone us, destroy us, undermine us.  Perhaps, who knows, life on the planet can assume new directions.  In the meantime, we have to recognise that we are not omnipotent as we presumed.  On the contrary, we are extremely vulnerable.

Donatella Di Cesare, Virus sovrano? L’asfissia capitalistica

Reading the pandemic with Antonin Artaud …

“Damages management” would seem to be the limit of our capacity to imagine catastrophe.  Its cause or source must be identified, classified, mapped, controlled, overcome, without in anyway putting into question the human vanity of technical-political mastery over “nature”.  Our “progress” rests upon the latter, however it is driven and measured, and what we thereby fail to see is that the catastrophe lies precisely in this.  The catastrophes of our present, real or imaginary, impede us from learning from the inhuman and nonhuman, from that which lies beneath and beyond our hubris, condemning us thereby to repeat our catastrophic follies blindly. (Annie Le Brun)

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of close to a million people, and infected millions more, defies any simple, transparent legibility.  As with any pandemic, it is not an exclusively biological or epidemiological phenomenon, whether one speaks of its causes or effects.  But in the management of this crisis – and this regardless of the diversity of the responses –, what has been central is the desire for domestication of the semantic field through which the virus is read, with corresponding instruments and apparatuses of political control.  What is most threatening to established orders of power is not the virus itself, but the unmasking, the apocalypse, the seeing of the violence exercised upon ourselves and the world that unleashed the virus.

Antonin Artaud, writing of the plague and theatre, and with history as his witness, described the impact of the former on established order as an event of destructive transgression.

Once the plague is established in a city, the regular forms collapse. There is no maintenance of roads and sewers, no army, no police, no municipal administration. Pyres are lit at random to bum the dead, with whatever means are available. Each family wants to have its own. Then wood, space, and flame itself growing rare, there are family feuds around the pyres, soon followed by a general flight, for the corpses are too numerous. The dead already clog .the streets in ragged pyramids gnawed at by animals around the edges. The stench rises in the air like a flame. Entire streets are blocked by the piles of dead. Then the houses open and the delirious victims, their minds crowded with hideous visions, spread howling through the streets. The disease that ferments in their viscera and circulates throughout their entire organism discharges itself in tremendous cerebral explosions. Other victims, without bubos, delirium, pain, or rash, examine themselves proudly in the mirror, in splendid health, as they think, and then fall dead with their shaving mugs in their hands, full of scorn for other victims.

Over the poisonous, thick, bloody streams (color of agony and opium) which gush out of the corpses, strange personages pass, dressed in wax, with noses long as sausages and eyes of glass, mounted on a kind of Japanese sandal made of double wooden tablets, one horizontal, in the form of a sole, the other vertical, to keep them from the contaminated fluids, chanting absurd litanies that cannot prevent them from sinking into the furnace in their turn. These ignorant doctors betray only their fear and their childishness.

The dregs of the population, apparently immunized by their frenzied greed, enter the open houses and pillage riches they know will serve no purpose or profit. And at that moment the theatre is born. The theatre, i.e., an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit.

The last of the living are in a frenzy: the obedient and virtuous son kills his father; the chaste man performs sodomy upon his neighbours. The lecher becomes pure. The miser throws his gold in handfuls out the window. The warrior hero sets fire to the city he once risked his life to save. The dandy decks himself out in his finest clothes and promenades before the charnel houses. Neither the idea of an absence of sanctions nor that of imminent death suffices to motivate acts so gratuitously absurd on the part of men who did not believe death could end anything. And how explain the surge of erotic fever among the recovered victims who, instead of fleeing the city, remain where they are, trying to wrench a criminal pleasure from the dying or even the dead, half crushed under the pile of corpses where chance has lodged them.

We are not celebrating the tragedy brought about by a new sovereign – the coronavirus –, by citing Artaud.  The ravages of the pandemic among the “wretched of the earth” are real and should be cause enough for rebellion.  But, for the most part, it has not occurred and in the race to return to the former “normality”, the death of badly paid workers, the sick, the aged, poor “minorities” of all kinds, is tolerated: Let there be jobs and happy consumers! … at least among a few.

Where then is Artaud’s plague, that harbinger “of conflicts, struggles, cataclysms and debacles” with the force to reverse “feelings and images”?  A plague is a force or agency, which however human, also reveals within the human being the presence of the non-human; a natural agency that cannot be summarised or reduced to conscious human behaviour.  It is the living “monster” within that defies sovereignties – of the subject, of the State, of property –, exposing us to levels or layers of reality that are “us/me” (we are the hosts and accumulated histories of endless varieties of bacteria and viruses) and more, unveiling through the latter potentialies which lie beyond the identities and orders of existing hierarchies, opening doors to their metamorphoses and overthrow in an “immense liquidation”.

A social disaster so far-reaching, an organic disorder so mysterious–this overflow of vices, this total exorcism which presses and impels the soul to its utmost–all indicate the presence of a state which is nevertheless characterized by extreme strength and in which all the powers of nature are freshly discovered at the moment when something essential is going to be accomplished.

The spectacle of pleasure proffered by commodity consumption, the underlying fragile narcissism of subjectivities condemned to live out the same, forever, the fear of the other, the different, the strange, human or non-human, and against which immunities are desired and sought, isolate us even from the disruption of a plague.  “The mind believes what it sees and does what it believes: that is the secret of the fascination.”  The spell then must be broken.  If past catastrophes did so, it was not as “natural events”, but as “events” experienced as revelatory.       

Artaud writes that “there are conditions to be rediscovered in order to engender in the mind a spectacle capable of fascinating it” and he thought that theatre, in a strange affinity with the plague, could engender them.

The plague takes images that are dormant, a latent disorder, and suddenly extends them into the most extreme gestures; the theatre also takes gestures and pushes them as far as they will go: like the plague it reforges the chain between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and what already exists in materialized nature. It recovers the notion of symbols and archetypes which act like silent blows, rests, leaps of the heart, summons of the lymph, inflammatory images thrust into our abruptly wakened heads. The theatre restores us as our dormant conflicts and all their powers, and gives these powers names we hail as symbols: and behold! before our eyes is fought a battle of symbols, one charging against another in an impossible melee; for there can be theatre only from the moment when the impossible really begins and when the poetry which occurs on the stage sustains and superheats the realized symbols.

These symbols, the sign of ripe powers previously held in servitude and unavailable to reality, burst forth in the guise of incredible images which give freedom of the city and of existence to acts that are by nature hostile to the life of societies.

In the true theatre a play disturbs the senses’ repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolt (which moreover can have its full effect only if it remains virtual), and imposes on the assembled collectivity an attitude that is both difficult and heroic.

Artaud’s desired theatre carries the spirit back to the source of its conflicts; it reveals telluric, “evil” agencies in our depths; it illuminates so intensely “that the difficult and even the impossible suddenly become our normal element.”

The theatre, like the plague, is in the image of this carnage and this essential separation. It releases conflicts, disengages powers, liberates possibilities, and if these possibilities and these powers are dark, it is the fault not of the plague nor of the theatre, but of life.

We do not see that life as it is and as it has been fashioned for us provides many reasons for exaltation. It appears that by means of the plague, a gigantic abscess, as much moral as social, has been collectively drained; and that like the plague, the theatre has been created to drain abscesses collectively.

Perhaps the theatre’s poison, injected into the social body, disintegrates it, … but at least it does so as a plague, as an avenging scourge, a redeeming epidemic in which credulous ages have chosen to see the finger of God and which is nothing but the application of a law of nature whereby every gesture is counterbalanced by a gesture and every action by its reaction.

The theatre like the plague is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure. And the plague is a superior disease because it is a total crisis after which nothing remains except death or an extreme purification. Similarly the theatre is a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction. It invites the mind to share a delirium which exalts its energies; and we can see, to conclude, that from the human point of view, the action of theatre, like that of plague, is beneficial, for, impelling men to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world; it shakes off the asphyxiating inertia of matter which invades even the clearest testimony of the senses; and in revealing to collectivities of men their dark power, their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny, a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.

And the question we must now ask is whether, in this slippery world which is committing suicide without noticing it, there can be found a nucleus of men capable of imposing this superior notion of the theatre, men who will restore to all of us the natural and magic equivalent of the dogmas in which we no longer believe.

Our question is not whether such a “nucleus of men” can be found, but whether anyone can be, who together with others, may begin to narrate a different and dangerous “myth” – through theatre and more – about the virus or the other catastrophes that lurk in our mists: “myths” about our bonds with what lives in and outside us.

An English language version of Artaud’s collection of essays, The Theatre and Its Double is available online here.

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