Winter 2005–2006

Ingestion / Cuisine for a Body without Organs

Antonin Artaud’s gastronomical obsessions

Allen S. Weiss

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

There exists no rue Antonin Artaud in Paris (though, through a great sense of delicacy on the part of those who name and rename Parisian streets, the villa Rimbaud is to be found alongside the villa Verlaine, while through a certain indelicacy or nastiness, the rue Fénelon is parallel to the rue Bossuet). However, as a terrible irony, in Rodez, where Artaud spent the years 1943–1946 in a psychiatric asylum—years of hell, a period of incalculable isolation and aphasia, of debilitating torment and torture, during which time his language disappeared, his soul was engulfed, his spirit shattered—there is to be found a Place Antonin Artaud. Dubious praise of he who had no place, who was filled with the void, who was broken by nothingness. Artaud was the first writer (perhaps because of his madness, perhaps in spite of it) where I have found mention of the metaphysical dimension of cuisine: “Aïoli is a metaphysical effort of nourishment through the palate, the tongue and the teeth, leading to the most somber alchemy”[1]—a marvelous condensation of metaphysical folly and magical cuisine.

Antonin Artaud, La Bouillabaisse de formes dans la tour de Babel, ca. February 1946.

Before his liberation from the psychiatric hospital of Rodez (which had the portentious address of 1, rue Vieux-Sens, “Street of the Old-Sense”) and his return to Paris, Artaud was afforded a brief period of provisional freedom in the Aveyron town of Espalion twenty miles north of Rodez on the Lot river, from 19 March through 10 April 1946, in the company of the poet André de Richard. He wrote to his doctor, Gaston Ferdière, from the Hôtel Berthier on 22 March: “I thank you for having indicated Espalion to me. It’s a truly agreeable place with its silence and its castle, whose tattered ruins hang from the sky like old teeth.”[2] But in “Centre-noeuds,” the first version of which was most probably written in Espalion, he offers a much darker version—couched in gastronomic metaphors—of the bizarrely crenellated and rather disturbing ruins of the Château de Calmont-d’Olt (whose vestiges would have thrilled a romantic like Victor Hugo) set upon the peak overlooking his hotel: “And there are crags that sometimes strangely detach themselves, and there are trees peculiarly fixed here and there. And there are sudden forest fires. And on the summit of the mounts there is the ozone of a digestive electricity that was never anything for me but the stomach of all the pulverized, lost bodies.”[3] He saw in this new place a possible destiny for his body, mutilated like the walls of the château, empty as its interior: “And the crime was to have it rise to the peaks, when it would have much rather preferred to be interred all reassembled. For the earth restored his body, it stuffed it, it thickened it, while the ether disseminated it and compelled it to strange relaxations, to strange restraints of resilience in order to manage to bring it to light.”[4] Strange stuffing! Just right for a body without organs! Stuffed man!

In this remote region of France’s Massif Central, Artaud simultaneously expressed the circumstances of his suffering and the conditions necessary for writing: “There is more of the emptiness and the nothingness and the silence and the abyss to support a being than to deny him in order to summon an angel.”[5] Here, it is as if he referred not to the town of Espalion, but rather to the landscape of the monts d’Aubrac just to the north, where in the village of Aubrac are to be found, on the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella, the ruins of the famed Dômerie (L’Hospice de Notre-Dame des Pauvres), a twelfth-century refuge and hospital, on the portal to which were inscribed words most befitting the region: In loco horroris et vastae solitudinis. I don’t know if Artaud saw the monts d’Aubrac, but I always thought that Dr. Ferdière would have done better to have sent the poète maudit to the harsh, chilly desolation of the Aubrac rather than to the soft, tepid picturesqueness of Espalion and the Lot river valley.

View of Espalion; postmark dated 1943.

Just before his departure from Rodez, Artaud drew La bouillabaisse de formes dans la tour de Babel [The Bouillabaisse of Forms in the Tower of Babel], a veritable jumble of images.[6] Given the wartime restrictions suffered at Rodez, as well as the disorientation and pain caused by his sundry cures (including electroshock and insulin therapy, both still in a very rudimentary state), it is not surprising that Artaud, of Marseillais origin, dreamt of the confusion of tongues and the complexity of being in culinary terms, where mixtures, amalgamations, and transformations are of the essence. If the stuffed cabbage, a traditional dish of this region, is soothing and quieting comfort food, the bouillabaisse is quite the inverse: a vertigo of gestures, a chaos of ingredients, a labyrinth of tastes—a dish of extreme complexity and dilemma, if not of gustatory entanglement and disquietude. A veritable allegory of his soul. But in the valley of the Lot there is no bouillabaisse. Most probably Artaud had to make do with, as his doctor suggested, a simple truite au lard, a trout wrapped in lard, that nearly universal manner of adding a bit of fat to the lean.[7]

The date for Antonin Artaud’s La Bouillabaisse de formes dans la tour de Babel was incorrectly given as 1948 in the print edition of this issue.

  1. Antonin Artaud, Cahiers de Rodez, vol. 20 (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), p. 436.
  2. Antonin Artaud, Nouveaux Écrits de Rodez (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), p. 116.
  3. Antonin Artaud, “Centre-noeuds,” in Suppôts et suppliciations (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), p. 26.
  4. Ibid, pp. 26–27.
  5. Cahiers de Rodez, vol. 20, p. 431.
  6. See Paule Thévenin and Jacques Derrida, Antonin Artaud: Dessins et portraits (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), p. 168; also Bernard Blistène and Germain Viatte, eds., Antonin Artaud: Oeuvres sur papier (Marseille: Musées de Marseille / Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1995), pp. 132–133. The drawing of 3 May 1946, Les corps de terre [Bodies of Earth], is of related interest
  7. To add a lighter touch of contemporary gastronomy to this article, I might mention that in July 2004 I had, at the restaurant Le Méjane in Espalion, a superb Truite de Gagnot gratinée au chou vert et au Laguiole [gratinée of trout with Savoy cabbage and Laguiole cheese], as well as an excellent stuffed cabbage in the restaurant La Dômerie in the village of Aubrac. On the cuisine of the Aubrac, see Allen S. Weiss, Gastronomic Diary, July 2003, Contemporary French Civilization, vol. XXVIII, no. 1 (2004) and Cuisine et Beaux-Arts: petite méditation sur le gargouillou, Critique, no. 685–686 (2004). On the bouillabaisse, see Henry Deluy, La Bouillabaisse: Le grand combat, in André Pitte, Xavier Girard, and Thierry Fabre, eds., La cuisine, un gai savoir, a special issue of La pensée du midi, no. 13 (2004)

Allen S. Weiss recently co-edited a special issue of Critique on gastronomy, and is completing Autobiographie dans un chou farci (Autobiography in a stuffed cabbage), from which the present article is excerpted.

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