Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 6 - Abuse of Substance
Log 6 - Abuse of Substance

Absolute Materialism
Matthew Hyland


Few self-contained pieces of bad advice can rival self-help legend Sheldon Kopp's "learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again". This would not only mean pretending to be guilty of digging whatever pit you happen to fall into, but presuming to say where the responsibility would end. But if guilt is imbecilic, shame is a perpetual motion machine, the hidden motor of Spinoza's invisible self-animating substance. "The ignominy of the possibilities of life that we are offered", write Deleuze and Guattari, "appears from within". For example, some cheap piece of evidence, a social encounter, or the sound of your saliva clicking, provokes ridiculous lamentations, first person phrases which are a cause for shame themselves. Of course these are incompatible with whatever notions usually reconcile you to yourself. Yet the faint verisimilitude that authorises your small ration of complacency also resounds in these horrible new postures. Their slapstick vulgarity vouches for that of the habits closest to your heart. (Thus there's nothing more nihilistic than memory as consolation, a desperate refrain of "They can't take that away from me". Ten floodlit minutes of uneventful terror infallibly interpret the lifetime leading up to them. Cf. Benjamin: "even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.")

Antonin Artaud is best known to English speakers as a born victim of this perpetual jive, a precocious Heaven's Gate "student" without computers or science fiction. Susan Sontag describes him as "classically Gnostic", opposing personal psychic salvation to "a world clogged with matter". Jacques Derrida insists that "he never renounced health": he suffered in the name of "a life without difference". For a long time the self-proclaimed bad actor was willing to play this part. In 1937, the year he was thrown into hospital, he wrote to Andr_ Breton, "I agree to go on living only because I think and believe that this world with which Life insults me and insults You will die before I do." His "indignation against everything" was founded on almost serene faith: "There is something to be found. I have found this something and that is what permits me always to speak with complete assurance." In the near future, the whole world was to go up in flames, so that the Natural Right of "Kings in Spirit" might come into power. The last resort of the Heaven's Gate crew, the most famous "Gnostics" of recent years, is implicit in this Millennial gambler's bravado. In a letter written two months later, he anticipates "a furious one who will invite us to stop living and to feel that it is better to die."

Over the nine years of his incarceration, however, Artaud gradually gave up the respectable game of playing Catholicism off against the "true christ", the dream of synthesising European and "Eastern" religions on a purely psychological plane. After 1945, his writing hurls abuse at spirituality in general, instead of just at priests. Elaborate curses are heaped upon the ritualistic Balinese theatre, his former inspiration. "The idolatrous" must be "flagellated as it deserves, in order to reveal of what nothingness it is made."

At this point analogies between Artaud's thought and Gnosticism begin to crumble. As in the Stoic philosophy of Zeno and Chrysippus, Pneuma (often translated as "spirit", but literally, "breath"), subsists only in bodily secretions: blood, shit, semen, breath and writing. In these substances, action, the body's self-animation, is inseparable from passion, its (dis)possession by the teeming fragments of god.

"I see fragments, I pant them, I set them up with my breath and my hand, and with my breath and my hand I slash...These are beings, animalcules, and not objects, who have invented spirit in order that it resemble them...They come from an already existing body drawn from all the fragments...And that is what is known as absolute materialism...what characterises things is that they follow no law absolutely save my own arbitration and will which are made from things which are going to annihilate them...from an abortive or hasty gesture of the body one day an army of bodies has emerged..."

For the Neoplatonists Porphyry and Iamblichus, whose writings Artaud read at Rodez, Pneuma is inhabited by aerial demons which "confuse judgement and, as it were inebriating them, deceive men and lead them astray", setting off "the whole complex mechanism of sighs". Yet this illness is also the "self-animating evolution of an angel": the "dissolving" demons strain within matter towards the One, the "unique and very unfinable will", the physical body without organs.

Whereas the Heaven's Gate Gnostics presumed to do without drugs, opiates play a precisely determined role in Artaud's renunciation of transcendence. Opium is "what resembles most closely" the "regenerative slime" that is "the very body of the soul", or the angelic polarity of Pneuma. It "does not make you see things in a hallucinatory manner, it makes you do things, without magic, but rendering always more magically acceptable the difficulty of encountering things in the ordinary course of life." This fabricated angel blocks off orifices -- mouth, anus, pores and internal passages -- suspending the organic relations ("ingestion, breaking off of everything") that shut down thought. But this resemblance must not be mistaken for an End. "The fluid is necessarily corrupted, but not by itself. It is corrupted only by the other pole from which it cannot be separated." The horror of bodies' mutual permeation isn't interrupted, it's transferred wholesale onto the very real surface of thought. The artificially full body's plenitude entails limiless vulnerability: everything is at stake in every encounter. "Up there...is no land...just the sea...of possibilities", seethes Patti Smith in several voices. Passions which would otherwise be confined to particular states of affairs are inflicted directly on the "univocal being" of eternally returning events. The most contemptible animalcule influences every possibility, "all chance in a single cast".

It's clear why Roger Blin said opium suited Artaud's rages and fulminations. Some kind of prosthetic is always needed, although it could just as well have been another inauthentic substance.

"To exist...means carrying fear, the entire sexual coffer of fear, into oneself, as the unified body of the soul, the whole soul from infinite time, without recourse to any god behind one."

The point is to perpetuate this fear, to nail it to impersonal thought before it subsides into clogged emotion, "the foul intimacy of bardo". This childish (not "childlike") confusion of "monumental, unreasonable terrors" is the cheapest possible price for a moment's flight from the (psychological and political) mechanism by which "everyone is able to look inside everyone else, in order to find out what everyone else is doing." But latter-day Gnostics, from students of Heaven's Gate to theose of Greil Marcus, want above all to be spared unhealthy levels of stress. To save themselves from being torn apart by hesitation, they welcome things as they are indifferently. By proclaiming the absolute dominion of an absolutely Other power, they make their furtive peace with the Demiurge.

Matthew Hyland



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room