Artaud's Cruelty and Reines and Eshleman

by on Feb.05, 2012

Ariana Reines’ Mercury and Clayton Eshleman’s An Anatomy of the Night might seem to have little to do with one another. Reines, whose book The Cow is, to my mind, one of the most striking and original books of poetry in the past decade or so, has written a new book that has a Warholian and Joycean inclination to throw in the floating debris of everyday life. In contrast, Eshleman’s An Anatomy is more focused (like much of his work) on threading Experience through the Mythic in a manner reminiscent of Blake. In other words, one book seems to thrive on letting in the scattered, quotidian world, while the other is more invested in selecting certain crucial experiences (particular dreams, memories) that act as doors into the murkier corridors of perception.

But I can’t help but see the similarities too. And it is not the first time I’ve thought there is a correspondence between the two poets. To put it simply: both are Artaud’s heirs in the most extreme sense, the cruelest sense. Mercury and An Anatomy of the Night are dangerous brews in which oblivion and sex, shit and clouds, animals and magic, nightmares and fever dreams flit by, flickering odd bits of light out at the reader. Artaud’s cruelty: which is not petty or sadistic or dominating but rather the cruelty of having a vision without the safety net of allegory or alienation effects, a worldview that does not allow writer or reader to remain safely on shore, watching ships wreck at sea.

Eshleman’s cruelty can be traced, at least in part, to his obsession with finding the fissures that separate the animal from the human. In poem #21, he writes, “We continue to be in multiphasic expulsion from a paradise we / unconsciously rejected when we separated ourselves from / animals… / we have lived in a state of ‘animal withdrawal’ ever since.”

Reines is also drawn toward this animal/human divide (there’s a reason why her first book is called The Cow). In the poem “Truth or Consequnces,” she writes “Inside the cow it is a place / A cave red with light / As where men and women lit their early fires / To draw pictures of herself / At the center of this place is an invisible X / That marks the nothing out of which real things occur…” The last line is especially great, I think. Art is the thing that points to the abyss under our feet, the “nothing” from which real things occur. And the red light could be either the blood inside the cow or the fire inside the cave. Or both.

Of course, I’m not arguing these books should be stitched together into a seamless whole. There are huge differences between them, some of which I’ve mentioned above. But one of the reasons why I’ve found myself reading and rereading these two books in the past weeks is due to this darkly radiant Artaudian cruelty that emanates from them. More American poetry should be so cruel…

17 comments for this entry:
  1. Clayton Eshleman

    As a devoted Artaud reader and translator for many years, I know that my sensibility is much different from Artaud’s and I have stayed clear of any identification with him and the immense tragedy of his life. All of us, however, should stand in awe before his imaginative retrieval, in the Rodez asylum, of a life that appeared to be beyond repair. That said, I feel that the word cruelty, when associated with Artaud, has much more to do with what happened to him than anything his writing or drawings proposed or promoted. His “Theater of Cruelty” concept did not involve cruelty in the literal sense to the actors or the audience. I understand that Pate is giving his own twist to cruelty when it comes to Artaud, and then twisting the twist again when linking Ariana and me to this concept (I have not read her new book so I cannot comment on it here).
    For decades my writing has attempted to assimilate the fact (or the vision, depending on one’s viewpoint) that the earth is and has forever been a milling, amorphous terribilita. I have also attempted to hold the feet of affirmation to the fire of negation and to respect or praise only such affirmation as survives the roast. I do not believe that there is anything cruel even in Pate’s qualified sense about what I call our “animal withdrawal” per se. What is cruel is what we have done to animals and to people we have denigrated as animals. I write as, originally, a white boy from the Indianapolis of the 1940s who has attempted to create character via poetry. Early books, like Coils (1973) and The Gull Wall (1975) were packed with consternation, mainly based on my realizing what I had been brought up to be, and the uncharted ways by which I might alter and redeem in some fashion this grim trajectory. I think a case could be made for these books containing an atmosphere that, along with tenderness and imagination, was ugly and perverse.
    I don’t think the latter terms apply to my poetry of the past two decades, especially to An Anatomy of the Night, the longest section of which is a journal entry based on my last visit to my mother dying of spinal cancer in 1970, nor do I believe that cruelty, no matter how “turned”, is an appropriate lens by which to view this poem through. In brief, I believe that this poem has dimensions that are not appropriately identified by floating Artaud’s tortured body across them. An Anatomy of the Night is a summation work, drawing, along with new poetry, upon quotations from a wide range of other authors, as well as edited sections from my own earlier writing.

  2. James Pate

    Hi Clayton,

    Thanks for the comments, but obviously I disagree.

    I think you’re reading “cruelty” within its conventional framework — as should be clear from the post, I mean it in a very different manner. My reading of the term here is largely influenced by Derrida’s fantastic essay on Artaud from the early seventies, and he sees “cruelty” as being a key term for Artaud’s vision. And no, not “cruelty” in terms of meanness, etc.

    And there’s a reason why Artaud called his theater the “theater of cruelty.” Artaud was not a sloppy writer, just the opposite in fact.


  3. Johannes


    Interesting post. Perhaps you can talk more about “cruelty” as you are using it (as opposed to mean-ness). I just read Maggie Nelson’s “The Art of Cruelty” and in it, it seems to me she can’t get away from the idea of cruelty as “meanness” or some kind of thoughtless violence, something that makes her very uncomfortable and ambivalent about her subject matter.

    I think the key point in Artaud is when he says explicitly that cruelty is not just ultra-violence but in fact a kind of precision, and elsewhere that it is most of all cruelty to himself. (I have poor memory, can’t remember the exact sentences.)


  4. James Pate


    You’re absolutely right about the “precision” element in Artaud’s cruelty, I think. He’s very different from early Bataille in that sense, Bataille having advocated (though he later went against such views) cruelty as a kind of Roman spectacle.

    Artaud’s cruelty is closer to the Greek conception of tragedy. He aligns cruelty with “rigor, implacable intention and decision” and also with “irreversible and absolute determination” (in the sense of determinism). His cruelty also seems to be a radical affirmation of becoming and non-dialectical thought…

    There is nothing petty or vindictive about it…Rather it is art-as-stimulant (what Francis Bacon and Nietzsche also both argued for)…Abrasive, but not mean.


  5. Lara Glenum

    Makes me think of Marianne Moore’s poem to Mina Loy in which she accuses Loy of cruelty because of the exacting, intense precision of Loy’s poetry. Moore’s quietly scathing poem is, quite wonderfully, called “Are Those Hands or Scalpels?”

    In all of the above, we’re treading in the territory of the “inhuman,” which is not about actual cruelty (the debasement of other creatures) as either Artaud and Lyotard theorize it. Or Apollinare, who spins the term on behalf of Cubism.

    So much avant-garde production was/is dismissed because or the association of cruelty/inhumanity with, well, actual cruelty and inhumanity. But o how differently those terms can spin in different mouths (and bodies).

    In “The Inhuman,” Lyotord’s theorizes that art is a zone of deprivation that suspends us at one remove from the experience of our own death. The inhuman makes terror and pleasure inseparable, which feels radically uncomfortable but also radically joyful and “precise.”

    I’m interested in the theoretical/aesthetic moves that get us form Lyotard’s “inhuman” to Puar’s terrorist assemblages. I’m interested, but now I have to go vacuum up dog hair.

    I do, though, wonder about the defensive need to argue “no, no, this art isn’t about harming other creatures.” All the art we’re talking about does toy with the rather liminal and shifting boundaries of power, seduction, and abuse (my spellchecker wants to call it a “criminal” and shifting boundary).

  6. adam strauss

    I lovvvvvvvvvvve M Moore’s “Those Various Scalpels”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


  7. David Daratony

    I think this whole review is off. It sounds like you began with Artaud and Joyce in mind. They are the two comparisons you make, which I can’t bring myself to even understand, even after reading the authors reviewed. The short piece would have worked without those comparisons, instead one author is quotidian while the other is Blakean. Although Blake was very quotidian; you might benefit from “metaphysical” perhaps when reviewing Escleman.

  8. James Pate


    Excellent points. The inhuman is exactly what’s being discussed here, in terms of the cruelty issue. I haven’t read the Lyotard essay in a few years, but I’ll have to take a look at it again.


    What can I say? I am delighted you find the post “off.” Clearly you want to put Artaud in one neat little conceptual category and Joyce in another.

    (I’m not even brining up the fact that I’m not making an argument Joyce and Artaud are hugely alike in the post. I mention Warhol in the same sentence, but you ignore that fact.)

    But to play the devil’s advocate: a comparison between Joyce and Artaud could be very interesting. Both had their views of art shaped by Nietzsche, both were intensely fascinated by dreams (though in ways that were neither Surrealist nor Freudian), and both were drawn to the materiality of language, the sound of it. Oh, and both have been accused of being scatological. (Hell, the more I write this the more I want to post about just such a comparison…)

    My point is not they thought of dreams, etc., in the same way. But I’m not interested in the grindingly dull literary trees out there that would set Joyce in one world and Artaud in a wholly other. (I realize some people put a lot of effort into defending such dull literary trees.)

    Deleuze in The Logic of Sense has a great section comparing Artaud with Lewis Carroll — an “odd” but fascinating comparison, to say the least.

    Also, I have no idea what you mean by “metaphysics.” Do you mean metaphysics in the negative Heideggerian/Derridian sense of something we should think our way out of? Or in the Deleuzian/Foucaultian sense of metaphysics as something that is inescapable, so we might as well get creative about it? To simply say “metaphysics” is so general as to mean absolutely nothing…and I’m not very into vacant generalities….


  9. Lucas de Lima

    Lara and James and everyone else, have you guys seen the unbelievable new Nicki Minaj video:

    I cannot recommend it enough!!! Have not read much Lyotard or Artaud, but I think the video perfectly enacts that “cruel” and inhuman sensation between joy and terror with utter precision–it has more dislikes than likes on Youtube and was banned from BET for no specific reason (some think it’s because it might induce seizures). The lack of explanation is interesting because it seems like it’s Nicki’s monstrous and self-annihilating affect (her statuesque Barbie posing, facial contortinism, etc.), and not anything intelligible or legible, that’s offensive about the video. Maybe there’s a connection to Puar’s suicide bomber somewhere in there, as in her essay “Monster, Terrorist, Fag”; maybe this kind of queerness, channeled through art, also gets us close to death.

    Also, Clarice Lispector once said that she dies every time she writes…


  10. Lucas de Lima

    Notice Nicki’s own human-animal morphing in the video, not to mention Bubbles + MJ.

  11. James Pate


    Thanks for the link. Nicki Minaj is great…I love the way her voice becomes so contorted and stylized sometimes, almost comically so…so that stylization becomes its own kind of joy and excitement.

    It’s the opposite of the attempt to sound authentic that sometimes emanates from folk music and indie rock.

    I think the reason why people have dismissed Dylan’s singing is not that it is bad per se, but because of this stylization…as if “authenticity” wasn’t a kind of performance and technique too, with it’s own history, etc…


  12. Lara Glenum


    I’m pondering your thoughts on Ariana’s recent work. I find The Cow to be an inhuman book (in the very best sense), but I’ve found myself thinking of Couer and Mercury as treading more in the neo-confessional vein (neo because highly aware of their own constructedness/artifice). More human(ist) than inhuman, despite their real fierceness in certain moments. Less invested in totalizing excess. I say this as someone who very much likes her work.

    Off to watch Nicki Minaj! Thanks, Lucas!

  13. Johannes

    Yes, the books are different. I tend to prefer The Cow to the others. I don’t know the inhuman, but for me perhaps it has to do with Massumi’s distinction between affect and emotion: affect being some kind of preconscious, often contradictory experience which is then “capture” by the idea of interiority of the individual. Maybe Lara can write something about the inhuman so that I can find out what it is?


  14. James Pate


    I very much agree about Couer. To me, though, Mercury seems to be trying to meld (or maybe weld) together the neo-confessional elements of Couer with the almost terrifying inhuman intensity of The Cow…

    The wonderful poem “Baraka,” for example, seems like a voice possessed (by what or who I’m not sure).

    But yes, The Cow and Mercury, are very different books, with different registers. I don’t mean to suggest reading one is exactly like reading the other…


  15. James Pate

    I would go for The Cow as my favorite too, and I think the affect idea has something to do with my response to the first book. Like Bacon, or like Godard’s Weekend, the various intensities are not encapsulated by human experience.

    When the injured woman sings near the conclusion of Weekend, at the end of the fight between cannibalistic revolutionaries, I don’t know why I find the scene so overpowering, but I do: no explanation helps, and this is part of the scene’s power (as well as the power of that film as a whole).

    Maybe this is where the inhuman and intensities intersect, though I’m really interested in what Lara has to say here.

    But to me, Mercury is a step back toward affect, at least somewhat. It seems to have some of the dark radiance Couer, being in a more humanist mode, lacked, at least for me.

  16. J. Karl Bogartte

    It would seem rather obvious that cruelty, even an analogy to cruelty is more of a response to what is impenetrable, the abyss of not knowing, of never knowing. It’s the act of a “precise” (yes) ravishing of the facade of reality. To the tearing asunder of the fabric of consciousness and perception of the illusion, for some possible break through, some truth that lies behind, beneath, or within. In that respect cruelty is necessary. Meanness isn’t even implied. But, persistence, to be precise, to be ruthless, even lyrical. In that sense, cruelty is a act of love.

  17. Johannes

    Excellent comment Karl./Johannes