HELIOGABALUS OR THE CROWNED ANARCHIST
by Antonin Artaud translated by Alexis Lykiard
Infinity Land Press.
reviewed by Alan Dent
reviewed by Alan Dent
Just short of two-hundred pages, in a hardback format, printed in a good-sized font on high quality paper and including an introduction and the letters Artaud wrote about the work. This is the first complete translation into English of what Alexis Lykiard describes as a “fascinating mystic-historical essay” It is part history, part myth, part fiction. Artaud and his subject are too-well known to need rehearse their life stories or influence. What readers makes of this book will depend, probably, on their orientation to both, in the sense that they are figures of divisive controversy. Frazer, for example, described Heliogabalus as a “crack-brained despot”, though others have argued he was no tyrant but an impossibly bad emperor. Artaud tends to be revered by his acolytes and dismissed by his detractors, who point out that though extensive influence is claimed for “the theatre of cruelty”, its impulse to destroy scripted drama hasn’t got very far. Even those writers most often cited as inheritors, Beckett for example, are highly literary writers for whom the written word remains, if not paramount, at least highly significant.
Many of Artaud’s central ideas remain highly dubious. His claim, for example, that “words say little to the mind” compared to images, sounds and action might not be readily accepted by Noam Chomsky. If Chomsky’s theory of emergence is right, then it could be argued that language is mind: they came into existence together through a random mutation in an individual some 60 or 70 thousand years ago. His claim that the anarchist is an enemy of public order might have alarmed Kropotkin whose theory of mutual aid saw order as arising organically when people agree among themselves about how to live, rather than having order imposed from on high.
Artaud is a very good writer, but there’s no doubt his mind was, in some ways disordered. We have put behind us the denigration of people with mental health problems. Artaud certainly had them: he suffered a nervous breakdown at nineteen, was a laudanum addict and believed a walking stick he possessed had belonged to St Patrick, Lucifer and Christ. Did his mental health problems engender a taste for decadence? Certainly, his subject engaged in various forms of debasement which suggest a mind at odds with itself. He was emperor at only fourteen. As Lincoln remarked, anyone can tolerate adversity, but if you want to test a man, give him power. Heliogabalus was a mere boy. Did power drive him mad ? Artaud describes him as “most economical with human blood” yet at the same time he admits his sent many to the galleys and had them flogged or castrated. Indeed, he seems to have had something of an obsession with castration.
There is much to say about both Artaud and his subject, but perhaps it’s better to focus on Alexis Lykiard’s translation. Whatever may be thought of either Artaud or Heliogabalus, Lykiard has done an excellent job. Artaud’s style is not always easy to render but Lykiard has worked hard to replicate it:
“The subterranean traffic night and day feeding the greed of the great solar deity seems to have dissolved into the light, sweated away into the daylight outside.”
The rhythm of the sentence, its balance and the poetry of its parallelisms make it a pleasure to read. Milan Kundera complains about Voltaire’s much-cited quip about translations, correctly: Lykiard shows here that a translation can be faithful and eminently beautiful.
“It was the coarser classes of the population that created the gods they chuck in our faces, and – if to mention only authors traduced in the classroom – we were still now capable of understanding Plato as he should be understood, we could, through the path of classical esotericism, get back to a notion of divinities – principles which mustn’t be confused with the anthropomorphic representations of the gods.”
Whatever judgement may be made of the content, Lkyiard’s version is elegant and clear.
“If nations ended up by considering the gods as beings veritably separate, if they mistook the significance of these gods, we should note that each nation, taken in isolation and at the same moment in time and space, has always tried to organise its powers hierarchically, and that wherever a feminine one overlaid a masculine one and vice versa – in the minds and hearts of the people who placed above them upon pedestals those essentially contradictory gods, the masculine was masculine and the feminine feminine with no inversion of nomenclature possible; I must say forthwith that the same name would apply to two forms, made, apparently so that one might devour the other; and the Syria of the era of Heliogabalus took to a supreme point the notion of this mysterious fusibility.”
Readers at ease with French might like to look at the original and compare. The choice of lexis and the careful preservation of the structure of the paragraph to convey the thread of its thought are first-rate.
“As for anyone who rakes up the gods of the ancient religions and stirs them around at the bottom of his hod as though with a streetcleaner’s spiked stick…”
The choice of “hod” and “streetcleaner’s spiked stick” is inspired.
There are multiple examples of Lykiard’s poet’s ability to find le mot juste, perhaps after a Flaubertian struggle, but the prose reads fluently, the artistry concealed. Lykiard is an experienced translator from French: Lautréamont, Jarry and others. Infinity Land chose well. Interest in Artaud remains lively across the globe. It’s unlikely Lykiard’s rendering of this key text will be surpassed.