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Maclagan, D. (2000). The translation of Antonin Artaud: Humpty Dumpty & the mastery of language at Rodez in 1943. Free Associations, 7(4):52-61.

(2000). Free Associations, 7(4):52-61

The translation of Antonin Artaud: Humpty Dumpty & the mastery of language at Rodez in 1943

David Maclagan

In September 1943 The psychiatrist Dr Gaston Ferdiere commissioned a translation of a Lewis Carroll text from his patient the poet Antonin Artaud. A simple enough exercise in what Ferdiere thought of as a kind of ‘art therapy’, an encouragement for Artaud to re-compose himself as the man of letters he once was, a friendly attempt at restoring Artaud to literature and eventually to the world at large. But these were worlds (I nearly wrote ‘words’) to which Ferdiere had the key, and which Artaud had not only been locked out of, but from which he had progressively excluded himself. Since his first texts about writing (his exchanges with Jacques Riviere in 1924), through further prolonged and intense interrogations, which stretched the connection between thought and its outward manifestation to breaking-point, surely Artaud had been involved in a series of experiences in ontological ‘translation’, in which he had tried to identify and realise the substance of thought in writing. These agonising enactments, in which language is often treated as an antagonist, took place first in literary texts, then in dramatic performances and finally, during the long years of his incarceration, in a kind of theatre turned outside in (called ‘paranoia’ by psychiatry (c.f. Maclagan 1989)).

By the time Artaud reached Rodez in February 1943, after almost six years of appalling suffering in various asylums, he was in a position where these exercises in translation could not possibly be straightforward or innocent. Ferdiere wanted to ‘restore’ Artaud to literature, and the translations were a means to that end.

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