BOOK REVIEW / Electroshock treatment for Art's sake: Antonin Artaud: Blows and bombs - Stephen Barber: Faber and Faber, pounds 14.99

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IF ANY artistic figure is the perfect exemplar of everything that the British mistrust about the French, it would have to be Antonin Artaud. A member of Andre Breton's Surrealist group in the Twenties, Artaud managed the memorable feat of being one of his first expulsions. He was a self-confessed madman (he underwent 40 electroshock treatments) who lauded his own insanity as a revolutionary assault upon society itself. He was also a life-long opium addict who supported his habit and his forays into theatrical production with a short career in commercial films that embraced roles in Abel Gance's Napoleon (as Marat), Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent and Fritz Lang's Liliom.

His own film scenario, The Seashell and the Clergyman, was directed by Germaine Dulac in 1927 but eclipsed by the impact of Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou (which Artaud later claimed to have been 'stolen' from him). It was banned in England by a stern censor: 'If this film has any meaning at all it is no doubt obscene.'

Stephen Barber's biography is not only the first to appear in English, it is the first full-length life to be written at all. In part this can be explained by the fragmentary nature of Artaud's oeuvre. Although the complete works, edited by his friend Paule Thevenin and published by Gallimard, have now run to no less than 25 volumes, there is still an insubstantiality about both the work and the life which somehow resists an orthodox approach.

Artaud himself would have despised and excoriated any attempt to place him, either in terms of psychoanalytic theory or cultural milieu. As Barber so convincingly argues, Artaud created - and indeed crystallised - himself, both as an individual and as an artist, at a very early age. This manufactured identity is seen most clearly in the deterioration of Artaud's physiognomy as he moved from being the fastidious, clean-cut artistic revolutionary of the Twenties, to the toothless scooped-out ex-asylum inmate of the late Forties, amply justifying Camus' observation that 'every man is responsible for the nature of his own countenance'.

Born in Marseilles in 1896, the son of a shipping magnate, his adolescence was marked by nervous instability and a series of confinements in convalescence homes. When he arrived in Paris in the early Twenties he was already under the care of a psychiatrist. At first he attempted to make his name through a series of orthodox poetic exercises, but when these were rejected by Jacques Riviere, the editor of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, the two men embarked on a correspondence which propelled Artaud into the definition of an anti-aesthetic.

Barber rightly identifies the pivotal point in Artaud's work as his conception of the body. For Artaud, unlike the Surrealists he parted company with, the human body is pre-eminent - an inchoate thing raided by the bogus claims of social ideology. Thus his metaphysic is one of transcendental materialism; in his rant 'Shit on the Spirit' he pours invective on all the cultural and political 'isms' that attempt to establish the primacy of mind over matter.

Artaud's abortive 'theatrical' performances with the Theatre de Alfred Jary, and the later failure of his conception of the Theatre of Cruelty, were self-fulfilling prophecies. In calling for a theatre of unique expressiveness, Artaud effectively torpedoed the possibility of performance per se. There is a tightly schematic quality to this biography and although Barber has marshalled his sources well and rightly positioned Artaud within his own time and Parisian milieu, one still wishes for a more precise location of Artaud within the history of 20th-century ideas.

Barber lists and analyses Artaud's influence on artists as diverse as Julian Schnabel, George Baselitz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the Japanese choreographer Hijikata; and he goes further in tracing the congruences between Artaud's Modernist agenda and the anti-psychiatry and literary deconstructionism of the Sixties. However, he seems to have resisted the temptation to take the longer view and make explicit the parallels between Artaud's agenda - 'the devaluation of all values' - and Nietzsche's 're-evaluation of all values'.

Again, further digressions might have been attempted by drawing out the similarities between Artaud's fragmentary output and the Coleridgian proclivity for announcing the production of works that were then never produced. It is conceivable that this is in fact the sine qua non of the opiate-addicted writer.

Other names that are absent from 'Blows and Bombs', but indubitably belong there, are Samuel Beckett, Francis Bacon and indeed William Burroughs. Particularly Burroughs, whose preoccupation with the corporeal, with addiction, with magical thought 'control' and the collective consciousness of ancient Amerindian civilisations, seems to dog Artaud's own concerns.

So much so that one wonders whether the relative obscurity of Artaud in the English-speaking world is a function not of the need for translation (Artaud's work, being epigrammatic and lucid, is easy to translate), but of Burroughs having supplanted this particular cultural niche.

Barber is perhaps too ingenuous about Artaud's insanity - although he does concede that the artist was 'manipulative' and developed a 'flaccid rationale' to justify the primacy of his delusions. Now that the work of anti-psychiatrists such as R D Laing has been largely discredited, Barber's championing of Artaud's psychosis begins to appear as special pleading.

But it is in his muddying of the authenticity of individual genres that Artaud has been most influential. Arguably his work on the conception of theatre has been responsible in part for the development of synthetic modes such as 'performance art' and 'art installation', and the spawning of a thousand thousand talentless leotard-wearers who are convinced that they have 'something to say'.

For the British, whose aesthetic is ever conditioned by the 'I know what I like' school, the sound of a mental patient banging a gong and screaming incoherently, as Artaud did in his last recording 'To Have Done with the Judgement of God', is never likely to be a revelation. But to dismiss Artaud entirely would be a grave mistake. Barber may not have managed to produce a completely rounded or definitive work, but his book is valuable, readable and pacey, perhaps breaking the ground for another cultural historian to come along and finally lay to rest this corpse of mid-20th century artistic implosion.