Reading Sontag Approaching Artaud

Everyone has at least a few good ideas in their lives. Even my cat, Boo Boo, has some good ideas. Danish sage Soren Kierkegaard kept a notebook in every room of his house so he could jot down any brilliance before he forgot it. He thought there were some ideas that you only had once in a lifetime. His extensive journal entries demonstrate how often he must have used those notebooks.

Susan Sontag’s essays are underestimated. Perhaps like artists Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, being popular early has led people who follow ideas rather than have them to initially view their work with suspicion. But as the generational parade moves on, Sontag, Haring and Warhol keep being raised ever higher in the pantheon that we Americans don’t want to admit we have. Even the diehards who once displayed “due” diffidence towards their work feel encouraged to canonize them.

Sontag has me in thrall. While I indicated above that everyone (and every species) has some good ideas, Sontag, in her essays, seems to have a good idea in nearly every sentence. She has a gift: her expositions rarely proceed without some brilliant and original cognition accompanying them. She’s not my favorite writer, cherished as she is, but she is my favorite reader. She makes a joke of the old IBM adage: THINK. You don’t have to admonish someone who’s breathing to breathe. You could teach them to do it better if you have the skill. But Sontag is a yogi of thinking. She will teach you.

Why “Approaching Artaud”? The title of the Sontag essay implies you can’t reach Artaud. In one of those clarifying summer lightning storms of reflective thought that Sontag is memorable for, she says that there are three types of experience that can’t be assimilated. When I read that my attention gauge shot up the scale. Sontag is a master 20th century writer, to my mind the synecdoche of the midpoint in the era. And in the 21st century, the 20th has become historical. We should look upon it as 20th century types looked at the 19th century: as the foundation of their building. The 20th century is “our” 19th century.

In the 21st, you can’t access electronic media, including this essay, without being subjected to a massive depersonalization assault by the internet surveillance semi-state. But in her essay, Sontag implies that Artaud can’t be assimilated and gives three alternate conditions for non-assimilation. I was thinking: What are they? Sign me up!

The first condition is madness. No conventional society, that wants to play by “the rules” can accommodate madness. And to employ an old fashioned American vernacular term, Artaud was nuts. But Sontag also points out, echoing Foucault (not sure if she read him) that who gets considered mad is a political decision. Nonetheless, if society decides that it can’t deal with you, then the madhouse might be your involuntary destination. Sontag cites Soviet mental asylums for dissidents, which was a thing in her time, as an example. The other conditions of non-assimilation are extreme suffering, her example is the Holocaust, and silence. I was tempted by the silence option but I like to write.

In our extended, perhaps too long extended modern age, the “post-modern” flyer having been such a dud (remember Michael Graves?) we know that contemporary art has often been met with confusion and hostility by a public whose perceptual skills appear to be as shallow as that of a flock of chickens. But sooner or later, each generations’ visual enlightenment has been domesticated and set up in museum galleries to be admired by people who have forgotten that they once found it risible or offensive. Perhaps it’s true, as Sontag writes, that the writings of Artaud meet one of her three conditions, that of madness, and unlike the art of Haring or Warhol, or the writings of Sontag, can’t be auctioned at Christie’s or get one of those let-us-explain-this writer-or-artist-to-you pieces in the New York Times. Does Artaud vanish on the net? Then, by all means, let’s read him! That there is nothing that can’t be assimilated on the internet would be disturbing.

Photography  credit: Jason Rice