Antonin Artaud and Jacques Prevel – Guru and Disciple of Secularly Spiritual Resistance

Art allows to approach images of devastation… to cure viewers’ blindness to violence and persecution that continue to lead to the dehumanization of others and ourselves… You become aware of the effects of the violence done to others, now and in history – witness to an event in which you didn’t participate, and a proximity to those you have never met.
Bracha Ettinger

Only by renouncing what Freud calls instinctive gratification – what we are doing when we read, we are free to enjoy what we read.
Richard Howard, “A Note of S/Z”, Roland Barthes, “S/Z”, Hills and Wang, 1974

I have nothing, but I resist, I work, I am in hell
Antonin Artaud to Jacques Prevel

I am beautiful but ugly, only beautiful because I am ugly
Antonin Artaud to Jacques Prevel

Sickness is a state. Health is another, baser one, I mean – more cowardly and viler… Sickness makes you stronger. Health makes a traitor of you, to escape sickness… I have been sick all my life and it suits me fine… Being in a state of want taught me more about my power than bourgeois beliefs like: health is wealth.
Antonin Artaud to Jacques Prevel

-You don’t know how I suffer, Mrs. Prevel. Unless I use sarcasm, I sink into chaos.
– Mr. Artaud, what about the forces of good?
– Mrs. Prevel, there are only the forces of evil. Even when someone has a good thought, by defining it as good he deprives others of free choice. Which proves that he is on the side of evil.

From the dialogue of Antonin Artaud and Mrs. Prevel (the wife of Jacques)

A grave injustice has been done to you. Since I have been in Paris I’ve only seen one man who was alive and torn – you, Jacques Prevel.
Antonin Artaud to Jacques Prevel

The events of the film take place in 1946 in post-WWII Paris, where we see how rare people with heightened moral sensitivity and intellectual refinement, who understand the base motivations behind international domination and as a result – wars of aggression and revenge, didn’t have an interest in participation in rebuilding of pre-war type of society. These people understand war as a dead end and think about how to change human sensibility to prevent economic and military clashes in future. For them (personified by the main characters of the film) to restore the old society means to prepare and promote new wars. While majority of people were returning to pre-war way of living for the sake of becoming more materially prosperous, technologically savvy and entertained by mass culture, the heroes of secularly spiritual resistance tried to develop an alternative sensibility and help other people to understand better the human philistinism as another side of hate and intolerance.

Antonin Artaud’s monologue (scene from the movie “En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud, 1993”)

Antonin Artaud (1896 – 1948)

Artaud at a mental health facility

Gerard Mordillat, novelist, documentary filmmaker and the director of “My Life and Time with Antonin Artaud/En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud”

Antonin Artaud

“The poet is the son of his works, perhaps, but his works are not by him; for whatever is of himself in his poetry has not been expressed by him, but rather by that unconscious producer of life, who has pointed life out to him. Well, I don’t want to be a poet, but rather in rebellion against the ego and the self.” (Antonin Artaud, “Anthology”, City Lights, 1965, p. 101

Artaud (Sami Frey) dreamed about the possibility for the human being to reach a more existentially spiritual state of human soul and by this to overcome the “fallen” condition of the world, a new Being when humans not fight for domination over one another and the world and live in freedom.

Putting the knife against his head is sign of Artaud’s frustration about his inability to thoroughly understand the reasons of human fixation on rivalry, economic and military wars and obsession with calculative/manipulative thinking.

Artaud (Sami Frey) is teaching his disciple (Charlotte Valandrey) – how to utter poetic text (how to recite his poems properly)

“I ache in all the places where others get pleasure. That’s what’s unbearable. I desperately need a body I don’t have, while so many bodies are idle. All those with guts got tortured or got suicided” (Artaud)

Jacques Prevel, His Wife and His Girlfriend

Jacques Prevel’s wife (Rolande – Valerie Jeannet) is an impressive personality, a person able to understand Artaud’s points of view. She is dedicated to helping her husband to be spiritual outsider. And she accepted the fact that he has a girlfriend – a woman even younger than he himself, who admires his poetry and is as lost in life as he is himself. With a maternal Rolande and sisterly Jany, Prevel (Mark Barbe) is able to avoid a breakdown and continues to nobly suffer, write poetry rejected for publication and build a mentor-disciple relationship with Antonin Artaud, who for him is the very personification of a spiritual savior. Through his dedication to poetic magic Jacques is trying to get rid of the impossible world through the cult of poetry-creating refuge, which allows him to take distance from the social world and feel vital and confident while being irredeemably poor.

Jany’s (Julie Jezequel) physical closeness makes Jacques (Mark Barbe) not to completely lose the desire to live. The magic power of Jany’s presence over Jacques’ body is revealed in an episode of their lovemaking, when during intercourse both, as if, feel that they are searching for something not bodily at all – metaphorical window providing them with the chance to grasp the contours of alternative reality they both are yearning for. Sex is eroticizing their poverty and abandonment, charging them with hope, making them feel their dreams as more real.

After overdosing Jany collapsed at home and soon will be helped and saved by Jacques, like in few years she will be a loyal presence at his funeral. Behind all these sufferings Mordillat emphasizes the presence of meaning and worldview – refutation to join a society where robotized souls boil with jingoistic idolatry and hate for other nations and countries.

Artaud and Prevel

Jacques Prevel (in the center – Marc Barbe) among Artaud’s devotees who are full of adulation of him as a poet and a “revolutionary against poetry”. Indeed, whole his life Artaud was a philosophical rebel against poetry as a refuge from life.

Prevel is overwhelmed with personality of Artaud (Samy Frei), powerful, monolithic and confident even in moments of hesitation and uncertainty

Collete Thomas reciting Artaud’s poem on the stage during special event dedicated to his art

The young actress Collete Thomas (Charlotte Valandrey) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown while rehearsing with Artaud. Jacques Prevel, who unnoticed had a chance to observe them rehearsing was struck by seeing how Artaud “mistreats” the young woman by the despotic intensity of his demands.

Artaud (Sami Frey) sees in Prevel his own youth, his own confrontations with the world, art and art-bureaucracy. He remembers a period when he also received refutation to publish his poems, like Prevel now, and by the same reason – by their excessive, not balanced poetic vitality

Artaud is checking the “medicine” which Jacques was able to bring for his master’s mental stimulation

On the wall behind Artaud (Sami Frey) we see his drawings. In the middle is the sketch of the reciter of his poems – the young actress, Colette

Because of Artaud’s presence in life, Jacques Prevel began to feel encouraged in his existence, although he was as poor and socially not successful, as before. He felt that to be oneself is one of the strongest encouragements life can provide

Artaud is in a café where he usually meets with his disciples and admirers.

Artaud (Sami Frey) senses that Jacques is in poor health, but he doesn’t want to discourage his spirit of vitality and confidence

Jacques Prevel learns from Artaud‘s gaze at the world – penetrating without being focused on a concrete thing, a gaze not of a detective, but a philosopher-mystic, not a philosopher of science. Artaud not only looks at the world, but simultaneously to the human soul (as if, comparing and elucidating the synchronization or the dissonance between the two).

Prevel is discouraged and even shaken by the fact that specialists of poetry refuse to publish his poems. But Artaud is trying to orient Jacques on poetry without cult of the lyrical form, on poetry of vitalistic intensities.

Here we feel Artaud’s power of observation and contemplation mixed. And we also notice Prevel’s power to sense Artaud’s concentration. The world remembers them together, exactly as it is registered in this still.


Something is deeply and stubbornly wrong in the so called peaceful life, which periodically demands wars and produces them with permanency of lion pride needing hunting episodes. But peace between wars are in reality also not peaceful – wars are planned in advance and are inseparable from predatory international economic competition, and everyday life during peaceful periods is full of hateful rivalry and impregnated by matter-of-factly or proudly proclaimed ideology of austerity for the lower segments of the population. In such societies the very condition of the human souls is much worse than it can be explained by the proneness of human nature for sinning. The street crowds in Mordillat’s film are comparable with those in Bresson’s “Pickpocket”, only messier and dirtier – (events of the film take place in 1946). The shots of the urbanistic crowds, by the efforts of the camera work of Francois Catonne are more surrealistically “smashed” than in “Pickpocket” and are feverishly chaotic.

Artaud-the character of the film is dedicated to finding aesthetic/philosophical cure for the illness of the modern soul which is rushing to forget the cruelties and devastation of the war and give itself to the calls of industrial prosperity, rivalry and consumerism. Artaud doesn’t have an ideology of salvation – for him political tools are at best utopian and at worst fraudulent, and he torments himself by trying to intensify his attempts to understand better the fallen-ness, morbidity and crookedness of human societies. Prevel, at the same time, kept himself at the periphery of the society, living in poverty, making love and writing poems asserting joy of existence. The both, Artaud and Prevel are sublime non-conformists – their lives are situated somewhere in secularly spiritual alternative to the modern ways which for them are only a more grotesque version of the old ways. Indeed, something naively cynical in the very idea that after WWII it’s natural for people to bath in our victory and dream about material prosperity and make money. What we had to be occupied with instead is to think how to prevent the next war and how not to rival with one another achieving personal enrichment, like profiteers during the war. Jacques Prevel and his mentor Antonin Artaud represent in the film the very contours of spiritual alternative to social and psychological conformism.

Prevel’s women – his wife Rolande (Valerie Jeannuet), psychologically a mother figure for him, and his mistress Jany (Julie Jezequel), his peer, psychologically, for him a sisterly figure, are attracted to his alien-ness to the standard norms and values and his search for the meaning of life. His wife, a person with an introspective experience is able to overcome her fear of Artaud and is capable to keep a meaningful conversation with him. She tolerates her husband’s affair with a girl who is even younger than Jacques himself – she understands what he is searching in this love. Rolande nurtures Jacques’s ability to live inside poetic coordinates, but with Jany Jacques could identify with her courage and madness (a combination that can already characterize Artaud’s position in the world) to live outside standard frame of reference.

In a rare and a daring footage Mordillat shows how Jacques and Jany make love, as if, with each thrust towards each other trying to discover an invisible alternative world. Being together and loving each other allows Jacques and Jany to stay in their imaginary and genuinely real world. Jany admires Jacques’ poetry because in his poems she recognizes the world they share and know through their love. Mordillat makes us hear his poem as a part of the lovers’ emotional playfulness with one another. And we see that Artaud perfectly understood Jacques’ poems, not as unconscious imitation of metaphysical alternative to life, but as existential sensitivity (the version of existential, not supra-existential spirituality).

Artaud‘s pedagogical point to Prevel is that the core of spirituality (its environment) is life, as also the main point of poetry. The weak point of Prevel’s poems, according to specialists in poetry is their strong point, according to Artaud, although what takes place here is transcendence of the very poetic canon. “Since I have been in Paris I’ve only seen one man who is alive and torn – you, Jacques Prevel.” (Antonin Artaud). Does it mean that Prevel’s poems are too existential and don’t have the paradisiacal tranquility of a metaphysical frame? Prevel’s problems as a poet are very close to that of Artaud himself (starting from his youth). As Prevel’s poems were refused for publication young Artaud’s poems were returned to him many times as “not ready”, “not mature enough”, “not poetically elaborated”. Here, we have a deal with two kinds of poetry – metaphysically framed and existentially “unleashed”, and with two kinds of spirituality, spirituality of tranquility, when a poet is emotionally pacified by “joining the heavens”, and spirituality of self-contradictions allowing the poet to remain in life in the world.

Even after reaching fame as a poet Artaud radically resisted of being a celebrity. In an important episode in the film we see the beginning of public celebration of Artaud’s life and art in a theater full of people. We see that Artaud cannot enter the theater – he approaches the back door and waits when one of the organizers of the event will come to meet him and accompany him inside. Prevel’s humility and shyness echoes that of his teacher and personal friend – when after the celebration including recitation on the stage Artaud’s poetry, he asks Jacques why he didn’t sit at Artaud’s table on the platform, Prevel answers with trembling that he couldn’t dare. Both men don’t care about people’s admiration. Artaud is occupied with – how to help people to overcome the seductions of luxury and power and to turn to a life of meaning, and Prevel is trying to endure without surrendering to the common philistinism. Artaud and Prevel belong to a rare “animals” amidst androids. If androids among humans want to successfully function, and many – by any price, the exceptional characters dare to want to live only on certain ethical and cultural conditions – a position which makes universal philistines unjustly accuse them in sin of pride/hubris/superbia because they take conformism for humility.

Engulfed by poverty and exposed to early death Artaud and Prevel are like gems on a manure heap of common prosperity, poverty and vulgarity of the plebeian dream of being millionaires. With Artaud’s psychological help Jacques Prevel prevails over the human ant-civilization by his and his poems’ fragile vitality. And Mordillat’s film gives the viewers the story of his and Artaud’s victorious mortality.

Posted on Feb/16/’17 –   “My life And Times With Antonin Artaud” (1993) By Gerard Mordillat by Acting-Out Politics