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Culture was not born today and I cannot forgive it for the use that has been made of it. Related Gully Coverage

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Antonin Artaud, 1896-1948
Antonin Artaud, 1896-1948

Food for Thought:

Culture: What is it Good For?

JANUARY 22, 2003. In this provocative letter, the French writer Antonin Artaud, questions the extent to which cultures can be either destroyed or defended, demands we examine what "one means by culture and what aspect of culture one wants to defend," even indicts it.

Draft of a letter to the International Conference of Writers For the Defense of Culture

I have just received your invitation, which was sent to an old address, and it [is] too late to send you my acceptance.

Let me say at once that I regard it as an excessive and misplaced honor to ask me to attend a conference "for the Defense of Culture." I do not believe the meeting of International Writers can expect very much from my suggestions regarding something which is not for me what it is for them.

Assuming that I see culture as a reality to be defeated, it does [not] seem to me that this reality now exists.

Moreover, I regard it as absolutely necessary, before elucidating this idea of a spirit opposed to culture, and which nothing has ever been able to touch -- for only material formalists can think that gestures against culture can harm something which is above all culture and of which the changing forms of culture are merely representatives -- I regard it as absolutely necessary to stress the reasons that brought about this conference, the reasons that cause people to believe that culture is in danger, and I want to say immediately that it may be good that a certain culture is in danger, however barbarous the means that have been employed to this end.

I shall never do any fascism the honor of believing that it can harm my culture or any culture by burning books glowing with that hybrid mixture which I hold responsible for our decline.

In any case, one must define what one means by culture and what aspect of culture one wants to defend: and if it is the spiritual legacy which is at the origin of the present civilization, then I reject that culture.

True culture has never had a native land, it is not human but spiritual, and it is not irrelevant to note that in this conference called together for the defense of culture an attempt is being made to justify indirectly the base and utilitarian idea of patriotism.

For me there is no legacy to be defended, no wealth to be safeguarded, insofar as these things are particularized; and the patriotism of the artisan disgusts me as much as that of the banker.

The fact that a few contemporary thinkers have been put in jail, that the writings of ten centuries out of those regarded as civilized are being burned, is not enough to make me conclude that Barbarism threatens us or that the spirit is therefore diminished.

For inasmuch as no one is interested in the spirit, and inasmuch as culture is related to an idea of the spirit developed in man, I shall always maintain that the material lot of mankind is not an aspect of culture which should be of primary interest.

For this discussion in favor of culture seems to me above all a discussion in favor of the material comforts of man, who has always called culture that which spares him the necessity of thinking.

Besides which it takes more than protests to save a culture that is threatened by guns or force, and I do not feel personally prepared to go to war to save a culture that is everywhere based on nothing but force and guns.

The vitality which eludes what is written down and the poetry which is its violent expression, metamorphosis in perpetual action, are not related to the preservation of a culture that has led to the materialism of which we are aware.

If culture is a form of spirit, it is also a form of life, and I do not distinguish it from the sinister spectacle to which this life has unanimously led.

Culture was not born today and I cannot forgive it for the use that has been made of it here, in France, in Germany, in Italy, in the name of the more reasoned and more logical use that is made of it in Russia, for example, for it is the same culture that has flourished in all these countries. And if someone maintains that it is not the same, why bring us together for the defense of a mixture whose elements are not in accord?

Moreover, it is not true that the forms which help us to think are bound to the use of a given culture, and if all written ideas, all forms that are fixed, were to be burned, I say that true culture would not cease to survive the disappearance of all these forms, all these petrified signs.

If systems of thought are replaced, with all the more reason are the forms of life replaced, and there come moments in History when it is not useless to burn these forms of life.

True culture has never been bound up with the preservation of individual freedom, and in my opinion it is greatly underestimating culture to believe that it is weakened by the loss of a few men or the destructions of a few writings.

And I would even say that a sense of historic fatality, an understanding of the return of certain cycles and of catastrophes in which certain forms of life and thought disappear, are part of a highly evolved culture of which the organizers of this conference have never dreamed.

I would appeal to that universal culture which has always ignored the particularism of nations and which distinguishes between the destiny of the spirit contained in a given culture and the destiny of the man who has been the victim of that culture.

The poetry which eludes culture, and whose manifestations remain unscathed amid the most total absence of freedom, is a notion to which our age in its spiritual bankruptcy has long since lost the key. And I believe it important never to talk about spirit, which I regard as absolutely alien to the systematizations of culture, without combining it with the notion of pure poetic energy which has become the very flame of spirit.

The question of culture raises in my mind, it awakens the old antagonism between spirit and matter, it helps me to attempt a definition of the spirit that eludes the forms, it enables me to oppose the passing materialism, this hideous imprisonment of poetry by language, with the notion of something that endures, the preservation of a subtle quality whose persistence is capable of nourishing a hundred cultures, capable of surviving the blaze of a hundred bonfires.

And I ask that this spiritual attitude which can bring about the appearance of a concrete world of the surest and most authentic kind not be confused with some vague and sterile spiritualism that has also lost contact with the real energies.

For if everything that we manipulate which is concrete, certain, natural, and which gives us the illusion of living is powerless without the presence of a subtle virtue that must be called spirit, spirit in its turn can do nothing without the sheath of a palpable dynamism that must likewise be called material.

It is for a fitting purpose, the most urgent, toward a lost differentiation between an element originating in spirit and the same element transformable, dense, sonorous, and resistant and that...

June 1935

From Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings
Translated by Helen Weaver
Edited by Susan Sontag

Related links:

For more about Antonin Artaud's life, work and artistic legacy:

A brief biography
Artaud: Poet, essayist, playwright, actor & director
Web Pages of Cruelty

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