29 December 2010

“All Writing Is Pigshit . . . ”

by Antonin Artaud

[While I was doing research on stage director Leonardo Shapiro, about whom I’ve blogged several times on ROT, I came across a quotation he cited from Antonin Artaud. It wasn’t from anything I’d read before and I didn’t recognize it, so I went in search of the piece (for which Leo hadn’t provided a title) and I soon found not only the text, but the exact translation Leo had used. (In fact, I posited that I’d found the book he had read, which apparently gave him other Artaud phrases he’d used: Artaud Anthology [City Lights Books, 1965]. It’s publication was right at the time Leo, then a college freshman, had begun to discover theater—he had started out to be a poet—and, especially, the avant garde theater of New York City’s East Village. I decided he’d not only read this particular collection but had probably bought it when he was a teenager.)

[The piece—I don’t know if it’s a poem or an essay or some kind of unique Surrealistic writing form—is so provocative (as are a lot of Artaud’s work and ideas) that I’m passing it along to ROT readers. I can’t duplicate here the idiosyncratic typography Artaud used so that part’s just an approximation. (There are other translations of this text in other anthologies; even the title is translated differently in other versions.)]

* * * *
All writing is pigshit.

People who leave the obscure and try to define whatever it is that goes on in their heads, are pigs.

The whole literary scene is a pigpen, especially this one.

All those who have vantage points in their spirit, I mean, on some side or other of their heads and in a few strictly localized brain areas; all those who are masters of their language; all those for whom words have a meaning; all those for whom there exist sublimities in the soul and currents of thought; all those who are the spirit of the times, and have named these currents of thought—and I am thinking of their precise works, of that automatic grinding that delivers their spirit to the winds—

are pigs.

Those for whom certain words have a meaning, and certain manners of being; those who are so fussy; those who for whom emotions are classifiable, and who quibble over some degree or other of their hilarious classifications; those who still believe in ‘terms’; those who brandish whatever ideologies belong to the hierarchy of the times; those about whom women talk so well, and also those women who talk so well, who talk the contemporary currents of thought; those who still believe in some orientation of the spirit; those who follow paths, who drop names, who fill books with screaming headlines

are the worst kind of pigs.

And you are quite aimless, young man!

No, I am thinking of bearded critics.

And I told you so: no works or art, no language, no word, no thought, nothing.

Nothing; unless maybe a fine Brain-Storm.

A sort of incomprehensible and totally erect stance in the midst of everything in the mind.

And don’t expect me to tell you what all this is called, and how many parts it can be divided into; don’t expect me to tell you its weight; or to get in step and start discussing all this so that by discussing I may get lost myself and even, without even realizing it, start THINKING. And don’t expect this thing to be illuminated and live and deck itself out in a multitude of words, all neatly polished as to meaning, very diverse, and capable of throwing light on all the attitudes and all the nuances of very sensitive and penetrating mind.

Ah, these states which have no name, these sublime situations of the soul, ah these intervals of wit, these minuscule failures which are the daily bread of my hours, these people swarming with data . . . they are always the same old words I’m using, and really I don’t seem to make much headway in my thoughts, but I am really making more headway than you, you beard-asses, you pertinent pigs, you masters of fake verbiage, confectioners of portraits, pamphleteers, ground-floor lace-curtain herb collectors, entomologists, plague of my tongue.

I told you so, I no longer have the gift of tongue. But this is no reason you should persist and stubbornly insist on opening your mouths.

Look, I will be understood ten years from now by the people who then will do what you are doing now. Then my geysers will be recognized, my glaciers will be seen, the secret of diluting my poisons will have been learnt, the plays of my soul will be deciphered.

Then all my hair, all my mental veins will have been drained in quicklime; then my bestiary will have been noticed, and my mystique become a hat. Then the joints of stones will be seen smoking, arborescent* bouquets of mind’s eyes will crystallize in glossaries, stone aeroliths* will fall, lines will be seen and the geometry of the void understood: people will learn what the configuration of the mind is, and they will understand how I lost my mind.

They will then understand why my mind is not all here; then they will see all languages go dry, all minds, all tongues shrivelled up, the human face flattened out, deflated as if sucked up by shriveling leeches. And this lubricating membrane will go on floating in the air, this caustic lubricating membrane, this double membrane of multiple degrees and a million little fissures, this melancholic and vitreous membrane, but so sensitive and also pertinent, so capable of multiplying, splitting apart, turning inside out with its glistening little cracks, its dimensions, its narcotic highs, its penetrating and toxic injections, and

all this then will be found to be all right,

and I will have no further need to speak.

* * * *
[*arborescent: Having the size, form, or characteristics of a tree; treelike.
*aerolith: A chiefly siliceous meteorite.]

[In trying to ID Artaud’s "All Writing Is Pigshit," I happened on a website (several, actually) which had the text in the original French. As I had been curious what the French word(s) that had been rendered as 'pigshit' or 'garbage' (depending on the translation), I had a look. In French, Artaud wrote, "Toute l'écriture est de la cochonnerie". Cochonnerie is a French word for which there is no easy English equivalent--it means too many things all at the same time. Obviously, it's related to cochon, or 'pig,' but it doesn't actually mean 'pigshit' (which would be literally merde de cochon). It means 'filth,' 'trash,' 'dirty trick,' 'beastliness,' 'rubbish,' 'mess,' and any number of other colloquial renderings, depending on the context. (It can even mean 'junk food.') Perhaps the closest single English word is 'crap,' in the sense of "Everything Joe says is crap" rather than "The dog just took a crap on the rug." In fact, it can only be translated in context. I even have a dictionary on CD that doesn't give a translation for the word alone--it lists idioms with the word and translates them. It's more vulgar than 'garbage,' but less vulgar than 'shit.' (In French—and German, too—unlike in English, calling someone a pig is a fairly serious insult, more like calling someone an asshole.)


  1. Not being a pig farmer, nor having visited a pig farm, I can’t claim much firsthand knowledge of pig shit. I suppose it must vary in terms of texture, composition and aroma even as my own shit does.

    I have come in close contact with both goat and cow shit, mucking out my fair share of byres and sheds. Never thought, nor bothered much about it. Simply changed my boots and washed my hands once finished.

    I’m told that horse shit makes fine fertilizer for roses. I don’t doubt it, even though neither smells much like the other.

    So, if all writing is pig shit, what exactly does that mean? Is one bucket of pig shit so much different than another? Does the shit from free range pigs make better fertilizer than the shit from factory fed pigs? That wouldn’t surprise me. Is pig shit worse than cow shit? Not being a connoisseur of pig shit, I wouldn’t know. However, from what I’ve been told, left to their own devices, pigs tend to be quite clean and are said to be quite intelligent.

    Again, if one holds that all writing is pig shit, what exactly does that mean? Does it mean that all writing is equally good fertilizer for deeper thought? That would seem to be something positive, but not something I would necessarily concur with. If, on the other hand, it denotes something negative, then clearly the piece of writing that states that all writing is pig shit would equally be pig shit itself. Should it then be held in any higher esteem than the other buckets of pig shit which it seeks to denounce? If so, why?

    Perhaps it is true that all writing is pig shit. So what? Such thoughts are neither profound, nor original. Both those who delight in the taste of bacon, and those who delight in the company of pigs (I’m told that they make quite fine pets), must learn to endure the smell of their droppings. That’s not to say that they should roll in them.

    1. Really?

      You seem pretty familiar with shit in general--pigshit aside. How about Artaud: are you at all familiar with his work? Nothing he wrote, including 'The Theater and Its Double,' relies on a simple denotative interpretation. It's Surrealism. Go with it.

      Further, Artaud's not responsible for the translation. The word rendered as 'pigshit' here is 'cochonnerie' in French, as I noted above. I explained that this is a polysemous word, with many meanings at once. The translator of this version of Artaud's piece selected 'pigshit'; as I also noted above, other translators used other words in alternative renditions of this poem/essay.

      I'm sorry you found Artaud's piece and his thoughts on writing unprofound and unoriginal. (It's 90 years old, by the way, so it may very well have been original in its day.) Considering that your response is in writing, I suspect that Artaud would consider it . . . well, 'cochonnerie.'


    2. Coming years after your original post, I wondered whether anyone would stumble across my comment.

      As it happens, I was directed to this page by another who seemed to attach some importance to this composition by Artaud. My somewhat tongue-in-cheek response was primarily meant as a playful rejoinder to that person. I didn’t mean to offend nor criticize you for posting it.

      As for Artaud, apart from this composition, I haven’t read anything else by him. This piece would not particularly encourage me to delve deeper. However, if Artaud was an influence of the likes of Beckett whom I quite enjoy, then I imagine there must be something of merit in his other writings.

      Perhaps much is lost in translation. In English, this piece comes across as little more than an angry rant. It would appear he felt that some bearded critics and influential female gossips were not sufficiently taken with something he wrote. Hence, the tantrum. The slinging of poo. The verbal diarrhea.

      Perhaps he meant to shock the reader in an attempt to encourage the reader to think more deeply on the nature of communication. If so, it comes across as an angry, less eloquent paraphrase of ancient Daoist texts such as Lao Zi or Zhuang Zi. The way which can be named is not the Way. Words are the source of all misunderstandings…

      All writing is pig shit. That would necessarily include his own composition denouncing all writing as pig shit. And, yes, that would include what I previously wrote and that which I am typing now.

      I did read your note on the varying translation of the French word cochonnerie. That was interesting. I prefer the translation of shit. It offers up more food for thought. Perhaps that is what Artaud intended.

      Within our ordinary frame of reference, shit tends to be viewed as an unpleasant by-product of life. Hence, we sling it at others when angry.

      But, life as we know it cannot exist without shit. They are inseparable. The one cannot be divorced from the other. Shit helps provide the essential nutrients for many plants which in turn provide the sustenance for many other living organisms. Life grows out of and is fed by shit which it eventually becomes. Like a lotus or water lily rising up from the stagnant, fetid waters of a swamp.

      But, although essential to life, shit varies. You might spread horse or cow manure on your garden to nourish your flowers. You would be less inclined to use human feces for the task. Chicken shit, in addition to its malodorous properties, would likely introduce a lot of weeds into your garden. As for pig shit, as I previously mentioned, I don’t know.

      And, although shit is essential to life and can help nourish it, one can have too much of a good thing. It can be suffocating. It can lead to cholera. Thus, it is generally not a good idea to roll in the stuff or sling it about.

      Again, if all writing is pig shit, what does that mean? Is it fertilizer for deeper thought? Or something toxic, to be avoided? Is it both, or does it vary with the situation?

      Perhaps Artaud wanted us to consider such questions, to reflect on the nature of writing and communication. If so, then this piece is not without some merit. However, to me, it comes across more as a disgruntled and not particularly effective rant than anything else. Perhaps it makes more sense in the context of his other work than it does in isolation and translation.

    3. You seem extraordinarily familiar with shit in its various incarnations. Enough said.

      If you haven't read any of Artaud aside from this, you may (or maybe not) be surprised to learn that he was a little nuts. (So was Nietzsche, so Artaud's in good company.) Nonetheless, in addition to Beckett, Artaud's ideas on theater were extremely influential, especially on the avant-garde theater of the 1960s. The Living Theatre, Peter Brook, Richard Schechner, and Jerzy Grotowski have all acknowledged debts to Artaud and his theories. On the other hand, no one has ever actually espoused all of Artaud's ideas--just carefully selected snippets. Still, there would have been a very different avant-garde in the middle of the 20th century than the one we got if 'The Theatre and Its Double' hadn't been published and tranlated.


    4. Madness. Neither a virtue, nor a crime. Often a burden, willingly borne or otherwise, by those so afflicted.

      I would not dismiss out of hand the words of one deemed of unsound mind. Nor would I imbue them with undue meaning. While some madmen have offered the world remarkable insights, others have wreaked great havoc upon it, whether or not they were recognized as being mad at the time, or in posterity.

      So many books. So little time. And myself, such a slow reader. Have often contemplated taking up speed reading. However, I prefer to read the way I drink, tickled by well placed commas, lingering on syllables, savouring each word. Have never understood those who drink to get drunk. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with being thoroughly intoxicated. Rather it all depends on the manner and the company in which it is done. Frequency would also be a variable to consider.

      Should I ever get caught up on my ever growing to-read list, I will keep Artaud in mind. If he truly were an influence on Beckett, there must be more to him than appears to me in this piece.

      Thank you for indulgence. Many of the words left here were written for another who may or may not chance upon them. Please feel free to delete anything that I have written if it interferes with your blog. I will not take it personally, even if perhaps I should. Every so often, byres need a good mucking. Most pigs will not roll in their own shit if given the opportunity to roll elsewhere.


    5. Thank you once again for commenting, Anonymous.

      As a rule, I don't delete Comments on ROT unless they're nuts (a screed about how Ibsen didn't write his plays), incomprehensible (several Comments in Vietnamese, which I don't read), or totally irrelevant (folks trying to use ROT to sell stuff). So far, you haven't breached the boundaries, so comment away.

      (I even try to respond to every Comment, even if it's only to thank the writer for the interest.)