Silviano Santiago

The Future in the Stars, the Present in (Hi)story: Artaud vs. Cárdenas

    The student reads the alphabet, the astrologer the future contained in the stars. In the first example, the act of reading does not divide in two parts. The same is not true of the second case, which makes these two levels of reading into manifestos; the astrologer reads in the heavens the position of the stars, and at the same time reads in that position destiny and the future.
    —Walter Benjamin, "The doctrine of mimesis"

1. Two foreigners in Mexico
In 1936, the Guatemalan poet and art critic Cardoza y Aragón, in self-imposed exile in Mexico City, met also exiled French poet and dramatist Antonin Artaud. The image that he holds of the European traveler is definitive: "Antonin Artaud is just like 'El Desdichado,' 'The Wretched,' his brother Nerval." Cardoza adds, "The widower, the disconsolate, prince of Aquitania of the forbidden tower. The shadowy one, whose only star is dead and whose star-spangled lute bears the black sun of melancholy." Earlier, he would observe: "He came to Mexico in search of hope. Expelled from all parts, he lived bleeding, he lived atrociously, head in flames, the great master of misery."1

The two are brothers in exile. The Latin American, after living in European metropolises and traveling through the world, will return to his origins to finally settle, not in his own country, but in a neighboring country on the continent where he first saw the light of day. The European, despairing of the decadence of the Old World, left in search of Mexican politicians, to regenerate the West. He had just adopted another European country, Ireland, from which he was finally expelled to his homeland and once there, to a hospice. The journeys of the modernists let them vaguely see, through a mixture of irony and apathy, great and symbolic gestures of goodwill. Cardoza will say of Artaud and indirectly of himself: "In desperation, he confused the New Continent with a new content. There is something there, but not enough for his absolute need. Much of Europe also died in us."2

The new continent didn't contain new content. In the hearts and minds of Latin American modernists, the old country was in agony. "The tropics are less exotic than out of style", anthropologist Levi-Strauss would say after a long stay in Brazil in the thirties.3 The old continent was already surviving its announced death. The surrealist Philippe Soupault responded to a questionnaire about the role of Europe, praying at the brink of chaos:

    I am one of those who is not afraid to affirm that the spectacle currently offered in Europe is one of total decadence. In my writings, words, and gestures, I have forced myself to signal the death, unfortunately quite shameful, that is taking place on our useless peninsula. They also permit me to now prepare a beautiful burial for it. Europe agonizes softly, sobbing, slobbering, swaggering, amen...4

In telegraphic language, Artaud associates European barbarism with its corpse in the New World: "Come to Mexico, fleeing the European civilization and culture that brings us all back to Barbarism, but before me the corpse of the civilization and culture of Europe..."5 The Guatemala of Cardoza y Aragón was the living metaphor of dictatorships that, in defense of conservative economics and politics, took hold in both small and large Latin American republics, banishing to Europe any opposition they did not kill. The France of Antonin Artaud was the living metaphor of a country that, among all other European nations, tried to reject the rise to power of totalitarian regimes. Dictatorship here, totalitarianism there. Six of one, a half dozen of the other. For this reason, if France became the trampoline from Europe to the New World, it remained to be seen if the New World would be able to shelter the Europeans, presenting them a magical road that would open up the dead end of Western civilization.

In the Mexico of the 1930s, the Guatemalan and the Frenchman are living examples of this hopeful, nostalgic and tragic trade. Would the indigenous Mexico of Emiliano Zapata, now in the hands of the National Revolutionary Party (the future PRI), be the predestined place for modernists of any color that might leave Europe in search of hope for a new way for the moribund West? Would Mexico be the place in which to draw back, in order to re-implant an idea of autochthonous culture as a model for a universal politics? In this predestined place, country of hope, would the most violent incongruity be found—a European modernist wandering through the streets without destiny, left to his own luck, a "wretch" without the protection of a blessing? Would it not be an example of the sweetest irony that two self-exiles, two wretched artists, one European and the other Latin American, find themselves, the first in drugs and the other in drink?6

Brothers in exile and artists of the avant-garde, the Europeanized Guatemalan and the Mexicanized Frenchman tried to transgress and abolish national and intercontinental borders through the explosion of culture. As in the north, a grand dream of a better world was invented by the poetic imagination. Surrendering to profound reflection, the two overvalued the place and role of culture in the drive to the destiny of Man, or better said of Life, as the mediator in the search for a socio-economic utopia. Artaud would say these reflections were inspired by this "dream," whereas Cardoza would say they were inspired by the non-existence of this dream, by the presence of the supernatural.

Artaud writes, wanting to house and domesticate civilizing hypotheses in this dream: "We do not know anything about Mexican civilization. A perfect occasion, no doubt, to dream hypothetically."7 Cardoza writes, affirming the primacy of Life, denying pragmatism and guaranteeing the infinite powers of supernatural forces, "Dreams do not exist. I can affirm this because no one can cure me of life. No one and nothing. The supernatural is my world, the world of man and his unique reason. And his unique happiness." Mediating these two "desires", the borrowed words from Gérard de Nerval's novel Aurélia serve as the epigraph for A Small Symphony of the New World by Cardoza:

    But I have never experienced sleep to be restful. After a "swelling" of a few minutes, a new life begins, freed from the constraints of time and space, and the same without doubt as that which awaits us after death.8

The consummate traveler, Cardoza y Aragón twice left his country of birth. He first left Guatemala in 1921 to live in a series of European capitals as a result of the political persecution endured by his father, a liberal lawyer who forcibly opposed dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920), Miguel Ángel Asturias' "el señor Presidente." A few years later, when the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico (1931-1944) established itself in his country, he resigned his post as Consul General of Guatemala in New York, setting off once again for Europe, until settling himself in exile in Mexico at the end of 1932. Little by little, he fashions himself as "the most Mexican of foreigners and the most foreign of Mexicans" (according to José Emilio Pacheco). Artaud was certain that he detected two affiliations with Mexican culture: "one who aspires to assimilate European culture and civilization, by giving them a Mexican form, and the other who, prolonging the secular tradition, remains in obstinate rebellion against all progress." The Guatemalan Cardoza fits better in the first current; Artaud in his own: "As slight as this current may be, it is there that all the force of Mexico is found."

The ambiguity that dresses up the definition of Cardoza y Aragón given by José Emilio Pacheco—the most foreign of Mexicans and the most Mexican of foreigners—also signifies the repression of origin and economic survival in exile. Body in Mexico, mind in Europe; body in Europe, mind in Mexico. Cardoza was almost never corporeally present in Guatemala. Perhaps this was why his friends in the group "Contemporáneos" pointed out, in his favor, his ambiguous, or at least doubled, temperament. Jorge Acuesta would say of him, "Beneath a peaceful exterior, amiable and benevolent, Cardoza y Aragón stirs up a fire in his soul. His interior temperature is red hot; his exterior temperature is ice cold." Often ambiguous, is this why Cardoza adapts so amiably to the Mexican world? Further in favor of his adaptation is his having been expelled twice from his country of origin, by dictatorships that defended the property rights of the multinational United Fruit Company. Cardoza y Aragón would be well received as much by neo-conservative writers in the group "Contemporáneos" (in particular Salvador Novo and Xavier Villarrutia) as by the painters who sympathized with the Communist Party, which had recently been banned (especially Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, the latter being his favorite artist). Brothers in letters, brothers in arms, Cardoza earned his living in the government-supported newspaper "El Nacional," where Artaud also published his few, poor, and wholly Mexican texts.

2. Astrology tells the future
The clear and precise portrait of a "thin, electric and sparkling man" painted by Cardoza y Aragón, d'apres "The Wretched" by Gérard de Nerval—contrasts scandalously with the optimistic self-portrait that Artaud sketched in a letter dated the seventh of February of that same year, and addressed to Dr. Allendy, possibly the first that he wrote from the Mexican capital. We can trace the antecedents of this letter in order to better understand the syncopated rhythm and the contrast between the two portraits.

On January 10, 1936, before setting sail for Mexico from the port of Antuérpia, Artaud wrote and sent a letter to Dr. Allendy in which he apologized for not being able to say good-bye to his Parisian friends as he had wished, and at the same time, asked the doctor cum astrologer a favor:

    It would please me greatly, and this would be a service of the utmost utility that I ask of you, if you could consult my stars and select from my horoscope several precise details that will happen to me there [in Mexico]. Since some of your predictions have already come true. I believe that should give you a precise indication concerning the manner in which to interpret the rest. If you see a salient event as already done, obviously I will be happy to learn of it.

I interrupt the sentence and the citation and I take them back up, as it is in this second part that Artaud defines the manner in which he understands astrology:

    ...but in general you know my consideration of astrology: not as a means of analytical and objective divination, but as a series of internal indications, of trajectories and effective modifications. A synthetic orientation of the qualities of the stars. These movements concern me, and I would like to learn about them with regard to a departure that has taken place.

At the end of the letter, he provides the date of his arrival in Mexico, February 8, and asks that the response be addressed to the care of Légation de France, where he will pick up his mail.

It would not be pure artifice to note that the astrological predictions9 of Dr. Allendy are behind the strong force of optimism that underlies the self-portrait and the plan for the trip to Mexico. In a note on November 14, 1935, that is found preceded and followed by notes and didactic outlines on various religions and esoteric systems, 10 Artaud takes up predictions made by the aforementioned doctor ("Said for Allendy," is what is written at the head of the entry): "Mercury is involved with a voyage that will answer to a type of intuition and a feeling of a occult premonition. This trip is made thanks to effort, great strength, eloquence and persuasion." These very notes, among others, substantiate the role that astrology (and the occult in general) had in Artaud's way of life in those decisive years. A few pages after the cited passage, Artaud writes:

    if a man doesn't have any idea about Venus it is not important to know when Venus enters this or that house and passes a certain degree of the zodiac, etc.; movement in the stars is a deed of utmost precision.

And after a reading of the stars, he notes in the same bunch of scattered pages: "This does not at all rule my temperament but it gives me the possibility of acting according to the sign I absorb; I have intuitions..."

Despite not having the text of the letter sent by Allendy in the care of the Légation de France, Artaud's response to that letter, dated, as we have seen, February 7, does not leave a doubt that it was fluidly written:

    Your letter knocks me over with its attentive friendship and the moving clarity of its insights, which joins together all of the marvels that astonishingly surround me. There is not one of your words that does not corroborate what is happening to me.

The poet was ready to graciously confront the difficulties of a trip to a foreign country where an urgent transmutation of Western values awaited him. The astonishing reign of optimism was even more positive, because, during the ship's brief stay in the port of Havana,11 Artaud met a "black sorcerer." The sorcerer offered him a magic sword, showing him, at the same time, that which he should have understood about life "so that the world of images which is in him turns in a certain direction." In another letter, Artaud reaffirmed the power of the rites of the black Cubans as an auspicious conduit of his future life, "I don't move haphazardly, but since Cuba, I have a strange tendency. I have a precious thing to find." He adds, "I have come to Mexico to re-establish equilibrium and to break my bad luck." Still in the cited letter to Doctor Allendy, it cannot go unnoted that Artaud affirmed that he "de-toxified" during his crossing of the Atlantic. 12

Closest to our line of inquiry is the first sentence of the letter sent from Mexico City: "I arrive in Mexico a Friday, a seventh of the month, and we are in February of 1936." Madeleine Turrell Rodack, in her doctoral thesis Antonin Artaud and the Vision of Mexico, was the first to decode it, reiterating as well the "optimistic" tone of the letter. She says:

    One can find the explanation of a sentence in the language of numbers, where this represents a combination of two "threes." The fifth day of the week [Friday] added to the date seven, gives twelve, which equals three according to a cabalistic reduction. The second month [February] added to the digits of the year [1936] gives twenty-one, which equals three. Thus this is a three against the grain. One finds in this manner two groups of three that can be represented by two triangles, one right, the other inverse, that form the hexagram of the Seal of Solomon, well known by Artaud and Doctor Allendy. 13

As specialized books show, the Seal of Solomon "truly totalizes hermetic thought" and appears "as a synthesis of the opposites and the expression of cosmic unity, as well as its complexity." There is nothing to fear. In Mexico City, the dream of the future and universal Aztec empire is maintained. The mise-en-scène of metamorphosis will be its responsibility.

3. History imposes the present
How did the poet and dramatist Antonin Artaud, so conscious of his duty and so sure of the path he took to assure the success of his undertaking, transform himself into the "Wretched" or outcast that wandered drugged and alone through the streets of Mexico City? Could it be that the position that he adopted (the one that prolonged, as we have seen, the secular tradition of the Indians and remained rebellious against all progress) is the least profitable and the most dangerous culturally and politically?

The inter-cultural encounters provided by the artists that traveled to the unknown were not always felicitous. The history of arts and letters tends to valorize only the encounters that provide certainty. In these cases, there exists in one form or another, a wide-open field of shared possibilities that makes possible a mutual reconciliation. A type of profitable exchange happens, according to the principles of a primitive economy of exchange, where the elements of trade between one culture and the other find one another wanting and permeable. The heterogeneous cultural elements combine, therefore, in homogeneous and hybrid products, original and rich juices that will simultaneously serve as a source for the explosion of other new products.

Two compatriots, artists living in the same foreign city, inhabiting the same workplace, interested, in principle, in the same aesthetic, and similar in artistic endeavors, do not react to, interfere with, or take interest in the new socio-cultural milieu in the same manner. Note the case of Paul Claudel and Darius Milhaud. The first was the French ambassador to Brazil for two years (1917-1918) and the second was his secretary during that same period. Claudel considered the country "a paradise of sadness" and found company only among his fellow diplomats, such as the English, or among great figures of European art who came to Rio de Janeiro (such as Nijinski and the Russian dancers, Anna Pavlova and Arthur Rubinstein, etc.). Besides being Eurocentric and elitist, Catholic and conservative, Claudel was not able to discern nor hear the richness of this other Brazil present in popular music, a Brazil that was Black and little contaminated by European art. After participating in a night-out in Asyrio, he notes in the Journal: "At night in Asyrio, the women dance convulsively, and all of a sudden the orchestra begins to play the songs and laughter of the damned that give you chills down your back."

Darius Milhaud lived in Rio de Janeiro as much with erudite as with almost anonymous Black musicians. He allowed himself to be imbued so completely by erudite and popular Brazilian music that he would extract some themes from them to form part of his own compositions.14 This is the case, for example, of Le boeuf sur le toit, and of the series Saudade do Brasil.

Artaud did not lack curiosity about the history and daily life of Mexico City. Artaud did not lack the desire to arrive in Mexico without anything. Artaud did not lack the desire to meet Mexican politicians and artists in order to better integrate them in him. He eventually wrote and published a petulant "Open Letter to the Governors of State." Cardoza y Aragón summarizes, "He lived so much in the world that he was drowning in reality."15 Without ears for his own words, Artaud approached the anonymous folk and conversed with anyone on the Bohemian and roguish streets around Plaza Garibaldi; he succumbed to drugs like never before, bringing himself to constant humiliation in order to obtain the indispensable. He scarcely associated with artists and figures of the Mexican elite. Disillusioned with the poverty of metropolitan cultural life, Artaud did not lack the interest to find out what escaped European influence in Mexico. On the contrary, the trip that he would make at the end of his stay to the country of Tarahumaras confirms this interest. Artaud's best friend, Cardoza y Aragón, did not contradict this: "I am not Artaud's witness in Mexico, calcified by drugs and suffering. There was no witness to his perennial watch, to his tantálica aphasia."16 The only witnesses would be the distant Tarahumaras Indians. Of these, only silence remains.

Missing in Cardoza y Aragón, the interest in intervening in Mexican reality overwhelmed Artaud. He wanted to transform it in the direction of a future that would re-animate the indigenous past, in a type of redemption of the grand destruction caused by European colonizers. In the eyes of the powerful, this direction appeared counter-productive and dangerous. In Mexico in the 1930s, the future belonged to the present, and the present belonged to the PRN, that is, subject to the orders of President Lázaro Cárdenas. After the Russian Revolution and the world crisis instigated by the Depression of 1929, the countries on the periphery, after the strengthening of the Nation-state, took the lead in agrarian reform and controlled the national economic process. They initiated a politics of development and short-term solutions for social problems. The economic protectionism allied itself with social paternalism. The Tarascan Indians would give the correct name for Cárdenas: Grandpa Lázaro.

Artaud gave his first public presentation in the land of historian and humanist José Vasconcelos, creator of the "Saltimbanquis" professors who, on cultural missions, spoke of the Indians of the Illiad and of the Dialogues of Plato. In the conference "El Hombre contra el Destino" ("Man Against Destiny"), put forth in the Bolívar Amphitheater of the National Preparatory School, he spoke of the ignorance that modern man has to know in order to then affirm that if someone were to speak, among mechanized scientists busy with their microscopes, of a secret determinism based upon the superior laws of the world, it would cause laughter. Artaud is this someone. He continues:

    Today when one speaks of culture, governments think of opening schools, starting the printing presses for books, making the ink flow in the printers, while to make culture ripe, one should close the schools, burn the museums, destroy the books, stop the spinning of the presses.

Thought and reason, when they want to take into account God, nature, man, life, death and destiny, contribute to the "loss of knowledge." In the capital of Mexico, Artaud wanted to model an empire of esoteric knowledge. In the Palacio de los Pinos (Palace of the Pines), Cárdenas took care of a country on the periphery. For this reason, he would request the installation of a telegraph in his own study. This would be the manner in which all could communicate directly with the president.

"El Hombre contra el Destino" appears to be written by someone who knew by heart the biography of President Cárdenas, and was inclined to contradict it. Since the time when he was governor of Michoacán, Cárdenas had transformed the cultural missions created by José Vasconcelos into something a little less literary and philosophical, and much more practical and palpable. According to Enrique Krause:

    his principle act was to "defanaticize" and "dealcholicize" [the country folk and the Indians]. He attempted to do so like the priests, through small theatrical performances. This work was complemented by classes in the making of soap, the conservation of fruit, and the promotion of sports.17

In this same period, the Michoacán Revolutionary Confederation of Work, still according to the same author, "decided to carry out an ideological purging within a normative environment in order to exclude the teachers who lacked an 'advanced ideology.'" On the other hand, as a good disciple of President Calles, Cárdenas measured "the progress in linear, square, and cubical meters."18

Perhaps Artaud had had the "blessing" of benefiting from a peaceful period in the Cárdenas administration. The day following the magical day he arrived in Mexico City (February 8) the President notes in his diary:

    Today I issued the Law of Reprieve for all of the prosecuted politicians, civilians and military personnel, whose number surpasses ten thousand people, that had taken part in rebellions or skirmishes in past administrations.

Later, after the arrival of Artaud, the great figures of the opposition returned to the country. But if Artaud benefited from the "peace" it was minimally, having had scarcely a few of his writings accepted here and there in the government newspaper. The truth is, Artaud was hardly dangerous and easily neutralized. The same would not occur with the president's former teacher, General Plutarco Elías Calles. On April 9, 1936, contrary to the text of the "Law of Reprieve," he was forced to leave for exile in the United States.

Calles damaged the power of the president. Artaud, "the Wretched," left the metropolis for good, in order to hide himself in the distant country of the Tarahumaras in the semi-official capacity of "pitchman"—practically the only piece of land that Cárdenas did not visit during the trip to all corners of the Republic that preceded his election as president. Where the president did not set foot, there Artaud reigned.

Silviano Santiago
Translation by Joy Conlon and Esther Gabara



1 Luis Cardoza y Aragón, "Antonin Artaud," Poesías completas y algunas prosas (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1977) 603.

Cardoza y Aragón 607.

Claude Lévi-Strauus Tristes tropiques (Paris: Plon, 1955) 96.

In a literary magazine published in 1931.

5 Antonin Artaud, Oeuvres complètes vol. 8 (Paris: Galllimard, 1980) 126.

6 For an understanding of the role of drunkenness in the universe of Cardoza y Aragón, I recommend the extraordinary Elogio de la Embriaguez (1931).

7 Cf. "The eternal culture of Mexico": "I know almost all that History has taught about the diverse races of Mexico and I admit to being allowed to rever in poetry about that which it never teaches. In the known historical events and real life of the Mexican soul there is an immense margin for the imaginary—and, I dare say, my personal intuition—I can give free reign."

8 Cardoza y Aragón 247.

9  For a reproduction of Artaud's astrological theme and his reading, see Obliques, n.10-11: 246-248.

10 "Pages de Carnet. Notes Intimes," Oeuvres complètes, vol. 8, 90.

11 Despite the little if any knowledge of Artaud's brief stay in Cuba, one should point out, in touching on this encounter with a "black sorcerer" and availing ourselves of the information taken by Fernando Ortiz that all of the stevedores of Havana were followers of the lemanjá. They are known for their practices of santería on the other side of the bay in Regla, and on the second of February, the day on which he certainly was there, they celebrate the Day of Our Lady of Candelária, a day of offerings for the giri. Supported by the description of the sword made by Artaud in a letter to André Breton and, taking into consideration the Cuban atmosphere in which he was, everything indicates that the gift received was a sword of Ogum.

12 In this sense, it shows that, since September of 1935, Artaud wrote Doctor Toulouse in order to be accepted once again, this time on his own behalf, in the Hospital Henri-Rousselle in order to end his addiction. Only in November of that same year did he check in.

13  Madeleine Turrell Rodack, "Antonin Artaud and the Vision of Mexico" diss., University of Arizona, 1974, 177.

14 See Notes sans musique (Paris: Julliard, 1949). On one side, "Oswald composed music infused with French influence. His wife Nininha especially gifted at composition was above all an excellent pianist. They initiated me into the music of Satie that until then I knew very imperfectly and I went over it with Nininha, who was exceptionally good at deciphering contemporary music. The rhythms of the popular music intrigued and fascinated me. There was an imperceptible suspension, a nonchalant breathing, a light stop in the syncopation, that was difficult for me to grasp. At that time, I bought a number of maxixes and tangos; I forced myself to play them with their syncopation that passed from one hand to the other."

15  "Open Letter to the Governors of State."

16  Cardoza y Aragón 618.

17  Enrique Krause, Biografía del poder/8—Lázaro Cárdenas, General misionero (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1987) 47.

18 Krause 68.

© 1999 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.