You’re getting older everyday, you ought to love someone


I myself spent nine years in an insane asylum and I never had the obsession of suicide, but I know that each conversation with a psychiatrist, every morning at the time of his visit, made me want to hang myself, realizing that I would not be able to cut his throat.

{ Antonin Artaud, Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society, 1947 }

No one personifies the thorny entanglement between modernism and the science of the soul better than Dr. Gaston Ferdière, the psychiatrist who administered no less than 58 electroshock treatments to the Surrealist playwright Antonin Artaud during the Second World War. Determined to reconcile poetry and medicine, Ferdière had studied under “Professor Claude”— target of Breton’s anti-psychiatric rants—at Sainte-Anne while at the same time passing as a “star of Surrealism in the bistros” of Paris in the mid-1930s. A friend of Breton, Desnos, Péret, and Crevel, the young Dr. Ferdière arranged to have a mural painted in the Sainte-Anne guardhouse by an artist close to the movement, and he even published several volumes of poetry himself.

By the time Artaud showed up on his doorstep at Rodez psychiatric hospital, Ferdiére had long since abandoned his poetic aspirations. Yet his old interests were rekindled in long conversations with the Surrealist playwright, whose talents he sought to revive by a combination of “art therapy”—writing, drawing, translating Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass—and shock treatments—six courses ranging from 4 to 13 sessions each between June 20th, 1943 and January 24th, 1945. Electroshock was still in its experimental phase—the machine had hardly rolled in the door at Rodez—and the convulsions were so severe that Artaud fractured a vertebra in his neck during one of the treatments.

The strange case of Ferdière and Artaud remains a source of controversy to this day. On the one hand, there can be little doubt that the psychiatrist saved Artaud’s life by taking him in. The playwright had been confined to various mental hospitals since suffering a psychotic break in 1936, but with the outbreak of war the Nazis restricted food supplies to asylum patients, and by 1943 Artaud was on the brink of starvation. Spirited out of Occupied France to the “free zone,” he quickly recovered under the care of Dr. Ferdière, who openly defied the restrictions and kept his patients well fed by working the black market.

{ Yale University, | PDF | Antonin Artaud (1896 – 1948) was a French playwright, poet, actor and theatre director. | Wikipedia }

artwork { Robert Motherwell, Africa Suite, Africa 6, 1970 }