On April 15, 1925, the French founder of the Theatre of the Absurd, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) published his “Letter to the Schools of the Buddha” in the third issue of La Revolution Surrealiste. In the same issue were addresses to the Dalai Lama and the Pope and a “Letter to the Directors of Insane Assylums.” The issue was subtitled “1925: End of the Christian Era.”
Read in the context of the artistic movement from which it came, Artaud’s “Letter” is less an espousal of Buddhist ideas than an expression of dissatisfaction with the materialism of modern society. That dissatisfaction, in turn, led many artists and intellectuals to embrace Buddhism in the twenties and thirties, when gradually the actual teachings of Buddhism came more to the fore.
You who are disincarnate, who know at what point in its carnal trajectory, its insensitive coming and going, that the soul finds the absolute verb, the new speech, the interior ground; you who know how one returns to oneself in thought and how the spirit can save itself from itself; you who are interior to yourselves; you for whom the spirit is no longer on the carnal plane here there are hands for whom taking…You who are disincarnate, who know at what point in its carnal trajectory, its insensitive coming and going, that the soul finds the absolute verb, the new speech, the interior ground; you who know how one returns to oneself in thought and how the spirit can save itself from itself; you who are interior to yourselves; you for whom the spirit is no longer on the carnal plane here there are hands for whom taking is not everything, brains that see further than a forest of roofs, the glare of facades, cog-wheel people and the workings of fire and marble. Advancing is this people of iron; advancing are words written with the speed of light; advancing towards each other with the force of bullets are the sexes: what will change in the avenues of the soul? in the spasms of the heart? in the despair of the spirit?
So hurl into the water all the blank white men who arrive with their little heads and well-behaved minds. It is necessary that these dogs hear us; we are not speaking of ancient human ills. Our spirit suffers from needs other than those inherent in life. We are suffering from corruption, from the corruption of reason.
Logical Europe endlessly smashes the spirit between the hammers of two terms. She wrenches it open and shuts it down. This stangulation has gone far enough; for too long have we been suffering beneath the harness. The Spirit is larger than the spirit, the metamorphoses of life are manifold. Like you, we abhor progress: come and tear down our houses!
While our scribes still continue to write, our journalists to natter on, our critics to drone away, our politicians to hold forth and our judicial assassins to hatch their crimes in peace, we know what life really is. Our writers, thinkers, doctors and scribblers know exactly how to make a mess of life. While all these scribes drool upon us, whether from habit or compulsion, spiritual emasculation or a failure to apprehend nuance, in this dull sludge, on these turning grounds where the highly esteemed spirit of man is endlessly shifting around, we have harnessed thought the best. Come. Save us from these worms. Invent new houses for us.
Excerpt from Antonin Artaud’s “Lettre aux ecoles du Bouddha”, first published in La Revolution Surrealiste no.3, on 15 April 1925 in Paris. Translated by Stephen Batchelor, 1993.