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Book of the Week: Heliogabalus, or The Anarchist Crowned by Antonin Artaud

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

"Here is the most violent book of contemporary literature – that is, a book of beautiful, regenerative violence." - J.M.G. Le Clézio

"The acts of excess, atrocity and aberration of the Roman Emperors have provoked richly obsessional responses from innumerable writers over the centuries. In the twentieth century, that compulsive fascination (now shared too by filmmakers) emerged at moments of profound upheaval and social disintegration: in Germany during the 1910s, in France during the 1930s, in Japan during the 1960s and worldwide, in the contemporary moment. The grandiose abuse of colossal power, the overriding desire for immediate sexual ecstasy and oblivion through violence and torture, and the arbitrary eradication of entire populations, are ever-more vital and relevant preoccupations." - Stephen Barber

Heliogabalus, or The Anarchist Crowned is part of his “Theatre of Cruelty” period, which he defined in opposition to bloodshed: "This cruelty is a matter of neither sadism nor bloodshed. cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination. Cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty without consciousness. …"

The novel is a biography of 3rd century Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, and a powerful mix of sexual excess and decadence, self-deification, violence and reflections on the occult, on magic and Satanism. This account of the Emperor's reign is more of a personal vision infused with surrealist preoccupations, such as religious esotericism and the dependency on out of the ordinary violence to awaken the repressed appetites of men.

Constantly hovering between myth, history and literature, Artaud wrote a phantasmagoria tinged with remnants of the sun-god religion, and its elegant prose manages to describe the most mundane or including disgusting aspects of organic life (notably an obsession with the question of procreation).

“An incendiary work that reveals both the divine cruelty of the Roman Emperor and that of Artaud himself.” -- Stephen Barber

Heliogabalus, or The Anarchist Crowned is published by Infinity Land Press and it was translated by Alexis Lykiard.

Born in Marseilles in 1896, Antonin Artaud initially worked as a stage and screen actor and as a set designer, appearing in films by Abel Gance amongst others. In the 1920s, he developed an interest in the surrealist movement headed by André Breton, and in 1923 he published a collection of symbolist verse, Tric Trac du ciel -Bagammon of the Sky. He would pursue this literary career with L'Ombilic des limbes (Umbilical Limbo), and filmscripts. He would then return to drama and publish works of dramatic theory such as Manifestes du théâtre de la cruauté (Manifestos of the Theatre of Cruelty)

In 1937, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a mental institution following numerous crises. He would spend the next nine year is asylums, a legacy that would turn him into a head figure of the misunderstood genius by many. He died of cancer in 1948.

Alexis Lykiard was born in Athens in 1940. His books include 9 novels, translations from French, 2 memoirs of Jean Rhys, and numerous poetry collections – most recently Schooled For Life (Shoestring 2016).

He began his career as a novelist and a poet in the 1960s. His first collections of poems (Milesian Fables, 1976, Living Jazz, 1990 and Skeleton Keys, 2003) deal with jazz, but also with the history of Greece, and themes such as secrets, betrayal, and the notion of heroism. He has written critically-acclaimed memoirs of Jean Rhys. He has also worked as a translator, translating the likes of Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry and Antonin Artaud.

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