The Peyote Dance by Antonin Artaud

Originally published in France under the title ‘Les Tarahumaras’ (1947), ‘The Peyote Dance’ by Antonin Artaud describes the author’s experiences with Peyote and the Tarahumara in Mexico, in 1936. Written over twelve years and covering Artaud’s stay at a psychiatric hospital in Rodez, the book is an important work of drug literature, so far as it provides an intriguing discourse on a possible essential value in psychedelic drugs. This review is written from the first U.S. printing (1976), hardback, translated by Helen Weaver and published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

It is worth saying a little about the author, Antonin Artaud, before delving straight into The Peyote Dance. Born in Marseille on September 4, 1896, Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud (one of his pen names was Antonin, which means ‘little Anthony’,) became a playwright, poet and theatre director. After being treated with opium for a number of ailments, including clinical depression, when he was younger, it resulted in a life-long addiction. However, upon the failure of a theatre production in 1936 he gained a visa to visit Mexico, where upon he entered into the land of the Tarahumara and simultaneously into heroin withdrawal. In many respects this was the important backdrop of his visit; a clash of mental states. And, after leaving the following year, he found himself in and out of mental institutions, some of which is described in The Peyote Dance. He died on March 4, 1948.

To watch them [the Tarahumara] unswervingly follow their course, through torrents, ground that gives way, dense undergrowth, rock ladders, sheer walls, I cannot help thinking that they have somehow retained the instinctive force of gravitation of the first men (Artaud 4).

Artaud immediately places the Tarahumara within a naturalistic and “primeval” context. He depicts them as a proud group who feel themselves to be privileged compared to those who live in cities. As with the quote above there is a language of course and nature emerging as something opposed to the mechanisms of civilization. For example, he writes, that the “law of physical reciprocity”, what we would call charity, is observed “naturally”  by the Tarahumara, rather that it being a question of generosity, it is a state of generosity wherein those in need are helped by those who are able, unquestioningly, as if as an essence. This perhaps romantic divide, a cultural lusting, is a barrier that helps construct the sacred space of the peyote dance within the text.

There is a very political fracture between the “Primeval” and the civilized that most clearly manifests through the Mexican government’s attempts to educate the Tarahumara in a Western mould and through their attempts to stop the use of peyote (or Cigura) among them. Interestingly, it is here that Artaud then locates his own discourse on the role and experience of Peyote, through religious and psychiatric language, and in some sense is putting his discourse into a radical political space. In other words, he is exploring Peyote as a plant hallucinogen that gives one access to a ‘knowledge’ the West has supposedly lost, which the West (through ignorance I suppose) is trying to stamp out but which, he appears to argue, disintegrates the reality of these politics through its ingestion.

The investigation of this space is about revelation, in the sense that Peyote takes one to a place that lies concealed behind ideas and illusions. For instance, although the Tarahumara’s rituals were highly Christianized and, indeed, Artaud’s language mirrors this throughout, the use of Peyote becomes an access to the reality of its mysteries; the experience itself of the ‘Word of God’ rather than a simple textual doctrine:

Now if the Priests of the Sun behave like manifestations of the Word of God, or of his Logos, that is, Jesus Christ, the Priests of Peyote allowed me to experience the actual Myth of Mystery, to become immersed in the original mythic arcana, to enter through them into the Mystery of Mysteries, to look upon the face of those extreme operations by which THE FATHER MAN, NEITHER MAN NOR WOMAN, created all things (Artaud 20).

The peyote experience is described as giving one access to an ‘ultimate source’ and is, therefore, being described in essentialist terms by Artaud. As we shall see there is recourse to psychoanalytical constructs in order to reach this essence, however, of more interest is how this essence is applied ontologically in the text; namely, the language of an evolving nature, which was mentioned previously. For Artaud, this essence is in a constant state of becoming. The Peyote experience, and the Tarahumara way of belief, become a delicate unfolding between nature and man, as the two are irrevocably entwined: “And I saw that the rocks all had the shape of a woman’s bosom with two perfectly delineated breasts” (Artaud 15); or, ”when one enters this landscape [Sierra, Mexico] and finds gods at the tops of mountains, gods with an arm hacked off on the left side and an empty space on the right side, and whom lean to the right…” (Artaud 59).

Essence, becoming and nature are partaking in a dance for Artaud and this is the concealed, revelatory element. Compare The Peyote Dance to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), for example. Arguably essentialist texts on the mescaline experience (which is derived from Peyote,) Huxley’s works are very much concerned with an aesthetic space. However, while Huxley looks to the great artistic works of painters and the far-reaching “antipodes of the mind”, Artaud attempts to step out beyond in his descriptions. It is the fact that, he claims, the blue skies of the pre-renaissance painters were based on and found in Mexico that was important; the real or essence of their images, which he stood beneath and witnessed.

Although Artaud writes that one vision “objectively corresponded to a painted transcendental representation of the ultimate and highest realities” (Artaud 37), he also writes in a footnote on the same page that peyote “does not lend itself to these fetid spiritual assimilations.” Rather, the peyote experience is a revelation about oneself “where one comes from and who one is, and one no longer doubts what one is” (Artaud 38). In play with his romantic language, is the language of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, which really came into formation, within drug writing, during the 1950s and 1960s, having rapidly developed through psycholytic and psychedelic research on LSD.

Once again there is a search for something ‘beyond’ in this discourse and the importance of the timing cannot be stressed more. Sandoz first sold LSD to psychoanalysists as a key to accessing the unconscious of their patients, the same year Les Tarahumaras was published, in 1947; Artaud wrote: “And the whole series of lustful fantasies projected by the unconscious can no longer oppress the true breath of man” (Artaud 38). There lies something greater than the mere “lustful fantasies” and he often cites the pre-consciousness as its source. Therefore, prior to Huxley, Artaud was already looking deeply into the ontological questions of peyote through the lens (though more distrusting perhaps) of psychical theory.

The chapter, in which the above observations were made, were written while he was in his first year at the psychiatric hospital in Rodez “after I had already been shut up for seven years, three of them in solitary confinement, with systematic and daily poisoning” and he calls the text a “stammer” (Artaud 43). His final impression of Peyote, in the chapter, that it “fixes the mind and prevents it from wandering, from surrendering to false impressions” (Artaud 42) appears to reveal the essential thread pervading his own psychiatric narrative; peyote being the guiding hand; the navigator. Over and above the discourse between the mystical and psychiatric is this fixity. There is recourse, to my mind, of what Huxley later called “attention” and which Artaud says “produces this synthetic concretion which maintains permanently in the mind a sense of and a desire for the real” (Artaud 42). Peyote becomes the intensity through which his own mental illnesses could rebalance through the plant’s revelationary relationship with the “essence”.

In the chapter The Peyote Dance he remunerates over the point of essence alongside the ritual itself, encased in circles and fire and dance. He also discusses the rite of sorcerers acquiring the use of their rasp for ceremonies, and questions what has been communicated to them by the “Master of Peyote” during their rite. He asks: “What has been communicated to them which is not contained in the external apparatus of the rite…?” (Artaud 56). He goes on to describe “the principle” as the concealed element, which is served “precisely by my crucifixion” (Artaud 58). The constant becoming of nature, unfolding in new forms, seen through death and rebirth, is the ontological ‘fixation’ that we discussed earlier in this review; it is this ontology that founds his own discourse and which finds the immanence of nature at every transcendental curtain pulling.

I felt, therefore, that I should go back to the source and expand my pre-consciousness to the point where I would see myself evolve and desire. And Peyote led me to this point. Transported by Peyote I saw that I had to defend what I am before I was born, and that my Self is merely the consequence of the battle I waged in the Supreme against the untruth of evil ideas (Artaud 75).

Overall, a very thought-provoking book that, to my mind at least, is one of the finest examples of drug literature dealing with questions of value and essence.


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