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Author Of The Month: David Shafer

Published: July 5, 2016

Antonin Artaud

David Shafer, chair/professor, History

Antonin Artaud, the 256-page biography of the founder of the French theater of cruelty, was published in May by Reaktion Book as part of its Critical Lives series. Poet, actor, playwright, surrealist, drug addict, asylum inmate—Artaud (1896–1949) is one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic personalities and idiosyncratic thinkers. David Shafer takes readers on a voyage through Artaud’s life which he spent amid the company of France’s most influential cultural figures even as he stood apart from them. Shafer casts Artaud as a person with tenacious values. Even though Artaud was born in the material comfort of a bourgeois family from Marseille, he uncompromisingly rejected bourgeois values and norms. Becoming famous as an actor, director and author, he would use his position to challenge contemporary assumptions about the superiority of the West, the function of speech, the purpose of culture and the individual’s agency over his or her body. In this way, as Shafer points out, Artaud embodied the revolutionary spirit of France. And as Shafer shows, although Artaud was immensely productive, he struggled profoundly with his creative process, hindered by narcotics addiction, increasing paranoia and an overwhelming sense of alienation. “There hasn’t been a credible biography of Artaud in English for a long time,” said Shafer, a member of the university since 1989 who achieved tenure in 2002. “There is a great deal written about in him France but relatively little recently in the U.S. and Britain. Yet he remains a compelling figure to a lot of people.” Shafer believes Artaud has much to say to the 21st century. “One of the last things he wrote was a tract called ‘For an End to the Judgement of God’ which he recorded for French radio not long before his death in 1948. French radio felt it was too offensive and scatological to broadcast despite its defense by a jury of prominent cultural figures including a priest. The piece is really a meditation on the dangers of post-war American hegemony. Presciently, Artaud referred to such topics as genetically modified foods and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. However, because of his years in asylums and his receipt of more than 50 electroshock treatments, society marginalized Artaud’s alternative visions as residing on the other side of sanity.” A key to Shafer’s research was his relationship with Artaud’s nephew and the last survivor of the Artaud family, Serge

Author of the Month-David Shafer

Malausséna. He recalled a 12-hour interview accompanied by Shafer’s daughter Alison, a CSULB graduate. “He understands the responsibility of being the last survivor of the family,” Shafer said. “His home is the repository of family artifacts and I’ve been allowed access to rare family photos in addition to Serge’s personal recollections.” He encourages readers of his new biography to consider Artaud’s critical role during a fascinating period of French cultural history. “He was a member of the surrealists in addition to significant roles in two of the most important French films of that period, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ and Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon.’ Artaud revolutionized Western theater and challenged both Western and bourgeois hegemony over cultural expression and communication,” he said. Shafer is the author of Paris Commune: French Politics, Culture, and Society at the Crossroads of the Revolutionary Tradition and Revolutionary Socialism from Palgrave Macmillan in 2005. He earned his bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1981, his Juris Doctorate in 1984 from Loyola Law School and his doctorate from the University College London in 1994.