The Monk (Modern Classics) - Antonin Artaud, Matthew Gregory Lewis Antonin Artaud’s The Monk is to the original like the fossilized skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex is to the living, breathing, hunting animal that lived 65+ million years ago. If it’s the only source of information you have you can learn a great deal but you’ll still not understand the ecosystem the creature lived in – its fellow predators, its prey, the flora, the microbes and insects that worked together to create the environment. In the same way, this book is the original novel’s skeleton – the supporting framework without the organs that made it a living being.

Despite the blurbs in my edition, I don’t see where Artaud made this work “his own.” He edited it down, added chapter headers and ended it by tacking on a quotation from the New Testament (John 8:7) – but he did not make it his own.

Unless…Artaud’s interests were primarily in theater and cinema and he was interested in making a filmed version. If you read this like a first draft in that project – distilling what he thought most important to convey to theoretical movie-goers then I have greater sympathy for the project. Artaud may have made something interesting and truly “his” if he had had the opportunity and inspiration to rework this in another medium. As it stands, Artaud’s The Monk doesn’t add anything to Lewis’s vision, and you’re better off sticking with that one.

It’s more fun to read the overheated rhetoric of the two introductory essays. E.g.:

“The impact of Artaud’s language on the reader’s perception mirrors its own acceleration into unknown sensory ground – the textures of the sexual pleasure or elation experience by the reader are abruptly overturned into horror and infinite chaos. The reader of Artaud’s The Monk is simultaneously ensnared, gratified and sexually abused.” (p. 5)


“Artaud exacted a wholesale transformation – in effect, a radical anatomization – of Lewis’s original book…. In all, Artaud’s The Monk forms a vast ‘X’ of livid negation imprinted over the entire face and history of literature. It marks the invention of a language capable of scanning a unique sensory ground of burning sexual furore – a prescient language which now brings Artaud’s book directly into the contemporary moment.” (pp. 6, 7-8)

I also thought that the contempt the introductions’ authors have for Lewis was inappropriate. I do not defend Lewis as a “great author” but to dismiss him as a “homosexual dwarf who spent the remainder of his short life failing to live up to the brilliance of his first work” (p. 5) seems a bit harsh.