Transcendental Cabbage

Allen S. Weiss

To Cite this Article

Weiss, A. S.(2016). Transcendental Cabbage. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 3.


Gastronomic symbols are relatively rare in the writings of Antonin Artaud, but always incisive. Having gone to Ireland carrying what he believed to be the cane of Saint Patrick to preach the end of the world, he was forcibly returned to France as a madman, and spent the rest of his life in psychiatric asylums. After a long period of total aphasia, he returned to language to begin writing his final works, among the most important of his career. At that very moment, while still incarcerated in the psychiatric hospiral in Rodez, he took a celebrated photograph, showing a cane planted in the ground, transformed into a crucifix, upon which was impaled a huge cabbage leaf. Perhaps a memory of his fateful trip to Ireland, this transcendental cabbage – the most bizarre of all stuffed cabbage recipes, a cabbage filled with the cross – was a tragic symbol of Artaud’s final years, and a cataclysmic example of transcendent cuisine.


Antonin Artaud, bouillabaisse, cabbage, cane, crucifix, Roudoudou,
stuffed cabbage, transsubstantiation, transcendental cuisine.

In Paris, there exists no street named after Antonin Artaud, though one does find, in a gesture of great refinement, the villa Rimbaud adjacent to the villa Verlaine. But, in the most terrible irony, there exists a place Antonin-Artaud in Rodez, where Artaud spent four wartime years of his life interned in a psychiatric asylum: years of hell, a time of incomparable isolation and aphasia, of torment and torture, when language fled, his soul was engulfed by the void, and his spirit was crushed. The place Artaud: a traffic circle, an empty and inaccessible space, a veritable elegy for he who had no place, he who was consumed by nothingness. Empty as the void within him: “If only one could taste one’s nothingness [néant], if one could really remain in one’s nothingness, and this nothingness were not a certain sort of being nor quite death either.”[1] His being was emptiness and pain; his lifelong goal was to fill the void and end the pain, such that from the beginning of his writerly career, he would claim: “I have only one occupation, to remake myself.”[2] His anxiety of influence began as a psychological-aesthetic torment which was a result of the judgment of man, and ended as an ontological-cosmological catastrophe that was the judgment of God. The entire universe would have to be reconstituted in order for Artaud to fill that distance, that void, which separated him from himself. This void he names God. To remake himself he would have to go mad, die a hundred deaths, battle gods and demons, and ultimately, like Nietzsche before him, renounce his Christianity in order to become himself. He would need to become his own origin.

Artaud is the first writer — perhaps because of his madness, perhaps despite it — where I have found explicit mention of the specifically metaphysical nature of cuisine: “Aïoli is a metaphysical effort of nourishment by the palate, the tongue and the teeth in order to end up with the most somber alchemy,”[3] a marvelous condensation of metaphysical folly and magical cuisine. We might remember that aïoli is a garlic-mayonnaise often added to croutons on fish soup, and that Artaud, of Marseillais origins, might well have dreamt of such delicacies during the years of near starvation at Rodez. This is the moment when he produced one of his most famous, enigmatic, and emblematic drawings, La bouillabaisse de formes dans la tour de Babel, an image which perhaps most accurately reflects the current state-of-mind of he who was born in Marseille and who hallucinated during his deliria that he was murdered many times in Marseille “a curious conflation of origins and ends.”[4] For bouillabaisse, that most complex and site-specific of fish soups, that most famous of Marseillais dishes, is a chaos of ingredients, a vertigo of gestures, a labyrinth of tastes — a dish of subtlety and dilemma, if not of confusion and disquietude. It is a veritable allegory of Artaud’s soul, the culinary equivalent of the tower of Babel, which manifested itself as the glossolalia, barbarisms, agrammatisms, and neologisms that punctuated his speech and writings of the period. We might be reminded of Artaud’s sense of his drawings:

“The goal of all these drawn and colored figures was the exorcism of a curse, a corporeal vituperation against the obligations of spatial form, of perspective, of measure, of equilibrium, of dimension, and through this demanding vituperation a condemnation of the psychic world incrusted like a crab-louse on the physique that it incubates or succubates by alleging to have formed it.”[5]

Not icons or images, but amulets and exorcisms. It should thus not be all that much of a surprise to find, floating in the upper left-hand corner of this drawing among the other machines, coffins and disjecta membra, the image of a movie projector. No longer representational apparatus, ontological toy or metaphysical allegory, this projector must be understood as Artaud came to grasp the book, as something lifeless, as a tomb. He already sensed this over a decade before, where in “La vieillesse précoce du cinéma” he claims that: “The cinematographic world is a dead world, illusionary and truncated … The world of cinema is a closed world, unrelated to existence,” and what’s more, cinema is a world without magic.[6] Years later, his drawings would serve as magical tools, incantatory presences, documents of his inner conditions, expressions of his desires, emblems of his life work. In fact, they were not images but gri-gri, magical amulets whose profound referent is unrepresentable pain. Indeed, in a sense, all of Artaud’s work in all media is intended as that “curative magic” so central to his notion of the theater of cruelty. These drawings are thus simultaneously apotropaic talismans and “innate totems” which expressed, as he wrote in 1946, “a sort of moral music, which I made by experiencing my brushstrokes not only through my hand, but also through the scraping of the breath of my cut artery, through the teeth of my mastication.”[7] We must thus see Artaud’s late iconography as a cosmogony of the body, intimately linked to the antithetical processes of ingestion and excretion. His cuisine is a metaphysics of the soul, expressing the double-binds of his psychic existence and the poetic utopia of the “body without organs,” a body that needs only poetic nourishment.

Along with the tulip and the oyster, the cabbage is one of the glories of still-life painting. The most bizarre example of this genre might well be a photograph taken by Artaud while incarcerated in the psychiatric asylum of Rodez in 1943.[8] This photograph depicts a cane transformed into a cross, planted in the earth, and dressed with immense cabbage leaves. The image is inspired by the “Chanson de Roudoudou,” a childhood counting rhyme:

Roudoudou n’a pas de femme,
Il en fait une avec sa canne,
Il l’habille en feuilles de chou,
Voici la femme de Roudoudou.[9]

[Roudoudou has no wife, So he made one with his cane, He dressed it with cabbage leaves, And here’s the wife of Roudoudou.] The innocence of childhood dissimulates a troubling erotic antinomy between onanism and procreation. Artaud explains in a letter dated 18 October 1943 addressed to his doctor, Gaston Ferdière, that this chant is based on, “an antique and quite ancient adage that comes from I know not where, and which claims that for ages children have been born under cabbages.”[10] But he goes much further in his hatred of eroticism, which entails a double curse: that one’s earthly origin is always found in alterity (parents), and that one’s spiritual destiny is always lost in transcendence (God).

“The occult tradition teaches that the cabbage is the form that nothingness [le néant] takes in order to manifest itself to human consciousness … it would appear that Satan, chance born from inexistence, used this form to compose the feminin sexual organ … well beyond these pernicious, derogatory and depressing libidinous images, the esoteric books teach us that the cane is the will of God, and that the woman he had conjured up before him is Nature, before all else… As for the cabbage leaves, they represent the void [le Néant], that is to say nothing at all, since it is with nothing at all that God had made everything.”[11]

The cabbage as nothingness, the cabbage as vagina; the cabbage as theological, the cabbage as erotic: yet one more symbol of the ontological antinomy that ruled Artaud’s last years. Such is the disquieting “cuisine” of the terrible Roudoudou: a birth deprived of innocence and an ineluctable Fall. Whence this strangest stuffed cabbage, a cabbage filled with the cross, the promise of a heretical transsubstantiation. It is a heartbreaking cabbage, one that expresses the infinite pathos of Artaud’s final days. It would be a mistake to consider this cabbage — one of the staples of the Aveyronnais cuisine typical of Rodez — in its gastronomic instance, a radical error to localize it in terms of terroir, the site specificity of cuisine. To the contrary, here the cabbage is a cosmological and geneological principle, simultaneously a false infinity and a disquieting emblem of origins. The cabbage of despair. The cabbage as theological allegory, a strange tabernacle to protect a gnostic and blasphemous cross, the chapel of madness. The cabbage as erotic metaphor, an organic prosthesis reminding us of the fact that we are born of earth. The cabbage as a diabolical instrument, determining our disgraceful mortal destiny, indeed our fall from grace. The cabbage as the ex nihilo source of Artaud, paradoxically the origin which he needed to efface in order to be reborn in his own image, and the instrument that would permit him to escape the judgments of man and God. The cabbage beyond good and evil, turning the powers of the cross against itself. Artaud’s crucified cabbage reminds us that ever since Nietzsche, blasphemy has for some been a precondition of true selfhood.


All translations by the author.

[1]. Antonin Artaud, Le pèse-nerfs (1925) in Œuvres complètes Vol 1, Book 1 (Paris, Gallimard, 1984), 97.

[2]. Ibid., 97.

[3]. Antonin Artaud, Cahiers de Rodez, Feb-Mar 1946 in Œuvres complètes Vol. 20 (Paris, Gallimard, 1984), 436.

[4]. Illustrated in Paule Thévenin et Jacques Derrida, eds., Artaud : Dessins et portraits (Paris, Gallimard, 1986), 168.

[5]. Antonin Artaud, text from February 1947, cited in Paule Thévenin and Jacques Derrida, eds., Antonin Artaud, dessins,  (Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1987), 18.

[6]. Antonin Artaud, “La vieillesse précoce du cinéma” (1933), in Œuvres complètes Vol. 3 (Paris, Gallimard, 1970), 104.

[7]. Antonin Artaud, Cahiers de Rodez April-May 1946, in Œuvres complètes Vol. 21 (Paris, Gallimard, 1985), 266.

[8]. Reproduced in Nouveaux écrits de Rodez (Paris, Gallimard, 1977), intercalated after page 23.

[9]. See Antonin Artaud, Lettres écrites de Rodez 1943-1944, in Œuvres complètes Vol 10 (Paris, Gallimard, 1974), 297, note 3.

[10]. Ibid., 71.

[11]. Ibid., 71.

Biography of Allen S. Weiss