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Manual Metaphysics

Philosophy and Theatre

Daniel Johnston

This paper deals with two theorists who realised the difficulty of expressing truth in language. Antonin Artaud, French theatre theorist of the early twentieth century, wanted to create and inspire a new form of theatre. “The Theatre of Cruelty” was the name he gave to this vision for theatre practice that revolted against the domination of words and text.[1] Contemporary theatre, he claimed, was really just a sub-set of literature and the study of the written word. Artaud saw theatre as a vital art form that constitutes much more than words. In essence, he wanted to create visual poetry expressed in a physical form. I intend to compare Artaud’s work with that of Martin Heidegger, perhaps one of the most famous and influential German philosophers of the twentieth century, who also sought to usurp the traditional use of language. Heidegger thought that the tradition of western philosophy had been largely misguided, beginning with Plato and the inauguration of metaphysics.[2] The original meaning of truth, Heidegger argued, can be traced back to a pre-Socratic conception of aletheia (unhiddenness): “[T]he original essence of truth still lies in its hidden origin.” [3]

In what sense are theatre and philosophy in pursuit of a common goal? The answer is seemingly obvious—truth. But what do we mean by ‘truth’ in this context? I do not wish to investigate the whole history of western philosophy and the changing conceptions of truth. Instead, I intend to focus tightly on two pieces of writing: one, an essay by Heidegger originally presented as a lecture, and the other, a manifesto by Artaud calling for a new form of theatre. On the surface this may seem to be a forced marriage of ideas. However, a common thread connecting these two works provokes a comparison: the notion that the essence of truth lies in poetry. Perhaps through discovery of a common ancestor, the “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” can be undermined. [4] My intention is to elucidate some conceptions of philosophy, theatre and the nature of truth.

Another way of investigating the common goal of theatre and philosophy is to ask what sort of philosophy might frame the activity of theatre as a search for truth. In “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth”, Heidegger investigates one of the seminal images of Western Philosophy in the famous “Cave Allegory” from Plato’s Republic. [5] The allegory has been widely interpreted as Plato’s paradigm for truth—ostensibly that the true nature of reality does not rest with visible perception but in the ‘Forms’ of things. In other words, perception is the mere shadow of truth. In the allegory, a group of people is shackled at the bottom of a cave. Their heads are held in position such that all they are able to see are shadows on the cave wall. Man-made objects being manipulated in front of a fire are casting these shadows. [6] When the people are freed, they do not want to look at the fire because it is painful to their eyes. In a sense, they are not yet free, although they are able to walk around. In fact, it is with some violence that the prisoners have to be dragged out of the cave into the daylight. Here they experience visible things lit not by the dim, flickering, man-made fire, but by the sun, which is the source of all light. After their eyes become accustomed to light in the world outside the cave the freed prisoners start by looking at reflections of objects and then gradually at the things themselves. For example, they might look at the reflection of a tree in a lake and then finally look at the tree itself. Ultimately they are able to look straight at the sun. But the allegory does not end there. Once the prisoners have attained the ability to see in such a way, they then descend back into the cave. Understandably, those prisoners still inside do not believe the account of the true nature of things offered by those who have been to the surface.

In Heidegger’s reading of the allegory, it is vital that the prisoners experience confusion in two distinct ways: first, when they adjust to the brightness of the flame and the sun; second, when they enter back into the cave. Heidegger stresses that if this allegory is to be interpreted as the essence of truth we must recognise that the prisoners are not merely empty vessels into which the truth can be poured. In order move on to each new stage, the prisoners have to ‘turn around’. At the very outset, when freed from the shackles at the bottom of the cave, they had to turn around to recognise the flame and objects that were causing the shadows on the wall. This constitutes a fundamental change in their way of viewing the world and in their own essence. In Plato’s allegory, this change of essence is the process that forges a link between the notions of truth and education:

[O]ur own account signifies that the soul of every man does possess the power of learning the truth and the organ to see it with; and that just as one might have to turn the whole body round so that the eye should see light instead of darkness, so the entire soul must be turned away from this changing world, until its eye can contemplate reality and that supreme splendour which we have called the Good. [7]

Heidegger translates the Ancient Greek term paideia (upbringing) as the German word Bildung (formation). This is in the sense, first, that there is a form or character that unfolds in the process, and second, that there is a prototype which serves as a paradigm for the formation. In Heideggerian terms, education is a turning around of the whole human being in the sense that what was manifest up until that point is transformed. There is a fundamental relationship between education and truth: truth makes education possible in that it structures what can be learnt.

For Heidegger, the essence of truth is aletheia (unhiddenness). This is directly related to the process of moving out of the cave, whereby the manner of ‘unhiddenness’ of things changes in relation to the observer’s developing ability to view those things. Heidegger mentions that for a long time, truth has been thought of as an agreement about the representation of a thought and the thing in itself. But this misses the essential unity between truth as ‘unhiddenness’ and the education of the perceiver. The essence of aletheia lies in the constant overcoming of hiddenness and education overcoming lack of education. When the liberated prisoners return to the cave they are in danger of being overcome by common reality: “The liberator is threatened with the possibility of being put to death, a possibility that became a reality in the fate of Socrates who was Plato’s ‘teacher’.” [8]

The lynchpin of the story for Plato is that the sun is the origin of the possibility of seeing at all. The liberated prisoner can see that

[The sun] is that which grants both the seasons and the years and that which governs whatever there is in the (now) visible region (of sunlight), and moreover that it (the sun) is also the cause of those things that the people (who dwell in the cave) in some way have before their eyes. [9]

Thus, for Heidegger, the erscheinen (shining forth) of a thing is its partaking in a sun-like quality. [10] For Plato and for the Ancient Greeks, the eyes also had a sun-like quality insofar as they participate in the perception of what shines forth. It is only through the idea (Form) of a thing that people are able to perceive that thing. The sun represents the agathon idea—or what has most commonly been translated as ‘the form of the good’. Heidegger claims that this is a misleading translation since agathon (the good) did not mean moral value to the Greeks, but rather, that which made something else possible. [11] In Plato’s allegory, the sun is the most real of things since it is the form that makes all other forms possible and because it itself participates in the shining forth of the forms. The sun is the ‘shiningest’ of all things. The link or yoke between the thing seen and the person seeing it is the sun–idea. The sun might be thought of as the Form of all Forms.

Heidegger’s criticism focuses on a turn that occurs in Plato’s allegory, whereby the essence of truth becomes orthotes (correctness). Aletheia is no longer fundamental to the understanding of truth. The idea (Form) takes primacy over ‘unhiddenness’. The correctness of apprehending and asserting comes to be seen in relation to the Form. Heidegger claims that the notion of correctness launches the history of western philosophy through Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes and even Nietzsche, whereby truth is the rightness of the gaze. Truth thus loses its connection with the world and becomes something that exists only in relation to the intellect. The rightness and wrongness of things is in our apprehension of things, not in the things themselves.

For Heidegger, this is also the beginning of humanism, whereby man is placed at the centre of the universe and all truth and thought is in relation to him. This anthropocentrism can be seen in Plato’s use of the word sophia which originally meant being astute about something, or having a skill at some activity. Plato compounded the word to become philosophia (love of astuteness) and used it in the sense of gazing up at the vault of the heavens; the realm of the Forms; life outside the cave. Thinking became fixed to the idea that could not be grasped by bodily organs but only by the intellect. Idea then became viewed as the first cause and then the divine— thus setting the history of metaphysics into swing. Man and his astuteness remain at the centre of the universe covered by the vault of the heavens. He alone has access to such intellect.

Heidegger’s reading of the Cave Allegory posits that this conception of Plato’s constituted a fundamental turn in the definition of truth. For our purposes in considering a goal common to theatre and philosophy, the pre-Platonic notion of truth as aletheia is useful. The pre-Platonic paradigm privileges something other than thinking, apprehension and correctness as being fundamental to truth. This raises the possibility that theatre may be able to represent truth not in the intellect, but in the ‘unhiddenness’ of the world. Heidegger says that reason, spirit, thinking and logos will never be able to rescue the essence of ‘unhiddenness’. Instead, we need to uncover the positive sense of ‘unhiddenness’ which is to be found in ‘Being’. But Heidegger’s ‘Being’ is not thinking as Descartes famously posited in the cogito. [12]

The positive [sense of aletheia] must first be experienced as the fundamental trait of being itself. First of all what must break in upon us is that exigency whereby we are compelled not to question just beings in their being but first of all being itself (that is, the difference). Because this exigency falls before us, the original essence of truth still lies in its hidden origin. [13]

At this point, we turn to Artaud’s call for a reform of theatre. Translated into Heideggarian terminology, Artaud argues that theatre can be an investigation of Being. In other words, theatre has the potential to function as manual philosophy in a manner that predates the notional supremacy of the idea and the correctness of apprehending. If the essence of truth still lies at its hidden origin, as Heidegger says, then Artaud wants to attack that origin and wrestle the essence of truth from its hiddenness. Artaud wants to bring the nature of truth, as it were, back into the figurative cave of Plato’s allegory. This is the ‘highest idea’, a project that he formulates in the following terms:

And the question we must now ask ourselves is whether in this world which is slipping away, committing suicide without realising it, a nucleus of men can be found to impress this highest idea onto the world, to bring back to all of us a natural occult equivalent to the dogma we no longer believe. [14]

What sort of theatre could realise such a philosophy of Being by wrestling the quality of ‘unhiddenness’ from its concealed origin? As mentioned, we should be wary of conflating the two theorists. Indeed, Artaud’s emphasis on gnostic images seems to be the antithesis of Heidegger’s position that truth is to be found in the ‘unhiddenness’ of the world rather than in an abstract realm of Forms. [15] Artaud felt that theatre was the way we could access the true world from which we are separated; but Artaud’s ‘true world’ was not a world of Forms. Artaud’s metaphysical conception was, in Heideggarian terms, different from the idea-dominated metaphysics of truth. As we shall see, Artaud’s vision for theatre was that it follow this path of ‘unhiddenness’ in relation to the essence of truth. Both Heidegger and Artaud revolt against the conception that exalts the intellect as the sole realm of truth and against a positivistic understanding of the world. Both thinkers saw poetry as capable of possessing ‘unhiddenness’.

Artaud’s essay “Production and Metaphysics”, deals directly with the philosophically ingrained concept of metaphysics that Heidegger criticises. [16] In this particular essay, Artaud begins by describing the power that he identifies in the painting Lot and His Daughters by Lucas van Leyden. Artaud detects a mystical force in operation, as if the painter knew how to affect the viewer “directly like a physical reagent”. [17] Incidentally, he also comments that two figures in the painting walking across a bridge in silhouette in the background are reminiscent of Plato’s shadows in the cave. This indicates that he is conversant with the Platonic notion of Forms. Artaud describes the painting because he sees it as an example for theatre if only a similar language could be applied to the mise en scene. Elements of the mise en scene such as set, props, sound and music have been relegated to the background of theatre, according to Artaud. Drama has become a sub-branch of literature typifying its predominance of character and words with fixed meaning. Tools of the production such as stage-design and costume are merely created by ‘craft’ and have become peripheral to theatre. He describes the consequent dilemma in the following terms:

There must be poetry for the senses just as there is for speech, but this physical, tangible language I am referring to is really only theatrical in so far as the thoughts it expresses escape spoken language. [18]

In other words, Artaud wants to reverse the privileging of words and meaning over the mise en scene. “[P]oetry for the senses” in this context is not merely a conversion of ideas to a sign-language which retains similar meaning-structures to spoken language. According to Artaud, theatre should transcend the usual limits of feelings and words. This new dynamic language, this poetry of gesture is not simply an improved mode for describing the same conscious and word dominated states of the human mind. Why, Artaud asks, should we make the presumption that theatre should be psychological in the first place? On the contrary, he wants to return to a primal state of theatre that is linked with the mysterious and the mystical, what he calls “the physical temptation of the stage.” [19] Artaud also claims that theatre does not criticise the ethical, moral and social assumptions of contemporary culture nearly enough:

Current theatre is in decline because on the one hand it has lost any feeling for seriousness, and on the other hand for laughter. Because it has broken away from solemnity, from direct, harmful effectiveness—in a word, from danger. [20]

The concept of “danger” here is related to something potentially unstable in objects as they appear on stage and their affect on the living audience. Poetry and incantation, as they unhinge words from their fixed meanings, have the power to bring about this desired instability. Artaud suggests that poetry is related to form but he means something very different from the ideal realm of Forms that Plato posits in the Cave Allegory: “One must admit that everything in the purpose of an object, the meaning or use of a natural form, is a matter of convention.” [21]

This sense of form relates to Saussure’s notion of the arbitrariness of the sign. [22] A word and the thing that it represents are not necessarily linked. For Artaud, then, poetry questions the object-relation between meaning and form. Another aspect of poetry is that it surpasses the intellectual and rational assignation of meaning: “For whether we like it or not, true poetry is metaphysical and I might even say it is its metaphysical scope, its degree of metaphysical effectiveness, which gives it its proper value.” [23]

Artaud apologises for using the word ‘metaphysics’ in describing the power that he saw in Van Leyden’s painting because he felt that it was liable to be misunderstood. In relation to Heidegger’s use of the word, however, Artaud’s theatre is anti-metaphysical because the Form is not enough to describe what is going on. In other words, Artaud wanted to move away from a positivistic understanding of the world towards a way of understanding the world through the mystical and the unspeakable. The complete impossibility of putting such a practice into words is evident. If one wishes to transcend language then it is hardly possible to describe this metaphysical transcendence using the system that one is trying to disrupt. The point is to push language beyond fixed word meanings and descriptive purposes. An example of this is incantation. In such a way, theatre can turn from the psychological and return to the religious, mystical meaning that it has forgotten. Modern society has sought to silence this kind of disruption for fear of undermining rationality and order.

Artaud’s aim is clearly to engage theatre in an active search for truth. This is aligned with Heidegger’s pre-Platonic notion of truth that has its essence in ‘unhiddenness’. Artaud wanted the experience of performance to directly impact the audience like a plague. Poetic ideas take hold not through the mind, but at a visceral level. This complete turning around of the soul is the same pain and cruelty felt by the prisoners ascending from Plato’s cave as they are blinded by the light of the sun. But the concept of truth is not a matter of correct perception, it is a fundamental turning around of one’s essence, one’s being. This is the impact that Artaud sought through his theatre. Theatre is the medium for manual philosophy through a poetry of ‘unhiddenness’: “[T]his language which develops all its physical and poetical effects on all conscious levels and in all senses, must lead to thought adopting deep attitudes which might be called active metaphysics.” [24]

Exactly what sort of theatre could rise to this task of manual metaphysics is unclear. The intensity with which Artaud wanted to pierce the very being of his audiences is, however, evident. Insofar as some conclusion can be reached here, the guiding principle of both Artaud and Heidegger is that we should move away from privileging the intellect, and towards a profound experience of having one’s own being fundamentally transformed. For both thinkers, poetry offers this very alternative since it is not merely reliant on correctness of perception as the foundation for truth. Moreover, poetry offers a truth that discovers something hidden—aletheia—something unnameable.

Daniel Johnston is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. Prior to this he completed honours in Performance Studies at the University of Sydney and a Bachelor of Arts in Media and Communications at Macquarie University, Australia.


[1] Antonin Artaud, “The Theatre of Cruelty,” in The Theatre and Its Double (London: John Calder, 1977).

[2] Martin Heidegger, “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth,” in Pathmarks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3] Heidegger, 182.

[4] The phrase “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” is found in Plato, The Republic, trans. F.M. Cornford (London: Oxford University Press, 1941), bk. X, 607b.

[5] Heidegger, 155-182.

[6] I am always astounded by the similarity of this analogy to people sitting in a cinema.

[7] The Republic, bk. VII, 516.

[8] Heidegger, 171.

[9] The Republic, quoted in Heidegger, 161 (Heidegger’s parentheses).

[10] Heidegger, 173.

[11] Heidegger, 175.

[12] “I think therefore I am”. René Descartes, Meditations On First Philosophy, trans. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). For Heidegger’s discussion of Cartesian ontology see Being and Time, trans. John Macquarie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), H 89 – H 101.

[13] Heidegger, 182.

[14] Antonin Artaud, “Theatre and the Plague,” in The Theatre and Its Double, 22.

[15] ‘Gnostic’ in the sense of both belief in transcendental knowledge and mystical, occult, esoteric knowledge. See Jane Goodall, Artaud and The Gnostic Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

[16] Antonin Artaud, “Production and Metaphysics,” in The Theatre and Its Double, 23-35.

[17] Artaud, 25.

[18] Artaud, 27.

[19] Artaud, 28.

[20] Artaud, 31.

[21] Artaud, 31.

[22] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye eds. (London: Duckworth, 1986).

[23] Artaud, 35.

[24] Artaud, 33.