Dealing with chaos
an interview with Fernando Arrabal by Pau Guinart
We wait to buzz until 2:21 pm, the exact time we have been appointed. Fernando receives us with his usual double pair of glasses covering his forehead. “Nothing is true or false, it all depends on the color of the lenses you look through” he says. By the front door of his apartment there is a sculpture of a pile of dusty miniature broken cars as an homage to his play Car Cementery. That’s just the prelude of his home-museum. There’s so much art inside that it overflows to the landing.
Arrabal is considered one of the most important playwrights alive in France, but in his home country is still remembered for a TV episode in which he appeared drunk in front of the cameras. He started drinking when he was sixty years old, so he didn’t have a notion of how much alcohol he could handle. After the program he had to be hospitalized, but unfortunately the Spanish audience only remembers those peculiar fifteen minutes of fame. Maybe because of that, he feels very comfortable in his self-chosen exile in Paris.
He was born on August 11 of 1932 in Melilla. He likes to remind people that he comes from Africa. When he was ten years old he won the Spanish national prize for exceptionally gifted children. During the Spanish Civil War his father stayed faithful to the Republic and was condemned to death. His punishment was commuted for life sentence and after going through a few prisons he ended up at the hospital of Burgos. From there he escaped and was never found. Fernando is missing a lung from a tuberculosis operation. He says he actually breathes better like that.
In 1955 he moved to Paris where he met Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor, with whom he would create the Panico group in 1962. Before that he joined the Surrealist Movement and spent time with Breton, Dalí, Duchamp and Tzara, among others. His apartment is a testimony of such multiplicity of influences. One carpet on the other, like lasagna floor. One painting by the other on the walls: Botero, Topor, etc.
I feel that the stakes are high. Fernando Arrabal is not the easiest person to interview. He talks as Walter Benjamin once prognosticated: with scattered quotes and references. And some gibberish too. At the end they somehow make sense, but always taking into account the limitations of the listener. They say that an interview can only be as good as the interviewer. I think some of the references flew over my head, but I did my best to put them together and make some sense: Controlling the chaos by letting it be. Wasn’t that the premise of the Panico movement?
How did you sleep?
I slept pretty badly actually. And you?
I slept well. May I offer you some wine? Let me open a bottle.
I see you have a very professional set up for visits and interviews here… a few bottles of wine and chocolates.
I really like interviews, they are good for me. I think out loud and audit myself, sometimes even surprise myself. I may in fact hold some sort of interview world-record, because I’ve done a lot.
By the way, you have a pretty nice house. Spacious, high ceilings, maybe a little overwhelmingly decorated though.
Being an artist is, in part, generating spaces of creation. I like to be surrounded by ordered chaos. You know, most artists, especially playwrights lived in deplorable conditions. Breton lived in a janitor room; Beckett in a tiny apartment… the list goes on. I’m extremely lucky with this place; almost no artist has an apartment like this. Milan Kundera lives in a 60 square meters apartment, and so does my friend Michel Houellebecq, although he lives in a top floor of a tower with his wife. He can’t move too much now and needs police protection every time he leaves home. He is pissed. I’m lucky I can walk around freely after some of the things I’ve said.
I see a tower of chessboards there. What do you think about the fact that machines are beating men at chess?
I think it is absolutely normal, we’ve always known that would happen.
How about that garrote vil?
That’s a torture machine. You know that’s how the Spanish condemned to death were executed. Do you want to sit there? Many writers do, some of them have even asked me to kill them with it. Are you ready to die? Do you go to church?
Not really, just the Christmas Eve Mass.
Only once a year? That’s unacceptable. I hope you are at least baptized; otherwise you’ll just hang around in the limbo for eternity. The sacred is essential to understand life. The sacrum bone is the closest to the butthole. Sacred and shit have a lot in common, as Dali insisted.
I see a lot of irreverent sacredness in the artwork that hangs on these walls. Like this Last Supper with Beckett, Borges, Wittgenstein, Kafka… and you as Jesus. I have a question about your presence on so many paintings. Is it sheer narcissism?
You should stop asking the questions you brought, and stop recording this.
Ok (I stop the recorder and put my notes aside)
Your name is Pau right? That’s Paul in Catalan. The apostle Paul was like a secretary, a bureaucrat. Each of the gospels is a version of Jesus, you should do the same with this interview, just write your version of me. The gospel writers didn’t follow Jesus with a recorder, haha… But Pau is a weak name, it sounds like a joke, you should change it.
Oh yea? What do you suggest?
I like Jordi, George in Catalan. I like the connection with the dragon; he is the dragon that kills the dragon. Or just go with your last name: Guinart. It’s powerful. Mr. Guinart. I really like that one. Names are very important. Like Arrabal. Why can’t everybody have a great name like Arrabal?
I guess we would all be the same then. Are you satisfied with the life you had as Arrabal?
Of course I am. How could I not? I had the extraordinary privilege of living. Modernity has endowed me with the responsibility of celebrating figures like Mandelbrot, the great mathematician to whom I recently gave the Prize of Transcendental Satrap. Take into account that when he came up with his theory of fractals, Europe started dividing up. Whereas when the Bourbaki studied the set theory, Europe came together, it was the origin of the unification of Germany, Italy and the Union of Southern Slavs: Yugoslavia. Isn’t that interesting? Geopoliticians have no idea about that, but these theories do have an influence on reality.
You mean that these abstract theories somehow apply to the real world? How about the most important logician since Aristotle: Kurt Gödel?
He is an extraordinary figure. His two incompleteness theorems in many ways represent the state of the spirit of the 20th century. Man unable to understand itself. Did you know he believed in ghosts? Many of the greatest men of science believe in angels, demons and all sorts of unscientific stuff. To me that need for transcendence is utterly fascinating.
Do you think that with Gödel humankind definitively gives up on understanding itself through reason and logic?
I would use a simpler term to explain that: Tohu Bohu. What preceded creation, which in the Bible is understood as the chaos before God gave order to it. It is chaos with the mathematical rigor of confusion.
I’m not sure if I’m following. You mean like a controlled madness?
No, we can’t control anything, we can’t even control ourselves. But at least we have maths to try to understand… However, Thou Bohu is always beyond. Thou is an inhabitable desert, commotion and agitation before God’s intervention, and Bohu is the confusion of the moment of creation. Where there’s no confusion, there’s nothing. There’s no point on trying to understand everything.
That all sounds very confusing. Is it because you like spreading chaos? Excuse me if I offend you, but I can’t help but seeing a deliberate Dionysian enactment in your performance.
Not so much Dionysus, but Pan. He makes you laugh, but when you turn around he is totally unpredictable. That’s why he creates panic and madness. Dionysus is too round, cyclical, circular, like the seasons. Pan is more confusing, and therefore more interesting. He reconciles contraries with the mathematical rigor of confusion. With the Panico movement there is something like a rationalized frenzy, controlled by mathematics and logic. Thou Bohu.
What is pataphysics?
It is what is beyond metaphysics, a science of imaginary solutions. A branch of a branch of fantastic literature. According to its founder Alfred Jarry, the world is an exception to the exception, that is why there can be regularity. Underneath reality there is only chaos. That has to do with Wittgenstein threatening Popper with a poker in Cambridge… We basically try to make sense of chaos.
You always refer to Cervantes as your inspiration. Who else has inspired you? Dali, Valle-Inclan, Unamuno…
If you undust any part of Dalí, it is huge. What he says in 1937, 38, 39… it’s huge! His relationship to sex for example… People like Unamuno or Valle-Inclan are tiny figures compared to Dalí.
How about Calderon or Lorca?
About Lorca, Dalí said the exact precise thing. When Lorca, who was in love with Dalí, read out loud his Romancero Gitano to Buñuel and him, Buñuel, who always told the truth, said that the book was horrible. Lorca turned to Dalí with despair, asking him how could Buñuel not like that book when it had been so successful all over Spain. Then Dali responded the essential, as usual: this book is not bad, but it lacks trains. It’s like writing a book today without Internet. He was always so precise! It lacks trains…
I see you are very connected with the present, is that an Iphone 6?
Yes. I’m 83 and I try to keep up with the times. I also hand write notes on the case though. I use both analogic and digital.
How about the rest of the European tradition? What inspires you?
Our civilization, which is extraordinary, has only created two myths: Faust and Don Juan. The monk Tirso de Molina did a great job with that. The world of seduction… Dali actually wanted me to seduce Gala. He wasn’t really interested in sex, but in my presence he did very sexual things.
He liked to be surrounded by weird people: mentally, sexually… like Amanda Lear, to whom he paid a trip to Casablanca as a man and came back as a woman. But he wanted me to seduce Gala, and I still don’t understand why, because seduction doesn’t really exist.
What do you mean? I see it everywhere, especially in literature.
Seduction is a lie. The monk Tirso de Molina tells the truth: Don Juan wants to fuck four girls, and in order to do that, he lies to them, but none of them falls in love with him. When other European authors understand that, they copy it and make it better: one of them is Molière, and the other is Mozart with his opera Don Giovanni. But seduction is still a lie, and thus it is never real, it is a contradiction in itself.
How does seduction work in Dalí, if there is anything like that.
Dalí was interested in the possibility of an explosion. This is a long story, but worth telling: Gala and Paul Éluard live with Max Ernst and have a love triangle. Éluard sends a letter to Ernst saying that he loves Gala because she is a formidable woman and she incarnates all the Russian spirit, but that he loves him even more. The surrealists, with Breton leading the group, couldn’t stand that. Until the last moment Gala keeps writing letters to Éluard, who has other women… but when he writes back to Gala he ends his letters with things like: “I make love to you” or “I penetrate you”. And Dali doesn’t give a damn about all that, because he is not attracted to Gala per se, but to the bizarre situation that the whole thing generates. He likes the fact that something strange is created, something that can unleash a hurricane at any point, but doesn’t. What he likes is masturbating, and that’s what he talks about in his real biography: the one he wrote when he was 17.
Tell me about one of your anecdotes with Dalí.
Once I visited him with five chained women… They were lesbian Maoist revolutionaries and came from Lyon to interpret my play Fando and Lis. I received a call from Dalí saying he wanted to perform a cybernetic work at midnight. When the five women heard it they went wild, they really wanted to come with me. I said “fine, but we can’t just show up there. It has to be somewhat special… you have to come chained. I’m going to chain you!” But chaining someone is not as easy as it seems. We had to go to the Bazar of the Hotel de Ville, where we bought five meters of chains and the concierge lent us a few locks.
I can imagine Dalí really liking your idea…
Of course! He absolutely loved it. He was at the luxurious hotel Le Meurice, where the Nazis had their Kommandatur when they occupied Paris. When we got there, before I even asked, the doorman said: “Suite 103”. We went up the room and Dali was ecstatic: “They are my five slaves!” he shouted. But I wasn’t that sure, so I told him that none of them were at his service, and that they wouldn’t do anything against their will. But then one of them took her panties off and said “I want you to slap my butt!” I was surprised, but decided to just enjoy the spectacle of Dalí hitting her with a nard. As hard as it is to find a nard in Paris…
And what happened next?
He said that the “salve” and I should go to an orgy with him that night. I then said that I was a chaste man and that I wouldn’t get involved. He got even more enthusiastic and assigned me the role of “chaste voyeur”.
Do you identify with that role? I see you are very interested in sex… How about that painting with a naked man embracing a huge penis?
It is very simple: men have a small penis and they wish they had one as big as that. We all wish we were bigger, in every sense…
What do you think about life?
I am extremely lucky for not having to fight for anything except for dreaming.
The time is up. I tell him that I will have to do a lot of hermeneutics in order to write something worth reading. I quote Dalí “Let them talk about me, even if what they say is good” expecting his complicity. He gives me a dirty look, which I interpret as “Don’t you dare write nonsense for my interview”. I tell him I’ll send him a draft before publishing it… but I won’t, it would be too risky.
Ok, thank you very much for your time. It’s been a pleasure
Thank you, it’s been my pleasure.
I hope I can compose something interesting out of this chaos…
You’d better; otherwise I’ll whip your ass.
The interview ends at 3:37 pm. The artistic director of an opera and his assistants enter the apartment punctually. They want to propose him to adapt Fando and Lis. He stares at me with condescendence as I leave the place. Then he stands up, walks across the whole room and hugs me warmly. He looks up. I see a little child in his playroom: Arrabal as a self-made child.