FIND 2016
Romeo Castellucci’s Dialogue with Spinoza (and ours with mind and body)

by Joseph Pearson

10 April 2016

Romeo Castellucci is a good-spirited conversationalist. He puts you at ease – no small feat for one of Europe’s major forces in contemporary theatre. You might not suspect from a polite chat just how uncompromising many of his themes are – ones that deal with both the brutality and the creative beauty of our corporeal existence – and that he employs methods designed to shock. He is, one might add, also a very careful thinker regarding humanity’s fraught engagement with metaphysical questions.

It is Good Friday, which seems an appropriate moment to discuss Baruch Spinoza, his »Ethics«, and God. (Or to remember Castellucci’s contribution last year to the Schaubühne’s regular season: »Oedipus the Tyrant«, about a classical text wreaking havoc on a Catholic nunnery).

»Natura e origine della mente« (»On the Nature and Origin of the Mind«), at FIND 2016, is not a staging of Spinoza, even though it takes its title from the second essay of the philosopher’s 1676 treatise, the »Ethics«. Castellucci tells me »More than anything, Spinoza is used as a spotlight to illuminate certain aspects of our human condition, through the lens of his philosophy. I am interested in his analysis - the disassociation of the parts which operate in a geometrical fashion – and I tackle the arguments on which he touches. I have the intention, over the course of time, to confront all five books of Spinoza’s ›Ethics‹, and eventually to produce them all in a single evening. In truth, the fifth book is already ready; the project exists, and I am only waiting for the right opportunity to show it«.

Even though Spinoza is but a starting point, knowing a little more about the seventeenth-century treatise is helpful. The second essay of Spinoza’s tome is a challenge to Cartesian dualism: the clear metaphysical separation between mind and body. Spinoza’s treatise has a geometric form of argumentation – of Euclidean propositions, corollaries, commentaries – and in the second essay the proposition is put forward that »thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same substance«. Spinoza questions Descartes’ assumptions, telling us that we cannot trust more in our mind than our body. If mind and body express the same reality – if through extension our mind extends into the corporal world around it – then this makes for compelling problems for perception: the line between our mind and the nature around it is not clearly delineated, and Spinoza goes on to categorise different forms of knowledge we can possess. Spinoza’s work has received attention and elucidation from Gilles Deleuze (if one can really call Deleuze’s prose ›elucidating‹) and Spinoza’s arguments regarding extended substance are precursors to contemporary debates about embodied cognition and extended mind theory.

Castellucci explains how Spinoza’s ideas are recuperated in the theatre space: »The piece progresses allegorically, in which each figure finds relation to the elements that Spinoza analyses in each book. In this case, the second book talks about mind and body, and so I use two figures as vehicles with an allegorical function. There are very precise reference to mind, body, light, that return as a vocabulary from Spinoza. These disassociated elements are collected into an analysis in a geometric form. There is a body which is suspended, that probably represents the mind, the light of the mind. There is a body that remains on the ground, more related to the corporal or physical element, the causality of the body, played by an animal, a dog. There is a paradoxical dialogue between mind and body, which synthesise into a hole, into a human silhouette that is occupied by the mind, body, or both – they meet in this silhouette. This might seem complicated, but things will become clearer when it functions in action. If you have read Spinoza, well then good, you can make associations and parallels. But if you have never read Spinoza, nor have any idea that he ever existed, this is also not a problem. Spinoza is a pretext, not a thesis«.

I ask, ›You mention a figure, a woman who is suspended from a height by a single finger – could you tell us more about this gesture?‹

»Well, if we say too much, we risk giving away the sense of surprise. Let’s just say that the position of the female figure is quite ambivalent. It could express an extreme level of fragility – if she is at the point of falling. Or else it could express absolute power, because she uses a single finger to support herself. Also ambiguous is the physical dynamic of the scene. Either she could be seen as someone who is falling, or else someone who has been projected into the sky like an arrow stretched into an arc. It’s an image that, as an allegory, can be interpreted in different ways, to provide different meanings«.

Castellucci calls this arrangement of elements based on Spinoza a »theatrical action«. It is not a full-length theatre play, like his »Oedipus«. I ask what the difference might be between what he has planned for FIND and a more traditional theatre performance.

He replies, »I believe this ›theatrical action‹ is a small theatrical performance. Possibly one which is very dense, carbonized, very pure, in whose synthesis one finds force. It does not require much time, everything is given, because theatre is reduced to its minimal elements. It should not be defined as an installation nor a performance, there is theatrical specificity that is respected. Simply, it does not have the dimension, the temporality, of a traditional theatre performance, there is brevity and concentration«.

The project of »Natura e origine della mente« began in a workshop at the Venice Biennale. It was the result of a week’s work with students. Romeo Castellucci returned to it, removing the sounds that had been initially introduced into the work and replacing them with text. The work was then premiered in France just this month (March 2016) at the Théatre de Gennevilliers.

The text is written by Claudia Castellucci, with whom Romeo founded the Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, the experimental theatre troupe, in 1981. She might be his sister, but, as Romeo tells me »That we are family does not influence our work at all. It is not a structure that interests us. It is a coincidence that we are brother and sister«.

I ask, »When you collaborate with her – as an artist, not as your sister – is the way you make theatre very different from when you work alone?«

»Certainly. In this case, Claudia’s contribution is exquisitely textual. Claudia wrote a text on my commission. I proposed to her the characters, I explained the scene, how it functions, and she wrote the dialogues. Let’s say, I developed the subject and she wrote the words. It functions in this way between us. It’s a literary collaboration – she has this extraordinary literary capacity.«

My final question for Romeo Castellucci – it is Good Friday after all – regards Spinoza’s problematic relationship with the Catholic Church (as well as his own Jewish community). Castellucci’s work has also run afoul of religious sentiment. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, along with Spinoza’s, if the list hadn’t been abolished. One need only think of »On the Concept of the Face«, which mixed religious iconography with scatology, and how it was met by religious protesters in 2011. Such material constitutes a theatre of shock influenced by the interwar writings of Antonin Artaud, and his »Theatre of Cruelty«, theatre meant to destabilize, to wake the audience up to uncomfortable responses within themselves.

There’s a certain situational historical irony to the interdictions against Spinoza’s work. In the Spinoza treatise, it is under the aegis of God that both mind and matter are linked, as attributes of God. In fact, it was Hegel who said that the problem with Spinoza was not that there was too little God, but rather ›too much of him‹.

But on this question, Castellucci tells me, he believes Spinoza’s approach is essentially strategic in character: »I believe Spinoza is a genius who was capable of expressing himself carefully. From a certain angle, it is an attack on the existence of God. This was not lost on his contemporaries: he was abandoned by his community, there was something of a curse on his relationships, he survived an attempt on his life, he lived almost in hiding because he dared to say and think certain things. He was a fundamental author for Nietzsche; he is also an author who is close to the thinking of Artaud. There is a transmission here that links certain philosophers and artists in the frontal attack on the metaphysical. That is the reality: Spinoza is obliged to speak about God, in order to take him out«.

Natura e origine della mente

Conception and Installation: Romeo Castellucci (Italy)
Text: Claudia Castellucci

Premiered on 15 April 2016