Artaud stood gazing around and I sat gawking as well at this cavernous cathedral. It was so huge, so lofty, much larger than Saint Stephen’s in Vienna, and Saint Stephen’s had no flying buttresses. This place had double buttresses with open tracery that extended from the seven-sided apse. The building’s grace was hardly interrupted by its old scars. According to the guide, this cathedral dated back as far as the year 375 when it was first built as a church, which burned in the 10th century. Rebuilt as a gothic cathedral, it was here Joan of Arc had prayed after entering Orleans with her small army, and another statue of her stood on the main altar. Then the Cathedral of the Holy Cross had been torched by Calvinists in the 1500s, and then slowly rebuilt again, in stone and in the high gothic style, although the era for such architecture had passed. As a result, much of its gothic character was false, recreated around the wounded limbs of its various incarnations, but this did not show; the interior had been seamlessly healed. It was alive, this place. “Resurrected,” I said to Artaud, “or reincarnated.”
“Please tell me,” Roger whispered to Artaud, “that it is not true you are on the verge of reconverting to Christianity! The rumors are flying.”
Artaud looked condescendingly at Roger. “The Christianity of most people,” he replied, a trifle nastily, “is a mere extension of their bourgeois values foisted upon the supernatural. If you’re asking me if I’m converting to that, the answer is, no!
“I don’t give a damn about the Ten Commandments or going to Heaven or Hell. My life has been hell. I don’t care about idolizing Christ, or tricking the Father into thinking I love Him. Nobody loves the Father, because we are commanded to love Him. As far as I’m concerned, God can damn well confess His sins to us.” Roger and Louis burst into rapturous laughter at this while Artaud looked at them in utter disgust, because he had spoken earnestly whereas they merely wanted to insult religion. He started to stalk away.
“What sins?” I asked quickly, putting out a hand to stop him.
He turned to me and relaxed a little, seeing I was sincere. I waited as he paused, watching him reach up out of habit to shove back his hair and then stop, remembering it had been cut short. Then he lowered himself into the pew behind me, his arm resting on the back of it, and crossed one leg over the other. I turned around to look at him. “Why is existence couched in such a lie?” he asked, and I shook my head because I didn’t understand. “One thing is red and another is blue; I make a decision and it is different than feeling love, I feel love and it affects me as love, not as pain… Why is everything so fragmented? Why must we possess only bits of ourselves, not our entirety? And why do I feel pain especially?”
I had to think about all this for a minute. “Pain—” I managed, attempting to answer only his last question, “—is a signal from the body that the mind’s life is threatened.”
“Why do I always feel pain!” he flared. “What is chronic pain telling me about my mind’s life!” He stared past me, his face contorted, his jaw set, his eyes flashing. His fingers gripped the back of the pew, his other arm sliding back and forth against his stomach in agitation. After a few minutes the tight lines of his face blurred, then disappeared, and when he looked back at me the corners of his mouth lifted a little because he saw the look on my face. “Now do you understand?” he asked.
“I am always in pain, some kind of pain,” he said softly, and leaned his forehead into his hand, staring again with that wild incomprehension, the eye of a fish torn out of the river and thrown onto the shore of an alien world. “I take opium for it, to dull the pain, but drugs rob me of my senses. I was first given opium at the age of thirteen at the various sanitaria my parents sent me to—and this before my conscription. To fix their ‘troublesome’ son.” And his face jolted up from his hand, those eyes stabbing mine. “Do you take opium, Weidmann?” he demanded.
“Don’t start!” He rested his head into his fist again and closed his eyes. “Even if you need it, don’t ever take it.” He fell once again into silence. I could see his unspoken cries twisting through the flesh of his face for though his lips did not move his jaw did, and his skin did, and his muscles, and as always his eyes changed with his thoughts when he opened them again. I just sat there and stared at him, wrenched apart with pity for this man. When he looked up at me again I felt he was probing me, groping for any sign of pretense, suspicious of my sympathy, and I fought with myself not to resist. I thrust away my embarrassment and allowed myself to gaze right back into his eyes. At length he lowered them, and mused pensively; when he raised them once more, his eyes were kind.