“You know, Geoff, if you really hate the idea of living with your folks,” Roger commented, “you could get a place of your own, around here. You’d have plenty of company. We’re all trying to escape our families.”
“That’s for sure,” murmured Justine.
I mulled this over as we passed a small bar that was positively thundering with the layered percussion of drums, and bells, and voices wailing in a language foreign to me. As we walked by the front window the heads inside turned and brown eyes gazed impassively at us from brown faces. Louis called out something unintelligible, and a man inside looked up from his game of chess and raised his hand in greeting without a smile or a word. I wondered how they could hear each other, or even think, with that racket pounding the air. I felt it under my feet and through my body. The music wasn’t disagreeable, but it seemed to me my heart was speeding up and slowing down, trying to beat in time with the drums because its own little rhythm was in danger of being drowned out.
We kept walking and left the music behind, though it never truly faded. The ground still vibrated as if a gigantic heart were beating away beneath the earth. “I have money, but not a lot,” I said in answer to Roger. “I couldn’t rent a place of my own for long.”
He laughed, and Justine squeezed my arm as she smiled up at me. “Money isn’t important. People here look out for each other,” Louis replied. “You probably have more money than any of us anyway, since your relatives are at least speaking to you.”
“What’s that you say?” Roger barged in. “Are your relatives not speaking to you?”
Louis stared straight ahead as he walked. “Mind your own damn business, Thurmon.”
“Landis, do you even have any relatives?”
Louis ignored the question, his lips pressed together in a thin line. Justine and I exchanged a look. “This way,” Louis told us and stopped at an overgrown lot, scraggly with lilac bushes, on which stood three dilapidated warehouses. A light shone from a window in one of them. Justine glanced at me again and I shrugged, having no idea where we were—or what time it was, for that matter. “Let’s see who’s home!” Louis said, suddenly cheerful again, and led us through the scrabbly yard to that window. Gravel and broken glass crunched under our feet, and Justine wobbled over the uneven ground in her high heels.
Without knocking, Louis opened the front door of the first warehouse and marched right in, making the two men seated at the table inside look up from their writing. One of them I recognized: that actor, Antonin Artaud. “Hey—excuse me!” said the other man as he turned around in his chair to glare at us. He had enormous blue eyes that did not seem to narrow as he narrowed them.
“Open up, it’s the police!” blared Louis as walked over to them. He seized a glass from the sideboard and poured himself some wine from the bottle on the table. “We’re very sorry to disturb you, monsieur, but this is an emergency,” he teased the stranger. “Someone has been killed! Therefore, I’ve orders to confiscate all your alcohol.” And he drank. In a large chair by the window Genica awakened, her hair unbound and streaming in bronze waves over the upholstery, her eyes blinking sleepily as she looked around as if for evidence of an accident or a murder. The strange man with the strange eyes at the table merely laughed at Louis’s joke. Artaud watched Louis gulp the wine, then raised his own glass and said very solemnly, “To Death.” Louis grinned and they both drained their glasses, and only the lines around Artaud’s eyes showed humor.
The other man stood up with a smile and waved us inside, reaching out to shake Roger’s hand, then to extravagantly kiss Justine’s—on his knees, no less. “It’s a Surrealist ritual,” he explained. After his lips touched her knuckle he grinned up into her eyes with the same eager admiration Roger had shown. I shut the door and turned to find Genica’s almond eyes, calm but curious, on me. Our gaze held for a long moment. “Careful, Geoff!” Roger teased me, low, and presented Justine and me to the two men.
Antonin Artaud’s friend, a poet named Robert Desnos, lived in this cavernous place, which was one of several abandoned warehouses in an unused truck yard. Desnos had far less reserve than Artaud; in fact the two were the opposite of each other, Artaud quiet and contained, Desnos careening about with brash humor. His wide and luminous eyes nearly jumped out of his round face, whereas Artaud’s eyes seemed to flash from beneath his straight brows. It gave me an eerie feeling, the sight of these two men sitting in this dark room with their writings and those eyes of theirs. Like two warlocks—although with his full cheeks and lips, Desnos more resembled a clown.
“Yes, we are writing poetry,” Desnos answered Justine as he pulled more chairs around the table for us to sit in. He carelessly dragged the chairs over the scratched wood floor, wincing at how they squawked, but still unwilling to lift them. Genica languidly watched us from her chair and made no effort to join the group. “We’re so cultured. I was writing down one of my nightmares, and Artaud here is working on a sweet little piece about suicide.” He gave us a rather silly grin and flopped into a chair himself.
“I thought Surrealists wrote about love,” Justine objected, “and freedom, of course.”
These Surrealists again! I thought, and mutely accepted a glass of wine passed to me by Louis. But of course—Artaud was their president. I couldn’t understand why we were here, when Louis had spoken so disparagingly of them earlier. Louis caught me brooding and raised his eyebrows at me, and up went that hairline.
“Love?” Desnos leaned forward, brightening. I noticed his sleeve had a hole at the elbow. “I write about love. I write about love all the time!” He was handsome in a strange way, despite his full lips and round cheeks and puffy rings about those alert eyes that made him look as if he had just been surprised out of a nap. No matter how much he jerked his head around his smooth black hair stayed exactly where he had combed it, whereas Artaud’s long waves slid over his forehead at his slightest movement. Desnos gazed at Justine with an almost fanatical focus. “Poetry is a quest for knowledge, and so is love. It’s a basic urge, not literary.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m on a quest for knowledge,” Artaud objected. All this time he hadn’t taken his eyes off me. I found his scrutiny annoying. Such a strong voice seemed odd coming from a man so slight, although now I could see that he was in truth the same height as I was. His words effortlessly filled this huge place. “Not knowledge so much as imagination. When I hear the word ‘knowledge’ I think of science and logic and nonsense like that.”
Yes, I thought with an unexpected vehemence, and that’s what makes him dangerous. “Because knowledge,” I declared out loud, “builds a civilization and imagination tears it down. Knowledge obeys authority and stays within certain limitations, whereas imagination walks where it pleases, in whom it pleases. Imagination makes a respectable man fall in love with a whore, or a peasant woman hear angelic voices, like Joan of Arc.” Or a son blame his father, I mused in disgust.
Artaud was nodding. He smiled again at me, but I didn’t return it. “Exactly. Knowledge builds civilization, and civilization is nonsense. Knowledge constructs all sorts of nonsense—institutions, traditions, scholarship, society, the Church, the family—knowledge gives us a false life.”
I shook my head. “Do you really believe that? That society is false, that the Church is a lie?”
What’s the matter with you? demanded a voice in my head. You’ve said the same thing. You’ve always said that.
In reply, Artaud picked up one of his sheets of paper and read what he had written. His voice bounced against the walls, giving me the unsettling impression that it was really the objects in the room—the chairs, the table, the glasses, the windows—that were speaking. Unlike most illusions, it refused to go away. I’m just tired, I thought, but in fact I was curiously alert.
Here where others present their works I pretend to nothing more than to submit my soul.
Life is a combustion of questions.
I cannot conceive of art that doesn’t touch life.
I don’t love detached creation. I can no longer conceive of the mind detached from itself.
Each of my works, every one of my maps, every one of the glacial blooms of my inner soul drips down my body.
I see myself as much in a letter written to describe the shriveling of my being and the mad castration of my life, as in an essay outside of myself that is to me like the illegitimate offspring from a rape of my mind.
I’m pained because the Mind is not in life and life is not the Mind; I suffer from the Mind as entrail, the Mind as interpreter, the Mind as destroyer of things to absorb them into the organ of Mind.
I hang these words in flesh, to be eaten from without, and mostly by the tearing snaps and thrashes of my future self.
When he finished everyone was silent for a moment, captured by the strangeness of these words uttered in those deep and tormented tones.
“I like that,” Louis said, “much more than the pretty little agonies Breton writes about. Why won’t La Nouvelle Revue Française publish your stuff? How long have you been corresponding with the editor—a year, now?”
“A year, yes. Jacques Riviere accepts my letters, but not my poems,” Artaud replied. “No, he won’t publish me in his magazine, but here we are trading letters. He’s almost become a personal confidant. I’m not sure where it will lead. He wants me to develop a unified literary style—metre, balance, imagery—and he doesn’t accept the fact that my writing is an attempt to congeal fragmented thought. So how can my literary style become unified when my mind isn’t? I cannot create polished poems when my thought abandons me, leaving me with disjointed images that I’ve only managed to steal before they’ve slipped back into the void.” Artaud’s shirt sleeves stuck out of his grey suit when he raked his hair back with his hands. I noticed his suit was much too small for him. It made him look as if he’d suddenly grown over the past few hours, it was so tight.
“What do you mean, your thought ‘abandons’ you?” I asked.
“I mean that I cannot reach my ideas,” he replied. “My ideas solidify out of a formless intent, as it were, and I can follow the thought up to a point, but then I’ve lost the whole concept, abruptly, totally. I lose the thought—or rather, I lose what the thought could have been had it completed itself. There is an inherent discontinuity in my mind that renders much of my inner life incoherent, even to me.”
“But you are thinking now,” I argued. “We’re all thinking every minute, and so are you, and you’re speaking, and your speech is perfectly coherent and continuous.”
Artaud smiled as if he’d heard this before. “What we are thinking about now—what we think about most of the time—is how to function socially. That’s different than self-expression, I mean, inner life.”
I shrugged; he had a point.
Justine asked, “What sort of poetry were you sending at first?”
“Much more conventional stuff than what I’ve just read to you,” Artaud replied. “Verse in the manner of Poe, Rimbaud—”
“Hardly conventional!” Justine said.
Artaud gazed at her with appreciation. “In that they attempted to be ‘poems’ at all, that they conformed to traditional poetic forms, they were conventional. Now I’ve decided to give up poetry entirely and try to simply describe my inner life, the experience of not being able to write, the struggle to speak. ‘Unified literary style’—to hell with it. Honesty is my style, if I have a style.”
I drifted in and out of awareness as the group around the table flitted from one topic to another, joking and laughing around the circle of light cast by the oil lamp on the table. It was late and even though I was enjoying myself, I felt a need to withdraw; I felt drained. Being around too many people for a long time sapped my energy. Genica watched the group with an inscrutable contentment from her chair, and whenever I dared I let my gaze roam over her, watching the lamplight ripple through her hair, watching the skin at her neckline pulse with her breath. It seemed to me that Artaud’s search for life ended in that chair, with her, with the secrets that she held, but here he sat chatting with everyone else and neglecting her, although she seemed not to mind—or at least she seemed to be accustomed to it. She watched him always with a small smile as if she knew that she owned him, and I leaned my head into my hand, dizzy from the thudding of my heart and tasting brine in my mouth. My God, oh my God, she owned me—but she didn’t smile at me like that. At me, she didn’t smile at all.