NOTE: This scene is based on a section of Cecile Schramme’s memoirs, Souvenirs familiers sur Antonin Artaud, Messidor, 1980
Rene Thomas’s studio was a workshop with a skylight and wooden stairs leading to a loft with bedrooms and a bathroom. He and Sonia shared the workshop, although she also had a small working space along with her bedroom. In fact people were welcome to come and go and use the workshop along with the two of them, to sit or stand in a corner and draw, to stand at an easel out of the way and paint, or to write at the far table which is what I imagined Artaud did. The workshop was hot despite Louis’s hopes, and walking into what initially was darkness was like walking into an oven.
Once inside the skylight gave light and I saw also a sofa, some chairs, and a drab kitchenette with a larger table where I set down the food. When Louis presented René Thomas to me I turned with my hand out and then the room slid into darkness and I was not hot anymore. “Take his arm!” commanded the older man’s voice and I was propelled to the sofa. My knee hit it and then my cheek was smashed against a cushion and my stomach felt sick. I felt as though I was on a platform turning slowly in a circle. “He might have heat exhaustion.”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“Don’t give it another thought, Weidmann. You’re the fifth person to faint here today! I’ll get some water.”
I realized then I had been hearing water. I was hearing pipes gurgling and the splashing of water in a sink above. He was turning on and off a tap and scrubbing and combing, I imagined. The door to the street opened again and Sonia’s voice answered another woman’s, lilting and cheerful, but it was not Anie’s. “Here, Geoff,” said Louis and pressed a cup into my hand. I held it, then set it on the floor. “Drink some water,” he urged, but my stomach was knotted and I felt nauseated. “Why, hello again, Mademoiselle Schramme.” The lilting voice greeted Louis and then faded into a timid giggle.
“It is beyond me how you ladies can go about looking so lovely, untouched by this heat,” said Thomas. “I think I’ve changed clothes three times today. Although it seems not to bother Artaud, either.”
“We can take it. He and I are Mediterranean stock,” Louis bragged, making Thomas chuckle.
“What’s the matter with you, Flaubert?” teased Sonia’s voice in my ear.
There was a loud shriek from upstairs and a door banged open. Footsteps thundered on wood and I opened my eyes to see two large, white bare feet hammering down the stairs on their way to us while Artaud yelped he was bleeding. “Well, let me see, mon ange,” said Sonia in a gentle voice, but the man was beside himself.
“It’s my foot, it’s my foot, it won’t stop!” cried Artaud. “It’s my foot! My big toe is cut and it’s bleeding. My hand slipped and I’ve been trying to staunch the blood for minutes! I’m draining like an ixiptlatli and I’m going to bleed out!”
Louis and Sonia had been trying to interrupt him. “Well, storm around and keep your heart beating like a bird’s, that will help things,” Louis told him in frustration as he followed Artaud around the room. I opened my eyes again to see him step into Artaud’s path to try to keep the taller man still. “Why don’t you sit?” I pulled my legs up to make room on the sofa but Artaud flailed about. “You’re leaving blood splotches on the floor.” Beyond him stood a small and silent girl no more than eighteen, very pretty with sleek and very blond hair, almost white in its blondness, who watched us all.
“Yes, of course I’m leaving blood on the floor, Landis! Because blood is exiting my body. I’m losing blood! My foot is cut. I’ve been bleeding for—”
“You couldn’t have been bleeding for minutes when we heard you scream just now,” Sonia said gently but tension came out in her voice. She was trying to apply a cloth to Artaud’s foot but he could not stay in one place. He looked frightened and I waved my arms at the empty space on the sofa. “You don’t save your screams up. I know you.”
“Just sit down and let her put pressure on it,” Louis commanded, but Artaud paced around in distress with a look of terror on his face while Sonia chased around after him on her knees with the cloth like a charwoman. I pushed myself upright but he was too distraught to see me. “Look, will you settle down? Hold still!”
The other young woman’s voice asked, “What’s a—an ishy—” Her voice sounded a little scared.
Sonia burst out, “For fuck’s sake, it’s already stopping. It’s just a cut. What did you do to try to staunch the bleeding? Beat a tom-tom?” Her voice sounded frightened too but when I opened my eyes again I saw her lips contorted in an effort not to laugh. Now Artaud smirked down at her.
“Ixiptlatli, “I mumbled. “It’s a warrior sacrificed for the Aztec feast of Toxcatl.” I realized I slurred the Spanish words like a drunkard. My head was buzzing. I kept closing and unclosing my eyes, and the people in the room wavered like flames.
“Oh,” said the musical voice faintly.
Finally the heavy, steady figure of René Thomas resolved into a middle-aged man who stood with his hands jammed into his pockets. He watched the poet with a grin as Artaud at last bent his long body in half and applied pressure to his wound. As I watched, Thomas sat down slowly in a chair. I really did not feel well so I closed my eyes and sat where I was, leaning my head against my hand propped on my elbow.
A deep voice spoke suddenly into my ear. There was a snigger behind it. “For pity’s sake, the young lady cannot decipher your smarty-talk. Speak French! It’s an impostor,” corrected Artaud, who settled at last on the sofa next to me. I rubbed my eyes, then opened them and saw him smile broadly at the delicate blond standing in her white dress. She smiled back at him.
“Naturally,” I burbled.
“Rather like an actor?” Sonia put in, sounding disgusted, and Thomas in his chair launched into a laugh that he quickly stifled.
Louis sighed irritably. “You know, Artaud, you’re not the only one who is feeling a bit of distress right now.” From my slitted eyes I could see Louis fling a hand at me.
“Oh, he’s probably collapsed from love,” said the sacrifice smugly. “For someone as healthy as he is, he has the most acute case of lovesickness I have ever seen. His naïf’s heart breaks due to man’s sins and then it’s waterworks for forty days and forty nights. Then he sends out his message of distress like a big black raven. Though I know the country I cannot help him to Mount Ararat.” He moved closer to me and the cup on the floor made a scraping sound, and then I was startled by the slap of water in my face. I flopped rather like Desnos when he awoke and suddenly Artaud and the two women burst into laughter and it was joined by Thomas.
Feet thundered up the stairs again. “But I don’t see any bourgeois rainbows from you either!” yelled my Noah with a huge smile down at me. I wiped my face and guffawed helplessly, my sight clear now as I watched Louis chase after Artaud up the stairs to the loft. Louis was scolding him but Artaud reached the top and proclaimed, “Here’s a tree that sounds like you,” and slammed the door to the washroom in his face. There was the sound of rushing water once more. I swore I heard laugher under it. Louis glared at the door, passed a hand over his forehead, and then turned and came tromping down the steps again. Sonia and the young girl with her laughed so hard they gasped for air and Thomas had sagged in his chair, smiling and shaking his head as I grinned at him.
“Well, Cécile,” Sonia said to her friend, “I had hoped to introduce you two,” and she waved a hand upstairs, “but I guess that will have to wait since he practically lives in that room. He shuts himself in the bathroom like a girl!” She yelled this toward the loft and Thomas locked eyes with me in glee as we heard a greater burst of water in response. “And I could introduce you to my friend Geoffrey here, but he appears to be unconscious.” This despite the fact I was sitting up with my eyes open, awakened by the water slap.
“But—” Thomas lifted a finger. “He’s a Surrealist!” That hand opened, gesturing to me.
I gave a final wipe of my wet face and extended my own hand. “Enchanté, mademoiselle.” Because that hand was wet the girl merely touched her index finger to mine and then went shyly to stand behind Sonia again, giggling musically. Then I snickered too, and the four of us slid into guffaws again while Louis looked around uncomprehendingly at us.
“I was hoping to introduce Cécile to people, but no one seems to be around,” Sonia told us when she caught her breath again. “And she has to take the train back to Brussels tonight, but you’ll be back this autumn, won’t you Cécile?” She smiled at the young blond who stood looking around shyly, her shoulders still shaking. “You have not been frightened off? I swear we can have a conversation at times.”
“It’s a bad day to find anyone in Paris, with the Congress going on,” I put in.
Sonia and her friend started for the door. “Well. Balthus is allowing people to stay at his studio,” she told us in parting. “There is a breeze up there, and people to meet.” They went out again.
“That’s not a bad idea,” I said blearily. “It’s close in here. You lied to me, Landis.”
Louis ignored my teasing and shook his head in disgust. “You know I love the man,” he told Thomas who was still collapsed in his chair, “and Artaud’s one of my oldest friends in the world, but sometimes I’d like to punch his lights out.”
Thomas laughed again. “Oh, I would love to see that, Landis!” I snorted in glee. “I truly suggest you don’t try that.”
“Antonin Artaud can be the most infuriating, high-maintenance, conceited—”
Thomas asked, “You realize this only now?” He and I sniggered again while Louis looked from him to me. “Weidmann, I know you’ve been worried about him, but we haven’t been able to keep him here! He’ll suddenly be gone a night or two nights without explanation—I think he camps out near wherever his latest project is, and right now he’s been after Jean Paulhan for funding, and that office is closer to the Seine. He runs around like a man possessed.”
I asked, “What project?”
“He’s going to Mexico!” Thomas told us in wonder. “Artaud is suddenly fired up about a trip to Mexico. I don’t know the details so you’ll have to ask him, but good luck getting him to slow down to talk at the moment. He barely gives out two words then runs from here to the Left Bank, trying to drum up support, and then back to Blin and Balthus, then visiting Breton in Pigalle, and then coming back here. Perhaps ask Blin about it.”
Louis and I exchanged a glance. “I don’t think it’s so sudden,” I said, remembering The Conquest of Mexico and the poet’s attraction to the cultures of the ancient Americas. Artaud was broke and once again a laughingstock but I had to admit the man was indomitable.