From Book 1: Sleep-Driving

JACQUES RIVIERE TO ANTONIN ARTAUD

Dear Sir,
Something puzzles me: the sharp contrast between the vagueness of your literary efforts and the excruciating precision with which you diagnose your inner erosion.

Had I no other evidence, your handwriting—tortured, wavering, as if pulled in by hidden whirlpools—convinces me of the reality of these phenomena you describe.

But how do you escape this collapse as you watch yourself and express so successfully the torment of your inability to express yourself?… What do you mean when you talk of the “fragility of the mind?” Is your sickness, as you call it, indicative of a weakness or of, as I see it, an excess of power, an overflow of strength?

The mind regarding itself becomes a kind of canker; it has a substance of its own and it lives on itself, expanding in all directions and if unchecked, it envelopes the ego with its own egotism, caring not at all for the fate of the person it inhabits…. The man who thinks uses himself completely, and uses himself up. Pure thought is unbearable, and the only escape from it is death…

            “Artaud’s insufferably proud of it,” Roger snarled, seeing how absorbed I was in the book. When I glared at him he became defensive. “Well, the point is to write poems, isn’t it? Not to make excuses for not writing them! ‘It means nothing to me whether others recognize me as a writer.’ What a clever way to get published.”

            Louis shook his head at Roger. “Of course Artaud wants a little recognition—he’s a human being. I wish you would act like one.”

            I closed the book and stood up from the automobile’s hood. “The point is not just to write poems,” I said gently. “What’s the point of poems? The world is stuffed with words already. Intellectuals are so afraid for literature, as if it were about to commit suicide, but they’re unwilling to acknowledge its faults, so they lock it up in some gilded cage and hope it won’t harm itself.” Louis grinned, and Roger gawked at me in disbelief. “Artaud is concerned about where poetry comes from. He wants to strip away our cheap apologies for art. We’ve made poetry into ‘poems’—little trinkets, like department store replicas of ancient Greek statues.”

            The man who had introduced me to Artaud rolled his eyes now. “Weidmann, you have this irritating habit of leaping all over creation when you talk!” I ignored him and opened the book again while Louis leaned against the car and studied the blond man pacing the sidewalk. Roger’s intelligent, I thought, but he does not have an original mind. He collected ideas and manipulated them, but did not create them. I realized this holiday was his attempt to make his own Byron-Shelley-Wollstonecraft crucible. He thought that by living an artist’s life he could become an artist himself. All the intellectuals in Paris, and in Vienna—and for that matter, anywhere—sitting in cafés, arguing and flirting, wanting so desperately to belong to a group that claimed it did not belong—what happened when they realized that mediocrity was second nature to them, that despite talent and desire there was something missing? What did they do with their lives when they discovered that all they could be was an audience for the genius few that they had laughed at, criticized, or simply dismissed? And if Roger ever realizes this, what will he do then? I asked myself.

            The horror of being ordinary—of not being a saint, or even much of a sinner—that I could understand. How well I understood it.

            Justine was already waiting in the car and did not hear this exchange. Roger slid into the seat beside her, taking her hand, and she offered him her lips. Louis watched them and sighed. “Why don’t you and I have women, Geoff? Why don’t we go find some? The ones Roger doesn’t get to first, I mean.”

            “You’ve just answered your own question,” I replied, and immediately wished the words back. They sounded hateful and envious. Louis glanced from me to Justine and seemed to derive some conclusion. I turned back to the book.

            Robert Desnos finally pushed through the scrub and stumbled up to the car, trailed by Genica and Artaud. Desnos threw himself against the hood and stretched to place his armpit beneath my nose. I took the hint and stood up to open the front passenger door. Genica, helped by Artaud, slipped into the back seat beside Roger and Justine. “God, am I sleepy!” yawned Desnos, who always looked a little sleepy. He opened the driver’s side door. “Perhaps sleep-driving is possible.” His wide, dark-ringed eyes laughed at us.

            “Don’t you dare!” Louis exclaimed. “Remember, you’re transporting mere mortals. Besides, you don’t want to wreck this car. It’s not yours.”

            “This thing is huge,” Justine remarked. “Where did you get an automobile this large, Robert?”

            Desnos snickered, took out a pair of round pince-nez glasses and put them on. They magnified the bright blue of his eyes, and emphasized the roundness of his cheeks. “I borrowed it.”

“Meaning, you stole it,” Roger said.

Desnos ignored this. “Landis, you would be surprised what a man can do in a trance.” He plopped himself behind the steering wheel, and Louis and I smashed in beside him, our knees and elbows poking. “I’ve made love to a woman in my sleep—”

            “You lie, Desnos!” Louis cried out, in consternation stepping on my foot. I nudged him.

            “I swear,” Desnos bragged. “You ejaculate in colors. It feels like you’re doing it in the sky.”

            “Liar!”

            “Could she tell you were asleep?” Justine asked cynically, to everyone’s amusement. “I mean, how was it for her?”

            The heavily-laden car bumped down the narrow, fortunately straight Rue Blomet and turned a corner, gaining speed. I tapped Louis on the shoulder with the book, and he jerked his chin toward Artaud, so I handed the book over the seat. “You finished it?” Artaud asked. He took the small volume and flipped idly through it.

            “Yes.” I felt I should say more, but couldn’t think of any honest comment. What was there with which to agree or disagree? There weren’t any ideas in it, not really—just a mind describing its crinkled state instead of being unable to unfold itself before itself. Just a man who said, “If I could truly find words of my own to accurately describe my innermost state, those words would sound like screams.”

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