From Book 3: Artaud is Angry at Me

            Over the next few days, Artaud and I avoided each other. I brooded over my words to him and was ashamed of them. Sonia sought me out to say that Artaud was now cold and distant to her. She seemed relieved, but now she was cold and distant to me, too.

            Artaud neglected his other friends as well. He was now seeing Sonia’s friend Cécile. The two of them spent every free moment together. Even Artaud’s friendship with Jean-Louis Barrault suffered. Soon after the incident with the scarf, Artaud sent a letter—he sent me a damned letter—ordering me to return his manuscript to him at once. “And not even to him,” I groused to Louis as we sat at our table in the Select. “He wants me to hand-deliver it to Jean-Louis Barrault so that he can give it to Artaud.” Louis took the letter that I clutched in my shaking fist and read it for himself. “I mean, what the hell? Am I not to approach his precious Cécile with my hairy German limbs? And after he destroyed something of Sonia’s?”

            Louis put the letter down and rolled his eyes. Even when he moved his eyeballs that hairline crept backward on his skull. “The way he has been behaving lately is completely inexcusable, but I guess I would swallow down your resentment—reasonable though it is—and do as he says, Geoff. Lord knows, it’s all I can do to avoid a row with Artaud these days. The slightest misstatement, one wrong move, and wham! he’s throwing another tantrum.”

            “Landis, what has happened to your vocabulary? ‘Wham?’ Have you given up swearing altogether?”

            “I have,” he said proudly. “I’ve gone a whole week without uttering any profanity. At least, not knowingly.”

            I hope your Sabreen is worth it. I did not say the words, of course. I left the letter on the table and reached in my suit jacket for Artaud’s essay. I unfolded the papers and, determined to finish reading the essay, scanned through the pages, passing each to Louis as I finished it.

“This is astonishingly good,” Louis said. “It shows what he can really do when he applies himself.” He glanced up at me then with a faraway expression. “I certainly understand him wanting to get married. Dear God, if he can find some anchor to reality then I’m happy for him. He told me he had a dream in which he dined in public with Cécile as his wife and their child sitting between them. Boy or girl, he didn’t say. I suppose he doesn’t care.”

“Oh,” I said, buoyed by the thought. “I had no idea he wanted children! I hope that happens.” I thought of a black-haired kid being carried around Montparnasse, taught poetry at table, drinking endless glasses of water at the Dôme and being fawned over by everyone, especially Kiki. Artaud was sweet on children—and he would need his friends again. It would center his life in the right way. “Perhaps this will bring him some measure of happiness. He always accomplishes what he sets out to do!”

Louis gave me a strange look. “What are you talking about? He never accomplishes what he sets out to do. Except in starting arguments. After telling me that dream he and I were nose to nose again and I don’t even know what about. Every time I resolve to be kind to him, he manages to get my goat. It’s deliberate, I swear. He won’t let anything be nice anymore.”

“Louis, for pity’s sake. Artaud was never about being nice.”

“You know what I mean,” he argued. “He was always genuine—genuinely angry and genuinely sweet, kind, without guile, poor, genuinely convinced he’s right every moment and genuinely a pain in the royal ass sometimes, but now he’s changed. I sense a certain calculation in him. This cunning in him, it’s new. The sad thing is, he could have used it before.”

“Used what before?” I asked, my eyes still scanning the words on the page.

“With his film career, for example. Even if his health was stable, no director will work with him again. He had a reputation for being ‘difficult’ even before he made his first film!”

“Yes, I know about that,” I snapped, “I’ve heard this story, too. People warned Autant-Lara not to cast him but he did, and he said Artaud was a delight to work with. And when I finally saw Fait-Divers, I saw that Artaud is completely different on film than on the stage. He does create a character; he does modulate his voice—he did in Threepenny, in Faubourg Montmartre and Mater Dolorosa; he uses clear, economical gestures and subtle facial expressions. He’s not what people say he is!”

“Oh, he’s sometimes what people say he is. And on the strength of Autant-Lara’s word, Marcel L’Herbier cast Artaud in L’Argent and found the rumors were true,” Louis argued. “L’Herbier would have given Artaud a bigger role if he could. He wanted to help the man’s career, but when the time came for Artaud to step before the camera he was never around! They had to go looking for him! They’d find him on the outskirts of the city, probably wheedling opium. Artaud blew his chances, Geoff. He’s blown a lot of chances. No one gets to tell him what to do but him. But he—” and he pointed at me, “gets to order people about! It’s all about him. So go trot this piece to Barrault when we’re done reading as he instructed you to, unless you want a fight. And maybe you do! Maybe you two should have it out.”

“I don’t want to fight with Artaud,” I said miserably.

“Well, he’s spoiling for a fight with you! I can just sense it.”

I said softly, “I can’t believe that.”

            My reading done, I took the pages back and tapped them straight. “I wonder if he wants it back immediately because it’s the last thing he has said or written that’s coherent,” I said. Louis fixed me with a shocked look. “Because he knows it, because he’s hanging on to the last vestiges of sanity, still sane enough to know that it’s sanity…?”

            Louis looked frightened then. “Oh, I never believed all those madness rumors, Geoff. Artaud’s excitable to an extreme, but he’s not deranged. The absence of Justine is a large part of what he’s going through, I suspect. Justine always had such a calming effect on him.”

            “He is deluded though, Louis. For one thing, Artaud blames me for Justine’s disappearance.” I folded the papers again and stood up.

            “No, Geoff! I doubt that. He’s picking a fight with you but I don’t think it’s about that. I think Artaud blames himself.”

            I lowered my head. “Well, he shouldn’t, because maybe I am to blame.” I tucked the pages back inside my jacket and turned from Louis before he could reply. I left the terrasse to look for Barrault.

            I was taking the Metro less often these days, preferring my long walks from Montparnasse to the boulevard Saint-Germain—and they were cheaper. I did not know where Barrault lived but I often saw him strolling along the quai on the Île St.-Louis, so I meandered a bit through the Latin Quarter, following the same streets where Roger and Louis had introduced me to Paris my first night. I crossed the short bridge at Pont de Sully to Île Saint-Louis and found many people, mostly couples, stretched out on the high stone banks above the water, but no Barrault and no Artaud. Disappointed, I walked along the sunlit southwest side of the island and crossed to Île de la Cité, and walked up the path to the back of Notre Dame. Dying leaves stood out on the ends of the chestnut trees; the wind shook them like fists. The sky was pale blue and cold, and the rose garden behind the cathedral was all thorns.

            I came again to that special arch of stone from my first night here, so short that it was barely a bridge, Pont au Double, and to the Square Viviani where the false acacia still leaned on its cement pillar. Soon that ancient tree would sleep, too.

            I had just sat down on the nearby bench to catch my breath when a tall, slim man hurriedly crossing the bridge at Pont au Double caught my attention. He so resembled Artaud that I stood up to wait as he approached. Then, seeing that it was not Artaud and it was not Balthus, I sat down again and sagged against the backrest in disappointment. I took out the essay and leafed through its pages, reading again and again certain passages that I wanted to think over. Bent thus over my reading, I forgot about that man until his shadow fell across the papers.

            “I thought it was you, Monsieur Weidmann,” said Jean-Louis Barrault. “Were you looking for me?”

            Now that he was so close to me I could see how young he really was, no more than twenty-five. He had large, wondering eyes and a mobile face that was constantly changing. Like Artaud he had that aura of innocence about him and yet Barrault’s was not at all like the fey, touchingly awkward and angular young man I had befriended along this river, in almost this very spot, nearly ten years ago. Barrault was serene, his face untroubled, and he possessed a centeredness that Artaud had surrendered so quickly.

            Barrault, I sensed, believed Artaud’s proclaimed clairvoyance so when I replied, “I was actually looking for Artaud,” I figured that he would not take it as a snub. Indeed, he merely smiled and sat down next to me.

            “Of course you were. That’s the only reason you would seek me out,” he said. “I have been looking for Artaud all day. He’s been avoiding me lately.”

            I turned to him in surprise. “You?”

            Barrault didn’t answer right away. He leaned forward on the bench and reached out a hand to gently stroke the trunk of the old tree, fingering the gap in the bark where cement had been poured to protect the split wood. “When I first met him, Artaud told me about you. He told me this tree was special to you,” he said softly. “That’s how I knew to look for you here.”

            “He did? I don’t remember ever mentioning this tree to him.” But didn’t I know better by now? “That’s revealing how easily he knows me. I don’t even know him, really,” I confessed then to Barrault. “As long as he and I have been friends, I can’t penetrate him at all. It’s as if he and I have been having a silent conversation beneath our surface relationship—a conversation in which I am illiterate. Therefore I’m a constant source of disappointment to him. And that’s why he’s grown tired of me—”

            “And could that be why,” Barrault interrupted, “Artaud is angry with me?”

            He sounded stricken. I turned to him again and saw the pain in his eyes. He was, after all, just a kid. “Barrault, what has happened?”

            Barrault sighed. “We’ve spent so much time together and shared so many ideas that I finally suggested he and I collaborate on a theatrical production.”

            “I think that’s a Marvelous idea.”

            “I thought so too, but not Artaud. Perhaps he thought me arrogant—like I was doing him a favor—but I swear that wasn’t the case. I’ve learned a lot from him. Antonin Artaud is my teacher. But now he acts as if I’ve insulted him.”

            Barrault glanced at the papers that I still clutched and I held them out to him, but he was already leaning back to pull a sheet from his own breast pocket. Immediately I recognized the careless, splayed lettering on the paper. When Barrault passed the letter to me I just held it for a few seconds, really debating whether or not to get involved, but the look of pain on Barrault’s face convinced me to try and help him. I unfolded the letter and read:

My dear Barrault,
You know how I honor both your work and all that you are. Therefore, you will understand the spirit in which I tell you this.
There can be no possibility that you will take offense at what I am to say, but I do not wish you to hold even the smallest grudge.
I do not believe that any collaboration between us is possible, for if I know what unites us, I see more clearly what divides us, for it has to do with method which, each starting from its point of view diametrically opposed to the other, leads inevitably to opposed results, all appearances to the contrary. I saw your work in The Cenci, when I asked you to rehearse the actors; you broke them, in a sense, or you invested so much of yourself that in the end it got out of control anyway. Finally, several times, and even in my own presence, you criticized my methods as too personal or subjective, based upon the fact that being a writer first and foremost I could not command the performance, and that while realizing my ambitions I was unable to overcome through work and insight the obstacles you said I had stumbled upon. But, and this is most important to me, I do not believe in insurmountable categories, especially regarding the theatre. This is the core of everything that I have written for the last four years, even longer.
I WILL NOT HAVE, in my spectacle on my stage, so much as the flicker of an eye that is not directed by me. If in The Cenci I displayed no such command, it was because The Cenci fell so far short from the theatre that I want to do, and because upon further reflection I realize that I was overwhelmed by the enormity of my project.
But lastly, I do not believe in collaboration, especially since my experience in Surrealism, because I no longer believe in human purity. Despite how much I admire you, I believe you to be fallible and I do not wish to further expose myself to such a risk. I am not the man who can stand to work closely with anyone on anything, especially after The Cenci.

            There was more, but I did not bother to read farther. Artaud had signed it “with warm and affectionate greetings,” but this softened these cold, cutting words as much as a cushion could soften the knife’s blade that stabbed through it. One word in particular leaped out at me: purity. He spoke of purity and of fallibility, as if man could attain one and be blamed for the other. Yes, I recognized this—it sounded so much like the words of André Breton when he expelled Artaud from his movement. It sounded like the abstract pomposity that had excised so many great men from Surrealism proper—and now here was Artaud sounding like Breton, in fact today acting more like Breton than Breton and leaving confused devotees in his wake, dejected former friends who searched their souls for the offense, for the cause of Artaud’s unreasonable rejection. Purity indeed!

            I saw him then as he really was. For the first time since meeting him that first night in Desnos’s dank warehouse I saw Antonin Artaud clearly. That potential danger I first recognized in that young man had ripened in him. The word he had used to describe me—detached—now described himself. In his vanity he was pushing everyone away. He considered himself unique, an oracle, possessed of prophetic revelations that only taught him to hold the rest of us in contempt. As I had warned him, he would be a god but he had little mercy.

            “Give me a moment,” I husked, “to get used to this thought before I say it out loud to you.” My voice was not recognizable even to me, and Barrault looked at me in alarm. The letter trembled in my hand as I surrendered it. I let go of the paper and then passed my fingers across my eyes. Finally I found my voice. “Antonin Artaud is ill,” I told Barrault, feeling pity for him when his face registered sorrow. “Someone has to say it at last. Everyone needs to face it. But that’s not all—we don’t speak truth to his power. He holds all of us in thrall, you and me and even his enemies, by the force of his personality and because of the awe we have for him none of us fights back. I don’t mean attack him of course—the way he is treated in the press and by the public does not help at all. But someone, sometime, has to put a foot down. We need to be honest with him. He needs collaboration now more than ever.”

            He nodded slightly. “You’re telling me to push back against this, aren’t you?” The hope that entered Barrault’s young face kindled a bit of hope in me. I had spoken without conviction, and now I thought I saw a way forward. It is the action which commands the thought Artaud himself had said once.

            “I hope I’m wrong about him,” I told him, “but yes, yes, push back, Barrault. Even if you two don’t collaborate on a project, do not let him alienate himself. We all need to stop this tip-toeing around him.”

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