From Book 3: A Magician

            Catherine came into the kitchen and stood before me, making me focus on her in her robe and slippers. “You barely touched your food tonight,” she began, and I sensed this was only the first salvo.

            “With all that’s happening, do you expect me to eat?”

            She shook her head, her eyes glistening. “I expect you to take better care of yourself. You look pale, exhausted, and—” She stopped. “Geoffrey, I fear…” Again she paused. She seemed nearly to be trembling, and I stared at her in surprise. All her characteristic serenity was gone. “I am afraid of your anger if I speak my mind.”

            “You can tell me anything, Catherine.” I indicated the chair across from me, but she remained standing.

            She pursed her lips, hesitating. That was new as well. “You know,” she began softly, “how much I care for Antonin. Surely you know he is dear to me, too. But—” Now she pressed her lips together and gazed past me, her eyes sharp. “I do think he is a bit spoilt! It’s true his life is not easy—and don’t look at me like that; yes, that is an understatement. But when I see his behavior toward his poor mother, and when I know from Franz his attitude toward people who have helped him—Paulhan, Denoël—what I see is a favored son, a golden child who is demanding, quixotic, and who works himself into near-hysteria at times.”

            She waited, and gone from her brown eyes was the steady regard, that gravity which pulled erratic firebrands into orderly circuits. She looked afraid, too. At length I nodded. “But that was also me, Catherine. You’ve described me too, how I was before I came here and even after I arrived at your house.” She turned away from me then, shaking her head. “Would you have me deny Antonin Artaud the understanding and compassion you showed me?”

            “But what would he have people do!” she cried out to the wall. “He refuses work if it does not suit him, then begs for money, for drugs. He tormented that poor actress he was connected with, to the point that she actually came to see me in tears!”

            I started, and she folded her arms and turned her head to look my way again. “Genica?” I gasped. “She came to see you?”

            “I don’t know that name. No,” Catherine answered, and now she did come to the table. She sat not across from me, but beside me. “No, her name was Juliette Beckers. She allowed Artaud into her house when he showed up destitute and in a highly agitated state, and let him sleep on her couch and gave him new socks to replace the ones with holes. Then he broke down, and…” She looked past me, teary-eyed herself. “Of course it’s painful to see him so desperate, but he also uses his situation to ingratiate himself! And he is charming. A married woman, and so I told her: choose. She could not walk away from her husband but she could not seem to tear herself away from Antonin even though it was hurting her, for he exerted over her a strange power. And it is not mere manipulation, for he is honest—when he is coherent. He plays a masquerade with truth. Juliette said no man ever spoke to her the way he did and though he was impossible to live with, demanding and jealous of her every action, raging at her then pleading—she knew when it ended she would never ‘fall into’—her words—‘such enigma again.’ He tossed her around like a tidal wave. Her husband was loving, constant, but next to Antonin’s bright talk he became boring. She had a sense of life passing her by and it made her vulnerable to a sweet-talking Lothario who as it turned out she came to dislike. I have never seen a woman so in despair.”

            “I admit he can sweet-talk and even be exploitive but really, a Lothario?” I demanded. “Aren’t you being a bit harsh, Catherine?”

“I think Antonin Artaud is a magician!” she added. I heard a footfall behind me but when I turned I did not see Franz or Suzanne. “His own kind of magician. He would speak secular words in a modern way to weave some kind of Godless spell in the minds of people, to cause things to happen around him and to draw reactions from everyone, inspiring hatred and love and revulsion, because it disrupts what he calls ‘bourgeois contentment.’ And a part of me thinks perhaps people deserve his revenge, but not you!”

“You cannot know that, Catherine. You cannot say what I deserve or don’t from him.”

“Please, Geoff, don’t you see? He turns everything into its opposite and he would do this in love and in friendship. He has done it!” She stared at me in a version of brown horror that reminded me so of that look of horror Artaud had given me when I broke through, tragically and momentarily, his inscrutability to reveal the lashed man beneath. “He has done it to you.”

            She fell silent, staring at me—like he did. That look on her face, it was now so like his. “And to you,” I realized aloud. Catherine had a simple faith in God and I could never have imagined her combining that with her dread of atheism to achieve this level of accusation. “Catherine, I do believe you have put your finger on it.” I was delighted, smiling at her for making me see clear, and she looked appalled now. “But isn’t that coherence of his inherently opposed to bourgeois contentment? Is that Antonin Artaud’s fault? Do you think he enjoys being laughed at? Is he inciting reactions or is he, in living without pretenses, merely the scapegoat for our own unacknowledged pain and—for lack of a better word—our hypocrisy?”

            Her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Geoff! You are caught in his world—”

            “Well, Antonin does not want me caught in his world anymore,” I snapped. “He has put a wall between us, so you need not worry.”

            Now she looked like old Catherine, loving but conventional Catherine, a biological creature trapped by language and through language by religion, and trying to understand two other creatures who no longer feared God, who no longer wanted to even call themselves human. Very slowly she shook her head at me. “He has put that wall between you. He would make you over, by pushing you away! Don’t you see? He is a dictator.”

            The days dragged on, long and work-filled for me, and my nights were haunted by restless worries. Through it all I sought refuge in Artaud’s writings. Before my acrimonious encounter with him that one morning he had entrusted me with his latest essay, “No More Masterpieces.”

            We must give up this idea of masterpieces reserved for a self-styled elite, and which the so-called masses do not understand; we must realize that the mind has no districts like those red-light districts for clandestine trysts….
            If the public does not come to literary masterpieces it is because the masterpieces themselves are master, that is, stuck, fixed; fixed in forms that act like masters and do not serve the needs of the time…. If most people have lost the habit of going to the theatre and regard it an inferior art, a vulgar distraction, it is because we have been told that it is theatre, that is, lies and illusion.
            We must put an end to our superstitious worship of texts and written poems. Written poems are valuable only once, then should be destroyed. Let dead poets make way for others. It is our veneration for that which has been done, however beautiful a thing, that kills it and petrifies us, and prevents us from making contact with its essence, shall we call it mental energy, the life force, the determination of events, whatever phrase one chooses. Beneath the poetry of texts there is poetry pure and simple, beyond form and text….
            This is why I propose a theatre of cruelty—which immediately everyone took to mean “blood.” But “theatre of cruelty” means a theatre difficult and cruel first of all to itself and for itself. We are not free. Anything, any tragedy, can happen. And the theatre was created to teach us, first of all, that.

True to his hatred of “forms,” this latest polemic required a trip to the Louvre to see for myself Lucas Van den Leyden’s painting, “Lot and his Daughters.” Artaud had brought many of his friends to see it, including Anaïs Nin during their brief love affair, and to me had praised her reaction to it “with all her feminine senses, which in her are also spirit.” This had been, of course, before their break-up. Once, Artaud had told Desnos that in Nin the body and spirit were completely intermingled and that she was waiting for an exorcist to make, in this “incongruous marriage,” the spirit dominate the body. This had been not too long before Artaud edited her chapter from his life, as I was constantly afraid he would do to me.

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