Update: I’m going to have to concede that there are other witnesses to Artaud not always being so hygienic as described by Cécile: Robert Desnos and Genica Athanasiou also describe filthy habits, and the actors who were offended by his body odor were not “on tour” but sharing a dressing room. In C’était Antonin Artaud, Florence de Mèredieu writes:
Artaud était, parait-il, fort sale. Cela fait d’ailleurs l’objet d’une remarque dans une lettre de Desnos a Gaston Ferdiere, du 23 mars 1943: “En ce qui concerne la megalomanie d’Artaud elle date de loin… Et sa malproprete aussi. Je l’ai vu il y a quinze ans manger du roquefort et du camembert qu’il epluchait avec des ongles d’une aune et noirs comme de l’anthracite. Genica m’a raconte qu’au temps ou ils vivaient ensemble (voici 20 ans) il pissait la nuit sur le tapis de la chambre d’hotel.” Meme son de cloche chez ses camarades de theatre qui, pour se demaquiller, avaient a se partager avec lui l’eau doureuse d’un seau. A l’asile, il fallait donc que les infirmiers l’incitent a se laver.
However, I think his washing habits varied, for other women such as Alexandra Pecker and Marianne Lams, who were quite close to him, never described body odor, and neither did Andre Breton, Rene Thomas, Balthus or Blin or his other close friends. Of course I knew about Artaud urinating on carpets – he did that at Charles Dullin’s place, too. Him not washing hands doesn’t surprise me – it dovetails with his obsession with certain cultures and with Christ, who ate with unwashed hands in defiance of the Pharisees. Yet Artaud was also portrayed by Martin Esslin as a dandy, concerned with his appearance (which went out the window after his incarceration).
So what we have here is yet another contradiction about Antonin Artaud’s life. I suspect, and this will be in my novel series, that some of it was play-acting again and he got away with what others let him do (or if they did not push back). I still do not think he was “always a dirty person” as fudge-the-facts Ferdière says, since Cécile describes not being able to get him out of the washroom or share it with him. (I can also imagine the forced showers at Quatre-Mares and Sainte-Anne did more damage to his precarious state of mind.)
At any rate I highly recommend buying and reading de Mèredieu’s books! I am so grateful for all the research and hard work she has done.
This review of Sylvère Lotringer’s Mad Like Artaud is worth reading, but unfortunately the review is uncritical of “facts” stated by Gaston Ferdière. (Of course, Lotringer ‘s book is great and I highly recommend his lecture at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, too.)
“Artaud didn’t wash”? Not according to Cécile Schramme! In my translation of the memoirs published in 1980 that are attributed to her, she wrote:
Artaud had very strict principles of hydrotherapy and modesty. He shut himself up like a girl in the bathroom, and each time it was water cascades and loud sounds of friction, brushing.
Cécile goes on to tell a story that inspired a scene from my novel (read it here) in which Artaud, attempting to give himself a pedicure, cut his foot and became distressed. No one mentions Antonin Artaud not washing, at least prior to Ville-Évrard, no one. Gaston Ferdière says in Lotringer’s book, “Artaud was always an extremely dirty person. I heard this from those who toured with him while he was an actor, and who tried to avoid him.”* But when was Artaud “on tour”? Does he mean making films on location? Because if so, it was Antonin Artaud who complained about the conditions on location: the stink, the fleas, the cold and the discomfort. Also, having been an actor myself, I know it for an unfortunate fact that many actors badmouth their colleagues. If Ferdière actually heard this and isn’t simply badmouthing Artaud himself (which he has done), I would rather trust the women in Artaud’s life who make no mention of body odor.
Incidentally, I’ve been around homeless people, plenty of them, and some of them who did have bad body odor. They didn’t “smell like feet.” That is another reason I think Ferdière’s story, er, stinks. Anyway, I fought like hell not to show it offended me, especially this man on the bus who let off an odor even from several seats behind me that made me feel sick. If I had had the opportunity to gently broach the subject I would, but I did not. (I did have the opportunity to gently broach other subjects with homeless men, such as sleeping or eating in the library, when I was a public librarian.) So that, I think, is how I would react to Artaud if he was alive and I met him. In fact, I think that how I treat others is what I do to Artaud. He’s like a secular Christ to me.
Yes, Artaud displayed other bizarre behavior. I guess I’m just not the faint heart Ferdière was. Incidentally, I went through a phase where I ate only with my hands – and in public, mind you. (People in India still do.) It makes food taste better, I can tell you that. Yes, encountering Artaud in real life would make a lot of people uncomfortable. He knew this. I love him for it. Why is today’s audience more comfortable with, say, serial killers who have polish, like Ted Bundy? Bundy holds absolutely no fascination for me! I would rather live in a world where everyone reads Antonin Artaud but hardly anyone knows who Ted Bundy is.
Like Lotringer, I want to be fair to Gaston Ferdière. Of course I’m grateful that Robert Desnos, Paul Éluard, and Theodore Fraenkel delivered Artaud into the psychiatrist’s hands at Rodez, saving Artaud from starving to death at Ville- Évrard. But when I read Ferdière’s contradictory, squirming, and highly suspect interview I wanted to get my hands on his throat too – in frustration, but also in rage. Artaud supposedly didn’t mind the electroshocks (that he might indeed have needed) and if the doctor tried them on us we likewise “wouldn’t notice them?” Oh, come on!
I don’t trust this bad-mouthing of Artaud by Ferdière. There is something very wrong in the head of our Gaston Ferdière!
The review concludes with: ” On the one hand, Artaud’s work shows us a certain kind of genius with language, a method for seeing the world afresh and for interrogating its ideologies, in politics, psychiatry and elsewhere, but hearing first hand from his doctors also raises the question how, you, as an admirer of Artaud, who professes to challenge psychiatry and the ideology of madness, would behave if you came into contact with him.”
But that is the very essence of my novel series – coming into contact with Antonin Artaud, and destroying that comfortable distance that even an admirer like Lotringer maintains. I get very close to Artaud – and yes, it’s uncomfortable, unpleasant at times, even frustrating, enraging, and tiresome. Artaud is downright selfish at times. He and my protagonist even get into a physical fight. But “When you really love someone you accept him body and soul, with his vices, flaws, and miseries, without giving out… In love, there is no bargaining; it’s all or nothing.”** Love isn’t nice.
Artaud has taught me to be less judgmental about those who display bizarre behavior. Artaud has led me to learn more about those who struggle with mental illness, with delusions, with pain and with need. But society still prefers charming, lethal serial killers.
*Lotringer, Sylvère. Mad Like Artaud . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
**Letter to Genica Athanasiou from Antonin Artaud