From Book 3: Balthus and Laudanum

In June, 1934 Balthus attempted suicide and Artaud found him. Previous scene here.

Valentine Hugo trailed me to the door and exchanged some more meaningless pleasantries with me while I kept backing away. When I finally reached the street, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was far from Montparnasse but I decided to stop by the apartment of Balthus before going home. I entered the Metro at Pigalle and managed to catch a late ride. The young painter had his makeshift studio on the top of the building in the rue de Fürstenberg but it was called Number Four as if a proper flat, “framed as if for eternity,” Artaud had described it to me, and I noticed Alexander Tcherepnin was a neighbor. No one answered my knock. I pushed the door open and found several young men sitting and talking quietly. They told me the painter was out of danger but should not be left alone. The man himself lay quietly on his bed and seemed serene, but when I leaned over for a closer look he opened his eyes.

Because I was not sure if Balthus saw at all, I waited for him to speak if he wished to. Certainly he did not need to do a thing, but when another man leaned over him as well he moved his lips, but I could not hear him. “Listen to me,” I said gently, “your woman is alive. At least your love lives. You have that. The woman I married does not live. That is the final separation.” Balthus seemed to focus on me with understanding. “If you die, your love for her dies too.” His eyes closed again. He looked so like Artaud lying near death that I shuddered. The stranger at my side laid a hand on my arm.

I did remain there for some time, not talking to Balthus but talking to a distraught young man at his bedside that I did not know. This youth was so intense and nervous that I stayed to lend a sympathetic ear. I sat and listened as he told me Balthus was born in a leap year and thus “slipped through a crack in time.” Balthus had lived in Berlin with his parents until they separated and his mother brought him to Switzerland. There she met and had a relationship with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Balthus had been a child prodigy. His early art was haunted by a cat who ran away.

“What about yourself?” I finally asked the youth, but he waved a hand and continued to eulogize Balthus as if the painter was indeed dead. So I sat and let the distraught boy talk until an older man came in and gently took over the conversation. He smiled at me from a beefy, earthy face and introduced himself as Pierre Leyris, the friend Artaud had summoned for help. “You are impatient for home,” he said kindly. “Go—I’ll keep watch. If you see Artaud, tell him all is well now.” His eyes darted in concern not to the bed but to my conversant.

            I walked back to my flat, worried about Artaud. Would he be calm and commanding in the face of this as he could be when he sought to be, or in the near-hysterics that overtook him sometimes? This would tear it between us, I feared. He was ambivalent about me at best. Revulsion toward women did not translate into a preference for me; the heart did not work that way. Had I not warned him of that, long ago? Whatever happened I resolved to be a support to him.

I let myself in the front door, feeling confident that my eye was near to normal. It was beyond me why my smaller wounds healed more slowly than catastrophic ones. The stairs were dark, but there was enough light for me to see. I tiptoed cautiously past the caretaker’s room even though the man never stirred at this hour; he would be awake, but imbibing. I could not see the first few steps in the darkness but I knew them so well that I focused hopefully up the spiral, trying to see my door.

A form reared up before me and a guttural voice said, “You piece of shit foreigner, why don’t you go bay at your own moon?” and reddish-white static exploded before my eyes. I stumbled backward with my hands to my face and I heard a nearby door swing open with a crash. “Pierre!” screamed my landlady at the caretaker who was stalking again toward me. “Pierre, he has not been here tonight! Pierre—” I did not know the caretaker’s name but I knew it was not Pierre. “Go to your room! Sleep it off!”

“Uhhhh—” I grunted, my hands to my healed and wounded eye. The caretaker said something about sauerkraut and slammed into his apartment. With an effort born of the near-constant horror that my landlady was going to pull me to her bed, I disengaged myself from her hot-fingered ministrations and dragged myself up the staircase. I managed to find my door, and I managed to unlock it.

            I reeled inside my apartment and realized I was no longer seeing anything. A hand seized my arm and pulled me forward, then pushed me to sit on the sofa and then that hand grasped my chin and turned my face upward to display my newly-puffed eye, soon to be black again, and my bruised cheek. Through my good eye the world resolved into stationary objects in the dim light. “You should see the other guy,” I told Artaud. “Guys.”

“Oh?” He went into the kitchen and opened the iceless ice box, which held the cats’ food and the few groceries the cool metal helped protect, but nothing to place on this growing lump. Artaud came back and stood before me at a loss. “More than one?” His voice sounded approving.

I nodded. “And both completely untouched.” His brows drew together without humor at my joke. Centipede’s relatively cold ceramic food dish was at my foot, so I reached for it and held that against my face. Then Artaud handed me a cool, wet towel and I covered my face with that. “You should sleep,” I told him. “You’ve had a terrible night, too.”

            Artaud sighed, turning about the room to skewer the air with his frustration. “I suppose you’ve heard.”

            “I did. I’m very sorry.”

            He turned to me in disbelief. “Over a woman!” He did not shake his head as much as he stomped in a circle glaring into alternate corners of the room. “For a principle, yes; for the theatre, perhaps I would, but a woman?”

“Look, forgive him. He’s young; he cried out to you. You were there for him and he trusts you.” I wasn’t going to remind Artaud that he had likewise given his friends a few days of worry due to his extreme emotional state over losing Genica.

            “Of course. He’s a just a boy.” Artaud shoved his hand through his hair. “What do you have there?” He took the folded paper sticking out of my front pocket.

            “Oh, that. Something someone said made me think of it a million years ago. It’s in English,” I warned. “It won’t make sense in French.”

remembering – remember – member
mind (archaic)

            “Memory reconstructs,” I said. “It is not passive. It’s tied to members, fingers, limbs, the body; it’s tied to the voice, calling up, summoning… it’s tied to physical space and of course it’s tied to thought.”

            “That’s no mystery,” he said softly. “You’re talking about undoing.” He took the warmed towel from me and tossed it somewhere.

            “No, I am talking about doing—remembering, finally. Remembering what language I would speak on my own, before I awoke on that floor and became trapped by language. How I would see things, without this simulacrum that has become me.”

            I did not expect him to find this interesting. He sank to the sofa too. “That involves undoing the layers of bullshit we have wrapped around ourselves, and so undoing ourselves,” he said.

            “Well, I am wrapped in bullshit like everyone else, and my healing from broken bones and axe wounds and black eyes does not matter. If anything, that traps me from undoing the lie.”

            I wanted to stop talking. Surely he did not want to hear my prattle just now. He leaned forward though, focusing on me. Had I forgotten who he was? The drama tonight with Balthus was the distraction, not my thoughts, not the issue of language that always obsessed him. Because his expression was sympathetic I found myself talking again. “But what if undoing the lie only reveals a deeper lie? If I could recall my previous self, would that also be trapped by language, however new and unfamiliar a language, because that incarnation also named exteriors before interiors? And if gesture and action are language, do they first gesture and act outward, before inward? Is nature all layers of artifice? What if there is no heart to life at all?” My question ended in a soft and hoarse voice. He just sat there looking at me. I rubbed my eyes, then stopped because it hurt. “Don’t mind me—I’ve had a terrible night too, my head is pounding, and soon I have to go to work!”

            “You have pinpointed something. You come out with these peculiar insights, and then you always interrupt yourself. I despair of ever dissuading you of apologizing!” Artaud put down my paper and looked at my face again. “Don’t go to that place today. Surely you can phone in some excuse.”

            “I don’t dare. Deficit fever has taken over at the bank. I can easily be replaced with a twenty-year-old who will also review ledgers. Besides, you know this will go down soon enough.”

            There was a knock at the door. We exchanged a surprised look, for it was only three-thirty. He opened the door to see Desnos standing with Landis. They both looked glassy-eyed and disengaged. “We’ve been chasing you around, I think,” Desnos said to me, following me now as I moved to the bed. “I was at Paul’s, then at the Coupole, and we were at the studio just now.” He looked more closely at my face and let out a whistle.

            “I should be there,” said Artaud.

            Louis shook his head. “There’s nothing for you to do. The doctor has left, people are with him and he’ll be fine. He’s sleeping, and you look exhausted. Get some sleep yourself.”

            Desnos clapped a hand on my shoulder and only then did I collapse to sit on the mattress. Besides my throbbing head I felt that nerve pain in my right leg and groaned inwardly. “Perhaps,” he said to Artaud, “it would send a stern message if you are not there when he awakens. It’s pretty obvious you were meant to find him.”

            “Punishment teaches nothing,” my de Sade said mournfully. He shut the door to the apartment and shrugged off his light coat again.

            I lay on my side, clutching my leg. I did not think I could sleep but I closed my eyes. Those three withdrew into the kitchen, and then I only heard Louis’s and Rob’s soft voices. I was thinking the same phrase over and over in my head but when I became aware that I was dreaming, the phrase became a play on words, Cenci and Cenni and Cimabue called out over a strange Medieval landscape, the Primitivist paintings Artaud favored over those more celebrated Renaissance heroes that I now saw, because Artaud had made me see, as garish and crass. I was a scientist in Artaud’s theatre, I was rational in Artaud’s irrationality because everything contained the seed of its opposite and even before I met him, there had been an Artaud inside me. I wondered if evolution was likewise this collaboration between the rational and the irrational, seeds of one species within another—of course it was! I wondered if species didn’t meander more than they branched, if we were missing the point in constructing Renaissance trees based on genealogies instead of associative rings of evolution, waves of sound and silence, change and quiet like Deharme’s and Desnos’s radio plays, of being and erosion like Artaud’s Nerve Meter. Sometimes I could almost see how there was nothing unscientific about Artaud even though he was against, opposed to, rationality as he saw it, and he was mystical as Breton accused him. Perhaps rationality and irrationality were a pun on one Word. Cenni di Pepo, Cenni di Pepi, Artaud thought Balthus the modern-day Cenni, also known as Cimabue. Balthus would live, and though his attempted suicide was a stunt, Leyris had told me Balthus had indeed been at death’s door tonight. Balthus had played roulette with Artaud as bullet, for Artaud could have broken his routine and not shown up. But Artaud had saved his friend’s life and he and Balthus would collaborate on The Cenci, surely.

            The wail I heard was not a police siren and it was not Paul Guillaume blaring out his name from his lighthouse of despair, though the sound of it made my face throb again. It was none other than my caretaker crowing faithfully at dawn and Artaud sat up on my mattress and gaped at me, but this time he was fiercely awake. Desnos thrashed on the sofa like a man against rack-bonds and his eyes opened wide. Louis uncurled from his chair and leaned so far out that he and chair fell over. “Why do you put up with this shit?” Desnos lisped, struggling to rise as if from under water but my David was already on his feet and striding to the door with an enraged face for a slingshot.

            “Oh, fuck! I’m going to shove his head into a vat of water!” Artaud barked as he reached for the handle.

            I waved a hand at him; actually I flopped an arm and a leg at him because I was trying to sit up. “Don’t. I have to get up anyway. He did me a favor this time.” I pushed myself upright and the floor rushed away from me like the land beneath a hot-air balloon.

            Artaud’s hand landed on my shoulder and shoved me down again. “Geoffrey, I know you—you have not really slept and when you don’t you get a headache and have chills. Deficit fever! You will get a fever.”

            “You’re not going anywhere with that shiner,” warned Desnos. Then he grinned in approval.

            I sensed someone else in the room. “Let me try something,” drawled a tall, slim man with wavy dark hair. He opened my wardrobe and surveying my suits. “He’s bigger than me, but…” I recognized Philippe Soupault, that trickster and mock beggar and the co-author of The Magnetic Fields who was now wading through my clothes. Desnos let out his elfin laugh. I closed my eyes again, and when I opened them Soupault was dressed in a vest and pants and Desnos in delight was arranging his tie for him. The cuffs puffed past his ankles and he rolled them up. My jacket sleeves were too long and he rolled those up too.

            “What about the face?” chortled Louis. “Though you have dash, you shall not pass, Persian!” Everyone sniggered at the scarecrow in my clothes.

            Soupault glanced at Artaud, who in sudden inspiration pulled Soupault to my washroom. After a few moments they both came back trying to wrap a long piece of gauze, from the bundle I used for my legs, as a bandage around his head. Desnos sniggered again and both Louis and Artaud worked to rewrap it.

            “It won’t work, Soupault!” I said when he looked at me, his face swaddled so only his eyes showed. “It’s better you should rob the bank.” I knew I was a big man but my clothes fairly hung on him. He looked like a desert Berber.

            “Pwt mehoo yr desh an ah cahn fayhe it,” said Soupault. “Den ah wul ee sent home.” I strained to hear the words, and as if they were music Centipede suddenly dervished after her tail in front of him, charming everyone.

            “You’re going to get me fired for sure.” Their laughter was infectious and I couldn’t help grinning.

            “Yetz twhyit!”

            It was too comical, Soupault’s swaddled face looking down at Centipede who whirled like a furred tornado. The cat suddenly reminded me of a project the Surrealist Merit Oppenheim had mentioned to me at the Coupole. Paul! Paul! I don’t know if I said this name aloud but I did say, “Sufi,” to Artaud. “I have a dervish dance to teach you all!”

            Louis checked my face. “Go back to sleep, sailor! You’re babbling.”

            Desnos offered to show Soupault what he knew, solely from his making faces at me from the bank window, of the ropes. I was sure that rope would end up around my neck but my legs felt hollow so I waved them off and wished them well. Perhaps Artaud could talk Deharme into giving me a job. Louis, after letting out, “How shall we sleep with a drunken sailor?” collapsed to the sofa like a pile of books and Artaud lay down again beside me. I felt too wrung-out to appreciate a morning spent beside him. A few hours later I felt better and lay again watching him sleep, treasuring these moments of peace for him when his life seemed to be a series of crises and stings.

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