An idea occurred to me that I long resisted but find very attractive… Why don’t we publish, instead of your poems, our correspondence? I have reread it, and your January 29 letter is particularly remarkable. Perhaps we should include a bit of your poetry, or your essay on Uccello? The effect would be a sort of epistolary novel which would be uncommon.
—Letter from Jacques Riviere to Antonin Artaud
The rising sun had warmed the automobile’s hood and I sat on it, then lay down on my side with my knees drawn up and an arm across my eyes. I heard giggling. “No sleep again last night?” Louis’s voice asked, and I grumbled something in answer. “Let the sun hit your face, that will help your skin.”
“Oh, leave him alone!” Justine snapped as I folded both arms around my head.
The morning after my disgusting dream about lampreys attaching themselves to my face—the dream that came the night of Artaud’s second stay at our house—I had looked in the washroom mirror to see a foreign planet dotted with angry red volcanoes. “Yipe! Geoffrey—” When Franz’s face had appeared in the mirror beside mine I hid my throbbing cheeks in a handful of suds. “Did something bite you during the night?”
It was acne of course, not bites, but it was acne that I’d never had before, appearing on clear skin overnight and spawning clusters of smaller blemishes like foothills, and healing very slowly. “Cysts,” they were proclaimed by Dr. Bernard, that elderly doctor from my first day. He told me there was little I could do but wait it out—my “age” was to blame. Apparently, many women in their late twenties and some men experienced a rare and severe flare-up of acne. I remembered again a stange look in those round brown eyes of his.
“I’m serious, Geoff,” Louis urged. “Tan your face. Then you’ll look like me. You see how clear my skin is.” I lifted my elbow to peer at him and saw his lined grin.
Roger fidgeted, scraping his shoes on the sidewalk. “What’s taking those three? Should I knock at the door?” Justine’s heels clacked to the side of the car and a door slammed, rattling me. I sat up, shielding my eyes from the glare.
“They’ll be here. Have something to read,” Louis said.
“I’ve read it, thank you. Solipsistic literary masturbation.”
Louis let out a dry guffaw of disbelief and Roger stuffed his hands in his pockets, squinting at Desnos’s window through the brambles. “Here, take a look at it yourself, Geoff.” Louis handed me the proof copy of a thin volume. I opened it to read: Correspondence with Jacques Riviere.
“At least it isn’t more automatic writing,” Roger jeered.
JACQUES RIVIERE TO ANTONIN ARTAUD
I regret that I am not able to publish your poems in La Nouvelle Revue Française, but they interest me sufficiently to wish to make the acquaintance of their author….
ANTONIN ARTAUD TO JACQUES RIVIERE
At the risk of imposing on you, I wonder if you might reconsider a few points that came up at our meeting this afternoon.
The acceptability of these poems concerns me as much as it does you. I mean their absolute acceptability, their spiritual existence.
I suffer from a horrible mental malady. My thought disintegrates before me at every level. It collapses, from the simple act of thinking to the act of trying to materialize my thought. Words, sentence forms, internal directions of thought, sensations of the mind—I am in constant pursuit of my intellectual being. Therefore, as soon as I can grasp an image, however mangled, I snatch it before I lose the thought entirely. I am aware of how this degrades my standards, but I am desperate before the fear of dying utterly….
I presented myself to you as a psychological case, an unfeigned mental deformity, and you answered me with literary criticism…. My scattered poems come not from a lack of discipline, a lack of intellectualism, but an active disintegration of my thinking in the midst of my thought, a temporary loss of material rewards for my search, an abnormal separation of the elements of thought (the drive to think, at each of its terminal stratifications, moving through all the stages, all the branchings of thought and of form). There is something in me that destroys my thought; while it does not render me totally speechless, I despair of ever attaining my mind, and I am left in a state of suspension, as it were…. Do you think, in a healthy mind, the creative moment simultaneously astonishes and disappoints?
Hence why, out of respect for the struggle in my soul, and in spite of their awkwardness, I propose these scraps as poems with a right to be considered, not just for publication, but considered against the Absolute, not with regard to trends, taste, style, principles…judge them only with the bareness of your soul…. I beg you, recognize the reality of my experience as I have described it to you….
I am a man who has suffered much in the mind, and in so doing I have the right to speak. How painfully aware I am of my inferiority. And yet I know I am not stupid. All I know is that it is possible to think beyond these half-formed attempts, and that healthy, completed thoughts would give me a different life than I presently have. All I can do is wait for my brain to change, for its upper drawers to open at last, but until then I will not allow my thought to be lost.
JACQUES RIVIERE TO ANTONIN ARTAUD
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. When I glared up 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. “The point is not just to write poems,” I said gently. “What’s the point of poems? The world is already stuffed with words. 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 antique brass lamps.”
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 little book again. Roger’s intelligent, I thought, but he does not have an original mind. He collected ideas and manipulated them. I realized this holiday was his attempt at a Byron-Shelley-Wollstonecraft crucible. He thought that by living an artist’s life he could himself become an artist. 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 overlooked? 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.