Author’s note: In adolescence Artaud was diagnosed with hereditary syphilis. He denied this and I doubt he had it. However, Artaud sought out doctors for various cures that may have done him even more damage. This paper describes the consequences of a tragic misdiagnosis.
At last I convinced Artaud to see my own doctor, gentle Dr. Bernard who was finally back from Nice. He was kind enough to pay a call at my flat instead of having Artaud visit his clinic. “You must understand, Geoffrey,” Bernard explained patiently to me after the examination, “how little we know.” He pointed at the door through which Artaud had exited, gone to speak to Desnos at the Dôme. Desnos was worried; I had told him a doctor was coming. There was no point in keeping anything from Desnos, who would find out anyway and become even more distressed. “Your friend tells me that he nearly died from meningitis at age five,” continued Bernard. “In 1901, ‘meningitis’ was as accurate a term as ‘consumption.’ Both encompassed a range of widely different but superficially similar diseases. He might have had something else entirely.
“Likewise, I doubt hereditary syphilis. That was a ‘fad’ diagnosis back then, and I seem to recall that Dr. Grasset based his career on it—as Freud initially did with opium. Your friend’s bone pain, temporary loss of sight, and eye sensitivity could be symptoms but he shows no other physical manifestations: the long-term eye disorders, the enlarged organs or the distinct facial features, and he tells me he never experienced in childhood the jaundice, hair loss or shedding of skin I would expect to see. The disease is mostly fatal and deforms the skeleton and teeth in survivors, but this gentleman is perfect. His bone structure is exquisite.”
It took a moment for this to sink in. “Are you saying he was wrongly diagnosed?” I gasped.
Bernard paused, his mouth tightening quite like Artaud’s. He replied sadly, “I am certain of it.” The weight of yet another injustice heaped upon Artaud’s body lowered me to sit on my sofa. I leaned my mouth into my fist. “He is in his physical prime and mentally he is lucid, intelligent, in fact perspicacious to the point of frightening one. Like you and unlike most of my patients he is seemingly kindled from within. I can find nothing wrong with the man—although, of course, he is addicted to opium.”
“He has never willingly taken opium,” I said angrily. “It is not the cause.”
Dr. Bernard nodded politely, but his smile was ironic. “So he tells you, and you believe him.” He had aged; his hair was completely grey now, but he still popped that stethoscope onto my chest with a grin whenever he saw me. “Fit, fit!” he always said, as if envious. Now he turned for his bag, and I rose again and brought him his coat. He seemed in deep thought as he put it on and then he faced me, tugging his collar straight. “He could be bringing this on himself. I mean unconsciously, of course. It could all be in his mind. Yet that answer strikes me as inadequate too, given his description of his symptoms. He is eerily specific. I have never seen,” he murmured, “a case quite like this.”
“It is not in his mind!”
He accepted his gloves and placed his pince-nez on his nose again. “Then, I think…it is in his brain. Not that that helps. As I said, our knowledge is so—”
“Not in his mind but in his brain?” I sputtered in disbelief. Dr. Bernard slipped on his gloves with the same smiling patience. “What do you mean? What kind of answer is that?” The doctor picked up his bag. “What is the difference between his mind and his brain?” As soon as the words were out I realized that might have been the very question I had been asking myself about Artaud for as long as I had known him.
“Ah,” breathed Dr. Bernard, tilting his head back as if he looked to heaven for an answer, “there are some who say that there is no difference at all.” He walked to the door and, at a complete loss, I opened it for him. He gave me a parting nod. “To me, that is like saying there is no difference between a poem and the scrap of paper on which it is written.” He took a step to go, then paused. He turned back again.
“I wish I could tell you, Geoff, but I can’t. No one can.” Dr. Bernard set his bag on the floor again and took off his hat to hold it before him, his hands moving on the brim to turn it as if he were turning the wheel of a valve. I could tell he was deeply disturbed, and he talked more to himself than to me. “It is possible to talk oneself into mental illness. The composer Robert Schumann did just that. Schumann so believed himself to be a tragic genius that he modeled himself after it until he started to display the very symptoms he feared. He romanticized insanity as the Romantic poets did until he did go insane. The idea of the tragic genius is more colorful myth than truth. This Antonin Artaud—I know of him, Geoffrey, his reputation is wide. He has a sense of being a poète maudit, does he not?” I nodded, though I did not want to hear this. “His belief in his own doom may be reinforced by both his friends and enemies. And yet you tell me that he has been ill since childhood, and you wish to help him.
“So perhaps his symptoms are the result of an unfortunate combination of circumstances, his physiology plus his upbringing, or perhaps it is due to his parents being first cousins. I understand that Euphrasia Artaud—for I am now her doctor as well—had nine children in all, only three of whom survived infancy and who only one—Marie-Ange—has no health complaints. Or perhaps it’s God’s fault.” He clapped his hat on his head again, looking troubled and sad. “Many people believe that God wrote the Bible. Many physicians act as if He also wrote Gray’s Anatomy. But me, I see God’s misspellings every day, His unfinished sentences, the vile Words that He speaks as He calls forth the multitudes of unfortunate, disfigured creatures into being—as if He were striking out at creation, torturing it. I deal with brain-damaged children, epileptics, mongoloids, conjoined twins, morons, unfortunate creatures who live their entire lives in undeserved misery without any hope of cure. To think I once feared for you! For your sake especially Geoff, I wish to help your piteous friend who is still so young, so beautiful and precious to you.” I saw the redness around his eyes. Poetry, Dr. Bernard was speaking poetry. I wondered if he dabbled in it. Artaud’s psychiatrist Dr. Toulouse had.
“And as a consequence,” he added, picking up his bag again, “your friend who raises his fist to life in his poetry, speaks my thoughts. He has not quite lost his belief in God but he has lost his trust in Him—as have I. No one can convince me that God if He exists is benevolent or that the universe is ruled by divine mercy. For every noble, healthy specimen there are thousands of His crumpled up drafts thrown at evolution’s trash can—thrown at the can but not into it, more’s the pity—and with many of our geniuses among them. God is a lousy artist at best, the Devil at worst.” Dr. Bernard paused again. He seemed hesitant to leave, to cease describing my friend. “But this Artaud does more than raise a fist, doesn’t he? His poetry is a kind of talking-cure not only for his mind but to command flesh itself, to alter nature itself! My example of Schumann was not apt—he does not languish. If your friend is mad as people say, he charts his madness to find his way.” He nodded again. “He would be a twentieth-century Prometheus. It is courageous!” He shook my hand while his kind, brown eyes looked plaintively into mine. “All I can offer is my deepest sympathy and continued help. Do not hesitate to call me if his condition worsens. Money is no object—I have been a friend to your family for years. I will do everything I can to ease this man’s pain. Good night.”