From Book 2: Desnos, the Select, and Theatre Alfred Jarry

Author’s note: I have long been frustrated with misinterpretations of Artaud merely as “mad,” a cold person, and a failure. Like Martin Esslin correcting the Beats’ version of Artaud, Kimberly Jannarone unearths the powerful admiration Artaud’s friends and colleagues had for him and I am grateful to her for restoring the Theatre Alfred Jarry to its rightful place in history and presenting Antonin Artaud as the successful, creative genius that he was as a director. Pay for the article and read it – it’s Marvelous!

            The latest play by the Theatre Alfred Jarry opened on a wet Friday night in mid-April, and Louis met me at the Café Select a few hours before the performance for a drink and a snack and to wait for Desnos, who was back from Cuba. Of all the cafés in Paris I loved the Select the most, its brown leather seats and mirrored walls, its atmosphere so much more relaxed than our other Montparnasse haunts. I even liked the bare light bulbs hanging from their wires, spotlighting themselves into infinite reflections in the glass.

Chess games were nonstop at this place. At any time two men could be seen slouched and squinting in opposition. No game at the Select ended in checkmate. No game ever ended at all. Either someone else stepped in to replace someone or the face-off ended in a stalemate, each man unwilling to make the next move but mutely staring at the board. I never saw a man clearly win or begin a new game.

“Only the players change,” I said to Louis. “The queens are dueling each other, using human players. Yesterday the white queen had a short man with a hooked nose and slumped shoulders for a player, and the black queen played two men: a stocky fellow and a really thin one. Today, the white queen has an old man and the black queen a young, handsome one, and then the short, hooked-nose guy was stolen by her. The black queen is winning.”

The Select was always lively and crowded with locals although Jean Cocteau also came here, and the Surrealists, and the more adventuresome American tourists. But wherever we ended up Louis and I always had a table all to ourselves where we could spread out, write, draw, or play cards. Although Parisians respected each other’s privacy to the point of appearing aloof, at the Select a few polite onlookers, laborers unwinding after a hard day or veterans of the War, leaned over each other to compliment Louis’s drawings. Paris was inundated with the casualties of war, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by the emerging French Communist Party.

“Here’s a sketch Artaud did of me,” Louis said, pulling out a sheet of paper from his folder.

            I took it. “Artaud draws well!”

            “He does,” Louis replied. “He draws very simply. He doesn’t use shading really but he has this way of getting a person’s eyes right. He showed me a self-portrait he did when he was fifteen, and the expression on his face—it could only be him, and he captured it perfectly. He used to draw quite a bit when young, especially in the sanitarium.” He took the sketch back.

            “What’s that?” I pointed to the cracked black cover I saw in his bag when he opened it. Louis handed an enormous volume to me and sat back to see my reaction as I carefully paged through it. It was a book of astrology, full of cryptic drawings and mysterious charts. “You know, Louis, I don’t get you,” I told him. “You don’t believe in God, yet you believe in this shit. You believe in reincarnation—”

            “And what can believing in God have to do with believing in astrology or reincarnation?” he asked, in that Socratic manner he had.

            “Well, doesn’t it help?”

            He laughed. “Frankly, no.” I turned back to the beginning of the book and looked at the dates for the sun signs; I didn’t even know what they were. Virgo, Libra, Capricorn… What sign was I? I found it quickly, certain Louis was about to ask and not wanting him to know how ignorant I was. Astrology, being pagan, had been a subject I’d particularly avoided in my previous life. Even now I wasn’t sure what to think about the occult, but it was intriguing; maybe Louis would let me borrow this book. “Rob’s talking about throwing you a party, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of your coming here—that, or a birthday party,” Louis went on. “Your birthday’s coming up sooner than June, isn’t it? By the way, what sign are you?”

            “Gemini—I mean, Aries,” I stammered.

            “Don’t know your own sign?” Louis teased. Then he fell silent, stroking his chin and looking very intent. “Aries? No, definitely no. I would have guessed Capricorn—except for those eyes of yours. Capricorn’s an earth sign and you are definitely fire; your eyes are two volcanic craters. What’s your Ascending Sign?”

            I looked up from the drawing I was staring at, of Gemini, the Twins. “What’s my what?”

            “Exactly where and approximately what time were you born?”

            I shrugged. “Well, as a matter of fact I was actually born in Marseilles—by mistake, I came early—on March 22, 1899, at around twenty-two hours—”

            Louis didn’t seem to catch the fact that I had been born in France rather than Austria. He grabbed the book from me and riffled through it until he came to a chart in the back. On it he followed with his fingers a horizontal axis and a vertical axis until they crossed. “Scorpio! Oh, that explains it!” he laughed.

            I felt a rush of annoyance as if he were making fun of me, trying to snow me with this obscure mystical talk.

            Just then Louis leaned toward me and said humorously, “Hermes has entered our midst,” and I heard the door of the café bang open. I didn’t even have to look up to know that it was Desnos, flush from his trip to Cuba and looking for mischief, and fresh from his latest scandal.

In retaliation against an editor who dared to insult Robespierre, Desnos, not content to slap the man’s face (which of course he did), wrote an article in which he extolled the genius of “certain madmen,” and submitted it to the Girondin under a false name. Desnos’s victim published the piece and realized only then that the identities of the “insane” were mere anagrams of his own name and those of his colleagues. When the magazine hit the streets, everyone mentioned in the article became a laughing-stock, with Desnos laughing the loudest.

            Even before I saw him or heard his voice, I could always tell that Desnos was close by the way his body propelled itself through the world. “Rob is a Cancer; look it up,” Louis urged in a hushed voice as Desnos’s bright gaze swept the café. “See if it doesn’t describe him to a D!” I took the book again and found the page.

            Of all the Sun Signs, Cancer is the most mysterious and difficult to comprehend. At turns gentle and snappish, patient and impatient, sympathetic and indifferent, those born under the Crab are as impenetrable as the sea. Yet no other sign is as loyal as Cancer. Beneath a gruff exterior and a certain bravado lurks a proverbial Heart of Gold. Emotions are turbulent, but his faithfulness, though flawed, ultimately shines through the storm. He is true in love and in friendship. He believes in absolute love, even if at first his life does not seem to bear this out. He is also a brooder and a secret worrier, listening sympathetically but guarding his secrets. Should he master his inherent timidity, irritability, and moodiness, his intellect and imagination along with his undying love will make him the very best of men, a devoted husband and trusted friend, willing to make any sacrifice for those he loves.

            Robert Desnos. The longer I knew that man the less I knew him, yet I trusted him implicitly. He was not hard to pick out of a crowd, a man of medium build with dazzling eyes and a wide, frog-like mouth who followed his shoulders down the street in a crinkled suit, hands jammed into his pockets, eyes to the sky, an enormous, open-mouthed smile on his face as if he was overwhelmed by all he saw. That look could change instantly into the mild Desnos who shrugged into a poem at a corner table, or into the angry Desnos, poised to lock his hands on anyone—especially René Crevel or Louis Aragon—who dared surpass Surrealism’s Prophet in psychic revelations.

From the little that he told me of himself, I guessed that he was secretly embarrassed about his modest background in front of the more privileged Surrealists. After disrupting his strict religious school he had been sent to a trade school, then apprenticed in several fields including pharmacy, before he struck out on his own as a journalist. Desnos’s father was a licensed poultry seller in Les Halles and a café owner, not a member of the upper class like Breton’s father, or Artaud’s or Crevel’s. Desnos longed for approval and I suspected all his bluster about Breton concealed a bitterly disillusioned heart. Also, there had to be more to Breton than my first impression of him to inspire such extreme emotions in his followers. On the subject of his family, Robert Pierre Desnos (Robespierre!) was as reticent as Artaud was about his. It was Louis who filled in the gaps for me, describing for me in a low voice the animosity that had always existed between father and son, much like the situation between Antoine-Roi and Antonin, although Antoine-Roi had alternated between being neglectful and bellicose. The elder Desnos, Lucien, had been a good and loving father, but he was conservative and religious and had hounded his boy to be less rebellious and stop dreaming away the time. Desnos, in turn, kept skipping school and pulling pranks. Although Desnos was more sociable than I was, he too had preferred as a child to be alone, playing in his own world peopled with many imaginary characters, and romping through the picturesque, magical Quarter Saint-Martin of his childhood.

            Hermes—that was a good nickname for him, all right.

            Roger Thurmon suddenly passed our table and, hearing Louis and I gossip about Desnos, sat down with us and gave us the complete run-down of the events that led Breton to ban any more sleeping fits at his studio. “I know Desnos is still upset about that, but I tell you,” Roger said, “it had to stop. The experiments were becoming pretty scary—people were screaming, crying, stamping their feet, and revealing all sorts of deep-seated fears. Crevel’s father committed suicide, did you know that? and Crevel saw his father’s hanging body. He was just a boy when it happened and his mother forced him to look at it! Well, Crevel started crying about that, and then some woman starting screaming about having been raped, and it just set the others off. Desnos was tearing around trying to make people laugh. He was practically yanking out his hair in frustration, and Breton was already talking about the risk of insanity. Then, on the last night Desnos went into a trance as usual, and somehow he talked everyone into walking into Simone’s closet. Then he locked the door on us.”

“You as well?” Louis asked.

“Yes, dammit,” Roger replied. “I was supposed to be an observer, but Desnos pulled that same trick on me that he pulled on us at the Loire! I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t tell you what he said, but when he told us to I walked into that closet with the rest of them and he shut the door and locked it.

“So there we were, seven people, locked in the closet—with André Breton, who takes up the space of three people. And then Desnos started wandering around the studio, rambling and bumping into things, looking for his hat and coat, telling us that he was going to leave and insisting that he was never going to wake up again, that it was ‘just no use anymore.’ Here we were, jammed into a stupid closet, all of us conscious again and pushing against each other—unable to get out, unable to convince him to open the door, sweating and panting, helpless to do anything but listen to him babble on and on. Simone was practically in tears. The way he was talking, we were all convinced that if he got out of the building he’d throw himself off a bridge!

“Picabia started to dismantle the lock as I’ve told you, but Simone finally persuaded Desnos to let us out. Breton called a doctor, but Desnos woke up before anyone could touch him. And Breton just pointed at Desnos and told him, ‘This is it. Never again. We’ve had enough. I’ve had it.’ I’ll never forget the look on Breton’s face; he was as white as death. He loves Desnos deeply, you know, he really does.”

Louis let out a whistle. “Well, I’ve never wanted to do it again after the Loire.”

“What did I say then, though?” I asked. “Justine said I talked all night. What did I say?”

“I don’t remember,” Louis said.

Roger said, “I don’t remember, either. Oh—the starfish. With six arms. That’s all I recall.”

            We changed the subject. We chatted and it was like old times, Roger and Louis competing each other for the juiciest piece of gossip. Then, a silence that had been drifting about us for awhile, like a cloud, cast a shadow over our table. I was worried about that man, that dream-addicted Robert Pierre, and I was sure they were too. “Is Desnos continuing the sleeping fits on his own?” I asked.

            Wrong question. Roger’s cynical brow made his face into a stranger’s again. “Oh, please! Desnos needs an audience for that. He doesn’t need to be in a trance in order to compose poems, for God’s sake—he writes just as well, or just as poorly I should say, ‘asleep’ or awake.” This killed any remaining conversation. We fell into embarrassed silence, and Roger left the table soon after that.

            I didn’t ask the next question that popped into my mind; I waited instead to see if it would occur to Louis to ask it, and it certainly did. “Are Roger and Justine still together?”

            “Louis, I don’t pay attention anymore,” I replied, idly ripping my paper doily into little pie pieces. “It’s none of my business.”

            “I always thought you and she were more suited for each other.”

            “It’s time we got going,” I muttered. As soon as we stood up, a group of people who had ringed our table in anticipation now shoved themselves into our seats. The Select was crowded as usual. I craned my neck to see who else was here.

            At the end of the counter Desnos leaned casually, and he was talking to a woman. I edged closer and saw it was Youki Foujita. “Uh-oh,” Louis groaned, and resolutely we shoved our way through the crowd toward the man. “Geoff, some Surrealist went broke because of her and tried to kill himself.”

            “Yes, I know, I heard that man talking to her,” I replied as we pushed through the crowd. “What does she want with Desnos?”

“I didn’t mean to get you in trouble,” Youki was saying as we came near. “And it’s doubly unfair because you’ve been away.” She flushed slightly beneath her expensive fur hat. She seemed different now, less sure of herself under the penetrating gaze of Robert Desnos. Her voice was soft and when I looked around, I saw no sign of Foujita. “The whole thing is so petty—”

            “Don’t worry about it,” Desnos replied. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Breton may be angry with me, but I am not angry with him.” He smiled at her.

            “I like the circles around your eyes,” Youki told him as he gazed at her with his gentle, iridescent focus. He leaned both elbows on the counter at his back and tilted his head as she teased, “Perhaps you aren’t as impossible as you seemed to be that night.”

            “I am very nice!” he replied. Their gaze held. The jostle and jabber of the crowd continued around those two as they stood smiling at each other, she tall and straight and self-possessed, he relaxed, eyeing her appreciatively. He was in a rumpled suit as always, and I noticed that her fur coat, which seemed expensive, had a parted seam at the shoulder, revealing the pink frock beneath.

            Without ceremony, Louis elbowed right in. “Good evening, Youki. Rob, we’re ready to go. Rob? Hello! Are you coming?”

            “You two go on ahead,” Desnos said to us. “I’ll stop by later. Unless you want to come along us now?” he added impulsively to Youki. “We’re going to a performance at my friend’s theatre—if one can call it theatre, that is.” He paused, and a thought occurred to him that made him grin. “Breton is sure to be there. Likely there’ll be another good scrap, and you’ll see what I mean about it being no big deal because he’s always making a bigger deal. Want to?”

            “I am starving!” Youki replied, raising her eyebrows at him.

            Desnos nodded to her and placed a hand on Louis’s shoulder. “I’ll see you two later.” He was so preoccupied with Youki that he didn’t even look at me. Louis rolled his eyes in disgust and relented to the pull of my hand on his sleeve.

            “‘One woman—that’s the only way to self-knowledge,’” he ranted, imitating Desnos’s voice as we went out the door. “One woman every week!”

            “How did Youki get Desnos in trouble with Breton?” I asked, knowing the question would distract Louis.

            As always, Louis had the dirt. “Oh, Breton’s outdone himself this time. Youki encountered Rob that night at the Prophète after you left with Justine, that night he was wearing a tuxedo and playing with those straw papers. Remember? Apparently Breton didn’t notice such a horrendous transgression of Surrealist conduct until Youki happened to mention it. Breton forbade Rob to play with straws. Yes—I actually said that sentence aloud. Playing with straws and wearing a tuxedo are now in violation of Surrealist tenets.” Louis put a hand to his forehead as if it hurt him.

“In fact, Breton raved on and on about Desnos’s sins until Youki tried to interrupt—after all, she hadn’t meant to tattle, she had only mentioned Desnos in passing—and Breton said—oh, it’s bogus!” Louis kicked a stone out of his way. “I am quoting Desnos quoting Breton: ‘This matter of the straws is more important than you know!’ Ass!

            “Breton’s doing something irreparable. Everyone knows that Artaud quit the movement before that gang of blockheads formally dismissed him, and they know exactly who they lost when he left. They used to worship Artaud, you know, and he gave them the kick in the ass they needed. And now Artaud’s gone, Soupault is gone, and Vitrac, and Masson. Leiris might leave, Picabia might, and Aragon’s been defending Artaud and defying Breton. When they lose Desnos, the movement is dead. As far as I’m concerned, nothing Surrealism is or does from now on can compare to what these men accomplish. They will be fine, just fine, without André B.”

            The seats of the Comedie des Champs-Elysées were packed, mostly with Surrealists come to hiss Artaud and Roger Vitrac. I noticed a few new faces in that group and wondered how long it would be before they too fought with Breton, quit, or were imperiously cast out. However, the public had also shown up in droves, perhaps titillated by the prospect of another scandal. Surrealist fallings out, after all, were much more spectacular than the excommunications by Communist Party committees, and at least a few critics admired what the Theatre Alfred Jarry was trying to do.

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