Author’s note: What Antonin Artaud had to say about sexuality can raise the hair on your neck and it did mine, at first – but you have to dig deeper to understand that the mania-catatonia that dogged him all his life extended into his sex life in the form of swings between uncontrollable erections and prowess, and impotence even with a woman he loved. This must have been humiliating and painful. People shun the topic or give it short shrift, but Artaud’s admittedly idiosyncratic sexuality is an integral part of his poetry and it is bourgeois not to deal with it. And until people deal with it, I don’t want to see him called misogynist or (exclusively) homosexual or dismissed as a prude.
Desnos never locked his door and this worried me. When I stepped inside I saw a lit candle in a far corner. Artaud lay there on a mattress, and someone lay next to him. Desnos was asleep on his sofa and Roger and Justine lay tangled on his regular mattress but everyone else had gone. Quietly I closed the door behind me and eyed a pile of blankets near the wall.
“Who knew you were a tiger?” said a woman’s voice softly, affectionately, but Artaud rolled away from her with his eyes squeezed shut. A hand reached from behind him and landed on his shoulder. I stayed to the shadows.
“Be quiet!” Artaud said in a pained voice, edged with anger. “You did it to get me back at last for Gén—”
“I did it because, for the first time, you wanted me,” whispered Bernice, “and Josette wasn’t here. Look, I know the score. You love her.”
He scowled then. “I didn’t want you.”
Bernice sat up. “Well, it’s just fooling around anyway.” She pulled on her clothes. He lay staring on his side, his head propped on his hand and his fingers pressing into his temple.
“Not for me,” he said. “There’s no such thing.”
“I won’t tell. Hey—it was nice. I don’t like it much, but I did this time!” Dressed, she sat down beside him, facing him but he shied from her. She reached for his free hand. “Look, you’re not the only man this happens to, you know.”
He didn’t answer.
“That guy I came with the other night—”
He jerked his head up to look at her. “You never say his name.”
“He gets it up for everything. Everywhere. His friends call him ‘Priapus’! But he thinks it’s a gift even though he can’t control it either, so you should—”
Artaud demanded, “Won’t you say your friend’s name? Is he German? Austrian?”
“—Thank your lucky stars. Don’t be ashamed—why? When it makes a woman happy? Even if you don’t like her. When other men can’t get it up.” There was a hard edge to her voice then. He stared past her again. “It surprised me—so virile! And so considerate…I’m not used to that. A man’s erection scares me, mostly. No one knows that—see, I have strange sex attitudes, too.” She reached down to smooth back the wing of hair that had fallen in his eyes. “But it was beautiful. I know you never would have been with me otherwise.”
“It’s vile!” he said, still not looking at her. “It petrifies me, rips out my blood. No, you won’t understand.” He ripped off the covers and sat up too while she cocked her head sadly. “A gift! I don’t like you and you don’t like me.”
“But I do like you, Antonin, I always have,” she said, sounding unrecognizable as her fingers moved from his hair to his cheek. He sat glaring at her, naked and allowing her to touch him. “You’re gorgeous!” He seemed to chafe at this. “You’re an angel. So different.”
“I’m a ‘priest,’” he contradicted, “I know you badmouth me and I know why. Breton spent half our discussion redefining words and what I said got around, but I was trying to explain a whole passion. Everyone else is celibate! Your hypocrisy, Bernice, is your solemn smut.”
Her hand withdrew to clutch her collar like a girl. “Hypocrite, yourself! You advocated total sexual abandon and you’re badmouthing me, too. But it’s okay for men to—”
“I advocate that only as a form of death. You defame yourself, throwing yourself at every man. I got snared tonight only at random, because you were here and ‘this’ happens to me.”
“That’s not true. Women fall all over you but you push them away.” She sighed. She eased herself up to stand. “Good night, sweet Antoine. Josette is lucky.”
Bernice walked out without seeing me. I drew closer to the pile but that brought me into the candlelight and I did not want to intrude on my friend who now lay on his stomach, his head still propped on one hand while his finger traced the wood grain on the floor. I cast a look around this dark room with chairs still in a circle, some overturned, and imagined Benjamin Péret leading people away to his shabby apartment like the Pied Piper. Then I felt eyes on me. I turned back and Artaud swept his hand at the space beside him.
I sat down next to him. The mattress was still warm. “I can always feel your eyes,” I told Artaud, “because I think I hear them. I read something about how ‘feeling eyes’ is really an auditory clue. The brain for some reason translates it as crawling skin. Even though this was in a science magazine that struck me as Surrealist—like the invention of the wheel, which looks nothing like the foot.”
He smiled a little then. “You and science! You’re like Breton. When he and Soupault wrote The Magnetic Fields they were influenced by Einstein and the observations of Arthur Eddington, who’s a British physicist. And Paul Valery—he’s a poet who might appeal to you. Odd, how physics didn’t ‘open the way’ for banality the way I supposedly opened Surrealism to ‘God.’ Hm.” He remained on his stomach, face propped, tapping the floor with his finger.
“Desnos wants me to join the sex discussions, but…” I paused. Why was Artaud so easy to talk to about such private matters when he was so secretive, often closed off, and deceptively cold? “I’m sorry—I’m imposing. I’ll just sleep.”
“You’re not imposing. And you need to get something off your chest. I always know,” he said playfully then, “by your silence! It’s loud. You scream before you speak, and after you speak you are finally still. I wish you’d just scream.” I nodded then, gathering the courage to tell him. “And I can tell this time you are annoyed with someone else, not me,” he added with that same odd smile.
Annoyed with him? “Christ, what can I say to anyone about sex?” I burst out. “When the other night was my first time…having any pleasure with another person?” I closed my eyes.
“Oh,” he said then. He sounded startled. “At your age? That sounds…lonely.” His voice was mournful. “But that’s fortunate, in a way…” I waited but I doubted he would talk about his first time. He was an extremely private man, and for some reason I suspected his first was not Génica. I did not know why I thought this—no, I did. He had mentioned falling in love, at seventeen, with an older woman but would not say more.
“How, fortunate?” I prompted him finally.
His breath, when he let it out, was shaky and I felt safe to put a hand on his shoulder. I could not imagine Artaud afraid. “My greatest horror is making love to a woman who subsequently dies.”
“Oh! But—” I felt such pain for him, nattered about in Paris that he was glacial, that he was bizarre and unreachable, that his acting was bad and his poetry ludicrous. To me he was this incandescent human who was the first to stand upright in the mind. His Alfred Jarry Theatre held shows off-season but each performance was packed! A failure, this man? “But that is a man’s burden, to die for the woman he loves. Your fear is normal.” I felt a rush of protectiveness, wanting to reassure him. Artaud wasn’t mad as people said; he strove for clarity. “And that echoes a man’s greatest fear—the death of his mother.”
“That’s right,” he murmured, “you lost yours.”
No matter what I said he didn’t take comfort in it but thought to console me. I lay back and decided to change the subject. “I’m reading about Ami and Amiles,” I said, “two knights in Charlemagne’s army.”
“Hm, yes,” he said in the way he sometimes did, just barely giving sound to his words. People thought he was strident but I saw another side to him. “They warn each other about love!”
“Well—about women. Lovers envy their friendship. And they’re conceived on the same night though in different lands, and they swear mutual fidelity. I guess that appeals to me because I’ve always dreamed of having this twin.”
“Ami and Amiles is a lyrical romance we all had to read in school,” said Artaud gently, “highly idealized, and in my opinion a rehash of Damon and Pythias. But I suppose you didn’t learn it in Austria.”
“No, and I can’t think of anything comparable. We have Krampus and the Doppelgänger, quite different. I wish the Surrealists swore loyalty to each other, like that or the Round Table. It’s what I expected, not the infighting. But people think ‘romance’ means romantic love,” I added to kindle his sarcasm.
Love? We must purge ourselves
Of this hereditary slime
In which our stellar vermin
Continue to strut
The organ, the organ that grinds the wind
The undertow of the raging sea
Are like the hollow melody
Of this disconcerting dream
“I love that poem,” I added.
“Uggghhh,” came Roger’s voice from the darkness. “Bleh. Give us more!” He stomped to the tiny room with its toilet.
“I have an idea for another ‘valentine,’” I said. “I’ll write the word ‘love’ and cross it out.”
Artaud rolled onto his back and stretched. “Oh, no, no. That’s sentimental. And—what Verlaine would give to Rimbaud. Dear me, crossing a line there!”
We both chuckled then and I flushed. I head Desnos giggle, too. “I didn’t think of that. Landis says I have a sentimental streak,” I admitted. “I’m naïve. It gets me in trouble.”
Roger, returning to Justine’s bed, sneered, “I’m ‘disillusioned with homosexuals!’ Write that and cross that out.”
Justine adopted an insulted man’s tone. “Even with me?” There was more giggling from Desnos.
“I didn’t understand what you meant by that, either,” I said to Artaud.
“Well, I’m not one.” Artaud emphasized, pointed up at me as I propped myself up to look at him. Looking down at him was like kneeling before him; even standing eye-to-eye with him was like kneeling before him. I hoped he didn’t think me toadying, but he ruled even from there. “People are fickle! Including them. Like everyone else I’m disillusioned with. You see?”
“I fear I’m fickle too,” I admitted.
“No. You shall find her,” insisted my friend. “I see it. You are destined for it. I’m not sure Josette is The One—I thought Génica was and still think so, but you are meant for a great love.”
“I don’t believe in destiny,” I said, feeling depressed. With all our talk of the Marvelous I never felt it and feared it did not exist.
Desnos snorted. “That doesn’t matter!”
Justine teased in that masculine voice, “Accept these flowers!” It was the husband’s line from Roger Vitrac’s Mysteries of Love but she thrust up a fist like Péret and mimed punching Roger, like Leah in that play being slapped after accepting a bouquet.
“What did Gance say to your letter?” I asked suddenly. Artaud was still pleading to be recast as Marat.
“He and I met yesterday. He’ll make the decision soon.” The actor sighed. “This after I’ve already shot my scenes! The premiere is very soon.”
“I’m sorry you’re being kept in suspence. Do let me know how it turns out.”
“Thanks,” he said distractedly.
We both lay there then, staring up at the play of candlelight on the ceiling. Then I turned to look at him, prompting him to look at me again. “Marat,” I said pointing to him, “and Robespierre—” I waved a hand at the sofa. “And Danton!” I pointed to myself. Desnos made some loopy grunt of approval. Artaud’s mouth lifted again.
“Marie Antoinette,” Justine and Roger named each other, and Desnos quacked into guffaws.
“Wham-bam-thanky-sham.” Roger quoted Péret. “Christ, I fucking died. He should lead the Surrealists.”
“He’s a Communist,” scoffed Artaud.
“Let them eat fake!” exulted Desnos.