From Book 3: Gaston Ferdière

As soon as he was settled, Desnos invited Justine and me to his new, shabby flat near the Boulevard Montparnasse for a dinner party with Artaud and Louis and a new acquaintance, a medical student named Gaston Ferdière.

After only a few minutes of speaking with this Ferdière, I decided that he was the most boring man I’d ever met. He was pleasant enough, casual and drab in the manner of all closet anarchists, with pince-nez glasses like the kind Desnos now sported and eyebrows straight like Artaud’s but thicker, and gracefully large ears that seemed to point in a V to his jutting chin. After belaboring his studies in psychiatry, Ferdière bragged about the radical poetry he wrote, “Too obscene to ever be published!” He boasted repeatedly about this with great satisfaction but could not recall any lines when we asked for them. I was tempted to point out that he shared a table with two poets whose works—Liberty or Love! and The Seashell and the Clergyman—were banned outright. In fact the latest surrealist film, L’Âge d’Or, made by Luis Buñuel who had written Artaud, had just been censored too.

“Why don’t you publish anyway?” I needled Ferdière.

Ferdière smiled. When he did his enormous nose changed shape, from a graceful hook to a bulb. “It is difficult for a Surrealist to explain himself to psychiatrists, and I am still a student.”

“And yet the Surrealists were the first in France to recognize Freud,” I argued. “Don’t psychiatry and the Surrealists share the same interests—the irrational, madness, the occult?”

“Merely as pathology,” Ferdière replied. “For example, I had André Breton and Marcel Duchamp over for luncheon at the commissary at Saint-Anne the other day.” Oh, so now he was name-dropping. “After they left, one of the interns came up to me and asked, ‘What condition is that? What is their diagnosis?’ He assumed they were patients. He could not understand a word we said!”

“So you merely dip a toe in,” I persisted, “because your career might suffer if you go deeper.” Everyone else at the table was watching the two of us. Louis grinned to see me going at the man. Justine looked amused; apparently I was asking the questions she would ask. Artaud looked amused too, but what I caught in his acid stare was that I was asking the questions of Ferdière that he would have me ask of myself. Desnos, however, simply looked incredulous. He was always goading me for being too staid and polite.

“And I wonder if Freud would admire Breton?” asked Ferdière in turn. I had to admit I wondered this, too. “Freud fears psychosis—he would never explore it like Breton and Jacques Lacan would. Lacan is a fellow student and a Surrealist too.”

“And Lacan publishes. I know the name,” Louis argued.

“Of course you do,” I said, snickering.

After dinner Justine and I loitered in the kitchen by this board on bricks that functioned as a dinner table, not willing to excuse ourselves so early but loath to join the others with Ferdière in the main room. Though he was intelligent and perhaps psychiatry needed someone open-minded like Ferdière who at least tried to be creative, I could find no reason at all why Desnos was so friendly with him. Ferdière’s Surrealist associations seemed shallow and for this evening’s conversation Desnos might as well have simply pulled any man off the street. As I stood looking into the other room, Desnos leaned over to us and asked, “So what do you think?”

“I think he’s a dingle-berry,” Justine stoutly replied, and I laughed. The latest American slur—I could always count on her.

“Well, I was asking about my new place, Justine! And Gaston has some great ideas,” Desnos protested in a hurt voice, though the corners of his mouth turned up. “He’s studying to be a Jungian psychiatrist. He’s really fascinated by archetypes. He also thinks the patients merit better treatment and he’s right. He believes in art therapy, and he thinks doctors should pay visits in people’s houses, like medical doctors. That’s cutting-edge.”

“Can he choose the proper wine?” I asked, thinking of that voluminous cook, the other Gaston, creaking up the wooden stairs of our cellar hideaway. “You know, chianti for a Cubist, a merlot for an Impressionist, paint thinner for a Futurist, hemlock for a Surrealist, and so on.” Justine sniggered. I looked again at the corner in which Ferdière had trapped Artaud and was babbling enthusiastically at him. The imprisoned actor leaned against the wall and flicked an ash dismissively toward the fireplace, his eyes looking out over Ferdière’s shoulder at me with an undisguised plea for rescue before he said something, or threw something, or knocked over something. Standing near them, Louis looked over at me too and crossed his eyes. “I’m afraid I agree with Justine. What do you see in him?”

“He’s a drinking buddy,” Desnos admitted.

“Incubus or succubus?” Justine put in acidly.

It was Desnos’s turn to snigger, despite himself. I protested, “If that’s what you’re looking for, you could always borrow my father-in-law instead. He can out-drink your lightweight Ferdière. D’Arcy could probably drink you under the table without falling on his ass and practically knocking the planet off its axis the way you do.”

“Shut up you Hun! Gaston has a brilliant mind,” Desnos argued around his giggling.

He’s a po-wet, Desnos,” I said, and stepped forward to release Artaud from the man’s gibbering. Ferdière then started in on me, trapping me in one of the chairs and leaning forward with those ears and that chin forming an exclamation point. Without mercy Artaud smiled a wickedly my way and left. I ended up listening to the student for quite some time, for Ferdière also wished to write a biography of Gabriel Randon, more commonly known as Jehan-Rictus, a tragic French poet I didn’t know. Therefore I did end up chatting about something worth learning about. I also decided Artaud deserved my revenge, but it would take some thought on my part to prevent that Levantine necromancer from turning whatever joke I planned for him back onto me. Artaud was a master of deflection.

Aside from his genial boorishness there was nothing at all memorable about Gaston Ferdière or that tedious evening we spent with him. Days later we had forgotten him, though I did make a note to look for that book on Jehan-Rictus if he ever wrote it. For years after that I occasionally glimpsed Ferdière on the street, particularly near Montparnasse, and he often stopped to talk to Desnos, and the student nodded and greeted me, too. Gaston Ferdière attended exhibitions and poetry readings, always a polite figure standing to one side or in the back. When he could catch a break from his studies he frequented the Dôme and the Coupole as we all did. He never sat with us, and I never saw him talking again with Artaud; he always seemed to be across the room, across the street, or walking away from Artaud as if to avoid crossing paths with the poet, but I could not be sure if this was deliberate or simply happenstance. When I mentioned it, no one else seemed to notice this and Artaud told me he never saw Ferdière at all.

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