From Book 1: Language

Suddenly his lids closed and his head fell peacefully against the chair and remained there. His breathing stretched, settling into a steady rhythm. I waited but he didn’t speak again. Like a sage he sat there, hands folded, lips pushed aside a bit from the pressure of the cushion on his cheek, his legs still crossed, and I imagined his eyes rolling into the back of his brain, alert even now and staring at the hidden churnings of his thoughts. The Surrealist sleeper, awake—always awake within himself. But when he remained silent, I look up in confusion at Louis.

            Louis got out of his chair and leaned forward to look into his face. He laughed. I tapped the man’s knee but he still did not wake up. Desnos’s mental calisthenics were legendary among the Surrealists and well documented in La Révolution surréaliste, but now he just seemed asleep. “He’s always doing this,” Louis assured me. “I called Man Ray a liar until I saw it for myself.” A door opened in the hall and Artaud poked his head into the room. “Stick around,” Louis added, “he’s not finished. He may talk in his sleep, or wake up and finish your prediction.” Louis sat down again, vigilant as he shuffled his cards.

            Artaud stood over me as I leafed through the strange little piece I’d written the day before, but his face, when I finally looked up at it, showed no anger. Génica had held her tongue, it seemed. I resolved to apologize to her, and then I decided not to and save both of us the embarrassment. Besides, I was still angry at her. Louis nodded to the poet in greeting and dealt out cards on the table, playing solitaire. “You’re not happy with what you’ve written,” Artaud said to me, reaching over my shoulder to point a finger to the page.

            “You’re very perceptive.” I held up the drawings too, examining them one by one. “No, I’m not. I truly was in a trance, I finally managed to do it, lose myself. But I don’t remember anything. It occurred without my realizing it, and now the experience is gone and I can’t retrieve it. That’s not the answer, is it? I want to know—”

            “Precisely.”

            “—What really happens when one writes.” I put the papers aside and stared into the fire again. He sat down on the floor beside me, and for a while there was no sound but the slaps of rain on the roof and the slaps of the cards as Louis moved them, and the crackling of the flames. Then I said to Artaud, “I’ve been thinking about your grievance, that you lack words for what you feel. I can’t help wondering, if that’s the case, why search for words at all?” The man next to me smiled that knowing smile again. “If the words you are looking for do not indeed exist, either new ones must be created, or language must be abandoned altogether. You said all you needed was one word. Since you obviously know what you mean why not say that word, even if it’s gibberish to the rest of us? Why not invent your word and give up trying to describe these states of mind to others in any language?”

            He examined me closely. “It’s such a relief for someone to ask me that, flat out, instead of forever skirting the issue: ‘But we’re all at a loss for words at times!’ as if I were only looking for a new way to say how pretty the flowers are, over and over as most poets do. I’ve asked myself that very question.”

            “And what was your answer?”

            Louis looked up from his cards.

            “How successfully,” Artaud asked me, “can one think without language?” I opened my mouth to answer and then closed it again, and he continued, “And to complicate things, now disregard the idea that language is only words. If you believe as I do that everything is a language, images, yes, and even emotions, even physical sensations and gestures, the question becomes: How successfully can one think without a medium of thought?” He rested an elbow on his knee, his finger brushing his lips, and still smiling.

            “Not very well,” I admitted. “Not at all, perhaps.”

            “And that’s the paradox, isn’t it?” he replied. “Language leads me along a path and seduces me and I think, ‘I see where this is going, it’s so clear I can never forget it,’ and then, I do! Suddenly I’m stumbling through my words as words, through the images as mere perverse juxtapositions, and that is the problem. Poetry evokes, but it only evokes halfway, like a broken-off incantation. But it does evoke. We do need to speak. Because if we did not speak, we couldn’t think—indeed, we couldn’t exist—at all.”

            “It’s like the dream I had last night,” I said. “A series of swinging doors…” The scene flashed before my eyes again, and I realized where I had taken it from. A painting—was it from La Révolution surréaliste? Or one that hung in Louis’s apartment? It was a painting of a door which opened upon another room with a door, which in turn opened upon yet another room with another door. Yes, it was one of Louis’s paintings. I remembered the eerie impression it gave me the first time I saw it, for at the end of this succession of opened doors was one that was not only closed, but bolted and padlocked. “Senility,” Louis had titled it, and it did convey the impression of senility, the frustration of wanting that door open, that seventh door which led outside to the garden only hinted at by the beguiling blue sky through the window and the roses whose blooms barely reached the top of the sill.

Senility… But Artaud was a young man, intelligent and original. So why this frustration in him? What was driving him? “Perhaps you ask too much of language,” I suggested.

            “All I ask is life. I couldn’t care less about language, or about being a published poet, or about having a successful career as a broken phonograph on the stage. So much of what we call the arts is just repetition, imitation, and that’s not what I want. That’s why Surrealism is anti-art.”

            “You’re trying to reinvent life, that’s what it sounds like to me!” I exclaimed. “And not just you but Breton—all of you.”

            “Of course I am! Just because I was created,” he insisted, very seriously, “which is to say, I came into being without knowing how or why, that does not change the fact that I am me. I am the only one who exists as me. This is my only life. And yet the same experiences that other people accept as a part of their lives seem to surround me without involving me. Physical needs, actions, yes, even emotions, invade me from outside, as it were. Do you understand? There is a separation between me and what I feel, between me and what I think—I am not whole. Of course I participate in my feelings and my thoughts but I participate passively, blindly, as if my soul is merely a landscape upon which total strangers perform acts only I can witness.” He saw the confusion on my face and sighed. “No, you wouldn’t understand, because you’re a whole person, a healthy person, and I am sick, sick in my ‘soul.’ Such a disease is not conceivable to either western science or religion, and so I am alone. I am constantly watching myself, examining myself. I want to know the real ‘how’ of myself. I need to, because…because I am in pain.” He looked as if he regretted his outburst. Louis was watching us again.

            Pain. A word. A sound from his lips could stir something in me, an understanding in me that he was here, that he existed, that I did not flounder by myself with only my problems and my illusions. That was what language could do, and yet he was right. I only half understood. What did he mean by pain? “You look so healthy,” I told him as he sat there with his smooth face and gleaming black hair and clear, deep-set eyes. More than healthy; he seemingly glowed from within. I’d never known a man like him. “Are you in pain now?”

            Those eyes averted. “Weidmann, I shan’t break, you know!”

            “You’re the strongest man I know,” I assured him.

            Finally he nodded, pointing at each temple with his long, tapered fingers. “Two knives, here,” he told me. “It is not always the same. Sometimes it’s my head, sometimes my spine; sometimes it’s as if I were being reamed through with spikes, at others slowly crushed from the top of my skull. But it is not severe now,” he added, hastening to reassure me. “That varies, too.” He spoke simply, and did not whine. Everything about him had a certain simplicity, even his gestures—so concise, so straightforward. “I can often ignore it. That is why I was attracted to Buddhism for a time.

“When I was five,” he continued, “I developed meningitis. I’ve been on medications as long as I can remember. I stuttered too during adolescence and still do sometimes, and also had a nervous tic that sometimes recurs. I would like to—to move past this. Illness begets a sort of narcissism…and there, too, is the real answer to your question. I would not be satisfied to live only in my imagination and talk to myself in only my language. I chart my labyrinth to find a way out. I’m trying to move toward the world.” I nodded. So am I, I thought. “If my words don’t communicate to others,” Artaud went on, “then they cannot express, not even my own thoughts to myself.”

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