From Book 3: The Lecture at the Sorbonne

            On the night of Artaud’s lecture on “Theatre and the Plague,” Desnos had his radio show to do, and Louis was showing his paintings to an interested buyer, and I could not find Sonia or Anita, so I went to the Sorbonne alone and located Dr. Allendy’s lecture hall.

            The square Amphithéâtre Michelet with its bench seating reminded me of operating parlours. The overhead lights were harsh and cast everything in a pallor, like a scene from the American film Frankenstein. Sitting down at the huge front table next to Artaud, Allendy looked bloated. The dim lights lit up the doctor’s face in slabs, while Artaud’s eyes disappeared into shadow below his brows. Artaud looked gaunt and strange, the shadows along his cheekbones slashing triangular; everything about him was taut and electric. Allendy sagged beside Artaud with one leg crossed over the other, and everyone took his seat. Madame Yvonne Allendy sat to one side, and Anaïs Nin settled into a chair directly before the podium in the front row. I felt a twinge of annoyance at this and chose a seat in the back. All around us were students, intellectuals, Allendy’s friends, lovers of the Enlightenment, lovers of themselves as enlightened. Allendy introduced Artaud, and there was a smattering of applause.

            At the lectern Artaud towered over us. The audience folded itself into crossed arms and legs, like the steel arms on a Ferris wheel, for the ride. I saw him hesitate before their expectant faces, and he looked like a captured falcon. Artaud opened his mouth to speak. His deep voice filled the room.

            His stream of consciousness on the history of the Plague pulled us again into that description of symptoms. Unlike with the medical student, this was not a clinical recounting but almost a Seneca play, making my skin itch, my tongue go dry. I could sense the audience becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this bizarre lecturer who was so gaunt and so forceful, his hair flapping about his face, his hands making semaphore gestures, and yet we were held there by his rising fury, his booming voice, pinned helplessly to our chairs by the full weight of his performance. It wasn’t until Artaud actually fell to the floor that people gasped. Some started out of their chairs and others recoiled, and still others craned their necks to get a better look. The lecturer writhed before us on the floor, possessed of the plague, his jaws working convulsively, his screams bouncing everything into confusion. More and more people stood up to watch him twist about, and then they glanced at each other to see who would act first. It went on, and on, and on. The only people to remain seated were the Allendys, a few of their friends, and Anaïs Nin. I was standing up.

            Artaud choked and grabbed his throat, gasping and gobbling and rolling on the floor. Phlegm fell out of his mouth. His agony seemed so real that I checked myself from running up there and demanding that Allendy do something. A woman near me turned away, her hand to her mouth, her face ashen. I think one man did actually start forward, having decided that this display was not an act. Then someone in the audience began to laugh.

            At this, their shocked expressions turned into sneers. More people stood up, and the whole room burst into laughter. Artaud’s fit did not stop and through it all they pointed fingers, mocking him, drowning out his screams. I couldn’t take it any longer. I fled the room and wavered outside in the hallway, feeling cold and sick. Some people had already walked out; others followed me. I fell against the wall. People banged the door to the auditorium as they left, loudly and deliberately. Snatches of conversation punctuated the shrieks that still came, muffled, from that room: “Madman!” “Let’s go home.” “Sickening, disgusting display!” “Allendy should focus on curing these people, not give them an outlet.” “What fun! I say we attend these lectures more often!” Cackling laughter. My face felt hot suddenly, and the hallway tilted sideways.

            The floor smacked me hard. The ceiling looked like it was undulating. I heard running footsteps. “Oh, my God!” “Get some water.” Yes, get some water for the drowning man. “Did he faint?” “Well, a performance like that…but he must be sensitive.” Sensitive. I blinked and saw a tiny rock on the floor. Just a piece of grit, really, but it appeared before me like an alien planet. I felt as if I was orbiting it, falling toward it.

            “His eyes are open.”

            A middle-aged man tilted his head down at me. Everything around me was distorted; the wall and the legs of the gawkers curved outward as if I were looking through a lens. The face of the man who bent over me was enormous and when he spoke, his pointed white beard jabbed at me like a finger. “Are you all right, son?” Son. He was grasping my elbow, pulling me upright. “Move on, ladies and gentlemen, please. Give him air.” Yes, these knees are strangling me. Desnos wrote a poem once about being strangled by knees. Artaud was afraid of drowning and of being strangled, yet had portrayed a man strangled in his very first film, Fait-Divers, an experimental short. “Move on, please! There’s nothing to see.”

            My lips were quivering into a smile. Laughter shook my shoulders. “Yes—we are all ladknees and gentleknees here,” my voice piped up, giggling. It didn’t sound like mine. “Nothing more to see? After you dolts walked out of the performance?”

            The man gave me a scowl of distaste. “Get up, boy.” Boy. “For the love of God, get up off of the floor.” He stared in disgust as I rolled onto my side, hugging my stomach and shaking with guffaws. “Are you completely witless? Stand up and act like a man!”

            That made me really laugh. I couldn’t help it; that stumpy man was standing over me in his expensive suit with his face turning red and that goatish beard stabbing the air with every syllable, and I lolled about on the floor, laughing hysterically. “Act like a man! That’s good,” I gasped, “that’s really good, sir. Of course! A man is something you and I act, isn’t it! The Plague, but in the face of it the same old theater with actors.” The man’s face folded itself into a scowl and his blood glared at me through his skin. “Domesticated! Even your body has learned how to behave!” I shrieked, pointing at him. “Poor Artaud—he doesn’t stand a chance, not a chance. What’s the point of creating a living theatre when it is the audience who’s acting!”

            Hulkish Allendy appeared in the doorway, eyes glowering from beneath his brows. His own drooping beard barely moved when he spoke. “Get him out of here.” He and the blushing man seized my arms and dragged me to the entrance. My laughter bounced over the heads of the onlookers and echoed in the long corridor. Those two goats pushed me roughly out the door and slammed it shut behind me, and I stumbled on the steps, giggling stupidly. They stood framed behind the glass, waiting for me to go and I stayed where I was, defying them. Finally they turned their backs and retreated from view. It was growing dark, and I sat down to wait for Artaud, watching the lights wink out in their windows all over the campus.

I sat there for a long time, and Artaud didn’t come out. I heard his voice, though. And then I heard Nin’s voice, too.

            She and Artaud passed right in front of the steps where I was waiting, and neither of them saw me. Apparently they had gone out the back door and were now walking together toward the Seine, Artaud loaded down with his armful of books. Grumbling to myself, I descended the steps and started after them. Artaud’s angry ranting reached me: “They always want to hear about. They wanted to hear an objective lecture on the Plague and I tried to give them the experience itself, to make them feel it. They don’t realize that they are dead. It was my own crucifixion I was portraying, mine, and everyone else’s.” He sighed deeply. “Thank you for not being one of them. Thank you for not leaving. I thought I had a friend in the audience besides you and Madame Allendy, but no!”

            His accusation scalded me. I groaned inwardly. “But he wasn’t laughing at you—someone said he fainted,” Nin soothed, while I slowed my pace. “Perhaps he was affected by it. Maybe more people were affected by it than seemed to be. It is possible some laughed you off with the rest and concealed their true reaction.”

            “It’s still cowardly,” Artaud muttered.

            They walked all the way to the Seine and I followed. I wanted to explain. I wanted to wait until Artaud was calmer, for despite his volatility his anger followed a predictable pattern, accelerating quickly to the summit and then rolling slowly downhill until he reached level ground again. When he was calm I’d walk up and tell him how much his talk did affect me, how it terrified me, the sight of him in agony, in the throes of death, even when I knew it was only an act. How it made everything clear for me. He was so right; the audience today was dead. They had grown accustomed to sitting and watching and rotting there in those seats, and the theatre was a funeral parlour for it. The audience was so passive that only the sight of death would wake them up and even that might not do it.

            The Seine undulated a velvety-black along the quai, tossing on its spine the liquid beams of street lamps. The man and woman paused to look out over the water, and Artaud set his pile of books down on a bench. Ghostly couples walked in and out of the spots of light dotting the street. Voices bounced here and there, soft laughter, the rustle of skirts, the clacking of shoes, the dim hum of traffic. Men and women embraced on the bank of the Seine, and a few men embraced men, and once in a while, a woman stole a kiss from another woman. A hobo who was slumped against the railing lifted his bottle to his lips and squinted at me as I stood alone in the shadows a safe distance away from my friend and that woman.

            Artaud embraced Anaïs Nin, his cheek stroking her hair. “How small you are! It frightens me, your fragility. You walk away from me into the world, and I think of the harm that could come to you. When I see you again it is like a reprieve from death. It’s not fair, that everything you are should be housed in a form so easily broken.”

            “I am stronger than you think.”

            “That you are stronger than your little bones, I have no doubt. But your will alone is not enough. It needs this tiny body in order to live.” He lifted her chin with his hand and I looked on in disbelief, seeing this woman let him place his lips on hers. What was it to her, a game? An adventure to write about, playing with a “madman”? “My love—finally, my great love!” Artaud breathed, caressing her, and my heart sank.

            And what business was it of mine? I followed though when Artaud picked up his armload of books again and strolled with her along the Île Saint-Louis. He was eyeing her appreciatively as they walked, awed and yet a little hostile. His hand on her arm slowed her, and when she looked up at him he said, “I shouldn’t trust you.” His voice held a sneer. He set down his books again on a bench, and they tilted precariously. “One minute I think you’re teasing me, and the next I believe in you absolutely. Are you playing with me? What about your husband, what about Allendy and that American you’re seeing so much? And Bernard Steele, too. You danced for him. They’re smitten—I can tell.”

            “Tonight I came to see you. I danced for Steele because he asked me to. And you mustn’t be jealous of Henry Miller; he admires you.”

            “You’re so elusive. I’d like to pin you down, nail you down, so you’ll stop squirming.”

            “You must trust your intuition.”

            “My intuition is precisely what I am trusting,” Artaud declared. He was not smiling now. With his hands on her arms he leaned his face close to hers and watched her prepare for the kiss, she closing her eyes and throwing herself forward. He held back from her. When the kiss didn’t come her eyes flew open and he scowled. She recoiled a little then. “Can’t you look into my eyes? Do you give yourself physically without true feeling?” He stabbed her with his glance. “You act passionate, but you conceal something.”

            “Your eyes condemn me,” said Nin, stepping back. “They put me on trial and convict me, and anticipate my death at the stake.” I thought it superficial, the way she said this. Melodramatic.

            “There must be some middle ground for us to meet, between surrender and repulsion,” Artaud murmured, as if to himself. “At any rate, I’m hardly the one to burn sorcerers, when I’ve been accused of being one. Yesterday it was my manuscript I offered to burn, as a sacrifice for you. Weren’t you listening?” He leaned against the railing.

            “You swing from self-abasement to fury. You even said you hated me, and called me evil.”

            “Because I want honesty from you!”

            “I am honest.” Her voice was low and musical and soft. I shook my head as I listened. “I am always honest in my heart. Whatever I do, it is never casual or cavalier. Yes, I am married—you know that—and I love Hugh.”

            Artaud tilted his head and looked at her closely, his forehead lined, great pain in his eyes. “And I love you, Anaïs.”

            My body was alert for her answer. “I love you, too,” she murmured in a smooth tone. “Nanaqui.”

            He caught her elbow and yanked her against him. His mouth was on hers, on her innocent cupid-bow mouth, eating her lies, the same monstrous lies she told her husband and Henry Miller and all her other lovers including Allendy. She had even whispered it to me in the alley the other night when she was drunk: I love you. She had mistaken me for her cousin Eduardo and I had backed away; I had run from her like the most innocent, shocked boy. After years of being told about her by Louis that had been my introduction to Anaïs Nin.

“We’re not like other people; our love is nothing they’ve ever known,” Artaud whispered foolishly against that mouth. “I feel that we know each other completely. I do know you. Forget what I said a moment ago.

“We’re so completely together… Anything might happen,” he went on, clutching her. “We could do anything to each other, even the most violent act, and it would be done in love. We’re renegades. In our union, there is crime. Between the two of us there could be a murder.”

            She paled then and pulled away, but his grip on her was strong and he forced her to stay where she was. The tilted tower of Artaud’s books swayed off balance and fell over, and they lay littered at his feet.

            Feeling miserable, I turned away from this scene with my friend and that whore. I ran home and wrote a feverish letter to Justine. I don’t care about children, I won’t make any demands. I just want you back! We can just go on as we were… Hours later I mailed it anyway, despite my embarrassment. Life was short, chances were few and that called for melodrama, not reason. Realism, the illusion of always having time to love.

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