From Book 3: Never!

After the attempted suicide of Valentine Hugo finally faded from the gossip columns, they filled with reports that Foujita had lost millions in a game of baccarat. Youki told Desnos it was not true, but nevertheless she and Foujita received a notice of back taxes owed. When Foujita sent his new secretary to the tax office to contest the amount, the young, inexperienced girl was bullied into signing a piece of paper agreeing to pay the full sum. In a panic to raise the necessary funds, Foujita hastily arranged a trip to Tokyo where he held a series of art shows. Youki accompanied him, leaving Rob to stare, dejected, for hours over my shoulder at the falling snow just outside the large glass windows of the Dôme.

I was depressed as well. Artaud and I had attended a lecture by Roger Gilbert-Lecomte at the Sorbonne only yesterday, on “The Metamorphoses of Poetry.” Gilbert-Lecomte was this dark haired, dark eyed, red-lipped and luminous but sickly creature like Poe, and he was so gifted, such an engaging speaker, though Artaud thought his presentation too careful, too academic, “dotting all the Is,” as he put it. Neither poet was garnering the attention he deserved and if anything, Gilbert-Lecomte had an audience because Artaud had talked him up. Now Artaud was in hospital again, undergoing a brutal new detoxification treatment by a Dr. Dupouy. I feared for the health of Gilbert-Lecomte, who was also a drug addict, and I feared for Artaud’s very life. Artaud had told me that at times the pain he was in was so acute that it took over his entire being. Opium dissolved it the way water dissolved sugar, but life without drugs was like a curtain falling from a window, allowing him to take part in life again, feel stirred by light and smell and sound again. Edgard Varèse, wishing to pay a friendly call and unable to contact Artaud, had telephoned me and was also alarmed to hear the news. So for a while I stared at Desnos as he stared at the snow and I let his sad words fall like blades on my heart.

            At last I decided to distract him, and me. Artaud’s “Manifesto on the Theater of Cruelty” had been published in the NRF and I tried to interest Desnos in it, to cheer him with the news that after having reviled Shakespeare Artaud was proposing one of the Bard’s plays, Arden of Faversham, as a possible first performance. It was the supremacy of the text, and not Shakespeare’s works themselves, that Artaud derided. Desnos, worried about Artaud too, fell silent then. Fumbling, I tried to draw him out by asking him how the work was going on Fantômas, but he merely slitted his eyes at me. He was not the jovial man he once was.

All Desnos ever talked about now was Youki: their lavish Saturday night dinners at the Coupole; his many visits to Foujita’s house, where he and Youki’s husband spent their evenings gambling and drinking; the late hours that Desnos spent with Youki in the large studio listening to old phonographs after Foujita had gone to bed. I listened without comment as Desnos described the many poems that he was secretly writing to Youki, even though Foujita was not jealous and probably would enjoy watching his friend make love to his wife. I was torn between my sympathy for Desnos and my urge to shake some sense into him. Youki was free to sleep with any man but Desnos had fallen in love with her and he wanted her to love only him.

When he pulled out some of these secret poems to show me, I realized in despair that I had underestimated Robert Desnos’s capacity for obsession. Yvonne George was long dead and I had been relieved to see Desnos take her death so calmly. Now I knew he had merely transferred his feelings to another woman. It was hopeless—he was more deluded than Artaud had been about Génica! It was beyond me why he should show me something so intimate, so precious to him, as a new poem composed for Youki that she had yet to see. But when I read it I could not help but be captivated:

Once not upon a time
no one tried to break through the gates
of a beautiful castle in the heart of the desert
in a pool
where a mermaid was swimming.
Once not upon a time
or rather yes, Once, Once upon a time
There is still in the desert’s heart
behind high walls
a mermaid swimming in a pool….
It is she unchanging who calls
The movement of the hands on the dial
It is she who rules the breathing
Over the lovers’ and the sleepers’ breathing
Over the breath of the one who dreams
Of the one who loves
Over the breath of the passionate lover…

            “What do you want me to say?” I asked him. “It’s beautiful, Rob. The poem is marvelous. Everything you write is Marvelous.”

            He pocketed the poem and did not meet my eyes. We sat together without speaking. “Why do you have that expression on your face?” Desnos grumbled.

            “I was just thinking that I have not been much of a help to you,” I replied. When he wrinkled his brow I added, “Should you need help.”

            “Why would I need help?” he demanded.

            I leaned back in my chair and regarded him. He darted a sullen glance at me beneath those dark brows. So encircled were his oyster-iridescent eyes that he seemed to be wearing his own fleshy spectacles. What a strange-looking man he was! My lips stretched into a smile, a grin of pure affection. I said, “You’ve stopped drinking so much.”

            He frowned then and whipped his cigarette away with an open hand, as if pushing against a stubborn memory. The butt bounced into a corner and lay glowing there on the floor, until a long-fingered hand reached down for it. Without a glance our way, Artaud stuck the cigarette into his mouth and pushed the door open.

            “I grew up,” said Desnos. He didn’t share my smile, but looked out of the glass door through which Artaud had just gone. “I got sick of it, Geoff, is all.” After sourly regarding his untouched drink, he reached out and lifted it to his lips, but these days he wasn’t glugging his alcohol as he used to. His lips tightened as he pushed the glass away. “It became too excessive, and I couldn’t stand myself any longer. I don’t know how I ever manage to avoid becoming addicted to opium too, after all the shit I’ve pulled.”

            “You’ve lost weight as well,” I observed.

            “Shut up!”

            With that angry glower he concentrated on the tabletop, but his lips were screwed up at an amused angle. Suddenly I could imagine him at twelve years of age, or at ten, or at five, standing before the toe-tapping teacher and trying to keep that jester’s grin hidden. No wonder he had been caned so often as a boy. I tilted my chair back as Roger used to do, and lifted my glass in a silent toast.

            Desnos sighed. “It’s better this way. I’m happier. I can concentrate on—well, important things. My writing is being rewarded—though we’re not supposed to seek rewards, are we? Or commercial success? But, hell. Life looks better when I’m sober, and when I’m—”

            “Right,” I said.

            “—In charge of my life. No longer trying to run away.”

            Idly he nudged his eyebrow with his pen as he stared into space. I sat watching him, noting with sadness the lines around his mouth, his chin gone soft, and the deeper lines beneath his eyes. His hair still stuck out like antennae. “To run away from what?” I asked finally.

            Desnos was not a man to look apprehensive, so I was surprised at the look he gave me then. “Do you believe in destiny, Geoff?”

            “Destiny?” I lifted my glass again. He was leaning forward now, waiting for my answer, and I shrugged. “Not really. Not exactly. Not in terms of something written in a scripture somewhere.”

            “Well, surely you know that I don’t believe in scriptures, either,” he snapped.

            “Then what are you talking about? And don’t get so excited.”

            “I’m talking about that time here,” and Desnos tapped the tabletop, “that night right here, a long time ago, when we all saw that figure at the window.”

            I put down my glass and looked at him. His voice—it didn’t sound like him. It didn’t look like him, leaning forward like that with a pale face and pursed lips. I had never known Desnos to look so anxious. “All right, Desnos, who did you see that night? You never talk about it, and yet it spooked you as much as it did Artaud.”

            He looked away then.

            “Dammit, everyone saw someone clearly except me!” I exclaimed. “Yet everyone saw a different face—”

            “And that’s what I’m talking about…” he murmured. “Consider yourself fortunate, Geoff, that you did not see any face.”

            “It was a mass hallucination, nothing more. Louis thinks he saw Hitler. Justine says she saw Mussolini—”

            “I saw myself!” Desnos said.

            He was leaning forward, one hand locked on his glass as if to bolt down the drink, the other hand clutching my sleeve. The blue of his eyes had faded to a shadowed grey. The bewildered, frantic stare he gave me was not something that I could reconcile with him, but there he was, pleading silently with me and even trembling a little. I never could have imagined it—Desnos, afraid.

            “I saw my future,” he quavered. “Geoff, I was…that person was me, and I was not much older than I am now,” he whispered. “But I was—” He paused, and then he leaned back, and the hand that had gripped my wrist released me.

            I nodded to him. “Go on. I’m listening.”

            “Remember how we’ve joked about us being in a novel, being characters in a novel, and how we should shake off our Author and take over the story?”

            “I never joked about that, Rob, and neither did you.”

            Desnos rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Well, what I saw in that window—it frightened me. It haunted me, so I lost myself in drinking and in playing games, mind games, sex games, everything. I tried to put off the realization that—that what I saw in the window tells me that I can’t rebel against this novel, or against the future or anything that will happen to me in it, because that image in the window is my—my own death.”

            “Out with it, Desnos, what did you see?” I demanded.

            “I was emaciated,” he answered. “I saw myself emaciated! Starving. Sick. Listless. Beaten.” He swallowed. “Defeated.”

            “Never!” I said.

            “Defeated because, even our Author isn’t free to write down just any ending. Something is going to happen to me, something terrible, and maybe to all of us and I cannot change it if our Author cannot change it. What if our Author is basing the novel on events that have already happened? If the future is already the past, then…” He trailed off.

            I shook my head. “I don’t believe in destiny, Rob. You sound like the Surealist Victor Brauner after he lost his eye. Someone accidentally hit him with a bottle, but Brauner blamed his loss on a self-portrait that he had painted seven years earlier! That’s mere occultism, magic, transferred onto Surrealism. It’s more religious thinking. That’s not Surrealist, and that’s not you.

“Surrealists champion the future. I can change the future, Rob. And if I can change the future, then I can prevent any harm coming to you in it. You, and Justine, and Artaud—all of us.”

            He lit another cigarette and expelled the smoke in a skeptical burst. “Just what makes you so cocksure?”

“Because I saw nobody in that window. I have no doubles anymore—my double was in my past. Remember what you said about me breaking mirrors? I did that. Even if we are in a novel, my life is not based upon real events, so I am not reliving history through some Author. Even if what you say is true and you are based upon a doppelganger who has already lived and died, I’m fictional—so it’s not true for me, and so now it won’t be true for you here. I can change your future—I can change everyone’s future! Aren’t we Surrealists?”

            He smiled a little and nodded, still clutching his untouched drink.

            “I know what this is really about,” I said. “We’re all older, and our day-to-day drudgery is wearing us down. Life has a way of tempting a man to give up, but don’t give up on Surrealism, Rob. That’s why you’ve been depressed lately.” He was looking at me now with that ageless attention, simultaneously boy and man, that I had first admired on that first night among the candles and the dingy chairs in his warehouse. I missed that warehouse; I missed our lives as they were then. “The minute you start talking about destiny and novels and histories you fall back into humanism, into realism, and lose the Marvelous.”            

“So I’m turning into a literary old fart?” Desnos smiled at me.

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