From Book 2: The Sex Discussions, Part One

Desnos never locked his door and now 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 woman’s hand reached up 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. I didn’t plan it—it surprised me too. 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 as fooling around.”

            “I won’t tell Josette, or anyone,” Bernice whispered hoarsely. “Hey—it was nice. I don’t like it much, but I did this time.” Finally 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 lover’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 so she lowered her face to make him look at her. “You surprised me—so virile! And so considerate…I’m not used to that,” she whispered urgently. “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 into his eyes. “But it was beautiful with you. I know you never would have been with me otherwise.”

            “It’s vile!” he said, refusing to look at her. “It petrifies me, rips out my blood. No, you won’t understand.” He ripped off the covers then and sat up too. “A gift,” he sneered. “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. “You’re gorgeous!” He sat glaring at her, naked and allowing her to touch him. She cocked her head sadly and added, “You’re an angel. So different from other men.”

            He seemed to chafe at her words. “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 told them got around, but everyone twists my words. I was trying to explain a whole passion. Everyone else but me 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 now you’re badmouthing me, too. But it’s okay for men to—”

            “I advocated that only as a form of death. It’s not preferable. You defame yourself, throwing yourself at every man. I got snared tonight only at random, because you were here and ‘this’ happens to me.”

            She shook her head. “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 of blankets, but that brought me into the candlelight. 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 to his shabby apartment like the awake-dreaming Pied Piper. Then I felt eyes on me. I turned back and Artaud was looking at me. He 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, it struck me as Surrealist—like the invention of the wheel.” Guillaume Apollinaire had said the wheel was the first Surrealist creation because it imitated walking without looking anything like a leg.

            Artaud smiled a little. “You and science! You’re like Soupault. When he and Breton wrote The Magnetic Fields they were influenced by Einstein and the observations of Arthur Eddington, who’s a British physicist. And Paul Valéry—he’s a poet who might appeal to you. Odd, how them toying with physics didn’t ‘open the way’ for a betrayal the way my ‘mystic nature’ supposedly did. Hm.” He remained on his stomach, face propped, tapping the floor with his finger.

            I said, “Well, Soupault got thrown out eventually. 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 go to sleep.”

            “You’re not imposing,” Artaud said. “And you need to get something off your chest. I always know when you do,” he said, “by your silence. It’s loud. You scream before you speak, and after you speak you are finally still. I wish you’d simply scream. And I can tell this time you are annoyed with someone else, not me,” he added with that same odd smile.

            Annoyed with him? I gathered the courage to tell him. “Christ, what can I say to anyone about sex?” I burst out. “When the other night was my first time…reaching any climax with another person?” I closed my eyes. “I mean, another person giving something to me—that was my first experience.”

            “Oh,” Artaud said. He sounded startled. “At your age? That sounds…lonely.” His voice was mournful. “But perhaps you’re 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 love 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. Because his naked shoulders shivered I pulled off my sweater and gave it to him.

            “How, fortunate?” I prompted him as he pulled on my sweater. It hung on him like a smock.

            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—besides being promiscuous—is making love to a woman who subsequently dies,” he told me.

            “Oh! But—” I hesitated. 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 fully upright in the mind. Finally I found an answer for him. “But it’s a man’s burden, to die for the woman he loves. Your fear is normal. And I fear promiscuity, too.” 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 it seems 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, just barely giving sound to his words. “They warn each other about love! As you and I are doing.”

            “Well—about women, anyway. Their lovers envy Ami and Amiles’ friendship. And they’re both 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.”

            “Friend, you’ve always dreamed of losing this twin.”

His insight riveted me. I turned to look at him. Artaud nodded as he spoke. “Ami and Amiles is a lyrical romance we all had to read in school,” he said gently, “highly idealized, and in my opinion a rehash of Damon and Pythias—friends who sacrifice for each other. But I suppose you didn’t learn this tale in Austria, so it’s new to you.”

            “No, I didn’t, and I can’t think of any comparable myth. We have Krampus and we have the Doppelgänger, but nothing resembling blood-brothers. I suppose Picasso and Apollinaire were friends like that—one getting arrested to free both.” I sighed. “I wish the Surrealists swore loyalty to each other, like Ami and Amiles or the Knights of the Round Table. That’s what I expected, not the infighting. But people think ‘romance’ means romantic love,” I added to kindle his sarcasm. I recited his poem:

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,” 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. My sweater puddled up around his neck. “Oh, no, no. That’s sentimental,” he teased. “And—what Paul Verlaine would have given to Arthur Rimbaud. You would need to affix two bullets to the paper. Dear me, crossing a line there!”

We both chuckled then and I flushed. I head Desnos giggle, too. Only recently had I read the details about this scandalous love affair between the two poets that culminated with Verlaine leaving his wife, and ultimately firing two shots at the young Rimbaud. “I didn’t think of that.” I flopped down against the pillow finally. “Landis says I have a sentimental streak,” I admitted. “I’m naïve. It gets me in trouble.”

Roger, returning to Justine’s bed, also quoted Artaud with a sneer, “I’m ‘disillusioned with homosexuals!’ Write that and cross that out.”

“I didn’t understand what you meant by that, either,” I said to Artaud.

“Well, I’m not one, if you’re wondering,”** Artaud emphasized as I propped myself up to look at him. “People are fickle! Including them. I’m disillusioned with fickleness. You see?”

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 below. “I fear I’m fickle too,” I admitted.

“No. You shall find her,” insisted my friend. “I see it. You are destined for it. As for me, I’m not sure Josette is The One—I thought Génica was and I still think so, but you are meant for a great love.”

“I don’t believe in destiny,” I said. “With all our talk of the Marvelous sometimes I’m afraid it does not exist.”

Desnos snorted. “The Marvelous does exist!”

“What did Abel 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.” Artaud sighed. “This after I’ve already shot my scenes! The premiere is very soon. I shall run out of time.”

            “I’m sorry you’re being kept in suspence. Do let me know how it turns out.”

            “Thanks,” he said distractedly.

I lay back 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 where Robert Pierre Desnos lay. “And Danton!” I pointed to myself. In the darkness, Desnos made some loopy grunt of approval. The corners of Artaud’s mouth lifted a little.

“Marie Antoinette,” Justine and Roger named each other, and Desnos quacked into guffaws.

“Sit down, Mary. Wham-bam-thanky-sham.” Roger quoted Péret. “Christ, I nearly died laughing. Péret should lead the Surrealists.”

“He’s a Communist,” scoffed Artaud.

I teased, “He’s a singular Communist.” Desnos let out another excited grunt.

“He’s a phony,” proclaimed Justine, “in every way.”

“Let them eat fake!” exulted Desnos.


*Many Artaud biographers and scholars believe Génica was Artaud’s first but I don’t. He obliquely references his first time and mentions an older woman he was attracted to. (If you’ve read Artaud’s letters and works you know he closes off parts of himself.) If I’m right, this first experience was probably not a source of joy for him.

**And I believe he wasn’t, no matter what Anais Nin and Rene Allendy said. It’s possible Artaud was bi, but in his letters to women he expresses deep longing and anger, and in his letters to men he remains on the intellectual and the social levels.

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