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“I don’t know where my story begins,” I said. “And I wonder if that’s not a lie too, that any story has a beginning. Life just happens and we pick a point and say, ‘It started here,’ when it didn’t really start there, even with one’s birth.”
Artaud nodded. “I agree!”
“But you already know after my mother died I fought with my father, mostly about nothing, and my wife and I moved to the farm. Our life there was harsh and eventually I drove her away which killed her and my son. And I’ll never forgive myself for that, not as long as I live.”
There was a creak in the floorboards behind me and I knew Desnos listened, too. I turned so my words would include him. “After Marianne left I spent a year trying to keep the place going. It wore me down but I was loath to crawl back to my father. I’m a little pig-headed, if you haven’t noticed.” Those two prodigal sons both grinned at me. “I was hardly sleeping and hardly eating.
“And it was at the beginning of May, just a few weeks before I came here, that I looked up from my weeding and saw a meteorite fall. It was noon and the sun was bright, but the fireball cast a second shadow and it screamed like any large meteor. We get them sometimes though usually they break up before they hit the ground. I remember thinking, ‘That was a big one,’ but it gave me the creeps, because I knew something alive had landed. Don’t ask me how.
“And it was alive,” I went on. Desnos kicked over another cushion and sat down next to Artaud. “It was a living creature about the size of my palm, sort of a starfish, spiny like that, only with six arms. And it glowed slightly, like a jellyfish—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a jellyfish—” But Artaud nodded. I went on, “I saw one in the Berlin aquarium once. Like that scene in your film, Rob, where the woman and man look at the starfish in the globe.” They exchanged a glance. “To this day I don’t have a clue what it was. I’ve even tried to look it up in books.”
“Weidmann, you had better not be shitting us!” Desnos cried. His eyes were bright with excitement. Artaud was as quiet as ever, but he leaned forward. Their credulousness, their complete lack of skepticism caught me off guard. Surrealists did not laugh at the myths of others. Desnos believed in telepathy, in astrology, in automatic writing and the power of sensual living. And Artaud, who believed in magic, in spontaneous generation, sought in poetry the absolute state before consciousness separated from flesh. I stared at the two men before me, realizing I should have trusted them much sooner.
Desnos tilted his head, thinking. “But it couldn’t have been a real star., could it.”
The other man exhaled impatiently. “Well, of course not! It was some kind of animal. Stars are giant spheres of energy, like the sun. Everyone knows that.” This was Antonin Artaud, who called science nonsense, who loathed mathematics and preferred legends and histories to scholarship. But Desnos was imitating his face back at him and I laughed then, wondering if this was a game between them. Artaud was a cut-up too, but a dry and ironic one.
“But what happened to it?” Desnos asked me.
“Let him tell it,” Artaud insisted, putting up a hand.
I sighed. “That’s when it started—the epidemic. More creatures rained from the sky, nine or ten of them a day for about a week, all over the valley or so people said. Most of them were dead, dried-up husks—so people said. Talk of the Last Days spread and one of my neighbors committed suicide. That doesn’t make sense, does it? People reverted to paganism too, tossing meat from windows which is an ancient custom to appease the gods.” They both smiled. “I was terrified—I had brought the thing to my house and tried to feed it but there were reprisals, villagers assaulting villagers, so I kept it inside and said nothing. Not everyone knows that stars are big spheres of fire, Artaud. People in the Waldviertel still think Heaven is in the clouds. They once believed in helpful goblins and that belief resurfaced. I must confess I too wondered if the world was ending.
“And then other wild stories went around and my father heard them. One man said instead of one dog he suddenly had two—two perfectly identical dogs. They both came when he called, they both obeyed his commands and were affectionate but they didn’t have the same temperament, and after watching their behavior he was able to tell one from the other and he killed the impostor.” Tears stung my eyes. “But no one is really sure if he did kill it. He tried poisoning the dog, but it lived. He shot the dog in the head. The wound healed and the dog still lived. So finally he picked up a hatchet. And he said that when he split the dog’s head open, he saw one of those starfish imbedded in its brain.”
I shuddered. “He left the corpse to fetch a sack but when he returned, the dog—starfish and all—was gone. It had run off, and with a wound like that.
“There were many stories,” I continued hoarsely. “Suddenly people discovering they had more cattle than before, more horses, more cows. Some people said it was a curse; others called it a miracle. There were even accusations of witchcraft, but few took those seriously. The weirdest story came from the parents of a young girl. They went to the crib and found that instead of one baby, they had two—identical twins.” I lowered my gaze to the floor, wondering what they thought of me now. “People doubted their story, so they brought the infants to church that Sunday. I saw them myself and what’s more, I know the family. I knew for a fact that three months before the wife had borne only one daughter. Everyone knew it. And then, there were two three-month-old girls.” I pushed away the image of that dead body lying on the tangled sheets of my bed, and of that poor, terrified beggar being chased by villagers wielding clubs and rocks. “The father had the other child baptized and as far as I know he and his wife are still raising them. I wish I could describe to you the mood the village was in during this time, the alarm, and the exhilaration! And then, as suddenly as it started, it all stopped. No more creatures from the sky, no more mysterious doubles. By that time I was very ill; I had a fever. And then my father took me to Paris.”
I just sat and they sat too, lost in thought. Artaud leaned his chin into his fist, his eyes darting from the man sitting beside him to me. What a knowing glance. He knew this was not the whole truth, but compassion was in his eyes. Then Desnos asked, “What was it you said that day in the Champ de Mars—that rustic people were as bourgeois as anyone else? Well, I don’t believe you. I’ve read about your Waldviertel, you know. People there in the Middle Ages constructed tunnels for their goblins!” He turned to Artaud and smiled. “Yesterday, Péret got yelled at for spilling whiskey on that ‘proletariat’ leather coat of Breton’s. And Péret said, ‘Yes, for a proletariat it should have been beer, tapped from my bladder!’ André was not amused.”
“Breton yelled at Péret?” Artaud asked in disbelief.
Desnos whipped his chin up and down in a semi-circle that passed for a nod. “Which just goes to show you, Surrealism is turning into a sewing circle. But with this barbarian—” and he pointed at me, “—we become animals again. We howl on the park path and climb trees. We become pagans again.” He leaned back on his hands. “Now I wish you had worked on the film with Man and me! I like your story of the star better than mine.”
I shook my head at him. “I liked your film, Rob.”
“Yes, but you recast it starring your girl-friend!” Desnos got up as the tea kettle on the stove in the far kitchen began to whistle. “I keep telling you—go to the sex discussions. Breton will let you in. He’s curious about you! In every disgusting way. But forget him.”
I groaned. “Well, that quite puts me off, Rob. And she’s not my girl-friend. I was dreaming about the author of this novel we’re in.”
“You cannot dream about the author of this novel,” Artaud contradicted me. He was imitating Roger Thurmon, and doing a pretty good job. “The minute you do, she enters the book as a character.” At the stove Desnos chuckled.
“Look,” Artaud to me then, “if you were to participate in Breton’s sex discussions—and I’m not urging you to—I think you have as much to say about sex as any of them. And some of it’s valuable. It’s not all male bragging, at least if Péret isn’t there.”
I didn’t mean to laugh but I did, for if Antonin Artaud had a reputation because of these sex investigations, Benjamin Péret did too. Péret claimed he liked to ejaculate in a woman’s armpits, that he enjoyed watching women urinate and it was musical, that making love in the sea was exhausting, and that if he encountered in a café all the women he had been with—apparently a substantial number, or so he claimed—he would run for his life. “Péret is a braggart!” I sniggered.
“True,” Artaud replied, “and a discussion like that attracts some pretention, vulgarity, but you would be surprised at the answers—quite a spread. Jacques Prévert and Yves Tanguy agreed with me they could go years without sex. Even some admitted they’re not opposed to rape, though of a woman or of themselves it’s not clear. But I asked you…” he went on, and I smiled—of course Artaud wanted to recreate those sessions here, his way. Probably too he need to exorcise the corpse of Bernice. Artaud and Desnos were the only ones I wanted to confide in, anyway. If I went to the sessions my every word would be taken down and spread all around Paris and there would be pandemonium at home. “I asked you if, between the choice of a sexual desire accompanied by love that can be immediately satisfied, or an intellectual attainment offering absolute mental fulfillment, which would you choose?”
As with his question to me about the origin of pain in that cathedral in Orleans, I had to think about this. This question really left me casting about. “But when you say ‘mental fulfillment’ you’re talking about the body too,” I said, “you must be. So you are talking about love, but not in the banal sense. No, I don’t believe in a love, with or without lust, that can be immediately satisfied.”
Artaud shook his head. “Let me divide it into two questions. I asked Breton if he ever felt great sexual pleasure with a woman without any love for her and only a slight, purely physical attraction to her. What about you?”
I paused then. “That was my marriage to Marianne. Wait—no, I felt something more, at least in the beginning… Oh, I don’t know. Over time I felt no love, but when we were first married? Love and sex both.”
“Sex and love are not connected,” he said.
“You don’t think so?
“I know not. Now I ask you: In sexual pleasure do you think of only the physical aspect or does the mental pleasure encompass everything?”
Again, I had to think. I shook my head.
Artaud looked impatient then. “Surely you realize there are different states here, as with fear! Sexuality is individual and private. Personally I find it repulsive and I expect nothing from it. I would have thought mankind would have evolved—your word—beyond it already. I’m sick and tired of being a slave to these urges.”
He had stiffened as he said this. I leaned forward in alarm. “My friend,” I said to him. It frightened me to think he lived with this shame, for he seemed a feral man almost, honest and untamed despite his esoteric writings and his carefully groomed appearance. He was not carefree but I couldn’t bear to think he condemned himself in his father’s voice. “My dear friend,” I began again, and I saw that mask of his blur and soften. “I tell you, that’s not sexuality, and that’s not love. Maybe you are innocent of love.” He looked cowed then, and Artaud rarely backed down. “What you just described, that’s compulsion,” I insisted. “Of course it repulses you because it doesn’t involve you, and that was my marriage! You are not alone in this. You and me, we are the same.”
He looked at the floor. Everyone was saying Artaud’s ideas were incompatible with Surrealism. What a lie that was. What hope did Surrealism have if everyone, even Surrealists, plowed the familiar furrows of opinion about sex? One had to read between, hear between, Artaud’s words. It took effort to understand him. “Sexuality happens between the ears,” I said then, inspired. “The point is not to just touch the body but the consciousness within, that life in someone else we call a person—”
“Yes.” He looked up at me again. “Yes.”
“Yes, it is mental. I think I see now what you mean—but I’ve forgotten your second question.”
He sighed. I knew it wore on him, that people could not keep up with his mental leaps. He did not like to repeat himself but he had to, and especially with me. “There is sexuality in the appearance of a lover, and there is the idea of sexuality before she appears,” he said.
“I think there is always the idea first,” I replied, thinking of Desnos and how his love-poems to Yvonne took him away from loving her into a fantasy of loving her, even before she had withdrawn from public life due to her illness.
Artaud nodded then. “So let me ask it again: Between love with a sexual desire immediately satisfied and a striving for an unearthly fulfillment—for I no longer belong to our species with its limbic drive to procreate—which would you choose? Which?” he pressed.
“The second,” I said. “But I don’t know if I want any desire immediately satisfied, of any kind. I want the rigor of this ultimate mental fulfillment you describe,” I added, “because it isn’t fulfillment. It’s the promise of fulfillment. That’s what you’re after—striving. Never having. Both of you!”
“Oh, I want having,” Desnos insisted as he came back into the room with a coffee press and cups. “Jesus, you two. When you start jabbering it’s like a whole room of people talking.” He plopped down beside me.
“No, you’re not after having,” I retorted. “You suffer for love, Desnos, and you’ll fight for Yvonne forever. And I choose the suffering too, so don’t get so damned defensive.”
“Then I don’t know why you’re grumbling all the time,” Desnos said, “if you ‘choose the suffering.’ And I wish you would hold a pen and suffer on paper sometimes.” That made Artaud point triumphantly at me.
I slouched under their humorous regard then. “Because I need to suffer toward something—someone,” I said. “I need a focus.”
“You need your girl-friend!” Desnos said, and Artaud smiled at me.
We drank coffee and didn’t speak for some time. Then Artaud said suddenly, “I did not mean to suggest you were fortunate in having a compulsion.”
“I did not take it that way,” I hastened to reassure him. “You said what you did with the information you had. Now you know more about me and I do about you.” More than anything I knew he could never wish me harm.
“Of course. Any conclusions I can draw about sex,” he said then, “depends on the circumstances in which I draw them.”
“But I think that’s true of any subject, any conclusion,” I said gently. “You have helped me to see that.”
Desnos was hardly listening. “Your little starfish made a crater! Did it make one of those tunnels?” he asked me. “I’d write a poem about that—sea creatures, tunneling in Bavaria.”
“Those tunnels are called Erdstall, and no, it didn’t,” I said. “Just a crater. And they aren’t tunnels, really—there’s only one way out, the entrance. They don’t go anywhere.”
“Like a spider-hole.” Desnos smiled to himself.
“Wait a minute!” I exclaimed, climbing awkwardly off the cushion. Desnos, pouring more hot water into the press, looked up when I strode to the chair with my coat hanging on it and began to search the pockets. I froze when I felt the spiny, rigid body beneath my fingers.
“What is it?” Desnos asked. I palmed the thing and returned to them. I wanted to show it to both of them at once.
Desnos held out his hand for the tiny, blackened, six-legged creature. With a look of wonder he turned the thing over and over in his hands, then tried to hand it to Artaud. Artaud shook his head and held his blanket tightly around himself, but he stared at the star-creature with as much curiosity. “Keep it,” I said to Desnos. His eyes shone in the light of the candle. Suddenly I imagined a Desnos double, a Desnos twin; I could imagine a Paris full of Robert Pierre Desnoses walking the streets, filling the cafés, declaiming their poetry, and rallying the masses to rise up and march for the heads of these modern literary Girondins.