In early 1938, at the urging of Artaud’s family and with the intercession of Jean Paulhan, Antonin Artaud was finally transferred from the Quatre-Mares asylum at Rouen to Sainte-Anne, an asylum south of Montparnasse, that mini-walled city near the studios of Sonia Mossé and René Thomas. First Artaud’s mother, now almost seventy years old, went to see him, and then the actor Roger Blin who had appeared in The Cenci, and finally Robert Desnos also went to visit Artaud at this holding hospital.
Looking tired and harried, Desnos came to our flat and reported how it went. Artaud had not acknowledged his mother at all. He was so apathetic, nearly catatonic, that the physicians at Quatre-Mares had ruled him autistic yet Artaud had greeted his friends with extravagant warmth. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘You’ve come to take me out of here!’ and he was so joyful, he took my hand,” Desnos told me. Without taking off his coat he slumped down at my little work table in the front room and rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry—I haven’t slept all night thinking about it.
“He’s lucid,” Desnos went on. “He knows where he is and kind of what happened, but he doesn’t want to be called Artaud anymore. He’s created for himself a whole new identity.” He removed his hat and tossed it onto the tabletop, and reached up to scrub his short, tousled hair. “He’s created his own religion in which churches are evil and must be destroyed, and God is evil for creating a world of suffering, and he insists he’s a fanatic but not insane. Oh, I don’t give a rat’s ass about his spirituality,” Desnos groaned as he leaned his head into his hand. “But it’s against the Church and it disturbs his family, so they never want him let out. Artaud hates his doctor, absolutely despises him. That’s Lacan,” he added looking up. “Jacques Lacan—remember Gaston talking about him?”
“Do you mean Gaston Ferdière? I remember Louis talking about Jacques Lacan,” I said.
“Well, Lacan’s a Surrealist, or was. He refused to release Artaud when Gaston spoke to him. Lacan told me Artaud’s case didn’t interest’ him.” Desnos swore then. “Artaud hates this man and I think he is a quack, but his family also wants to keep him there, Geoff!”
“I know they do,” I replied grimly. At first, Artaud’s mother and sister had lobbied hard to get him freed. But now that he was back in Paris they seemed content for him to remain incarcerated. “I’m working on it, believe me; I’ve consulted a lawyer. There’s got to be a loophole we can find. He needs care, but not imprisonment.”
“Don’t let it out that you’ve consulted a lawyer, or his family will retain one of their own. They still have clout,” Rob grumbled. “And you don’t understand the power of the French bureaucracy, Kraut; it exists merely to exist. Bribe-money is what we need.” He leaned his elbows on the table and rested his face on his hands. “Oh God, Geoff, I don’t know what to say. When my visit was over I had to leave him and he begged me not to go. He clutched my arm. He was in tears, and so was I. He said, ‘Don’t leave me in this shithole, I know I was a fucking pain in the ass but they beat me on that ship. They locked me in the captain’s quarters tied up, and beat me.’ Oh, Christ! What could I do?”
Tears came to my eyes as well as I listened.
“Of course I had to leave him. I clung to him and told him I would take him out of there if it was up to me, that all of us would if we could. But I had to tell him to be brave, push him away finally and walk away from him.
“Geoff, Artaud’s lost in there! He doesn’t belong in that terrible place. There’s no therapy; they just get warehoused together until a diagnosis is made and then they’re shipped off to wherever they ship them off to. And where is that going to be? They have him locked up with senile laborers, epileptics, morons—nobody for him to talk to, let alone make friends with. No other poets, not even mad ones. His guards are perfect louts. He tries to write, and the other patients deliberately spill his ink. He writes only with a pencil now, or crayons, but they steal his papers and break the lead, so he’s given up. He just sits around all day, surrounded by dullards and he’s miserable. And when he was at Rouen they shaved his head!”
I closed my eyes and swallowed hard, imagining Artaud reaching up to rake back his hair, once so abundant, and feeling only stubble.
“He’s grown a beard,” Desnos told me.
I replied, “Yes, Blin said that.” Roger Blin had visited Artaud and found him standing forlorn on the green, leaning against a tree and staring past the other inmates playing soccer.
“That’s what really scared me, that he’s changed so much to tolerate a beard,” Desnos said. “But at least they don’t leave him tied up on a bed anymore.” His voice was bitter. For seventeen days at the asylum in Le Havre, before his transfer to Quatre-Mares in Sotteville-lès-Rouen, the staff had left Artaud bound in a straitjacket on a bed alone with his feet tied to the foot, attended to only when he was fed and cleaned up. Small wonder he indulged in hallucinations about armies of his friends led by André Breton storming the hospital grounds to come to his rescue! He had “seen” Breton being shot while trying to free him; he had “heard” the actress Collette Proust being hacked to death with an axe outside his cell. Small wonder he complained about mistreatment, about being taunted and attacked by male nurses, one of whom he claimed kicked him in the testicles, which only served to strengthen the speculation by his doctors that he was paranoid.
Now he was calling himself “Antonin Nalpas” or signing his letters with three asterisks or going without a name at all, and the people he was calling his true family included only those that he still considered to be loyal friends. A danger to society, this man? And yet I could understand Artaud’s mother and his sister, their reasoning, their pain. It wasn’t hard to figure out what Madame Artaud was probably thinking: That man who says such terrible things, who pretends not to know who I am, who blasphemes God, that’s not my son. It’s not possible to hate a mother so much. He’s mad because that is not he, and the doctors will restore him to me, my real son who believes in Jesus and who loves me. Anyone who knew Artaud knew the sarcasm that beneath what he did, the snide humor and his idiosyncratic take. He did believe in Jesus, a Son against the Father. And this talk of him being a genius, even a prophet or a saint? Madame Artaud and Marie-Ange were good Catholic women and they believed in prophets; they prayed to saints every day, but it couldn’t be true for him. Antonin Artaud, of course, could not be one of them, not my son. Other mythical sages could adorn the walls of sanctuaries and prayer books, but not my brother. And of course Artaud loved his mother, his family; he hated them with a deep love. Did they ask themselves why?
“I wish Justine was here,” was all I could say.
Desnos lifted his head. He was weeping. Tears ran liberally down his cheeks and dripped off his nose and he wiped them without a sound, pulling a hand across his face and then pinching his nostrils. “So do I.”
“If she hadn’t disappeared I think things would not have gone this far. She was always better at talking to him than anyone else. After he withdrew from me—”
“He withdrew from me, too!” quavered poor Desnos. “After you spoke to me about his nightmares he initially followed my advice, but later he refused my help. He rebuffed Landis, too, and Breton. He pulled away from Barrault and Balthus and Sonia and even René Thomas. Then he started writing all those ‘spells.’ No matter what, it would have gone that far! He pushed it.”
This shocked me, but I didn’t comment. “If we could find Justine, then maybe—” Without conviction I let my voice trail away.
“Geoff, I think she’s dead!” Desnos said. The tears remained unwiped as he sucked in his lips. I stopped in the center of the room; I had not realized I was pacing compulsively back and forth. Catherine’s form was in the doorway as I sank down slowly into the chair by our small, ornate and unused fireplace.
“We don’t know that,” I whispered, and he glared at me as if I told a lie. I did not want to tell him Breton still searched for information on Justine so I was left with no words of comfort for him. “Stop torturing yourself, Rob.”