The Sainte-Anne hospital was a walled compound like a mini-medieval city. It stood not far from the studios of René Thomas and Sonia Mossé. Desnos told us about it after we met. Sainte-Anne had been constructed in the thirteenth century and was named after, of all people, the patron saint Anne of Austria, that Spanish Hapsburg princess and the mother of King Louis the XIV. It had locked away the “alienated ones,” then been a farm and carpenter’s shop for the inmates to work in, was burned in a fire and reconstructed, then designated solely as a mental hospital by Napoléon. The secret of Sainte-Anne was its honeycomb of underground passages. Some led the Catacombs and others to the neighboring prison, with locked doors between. Desnos possessed soap-pressed copies of the keys.
Éluard distributed flashlights outside the Dôme, Artaud’s preferred café. We all wore dark clothes and soft-soled shoes. “We have to be prepared,” Desnos told us, “for Artaud to be awake, and because of that for other patients to be awake. He sometimes preaches or sings at night and keeps everyone up.” He looked at me then. “You look like a buzzard, Weidmann.” I had brought a dark kerchief to cover my face in the hope of not distressing my captive, but then I wondered if I looked like one of the assassins from The Cenci. The darkest coat I could find actually belonged to Kiki, who had kept it from her days with Man Ray. It was Man’s black fringed poncho.
Desnos led us to the entrance of the Catacombs. This was the first locked gate. He opened the same metal door through which the tourists entered and led us down the metal spiral staircase. The tight stone passage at the bottom, and the bone-lined rooms we were to enter, were lit for visitors by strung lights, but these were turned off now. Holding his flashlight on us, Desnos made us stand in a line and pass along in turn a long cloth sash. Each man wound it around himself and tied it at his waist. “There are no lights except our flashlights, and there are tunnels that branch off,” Desnos warned. “Those are closed to tourists because one can get stuck, or the floors are a mere crust which could, and in some cases have, caved in. I don’t want us shouting to each other down here, either. There is a minimal grave shift staff. We march in step and if anyone falters, we stop as a group. We go as fast as the slowest man. I’ll count.”
He literally counted out our steps and we marched slowly behind him like soldiers. I placed my hand on Louis’s shoulder ahead of me, and felt Éluard’s hand grasping me from behind. I thought this would take forever, but Desnos assured us a slow and steady pace would transport us more quickly than a disordered dash through this maze. He also warned us that once in the ward we were to keep our talk to a minimum and to ignore the patients outright—this made it more likely for them to mistake us for nurses. “Jesus,” I heard Louis mutter at this. Our flashlights winked in the empty eye sockets of skulls, and sent spears of light along long bones.
Desnos came to a second door, a short and unobtrusive grey metal door set in the stone to one side of a bone display. It looked like it would house electrical panels but it opened to an expansive and dimly-lit stone passage. Éluard and I really had to duck to get through. Then we could unwind ourselves and walk two abreast.
Desnos stopped us and reached grimly into his pocket. “First I need to show all of you something. We have to work together on this. I’m sorry.” From his pocket he withdrew a folded piece of cloth. As we stood in the faint light with our flashlights pointed to his hands, he unfolded the cloth to reveal a syringe. “The rest of you will have to hold him, and someone will have to cover his mouth.” Desnos looked especially at me.
“Are you mad, Robert?” Éluard gasped.
Desnos looked steadily back at him. “Listen to me: Artaud might—will fight. We can’t have that.”
Éluard’s face was furious. “Who says Artaud has been singing or shouting here anyway? That pig, Lacan, whom he hates?”
“I hate him, too!” said Desnos.
Louis intoned somberly, “Men, we are wasting time.”
I had never seen such despair on the face of Robert Desnos. “Paul, would you prefer that we gag Artaud and place him in a straitjacket?”
“Éluard, face facts,” I said. “Desnos has thought this through and so have I. If we cannot control Artaud and he agitates the others, we’ll never be able to take him out of here.”
Éluard fell silent and tromped angrily beside me while ahead of us Louis and Desnos exchanged a distraught look. Desnos was focused, his stride purposeful, and Louis was his normal grounded self. I worried about Éluard, the wild card. Even if we succeeded we didn’t have a plan for where Artaud could stay. I was hoping Jean Paulhan, when he knew, would come up with something, a place in the country and someone to look after him, perhaps Dr. Toulouse or a colleague of Toulouse. We could never count on Ferdière again, but surely Bernard would help us, and Franz would help. If we riled the other patients which sounded likely even if Artaud was calm, Artaud could get hurt. If we didn’t remove him tonight and the staff at Sainte-Anne even imagined the hospital had been breached we might never see Artaud again. With an effort I banished these worries and focused on our task at hand.
The third door was an old wooden door with an old fashioned keyhole, requiring the largest, fairy-tale third of the four keys Desnos carried.
This fortress-door opened onto steps leading up to a modern tiled hallway, well-lit and clean. I was reminded of a painting Landis had done very similar to this castle door with the antiseptic hallway beyond. Desnos turned and with resolution met each of our eyes. Then he led us down that hall and up some stairs. We turned a corner. I saw a gate made of interlocking chains had been drawn aside and we walked through it. An empty desk presented itself in lieu of the nurse who had taken Desnos’s money. We walked past that squat authoritarian rectangle and past the closed office door beside it. Farther down the hall, Desnos placed his final key into a plain, modern metal door with a high, small glass window.
When I trained my flashlight inside I saw lined cots throughout the room, along the walls and in the middle of the floor. It was quiet. The men were sleeping, although there occasionally came a sigh or an unhappy moan among the breaths and snores. “I’m going to check the office,” Desnos said with his lips close to my ear. The catch in his voice told me he felt something was wrong.
“Did they drug the men?” Louis asked in a whisper. Éluard and I went inside.
The three of us went round and round, shining our flashlights into each sleeping face. Around us the men moaned, coughed, belched, and passed gas. The room smelled sour and was hot and close. It was foul with body odor, but at least Artaud was sleeping in warmth. We had to move very carefully to avoid the pans set on the floor for emergency human waste. It must have taken us at least twenty minutes to search each sleeping form. “This place is a cesspool,” Éluard hissed in disgust when he and I were close to each other again. I couldn’t bear to think of Artaud scrounging food and concealing his writings in this stink.
A figure sat up in a cot and cringed from the circles of our flashlights as they converged. I caught my breath to see a pair of white, long-fingered hands rake the air before a frightened face, but it was a young man with a thin body and large, luminous eyes. “Shhhh,” said the voice of Desnos suddenly, and with catlike movements so uncharacteristic of him he walked to the man’s cot. Desnos knelt down to look into the youth’s face. “We’re searching for buried treasure. We’ll give you a share. But you have to be quiet, or the rest of the pirates will steal our loot.”
“You’re here to rob us!” quavered the youth. “I tell you we have nothing! They take our possessions from us.” He sounded perfectly lucid, though frightened. His pleading eyes stared from beneath his bald head.
I felt a rush of pity for him, so young and alone. “We’re not here to steal,” I whispered, walking up to him and pointing my light at my face. “We’ve come to take a friend out of here.” Éluard waved an arm at me but I ignored him. “Help us! Can you point us to him?”
“Geoff, it’s too late,” whispered Desnos. I turned to him in consternation.
The young man said, “Take me out of here, too! I will help you if you help me. Please. I don’t belong here.” His hand clutched my sleeve. “I was arrested stealing food. Stealing food. They were to take me to jail, not here! This is a mistake!”
Desnos stood up again. “Artaud’s not here, Geoff,” he said in the most terrible monotone. “We’re too late. Artaud’s been transferred to another asylum.”
Oh, fuck! It was my voice, but not shouted aloud. My lips shouted it into my heart as I turned away. “Geoff, calm down,” gasped Louis. His voice was weirdly high-pitched.
“Are you sure?” asked Éluard. “Maybe they’re holding him somewhere else around here.”
“The paperwork is on the desk,” replied Desnos. “He was taken away yesterday with two other patients. There’s a letter to his mother, too—in a sealed envelope, but I opened it. His condition is ‘incurable paranoid schizophrenia’ and he’s been sent to an asylum outside of Paris. They always,” he concluded grimly, “inform the family last.”
“All right, let’s get the fuck out of here,” said Louis with a gentling hand on my arm, “before we’re all caught.”
I knelt down by the youth. He was shaking, and I knew I was. “Please tell us. We are looking for Antoine Nalpas, or Antonin Artaud, or the man with the asterisks. He’s around forty but looks younger, with black hair and blue-green eyes. Is he here? Can you lead us to him?”
“They took him away. He was my friend.” The young reached up and clutched my collar. “He said I shouldn’t be here. Please help me!”
“Artaud is gone, Geoff,” Desnos told me. “We have to go.”
I turned and handed Louis my flashlight. “Be very quiet,” I said to the young man, and I knelt down to slip an arm beneath his shoulders and his knees before anyone could object. “Put your arms around my neck.” I lifted him. He wore only a nightshirt. Louis, wide-eyed, shone both beams in my path as I made my way gingerly to the door. Éluard preceded us, making sure pans were not in my path for me to kick. Desnos followed behind, his shoulders slumped. I didn’t know if they agreed with my action or if they just did not care anymore.
When we exited the ward, Desnos turned to that door again and held the key up then stopped, unable to turn it to trap them all. “Lock it, Desnos,” I said with a dry mouth, “or they might place greater restrictions on the patients tomorrow.” He did, but he held the key as if it left a stain on his fingers. I added grimly, “Your bribed nurses took your money even though they knew Artaud was being carted out of here.”
“Oh, fuck them!” Desnos hissed. He wiped his eyes miserably, his methodical command slipping away. “Listen—don’t follow me. Just go down the stairs there and out that side door you’ll find, and keep straight. Cross the yard, scale the wall, and get him to Kiki’s. I’ll retrace our steps to lock all the doors behind me.” Obediently we filed down the steps to the door which led outside. The patient was barefooted so I continued to carry him until we had crossed the complex. Éluard and I helped him and Louis scale the high stone wall.
Author’s note: Marcel Mouloudji, the young man in this story, was taken in by Desnos and Youki as a young child during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. He likely never met Antonin Artaud, and his presence here in the Sainte-Anne asylum is poetic license to bring out certain themes, as is this fictional attempt to smuggle Artaud out.