Previous scene here.
I walked to the end of rue Blomet and turned right onto the rue de Javel where I found a weather-battered movie house advertising Abel Gance’s Lucrezia Borgia. I went in.
The film was simply dreadful. It had none of the scope or deftness of Gance’s grand epic, Napoléon. I found it unbelievable that this slight, tawdry drama boasted the same director.
Under the flimsy pretext that Caesar Borgia was a beast, scantily-clad extras cavorted around the Borgia pool and women’s blouses were ripped to their waists so that beast could apply his tongue to a succession of nipples. I did not recognize Justine in it and I wondered if her scenes had been cut. That was a mercy. Lucrezia was a beautiful, boring poisoner and tyrant. I spent much of the show wishing she would drown in her own pool.
There was little of Artaud in it and when he appeared, he was staring over my head with wide eyes beneath his monk’s hood, nostrils flaring, his jaw set as he declaimed in his deep baritone voice God’s commandment to overthrow the Borgias. This was a gentler portrayal of Savonarola, as a reformer, a voice of conscience beloved by the people who chafed under a corrupt ruling family, a Savonarola pleading for love and justice and a return to the sacred. It was like watching the beautiful Father Massieu race Joan to the stake, driven by similar voices and refusing to stay silent, heedless of the danger that gathered like pestilence around him. Nin had once accused Artaud of being a Savonarola and here he was, again her victim, while like a cinematic Nin, Lucrezia Borgia turned away from Artaud and left him to his fate.
When they burned Artaud’s Savonarola at the stake, Artaud’s shaking, afflicted gasps from his tightened face tore through me like hot metal. There was a sense of inevitability in his death as there had been in Joan that made me recall that little essay on horror he never published. The slow burning to death of Savonarola was accompanied by the wails and the lamenting of the citizens who loved him. Since this was Artaud’s final scene, and because I could take it no longer, I walked out.
The sun was down, and in the cool night air I was momentarily disoriented after emerging from that hot little cinema house. I walked carelessly, eyes down, and almost bumped into a man on the sidewalk. “Excuse me,” I grunted, but when I tried to sidestep him he moved to stand in front of me again.
“And here he is,” sneered the figure as I looked up in surprise. “Leering at my body’s ghost on film and then sneaking out before the end, like a furtive businessman emerging from having masturbated in a prostitute’s cell along the rue Saint-Denis.”
“Oh, hardly!” I shot back as Artaud smiled at me. I didn’t like the accusation in his face. Did he have to make everything so ugly? Did he actually think I would revel in this failure by Gance? As it was, Artaud’s performance was the best thing in it. To cover my feelings I tossed out, “An unsavory film like that, undeserving of you, is very good for public chastity, especially mine. A film like that makes me want to become a monk myself. Savonarola is a perfect role for you after all—because like you he became the victim of his own fervor. ”
Artaud glared at me, and I shriveled inside then. He pointed to the essay I had automatically withdrawn from my jacket. “I assume that’s for me,” he sneered. With a shrug I handed the pages to him. That went well. Inwardly I groaned. I would go back to Barrault and have him reach out to this ragamuffin instead.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I told Artaud. “Watching you tortured set me off. Don’t you know I value anything you’ve done—any work, any writing, any film?”
Without a reply Artaud wandered off toward the elevated metro stop, examining his pages between puffs at his cigarette as he walked, and ignoring me completely. Half-heartedly I followed him, but when he climbed the steps to the platform I remained below. I leaned against a support and stared out at the street, seeing the distant Eiffel Tower throw out its nightly sweeping beam in a circle from its summit like a lighthouse.
Suddenly a shower of shredded paper fell across my shoulders and into my hair. I caught a glimpse of the handwriting on them and looked up in shock. The ripped pages of Artaud’s “No More Masterpieces” floated down from above. Carried by the wind, they blew into the street. I started forward to chase after the scraps and heard Artaud’s mocking voice from above: “He values anything I’ve done!” I looked up to see his brilliant smile above the railing. “A literary mind wants a body of literature!” Artaud shouted.
Laughter followed his words like an echo—laughter at me from him, and at me from the onlookers at the metro stop above who would normally be making fun of him. I ran up the stairs to him then, but I reached the platform just before he stepped into the gaping mouth of the train car and stood triumphantly inside. The doors slid together between us. In my hands I was holding a few useless scraps of “No More Masterpieces” as the train car carried Artaud away. It glinted over the tracks and disappeared.