But what shall become of him?
—Letter, Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poe to Dr. Edouard Toulouse
Dr. Edouard Toulouse was a dapper, pleasant gentleman of average height who had an oval face, a strong chin and twinkling, startling eyes behind round glasses. He left his hat with Catherine and walked right up to me to shake my hand, unintentionally bypassing Franz. He had also been Emile Zola’s doctor. He had always been a reformer, criticizing his colleagues for their indifference and complacency. Most doctors even today merely warehoused mental patients with the bare minimum to sustain life. There was little or no treatment. Toulouse had been prescient; the Great War dumped a mass of disturbed veterans into unprepared French society and Toulouse’s star briefly rose, but ultimately no one listened to him. Toulouse believed in free, outpatient health care and in removing the social stigma associated with mental illness. I could sense his frustration to see this goal stymied by the lack of imagination in his colleagues and by the bureaucracy.
Dr. Toulouse was also one of the first to investigate a link between psychiatric disorders with artistic temperament and with facial features. Like Artaud, he was originally from Marseilles and had been a literature and theatre critic in his youth. When the young Antonin Artaud came to him from Switzerland after the War, the doctor had taken Artaud directly into his home. His journal, Demain, had published the young Artaud’s writings and its editor had been none other than Artaud’s editor-to-be, Jean Paulhan. Demain was a combination of literary and scientific writing. Toulouse believed psychiatry was a region that connected art and science.
“I see myself as a novelist who came to science through the imagination,” Toulouse told us at dinner. His fiction incorporated technical observations. Toulouse had invented the concept biocraty which was a utopian combination of science and technology with some elements of Communism, though not the transfer of the means of production to the proletariat, which he saw as mob rule. Biocraty extolled intellectual openness, representative democracy, physical and mental health, and science as the liberator of mankind.
Reading Demain, I quickly recognized in the young Artaud’s writing his familiar attitudes, particularly in the piece “The Department Store Poison.” I recalled that conversation between Artaud and me many years ago about our mutual loathing of Bon Marché mass-produced goods, “the idiotic sideboard, phony antique brass lamp and other hideous modern furnishings” Artaud had written. Talking so companionably, he and I had been on our way to the Theatre de l’Étoile to see André Breton speak, and Artaud had disclosed his secret only to me, that he’d just landed the role of Massieu.
Toulouse shared some photographs he and his wife had taken of the young poet. In one a youthful, debonair Artaud sported a moustache! “He looks like Eugène Delacroix,” murmured Catherine, but despite myself I saw a resemblance to the young Hitler at this time, with his more conventional moustache and his calm, idealistic eyes. Toulouse recounted for us the day Artaud sneaked away from his secretarial duties at the doctor’s office to explore Paris. Like me, Artaud had met Roger Thurmon on a bridge that day and later encountered André Masson, an original resident at 45 rue Blomet, who would eventually introduce Artaud to André Breton. Artaud also met the influential director Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poe.
“Well,” Toulouse reminisced fondly, leaning back from his empty plate, “actually the young Artaud was not introduced to Lugné-Poe; he sneaked into the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier to introduce himself.”
“Of course he did,” Franz exclaimed. “Ye gods.” He covered his face with his hand and smiled.
Catherine asked, “Who is Lugné-Poe?”
“Experimental theater director of the Symbolist movement,” I answered. “He first staged the play by Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi.”
Toulouse nodded at me in obvious appreciation. “Well, Artaud made such an impression that he won his first stage role, just a walk-on really, that of a young bourgeois awakened in the night. He came back to my house to stay the night as usual, and the next day told me he needed to keep his appointment for rehearsal!” He chuckled with affection. “Artaud worked for free for Lugné-Poe and soon I released him from his duties. The young man was diverging from my opinions anyway. Later Artaud also worked on set and costume design, but soon he broke diverged from the ideas of Lugné-Poe as well. Artaud appreciated Lugné-Poe’s direction, emphasizing gesture and motion as Charles Dullin does, but Artaud did not care much for choice of Strindberg and Ibsen. Too commercial; too much emphasis on dialogue.”
Franz said, “Artaud is idealist to the extreme, and has always used words in a way that he defines them.”
“Oh, yes.” Toulouse nodded. “It was the same with his acting. People called him a bad actor, a ham, but that’s not so. His interpretation is highly subjective, often unnerving, and he is unable to compromise with anyone, even like-minded colleagues.”
“I think,” I jumped in, “that it’s our use of language that is subjective in terms of the singular reality Artaud would reach. For example, whenever he says ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ people think it’s that religious concept which, if ‘saved,’ is lifted out of the body as if the body were not also spirit, necessary to produce that ‘soul’ in the first place. Artaud would destroy the lie that body and consciousness are separate.”
Toulouse turned and blinked at me as if an apparition had spoken and perhaps one had, indeed one had.
After dinner we retired to the front room for coffee and more chat. This was turning into a social call and I was impatient for Toulouse to come to the point. I felt tortured by these stories and especially by the photographs of young Artaud, a handsome and grave twin to the forty-one year-old Artaud who was a prisoner of the state, which felt threatened by a frenzied man’s glossolalia yet would allow Hitler’s terrorists to overrun nation after nation until they could crack their rifle butts finally against our very doors. My hands were as helpless to free my incarcerated friend as they were to pull young Artaud out of these photographs and to the farm of Other Geoffrey, the farm Artaud said he would have liked to see, the farm probably like the little house he rented in Ireland, and show him the effects of solitude, and sexual privation, and paranoiac euphoria.
Seeing my agitation, Catherine and Franz excused themselves at last. Yvonne was at a friend’s house that night, so Toulouse and I had the room to ourselves. The psychiatrist watched as I paged through the issue of Demain again. “You are a strange man, Geoffrey—if you don’t mind my being informal, and frank,” he said. “There is a heaviness to you that reminds me of Antonin Artaud but you are largely silent, whereas he could talk for hours. And you have not asked me the questions I’ve expected you to ask.”
Is that so? “I doubt you have the answers you think I want,” I retorted, looking up from the journal. “I hope you don’t mind my being frank as well.”
Toulouse drummed his fingers against his cheek. “You are very reluctant to criticize him.”
“Oh, I’ve criticized him. I called him a hypocrite to his face, more than once. I accused him of having no heart. I called his beliefs nonsense and we got into a fight. I said cruel things that I regret, and I don’t take his every word as gospel. He’s not a prophet, and I’m not his sycophant. But people always miss his point.”
Toulouse folded his hands in his lap and nodded for me to continue.
I closed the journal in my lap. “He’s against the world—not just society, but life, reality—because pain is his sole reality. He’s against both God and science, for neither offers him a solution. And once people grasped that, they thought he wanted to die but that is not it at all! He has struggled valiantly against suicide.”
“Yes,” said Toulouse, “I saw the force of this man’s will right away. He told me death was no solution and that made me hope for him.”
“Then people thought he advocated a return to pre-birth, some blissful Buddhist state of nonbeing that temporarily attracted him when he was a Surrealist. André Breton was attracted to that too and so was I, but eventually Artaud realized that was just another form, a grist mill, no solution, so now he’s against that.” Toulouse watched as I waved my hands around. I was aware he sought a category for me. Psychiatrists did that for everyone.
I continued, “Buddhism is a religion, though less like a religion than Christianity. Religions fossilize. Artaud has a deep mystical sense, but now he refuses all derivative thought, ritual, theology—I think he discovered that in Mexico. Even paganism was not enough, and he’s not an atheist anymore. His Christianity is not Catholic, not Lutheran, and it’s not ecumenical. What Artaud is after has yet to be invented, by man or by nature. He would seize the very catalyst of change.
“The Surrealists are also against religion, but they merely shun it and accept life without it. I am mostly a contented atheist like Breton, except for Artaud’s pain. Had I never met Antonin Artaud perhaps I would be a follower of Breton. But enjoying a Godless life in the face of my friend’s ongoing suffering seems to me to be as monstrous as being the lone survivor of a traffic accident and praising God for my deliverance. It’s selfish. Something is deeply wrong with life, unjust and ghastly at the bottom of it, even if most of us live well. If it’s ghastly for one—him—it is for us all. And for me, who loves him. Do you see?”
Toulouse looked startled. “I do. Go on, Geoff.”
“I think it goes back to his original complaint, that he observed his thoughts decay. As it turned out they did decay—they went from a state of potential toward distinct forms, expressions, paths, subjects, content. They fossilized, and language fossilizes because thought fossilizes. Because we think with fossilized language, everything is dead, inert. On this lie we have created a dead world. He would seize that moment when something organically forms and reaches for completion but is still capable of being anything, or almost anything. But the frustration becomes, that moment of potential can never be realized. It is a paradox.”
Toulouse took off his glasses. Without them he reminded me quite of my father. “Geoff, you and he are different men. It’s unnerving to hear Artaud’s inner life interpreted by someone else than me or him. You’ve made me remember how perplexed I was by this astonishing youngster who was so downcast about his physical appearance, as if his beauty was a glass prison that people stood and admired, unable to hear him calling them to lift the stones at their feet.” More poetry—Toulouse was speaking it now. “In a way, you are his opposite: you are healthy, yet you reach for his pain to understand it!”
“But isn’t that what you do?” But right then I realized it was not. To truly understand one had to experience, and even I had failed in that. Toulouse did not reach for his patients’ suffering; he led his patients toward art, toward writing, toward conversation sessions and self-talk, but he did not enter their worlds. He wished them instead to enter his, ours, the world to which I so easily belonged but which lied to us in its static charm and repetition, its appearance of having been created from a Thought when it in fact had only half-emerged from a primordial mass that was, itself, merely more fossilized language, a science-sounding echo of that Buddhist pre-birth bliss. Nonexistence was not bliss, and primordial being was not being. These were forms no less than poems or plays and their cheap apologies were called Alpha and Omega. Science was still a prisoner of religion, and the body’s mind was a prisoner of their separation. We needed a new language. No, I had not understood Artaud, and no wonder he had become so frustrated with me.
“Did my brother,” I asked slowly, “ask Dr. Bernard for help with me? Are you here because Franz fears for me? Did Bernard contact you not because of Artaud, but because of me?”
Toulouse’s rose and turned from me. “My God,” he said before he stopped himself. “It is like talking to him after all! It was almost impossible to hide anything from him. Sooner or later he got inside me, found me out, lionized me then accused me—”
“I do not accuse you,” I said. He remained with his back turned. “But I do not lionize you either. Artaud called me the ‘science one’ so you expect me to agree with you, but you were the psychiatrist and he was the patient, and he would not remain the patient, is that it?”
He turned then; his sober look reminded me of Breton’s when I challenged him to our duel. I went on, “But you would remain the psychiatrist—and now you come to me, and find out from what I tell you that he’s your teacher after all.” Toulouse stood beside the overstuffed chair, one hand on its back, the other placing his round glasses into his breast pocket. “Artaud is ill because life contains a plague at its core as true as the beauty also at life’s core, but society would pretend life is only beautiful and we are all marching toward a scientific utopia, and he is just being a spoil sport. But we’re mad to deny the plague. There can be no science without acknowledging Cruelty.”
Toulouse stepped around the chair again and sat heavily back down. I sensed a presence nearby but I could see only the two of us. The doctor leaned his elbows on his knees, peering at me. “The only question left to me is this, Geoffrey: do you intend to keep walking two paths, Artaud’s—life’s ‘plague’—and your own?”
“You’re not getting it. That is the wrong question. We all walk these two paths every second, whether we admit it or not. This is not unique to Antonin Artaud. I didn’t see that at first. I’m not following him but the twin paths of my life—that’s what he wanted. He wants us all to walk ours. But yes, I must keep a door open to show him a way out of misery, if that’s possible.”
“Yet he does not write you. In fact,” Toulouse pointed a finger at me and I felt Artaud’s finger jabbing my chest, “he claims you to be dead. He wrote to my colleague Emile Bernard saying so. You ‘died’ like André Breton. So in this absence of communication, how can you make a way for him?”
In the answering silence he sat back in his chair and I leaned forward in mine. Like him I placed my elbows on my knees and clasped my hands together.
I cannot make a way for him because Artaud has fossilized himself. It came to me like a spoken voice; for the love of God, it came to me spoken vehemently in Artaud’s voice. I saw then how I was wrong. Artaud was no longer the wandering bohemian I had loved and no longer the “mad poet” if he had ever been one. He probably enjoyed his time of greatest potential during the Theatre Alfred Jarry. Perhaps he should have stuck with that project with Vitrac and Aron, accepted the emergency subsidy by René Allendy after their disastrous third season, stayed in collaboration and not set off on his lonely trek. I knew I would always mourn that collaboration suggested to him by Jean-Louis Barrault. Like his thought’s erosion, Artaud’s apocalypse had slowly taken shape, but unlike it the pale Gaul had pressed on and found a form indeed, a straight and narrow road of cheap chastity, and his revolution had found a voice in accusation and paranoia. And once trod this journey closed off all other roads to him until his Day of Reckoning collapsed on him, eroded beneath him. Artaud was now two-dimensional, pedantic, fascistic. Catherine was right about him being a dictator and like one, like Heliogabalus and Cenci, he had lost his mind. Everything I just described to Toulouse was what Antonin Artaud used to be.
If I loved Antonin Artaud—if I had ever loved him, I had to accept him for what he was. Artaud was now Geoffrey, Old Geoffrey, the puritanical son ranting in his hovel and needing rescue from a father. Artaud had saved me, but now he and I had changed places.
“Don’t worry, Toulouse,” I replied. “You can tell my family to stop worrying too. I won’t follow Artaud. For one thing he doesn’t want me to—he told me so—and I’m too much of a coward, anyway! I don’t have to go insane and get locked up because he did that for all of us, but his solution is not a solution. I realize now Artaud is at least partly responsible for what’s happening to him. He is stubborn; he is uncompromising; he plays games and blends fantasy and reality, he works himself up and always needs to be right, and I don’t even know how much of his madness is a parody of madness. Rest assured I’ll tiptoe a little farther out on his precipice than anyone else will and write in my little journal like the coward I am. I cannot follow him anyway—I’m inherently healthy. It revolts him. He and I are as separated as we could ever be, and everything I did and said and the love and even the friendship I tried to show him has been one big failure because he’s in a place where I can no longer reach him. I’m trapped by sanity. That’s my insanity. All right?”
Oh, Geoff. It was just a whisper. I expected it was Catherine, but then I heard her distant voice on the stairs, and Franz answered. It could not have been Suzanne, gone home for the night. It had not been Dr. Toulouse, who sat staring at me with enormous sorrow on his face, for perhaps I was expressing his own failure with Artaud as well. I turned away from that sympathetic glance—Toulouse understood, he did—and saw a tall shadow retreat further into the dark kitchen. Bernard. It had to be Dr. Bernard. So much for doctor-patient confidentiality, but then I was not Toulouse’s patient, and he was not my confidante.
I looked down at the copy of Demain in my lap. “That is for you to keep,” said Toulouse. He stood, and I realized he did so with the full weight of his loss as I sat with mine. I wondered too if this positivist poet-scientist now saw as I did that man’s dream of a free will was the mere contrivance of biological unfolding which operated absent of will. Likewise, André Breton shrank from the Marvelous by dreaming it merely in his head, by putting on an art exhibit. And I, I had misunderstood Artaud’s ripped manuscript—even me. Small wonder Artaud was locked up! Were I running a society that wished to teach its citizens it was possible to choose to be happy and peaceful if they did not make trouble; that they, according to the revised Constitution of Ireland or the laws of France or the Bill of Rights of the United States, could choose among religions like the brands of various skin products; that hard work, or hard politics, or a hard head was going to lift anyone out of starvation, illness, injustice or despair; that God could be summoned by prayers like a pet and the Nazis and the growing menace of Stalin waved away like unicorns; that any utopia could exist; that drugs did not in fact fill a hole in the mind left there by nature; that there was no gold of time denied us and no eroded words that defeated us; were I the authorities I would have imprisoned such a man too. I would have laughed at his words, dismissed them, silenced them too. Where would Artaud lead us?
“Thank you,” I said. I started to rise too but he motioned me to sit.
Toulouse glanced behind me. “You remind me of him. I don’t think I’ve realized until now how much I’ve missed him.” He nodded toward the kitchen and I turned to see the eavesdropper had been replaced by Franz. “But I do not fear for you,” Toulouse added. “You reach into his world anchored firmly in this one. As I do.” He said this with a sidelong glance at my brother who was holding his coat. “And as Breton does. Artaud is very fortunate in his friends! What a comfort it is to see it. It has been a pleasure, truly a pleasure, Geoffrey.” He shook my hand in parting, then took coat and slipped his arms into it. “I sense you may not wish to continue talking, but if you do, remember I am always here. Do not hesitate to contact me. Good night.”
He clapped his hat on his head and nodded to me. Against the night’s chill he held his collar closed. Franz escorted him to the front door, and then I stood up to look out the window. I saw not one but two figures walking in the crisp April air toward the sleek metal vehicle parked before our building.