In April the German air force, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed the town of Guernica in Spain which was the center of Basque culture and also the northern bastion of the Republican resistance movement. The two-hour assault by a squadron of Junkers warplanes leveled the town. The young men were away fighting and its remaining inhabitants, mostly women, children and the elderly, were gathered at the center for market day. They were unable to flee the barrage and were cut down like wheat. When the reports came in I felt revulsion and shame. Guernica was a quiet village, ten miles from the front and miles away from any factory or strategic target. The world saw this act for what it was and condemned this merciless slaughter of innocent civilians.
In May, the Italian army entered Addis Ababa and Mussolini proclaimed victory in his war against Ethiopia. Now I hated him as completely I hated Hitler, but again no nation opposed this threat, not even the League of Nations. The only good news was the departure of the technologically advanced airship Hindenburg from Frankfurt on its first scheduled trip to and from North America. This launch was for me a small point of pride in a cacophony of barbarism, but then of course three days later the newsreel of the Hindenburg’s fiery collapse circled the world faster than any vehicle could. The world mourned, and so did my family and me. I mourned the passengers and crew of the Hindenburg, I mourned the people of Guernica, I mourned the nation Germany used to be, I mourned Artaud’s aborted marriage and I mourned our friendship, and especially I mourned both the religion I once clung to and the rational cosmos that once fascinated me before both were shown to be, in the figure of my unstable friend, a lifelong torture rack with No One tightening the chains.
Louis sought me out again to cheer me up, and we had supper at his place. “Do you know Artaud nearly got arrested for panhandling yesterday?” Louis told me. “A cop snuck up on him, but suddenly Artaud was all smiling politeness and he convinced the numbskull he was a police officer too, working undercover. He handed the cop some papers and then he gave him the slip, and—this is right in front of the Dôme mind you, while we—Éluard, Nusch, Sonia—watched from the window. The cop unfolded these ‘orders’ to read, ‘Shit-shat from your mother’s twat, happy birthday!’”
We both burst into laughter. “Artaud never received any police summons,” Louis gasped out. “ I assume the cop was too embarrassed to admit to his superiors he’d been had.”
For a few minutes we just leaned on our elbows and guffawed helplessly. It felt good to laugh so hard; it felt good to be pulled out of my dark well. Louis wiped away tears, his body heaving. “Christ, there will never be another man like Antonin Artaud, not in a million years. He has not lost his touch. You know, Geoff, some people are saying the panhandling and his screaming in the street like a doomsday prophet is one big act.”
We looked at each other in silence as I mulled this over. At length I shook my head. “I don’t believe it.”
“I don’t believe it either.”
“The panhandling, maybe,” I added, “Soupault did that—but…” My voice trailed off. As soon as the denial was out I remembered a scene Artaud had made in Montparnasse when he was still working on the Theatre Alfred Jarry. A band of clowns had been trouncing up and down the boulevard and acting out little scenes with the passersby. One had pantomimed pouring something into Roger Thurmon’s hands and into Justine’s. Justine had lifted her hands and pretended to eat the treats but Roger had looked down at his cupped palms with disgust, then discreetly tossed his nonexistent gift aside. Watching from the Dôme, we Louis and Desnos and I had giggled at Roger’s improvisation but then Artaud had launched himself from nowhere to land prone on the pavement where he pretended to desperately grab and devour the nonexistent refuse. “Please, sir!” Artaud had blared then, rocketing toward Roger on his knees and clutching Roger’s sleeve, “may I have some more? Help a starving man!”
I remembered how Roger had uncharacteristically blushed while trying to dislodge Artaud’s grip. “Jesus fucking Christ, Artaud, knock it off.” Our giggling inside the Dôme had turned into laughter as Roger irritably tried to pull away while Artaud clutched at him on his knees, pleading and making people on the street stare at the two of them. A few had glared at Roger as if he was a monster rebuffing this desperate beggar and I could tell Artaud was amused by this. In the act of pulling away, Roger had lost his balance and sat down hard on the pavement. Then Artaud had leaped up, crossed the sidewalk in two steps, and chivalrously held the door of the Dôme open for Justine while smiling back at Roger in triumph.
“Maybe it is an act—I don’t know!” I said to Louis. All I knew was I couldn’t stand to be around Artaud’s act anymore. The more he babbled about magic and Tarot cards, runes, symbols and the end of the world the more tiresome he became. It repulsed and disappointed me. The animal, once free, had been tamed and now it was doing circus tricks. It did not matter to me if Artaud feigned this or not. Foujita was rumored to be returning to his Catholic faith and that disgusted me as well. He and Artaud were giving up.
Nevertheless I looked forward to anything Artaud wrote. Writing, I was sure, would center him again.