Cards on the Table

Mary Ann Caws

  • Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvellous in Everyday Life by Katharine Conley
    Nebraska, 270 pp, £37.95, March 2004, ISBN 0 8032 1523 1

This engrossing book sets out to claim something for its subject that no other English-language publication has even thought of. I do not believe that any among those of us who have written on Surrealism in general and on Robert Desnos in particular, admiring though we are of this poet who was the first to perform automatic sleep speaking (and always outperformed anyone and everyone at it) has wanted to make Conley’s claim, or indeed anything like it. So, were there nothing else to recommend it – which is very far from being the case – her book would still be worth noting and commenting on.

Here’s the claim: that Surrealism as conceived of and practised by Desnos (which Conley terms ‘Desnosian Surrealism’) is not only a fitting rival to ‘Bretonian Surrealism’ – that’s the version most of us subscribe to, and call simply ‘Surrealism’ – but surpasses it in its relationship with, and conception of, the world beyond its own borders. To go along with this entails a belief in the all-importance of the original sleep experiments (a belief initially held by André Breton) and in Desnos’s admirable attempt to communicate in the public domain (Breton, on the other hand, was caught between his wish to manifest Surrealism to the public and his refusal to engage with established means of communication: for example, the kind of radio work that Desnos undertook with the aim of making Surrealism better known and better understood). What is certain is that Desnos continued unwaveringly in his own conception of Surrealism until his death from typhoid fever in Terezin concentration camp. His courage and generosity were subsequently recorded by many of those who had been in the camp with him.

In his first Manifesto, Breton defined the major component of Surrealism as automatism. Desnos, according to Conley, ‘spoke, drew and wrote automatically . . . effortlessly, without having to think about it or plan it,’ whereas Breton remained a ‘rationalist pedagogue’. Such pedagogy was, Conley claims, foreign to what Surrealism wanted itself to be. Conley is right about this. Desnos and others accused Breton of behaving as if he were ‘the pope of Surrealism’, its controller and manager. Breton’s programme was absolute: he decided where and when the group should meet, who was and wasn’t included, what they should discuss and for how long, what they should drink at the obligatory reunions held at the hour he appointed, what they should be on the lookout for on expeditions, and so on, even down to intimate sexual details. It sounds terrible, and no rebel against systems, of whatever kind, should feel at ease with its strictures or its excommunications. I once began an essay on conceptions of woman in Surrealist art with Breton’s response to Pierre Unik’s query about what women liked, which was something to the effect that it was extraordinary even to consider the question. How could any sane, unbourgeois, rebellious critic possibly remain devoted to such an exaggeratedly macho movement? From a feminist point of view, clearly we should not. Far better the androgynous leanings of someone like Desnos, eager to unite the two sexes in his own sensibility – just like our all-time heroine Virginia Woolf.

But, but, but: when I remember how my fascination with Surrealism started I have to confess that it was with Breton’s face. I fell in love with his face. Then with his writing, that style (perhaps a bit pompous) that I longed to (and did subsequently, rather often) translate. Then with the whole thing: how the face related to the language, how Jacqueline Lamba – his second wife, whom I knew, loved and spent a great deal of time with – admired and in fact adored him even after they had separated. So, I have put my personal Surrealist cards on the table.

Conley, who devoted herself to automatism in her last book, The Automatic Woman (1996), is and has every right to be more interested in automatism than I am. I base my lack of commitment to it on two things, textual and personal. First, on Breton’s latter-day confession that, for him, automatic writing was a ‘catastrophe’. And second, on my own experience as a budding scholar of Surrealism, meeting a post-1966 Surrealist group in La Coupole, and being invited (commanded, actually) to play at automatic writing in the game of the exquisite corpse. (You write down the first part of a sentence, for example, a noun, then fold the paper so the person to your right can put down an adjective, and that person folds the paper so the next person can put down the verb. Original example: Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.) Well, the point was to have the word you put down come to mind spontaneously, and my spontaneous word, whatever it was, seemed to my group far too ‘boring’ a choice. No new wine for me! No exquisite collective work in the future! My group dynamic was faulty. I realised that enforced spontaneity was not all it was cracked up to be, and Breton seemed to me exactly right on that matter as on so many others. And yet. An anecdote that René Char once told me stuck in my mind. When he and Paul Eluard and Breton had written a piece together, it was Breton who had wanted to sign his name. OK, so Breton was a bit of a prig compared to the others. Desnos was by far the more engaging person.

As for the notion that Surrealism was and always wanted to be a conversation, I am in total agreement. This term, to which many of us are firmly committed (as Surrealists practising now or having once practised, as theorists, and above all as feminists), is so powerful as to have inspired book jacket after book jacket illustrated with Vanessa Bell’s famous group portrait called, quite naturally, Conversation. This is an important point in Surrealism, with all its exclusions and inclusions. We all wanted to be included: translators, commentators, historians, critics, art historians, professors – all of us. And we still do. Breton might have excluded us, and Desnos was the one who reached out. No quarrel here.

I am especially intrigued by a footnote about Desnos’s ease at performing during the sleep experiments of 1922. Conley wonders if there was some pretence here. She puts it better: ‘While he may have occasionally simulated autohypnosis in order to push himself into a "real” second state, he found simulated and real automatic "dreams” equally productive of poetic material.’ This casts a whole other (and, from my perhaps perverse point of view, more revealing) light on Desnos; on Breton’s admitted envy of his ease at performing in these sleep experiments; on performance as such; on self-hypnosis as such; and on Surrealism’s initiatory moves. Of course, we have no way of knowing if Conley is right, whatever our initial suspicions may have been. But would it not be an act of supergenius quality to be able to assume this state when that entire group of enthusiasts was watching, admiring, envying? I may not have been able to fall in love with Desnos’s face, as I could with his poems of 1926 and 1927, and with the face of Breton, but I am captivated by the idea of a simulated state of self-hypnosis so convincing that a whole way of looking at the marvellous sprang from it.

Conley is especially informative about the events leading up to Desnos’s arrest, his willingness to be taken so as to save his beloved, and his time in the camps. She has, about this heart-rending topic as about everything else in this book, done a great deal of research. A seemingly small thing is of crucial importance here: the myth that has built up around one poem by Desnos, sometimes called his ‘last poem’. There is a problem: this poem (the first line of which Conley translates as ‘I have dreamed so very much of you’ and I render as ‘I have so often dreamed of you’) is a rewriting of a poem dating not from the concentration camp, but from 1926. It is a product of Desnos’s involvement in the Surrealist group, and his hopeless love for Yvonne George, a singer of sea shanties at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. The history of its refinding, rewriting, translation in a slightly different version after it was published in Czech by Joseph Stuna – a student who found Desnos in the camp – and redating, is a complicated one, and less interesting than the result of this complication: the poem is inscribed on the wall of the Monument des Déportés in Paris. Eluard’s poem ‘Liberté’ (‘I was born to know you/to name you/Liberty’) is similarly celebrated. It was written for Eluard’s wife Nusch, then retooled as a poem in the name of freedom. Conley quotes Eluard in 1952, speaking of his poem of 1941: ‘Thus the woman I loved incarnated a desire that was greater than herself.’ Desnos’s poem about one woman becomes, in the rereading and rewriting, a poem about another. The myth of the poem includes the celebration of its author, as a non-Jew who doesn’t disturb the hidden remains of anti-semitic sentiment in France, as a catalyst for the idea of all France as Resistance France, as an aid to the useful forgetting of the collaboration of many Frenchmen in the round-up of Jews, and so on.

Conley is careful in recounting details of both Desnos’s life and the texts she chooses, clearly elucidating them and the stories behind Rose Selavy, the experiments in collective writing at the rue du Château, the split between the rather prudish Breton and the definitely not prudish Georges Bataille (‘Bataillean Surrealism’ insists on the carnal and the low: see Rosalind Krauss’s brilliant studies in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, with the big toe, which was important to Bataille as being closest to the earth, adorning its cover) and many other crucial incidents. I would take issue only with Conley’s belief (qualified, however, by a ‘perhaps’) that the poems of Contrée, his last volume, ‘represent Desnos’s greatest poetic achievement’. My very definite opinion is that the poems of 1926-27, grouped in A la mystérieuse and Les Ténèbres are insuperable, both as poetry and as Surrealist poetry. But they were the product of the as yet unpublic Desnos, and so closer to Bretonian Surrealism. They weave contraries of presence and distance, of the real and the unreal, of day and dream, of desire and desired into a net of simple intensity reminiscent of baroque art and poetry at its finest. Conley dwells at useful length on the importance of the radio broadcasts he made after leaving the group for the development of his poetry, which gradually took on a more formal shape.

This argument about Desnos’s best poetry, like the one about what Breton and Desnos contributed to Surrealism, and to our idea of it, can of course be seen as of merely academic interest, but these minor/ major arguments matter. Given the exaltation of the marvellous in the everyday moment that was so intensely important to Surrealism, and which is embodied in the work of Desnos and other Surrealist poets, the historical facts and interpretations of them, including all the legends, matter. ‘Surrealism was a way of walking down the streets of Paris and seeing the marvellous in the everyday.’ This was its (and not just Desnos’s) ‘lyric behaviour’. How you define the everyday, whether it has the marvellous included in it, or whether you treat it as something enhancing and epiphanic, casting a new light on what used to be the dull old everyday, is the essential concern of the Surrealism that remains so alive for some of us, whatever face we read in it.