In a small storefront on the rue de Grenelle where the Surrealist Research Bureau made its headquarters, we sat on hard chairs with about a dozen young men in a cramped room, and were subjected to a long and tedious lecture by the founder of the movement, André Breton. He seemed a pleasant enough man, heavy-set and earthy, his russet hair rising back from his face in waves as if he constantly faced a strong wind, his smile having a certain hilarity behind it—but as a speaker he was dull. And even when he admitted this in his speech, it made for a dim joke.
Aside from a complete negation of the norms of bourgeois life, the goals of Surrealism were still not clear to me, even after we sat there for what felt like hours. It seemed that the movement had started out with a playfulness that was slowly being strangled by Breton’s creeping orthodoxy. These men were interested in consciousness, in tapping the powers of the unconscious and becoming willing mediums for its revelation of what they called the Marvelous—but the more Breton expounded on the hidden, fantastic reality he believed existed behind normal everyday appearances, the more dry it all began to sound, and I waited in vain for an explanation of how Communism fit into all of this. Breton’s talk about dreams was interesting, but apparently his idea of the future was a placid society served by adoring, sexually uninhibited, and obedient maidens. Justine fairly bristled with rage as he rattled on.
When I began to yawn, Desnos smothered a laugh and surreptitiously handed me an early copy of La Révolution surréaliste, the group’s official publication. I saw that it consisted mostly of Artaud’s writing and his. My glancing through this during Breton’s speech earned us some seriously disapproving looks from the other members, while Desnos smiled back at them in all innocence.
Good God! I thought as I absorbed the pamphlet, ignoring Breton entirely now. The language in the pamphlet was shocking, outrageous, offensive, and damned funny. At least it was interesting. It appeared to me that Breton headed a new Nicene Council that was about to strike the apocrypha from its bible.
After the lecture, Justine looked on in amazement as the group broke up, some to go to the theatre, others sitting down to play checkers or cards or do a little automatic writing. “That’s it?” she exclaimed.
“Want to leave?” Roger asked immediately. He held her coat for her and she slipped her arms quickly into it. As we headed for the door some pale young man materialized before us. “Monsieur Breton does not want guests to leave at this time,” he warned in an ominous tone, and it made me want to laugh, all this superseriousness. From behind our guard another voice hissed, “Oh, screw Breton—I don’t want her to leave!” That end of the room erupted into masculine laughter over the admiring glances at Justine. Having decided to remain at the Bureau, Desnos waved good-bye to us and gestured for me to keep the pamphlet. We pushed past our sentry and were free again.
When the three of us reached the sidewalk, Justine could hold her anger back no longer. “What a disappointment! So much for radical ideas. I’ve never heard anyone sound so bourgeois while criticizing the bourgeoisie.” Her words were punctuated by the clacking of her high heels on the pavement.
“You’re absolutely right, Justine.” Roger looked up at the sky as thunder rumbled faintly.
“Dreams, eh? The unconscious? As long as it’s mired down in unintelligible esoteric fluff, removed from anything real—”
“All right, Justine!” Roger exclaimed, still amused. “We hear you! We agree!”
Justine huffed, her breath flying past her face in the chilly evening air, and huddled deeper into her coat.
“By the time Breton’s through with that bunch, there won’t be a true Surrealist left,” Roger told us. “He isn’t good at putting ‘movement’ into the movement, but he is good at defending its purity. I wish Artaud, Desnos, and Roger Vitrac would get together and expel him.”
“Would he leave?” Justine asked cynically.
“No, but it would be a beautifully subversive act, considering all three of them have been accused by Breton of not being subversive enough.”
Subversion. Revolution. Movement. Loyalty. “What utter childishness!” I burst out suddenly. Artaud’s piece in the pamphlet came back to me: “We don’t give a shit about your canons, index, sin, confessional, clergy, we are thinking of another war, war on you, Pope, dog… The petrified Spirit cracks beneath the great stones crushing it and it’s because of your decadent logic. Leave us be, sirs, you are only usurpers. Who are you to codify intelligence, to dole out diplomas of the soul?” Who were they, indeed. Artaud’s followers were doing to Surrealism exactly what Artaud criticized the Church for doing to metaphysics: they were turning the mysteries of life into tradition, into petrified ritual and empty convention. How much braver than the rest of them Artaud was, this man who slept in the street, who wandered about the stage like a somnambulist.
“Backbiting doesn’t strike me as very subversive,” I snapped, while Roger and Justine listened gravely. “These men should focus on their enemy, if they’re serious about dismantling a dead society, and not attack each other like vultures. Why form a group at all if you’re just going to eat each other alive?” But the minute I said this a chiding voice spoke in my ear: Or get married, Geoff? Why get married if you’re only going to eat each other alive? Wasn’t that what I and Marianne did to each other? Wasn’t it?