Over supper Desnos was enough entertainment for all of us, making up outrageous stories on the spot, encouraging us to drink more wine and then making us laugh until it was painful. However, some of his tales horrified my family as the poet related his involvement in the high jinks of Dada, the movement that had predated Surrealism. Many of the Surrealists, including Breton, had once been Dadaists and, with their leader Tristan Tzara egging them on, had staged offensive performances that often provoked the audience to hiss and throw things, or to rush the stage and beat the performers up. Artaud hastened to inform us, with a look of contempt, that he had had no involvement with Dada. “Dada meant nothing—Tzara said so,” Artaud chastised Desnos. “Its purpose was to be without purpose. How can that effect any revolution? It sounds like art as usual to me.”
“Well, Breton wrote a play in which he was to shoot himself in the head—for real—and onstage—in the fourth act,” answered Desnos. “I don’t think that’s art as usual.”
Franz turned and gaped at me while Artaud rolled his eyes. “It didn’t get performed, did it?” Artaud demanded, and Desnos shrugged. “No, of course it didn’t—no possibility of hearing the applause when you’re dead!” My father shook his head but D’Arcy burst into guffaws. “Dada promised what it couldn’t deliver. It promised mayhem in the streets, then delivered poems and plays—albeit nonsensical poems and plays—which is hardly different from respectable poems and plays in my opinion. Dada was just a publicity stunt cooked up by Tristan Tzara to get himself talked about, and now that’s what Breton is doing.”
“There were some good fights, though,” Desnos bragged. “I nearly had my jaw broken. We wouldn’t have had the fights without the plays.”
Desnos recited some of his poetry, to the confusion of my father:
Rose aisselle a vit.
Rr’ose, essaie la, vit.
Rots et sel a vie.
Rose S, L, have I.
Rosee, e’est la vie.
Rrose scella vit.
Rrose sella vit.
Rrose sait la vie.
Rose, est-ce, helas, vie?
Rrose aise hela vit.
Rrose est-ce aile, est-ce elle?
“Eros, c’est la vie!” Franz realized aloud, and grinned triumphantly because he thought it was only a puzzle to be solved. “Eros, it’s life.”
“A rose slavery?” ventured Father, in English; he looked bemused when Desnos laughed. “Did I get it right?”
“If you get it ‘wrong,’ it’s better,” Desnos replied.
Franz grinned wickedly at me. “There, Geoff! There’s hope for you yet.”
“But I don’t understand,” I said, ignoring my brother. “That’s a coherent poem, a deliberate play on sounds, not randomly derived.”
Artaud put up a hand. “I was speaking passionately last night. I shouldn’t confuse you. Throwing pieces of paper up at random and then gluing them to a page, that’s Dada. Tzara invented it. It’s not a Surrealist technique.”
“So just what is Surrealism?” I asked. It seemed to me that I had been asking this question since I first heard the word.
“Why,” Desnos teased, “you mean after that informative lecture last night you still don’t know?”
I set down my fork. “I’m beginning to think Surrealism is an ideal that betrayed itself the moment it became a movement.”
Artaud nodded his approval. “And there you are.”
By the looks on their faces I could tell we had left my father, my brother, and Monsieur D’Arcy behind. D’Arcy looked completely snowed, though amused. Franz listened cynically, his eyes darting heavenward as he leaned his chin into his hand, but my father sat perfectly still, concentrating on the three of us. “Surrealism—at least as I define it,” Artaud answered, “is an act of repulsion. Repulsion of everything false. From the moment we are born we are rendered passive. We are told who and what we are, and we watch our bodies change physically without really taking part, until we obediently recite, ‘Here I am, and there is God, and I am ruled by Reason; I obey God, I have my work, and this is all there is until I achieve Heaven.’ That is living death. Life from the inside out, not the outside in—life as a conscious act of will—is my goal.”
I contemplated this for a moment, then nodded, impressed.
“It’s the War,” my father said despondently to my father-in-law. “It has changed everything. And the youth have become disillusioned with everything.” He fixed his eyes on his plate and continued, “There’s a barbarism that is slowly rising, like a stain seeping through wallpaper, and that is what our children are up against. What we tried to instill in them—great thoughts, love of country, obedience, piety—of what use are they? I would be afraid to be a young person today in a world that seems to be growing harsh, and dirty, and angry.” Franz surreptitiously pulled Father’s wineglass away from him.