From Book 2: Insulting Priests

Consumed by guilt, I haunted the streets and the cafés, though I was beginning to tire of the crowds of sullen businessmen, and the snippy flirts who never fell in love, and the cynical young bohemians leaning over their tables to interrupt each other. Although I had not approached the Surrealist Research Bureau since that night in May some Surrealists remembered me and invited me to sit with them, but to my dismay I found most of them dull despite all the bold talk.

            The exception was, naturally, Benjamin Péret. Unfortunately, he found me dull. I couldn’t match his quick-witted and disgusting banter, so he dared me to accompany him in the street to insult some priests. The eighth issue of La Révolution surréaliste, which came out this winter, showed a photograph of him in a swimming suit in public taunting one of these “cassocks” and this new Surrealist practice caused renewed horror in the gossip columns. The whole Surrealist gaggle gathered inside the window at their regular café, the Cyrano, to watch Péret and me seek our victims outside. I wondered if Péret had bribed or tricked these men of the cloth to step into his trap and likewise I wondered how the photographer—it had not been Man Ray—had managed to snap this now-notorious photograph at the ripe moment. Surely Péret had set it all up, and now I was being set up. I didn’t care about our intended victims but I hoped, in front of this leering goblin, that I could come up with decent slurs. Péret was a master at it. “Death to the prigs!” he blared, “Cows! Go beat your sweet teat meat, and eat shiiieeeet!”

            “Can God create a prick even He can’t stick?” I managed.

            There was an explosion behind the window but Péret groaned at me. “Yes, that was all wet, po-wet. Try not to embarrass yourself.”

            Another priest approached us. Yes, of course Péret had arranged it. “Mary had a little wham-bam-thanky-ma’am!” I said.

            I swore I heard laughter from behind the glass but Péret walked right up and cracked me smartly across the face. “Now, look,” he sneered, backing into a very lithe boxing-two step when I started for him, “get it up or get a wiggle on!”

            “Look, I’ll tell you what,” I said. “I’ll borrow a cassock from some theatre and walk the streets, and you can insult me.”

            “I can do that right fucking now,” sneered Péret, “because you’re a gimp at this. You’re a wimp simp limping from a pimp’s cheapest shrimp. Got that?” I stood there withstanding his onslaught while the gang at the window clapped and hooted.

Bully that he was, Péret was the most entertaining of the lot. Their personal dramas repulsed me. Max Ernst, a German who arranged lithographs and photographs into bizarre collages, had abandoned his wife and child for the seductive Gala, former wife of fellow Surrealist Paul Éluard. Gala was, like so many of the women associated with this group, very magnetic and strong-minded, but unlike them she was fickle and no longer cared for ideas. Love and pleasure, money and social contacts—those she demanded. Ernst and Éluard continued to be friends and both remained in Breton’s inner circle, but the deserted husband fooled no one when he claimed not to mind losing a woman who obviously still obsessed him and who had, a decade ago, been an enthusiastic reader of Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Nerval when the bookish Paul Éluard proposed to her. Their other little melodramas were less spectacular but it was painful for me to be around it. Talk of a revolution didn’t make any sense coming from men who cut each other’s hearts. How could I, having failed even to be a peasant, tell these sophisticates that their definition of freedom was childish, that it was selfish to denounce bourgeois traditions yet still depend upon women to raise their children while the men satisfied their own personal desires?

            Soon I avoided these men, too. Yet I liked Paul Éluard but it never seemed that he and I were able to meet. I saw him from a distance, and I heard gossip about him and read his poetry. He had a great gift and he reminded me of Breton in a way; the two looked similar, though Breton was heavier, more earthy, whereas Éluard was more elegant and considerate. But I enjoyed talking to the women, Simone Kahn and “Mick” Soupault and Renée Gauthier who was Péret’s companion. Some were artists in their own right, and they assured me that while Breton was drifting toward an abstract and rather silly view of Woman—“a creature of grace and promise close in feeling and behavior to the two consecrated worlds of childhood and madness”—in practice the Surrealists eagerly supported their ideas and their projects. Yet the women remained in the margins of official Surrealist action. Breton did not invite them to the Bureau’s new experiments with frank sexual discussion. Artaud participated in these group confessions, but it was Breton who was directing Surrealist activity again.

            Gala, in throwing Paul Éluard over for Max Ernst, had shaken the group’s solidarity but they did not acknowledge it. Yet she was also the only woman able to live up to Breton’s ideal of femme-enfant and muse. While still anchored to Ernst, she teased and aroused the other men, including Éluard, to the heights of erotic and delirious imagination—or more accurately, they aroused themselves about her. Whenever a particularly successful painting or poem spilled out, its creator was anointed as her medium. “Ah, well, he was in love with Gala then,” the Surrealists would say. Or as Desnos sarcastically put it, “It’s a Gala event!” Desnos absolutely detested Gala, and so did Justine. Desnos, of course, claimed he needed no other muse than Yvonne George, the glamorous singer who sent him on errands but did not return the poet’s love.

            The days turned grey with rain. Trapped inside on very wet days, I fled the café scene for Louis’s small apartment. We spent a great deal of time together; the two of us were seeing very little of our other friends lately. “We’re the only people who aren’t successful,” Louis joked, “or failing successfully.”

            Justine modeled and wrote articles for a magazine in addition to her new job as a secretary, and Roger, who had moved into her apartment, was also busy all the time. Desnos was defying Breton’s commands about the Surrealist embargo of steady work by making a name for himself as a film critic, and Artaud was causing even more controversy in Paris with his Theatre Alfred Jarry.

            The first production which consisted of three vignettes, one by Roger Vitrac, one by Artaud and the third by Robert Aron, received mixed reviews. Vitrac’s and Aron’s pieces were generally derided but Artaud’s piece received praise for its hallucinatory synthesis of life and death that left one with a strange feeling. The second production and Roger Vitrac’s first major play, Victor ou Les Enfants au pouvoir, had been extremely difficult for him to cast. Prospective actresses had been scared off by the lead role of a beautiful woman who was unable to control her urge to fart. Actual stink bombs were lobbed during the performance. I thought it a marvelous conceit, for back in Spital I had actually known a woman with that problem, but the audience, instead of trying to see Victrac’s point about the humiliating consequences of physical illness, was scandalized. The reviews, however, were largely positive, with some comparing it to Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poe’s now-legendary staging of the play Ubu Roi.

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