Author’s note: Jokes about and variations on the slur “po-wet” and references to the Three Musketeers are central to the novels.
The blindfold came off and I looked around, bewildered, as we entered the metro again. It was jammed with people. “Toward Charenton!” Roger announced, seeing my blank look.
“To check ourselves in?” I shouted back amidst the elbowing.
Desnos gave me a shove. “Charenton is a town, not just an insane asylum! There’s more to that place than the Marquis de Sade! It’s where wine is bottled before being sent to Paris, but can I interest anyone in that?”
“Where we’re taking him, why shouldn’t the Marquis de Sade spring to mind? And by the way, where do you think Justine got the idea for her pseudonym?” Roger demanded.
“From Justine? I never thought of that!” Desnos exclaimed. “At any rate, we’re not really going to Charenton but a town near it.”
The serpent-like string of cars emerged from their tunnel and stopped in front of us. I stepped in the crowded car with the others and we stood and faced each other, hanging on to the straps, as the station slid from view. “So, what is Justine’s real name?” Louis shouted over the clatter of the rails.
“I don’t know. She won’t even tell me,” Roger replied. “She won’t tell anyone. She hates her name.”
“Artaud would know!” Louis realized out loud.
“Yes, but he’s not telling, either,” said Desnos. “He’s a loyal friend…unlike some people.” This sounded like a Robert Pierre-style change of subject and sure enough, a suddenly glum Desnos reached inside his coat and took out some folded pages. He held them out to me. “Look at that, will you.” Still hanging on to the strap, I took the papers with my other hand and flipped them open.
It was a letter from Breton to Desnos. It was quite a document. As a testament to hoarded grievances, it rivaled the speeches of Danton against the monarchy or that whiney piece by Adolf Hitler. Breton scolded Desnos for being indifferent to their Communist sympathies, for flirting with Youki, for pursuing journalism (“Your employers will never consent to give you true freedom!”), for avoiding the sex discussions, for moping about Yvonne George, for writing Liberty or Love! (“Those contrived quatrains in that terrible book!”), and for “various other betrayals which I tried in vain to ignore because of my enormous affection for you.” But worst of all was the accusation that Desnos had faked his trances, each and every one of them, just to be Breton’s pet. It made me angry, especially with Desnos standing right next to me, slumped against a pole and looking on. He was obviously hurt.
“I think what finally did it was that sex scene in my book,” he grumbled, “between the two men. Breton was offended. After I received this tome, he sent me a message that we could patch things up. I’ve made several appointments to see him but he’s broken every one of them, and he avoided me tonight.”
“A man who is ostensibly against societal taboos was offended by a sex scene in a book?” Louis snorted. “A man who is hosting a series of sexual discussions right now—who expects his followers to divulge every personal detail to him doesn’t want you writing down yours?”
“You used my name for one of the lovers in that scene, and I wasn’t offended,” Roger laughed.
I managed to get through Breton’s ridiculous letter and handed it back to my friend. “Desnos, just be yourself. I don’t understand what’s going on between you two, but this sounds like an ultimatum to me. If you obey it, you’ll regret it.” Again I was mystified by the man behind the name of André Breton. Here he was, one of few intellectuals to seriously take up the subject of sexuality, an accomplishment that put him in the same league as Freud, but from the sound of his letter this self-styled honesty was a joke. True, I myself barely tolerated homosexuality—or to be honest, I preferred not to think about the subject—but why be surprised that the subject should come up? Breton’s letter was one long rant about the “perversions” that his “disloyal” Surrealists were bringing up. Besides pederasts, André Breton did not approve of black women, women who farted, and women who did not speak French, as well as brothels and promiscuity (although I had a low opinion of promiscuity, myself). In the name of morality, he detested “artificial” means of orgasm (and I was intrigued to find out exactly what those were, since he expressed approval for masturbation). He thought it “vulgar” to ask a woman what she liked in lovemaking, and regarded her pleasure insignificant. That I thought downright loutish. Not surprisingly, after the visits by the outspoken Youki and Kiki, no more women had been allowed at these sessions, not even Justine. I was saddened by all this. Until now I’d been debating whether or not to take up Desnos’s half-hearted offer to get me invited to the sessions, but reading this letter killed whatever interest I had left.
“A lot of what Breton does and thinks has to do with a friend he knew in the army,” Desnos said quietly. “Breton, Soupault, and this bloke used to call themselves ‘The Three Musketeers’—at least, until Louis Aragon came along. His name was Jacques Vaché and he was a cold, cynical bastard who made his own life into a myth, dressing very elegantly, with every hair in place—he had bright red hair—and doing anything he could think of to shock people in public. Vaché would take Breton to the cinema, for example, and spread out a picnic lunch, complete with wine, on the floor during the film. He didn’t care for modern poets and never wrote a word of verse himself. Breton tagged after him like a younger brother, even though Vaché made fun of Breton just as he made fun of everyone, calling Breton a ‘po-wet’ and so forth.
“Vaché was Dada. He trusted no one, believed in nothing. But he wasn’t a playful anarchist like Tzara. Everything he did had a hard edge to it, a deep contempt for everyone and everything. Even when he laughed it was just a hissing sound, an inhuman sound. And one morning—I wasn’t there, I was only told this—Vaché was found dead in his bed, lying naked with another man. Opium overdose. Breton was overcome with sorrow, but I don’t know to this day which event horrified him the most: the loss of his friend, or finding out that his friend may have had sexual relations with men—or the idea of Vaché committing suicide with someone else!” We were all silent, and Desnos continued, “Breton loved Vaché; I think he loved Vaché more than anyone else in his life.” Desnos scowled as he said this. “Who knows how far that love went. Breton lies to himself a lot. The André Breton I know is the man who insists he has absolutely no homosexual feelings.”
“That sounds like him,” Louis said.
“But maybe that’s true,” I snapped. “I have absolutely no homosexual feelings. Most men don’t! He lost a friend, and I understand what that does to someone. It doesn’t have to go any farther than that.”
Desnos didn’t reply; he merely listened gravely, one finger stroking his bottom lip.