From Book 2: Breton’s Speech

We were crossing a long, grassy mall toward a soot-darkened stone edifice, very square and squat, with dull beige tracery. A dilapidated iron balcony in a recessed alcove overlooked the long rows of steps to the entrance, where two huge oak doors were propped open. I swore when I saw Youki Foujita disengage herself from the embrace of a man I’d never seen before—not Desnos and not poor, foolish Marcel Noll and certainly not her husband, just another slick hoodlum who now leaned back from her. He swatted her rump and she turned away and skittered up the steps in her high heels. “Goddammit, she’s on the prowl again,” I muttered. “I don’t begrudge Desnos any fun, but I credit him with more taste.”

            “Desnos never falls in love with women who love him back,” Artaud told me acidly. “For some reason he is turned off by decent women.” We mounted the stairs, and the latest dalliance of Foujita’s wife gave us a sneering smile and a wave. Neither of us acknowledged him, and as we passed I heard the man mutter a vile word about Germans.

            “I suppose Youki’s being here means Bernice is around,” I groaned.

            “Bernice is in some kind of trouble,” Artaud said then, sounding distressed. “She brings it on herself, but she asked to share my table at the Dôme today and she kept twisting around in her chair as if frightened. It frightened me. She’s been hanging around some men from Fournes-en-Weppe. Some radical faction. Now I think she wants out.”

            I felt that knot in my stomach. “That’s south of Ypres, isn’t it?”

            “Yes. And these men are adamantly against the Weimar Republic, and they also want to overthrow the French Third Republic. They want the restoration of the monarchy. Not that I care.”

            I shook my head. “But Bernice has never struck me as political! And why would provincial Frenchman care about the Weimar Republic?”

            “They want another Napoléon Bonaparte, I guess.” Artaud shrugged. “As for Bernice, she is no more interested in politics than I am, but I have the sense she’s involved for another reason and got in over her head. They are not your ordinary pamphleteers—some of them are hardened criminals. But then again, her father is a hardened criminal.”

            “I didn’t know that.” We entered the theatre and crossed the threadbare carpet of its dingy foyer.

“Another thing,” Artaud replied. “That Nietzsche copyist—Mein Kopf?” I knew he was teasing. Artaud had pronounced the book Kopf aber kein Körper—all head but no body. He applauded Hitler’s rebuke of the bourgeoisie but scorned his disdain for Oriental culture, and lamented Hitler would replace bourgeois values with other bourgeois values.

Mein Dummkopf,” I corrected.

Artaud chuckled. “Apparently, your man spent some time in Fournes-en-Weppe too during the War. He had a French mistress there, who—supposedly—bore his son. There are all kinds of rumors. I suspect he is only trying to boost sales by spreading gossip, but this group around Bernice are fanatics.”

“Then I hope they make Bernice read every word of that trash,” I retorted. “That would serve her right!”

A narrow hallway led to the theatre proper. Artaud surprised me by saying that before I came to Paris, Bernice had repeatedly launched herself at Desnos without success. Desnos always rebuffed her advances but still he allowed her to hang around. Now I became concerned that Desnos would succumb to her one day out of the mixture of delusion and pity that characterized his obsession with Yvonne George. “Desnos is going to kill himself,” Artaud added, “by working so hard and sleeping so little, and drinking too much and taking cocaine, all on account of Yvonne George and now that expensive little—wife—of Foujita’s. He attracts loose women. Desnos, I fear, has a death wish.” He placed his hand on the handle of the heavy oak door that led to the auditorium and pulled it.

            Aghast, I put an arm out to block his path. The theatre was already packed, men and women crowded against each other in the aisles because the seats were full. “I don’t believe that for an instant!” I told him, but Artaud’s reply was only the tensed line of his lip. “You can’t say that; you’ve no right to, Artaud. You’re behaving like that psychiatrist.” Artaud gave me a dry laugh.

“A few days ago,” I added, “Thurmon told me the same thing about you, that when you first arrived in Paris you were the one on the verge of suicide.” Artaud’s laugh died away and his eyes widened in shock. “Yes, that’s what he said. I’m not exaggerating. Was he right? He said your family committed you because you had attempted suicide and when he first encountered you in Paris he prevented you from killing yourself too. Is that the truth?”

            We stood there looking at each other with the door wide open. From the auditorium a roar of clapping and boos accompanied the appearance of a man onstage, a genteel-looking old peacock obviously accustomed to more civilized public gatherings and who now had the thankless job of introducing André Breton. His tremulous voice was drowned out by the crowd’s shrill whistles and catcalls. Artaud’s normally smooth face had fallen and spread into the perfect picture of surprise. He actually flushed as he stood there, his gaze locked with mine, the hand that clutched the door handle trembling slightly. His other hand curled into a useless fist pressed beneath his chin. Then he began to shake his head slowly. “It’s a lie,” he whispered, and the skin of his face drew itself taut over the bones, stretching into an angry mask. “A damned lie. Thurmon said that? He actually said that?”

            “Let’s go in,” I murmured guiltily, placing a hand on his shoulder and urging him through the door. The stooped old thespian was trying to finish his introduction. Whistling cut the air. There was practically no room left to stand but Artaud and I shouldered our way through the mob to where Justine was jumping up and down and waving to us. We caught up with her in the group of people who were blocking the view from the seats at stage right, and I took her arm to pull her close to me because the protests between those sitting and those standing were escalating into insults. The bewildered old man onstage finished speaking, managed a terrified bow, and hobbled off.

            “It’s not true, what Thurmon told you,” Artaud insisted in my ear. “Yes, I destroyed my poems and gave all my possessions away, and yes, my family feared for me, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to die. No one wants to die. I’ve never attempted suicide. Never!”

            The lights went down but not the noise. André Breton ascended the stage, found the best light, turned to face the audience, and with exaggerated ceremony lifted from its dangling chain his monocle—an eyepiece I knew to be merely a prop—then blew on it, polished it with his handkerchief, and stuck it over his right eye. Then he glared at us all around and, shoving his hands into his pockets and thrusting out his chest, he announced: “France is at this very moment at war with Morocco, against a colonized people who want merely to coexist peacefully with us as equals, and to have as much say in their own lives as we do in ours.”

            He paused. There was an appreciative silence from his allies. Among his many enemies an angry rumble circulated, and he let it build before continuing. “This unjust war is all the more a travesty for being garlanded in praise from the nation’s intelligentsia, who write poems and sing battle songs, and otherwise contribute to the distractions of cultivated, overcultivated men, gimps who have dutifully studied their humanities—” he spat the word, “—but who, through all the advantages of ‘culture,’ have misplaced their humanity and cheaply sold their youthful dreams.”

            Dreams again, I thought. But this was definitely not the speech I had heard in that cramped storefront on that May evening almost a year ago. The Breton I saw now was animated, his eyes bright, his cheeks flushed. He spoke as if inspired, and indeed this time he held no notes. “The poet you can be must not be abandoned to gasp in the stink of celebrated assholes!” he roared. His forceful baritone easily hammered down all stray objections. “A Revolution of the Mind means nothing if it changes nothing in the physical order,” he went on. “Utopianism is mere prayer, mere pleading, against the storm. New sensations are filling the atmosphere, and the youth—we same original talents on which our mediocre elders placed so much trust—are turning away from the shabby goal of literary slavery!”

            Never before had I heard a man speak as André Breton did that night. It was as if that dull ideologue who had bored me sore in that old storefront on the rue de Grenelle had been replaced by a double. There he was, the same face, the same fierce grey eyes, the same almost genial voice, and the same russet waves rising up and back, but this was a different speaker. I stood absolutely rapt, nailed by his words. His anger lifted me so far out of myself I felt almost lost. There was no fear in me but all that I was, and all that I had been, was being rubbed away.

            Breton’s speech was a clarion call to the world, to all young people everywhere. For too long our lives had been shaped by the sickly hands of tradition. Christianitywas an elaborate cynicism, a denial of the world. We, the youth of the world, were no longer willing to trade our world or renounce our world, to sacrifice our bodies for an idea or our ideas for some nobleman’s fat body. Aristocracy was dead, and in its place Breton demanded a new elite: the enlightened mob. All men could and must seize their unconscious—men everywhere, in Africa, and in Asia where the unconscious was an integral part of life—and women too. “These are our teachers,” he thundered, “these ‘savages’ and these ‘whores,’ not the old and decaying so-called pillars of civilization!”

            Breton towered above us, quarreling with our reluctance, pleading with us. Why should we, the youth of the world, our numbers decimated because of a quarrel between old kings, our bodies violated and our minds caged, listen to impotent dilettantes and abominable old hags yap about culture? One could not tear the world apart with the latest in military inventions, aeroplanes, bombs, airships, and then paste the ruins back together with literary teas. What hope was there for our future when our elders had strewn the bodies and brains of an entire generation about the battlefield in a war no one had wanted? What was our culture, when its primary achievement so far in this century had been mass murder, including and especially the efficient murder of civilians in a drawn-out war promised to be decided within a few weeks?

            And poetry! Breton extended a hand to me, imploring me like a drowning man or like a man who was trying to save me from drowning. I was on the verge of tears hearing him. Poetry, life’s mistress, life’s other, life’s lover was withering in the hands of dried-up old men who had lost their voice, poets of no more use than castrati with cut tongues. Man had once lived on poetry—breathed it, walked in it, eaten it long before manna, drunk it long before wine. Poetry was ambrosia, food of the gods. Poetry had been Life.

We, the youth of the world, were tired of trying to grow in our allotted sunlight that only managed to cast a few weak beams through all the layers of stained glass. We wanted—we demanded—the real world and the regrowth of our natural claws. We would destroy these circuses in which we performed “art” like whipped animals dressed as humans. We, the youth of the world, demanded reality—raw, visceral, lacerated reality. Poetry was lived. Culture was lived or it was a lie, a disease, a weak strain crippling the human race.

            Poetry was flesh. Poetry was blood. And in our new century, for our new generation, which was on the verge of discovering a new world, new poetry was needed: Surrealism! I was cheering now, cheering along with Breton’s allies. At that moment I worshipped André Breton.

            “Surrealism is a menace!” cried out a man in the crowd, and there was both applause and boos. “There are Surrealists all over the world now—even in Africa. And what kind of ‘poets’ can they have in Africa? They’re barbarians, poisoning our country, infecting our children with rebellion, and weakening our dominance overseas.” Wild applause accompanied by angry shouts followed his words.

            Rolling his eyes to the ceiling, Desnos had already climbed onstage. “Mon cher monsieur, you are absolutely correct,” he simpered with the smarmiest baring of teeth. There was an anticipatory pause. Justine and I smiled at each other as he threw his next words across their respectful silence like a painted obscenity on a fence. “We are interested in words that fornicate, images that invade, and actions that corrupt. Poison your civilization is exactly what we mean to do! Then you and everyone like you can die off. Think of it as my generation’s form of mustard gas!”

            The auditorium erupted in cries of outrage from the old, and shouts of approval from the young. Some people were clapping, while hecklers tried to push forward to clamp their hands on Desnos. He ducked tomatoes and shoes with great aplomb as screams filled the air: “Communist!” “Satanist!” “Sensualist!” “That’s an insult?” Desnos shouted back, genuinely surprised.

            But the outrage by Breton’s heckers was escalating too quickly. We were violently jostled by the crowd and Artaud and I struggled to shield Justine. Shrieks of, “Long live France!” and “Crush Morocco!” were overtaking the chants of “Up the Riffs!” and sending everyone to their feet. The crowd surged forward, and a rock hit Desnos on the forehead. He fell to his knees, pressing his hands to his bloody face. Justine screamed.

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