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.
The doors to the lobby were flung open and policemen poured inside. On the stage, Desnos and Breton scrambled on hands and knees trying to simultaneously dodge the rocks thrown at them and kick out at the hands tearing their clothes. The cops did nothing to stop the stone-throwing. They struggled toward the stage with their handcuffs out while the others formed a line at the exit to allow the attackers a safe getaway. “It’s a set-up!” I shouted. I cast a wild look around, but I could not locate my friends in this panic. “Justine, if you hear me just head for the door. Artaud, get her out of here!” I thought I heard Bernice’s voice and I thought I heard Kiki’s. Youki wobbled past me and I clawed my way through the gang of hecklers lining the stage.
Continue to the next scene here.