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“TO WALK, WITH THE CERTAINTY OF SLEEPWALKERS, INTO THE VERY CENTRE OF IMMEDIATE KNOWLEDGE” – Vítězslav Nezval on André Breton

*“Afterword” to André Breton, Co je surrealismus? Tři přednášky [What is Surrealism? Three Lectures], Brno 1937

NOTE: Well-known are André Breton’s visits, in 1934-35, to Prague, during which he delivered three crucial lectures, hailing the city as “the magical capital of old Europe […], one of those cities that electively pin down poetic thought, which is always more or less adrift in space” (“The Surrealist Situation of the Object/The Situation of the Surrealist Object”, my translation). Less well-mapped, at least in the Anglophone context, is the other direction of the exchange, i.e. Nezval’s and Czech surrealists’ visits to Paris throughout the 1930’s. Below, for the first time in English, is Vítězslav Nezval’s “Afterword” to the first Czech publication of Breton’s Prague lectures (1937), in which he details his own visits to the Paris of the surrealists and gives his most comprehensive view on the movement. The text below comes from Prague Poetics: From 1920 to the Present, ed. & trans. David Vichnar, forthcoming with Litteraria Pragensia Books.

If I were to state, as briefly as possible, what power attracted me, once and for all, to André Breton, I would not be wrong to admit that this power lay in his purity. That is why he need not masquerade behind complex tricks, as other artists do to conceal the emptiness of their mind. It suffices him to dwell in his glass house and turn us into witnesses of his life and ideas. If André Breton had indeed been the miraculous man who gave me the longing after purity—the kind with its lacing scorched, which I had once cast away in dark winding alleys—how could I have not loved him with a fanaticism misunderstood by creatures stung with their own poison?

On 9 May 1933, at the Cardinal Café on the Grands Boulevards, Honzl insists that we go south tomorrow. “Why are we stuck here still?” His family, his unfinished work… That afternoon we entered the Surrealist bookshop on the rue de Clichy. I bought Breton’s Les Vases communicants and Le Revolver à cheveux blancs. It is raining. We promptly leave the street. On the rue Fontaine people fold their umbrellas. From the concierge at no. 42 we learn Breton has just left. I am tired, dejected. I ask Honzl can we please have some rest in the café on the corner of the square. We enter. We choose the first free table. Sitting at the opposite table is André Breton.

“This feels like a scene from Nadja,” I tell the one I couldn’t not meet in my life, the one without whom my life would be infinitely poorer and sadder, approaching the table at which gather, coming at almost regular intervals, one by one those who will turn out to be our only friends. Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst. I recognise them. It feels like a scene from Nadja. It is sheer happenstance that we have wound up here. “We are such stuff as what you are made of.”

I have read André Breton’s books and now I am seeing him. Behold his atelier, into which he has invited us, from the “period of sleeping fits.” For someone like me, one hour means reinvigoration for a lifetime. And feeling without egotism opens up gates of clairvoyance. His head is lightning stuck, ever since its first strike, permanently in one place, lightning whose thunder will resound through the century. His eyes bear testimony that the poet will wield as much power in the world as woman does. His hands are soft, and what he grasps with them is simplicity. His hair is the lightning of lightning. Unfortunately I cannot imagine it white. His composure will rework the entirety of literature. His mouth is a mouth that never rescinds. The glow around him lights up all reality in space. He has not resisted appearing in my dreams, giving me to understand how much I think of him. Once I dreamt of him on two consecutive nights. The morning after, a postman delivered to me a book of his. I always knew exactly when a letter from him was on its way.

In June 1935, we again ascend the wobbly staircase to its very end, a tiny door resembling a manhole of an attic or a pantry. In that ancient ruin on the rue Fontaine with a deserted yard and triple stairwell, the stairs we ascend are those by which Breton’s friends entered the secrets of sleep.

The two smallish, almost square windows of Breton’s atelier face the Boulevard de Clichy. On the wooden plank between the double window are attached two “death masks”: Breton’s and Éluard’s. To the left of the door, a library with the complete Hegel and Lenin. On the wall, a bookshelf with romans noirs. On the opposite wall, paintings: Dalí’s William Tell, a Miró, and Roots-Scissors by Štyrský. The wall with the roman noir bookshelf is thickly covered with paintings and surrealist objects. There is a large Chirico and from a tiny golden frame sings Nadja’s drawing inscribed with “L’aube”. And how could I forget the large key from Sade’s castle hanging like a little secret, and the bust of Breton with eyes of golden reflexive glass!

Somewhere nearby stood a green oil-lamp, whose worn appearance gave it the peculiar air of a “found object”. I noticed it and to my surprise André Breton pointed out to me its cut-off wiring, his electricity supply having been disconnected. This sad detail I mention so that all those like myself, who admire the purity of André Breton’s work, realise the price paid for it.

On Saturday 22 June 1935, we met André Breton and his friends at a pub near the Grenelle metro station. Breton, Éluard, Péret and Tanguy left to find out if the late René Crevel, lying then at the morgue of the Baucicaud hospital, had a cross around his neck, allegedly placed there by the local nuns – and whether his family were to arrange a Christian burial for him, which was their right as he had left no last will.

As the surrealists were slow in coming back, we grew worried there had been a scuffle at the hospital and our friends had wound up arrested. Tanguy and Péret did find out there was no cross on Crevel. They were not able to ascertain, however, whether his was to be a Christian funeral, which they intended to thwart at all costs. We walked along the Seine, trying to flag down taxis. Opposite the Baucicaud hospital is a small café. We sat there, a group of ten or twelve, eagerly awaiting Breton and Éluard’s return from the hospital, drinking black coffee. In about thirty minutes our friends returned. Crevel’s family was given to understand that the surrealists intended to demonstrate against Christian funeral rites over the casket with one of them, and therefore they decided in the nick of time to cancel the ceremony and to bury their relative with no interference from the church.

On 4 July, after leaving, with Toyen, Paul Éluard and Benjamin Péret, the Cochin hospital where Jindřich Štyrský was hospitalised, we headed out, upon Éluard’s bidding, toward the Seine and sat down at a small pub on the Quai Voltaire to have a sandwich. Éluard was asking me about some unclear passages in his translation of my poem “Anti-Lyric” and we were just finishing the task when I recalled I would need to go to the rue des Pyramides to book my return trip.

We bid goodbye to Paul Éluard, who went off to a bookstand in search of some issue of who knows which revue, and set off toward the pont du Carrousel. We had barely made it into its middle when to my astonishment I noticed that, from the direction of the right bank, walking on the same side of the bridge toward us, was a man I could not fail to recognise even from afar. It was André Breton.

From The Lost Steps to “Night of the Sunflower,” Breton’s work is marked by an effort “to expel man out of its heart.” If that was where, for André Breton, lay the meaning of the psychoanalytical method, he had to adapt the method in an incredibly original and unexpected manner, extricating it from the role of the “bailiff” it plays in therapeutics.

“The psychoanalytic method of interpreting dreams would have already proved itself valid more than a quarter of a century ago if two obstacles, both insurmountable at first sight, had not come along to interrupt its momentum, considerably reducing the bearing of its investigations. First of all, there was the difficulty defined under the name ‘wall of private life’, a social barrier behind which it is understood that without some guilty indiscretion, nothing is expected to be seen.”[1] André Breton managed to tear down once and for all the “wall of the private life” he writes about in Communicating Vessels, behind which remained hidden many of Freud’s most valuable observations. “I myself,” writes Breton in Nadja, “shall continue living in my glass house where you can always see who comes to call; where everything hanging from the ceiling and on the walls stays where it is as if by magic, where I sleep nights in a glass bed, under glass sheets, where who I am will sooner or later appear etched by a diamond.”[2]

André Breton’s work and surrealism spell, if I were to put it in one sentence, the end of speculative art with its speculative aesthetics useful only to the professors. Only surrealism fulfils Marx’s tenet, “More awareness!”

This means not only more class awareness but also, first and foremost, more psychological awareness. Surrealism’s very own methods, automatic writing, the paranoiac-critical method, dream analysis, the collage technique and the surrealist object – all are designed to oppose the traditional speculative methods of former arts, and to make it possible for “more awareness” to concern not only the few but all, for poetry to be made, as Lautréamont prophesied, by all and not just one. Surrealism’s experimentation in psychic automatism has for years now endeavoured to broaden and deepen psychological awareness. In its philosophical dimension, resting on the dialectical-materialist worldview, surrealism presents more and more arguments in favour of strengthening class consciousness, liberating the individual within the framework of social freedom, and facilitating the process of turning knowledge into action.

Surrealism is not a literary school. It is a summary of methods designed to show man who is without pleasure his genius, and the world that is without lyricism its emotional value. Surrealism attempts to unify the fragmented human personality, to restore reason to lunacy, to restore imagination to the lunacy of reason, to rediscover the unity of the inner and outer worlds. The surrealist poem, text, painting and sculpture aim for nothing other than to act as instruments for seeking and finding these lost certainties and the pleasure that springs from them. Surrealism strives for the unity of the pleasure principle as demanded by the libido, and the reality principle as demanded by civilisation, in a sur-reality that is no value of itself, and nothing transcendental, but is a quality of a “reality for us”.

“Happily, the days of psychological literature, with all its fictitious plots, are numbered.”[3] This sentence, lifted from the preface to Nadja, could be misinterpreted by the enemies of whatever is “psychic”, if we lost sight of its proximity with André Breton’s question, “Who am I?” This “who am I?” has been answered by psychological literature with fictitious plots only unreliably and approximately, acting as the pretext for novelists-psychologists to speculate on a solely literary plane. But Breton is the first to pose the question in its immediately real sense. “This sense of myself seems inadequate only insofar as it presupposes myself.”[4]

Departing from the assumption that the dialectically conceived human subjectivity expresses itself through objectivity, providing this objectivity with incredible insight and meaning, reworking its causality (is not the entire history of humanity a story of this reworking, as attested by superstition and all religions?), André Breton tries to know himself not by paraphrasing or analysing what he thinks of himself, but by virtue of all the complex situations arising from his relations to other people.

“Over and above the various prejudices I acknowledge, the affinities I feel, the attractions I succumb to, the events which occur to me and to me alone—over and above a sum of movements I am conscious of making, of emotions I alone experience—I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my difference from them. Is it not precisely to the degree I become conscious of this difference that I shall recognise what I alone have been put on this earth to do, what unique message I alone may bear, so that I alone can answer for its fate?”[5]

If from its beginning surrealism departed from unlimited faith in psychic automatism, in which a person’s own self takes them by surprise forever—by images they have not conceived, by desires they have not felt—Breton did not, as literary people may surmise, restrict himself to automatic text only, but followed this automatism wherever it finds expression. That is, in the sphere of life itself, where poetry is born of the same inadvertent processes as those that give rise to the automatic text, where human steps converge and diverge outside the sphere of talent and with equal power to surprise, where life is conceived “outside its organic plan” as it yields to chance “most negligible just as most momentous,” where facts are of an overwhelming nature. “Between those facts of which I can be only the agonised witness and those others about which I flatter myself I possess the full details, there is perhaps the same distance as between one of those declarations or series for declarations which constitutes the sentence or the text known as ‘surrealist’ and the declaration or series of declarations which, for the same observer, constitutes the sentence or the text whose every term he has fully weighed and measured.”[6]

Ever since Nadja, André Breton has not ceased from asking the question whether or not “that whole other world consists in the real world.” In Communicating Vessels, he subjected the question to thorough examination and discovered the other world definitively within the earthly world. He assigned it a local habitation and a role. “In a new society, it is indeed inadmissible for private life with its happiness and misery to remain the great divider of energies just as its destroyer,” Breton writes à propos of Mayakovsky’s suicide, and continues: “The only means of preventing that is to prepare for subjective being a penetrative revenge in the area of knowledge and consciousness without weakness and shame. Every error in interpreting man contains in itself an error in interpreting the universe: it hinders the transformation of the world.”[7]

André Breton regards the role of this other world within the present one from increasingly surprising perspectives, letting himself be led out of a flea market and away from Cinderella’s slipper in “The Equation of the found object” to Undine in front of a restaurant where “on dîne” (“Beauty will be convulsive”), and to Les Halles in “Night of the Sunflower” and the substance of the prophesy. Why bother with novelistic fabula and other speculative old aesthetic values where the fabulist turns out to be life itself? How could there be, in Breton’s spirit and the spirit of those to whom he showed the way, room for speculative psychology, if all of Breton’s lost steps have led him safely, with the certainty of sleepwalkers, into the very centre of immediate knowledge?

*

On 19 June 1935, after leaving the Café Place Blanche, my friends and I asked Benjamin Péret out for dinner. He took us to a small restaurant in a blind alley, ending in a wall of the Montmartre cemetery. As he told us during the meal, it was the same pub mentioned at the end of Breton’s chapter, “Beauty will be convulsive.” I knew the chapter very well and was glad to be sitting in a pub I had so often imagined together with the shout, “on dîne”, dinner is served, in which the love-struck Breton heard the magic word Ondine, undine.

To me, there is nothing more magical than this miraculous mishearing dictated by love. There are slips of the ear, however, paid for by life, slips of the tongue whose price is death. That is why, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.”

[1] André Breton, Communicating Vessels, trans. Mary Ann Caws & Geoffrey T. Harris (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997) 21.

[2] André Breton, Nadja, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1960) 18.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Breton, Nadja, 12.

[5] Breton, Nadja, 12-3.

[6] Breton, Nadja, 20.

[7] My translation as this seems to be Nezval’s free paraphrase rather than direct quotation. Cf. André Breton, “Lyubovnaya lodka razbilas o byt,” Break of Day (Point du jour), trans. Mark Polizzotti & Mary Ann Caws (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999) 54-63.

 

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