Tag Archives: surrealism

Aragon: Paris Peasant

93111Few books I have read so far evoke the experience of wandering Paris quite as much as this one — but is a Paris now gone, rebuilt beyond recognition. Part of the reason he wrote it — to document and fix in place the experience of a geography soon to be destroyed. But first, spring in Paris:

I had just reached this point in my thoughts when, without any warning, spring suddenly entered into the world.

It happened in a flash, one Saturday evening around five: everything is bathed in a different light and yet there is still a chill in the air, impossible to say what has just taken place. (7)

I felt just this way about summer this year, except I missed the moment of its coming, was away for the weekend and returning to London found it installed.

This description of watching women, however, is an unfamiliar experience, and I confess evokes scorn:

Instead of concerning yourself with the conduct of men, start watching women walk by. They are great patches of radiance, flashes of light not yet stripped of their furs, of brilliant, restless mysteries. No, I don’t want to die without having first gone up to each one, touched her at least with my hand, felt her weaken, willed that this pressure shall be enough to conquer her resistance, and then hey presto! (8)

But the obsession with planning and planners something else we share, and a path to be retrodden by the Sitautionists with little reference to this great early psychogeographer as far as I can find (they do write of him ‘We cannot be accepted with the spinelessness of a false eclectic interest, as if we were Sartres, Althussers, Aragons or Godards’*). This, in its first section, is a documentation of the destruction of the arcades:

The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and profession. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know.

“Today the Boulevard Haussman has reached the Rue Lafitte,” remarked L’Intransigeant the other day. A few more paces forward by this giant rodent and, after it has devoured the block of houses separating it from the Rue Le Peletier, it will inexorably gash open the thicket whose twin arcades run through the Passage de l’Opéra before finally emerging diagonally on to the Boulevard des Italiens. …It seems possible, though, that a good part of the human river which carries incredible floods of dreamers and dawdlers from the Bastille to the Madeleine may divert itself through this new channel, and thus modify the ways of thought of a whole district, perhaps of a whole world. We are doubtless about to witness a complete upheaval of the established fashions in casual strolling and prostitution… (14)

What could give you a better sense of being in this this passage than

…the noise, whose low throbbing echoed back from the arched roof. I recognized the sound: it was the same voice of the seashells that has never ceased to amaze poets and film-stars. The whole ocean in the Passage de l’Opéra. (22)

Or the flows and experiences of it than:

At the level of the printer who prints cards while you wait, just beyond that little flight of steps leading down into the Rue Chaptal, at that point in the far north of the mystery where the grotto gapes deep back in a bay troubled by the comings and goings of removal men and errand boys, in the farthest reaches of the two kinds of daylight which pit the reality of the outside world against the subjectivism of the passage, let us pause a moment, like a man holding back from the edge of the places depths, attracted equally by the current of objects and the whirlpools of his own being, let us pause in this strange zone where all is distraction, distraction of attention as well as of inattention, so as to experience this vertigo. The double illusion which holds us here is confronted with our desire for absolute knowledge. (47)

He describes a visit to a tawdry brothel of two rooms, sad and almost sweet — it can’t quite reach sweet as this is a man who sees all women in each individual woman and therefore can see no woman truly. It brought to mind a visit to Tombstone’s Birdcage with its own tiny two rooms side by side and its own sad reality of dingy walls and uncomfortable beds as compared to literary and cinematic representations of such houses of ‘pleasure’ in the wild West — raising the similarities between this representation and that of Paris and of the Moulin Rouge. A false romanticism that this thankfully pushes to one side.

He shares the notices put up to organise protest — text and notices are sprinkled throughout, an early collage:


He describes what this place has meant to a group of people, to a movement

…believe it or not it’s the Restaurant Saulnier. Its two floors, ground and mezzanine, fill the space between the Baths and the transversal corridor that emerges right opposite the entrance of the lodging house. A gift of the gods, this restaurant: I have absolutely nothing to say about it, having eaten there a hundred times. The great quarrels of the Dada movement (you may have heard of the Dada movement?) used to adjourn to this place under something resembling a flag of truce, so that the combatants, who had just spent two hours at the Certa defending their reputations, could discover in a plate of cold meat evidence of the height of morality, the height of fashion… (70)

A quick digression into American cinema and stories of sartorial fashion and race:

Don Juan acquired the taste for this caramel-and-whipped-cream footwear after seeing his first Hollywood film. He scoured Paris to find something similar, and it was at a shop in the Quartier Saint-Georges specializing in tailors’ misfits and undelivered orders that he finally ran to earth this pair of shoes that a Negro, in a moment of glorious extravagance, had had specially made for him, but which a combination of bailiff, cocaine and sheer nonchalance had obliged him to dispense with. (71)

And a return to the Certa:

IMG_2479It was while I was sitting here one afternoon, towards the end of 1919, that Andre Breton and I decided that this should henceforward become the meeting place for ourselves and our friends, a choice motivated partly by our loathing for Montparnasse and Montmartre, but partly also by the pleasure we derived from the equivocal atmosphere of the passages. (74)

All gone.

This is not without an immensity ego of course — this great rambling documentation and discourse published in installments, he had time to receive complaints about the contents as he finished the next installment and writes a description of their contents:

You do them an injustice: what will happen to their rights in the great struggle against the Boulevard Haussman Building Society? What on earth would the lawyers think if by some misfortune they should read your mishmash of inventions and real facts? ‘There’s a bunch of people we can forget about,’ is what they would think. And each of your epithets could bring down the total of the compensation figures a further notch. (85)

We bump thus against the common misconception amongst intellectuals that writing and description are in themselves somehow struggle. You could at least demand that they do no harm, but Aragon is careless of that, his words in print come before the needs of the current residents of the passages. I think of the two women he describes in their two tawdry rooms, receiving his attention for money and finding some sort of connection if he is to be believed — were they just cast into the streets? We’ll never know, his compassion does not extend that far, if it were ever genuine to begin with.

And then that section is done and dusted, we hear no more of it as we move on to philosophies and a drunken night-time adventure in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Which contains much of interest I shall return to in a future post.I can’t really bear to do it here.
In many ways it makes a mockery of this earnest description of all that is about to be destroyed in the name of progress under some vague impression of solidarity. Perhaps that impression is my own and gives him too much credit — or destroys what little he has. Perhaps the term human aquariums in itself sets him to be always observer, though to be sure he does get himself wet. It is not a position I admire very much, but one which is all too familiar.
*’Our goals and methods in the Strasbourg Scandal’ Internationale Situationniste #11 (Paris, October 1967). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.


Philippe Soupault’s Last Night of Paris

Philippe Soupault - Last Nights of ParisTranslated by William Carlos Williams.

Say what? you ask.

From one modernist master to another, this is quite a wonderful book. My favourite thing about it perhaps, is less the book itself and more the story behind the author’s breakup with his movement — as Soupault was ‘ejected’ from the surrealist movement in 1926 (along with Artaud) for ‘their isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ (v)

Ah, the stupid literary adventure. I imagine it like Baudelaire‘s wild addiction to bad literature…

Back to the book, it presents to you… Paris:

The rue de Medicis along which we were strolling at a fair pace is sad around ten-thirty at night. It is the street of everlasting rain.

It is said that along one side of it is the meeting place of masochistic bachelors. A modest and silent club. Here umbrellas take on the appearance of a flock.

“You know,” she said, “that around here are places where you can get coffee with cream.”

At its very start the rue de Vaugirard stinks of books. The odor comes from every side. Its friend and neighbor, the rue de Tournon, is more inviting. So much so that I was prepared for a proposal and the address of a comfortable hotel. (3-4)

The Paris that belongs to the wanderers (and obviously, the lovers).

“Where are we going?”

I expected that petulant and vicious question. It is the night’s query and Georgette did no more than express aloud that eternal interrogation.

One more question without answer, a question one also asks of the stars, the weather, the shadows, the entire city.

Georgette, the sailor, the dog and I myself had no answer ready and this we sought wandering at random, driven here rather than there by an invincible fatigue.

Thinking it is over as we were walking with soft steps under the trees of the Champs-Elysees, I seemed to catch a purpose, that of all the night prowlers of Paris: we were in search of a corpse. (20)

That this books contains a corpse and a mystery endears it immensely to me. Don’t get me wrong, this is not noir nor thriller nor detective story. It is a book about the Paris that only comes alive in the night, and it cannot be roughly handled nor can all of its secrets ever be known.

Daybreak. Paris, heavy-headed, began to fall asleep. (21)

In this, Paris is like the woman of this story, Georgette. Another creature of night.

She loved only the dark which she seemed each night to wed and her charm itself did not become real until she withdrew from the light to enter obscurity. Looking closely at her one could not picture her as living during the day. She was the night itself and her beauty was nocturnal. (49-50)

A prostitute, yes. A romanticised and problematic figure, yes. But a complex one, and the narrative voice is aware of its own need to romanticise her, to preserve her mystery. In spite of himself the narrator follows her into the day, drags her into the well-lit and the known.

She went to the baker’s, to the milkman…All the evidence of respectability …. But when I thought of what she had been, which some would have loved to call queen of mystery, I would rather have seen her dead at my feet.

She was everything that one would expect in a twenty-two-year-old girl.

She stopped before a house in the narrowest part of the rue de Seine, not far from the quays. At the rear of the court she climbed a narrow stairway to the fifth floor.

Day splashed the casing of the stairs; and all the blemishes wrought by time appeared. Georgette opened a door. (58-59)

All this, and yet he fails. He buys her attentions, attempts to shift her into a defined role in subservience to him for a night to take power over her that way. And fails.

Georgette is no Nadja.

Always he roams the streets. Following Georgette, following her brother Octave, equally mysterious. He seeks out the sailor, the one with him the first night, the murderer most likely, and what wondrous words are these:

I relied on Paris, on the night and on the wind. I expected much of the Gare d’Orsay where one may occasionally hope and wait without aim or reason. The two twin clocks pointed to the hour of one; on the Seine, the reflections of fires and lights were still dancing by, like a galloping flock. (91)

He meets up with Volpe, yet another shadowy underworld figure who seeks only profits in whatever quick scheme is possible, who was advising the police that first night standing over the corpse. He is never brought into clarity either, all is dreamlike.

The cold morning had given Volpe the only drunkenness of which he was capable.

“Tell me, when Georgette disappears, have you noticed that day is not far distant? If she should disappear forever, I have a feeling, and believe me I don’t let things muddle me, I have a feeling there would be no more night.” (121)

She disappears.

Her mystery allows her to be independent, part of the ‘gang’ without being anyone’s lover (in particular). It allows her to be ‘treated like a man. The women did not consider her to be one of their number.’ (130) This despite her profession. I don’t quite know what I think about these things, whether this gives her power or strips her of it, whether it makes of her object or subject. I like this unknowing.

This is a book of puzzles, but they are not meant to be solved.

It is above all a book of streets, of walking, of Paris and its secrets. It is a dark delight.

The days when we follow the secret voice of diversion are those chosen by chance to show us its ways.

Empty-handed, I set out upon the discovery of the flight of time and of space. Words, like joyous companions, started before my eyes and spun about my ears in a carnival of forgetfulness.

I was tired of those involuntary inquisitions, of those incessant curiosities. Boredom with the eternal pageant turned my thoughts to what you will. I fled voluptuously. (135)


Nadja: Surrealism’s Absent Heart

172244This book has often been described in things that I have read, but these descriptions seemed to bear remarkably little in common with what this book actually contained.

Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.” (11)

I read that sentence knowingly, thinking glibly that by haunt he really meant “stalk”, of course. But this was not in fact a tale of Breton’s stalking a woman through Paris streets (though their passage through streets is charted by street names and monuments and pictures of Paris to the delight of psychogeographers). It could be titled André, as it has far more to do with his own obsession with self and the encounter with Nadja sits sandwiched as a section between other thoughts and odd coincidences and naming of friends and enemies along with their pictures and other meanderings of surrealist nature, and a long passage on a woman and her gloves — another female object of a long-term affair. While Nadja seems to perceive him as another man who will protect her from destitution and seeks him out as such, André remains the principal subject to himself.

Do not expect me to provide an exact account of what I have been permitted to experience in this domain. I shall limit myself here to recalling without effort certain things which, apart from any exertions on my part, have occasionally happened to me, things which, reaching me in unsuspected ways, give me the measure of the particular race and disgrace of which I am the object…(23)

He takes pleasure in the reactions of other men to Nadja’s attractiveness, exoticises uncomfortably her appearance as well as calling on racist tropes. The waiter keeps hovering over her on the Quais Malaquais, in the restaurant Delaborde and Breton writes:

Nadja is not at all surprised. She knows her power over certain men, for example, over Negroes who, wherever she may be, are compelled to come and talk to her (99).

Ugh. Then there is Breton’s soliloquy on women and the street, quite as uncomfortable. It is part of the tradition that assumes the female wanderer of the streets as prostitute (if such a tradition yet existed as spoken aloud rather than simply held axiomatic), but here it holds a twist. Here some women they can only live and experience that life fully in the street. Through the gaze and actions of men.

I mean, is the real Nadja this always inspired and inspiring creature who enjoyed being nowhere but in the streets, the only region of valid experience for her, in the street, accessible to interrogation from any human being launched upon some great chimera, or (why not admit it) the one who sometimes fell, since, after all, others had felt authorized to speak to her, had been able to see in her only the most wretched of women, and the least protected? Sometimes I reacted with terrible violence against the over-detailed account she gave me of certain scenes of her past life, concerning which I decided, probably quite superficially, that her dignity could not have survived entirely intact. A story of a blow in the face that had drawn blood, one day,in the Brasserie Zimmer, a blow from a man whom she gave herself the sly pleasure of refusing simply because he was low–and she had cried for help several times, though not without taking the time, before disappearing, to bleed all over the man’s clothes–this story, when she was aimlessly telling it to me, early in the afternoon of October  13, almost managed to alienate her from me forever.  (113)

Is Breton’s violence in thus defining her any less than that of the man who hit her? Being always inspired and inspiring must be quite demanding.

He seeks to deny her any outside reality from this existence in the streets, but only in relation to men like him ‘launched upon some great chimera,’ her role simply to facilitate that search. He is uncomfortable with the other side of this existence in the streets. She seems to define herself here through her ability to reject some men’s advances because she is above them. A right of rejection that should belong to all women, with nothing sly about it. To Breton she seems to take almost a pleasure in their violence, her vengeance through bleeding on them. Such a sad paltry kind of vengeance. I tired of his self-obsessive interpretations of her, wished for just a moment to see her as she was. She tries to tell us but Breton does not wish to hear it, wants nothing to do with what she does or who she is or what she faces in life when not with him, nothing of the hard edges of survival and the things that it requires. It is too close to his own mingled desires perhaps. He fears her life’s ugly realities, refuses to think about them, prizes only the strangeness which cushions him, preserves him from poverty and violence. And day to day bodily functions.

…I was also increasingly alarmed to feel that, when even I left her, she was sucked back into the whirlwind of ordinary life continuing around her and eager to force her, among other concessions, to eat, to sleep (115).

He is also alarmed by her mental illness. He distances himself from her as this becomes worse, as she becomes more needy and thus more and more human to him, more flesh and blood, less enigmatic and charmingly strange. He notes her disappointment when they first meet and he tells her he must return to his wife — she will only ever be a curious sideline to him, while it seems (and how can we really know) he is all she has both emotionally and for his monetary support for physical survival — he is uncharmingly open about the money her gives her. At the end she calls his wife and tells her they are the only friends she has.

This poor unnamed wife that Breton always uses as an excuse when Nadja demands too much. When she begins to bore him with her actual thoughts and her actual needs. Her only friends?

Bad luck to her, because they abandon her after she is committed — though you can hardly blame the wife. She has enough on her plate with Breton.

My general contempt for psychiatry, its rituals and its works, is reason enough for my not yet having dared investigate what has become of Nadja. I have indicated my pessimism as to her fate…

Is it really reason enough? Others Nadja met through Breton did not do the same, but no one was able to really help her.

To label this a romance seems to me cynical beyond anything, an acknowledgment of the emptiness of surrealism and this vision of art and its life when real humanity was required. This haunting he refers to in his first paragraph is is the absence of soul, of heart. It is the vacuuming up of the lives and experience of others to discard them, leaving only their husks as its playthings. Just as in the play he describes at such length in the first chapter, Les Detraques [The Deranged], where two women feed off of and kill their students, though you are never quite sure how.