Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 5: SIGHT
Chapter 32. Frenzy and Darkness
I announce to the world this momentous news item; a new vice has just been born, man has acquired one more source of vertigo—Surrealism, offspring of frenzy and darkness.
LOUIS ARAGON, Paris Peasant
I don’t know why it took me so long to see the ideal book as a model for my “sight” walk. Like the Cluny tapestries, it was probably too close.
For a while, Paris La Nuit or Quiet Days in Clichy topped my list. That I’d met Brassaï and visited his home town hinted at some mystical link, but it felt a little too obvious. Instinct told me the correct book would make itself known.
That it should have done so on the opposite side of the world came as a surprise. It happened at the end of an expedition to the Pacific Northwest with a friend, Nicholas.
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town,” remarked the travel writer Freya Stark, “is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” In my case, the town was Portland, Oregon, the time 2:00 a.m. It was raining a torrent and, in the next room, my traveling companion appeared to be expiring to a terminal cough.
A combination of constant rain and his diet of coffee and tobacco had laid Nicholas low with bronchitis. By the time we reached Portland, heading for Los Angeles, his bark sounded like someone shoveling coal in the furnace room of hell. Fortunately, a fellow dealer, Charlie, took us in, dosed Nicholas, and sent him off to bed while he and I sat up and talked shop.
Over the second bottle of Bordeaux, Charlie said, “I might have something for you.” He disappeared into the back room, returning with a book bound in frog-green cloth. In eighty years, the gilt of its art deco lettering had faded to a sickly yellow, but I could still read the title. The Last Nights of Paris. It was Philippe Soupault’s novel of walking in Paris by night, in the version translated by American poet William Carlos Williams.
“Do you have it?” Charlie asked.
“I’ve read it,” I said, “but I’ve never seen the first edition.”
“Don’t bother about the penciled price,” he said. “We can make a deal.”
Few artistic groups have provided so much sheer fun and creative excitement as the surrealists. They dignified chaos, revered violence, relished dreams, celebrated sex, loved movies and jazz. In short, they were my kind of people.
In London during the 1950s, jazz singer George Melly, a new member of Édouard Mesens’ surrealist group, eagerly attended the weekly meeting and supper, traditionally known as a séance, held in the upstairs room in an Italian café.
Mesens encouraged me to read my poems aloud. In one, there was a line “You are advised to take with you an umbrella in case it should rain knives and forks.” One evening I collected a great deal of cutlery from a sideboard and, on reaching this image, hurled them into the air. The effect was very satisfactory, the noise formidable, but while the Surrealists’ applause was still resounding in my gratified ears, the proprietor rushed up the stairs and ejected us all.
Melly quickly found that obeying one’s surrealist instincts could even save your life. On tour with a jazz band in Manchester, he was ambushed in an alley by some young thugs. Armed with razors and a broken bottle, they advanced toward him.
I subconsciously did the only thing that might work, and it did. I took out of my pocket a small book of the sound poems of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, explained what they were, and began to read.
“langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off. If I’d pleaded or attempted to defend myself, or backed against the wall with my arm over my face, I think I’d have had it.
The more time I spent thinking about night walks, the more I returned to the surrealists. No group walked as tirelessly or with such purpose. André Breton based Nadja, his novel of l’amour fou, around a series of walks in pursuit of a woman who obsessed him. Louis Aragon became an urbane and articulate explorer of both boulevards and back alleys in Paris Peasant, and, most enigmatic of all, Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris, part poem, part murder mystery, and a progenitor of film noir, took place in streets I could see from my terrace.
The surrealists had left their griffes everywhere. On walks through Montparnasse, I always paused by a small hotel on rue Delambre; a plaque in the entrance announced that André Breton had lived there for a time before losing patience with Montparnasse’s triviality and moving across town to the more businesslike Montmartre.
I took these eccentrics so much for granted that it never occurred to me that not everyone knew who they were.
“What was this surrealism anyway?” one client asked. “Some kind of cult?”
In certain ways it did resemble a cult. Breton certainly behaved like a guru, to the extent that some members called him, not particularly kindly, “the pope of surrealism.” In other ways, it was more like a club, and quite a small one. There were seldom more than a dozen seriously creative members, and the numbers kept dwindling as Breton imposed some new rule.
Some of the surrealists, 1930. Back row: Man Ray, Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Breton. Front row: Tristan Tzara, Salvador Dalí, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, René Crevel.
Breton reminded me of the childhood game Simon Says. The leader orders “Simon says, Stand on one leg!” and those who obey stay in the game but those who do something else or follow a command not directly from Breton are out. Some of his orders were easier to obey than others. His first commandment required that everyone must attend the daily séance on Place Blanche. There was only one acceptable excuse for absence—lust. So powerful was the urge to be with a woman—Breton detested homosexuality—that it could not—must not—be resisted.
Subsequent directives were more demanding. He insisted, for instance, that none of the group accept payment for their work; it compromised their creativity. Some dropped out on this account, but the majority remained—to be reduced still further by his order in 1926 that all join the Communist Party, since its aims coincided most closely with those of the group.
Most Parisian members agreed, with the exception of Philippe Soupault, whom Breton ejected, even though he was one of the cofounders of the movement. Members in foreign countries, however, risked more than excommunication. In a monarchy, to be a communist automatically made you an enemy of the state. Some surrealists from the Balkans and Eastern Europe had to flee for their lives.
“But what did the surrealists do exactly?” asked my visitor. “Paint, write, perform?”
“Well, all of those, to some extent. But mostly they talked, and … well, played games.”
“Games? You mean, like football?”
I tried to imagine the surrealist football team—something to which only Monty Python’s Flying Circus could do justice.
“No. Most of the original surrealists were writers. So they played word games mostly.”
Their favorite was Exquisite Corpses, a version of the children’s parlor game in which one draws the head of an animal, folds the paper and passes it to others who add the body and legs, with the whole creature only revealed when the paper is unfolded. In the surrealist version, players compiled sentences, not drawings, each person adding a word. They named the game for an early success: “The exquisite corpse will drink new wine.”
The American walker shook his head in disgust. “Ya ask me, they sound as crazy as a sack fulla assholes.”
He wasn’t entirely wrong. In the 1920s, when the movement was at its height, plenty of people agreed with him. The surrealists championed chance, play, spontaneity—everything serious literature detested. In its place, Breton preached the acte gratuite—any action performed on the spur of the moment, with no thought of consequences. As the ultimate example, he proposed emptying a pistol into a crowd, indifferent to whom it killed. While none of the surrealists took their beliefs that far, they didn’t flinch from violence. They attacked nuns and priests in the street and interrupted the performances of any person who dared use the term “surrealist” without permission. After each excess, Breton wrote a polite note to the victim, emphasizing the sincerity of their motives. And to show that they too had suffered, he decorated the corner of each letter with a drop of blood.
Janet Flanner, Paris correspondent of The New Yorker, found the surrealists disgraceful and fascinating in equal parts.
Surrealism was basically founded on the principle that art should not be beautiful but on the contrary should shock and dismay the eye of the beholder. Another of its concepts was violent anti-Catholicism, usually demonstrated by the Surrealists insulting priests and spitting on nuns in the Saint-Germain streets. Interest in the ancient study of dreams was also a Surrealist fundamental, as was devotion to Leon Trotsky and Freud, and, in Surrealism’s sadistic physical practices, street brawling was considered an essential. The Surrealists had their own club table facing the door of the Deux Magots from which vantage a seated Surrealist could conveniently insult any newcomer with whom he happened to be feuding, or discuss his plans to horsewhip the editor of some belligerent anti-Surrealist newspaper for having mentioned his name or, worse, having failed to mention it.
But the surrealists were, on the whole, more mischievous than malicious, with a precocious interest in what came to be called pop culture. Surrealism challenged the prevailing aesthetic. Before them, few intellectuals saw merit in genre fiction, jazz, or movies. In particular they admired the film serials directed by Louis Feuillade about master criminal Fantômas and a gang calling itself the Vampires. As its voluptuous, acrobatic (and anagrammatic) leader Irma Vep, the actress known simply as Musidora flaunted her sexuality in a daringly clinging black body stocking with a stiletto strapped to one thigh.
That Feuillade, a stolid family man of stern right-wing principles, saw neither poetry nor sensuality in his creations just made his achievement that much more delicious. At a time when nobody, not even the authors of the original stories that inspired the films, took these thrillers very seriously, the surrealist Robert Desnos wrote a long poem dedicated to the masked gangster. He was inspired by the cover of that first novel in the series, showing a gigantic figure in evening dress and a black domino mask staring down on a sleeping Paris, bloody dagger in hand.
Stretching his immense shadow
On the world and on Paris,
Who is this grey-eyed ghost
Who appears in the silence?
It must be you, Fantômas,
Who raises himself above the roofs.
At its most trivial, surrealism was George Melly fooling with knives and forks, Marcel Duchamp inverting a urinal and calling it Fountain, or the group indulging in Cadavres Exquis.
But surrealism also opened literature to the idea of free association and stream of consciousness. It inspired Breton and Soupault to improvise Les Champs Magnétiques—The Magnetic Fields—a series of texts using “automatic writing,” a form of word jazz that riffed on language. Batting words, phrases, and images back and forth, they were unconcerned with whether they “made sense.” Readers puzzled over such passages as:
A great bronze boulevard is the shortest road. Magical squares do not make good stopping places. Walk slowly and carefully; after a few hours you can see the pretty nose-bleed bush. The panorama of consumptives lights up. You can hear every footfall of the underground travelers. And yet the most ordinary silence reigns in these narrow places.
The more perceptive realized that a doorway had opened onto a new and disturbing landscape; the magnetic fields of a Europe left dangerously unstable by the world’s first industrial war.
And all this took place not a hundred yards from where I lived. Could that be coincidence? To me, it seemed more like fate.