Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 5: SIGHT
Chapter 37. The Hotel of Great Men
I’ll take as my departure point L’Hôtel des Grands Hommes.
Nice night for it,” said Kevin, wiping water from his eyebrows.
True to Soupault, a light rain had begun falling over the city almost as soon as Kevin arrived. We stayed in the apartment until midnight, occasionally taking a break from drinking and talking to stick our heads outside, but when midnight arrived with no relief in sight, I suggested we set off.
Just after 1:00 a.m., we reached the top of rue Soufflot.
Sifting down, the rain conferred halos on the street lamps around Place du Panthéon, painting a gleam on its cobbles, varnishing the gray steel roofs. Ahead of us, dominating everything, towered the Panthéon, a secular cathedral and France’s temple of top people. Inside, under the dome, ticking tirelessly in the dark, in tune with the rotation of the planet, a sixty-pound lead weight sheathed in brass swung at the end of a wire 220 feet long—Foucault’s pendulum, proving in stately progress something the French knew instinctively anyway, that Paris is the center of the earth.
Above the colonnade outside, an inscription announced Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante—To great men, the nation’s gratitude. Beneath the marble floor, a crypt held the bones of those men and women found worthy of France’s highest honor. Dylan Thomas wrote, “After the first death, there is no other.” How like the French to confute him, digging up the remains of the famous, and, once their importance in the national narrative was established, giving them a second burial by re-interring them here—just as working stonemasons had re-interred the skeletons of the unknown in the catacombs. An identical impulse—but, as in all real estate, location was everything.
In September 1918, twenty-two-year-old André Breton finished his military service as a medical aide and enrolled to study medicine. To be near the Val-de-Grâce hospital, he took a room in the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, a then-down-at-heel establishment facing the Panthéon. Over the next six months, he was visited by Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault, all Dadaists who shared his impatience with the movement. In 1922, they would instigate an explosive break that led to the birth of surrealism.
Soupault, only twenty-one, edited a thin yellow-covered journal called, tersely, Littérature. In the spring of 1919, to test Breton’s concept of “automatic writing,” the two met at the hotel and spent eight consecutive days experimenting with the technique. Breton explained the process in his First Manifesto of Surrealism.
Put yourself in the most passive, or receptive, state you can. Write swiftly with no preconceived subject, swiftly enough that you cannot retain it, and are not tempted to re-read. The first sentence will arise spontaneously, it being the case in truth that each second there is a sentence, unknown to our conscious thought, which only asks to be externalized.
We wrote, side by side, in all good faith, those pages which would provoke what André Breton called, proudly, the surrealist revolution. We were surprised, in my case stupefied, when we reread what we had written. Sometimes we burst into laughter. And I will never forget the laughter of Breton, something between that of a baby and a rooster.
When the experiments appeared in Littérature as “Les Champs Magnétiques,” neither Soupault nor Breton apologized for the fact that it had all been fun. Was that why no surrealist has ever been elevated to the Panthéon? To the French, literature should be no laughing matter.
Even though it now had three stars, the Hôtel des Grands Hommes remained a respectful distance from the building that justified its name. Crossing the square, we read the marble plaque set into the wall by the main entrance.
Dans cet hôtel au cours du printemps 1919 André BRETON & Philippe SOUPAULT ont inventé l’écriture automatique et donné naissance au surréalisme en écrivant “Les champs magnétiques.”
It was a stretch to claim the writing of “Les Champs Magnétiques” “gave birth to surrealism.” That didn’t happen officially until 1922, when the Dadaists put Breton “on trial”—naturally in a café, the Closerie des Lilas. The brawl that followed decisively launched the new movement, trampling Tzara’s playful experiment in the process. But we were clearly in surrealist country. With Soupault as guide, how could it be otherwise?
Kevin took the obligatory snapshot of me grinning next to the plaque.
I turned to face back down rue Soufflot, toward the Luxembourg Gardens, now locked and dark. We both sensed that the night was another country. They did things differently here, and the prudent visitor conducted himself with caution and circumspection.
I pulled my scarf more snugly around my neck.