Benjamin Péret 1899–-1959
French poet, short-story writer, and essayist.
Péret was an early poet of the French Surrealist movement, which began in the 1920s. Although he was a prominent, celebrated, and influential figure among the surrealists themselves, his reputation internationally and among general readers has been largely eclipsed by the writer André Breton, who wrote the Surrealist manifesto. Péret was greatly admired among surrealist writers for his faithful and consistent adherence to their literary ideals, particularly in the practice of “automatic writing,” of which Péret was perhaps the most successful poet. His poems, which remain consistent throughout four decades of publication, are especially noted for their playfulness and humor.
Péret was born July 4, 1899, in Rézé, a village near Nantes, in western France. When he was two years old, his parents separated, after which he was reared by his mother. As a young man, he served in the military from 1917–19, during the first World War. After moving to Paris in 1920, he met Breton, then editor of the journal Littérature. Péret became a poet of the literary and artistic movement known as Dada, which was born of the disillusionment many of his generation felt as a result of their experiences during the War. His first poetry collection, Le passager du transatlantique, was published in 1921, and he continued to publish volumes of poetry throughout the next four decades. In 1922, following Breton's lead, he broke away from the Dadaist movement in a shift toward surrealism. He co-edited Breton's journal La révolution surréaliste from 1924 to 1925. Mary Ann Caws, who has written extensively on Péret and French surrealist poets, describes Péret's personality as eccentric, noting, “As a person, Péret made a vivid impression. Several details stand out in all accounts of him—that he wore flashy ties, had a raucous laugh and a totally uninhibited hatred of the clergy, spitting at them in the street. …” His lifelong commitment to political activism began when he joined the Communist Party in 1927. He married Brazilian singer Elsie Houston, with whom he lived in Brazil from 1929 to 1931. Their son, Geyser, was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1931. That year, Péret joined the Communist league, which resulted in his imprisonment and deportation from Brazil for his political activism. Returning to Paris that year, Péret continued his activism as a communist. From 1936 to 1938, he fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, during the second World War, he was required to serve once again in the French military. During the German occupation of France, Péret was arrested and imprisoned for his communist activities, and paid a ransom to the German authorities for his release. He then lived secretly in Paris for several months before moving to Marseilles, and then to Mexico, where he lived until 1948. In 1943, Péret's wife died, after which he married the painter Remedios Varo. Returning to Paris in 1948, he worked as a proofreader. Péret died in Paris, September 18, 1959.
Péret's body of poetry is noted for its consistency, adhering to the principles of the Surrealist movement. Thus, Elizabeth R. Jackson observes, “One cannot exactly speak of development throughout the years” of Péret's literary output, but “only of gentle evolution.” In Le passager du transatlantique, Péret's first published volume of poetry, the poems are especially playful and good-humored. The poems of Immortelle maladie (1924) and Dormir, dormir dans les pierres (1926), drawing from the influence of psychological theory, make use of dreamlike imagery and are darker in tone. The poems of Le grand jeu (1928), his first major published collection, demonstrate, as Jackson comments, “a spirit of playfulness, a taste for the ridiculous and pinpricking humor prevail, more so than in his later works.” Of his next two poetry volumes, De derrière les fagots (1934) is generally playful in tone, while Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là (1936) expresses strong political views. Je sublime (1936), which Jackson describes as a “short but very sweet volume of love poems,” includes sixteen poems, all written to “Rosa.” Feu central (1947) is a compilation volume which includes the previously published Immortelle maladie, Dormir, dormir dans les pierres, Je sublime, and Un point c'est tout, as well as previously unpublished works under the volume title À tâtons. While in Mexico, Péret's interest in Latin-American folklore influenced his essays, La parole est à Péret (1943; translated as Magic: The Flesh and Blood of Poetry), Le déshonneur des poétes (1945; translated as the Dishonor of Poets), as well as Anthologie des mythes, légendes et contes populaires d'Amérique, an anthology of Latin-American mythology. His poetry collection Air mexicain (1952) also reflects this interest. A concept central to Péret's poetry is the “marvelous,” a term holding special meaning and significance for surrealist writers. Although Péret openly refused to provide a definition of his concept of the “marvelous,” J. H. Matthews explains his “theory of the marvelous” as one in which “the marvelous is a sign of social and moral anti-conformity, signaling unyielding resistance to accepted social modes of thought and feeling.” Matthews concludes, “Intuition opposed to rationalist thought, finding encouragement in a spirit of liberty that takes no account of the social, moral, and political customs of contemporary society is the prime element in the marvelous as we shall see it celebrated in Péret's writing.” Jackson observes that, “especially important for an understanding of [Péret's] poetry is the fact that, for him, the marvelous can be found anywhere.”
During his lifetime, and among his literary peers, Péret was at the center of the Surrealist movement. Outside of his literary circle, however, he has been largely overshadowed by his close friend Breton, whose name is most often associated with the Surrealist movement in literature. Péret was greatly admired among his peers for his faithfulness to the ideals of Surrealism, especially as demonstrated in his adherence to the practice of “automatic writing.” Automatic writing, the process of recording spontaneous images with little or no corrections, unhampered by stylistic concern, allows a reader to more fully enter the world of the poet. Writing in 1940, Breton praised Péret's use of language, commenting, “Words and what they designate, freed once and for all from domestication, never before enjoyed such liberty.” Péret also is noted for the humor and playfulness of his poetry, as Breton commented, “Humour gushes here as from a geyser.” Two of Péret's theoretical essays, “La Parole est a Péret,” and “Le Déshonneur des Poètes,” were, according to Franklin Rosemont, immensely important to the Surrealist movement. Rosemont explains, “These texts testify with burning clarity to Péret's relentless devotion to the cause of breaking the social, cultural, and psychological fetters which reduce the imagination to misery and degradation.” Jackson, echoing the assessment of many critics, asserts that Péret is “a Surrealist's Surrealist,” describing his status as “one of the lesser-known but one of the finest stars in the surrealist constellation,” for “his work radiates that emotional and linguistic freedom, that fairy-tale realm of possibilities which epitomized the great ideal of the surrealist quest.” Matthews notes that, while “unknown to the general public, in France or anywhere else, Benjamin Péret made a contribution to Surrealism that, within the Surrealist movement, is acknowledged to be irreplaceable.” Matthews asserts that Péret put into practice the ideals of Surrealism “with a dedication that made him the envy of his contemporaries in Surrealism and the object of admiration among younger participants in the Surrealist venture.” Mary Ann Caws concurs that Péret remained “faithful to the Surrealist movement until his death,” and “has often been considered the most remarkable poet of that movement, its ideal spokesman of spontaneity.” Caws explains, Péret “casually displays the effortless, perfect language of abundance and explosion” so valued in both the Dadaist and the surrealist movements. She asserts, “He is responsible for the most colorful surrealist poetry we have, at times brilliantly non-sensical and at others genuinely touching.” Nonetheless, writing in 1985, Jackson notes that Péret, “as yet has not received his due share of serious attention from critics and is relatively unknown to the general public.”