Louis Aragon

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Anna Balakian (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4913

SOURCE: Balakian, Anna. “Anicet, or the pursuit of pulchérie.” In Symbolism and Modern Literature, edited by Marcel Tetel, pp. 237-47. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Balakian argues that Aragon's first published prose work, Anicet, cemented his importance to twentieth-century art and literature by “igniting” the “spirit of surrealism.”]

Among the astonishing areas of neglect in the criticism of twentieth-century literature is the substantial work of Aragon. The oversight is the more surprising in the light of resurgent interest in Dada and surrealism, extending to collateral references such as Jarry, Roussel, and Artaud. André Breton has fared better, although the current scholarly attention to narrative has overstressed the importance of Nadja and underestimated Breton's poetry.

In perspective, Aragon may well loom as the Victor Hugo of this century, and with luck and good health he may well make it to 1985. Like his predecessor he has had an active role in forming a literary movement, he has had his politically and patriotically inspired phases, his colossal narratives, and if he was not exiled at a certain period in his life like Victor Hugo, he has known what it is to be a stranger in his own land, evidenced in the poignant poetry of En Etrange Pays dans mon pays lui-même.

The current preoccupation with structural analysis puts Aragon at a great disadvantage. He writes plain, vigorous French, he is not neurotically subtle, he takes his structures where he finds them—in the satirical novel, the sotie, the historical romance, and a poetry largely conveyed in Romantic lyricism except for a brief early period in which he indulged in Dada écriture. In Le Paysan de Paris and in Le Traité du style Aragon crystallized and intellectualized the precepts of surrealism better than most of his colleagues who practiced the surrealist metaphor.

But in his earliest prose work, Anicet, he accomplished something even more significant: he gave the “materialization of a moral symbol in violent opposition to the morality of the world in which it emerged.”1 These are the words with which he was to characterize some years later the sense of the marvelous which he shared with Breton and a few others in their search for a concept of the Beautiful to replace the standard and tired ones. If the symbolism in Anicet is overt in its personifications, its negation of the ethics of the avant-garde of the historical moment makes it an unusual monument in the history of literature, not only in French literature but in its global and epistemological context. Anicet tells us how the spirit of surrealism was ignited; but beyond that, its satire of contemporary figures of the artistic world, lightly shaded, is a pretense and a screen for something much more fundamental that troubled Aragon in 1918 as he began his emblematic tale, something that remains one of the essential problematics of twentieth-century literature on an international level: the perilous struggle of the Beautiful in art and writing.

The central magnet of the “Panorama,” as Aragon calls his narrative, is a woman named Mirabelle. If “belle” obviously stands for beauty, “mira” may well imply a reflection—which indeed makes her the center of a multifaceted courtship. But it also suggests the mirror vision, the false appearance, the semblance, implying the mistake that the generation of 1918 may have made in its definition of Beauty. Presumably, an old lover, Guillaume, characterized her as “Mire aux yeux d'argent,”2 (untranslatable because the double connotation of silver/money does not come across in modern English, whereas in its French ambiguity lies an element of satire). As the récit progresses it becomes obvious that Guillaume was none other than Apollinaire, and that he was not referring to the color of her eyes but to their venal concerns. “That explains this court of masks around her, and its recruitment, and this symbol of beauty in the hands of the merchants” (p. x). Her gravitation toward wealth results in the choice she eventually makes of a husband: an American multimillionaire businessman wins her hand in a courtship in which his rivals are among the most talented artists of the time.

In identifying Mirabelle as the symbol of modern beauty, Aragon is stating a hypothesis, to be verified or demolished in the analogical progression of the work. At first, the most prestigious artists credited with having remodeled the concept of beauty at the dawn of the century are seen under veiled names and in Guignol exaggerations, arguing about her function:

—I tell you that she is a solar myth

—A conception of the mind

—An obsessive idea

—An image

—A symbol

—Shut up, said Anicet, she is a woman of flesh and bones, else we would not have found her so beautiful

(p. 185).

Mirabelle's background is examined, and it will not take too much deciphering to realize that Aragon is giving the reader his version of the history of the concept of Beauty from its beginnings. She first emerges in the Western world through the constraining realism of a Mediterranean maturation. She assumes a fatal power of seduction that destroys men; she becomes an object of fear and persecution: “mothers threw stones after her as they chased her from a village in Asturias where she had gone to hide a painful secret” (p. 189). She eventually attracted the attention of the bizarre—or shall we say “avant-garde”?—Harry James (a suicidal character whom we subsequently are led to identify with a veiled embodiment of Jacques Vaché).3 The attraction produced instant results: “suddenly he leaned toward Mirabelle, drew her to himself and made her a mother” (p. 190). Retrospectively, Mirabelle passed judgment: “Nobody in the world has ever done so much good and so much harm at the same time” (p. 193). In fact, the Mediterranean Beauty's illicit alliance with the Absurd produced an offspring which, according to Mirabelle's account, was sold as trash.

In Paris, the mecca for the worship of Beauty, the adulterated and modernized version embodied by Mirabelle was wooed by seven identifiable archetypes: a titled crook, an actor, an artist, two poets, a dandy, and a metaphysician. Bringing her their gifts as masked scavengers, they offer her a wide range of alternatives, all resulting from “three preliminary conditions” without which modern Beauty cannot be courted: “theft, lie, mystery” (p. 63).

The glass ball presented by the first suitor is a kaleidoscope that has presumably powers of transcendence. But modern Beauty is capable of using it only to contemplate her own image as the center of all the universe, limiting thus the infinite potential of vision to a confined and narcissistic perspective. The agility of word and movement, the flair for creating illusion, the prestidigitator's aplomb constitute pointedly the stylized stereotype of Jean Cocteau.

The second gift is a polygon of iridescent taffeta containing a beautiful face in its design. In ripping off a piece of the cloth the thief has cut into the face. The iridescence is an illumination of reality; yet there is an element of clumsiness that destroys the beauty inherent in the ever-changing colors. Despite its damaged appearance it is more powerful than the kaleidoscopic luminosity of the first character's ball, which, placed upon the magic though mutilated cloth, loses all its transfigurative quality. The speech of this second masked figure with the lofty lip contains the lexical characteristics which were to become associated with the future leader of surrealism: iridescence, enchantment, the marvelous, the personal spectrum that extends from grey to rose.

The third suitor is a clown, the Charlie Chaplin archetype, the first great star of the new medium for the representation of Beauty on celluloid. Under the name of Pol, he roams through Aragon's novel, giving it the ragtime version of Beauty, the mechanical, accelerated sense of reality. His contribution to modern Beauty is an elixir in the form of a tangerine: “this bizarre little fragrant sun” (p. 60). He procures it at great and comic risk to himself and disrupts the systematized structure of a theater audience as he snatches the precious golden apple from a vendor. All he can do to remunerate her is to give her a spectacular acrobatic performance of his flight. Much valor is displayed, and stunningly succulent is the fruit, but rapidly consumed. Aragon gives a succinct indictment of the value of the cinema to aesthetics: brilliant, gilded, savory but ephemeral—so much effort for so short a satisfaction. We are here very far from the high hopes that Apollinaire had entertained for film as an eventual replacement for the word in the making of poetry, i.e. the Beautiful.

The accent of the fourth suitor suggests that he is either a high-class Italian or a low-class Slav; he brings a diplomatic document, which, if leaked, could cause catastrophic wars. It seems not too far-fetched to conclude that the allegory of the gift and the ambiguity of the place of origin of the giver suggest the involvement of a foreign conspiracy in the shaping of the so-called modern version of the Beautiful. There are elsewhere direct references to futurism and overt ones to Dada. It is interesting to note that Aragon gives neither of these in any guise an important role in the shaping of the new aesthetics; but the foreign suitor in whom they seem to be amalgamated is among the most shady of the whole secret society seeking to espouse Mirabelle

The fifth bearer of a gift is Omme, which is a homonym for Man and for the unit of electrical resistance. Although some critics have identified Omme as Jarry, Aragon's own 1931 preface names Valéry, who indeed fits more logically here as the suitor who brings a resistor and an element of measure, stolen from the Institut des Arts et Métiers. His concern for philosophic truth and rule-oriented humanism, pronounced in what Aragon calls a “white” voice, sums up the self-serving hyperbole of Omme: “the most useful present, the most urgent, and the most worthy of your character and of mine” (p. 63).

The next, a painter, whose manifest and later confirmed model is Picasso, has lifted the signal which railroad stations use to prevent collisions of trains. He compares the gadget to a red flower and reminds Mirabelle of the cataclysmic consequences of his theft: the possible collision of two rapid trains originating from distant points. Here the conquest of modern Beauty demands the sacrifice of order and risks terrible destruction. Had not Picasso caused, indeed, the collision and explosion of long-established and orderly systems, the breakdown of standardization and of accepted relationships?

The last donor brings the faded photograph of a Beauty of a past generation, of the time of the Blue Danube and of Pêcheur d'Islande. One thinks of Rimbaud's Letter, in which he chastized those whose search for novelty only led them back to “the spirit of things dead.” Aragon is here passing a devastating judgment on Chipre, under whose mask is Max Jacob, generally presumed to have been an avant-garde figure.

If there are seven suitors in this scene, the secret society assures the new aspirant, Anicet, that the number of those seeking modern Beauty's hand is not fixed; it is flexible and ever-fluctuating, and she is indeed an equal-opportunity employer, which makes it possible for Anicet to join the ranks immediately. His gift is a stanza of verse, which is received with derision. He will have to do much better than that to prove a worthy contender for the favors of Beauty: “Don't be surprised by anything,” said the fourth masked figure, “and act according to the dictates of your desire for beauty; thus by your actions we shall judge of your aesthetics better than we can by the six mediocre lines of verse you have produced” (p. 73).

A composite methodology for the conquest of modern Beauty emerges out of this allegorical ritual: it is solipsistic, clumsily enchanting, ephemerally glittering, deliberately orderly, perilous, intriguing, superannuated, and amateurishly versified. As narrator, Aragon has not favored any one of the suitors, not even the one with whom he identifies. There is a definite distancing between the two roles he plays: that of participant, in the guise of Anicet, and of third person narrator.

Of his identification with Anicet he makes no secret. What is the meaning of his name? Since he mentions at one point “the fresh fragrance of anise,” it can be surmised that he is a fresh, young, somewhat hallucinated being—a small pinch of anise. Anicet/anisette, the drink that he and his companions took when they were not drinking grenadine! The white and the red liquors of their youth were symbolic of that unusual combination of the pure and the sanguine which was to mark the special quality of surrealism among a host of avant-garde movements: the sensual reality of red, the power of dreams and the search for absolute beauty that the white hallucinatory potion provoked.

Anicet's story could have consisted simply of a solipsistic adventure in which he might have imagined himself as the champion of Beauty, delivering her from the beasts that surrounded her. He could have cast himself as the white knight in shining armor triumphant over a series of unappetizing Minotaurs. The cloak-and-dagger imagery of Anicet is reminiscent of Breton's poetry of the same vintage, but in Aragon's story it contains a measure of realistic irony, which eventually leads his not quite heroic protagonist to prison, to face the indignation and rancor of public opinion; the accusations against him are so grievous that they may well drag him to the guillotine. His achievements in the defense of Beauty have had a destructive rather than constructive character. He succeeded in eliminating two of the unworthy suitors: the metaphysician of “white” poetry and the American multimillionaire. In the course of a tumultuous presence in the arena, he also managed to burn a number of classified museum possessions representing the Beauty of the past: paintings by Boucher, Meissonnier, Millet, Greuze, and Pissarro were destroyed by his libertarian vandalism. He burned his personal bridges as well: “the chains fall: I cease to be the slave of my past” (p. 78). He even pretended to burn the money that his bourgeois family had sent him for his sustenance. It is a pretense recognized as such by Anicet himself, for even as he assumes the role of disinterested rebel, he calls his own bluff and replaces the 1000-franc bill he had destroyed by another one he had kept in reserve.

True, he may have cut himself off from his family, but he dragged his ancestors behind him in the figures of an aged Rimbaud in the first chapter and an aged Lautréamont in the last. Both are presented as superannuated factors, suggesting that even the most powerful firebrands of aesthetics wane in time and that the position of avant-garde is short-lived as youth itself. As Rimbaud tells of his disillusionment, in a lengthy monologue, the reader realizes how rejectable he is becoming in the eyes of Anicet. At the end of his encounter with Rimbaud, Anicet discovers that he has slept with the same Hortense whom Rimbaud loved and then abandoned—in other words the young rebel had pursued an aging concept of Beauty at the very moment when he was thinking of himself as avant-garde. “I noticed what old-fashioned potions I was using, I did not want to persist in my error, and I went off in search of the modern idea of life, of the line that marked the horizon of our contemporaries” (p. 43).

But at the end of the scene with the seven suitors just as he is declaring his dedication to Beauty and to love, the lights go out. He is left in the figurative dark, for if Hortense was second-hand, Mirabelle is fake; the sense of adventure generated in her pursuit is vain and futile. What she had really done is to open Anicet's eyes to the inauthenticity of what is called the new art. Anicet's function is to single out every one of the false pretenders to avant-garde beauty and to bring out their ineptness.

The methodologists also come under attack: “they looked within themselves with a system of mirrors. They did not care about their objectives. All they enjoyed was the method to be used to attain a goal. The world was governed by minds which reasoned about themselves” (p. 141).

The most compelling scenes are those with Chipre and Bleu. Max Jacob's mating of poverty with poetry comes off as an artificial stance. Bleu's most recent triumphs are revealed as academic disgraces. The chapter in which Aragon describes Bleu's rise and fall is called, tellingly, “Decease.” His natures mortes gave the viewer a wonderful sense of living forms, says Anicet, whereas his latest so-called masterpiece in praise of living form, called “Praise of the Body,” is lifeless and stilted. “Anicet suddenly understood that Bleu had passed from the domain of love to that of death and glory” (p. 118). The self-appraisal which Aragon puts candidly into the mouth of Bleu is even more devastating: “What a nonentity it is just the same!” (p. 183). The last glimpse of Bleu in this ignoble gallery of false gods is in a newspaper account of his deposition at the trial of Anicet. He shows himself disloyal and unfriendly toward the young defendant. He speeds off to America to become the subject of much adulation and the recipient of much financial reward under the sponsorship of art critics such as Mr. Bolonais (undoubtedly a variation of the ambivalent sausage) whose function will be to establish and dictate tastes in art not only for the current generation but for posterity. Aragon is here not only challenging the validity of the new art of his immediate predecessors but questioning the operations whereby art is promoted and prestige is artificially generated. His satire casts the artist and the critic not in the intellectual battle against each other, which has for so long been the accepted dichotomy, but in an astonishing and shady conspiracy against a gullible public.

Was there anyone who could still salvage Beauty from false creators and promoters? There is the poet with the haughty lip and the clumsy hand who mutilated iridescently beautiful patterns of a face on cloth in the scene of the suitors. His name, we later learn, is Baptiste Ajamais. “He must have been born at the end of a great river in some port on the ocean for his eyes to have caught the grey glow and his voice to have acquired a certain sonority of shells when he said ‘the sea.’ Somewhere in his childhood, low docks slumbered in the heavy summer evening, and on their still waters there were sailboats that would not leave before the rising of the breeze” (p. 114).

An extraordinary change of style occurs when Aragon is speaking of his friend Breton; the banal and pedestrian tenor of the conversation of the art establishment fades, and the poetic longing that was to characterize and distinguish surrealism from all the other avant-gardes is for a moment fixed on the strange young man coming from the funeral of Harry James, who, having buried the prototype of the absurd, floats in a state of transit, in search of something new.

Whereas Aragon's self-portrait is without glamour, and indeed full of candor and auto-criticism, he adorns his portrait of Breton with an aura of mystery, catches and isolates the rhythm of his speech. Whereas he is Anicet, the subject of transitory excitation, the name Baptiste Ajamais suggests prophecy and permanence, the infinite character of the search. Baptiste is the only one not impressed by the charms of Mirabelle. He tells Anicet: “The conquest of Mirabelle is but an episode, don't forget it, it is the first step in life toward a mysterious end, that I can perhaps discern” (p. 132). When Mirabelle tries to seduce him by undressing before him, Baptiste, unmoved, stares at her coldly. By using Baptiste as his alter ego Aragon demonstrates the ambivalence of his own stand at that moment of youthful incertitude when he might have jumped on the bandwagon of his elders' definition of modernism but didn't. The trouble with the world, according to Baptiste, is that nothing has happened since the world began (cf. p. 237).

Yet where does this purity of posture lead? Baptiste's saintliness is by no means total. He is seen playing with fire, but is cautious not to get burned. Anicet, on the other hand, is shown holding a lamp in one hand and a revolver in the other. The atmosphere that was charged with adventure and vertigo turns into a climate of confusion. All three principals of the narrative are condemned as inept. Mirabelle's beauty was a fraud, and she failed even as a fortune hunter. Anicet was in prison for having pursued false gods and false goods: did he not try to steal Bleu's latest paintings, only to find out that they were worthless? As for Baptiste, he beat a quick retreat to the country and was content to share the fate of Anicet vicariously through newspaper accounts of the trial. He was in the company of two old habitués of a café, one a certain M. Prudence who bore a strange resemblance to Harry James, and the other an old gentleman by the name of Lautréamont. Was Aragon making prophecies about all the graveyards of the avant-garde?

Anicet is indeed the portrait of the author as a young man, but the viewing of the young man is distanced—just as Candide is and is not Voltaire. Candide was the mocking of an attitude of optimism espoused and then corrected by the creator of the persona; in the same manner Aragon was Anicet before he created Anicet, and Anicet's illusion and subsequent disillusionment are crystallized in a self-critical portrayal. When commentators of Aragon quote from Anicet to illustrate permanent attitudes of its author, and when they equate Mirabelle with Aragon's notion of modern beauty, they forget that Anicet is but the record of an historical moment, and as Aragon has said: “I don't think people can understand anything about me if they overlook the dates of my thoughts and my writings.”4

Historically Anicet makes an assessment of the avant-garde of the first two decades of the twentieth century. His rejection of the reigning champions of so-called modern Beauty makes this early work a significant document in the history of the modern arts. Whereas at a half-century distance the attitude of most literary and art critics has been to unite the avant-gardes in a continuous flow from cubism to futurism, to Dada and then on to surrealism, a scrutiny of Anicet opens a different perspective. Aragon viewed the early years of the century as apocalyptic rather than as avant-garde. He saw his elders in the pursuit of a false aesthetics and found his own contemporaries floundering even though they may have been rejecting the false prophets of a new Beauty. Despite his confusion, the young hero of Anicet conveys a deep sense of jeopardy in his handling of the symbolism of Art and Beauty to suggest the perilous state of what he calls “the last divinities of men” (p. 162).

From the narrator's point of view the triumph of Bleu is as great a threat to the discovery of a new concept of beauty as the imprisonment of Anicet and the immobilization of Baptiste. Moreover, Aragon makes it clear at the end of the book that the spirit of absurdism, made incarnate in Jacques Vaché/Harry James, is not in his view the true spirit of modernism either. When Baptiste finds under the guise of M. Prudence his old friend whom he had thought dead, his devastating remark to the red-haired character is: “Harry James, I did not really believe you could have died, but now can no longer believe that you are living” (p. 255).

In Anicet Aragon shows the threats to the cult of beauty in the twentieth century, but he offers no solutions. He leaves his young characters in a quandary and suggests that they had better not look to their elders for guidance or inspiration. Indeed, if we remember, this was the very time when Breton had lost confidence in Valéry and when his fondness for Apollinaire had lapsed from a professional to a personal level. The situation at the end of Anicet has a significant historical validity; it makes it clear that whatever future aesthetics was to emerge, the composition of a new cénacle would not be that of master and younger disciples, but a fellowship of peers, shedding the past and looking forward together but without a concerted platform. This phenomenon also explains why as a cénacle surrealism would be subject to constant disruptions as each participant found his own direction.

In the pursuit of a new sense of beauty (beyond the desire to prevent the demolition of the aesthetic principle), the next step in the strategy to save Beauty for our time was to come from Breton in his declaration at the end of Nadja that Beauty must be convulsive or not be at all. The championship of Beauty from Anicet to Nadja suggests a continuity that the Dada episode did not succeed in breaking up. The effort to dislodge Beauty from the passive center of an arena toward which the opportunists gravitated, observed in Anicet, was not an anti-art reaction: Beauty was thought to be a catalytic force shooting off lightning and producng upheaval. The desire for an aesthetics of dynamic power over minds is inherent in Anicet and was to be overtly expressed in the theoretical writing of Breton. In fact, surrealism was to distinguish itself from all other avant-garde movements of the century precisely in its efforts to prolong some semblance of the notion of the Beautiful in a world where the Harry Jameses appear to have triumphed, demolishing both ancient and convulsive Beauty.

In 1929 Valéry, who survived Aragon's verbal annihilation of him along with the other perpetuators of what he considered a false notion of Beauty, reactivated the question, and his prognosis for the survival of the Beautiful was pessimistic and prophetic:

A science of the Beautiful? … But do the moderns still use that word? It seems to me that they no longer pronounce it except in jest. Or else … they are thinking of the past. Beauty is a kind of corpse. It has been supplanted by novelty, intensity, strangeness, in a word by all the values of shock. Base excitement dominates the soul these days; and the current function of literary works is to tear us away from the contemplative state, from the passive happiness whose image was previously connected in intimate fashion with the general idea of the Beautiful. … In our time, a ‘definition of the Beautiful’ can, therefore, be considered only as an historical or philosophical document. Taken in the ancient fullness of its meaning, this illustrious word is about to join, in the drawers of the numismatists of language, many other verbal coins that have gone out of circulation.5

In reiterating the alarm of the young Anicet, an aging Valéry was confirming Aragon's worst fears.

The truth of the matter is that the image of a precarious “pulchérie” has been with us for well nigh a hundred years. In the midst of the Symbolist movement, which was presumably centered on the cult of the Beautiful, Mallarmé was foreseeing in cryptic terms the litigation of Beauty in “Prose pour Des Esseintes” in 1882.

He was telling us that beyond the blatant hyperbole, the sorcery, the futility of imaginary landscapes (“de vues et non de visions”) the artifices of faded or exaggerated flowers (“Pulchérie/Caché par le trop grand glaïeul”) the resurrection of Beauty by the Symbolists had been only a survival on paper (“Anastase: Né pour d'éternels parchemins”). Mallarmé's fatal oracle unfolds as a testament of silence:

Oh! sache l'Esprit de litige,
A cette heure où nous nous taisons
Que de lis multiples la tige
Grandissait trop pour nos raisons.

In his last poem, Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, he had already given up aesthetics to pass on to his episteme.

Were they right, these masters of Symbolism, like Mallarmé and Valéry, to be so faint-hearted toward the future of the cult of Beauty? As we notice how seldom the concept emerges in current literature except in coarse perversion, Aragon's innocent prescience is noteworthy. Unimpressed by the dazzling promises of all the avant-gardes that surrounded him, he had been able to identify Beauty as the major casualty in modern literature.


  1. Aragon, “La Peinture au défi,” in Les Collages (Paris: Hermann, 1965), p. 37.

  2. Aragon, Anicet. I use the Livre de Poche edition from the Gallimard 1921 text, p. 214. All subsequent quotations will be from the same edition. The translations are all mine. The work has not been translated into English to my knowledge.

  3. Jacques Vaché was the young wounded soldier Breton had befriended in a hospital in Nantes, where he had been on medical service during World War I. Vaché was to symbolize for him, and through him for the surrealists in general, the anti-establishment spirit of cold defiance and grim humor which Breton amalgamated into the surrealist archetype.

  4. Epigraph to Aragon, une vie à changer by Pierre Daix (Paris: Seuil, 1975). The translation is mine.

  5. Paul Valéry, Léonard et les philosophes, in Œuvres complètes, Pléiade ed., II, 1240.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1256

Louis Aragon 1897-1982

(Born Louis Andrieux; also wrote under pseudonyms Albert de Routisie, Arnaud de Saint Roman, Francois La Colere, Francois Lacolere) French novelist, poet, nonfiction writer, journalist, essayist, and critic.

Regarded as one of the most distinguished figures in modern French literature, Aragon was a prolific writer whose works reflect some of the most significant artistic trends and political events that took place during a lifetime that spanned much of the twentieth century. While he produced works in various genres and styles, from political tracts to love poems to multi-volume novels, he is most honored for a relatively small number of works that he wrote at several critical points throughout his life. These include his Surrealist novel Le Paysan de Paris (1926; Nightwalker) and the historical novel La Semaine sainte (1958; Holy Week).

Biographical Information

Aragon was born the illegitimate son of a married man, whom he was told was his “tutor,” and a woman he was raised to believe was his sister. His parents ran a boarding house in a respectable, though not fashionable, section of Paris. From the age of eleven Aragon was captivated by literature and literary life through his reading of French novelists Maurice Barrès and Stendhal, as well as through the influence of his mother, who was a translator of novels and introduced her son to the works of the major Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. He also read Maxim Gorky, a twentieth-century Russian author whose novels became a model for Soviet literature and promulgated the advancement of communist society over the life of the individual. In 1916 Aragon received a bachelor's degree from the Lycée Carnot and afterward began to study medicine. During World War I he served in the medical corps, and it was at this time that he met André Breton and Phillipe Soupault, with whom he would later found the Surrealist Movement. After the war, during which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his role in the occupation of the Rhineland, Aragon, along with Breton and Soupault, started publishing the journal Littérature, which initially aligned itself to the new movement of Dadaism, whose founder, Tristan Tzara, preached a philosophy of nihilism and revolt against social convention as a reaction to what he considered the madness of a civilization that was responsible for the First World War. Aragon, Breton, and Soupault ultimately broke with Tzara and later founded Surrealism, which was more vital and affirmative than Dadaism, though no less rebellious against the established social order. In its early stages in the 1920s, Surrealism was influenced by the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, and its primary goal was to create artistic works that were spontaneous outpourings from the unconscious as a means of bypassing the conditioned modes of thinking that society imposed on the individual. Aragon's outstanding work that derived from this technique was Nightwalker. Later, however, Aragon and the Surrealists, influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and the example of the newfound Soviet Union, increasingly viewed their mission as one of social and political change. Even more decisive for Aragon's political awakening in the direction of Soviet communism was the influence of the Russian-born Elsa Triolet, whom Aragon met in 1928 and later married. From the 1930s until the end of his life, Aragon was a supporter, often indefensibly so in the view of critics, of Soviet ideology and activities, from Joseph Stalin's bloody purges of both actual and suspected political dissidents to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. While Aragon was occasionally critical of Soviet policy and aggression, he essentially functioned as an apologist for the USSR and was bestowed with honors by that country for his service. Aragon's political sympathies are evident in much of his work, including his Hourra l'Oural (1934; Hurrah, the Urals), a paean to the Soviets, and his six-volume novel Les Communistes (1949-51; The Communists), a celebration of the French Communist Party's activities during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. In these works Aragon adhered to the artistic doctrines of Socialist Realism, which was intolerant of literary experimentalism and viewed literature as an extension of political propaganda. Later in his career Aragon employed a more inventive and unconventional technique in the composition of his works, most prominently Holy Week. He died in 1982.

Major Works

Among Aragon's works, those that account for his international acclaim as a modern author are Nightwalker and Holy Week. The first of these originated in the artistic ideals of Surrealism and explores two central motifs of the movement: the search for the “marvelous” behind the mundane appearances of the everyday world and love as a means for achieving an experience of transcendence. In the first part of the book, the “Paris peasant” of the French title wanders the city, observing seamy or downtrodden sites such as transients' hotels, brothels, and run-down shops through a dream-like perspective that projects upon these venues a sense of magic and wonder. As Breton commented of Aragon's imaginative abilities: “When one walked through parts of Paris with him—even the most colorless places—the experience was greatly enhanced by his magical-novelistic gift for stories, a gift that never failed and that came to him at any corner or shop window.” The second part of Nightwalker introduces three young men in search of love and, in Surrealist parlance, the “ideal woman”—a “child-woman,” part muse and part sorceress, who would inspire her lover to artistic creation and transport him beyond the confines of ordinary existence. Throughout Nightwalker, Aragon employs techniques borrowed from visual media to create an effect of immediacy, reproducing placards, menus, and other non-literary elements that are redolent of Cubist collage works of the period. In Aragon's historical novel Holy Week, it is evident that the author had left behind the “marvelous” of Surrealism and had for a time turned away from the more strident and doctrinaire political views that had motivated such serial novels as The Communists. While Holy Week was written as the last of the series of “Real World” novels in which The Communists is subsumed, critics praise this work for integrating its political agenda into a rich narrative that relates the historical events that brought about Napoleon's short-lived return to power in 1815, employing what Aragon termed a “stereoscopic” technique in which complex parallels between the past and present are artfully illuminated. The result is a highly inventive novel that blends the political aims of Aragon's Socialist Realist style with a more objective and deeply insightful view of its vast and varied subject. After the 1958 publication of Holy Week, Aragon produced several highly ambitious works of fiction during the 1960s and 1970s, including a two-volume novel based on the life of the artist Henri Matisse.

Critical Reception

Critics have often viewed Aragon as a twentieth-century counterpart of such titans of nineteenth-century French literature as Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac, both for the prodigious nature of his output and the ideological passions that drove him to produce so much of his work. At the same time, those passions—most conspicuously his attachment to the Soviet Union and its policies—have caused a good deal of his work to be viewed as misguided or irrelevant in retrospect. Nevertheless, Aragon retains a high literary stature as the creator of several widely recognized masterpieces of modern world literature and as an important figure in the political history of France. French President Francois Mitterand declared following Aragon's death: “France is grief-stricken by the death of one of its greatest writers. … I bow before his memory.”

Richard J. Scaldini (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6213

SOURCE: Scaldini, Richard J. “Les Aventures de Télémaque, or Alienated in Ogygia.” Yale French Studies, no. 57 (1979): 164-79.

[In the following essay, Scaldini examines modernity in Aragon's Les Aventures de Télémaque.]

In Je n'ai jamais appris à écrire, ou les incipit Aragon informs us that he learned to read from Fénelon's didactic novel Les Aventures de Télémaque.1 He also tells us that his own Dadaist Aventures de Télémaque, published in 1922 and “correcting” (in the Ducassian sense of the term) Fénelon's original, could only evolve “insofar as, in the decor of the Odyssey, my life, my modern preoccupations, could disrupt its development.”2 Under the auspices of Ducasse's Poésies, Aragon opposes his disruptive iconoclastic text—product of what he calls the “lyric of the uncontrollable”—to one of the most tradition-bound, voluntarily derivative texts in the French canon.3 The two works bear the same title, but they invest it with radically antagonistic values. Where Fénelon seeks to establish the authority and merit of his Télémaque through its inscription in the merged classical and Christian traditions, Aragon seeks a solution of continuity with the tradition and with the literary history which perpetuates it.4

The modern work which will effectuate such a break with the past constitutes an isolated moment standing apart from a line of works stretching back through time to the original text, in this case the Odyssey, to which they all defer as their validating model. Each of these works retraces the journey of Telemachus in search of that authority which only Ulysses, the origin, possesses in unqualified fashion. The modern work, however, must refuse to return over hallowed ground; it must redefine its aspirations and somehow play Telemachus without a Ulysses. To pursue the spatial analogy further, the modern text, if it succeeds in achieving a solution of continuity with literary history, will define a place of its own as sole point of reference. The quest journey, with its subordination of the hero to an authorizing object of desire, will be abandoned in the achievement of a presence which abolishes the time and the distance of longing.

Aragon's Télémaque elaborates the conflict of literary history and modernity in precisely these spatial terms. The hero struggles to define a discrete space of autonomous self-hood apart from the déjà-écrit of the Odyssean journey. As a figure in the modern text, Télémaque dramatizes its will to know itself, to determine its limits and to identify the locus of its productivity. In short, his quest seeks the very possibility of the modern.


Télémaque is defined by his quest for Ulysses as his justification and raison d'être, as when he introduces himself to the nymph Calypso:

a young man who searches for himself throughout the world, since he pursues his own image, a father endlessly swept far from me by that same fury of tempests and ideas which places me naked at your feet.5

Télémaque thus assumes without question the pathetic and dutiful dramatization of the self as follower of the father. This posture is, however, soon problematized by the representation of the quest object and by the nature of the dangers which he confronts:

I travel the Universe demanding from it Ulysses engulfed perhaps in its seas, and sometimes, I rediscover in men's minds the trace of him who escapes me and of whom, goddess, if the bizarre play of passions has ever cast him up on your island, you will not hide the fate from his son Télémaque.

(p. 15)

To pursue Ulysses is to follow the combat of “trace” and engulfing abyss [l'abîme], a struggle in which Ulysses is constantly threatened with obliteration. Yet in a reversal which gives a decidedly modernist valuation to the father's struggles, Télémaque links Ulysses' traditional wisdom and the dangers of the abyss, making the “play of passions,” not the punishment inflicted on the hero, but the moving force of his own, personal destiny. “The wisdom of this hero, far from protecting him from trouble, drags him constantly into new dangers” (p. 14). Aragon suggests a portrait of Ulysses as hero of the perpetual écart. The value of the father is made to lie not in the confirmation of paternal, conjugal and civic principles but in his égarements.

The tension between the “abyss” of égarements and the “trace” of the homeward journey parallels the more amply developed conflicts between self and other, modernity and history which govern the adventures of the hero and the claim of this text to modernity. Ulysses' wanderings are not attributed to the vengeful sentiments of the gods; they are the product of passions quite possibly his own. On the other hand, the model father in pursuit of whom Télémaque traditionally seeks his own identity is here represented as a projection of the minds of others—“I rediscover in men's minds the trace of him who escapes me”—a residue or remainder of an insatiable phenomenon. Ulysses, as the image of a passionate, authoritative self-hood, is thus opposable to his trace which consists in the memory which others have of him. Furthermore, his canonical status in literary history is a function of the trace, image of both his quest journey and the literary tradition which sustains and repeats it. Ulysses's successful return, like the tradition which valorizes it, stands in opposition to more authentic but irrecoverable moments of passionate deviation.

Aragon strongly valorizes digression as such over the dutiful homeward journey. His choice of Ogygia, the isle of Calypso, as a setting is in this regard significant, for it is on Ogygia that the epic-making, homeward-driving values of Homer's Ulysses are put to a severe test. Calypso attempts to seduce him from his allegiance to hearth and throne in order to retain him there for an eternity of amorous gratification. A clear moral lesson is drawn, however, by the intervention of the gods who force Calypso to relent and allow Ulysses to leave.6 Fénelon capitalizes on this example in order to test his Christian hero's resistance to the temptations of the flesh.7 Télémaque leaves Ogygia and his mistress Eucharis only after Mentor-Minerva breaks the hold of his passion by casting him into the sea. Through his symbolic death in the ocean, Télémaque liberates himself from the slavery of passion and recovers his self-mastery. Self-possession and moral rectitude are all connected with departure from the fatal isle.

As in the works of his predecessors, Aragon makes Ogygia a place of “diversion” but its function is to undo, not merely test, the moral and metaphysical bonds which Homer and Fénelon would affirm. The island is represented as an erotic paradise within which takes place freely what is everywhere else forbidden. The description of Calypso's grotto is a convulsive landscape of fantastic forms:

The grotto of the goddess opened onto the slope of a hill. From the threshold one looked out over the sea, more disconcerting than the sudden shifts of multi-colored time between the steep-carved rocks streaming with foam, sonorous like tin and, on the back of the waves, the loud beating wings of the nightjars. Inland, there was an expanse of surprising regions: a river descended from the sky and in passing caught on trees blooming with birds; chalets and temples, unknown constructions, metal structures, brick towers, cardboard palaces, bordered like a heavy and intricate braid, lakes of honey. … The pigeon-lamps sang in the aviaries and, among the tombs, the buildings, the vineyards, animals stranger than dreams strolled slowly. The decor continued on to the horizon with geographic maps and the set-props of a Louis-Philippe room where angels blond and chaste as the daylight slept.

(pp. 15-16)

This fantastic decor is the product of the collage poetics previously elaborated in Anicet ou le panorama, roman.8 Collage, the arbitrary linking of customarily unassociated realities, works disruptive wonders in the everyday world. The landscape of the island reflects such a process with its institution of the apocalyptic. The sexual double-entendre of Calypso's grotto “opening” to a “penchant” [La grotte de la déesse s'ouvrait au penchant d'un coteau] graphically images the generation of a landscape/decor through the combinations of desire. The rhythm and imagery are, furthermore, those of the automatic text with its encouragement of uncensored flow and concatenation. The erotic generates bizarre mergings of natural phenomena and artificial constructions reminiscent of Max Ernst's collages and signifying its own infinite possibilities.9 Ogygia is the locus of desire, quite literally a “subversion,” a turning from below which brings down the heavens and gives free reign to repressed desire.10 We must give to the “adventures” of Aragon's title an erotic value which Fénelon would never admit and which is designed to undermine the moral framework of the earlier text.

Opposing the human to the divine as the erotic to the moribund, the first event in Aragon's Télémaque is the “mortalization” of the heart-broken Calypso by means of a systematic détournement of the precursor text:

Fénelon: Calypso could not console herself over Ulysses' departure. In her suffering, she bemoaned her immortality.11

Aragon: Calypso like a shell on the sea shore repeated inconsolably the name of Ulysses to the foam which carries off the ships. In her suffering she forgot her immortality.

(p. 13)

In Aragon Calypso's divinity is incompatible with her passion and like Minerva, who takes on the human form of Mentor, she becomes taken with mortality and its pleasures.12 Aragon's modification of Fénelon is noteworthy: he substitutes “forgetting her immortality” [s'oublier immortelle] for “bemoaning her immortality” [se trouver malheureuse d'être immortelle]. This susceptibility to forgetting which permits Calypso's mortalization also images the passion of the modern text to be modern, as the suppression of all that would qualify or relativize its status.

Télémaque, upon discovering the attractions of Ogygia—particularly Calypso—would abandon his quest. Being his own man for achieving a full and authoritative selfhood comes to be associated with the totalization of Ogygia as the space of self-realization. To choose the island is to choose the space of a discontinuous, absolutely autonomous entity in solution of continuity with the subordinating trace of the father. The problem is to institute égarement, to establish the écart, as an absolute and not merely as a temporary digression from a master plot. In Homer the island of Calypso is a parenthetical temptation in Ulysses' homeward journey. The gods intervene in order to break the suspension of the journey (and of the guiding, master tale) and thereby reaffirm the conjugal, paternal and civic values of the hero. But in Aragon's text these values are contradicted, and the parenthetical space is made the total of human reality.

What is suggested regarding the passionate “wisdom” of Ulysses is fully confirmed in Télémaque who opts for the enticements of Ogygia. The collage of Fénelon's title inaugurates an attempt at absolute divergence in which the master plot of the Odyssean journey and the duplicating, euhemerizing cursus ad honorem of Fénelon are subverted by an absolute valorization of the Ogygian idyll. Aragon's Aventures de Télémaque takes up the challenge of being the institution of égarement, opposing the convulsive, lyric moment of Ogygian erotics to the historicizing trace of the quest journey. While this opposition is dramatic and highly appealing to the reader who sympathizes with the hero's quest for unconditioned selfhood, it is perhaps fraught with problems not readily apparent. Mentor, whose lucidity is rivaled only by his cynicism, puts the problem clearly to Télémaque immediately enraptured by the beautiful Calypso:

If you choose to love her, Ulysses eludes you. Think about it. I see no difference between getting involved with someone and fleeing yourself. We admire in proportion to our stupidity; we cherish in proportion to our ignorance. The poppies of words lull young hearts. Beware the tales of desire. The other's desire or our own, how do we decide which is the more dangerous?

(p. 17)

Mentor does not offer Télémaque a choice between autonomous self-hood and subservience to the father, but a choice between selfhood as subservience to the father (adherence to the trace) and an ambiguous blurring of frontiers between self and other in the erotic relationship.13 In the textual terms which the phrase “tales of desire” invites us to adopt, the choice is between rival textualities: on the one hand, the fidelity to a tradition of forms and values; on the other, the presumably irreducible text. But this presumption is risky. Mentor's alternative to the repetitions of the canon are mysterious: he speaks only of sleep and indecision.

In his presentation of the choices, Mentor circumscribes the problem with which the text grapples. Beyond the distinctions between self and other he directs the inquiry toward the integrity of the self. He problematizes this notion and thus situates the area of concern not on the level of the relation of this text to the canon, but on the level of the text's relation to itself. As goes Télémaque so goes the text: in Homer his quest is a sub-plot which evolves within the parentheses of Ulysses' Ogygian sojourn to merge eventually and be subsumed under the renewed paternal adventures. He is the sub-plot incarnate. In raising the question of his selfhood, Aragon raises the question of his textuality, of his ability to stand independent of that master plot which is the father. Are such texts possible?


The subversion of Fénelon in Book I is followed in the next three books by the forgetting of the quest. It is only in Book V that Télémaque recalls in highly ambiguous fashion his original purpose: “I float on my back in time: that is what I call searching for Ulysses in my special language” (p. 71). His language is strangely conciliatory of the will to self-affirmation through negation of the father, and of the subordinating language of the quest. This attempt to reconcile, or appropriate, a contradictory language to a subversive act follows an epistemological paradox:

After all,—said Eucharis—what do you want from your father?—Knowledge of the past, spinal night, is the beginning of all knowledge. At least that's what people say. The child learns to walk in leading straps. Later he moves in all directions.

(p. 71)

The mixed metaphor “spinal night” posits the symbolic contrary of knowledge as the “backbone” or basis for all knowledge, thus invalidating all that derives from this ground. The equation of “float on my back” and “searching for Ulysses” continues the dorsal imagery and contradicts the Homeric theme of qualifying action. It conveys the value of staying, of abandoning the quest and of being present in Ogygia, the pays de cocagne of time arrived finally at its end and the road of desire at its destination. But this value of presence and self-possession is communicable only through recourse to its imagistic opposite, that which is anything but an idiosyncratic “special language: searching for Ulysses.” Self-possession and authority are functions of the father, and communicable only in terms of the father; ultimately all language is that of the father. The images of independence in this passage are ultimately paralyzing, for they withdraw the power that they offer by means of the same language in which the offer is made.

The rhetoric of this paradoxical selfhood is dramatically represented in Aragon's Dada manifesto “Moi” which Télémaque recites in book II, following his sexual initiation by Eucharis.14 Beginning “Everything that is not I is incomprehensible,” the text declares a radical solipsism not unlike that which Jacques Rivière made the cornerstone of Dada:15

Whether I find it on Pacific shores or pick it up in the lands of my existence the shell which I hold up to my ear will resound with the same voice that I will take for that of the sea and which will only be the noise of myself.

(p. 29)

The world is reduced to the status of a mere echo. Even the love object proves to be a fiction projected by the self for hygienic purposes:

There is only I in the world and if from time to time I am weak enough to believe in the existence of a woman I need only lay my head on her breast, hear my heart beat and recognize myself. Emotions are merely languages which facilitate the exercise of certain functions.

(p. 29)

Up to this point the manifesto is little more than the affirmation of a radical subjectivity putting into question all that is outside itself. Only with the closing line of the text is the final, ironic turn given to the preceding statements. “Moi” ends, or rather subverts all ending, with a modification of the opening line: “Everything that is I is incomprehensible” (p. 29). The speaker thus gives a new and quite different value to the “shell” and the love object in the text. They are no longer mere phantasmatic projections of the subject but the sole medium in which anything resembling the self may be grasped. The mere “languages,” first presented in instrumental terms as facilitating bodily functions by a passage through the other, reveal themselves to be indispensible figures, catachreses serving to feign a “proper” self which escapes language and knowing.16

The final line is a variant of the incipit, an echo of its promise of closure and the negation of it. The “moi” escapes and defies definition. Neither absolutely autonomous nor absolutely defined by the other, it is a liminal space, neither here nor there, where the fictions of selfhood and alterity are played out. The catachresis which is the self motivates an interminable movement (end-less, without a proper term) among the figures it borrows in the hope that one of them will win and sustain belief. Télémaque does not invent this textual fantasy, he grows out of it. Highly susceptible to seduction, willing to be convinced precisely because of his skepticism, he lends himself to all fictions and, in his defining trope catachresis, all fictions lend themselves to him.

Roman Jakobson, in discussing Aragon's metalanguage, links modernity and catachresis through the common process of forgetting. He cites the epigraph to Blanche ou l'oubli where this relation is established: “… everywhere the condition for change is the mind's forgetting of a first term in considering henceforth only a second term. Grammarians have given this forgetting the name catachresis, that is abuse.17

No claim to modernity is possible if this repressive forgetting does not take place. At the same time, however, it is in the nature of catachresis, as an appropriative trope, to manifest its derivative status: that is to recount its origins. To read this figure, then, is to follow the genesis of a would-be discontinuous moment; to write it is to suppress as thoroughly as possible all traces of that enabling origin. These are the contradictory impulses of the modern text which simultaneously makes claims and demystifies them.

Fittingly enough, Télémaque is his own worst reader: “This reed lulled to sleep in its suppleness” (p. 30) as Eucharis calls him, fails to grasp the relevance of his own monologue on selfhood. The possibility of the monologue depends on this blindness; it is about his ability to be blind. This ignorance of contradiction, proclaimed and unrecognized, makes possible the tone of conviction with which Telemachus joins the contraries of “floating on (his) back in time” and “searching for Ulysses.” His blindness is that of passion, as Aragon notes after the supercilious speech: “Télémaque lays his stormy head on the breasts of Eucharis and his voice came to die like an ocean wave against these golden heights” (p. 71). The epistemological discourse is set in erotic circumstances conveyed by the imagery of the stormy sea. The situation has nothing of the calm remove we might expect in the contemplation of such matters. This epistemology is necessarily a passionate one, grounded in a rapture which allows for the forgetting of contradictions in the leap toward the object of desire—in this case, autonomous selfhood. Télémaque resolves nothing here: he merely asserts the desire and claims its fulfillment in a wave of passion. It is also through the work of passion that the precarious suspension of contradictions is broken down.

Book V begins with Mentor recalling Télémaque to his quest and criticizing his susceptibility to the enticements of Calypso: “Have you forgotten my teachings, said Mentor to Télémaque, to so grieve the imaginary deaths by the announcement of which the crafty Calypso thinks to keep you on her isle?” (p. 77). While Mentor, as the nihilistic proponent of the “Système Dd,”18 is far from defending truth from falsehood, he is adept at revealing the illusions in which most desires or beliefs are grounded. He reads Télémaque as Echo reads Narcissus, in the most redundant and ironically repetitive way. His role is that of ironic mirror: he throws back to his protégé the image of his illusions and contradictions. It is against precisely this redundance that Télémaque revolts and in so doing reveals the impossibility of his goals and the productivity of the narrative.

In a desperate attempt to suppress Mentor's ironic voice Télémaque imagines a scenario in which he replaces Mentor as Calypso's lover. In order to accomplish this, he projects upon an indifferent Mentor a passion for Calypso and evokes with some effort a passion of his own for the nymph, a passion in which he soon comes to believe fully.19 However, a series of misunderstandings has Calypso failing to recognize Télémaque's strategically induced passion which in frustration he satisfies upon the passing Eucharis, only to be approached immediately afterward by Calypso to whom he cannot at that moment respond. Humiliated and frustrated he flees Ogygia to the realm of the procurer Neptune, where he experiences a moment of personal and erotic plenitude:

I have met woman my malady. Exclusive domain of touching, this body ignored by the eyes occupied only with the hair which grows during the lovemaking, this body stretches out and stiffens against my body, will to contact. … The proper word, opened flood-gate, reveals the attention of the male, the precise concern, the vital point. …

(p. 84)

The language of the passage images a culmination: Télémaque would seem to have arrived somewhere at last; to have “made contact” as the tactile imagery of the passage emphasizes. The “proper word” and the stress on vitality and precision suggest the presence and fullness which have been his objectives all along.

The imagery lays claim to a presence which the structure of the episode belies. The realm of Neptune replaces (repetition of place and catachresis) Ogygia as an erotic locus to which the would-be modern hero escapes. But the style in which this new realm is described merely echoes the convulsive lyric of the earlier passage in which Calypso's domain is presented. The statement, for example, that in Neptune's world Telemaque “came into the knowledge of perpetual pleasure” (p. 83) is possible only if the same claim, made for the effect of Calypso's domain, is forgotten or suppressed. Much has indeed been forgotten in this scene, including the comedy of errors and illusions ironic history-making and history-writing power of his own modern acts. His only recourse is palinode.

Palinode is an act of suppression designed to establish a solution of continuity with the traces of past actions and to assert a new beginning which takes itself for an origin.20 As such it is the essential moment of catachresis, the fundamental trope of modernity. Every gesture of self-realization reveals itself to be a fiction of origination masking a subordinating historicity. Télémaque cannot read himself and still be modern. He must imagine himself a presence if he is to repress all that binds him in a time and in a space distant from the object of desire.


Télémaque never seems to dominate the account of his adventures. He is overburdened by the inescapable presence of his father, by the persistent emergence of the quest form, by his ignorance and by his potential (the most debilitating form of flattery). Everything that makes him Télémaque limits and conditions him: he is defined by topoi and a victim of them. As such his adventures lead us back beyond character; they are emblems of a textuality of which he is an outgrowth, a symptom, and not the origin. This is the lesson of “Moi” and, indeed, of the final episode where the characters Mentor and Télémaque are destroyed, in what seems to be a movement of the text toward contact on a more fundamental ground with its own modernity. This regressive movement would deny the validity of the Télémaque-Mentor combination as the ultimate image of its own textual operations.

With the destruction of these characters there is a final palinodic moment of great release. The novel closes with a negative Genesis, a cosmic undoing in which we are invited to see the return to some primal, repressed chaos:

Snickering birds passed above the cadavers
whistling danse tunes. The winds rose with joy
and combed their hair with the teeth of the mountains. …
The waters were no longer gathered and coherent but
spread throughout the universe. The sky, delirium
fabric, rent and showed the indecent nudity of
the planets.
                    The firmament arrayed itself with the sex of the
stars. The vault of days and nights became flesh
and those men who had survived the catastrophes died
of desire before the lewd rump suspended above
their heads. The nebula roamed in the laughing
landscapes. The distaffs danced while losing their
silver hair. The great rotary presses fucked
on the stony beaches. The steam-hammers strolled
nicely in the squares and while the metals caressed
each other screaming in the plains of pleasure,
on his tenderness horses the Lord God burst out
laughing like a madman.

(pp. 100-101)

Mentor, Télémaque, their story and its ironies are swept away as tiresome creatures who fail to achieve the power to which the text aspires. It is as if, at last, the text had broken through to a realm beyond juvenile bravado and disabused cynicism. The insane God images the Dada logos of the discourse beyond contradiction. The “Fin” printed immediately afterward would be the beginning of a radically other discourse: a new writing is inaugurated as the preliminary work of annihilation is completed.

The insane God is an undecidable, paradoxical figure who cannot satisfy the reader anxious to conclude, or the modern writer anxious to be, finally, modern.21 One simply cannot end there: witness the suppressed epilogue with which Télémaque was to end until Aragon, which gave rise to the desire, the satisfaction of which is now put forward as an ontological triumph. Ogygia, the privileged space which invited and made possible an absolute deviation or abandonment of the paternal “trace” has in fact generated such a “trace,” provoking a renewal of the quest journey in Telemaque's flight toward the experience of the “proper.” Thus out of the locus of desire, the erotic abyss, comes its opposite, the trace of a narrative which denies the claim of the abyss. What we were inclined to oppose, we must now join in a generative interchange. Télémaque returns to Ogygia to find that his escapade has not produced the desired solution of continuity. A son who resembles him—“heredity, that other remorse of matter” (p. 87)—and Mentor who persists in recalling the original, defining quest journey are there to manifest the undeniable vestiges of all would-be discontinuous moments. Son and father are made present to the hero as projections of the self which qualify its autonomy and plunge it back into time and relativity. Télémaque reacts to this inescapable temporality by the murder of his son and the abdication of the throne of Ithaca:

He [the child] soared out over the sea and crashed down out of sight so as not to soil the landscape. …

If that is your opinion on the question of inheritances—I don't think you can pretend to the throne of Ithaca. And Ulysses?

—My poor man, are you still on that?

Come have a drink.

Ridiculous ups and downs, made-up stories crowd at the windows and press their noses absurdly against the window-panes.

(pp. 87-88)

Through this palinode Télémaque would suppress the evidence, both prospective and retrospective, of his historicity and consequent relativity. Significantly, the gesture is accompanied by a derisive representation of narrative. Book VI trails off from this point in a meandering sequence of coqs-à-l'âne intended to empasize the rejection of narrative fiction as a historicizing, cliché-ridden mode. But the narrative impulse is derided here more as a reaction to its inescapable regeneration than as an undesirable and dispensable option. In returning to Ogygia, Télémaque is forced to confront the for reasons which are not clear, eliminated it.22 The significance of this text is perhaps to be ascertained not in the reason for its suppression but in the manner in which it undoes the pseudoconclusion which it follows. We are given an advertisement:

Wanted: enterprising young men intent on never working again, handy with weapons (revolver, knife, rifle) for adventure of every kind. Alternative reversals and comforts. Certain death within short time. Inquire at offices of newspaper.23

The epilogue turns out to be a representation of beginnings: a new race of Télémaques is born here from the ashes of the recently destroyed world. But no progress has been made and the next apocalypse is seen to be already scheduled. The epilogue stands to the Aventures de Télémaque as both the statement of its most profound desires and as their spatially signified denial. The text remains outside the limits of the “aventures” proprement dites and mimics sarcastically the will to absolute adventure while encouraging it.

Les Aventures de Télémaque is a text which dramatizes its own productivity through a constant subversion of its own closure devices. The text escapes itself in the form of utopian illusions, invariably displacing its core and raison d'être in an unsatisfying productivity. A marvelous study in literary brinksmanship, Télémaque cultivates a liminal poetics where the production of the text is the fascinating negative indicator of that which it approaches but cannot be. In the generative reciprocity of trace and abyss we have the image of the modern predicament, the text describing the limits of its own inadequacy and calling it home.


  1. Aragon, Je n'ai jamais appris à écrire, ou les incipit (henceforth Les incipit), (Geneva: Albert Skira, 1969), p. 19. Fénelon's novel was first published in 1699 as the Suite au quatrième livre de l'Odyssée d'Homère, ou les Aventures de Télémaque fils d'Ulyssee. All references, unless otherwise indicated, will be to Les Aventures de Télémaque (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1968). All translations are my own.

  2. Aragon, Les incipit, pp. 20-21. Also see “La peinture au défi,” in Les Collages (Paris: Hermann, 1965), pp. 59 ff.

  3. Aragon, Les incipit, p. 21.

  4. Sainte Beuve cites as the primary virtue of Fénelon's Télémaque its fusion of these traditions. “Lettres et opuscules inédites de Fénelon,” in Causeries de lundi, II (Paris: Garnier-Frères, n.d.), p. 20. Fénelon's integrative modernism is obviously not to the liking of Aragon who actively seeks the rupture which Sainte-Beuve praises Fénelon for avoiding. For the problematic of an anti-historical modernity, see Paul de Man “Literary History and Literary Modernity,” in Blindness and Insight (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 142-165.

  5. Aragon, Les Aventures de Télémaque (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), p. 14. Henceforth all quotations will be from this edition unless otherwise indicated and will be followed by page references in parentheses. All translations are my own.

  6. Homer, The Odyssey, V, 1-42.

  7. Fénelon, Les aventures de Télémaque, pp. 187-188.

  8. Yvette Gindine (Aragon: prosateur surrealiste [Geneva: Droz, 1966], p. 41), has pointed out that this landscape recalls the poetic “jeu de constructions” which Rimbaud plays with the Parisian landscape in Anicet ou le panorama, roman (Paris: Gallimard, 1921), Ch. I. There the enigmatic Arthur introduces the hero to the pleasures of modernist subversion by means of a combinatory rhetoric of collage. In the random concatenations and associations along the syntagma of which the “Passage des Cosmoramas” (forerunner of the “Passage de l'Opéra”) is the metaphor, we are given the imagistic constructs of desire to which the modern subject gives free play. For a general review of Aragon's writings on collage see Wolfgang Babilas, “Le Collage dans l'oeuvre critique et littéraire d'Aragon,” Revue des Sciences Humaines, 151 (July-September 1973), 329-54.

  9. See Max Ernst, Au-delà de la peinture (Paris: Cahiers d'Art, 1937), passim, and Aragon, “Max Ernst, peintre des illusions,” in Les Collages, pp. 27-33.

  10. The landscape of the island anticipates the program of moral and metaphysical subversion which Aragon establishes in “La peinture au défi.” There he argues for a return of the merveilleux to the everyday world from which Christianity had banished it. With Christian morality came a repression of bodily instinct necessitating the creation of fantasy worlds where desire could find expression: “Everything which could no longer be expressed in the monkish universe passed into another world, that of the supernatural. In this way the demons, the giants and the fairies were born, and to shelter them, a vast forest began to grow” (p. 37).

  11. Fénelon, Les Aventures de Télémaque, p. 3. See Gindine's comparison of these passages in Aragon: prosateur surréaliste, pp. 39-40.

  12. Mentor indulges freely in the erotic possibilities of Ogygia. In spite of his divine origins he dies in the final scene (p. 100) when struck by a boulder which catches him in mortal form and thus susceptible to death. He is at that time indulging himself in the all-too-human pleasure of having the last word.

  13. A young player delivers a moving discourse on his susceptibility to influence in the play “Les Aventures de Télémaque” which a bored and incomprehending Télémaque attends in Book III. This speech was initially published in Littérature 13 (May 1920) under the title “Révélations sensationnelles,” 21-22.

  14. This text was first published in Littérature, 13 (May 1920), 1-2.

  15. Jacques Rivière, “Reconnaissance à Dada,” Nouvelle Revue Française (August 15, 1920), pp. 216-237.

  16. Fontanier defines catachresis as follows: “Catachresis, in general, consists of the attribution of a sign already attributed to a first idea, to a new idea which did not have any, or no longer had one of its own in its language.” Pierre Fontanier, Les figures du discours (Paris: Flammarion, 1968), p. 213. Also see Gérard Genette, “Figures,” in Figures (Paris: Seuil, 1966), pp. 211, 213.

  17. Roman Jakobson, “Le métalangage d'Aragon,” L'Arc, 53 (1973), p. 81.

  18. Mentor is the grand orator of the Dada contradiction and delivers a major manifesto in the manner of the Manifeste Dada 1918 where he elaborates the “Système Dd”: “The System Dd has two letters, has two faces, has two backs (“a deux dos”) admits all contradictions, does not admit any contradiction is without contradiction contradiction itself, life, death, life, life, life, let interested parties beware” (p. 35).

  19. Télémaque attempts to force opposition from the other as a way of disguising the opposition within himself. The other to whom he reacts is always himself, even in desire: “Télémaque, already the plaything of his imagination hastened too slowly for his own desire” (p. 80). Although his desire is proper to him, it originates in the imagination which relates to him as a subject does to an object. Relations with others are pseudo-relations; they merely “give ground” to a duality within the hero. As Mentor observes this game of mirrors, he counsels Télémaque on the appropriate rhetorical studies: “learn to speak for one hour on metalleptic catachresis and perhaps then you will no longer speak lightly” (p. 78). Naturally Télémaque refuses to heed this advice and performs catachresis instead of reading it.

  20. See Richard J. Scaldini, “‘A quoi pensez-vous?’: Reflections on Reading (in) the Early Prose of Louis Aragon,” Dada/Surrealism, 7 (1977), 39-41 for a discussion of palinode and the rejection of narrative.

  21. The role of the insane God here is similar to that of the Sorcière in Rimbaud's “Après le déluge” of which this final scene is in part a pastiche. The Sorcière figures a poem out of touch with the experience, the diluvian-modern moment, which generated it. At the same time the mystery of this alienated moment spurs the desire to recapture that moment once again. Like the insane God of Aragon's apocalypse the Sorcière appears at a palinodic moment of destruction and beginning again when Rimbaud calls back the flood waters.

  22. Jean Ristat, in his notes—“hors d'oeuvres”—to Aragon's Oeuvre poétique (Paris: Livre Club Diderot, 1974), I, 371, n. 43, leaves open the reason for this emendation, suggesting only that the break-up of the Paris Dada group could explain the omission of a text bearing an epigraph from Tristan Tzara's Première aventure céleste de Monsieur Antipyrine.

  23. Aragon, L'oeuvre poétique, I, 330.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 131

Feu de joie (poetry) 1920

Anicet; ou, Le panorama (novel) 1921

Les Aventures de Télémaque [The Adventures of Telemachus] (novel) 1922

Le Libertinage [The Libertine] (novel) 1924

Le Movement perpétuel (poetry) 1926

Le Paysan de Paris [Nightwalker] (novel) 1926

Traité du style [Treatise on Style] (novel) 1928

Les Cloches de Bâle [The Bells of Basel] (novel) 1934

Hourra l'Oural [Hurrah, the Urals] (poetry) 1934

Les Beaux Quartiers [Residential Quarter] (novel) 1936

Le Crève-coeur (poetry) 1941

Brocéliande (novel) 1942

Les Voyageurs de l'impériale [The Century Was Young] (novel) 1942

Aurélien (novel) 1947

Les Communistes 6 vols. (novel) 1949-51

Les Yeux et la mémoire (poetry) 1954

La Semaine sainte [Holy Week] (novel) 1958

Les Fou d'Elsa (poetry) 1963

La Mise à mort (novel) 1965

Blanche; ou, L'oubli (novel) 1967

Les Poètes (poetry) 1969

Henri Matisse, roman [Henri Matisse: A Novel] (novel) 1971

Théâtre/Roman (novel) 1974

Peter Collier (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7241

SOURCE: Collier, Peter. “Surrealist City Narrative: Breton and Aragon.” In Unreal City: Urban Experience in Modern European Literature and Art, edited by Edward Timms and David Kelley, pp. 214-29. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Collier discusses the urban settings in works by André Breton and Aragon.]

In French poetry of the second half of the nineteenth century urban motifs were easily recognisable as signs of street-corner realism (Baudelaire's cats, rats, bodies, jewels, mud, mobs, carriages, cafés, dogs, beggars) or of elevated symbolism (Mallarmé's drawing-room vases and fans). But the Surrealists' interest in the urban per se derives strictly from neither of these sources. Two aspects of city life were particularly likely to appeal to them: the presence in the city of a potentially revolutionary mass audience, exciting to poets who believed that they could change the real world—lying dismembered since the Great War—as well as people's inner lives, and who believed that poetry could and should be written by the people for the people; secondly, there was a concentration in the city of certain cultural and imaginative facilities—the theatre, cinema and music hall for passive consumption and stimulation of escapist dreaming, the café for the social congregation of artists and sometimes for their performances, the brothel and the street itself for possibilities of erotic liberty and random, adventurous encounter.

The paraphernalia of modern urban life are therefore little exploited for their own sake, and indeed, the most common approach was to turn the products of industry into derisorily useless ‘ready-made’ artefacts. Picasso turned a bicycle saddle and handlebars into a bull's head, and Marcel Duchamp outraged art critics by taking a urinal away from its rightful location and end and calling it ‘Fontaine’. Meret Oppenheim's ‘Fur cup and saucer’ and Man Ray's ‘Gift’—a smoothing iron bristling with spikes set in its sole—deliberately work not only against the utility of the real artefact but also against the normal, realistic, sensory reactions and expectations of the consumer. Industrial utility had contributed to the slaughter of the Great War. Official art had apparently upheld the social and moral values that underpinned such obscenity. Perhaps this new, ludic art deliberately subverted both industrial production and its cultural alibi. The cubist collage also takes the tissues and textures of town life (tickets, labels, posters, newspapers) and subverts their text, making it impossible to use them commercially or read them functionally.

Two precursors of Surrealism, Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, wrote poems which show them to be exhilarated by urban experience but swamped and depressed by its inhumanity. In these poems (Cendrars' ‘Les Pâques à New York’,1 Apollinaire's ‘Zone’)2 the urban is wrenched away from its functional rationale, and its myriad experience becomes the impetus for an oneiric, mythical lament. (See David Kelley's chapter for a discussion of ‘Zone’.) Cendrars' narrator in 1912 New York is the alienated outsider, like Lorca's Poeta in Nueva York (described by Alison Sinclair in Chapter 14); but he is implicated in the very rhythms of the city life he finds so hostile. His vision is less fragmented than that of Apollinaire; he provides a more coherent vision of a clash between religious values and violent, spiritually empty metropolitan experience, where the metropolis is less a technological process than an expressionistic image of capitalist rapacity and social disintegration.

On to the basic form of the rhyming couplet, loosely grouped into paragraphs, Cendrars grafts a fluid narrative, whose metre varies to follow the restless wandering of the outsider, and whose rhyme is occasionally pulverised by the brutal heat, light, violence and sexual provocation assaulting the passer-by. Traditional imagery of stained-glass windows and communion wine is horrifyingly transposed into lipstick- and blood-stained visions, and the female depravity is explained by male exploitation, itself a product of despair. The whole city appears to be an apocalyptic, mercantile Babylon, torturing, scourging and sullying Christ anew, to the point where he is a victim of the birth of a hellish urban crescendo, orchestrated by the thundering subway trains, instead of ascending into heaven. The poet himself feels dawn enshroud him as in burial. Despite the basically simplistic verse form, there is great tension between its formulaic chant and the violent, irrational imagery, transgressing all bounds of taste and logic.

The shock of the images is accentuated by their ironically liturgical formulation; their nightmare illogicality is subverted by their verbal slickness. But the serious moral despair of this long narrative poem is underlined by an insistent refrain—‘je descends … je descends’—which reminds us that the poet plunging into the city is like Dante plumbing the successive depths of Inferno, or Christ himself descending into hell, as Europe would in 1914.

Despite the psychological decentring of Apollinaire and the moral alienation of Cendrars, their self-questioning narratives are still informed by the very urban forces which they represent and criticise. Apollinaire's imagery integrates the city into a cultural tradition, Cendrars' violent, fantastical visions reflect both the violence of his anguish and the violence of the metropolitan threat to culture. Perversely, after 1918, the Surrealists in their revolt evolved a more celebratory attitude to the city, in a deliberate attempt to transcend its utilitarian limitations, and reject its industrial dictates. Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant 1926)3 and Breton's Nadja (1928)4 are certainly based on a specifically urban and indeed metropolitan projection of the imagination, but the fluid topos of the city is more urbanely integrated into a looser, more exploratory prose structure of fantasy and desire.

Breton's city reminds us of a medieval map of the world—it is a small, flat and patchy place, surrounded by nothingness. Only parts explored by Breton and Nadja seem to exist, in defiance of the map of Paris that a rational atlas would offer. Breton's writing is an avowedly ‘anti-literary’ attack on the traditional novel, and even of prose narrative in general, he says in his preface (p. 6). The simple certainties of description, plot and character have no place here. Rather than the novel's usual recreation of places, events and selves, the narrative becomes the record of a search for them. Breton rejects the convention of realism, that language transparently transcribes an external reality. In calling into question the conventions of prose fiction, he calls into question our perception and mental narration of reality.

Starting vitually at random in a Paris hotel where he lived in 1918, the ‘hôtel des Grands Hommes’, Breton relates a series of random wanderings and encounters. He addresses a total stranger (who then starts to fascinate him), a girl called Nadja. The random becomes more overtly coincidental when he keeps meeting her on the streets of Paris as if she were unable to escape the force of his desire. Breton's use of the random and coincidental is intended to show the power of desire over events and people: ‘Voici deux jours consécutifs que je la rencontre: il est clair qu'elle est à ma merci’ (p. 106), and the operation of this desire through the medium of chance rather than reason or logic is intended to undermine our belief in causal logic as applied to human behaviour; it is intended to persuade us to see rationalism as powerless in the face of passion; and to urge us to rush out onto the streets and act inconsequentially at random.

Nadja is so real that she escapes the control of the narrator. Despite his chance encounters which appear to circumscribe her, the places and events of the novel are invested with a reality, flatly alleged rather than described, as if they were too real to bear the conventional mimetic transposition into organised linguistic structure which we call ‘realism’. Breton provides the complete text of a cinema programme which he did not read, a deliberately undramatic description of a theatre he went to, and a prosaic account of the plot of the melodrama enacted there, which records some of the literal dialogues, but in no way seems to echo the suspense and emotions of the original—he gives the literal text of some lines of Jarry's poetry which appealed to Nadja—and records verbatim surrealistic phrases uttered by Nadja. The chosen impotence of the descriptive discourse is as it were underlined by the inclusion of such rival texts, and even more so by the inclusion of visual matter, such as the sketches Nadja drew, or the ubiquitious photographs of persons and places mentioned but hardly described by the narrative. Thus the non-assimilable nature of brute matter is emphasised, and we are offered, instead of transcription, a kind of documentary residue, or even, in some cases, a fetish-like substitute for experience (photographs of a glove, an advert, a sign, the suspender-clad thighs of a wax dummy), or alternative artistic renderings of experience (paintings by Uccello or Braque). This impossibility of the mode of ‘realism’ as a meaningful transposition of experience appears in Nadja to derive from the unpredictability and unknowability of the world. And this despite the role of the city of Paris as a kind of tame universe, its familiar landmarks and its apparent cooperation in facilitating encounters tending to suggest that reality should be domesticable.

This very schism in the texture of the narrative may perhaps alert us in advance to the likelihood that there will be no resolution to the quest—quest for Nadja, quest for Breton's own identity, quest for explanation of the mysteries of the magical city. On the contrary, the non-rational aura of the quest is consummated in the final discovery of the hypothetical madness of Nadja, consecrating the divorce between the individual, and objective reality.

The motive force linking Breton and Nadja to each other and to the city has been ‘le hasard objectif’—objectified chance, whereby desire warps people, objects and events into coincidental configurations. It is in terms of objectified chance that Breton interprets Nadja's prophetic ability (she predicts that a dark window will suddenly light up), and her psychic gifts in developing the idea that a fountain expresses the circularity of thought, which Breton argues she has somehow derived from Berkeley without ever having read Berkeley.

The desire of the individual is mapped onto the city. Breton feels psychically affected by the statue of Etienne Dolet at the place Maubert, and Nadja hears voices coming from the bust of Henri Becque at the place Villiers. She even shows him a letter allegedly written by Becque, and Breton argues that there is no reason to be more disturbed by inspiration coming from such a source than that coming from God or a saint. Breton himself is obsessively moved by a sign outside a coal-merchant's (‘Bois-Charbons’) to the point that he walks all round the city, haunted by this image, seeking out every coal-merchant's he can find—This force of the environment on Breton and Nadja has its counterpart in Nadja's own active gifts—her presence in a restaurant causes a waiter to keep dropping plates, and her appearance at a train window causes men who see her to suddenly turn and blow kisses at her. Breton argues that there is no clear or necessary frontier between her powers of desire and her possible madness. One might argue that the manifestation of her desire (kissing Breton on the mouth and covering both of his eyes with her hands, while he is driving a car), is rather more alarming than that of her madness (receiving letters from a statue).

At all events, even when interacting psychically with Breton and Nadja, Paris remains a comfortingly familiar village-city, with its cafés and squares, hotels and statues, theatres and coal-merchants. It is smaller than life-size, so that any two strangers are bound to meet at random every few days. It is resolutely old-fashioned—the very antithesis of Apollinaire's hum of trams and blaze of electric lighting. It secretes individuals, not the anonymous throngs of Cendrars' New York. If it is not assimilable stylistically to realistic description, it compensates by taking on a distinctly anthropomorphic topos through the mediation of the idealistic, desirous, transcendental psyche.

But the split between the dreams, desires and intuitions of the individual, and the fantastical reality of the world outside is not thereby healed. Paradoxically, Breton reserves his most lyrical prose for an impassioned theoretical argument against psychiatrists and asylums (‘on y fait les fous’, p. 161; ‘tous les internements sont arbitraires. Je continue à ne pas voir pourquoi on priverait un être humain de liberté. Ils ont enfermé Sade; ils ont enfermé Nietzsche; ils ont enfermé Baudelaire’, p. 166). For the asylum and the psychiatrist support a rigorous divide between real and ideal, objective and subjective. Breton writes a passionate defence of madness as a kind of freedom: ‘la liberté, acquise ici-bas au prix de mille et des plus difficiles renoncements, demande à ce qu'on jouisse d'elle sans restrictions dans le temps où elle est donnée, sans considération pragmatique d'aucune sorte.’ (‘freedom, attained in this world at the expense of the most endless and arduous renunciation, demands to be enjoyed without restriction on the occasions she is available, without any considerations of practicality whatever’) (p. 168).

The narrative refuses to transform the schismatic world into a smoothly homogenised textual unity. Breton's odd mixture of flat allusion, brute illustration and lyrical theory is a beautiful enactment of the problem, on a formal plane. Yet one cannot help feeling that he thereby denies himself the stylistic and structural means to conjure up in the reader's imagination his own imaginings, rather than the cold record of their misadventure.

Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris is in some ways a more consummate rejection of autonomous, willed narration in favour of topographical or unconscious forces than is Nadja. The narrator structures his narrative around the non-fictional exploration of the arcades around the Paris ‘Opéa’ and their boutiques.5 But the differences in Aragon are striking. The everyday appears more resolutely trivial, more obviously anecdotal: Aragon describes a bookshop, notes that it is easy to steal books there, then records the exact value of the books stolen at another bookshop in 1920 (twenty million francs) (p. 27). With an almost Balzacian attention to detail Aragon describes the angle from which the caretaker and his wife can observe the stairs leading past their apartment (p. 27). However, this direction of the narrative according to the realistic topography of a walk through the arcades, and an objective description of their denizens is never sustained—it is constantly subverted by the forces of fantasy on the one hand and of sheer matter on the other.

The sum of money noted on page 27 was only an hors d'oeuvre; a little later the narrator passes by a notice of sale of a shop, where the shopkeeper has written out a protest detailing the amount of compensation which he will receive for being expropriated. The narrative does not précis or allude to the poster. It reproduces its entire text and layout and typography as well as the literal text of a newspaper article commenting on the series of expropriations in the arcades, which has been stuck up in another shop window (p. 37-8). Similarly, when the narrator walks into a café and sits down, the narrative yields to a literal transcription of the notices in the café, to the extent that a whole page of text can become a series of adverts for drinks, and their prices (p. 98). These realia, motivated on a realistic plane by their intrusion into the narrator's field of vision, then spill over and as it were contaminate the narrative. The list of drinks in the cafe is accompanied by a rambling sequence of observations about them (p. 96). The newspaper article and protest poster of pages 36 and 37 lead the text into a long enumeration of the financial arguments carried in other newspapers either displayed elsewhere in the neighbourhood or simply read by the narrator. These range from the brute textual fragment of newspaper literally copied on page 40, where only the middle column, discussing the affair, is readable, and the two outside columns are cut off down the middle either by the exigencies of the size of the page of the novel or perhaps by an imitation of the peremptory framing operated on a text by any act of reading, to the selective quotation and accompanying commentary of a more traditional kind (p. 41-2), or a kind of discours indirect libre which seamlessly accumulates the matter of the journalistic arguments (p. 38).

These various intrusions of reality—real reality—into the framework of the narrative—realistic narrative, are disturbing. Are these passages of the text real, concrete reality? Our acceptance of them as such then clearly disturbs our ability to accept the rest of the narrative as an imitation of reality—it immediately appears more obviously fictional. And then we may react from this standpoint against the textual inclusions—is their reality perhaps fictional, are they perhaps referred to, adduced by, generated by the fictional text? Is text the only reality, a fictional reality which reduces all rival external reality to the status of text? The phenomenon is also disturbing for its distortion of the narrative dynamic, traditionally driven by psychological, social or metaphysical springs, by some kind of quest or series of actions, and, even in this novel, by the topological vector of the walk through the city (as in Joyce's Ulysses6 or Apollinaire's ‘Zone’). And finally, the whole convention of a linguistic transposition of reality, according to the code of ‘realism’ seems threatened by the blurring of the process of transcription, by the foregrounding of the physical medium of the visual accidents of reality, seen as a college of rival texts, creating a new reality transgressing the framework both of traditional text and conventional reality, rather as Picasso's collages or Duchamp's readymades transgressed these boundaries.

The richness of Aragon's textual procedures is far from exhausted by this approach to his maniacal, self-conscious flooding of the text by a series of associations in the narrator's mind. As the narrator enters the arcades they set up reverberations in his mind which will enable him to move into the world of the ‘merveilleux’, advocated by Breton in his Premier manifeste du Surréalisme;7 for outside reality is able to enlighten the workings of the mind, particularly if that outside reality is itself mysterious. In the strangely-lit, unusually enclosed ‘passages’, a transitional, mediatory world invites the narrator to loosen his grip on external reality and allow his internal fantasies to flower and proliferate:

La porte du mystère, une défaillance humaine l'ouvre, et nous voilà dans les royaumes de l'ombre. Il y a dans le trouble des lieux de semblables serrures qui ferment mal sur l'infini. Là où se poursuit l'activité la plus équivoque des vivants, l'inanimé prend parfois un reflet de leurs plus secrets mobiles: nos cités sont ainsi peuplés de sphinx méconnus qui n'arrêtent pas le passant rêveur, qui ne lui posent pas de questions mortelles. Mais s'il sait les deviner, ce sage, alors, que lui les interroge, ce sont encore ses propres abîmes que grâce à ces monstres sans figure il va de nouveau sonder. La lumière moderne de l'insolite, règne bizarrement dans ces sortes de galeries couvertes qui sont nombreuses à Paris aux alentours des grands boulevards et que l'on nomme d'une façon troublante des passages, comme si dans ces coulours dérobés au jour, il n'était permis à personne de s'arrêter plus d'un instant.

(p. 20-1).

(The doorway to mystery, opened by a moment of human abandonment, leads us now into the realms of shadow. In the murkiness of this place there are such locks as fail to properly conceal infinity. Where the most ambiguous activities of the living are pursued, the inanimate may sometimes catch a reflection of their most secret motives: our cities are thus peopled with unrecognised sphinxes, which will not stop the musing passer-by and ask him mortal questions. But if in his wisdom he can guess them, then let him question them, and it will still be his own depths which, thanks to these faceless monsters, he will once again plumb. The modern lighting of the unusual reigns strangely over the kind of covered shopping arcades of which there are many in Paris in the neighbourhood of the ‘grands boulevards’, and which are called, disturbingly, passages, as if in these corridors hidden from the light of day, everyone was forbidden to stop for more than a moment.)

The associations, the fantasies which are developed are the illustration of the idea that man is motivated by desire and by chance, rather than by reason and by will—an idea that is obviously indebted to Breton's championing of Freud's discovery of a fundamentally libidinous unconscious, whose traces as discovered in jokes and dreams and slips of the tongue indicate that it operates according to an irrational process of association.8 But there is also Breton's Surrealist belief in the existence of a transcendental plane where the conflict between desire and reality will be resolved: and the whole of Aragon's novel is the record of a quest for and an adventure within the magical realm of the transcendental, like one of Chrétien's Arthurian heroes who has wandered into an enchanted forest:

C'était un soir, vers cinq heures, un samedi: tout à coup, c'en est fait, chaque chose baigne dans une autre lumière … On vient d'ouvrir le couvercle de la boîte. Je ne suis plus mon maître tellement j'éprouve ma liberté. Il est inutile de rien entreprendre … Je suis le ludion de mes sens et du hasard.

(p. 11-12).

(It was one evening towards five o'clock, a Saturday: suddenly, it had happened, everything was bathed in a different light. The lid has just been taken off the box. I am no longer in control of myself, so strong is my feeling of freedom. There is no point in planning to do anything … I am at the mercy of my sensations and of blind chance.)

The strange light and the feeling of alienation from choice are distinctly dreamlike. The random arrangement of the city arcades will now closely enmesh with the imagery liberated by desire. A shop window filled with carved walking-sticks will become a sea in which a mermaid swims (p. 31-2), a tatty ‘maison de passe’ will be described as if its corridors were the wings of a theatre, its bedrooms the artists' dressing-rooms, its layout a network of ‘labyrinthes voluptueux’, its protagonists either ‘assassins sentimentaux’ or ‘héros maudits’ (p. 24-5). The scruffy ‘Théâtre Moderne’ itself presents various arrangements of nude women rather perfunctorily disguising their celebration of desire as one or other of the dramatic genres of the legitimate stage. Aragon argues wickedly that this is the best kind of avant-garde drama:

le modèle du genre érotique, spontanément lyrique, que nous voudrions voir méditer à tous nos esthètes en mal d'avant-garde. Ce théâtre qui n'a pour but et pour moyen que l'amour même, est sans doute le seul qui nous présente une dramaturgie sans truquage, et vraiment moderne.

(p. 132).

(the ideal erotic play, spontaneously lyrical, which we would like to offer as an object of study to all our aesthetes with avant-garde yearnings. This theatre whose only means and end are love itself, is doubtless the only truly modern, unfaked drama.)

that it derives from the miracle play:

le besoin de faire vivre quelques filles et leurs maquereaux, a fait naître un art aussi premier que celui des mystères chrétiens du Moyen Age. Un art qui a ses conventions, ses disciplines et ses oppositions

(the need to subsidise a few whores and their pimps has given birth to an art as elemental as that of the medieval Christian mystery plays. An art with its conventions, constraints and antitheses.)

and fulfils the communal aims of Classical comedy and Tragedy:

Les grands ressorts de la comédie antique, méprises, travestissements dépîts amoureux, et jusqu'aux menechmes, ne sont pas oubliés ici. L'esprit même du théâtre primitif y est sauvegardé par la communion naturelle de la salle et de la scène, due au désir, ou à la provocation des femmes, ou à des conversations particulières.

(pp. 133-4)

(The great springs of Classical comedy, misunderstandings, disguises, crossed loves, and even menechme, are here remembered. The very spirit of primitive theatre is preserved in the natural communion between audience and actors, caused by desire or by provocation on the part of the women or by private conversations.)

The café, too, is a temple where there are sacred rituals (for the proper serving of coffee (p. 99)); and here the modern writer, surrounded by friends and by the traces of reality and desire, can call for pen and ink and realise his dreams:

C'est ici que le surréalisme reprend tous ces droits. Images, descendez comme des confetti. Images, images, partout des images. Au plafond. Dans la paille des fauteuils, Dans les pailles des boissons. Dans le tableau du standard téléphonique. Dans l'air brillant. Dans les lanternes de fer qui éclairent la piece. Neigez, images, c'est Noël.

(p. 101)

(Here Surrealism comes into its own. Images, fall like confetti. Images, images, everywhere images. On the ceiling. In the straw in the armchairs. In the straws in the drinks. On the telephone switchboard. In the gleaming air. In the iron lamps that illuminate the room. Snow, images, it's Christmas.)

And lest it be thought that the brothel, the theatre and the café are too easily tempting to poeticise, Aragon waves his magic wand over the petrol pumps of Texaco and transforms them into ‘grands dieux rouges’, ‘une étrange statuaire’, ‘ces fantômes métalliques’, ‘Ces idoles’:

Bariolés de mots anglais et de mots de création nouvelle, avec un seul bras long et souple, une tête lumineuse sans visage, le pied unique et le ventre à la roue chiffrée, les distributeurs d'essence ont parfois l'allure des divinites de l'Egypte ou de celles des peuplades anthropophages oui n'adorent que la guerre. O Texaco motor oil, Eco, Shell, grandes inscriptions du potentiel humain! bientôt nous nous signerons devant vos fontaines, et les plus jeunes d'entre nous périront d'avoir considéré leurs nymphes dans le naphte.

(p. 144-5)

(Daubed with English words or newly minted words, having only one long and supple arm, a luminous, faceless head, a single leg, and a belly in the form of a numbered wheel, the petrol pumps take on sometimes the air of Egyptian divinities, or the gods of cannibal peoples whose idol is war. O Texaco motor oil, Eco, Shell, great inscriptions of human potential! Soon we will worship at your founts, and the youngest among us will perish for having contemplated their nymphs in your naphtha.)

The twin poles of libidinous fantasy and random observation are seen by the narrater as a constant tension, but also as a fundamental source of imaginative power:

à la limite des deux jours qui opposent la réalité extérieure au subjectivisme du passage, comme un homme qui se tient au bord de ses abîmes, sollicité également par les courants et par les tourbillons de soi-même, dans cette zone étrange où tout est lapsus, lapsus de l'attention et de l'inattention, arretons nous un peu pour éprouver ce vertige. … Un instant, la balance penche vers le golfe hétéroclite des apparences. Bizarre attrait des dispositions arbitraires: voilà quelqu'un qui traverse la rue, et l'espace autour de lui est solide, et il y a un piano sur le trottoir, et des voitures assises sous les cochers.

(p. 60-1).

(on the border between the two kinds of light opposing external reality to the subjectivity of the passage, like a man about to fall into his own abyss, tugged by the waves and by his inner maelstrom, in this strange zone where all is lapsus, lapse in concentration and lapse in relaxation, let us wait awhile to savour the vertigo … For a moment the balance tips towards the heteroclite gulf of appearances, with the odd attractiveness of arbitrary arrangements: now someone crosses the street, and the space surrounding him is solid, and there's a piano on the pavement, and vehicles seated beneath coachmen.)

Compared with his own creativity the novelist finds that that of God is somewhat limited: ‘je m'étonne grandement de l'imagination de Dieu: imagination attachée à des variations infimes et discordantes. On dirait que pour Dieu le monde n'est que l'occasion de quelques essais de natures mortes’ (p. 61) (‘I am greatly surprised by God's imagination, which is limited to minute, discordant variations. It's as if for God the world is only an excuse for some tentative still-lifes’).

God, it would appear, is a nineteenth-century realist. Whereas Aragon is perpetually blurring the frontier between sheer reality and wild fantasy, if he approaches too close to reality it becomes fantastic in its disproportion. Thus the author's ‘passages’ create imagery:

Je quitte un peu mon microscope. On a beau dire, écrire l'oeil à l'objectif même avec l'aide d'une chambre blanche fatigue véritablement la vue. Mes deux yeux, déshabitués de regarder ensemble, font légèrement osciller leurs sensations pour s'apparier à nouveau. Un pas de vis derrière mon front se déroule à tâtons pour refaire le point: le moindre object que j'aperçois m'apparaît de proportions gigantesques, une carafe et un encrier me rappellent Notre-Dame et la Morgue.

(p. 42)

(I leave my microscope for a moment. Say what you will, writing with the eye glued to the lens in a light chamber is truly tiring to the eyesight. My two eyes, unaccustomed to observing in concert, let their senses gently oscillate in order to realign themselves. A screw inside my forehead unwinds gropingly to focus again: the slightest object that I perceive seems to take on gigantic proportions, a carafe and an inkwell remind me of Notre-Dame and the Morgue.)

But this creative oscillation is not allowed to create a novel merely varying between the documentary and the poetic, the realistic and the fantastic. The whole narrative enterprise which synthesises these two modes is in its turn torn apart from the inside by the capricious behaviour of thought and of language. In the great tradition of Sterne's Tristram Shandy9 and Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste10, Aragon plays cat and mouse with his novel and the reader. Gide was to do as much around the same period with Les Caves du Vatican11 and Les Faux-monnayeurs.12 Aragon may well sing the praises of Death, Lapsus and Libido, but he hastens to deflate: ‘Libido qui, ses jours-ci, a élu pour temple les livres de medicine et qui flâne maintenant suivie du petit chien Sigmund Freud’ (p. 44) (‘Libido who of late has made his shrine of medical text-books and who now wanders around followed by his little dog Sigmund Freud’).

Aragon talks of suspense and mystery but constantly abandons his already flimsy plot in order to describe, say the décor of a hairdressing salon (p. 51), he analyses, nay personifies feelings but they immediately dissolve into whirlpools of language, as when he juggles with the letters and the rhythms of the word Pessimisme (p. 62). He propounds philosophical or psychological views of a provocative nature, but his plan for an atlas of bodily pleasure (p. 57-8), his likening of the Parisian passer-by to Hegel's Idea (p. 45) or his declaration that female desire is better represented by a woman groping for a man's flies than by more mundane cinematic fictions, all dissolve into deliberate whimsy (p. 70). As the book progresses, its pretensions of representation and of fantasy become increasingly sabotaged by the workings of language. A lyrical appreciation of all persons and things blonde becomes entirely unhinged in what could be seen as a savage parody of the traditional ‘Symphonie en Blanc majeur’:

Le blond ressemble au balbutiement de la volupté, aux pirateries des lèvres, aux frémissements des eaux limpides. Le blond échappe à ce qui définit, par une sorte de chemin capricieux où je rencontre les fleurs et les coquillages. C'est une espèce de reflet de la femme sur les pierres, une ombre paradoxale des caresses dans l'air, un souffle de défaite de la raison … Qu'y a-t-il de plus blond que la mousse? J'ai souvent cru voir du champagne sur le sol des forêts. Et les girolles! Les oronges! Les lièvres qui fuient! Le cerne des ongles! La couleur rose! Le sang des plantes! Les yeux des biches! La mémoire est blonde vraiment. A ses confins, là où le souvenir se marie au mensonge, les jolies grappes de clarté! La chevelure morte eut tout à coup un reflet de porto: le coiffeur commençait les ondulations Marcel.

(p. 52-3).

(The blonde resembles the stammerings of voluptuousness, the piracy of lips, the tremors of limpid waters. The blonde escapes whatever defines it, by a kind of whimsical way where I encounter flowers and seashells. It's a sort of reflection of woman on stones, a paradoxical shadow of aerial caresses, a breath of the defeat of reason. What is blonder than moss? I have often imagined that I saw champagne on the ground in the forest. And chanterelles! And agaric mushrooms! Hares in flight! The quick of nails! The colour pink! The blood of plants! The eyes of does! Memory: memory is truly blonde. On its borders, where recall relates to mendacity, what juicy bunches of light! The dead hairstyle suddenly took on a port-wine reflection: the hairdresser had embarked upon his ‘Marcel’ permanent waves)

(And one can perhaps see traces of pastiche of Marcel Proust's white and pink hawthorns13 and Rimbaud's hares leaping around in ‘Après le déluge’,14 as well as of poor Gautier's ‘Symphonie’.)15

We have seen the voice of narrative itself seriously shattered by the inclusion of alternative texts. The unity of the narrative voice is further upset by the intrusion of sing-song jingles (p. 70), language games borrowed from Desnos (p. 111), by an obsessive vibration of fricative alliteration: ‘La femme est dans le feu, dans le fort, dans le faible, la femme est dans le fond des flots, dans la fuite des feuilles, dans la feinte solaire où comme un voyageur sans guide et sans cheval j'égare ma fatigue en une féerie sans fin? (p. 209) (‘Female is in fire, in fortitude, in feeble; female floats fathoms deep, flutters in foliage, in the phoney sunlit phantasies where like a guideless, horseless traveller I exploit my exhaustion in infinite fairyland’), by a fragmentation of narrative coherence into a farcical dialogue, or should I say triologue, between Sensibility, Will and Intelligence personified as in some medieval allegory—a trick copied perhaps from Gide, with his angels and his devils in Les Faux-monnayeurs (p. 76-9). In this hecatomb of novelistic convention sexual love itself comes in for demystification as the narrator shows us the advert for massage which leads him into a very casually physical experience in a dirty room with a girl with a gold tooth, and closes his clinical description of the brief encounter with an overt challenge to the romanticising or fictionalising reader: ‘Que les gens heureux jettent la première pierre’, declaring of the monogamous: ‘Mes masturbations valent les siennes’ (p. 126). And even the sacrosanct dream, when it interrupts the narrative, produces a parody of its own pretensions, as it delivers chiefly a little box with ‘rien’ written inside it and an inky schoolboyish drawing with ‘J'en sors’ scribbled across it (p. 159).

Walk and desire, random chance and the libido, that is, set out as the motors of this narrative, and their prolix dialectic provides an increasingly fantastical city landscape, which is ultimately much more a textual creation and a hysterical narrative than any pedestrian musing, or mimesis of passion. The prose style and the narrative structure buckle and flex under the impetus of their own elan, as the rhetoric ebbs and flows between object and fantasy, between denotation, connotation and ironic deflation of both. The narrative flows round and through a real city, of course, and we could weakly argue that Aragon is exploring the boundaries of the real city within the limits of the textual, but it would probably be more helpful to argue that he is exploring the boundaries of the text within the limits of the urban, as his gear-crashing discursive disjunctions judder through brute textual matter and through fantastical reorganisations of the whole city topos in relation to a language borne on by a frenzy of imagery and of paranoid flight from reference. These distortions are increasingly obsessive and hallucinatory towards the end of the later section of the book (Le Sentiment de la Nature aux Buttes-Chaumont as consciousness appears overrun by objects and subordinate clauses:

Le taxi qui nous emportait avec la machinerie de nos rêves ayant franchi par la ligne droite de l'interminable rue Lafayette le neuvième et le dixième arrondissement en direction sud-ouest nord-est, atteignit enfin le dix-neuvième à ce point précis qui portait le nom de l'Allemagne avant celui de Jean Jaurès, où par un angle de cènt cinquante degrés environ, ouvert vers le sud-est, le canal Saint-Martin s'unit au canal de l'Ourcq, à l'issue du Bassin de la Villette, au pied des grands batiments de la Douane, au coude des boulevards extérieurs et du métro aérien.

(p. 167)

(The taxi which carried us off including the apparatus of our dreams having crossed via the straight line of the interminable rue Lafayatte the Ninth and the Tenth Arrondissements in a South-West/North-East direction, attained at last the nineteenth Arrondissement at the precise point where the name Allemagne gave way to the name Jean-Jaurès, where at an angle of approximately one hundred and fifty degrees towards the South-East the St. Martin Canal links up with the L'Ourcq Canal, in the confluence of the La Villette Basin, at the foot of the tall buildings of the Customs and Excise, at the juncture of the outer boulevards and the overground metro.)

whilst at the other extreme from this maniacal parody of Balzac or the later Robbe-Grillet, the narrator seizes his own discourse by the throat in an act of naked aggression on his own sentence-structure as well as on the hapless reader clinging on to syntactical logic:

Ainsi …

Ah je te tiens, voilà l'ainsi qu'attendait frénétiquement ton besoin de logique, mon ami, l'ainsi satisfaisant, l'ainsi pacificateur. Tout ce long paragraphe à la fin traînait avec soi sa grande inquiétude, et les ténèbres des Buttes-Chaumont flottaient quelque part dans ton coeur. L'ainsi chasse ces ombres opprimantes, … L'ainsi se promène de porte en porte, vérifiant les verrous mis, et la sécurité des habitations isolées. L'ainsi appartient à la société des veilleurs de l'Urbaine. Et je ne parlerai pas de la bicyclette de l'ainsi.

(p. 184-5)

(Thus …

Ah, there I have you, there's the thus that your frenzied requirement for logic awaited, my friend, the comforting, soporific thus. This whole long paragraph was starting to gather its anxiety copiously about it, and the darkness of the Buttes-Chaumont Park was floating around somewhere in your heart. Thus puts these oppressive shades to flight. … Thus patrols from door to door, checking that the bolts are fastened, and that lonely dwellings are securely closed. Thus is a member of the Urban Vigilante Society. Not to mention thus's bicycle.)

The work has become a self-referential hall of mirrors openly questioning its own sources of inspiration and expression, and sabotaging its own shaping as a reflective narrative, threatening to regenerate itself in perpetuity. In Aragon's struggle between thought and the city, between dream and the number, neither opponent can win—it is language itself, exemplified in the surrealist image, which emerges bloody but unrepentant:

Le vice appelé Surréalisme est l'emploi déréglé et passionnel du stupéfiant image … car chaque image à chaque coup vous force à réviser tout l'Univers. Hâtez-vous, approchez vos lèvres de cette coupe fraîche et brûlante. Bientôt, demain, l'obscur désir de sécurité qui unit entre eux les hommes leur dictera des lois sauvages, prohibitrices. Les propagateurs du surréalisme seront roués et pendus, les buveurs d'images seront enfermés dans les chambres de miroirs. Alors les surréalistes persécutés trafiqueront à l'abri des cafés chantants leurs contagions d'images … le principe d'utilité deviendra étranger à tous ceux qui pratiqueront ce vice supérieur. L'esprit enfin pour eux cessera d'être appliqué. Ils verront reculer ses limites, il feront partager cet enivrement à tout ce que la terre compte d'ardent et d'insatisfait. Les Facultés seront désertes. On fermera les laboratoires. Il n'y aura plus d'armée possible, plus de famille, plus de métiers.

(p. 82-3)

(The vice called Surrealism is the uncontrolled, emotive use of the narcotic image … for each image every time obliges you to revise the whole Universe. Hurry to press this cool and burning cup to your lips, for soon, tomorrow, the dark desire for safety that makes men unite will inspire them to write ferocious, repressive laws. Propagators of Surrealism will be beaten and hanged, drinkers of images will be locked up in rooms lined with mirrors. Then the persecuted Surrealists will peddle under cover of cabarets their poxy images … The utility principle will become alien to all who practice this superior vice. The mind will at last cease to surround them, they will see its limits retreat, they will share out their intoxication with everyone ardent and frustrated on earth. The universities will be deserted, laboratories will have to close. The army will disappear, and the family, and work.)

The unreal cities of Breton and Aragon are a hallucinatory projection of the unreal narrators trying strenuously to write out a space in which to exist through the linguistic formulation of their desire, in the face of a city which figures as an enticing mirror of their desire, but which finally eludes their control, by affecting the shape of the image of their desire, which reacts by distorting the reality of the city, and so on ad infinitum. In which they make poetic prose fiction take the decisive inward turn which characterises modernism.


  1. B. Cendrars, ‘Les Pâques à New York’, 1912. Available in Du Monde entier, Gallimard ‘Poésie’ paperback.

  2. G. Apollinaire, ‘Zone’, 1914. Available in Alcools, Gallimard ‘Poésie’ paperback; or Alcools, ed. G. Rees, Athlone Press, 1975.

  3. L. Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, 1926. Page references in this chapter are to the Gallimard ‘Folio’ edition, Paris, 1978.

  4. A. Breton, Nadja, 1928. Page references in this chapter are to the Gallimard ‘Folio’ edition, Paris, 1982.

  5. W. Benjamin, ‘Paris: the capital of the nineteenth century’, 1935, in Charles Baudelaire, Verso Editions, 1983, discusses these arcades.

  6. J. Joyce, Ulysses, 1922. Available in ‘Penguin’.

  7. A. Breton, Manifestes du Surréalisme, 1924, 1930, 1942. Available in Gallimard ‘Idées’ paperback.

  8. S. Freud, Jokes and their relation to the unconscious, 1905, The Interpretation of dreams, 1900, The psychopathology of everyday life, 1904. All available in Penguin.

  9. L. Sterne, Tristram Shandy, 1760.

  10. D. Diderot, Jacques le fataliste (written 1773, published 1796).

  11. A. Gide, Les Caves du Vatican, 1914. Available in ‘Folio’ paperback.

  12. A. Gide, Les Faux-monnayeurs, 1925. Available in ‘Folio’ paperback.

  13. M. Proust, Du Côté de chez Swann, 1913. Available in ‘Folio’ paperback.

  14. A. Rimbaud, Illuminations, 1872-5. Available in Poésies; Une Saison en enfer; Illuminations, Gallimard ‘Poésie’ paperback; or Illuminations, ed. N. Osmond, Athlone Press, 1976.

  15. T. Gautier, ‘Symphonie en blanc majeur’, in Emaux et Camées, 1852, Garnier, 1954.

Further Reading

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Ahearn, Edward J. “Surrealism and Its Discontents: Breton's Nadja and Aragon's Paysan de Paris.” In Visionary Fictions: Apocalyptic Writing from Blake to the Modern Age, pp. 94-116. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1996.

Discusses the revolutionary tenets of Aragon and Breton as they are depicted in their literary works.

Nicholls, Peter. “Death and Desire: The Surrealist Adventure.” In Modernisms: A Literary Guide, pp. 279-302. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Discusses Nightwalker as a defining work of the Surrealist movement.

Spender, Stephen. “Louis Aragon's The Red Front.” In The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1933-1970, pp. 30-31. New York: Random House, 1979.

Condemns Aragon's poem The Red Front as communist propaganda.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “Subversions, or the Play of Writing …” In Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre, pp. 199-238. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Brief consideration of Aragon's novel Residential Quarter in a discussion of several French thesis novels of diverse political, social, and religious ideologies.

Walker, David H. “Young Iconoclasts: Surrealism and the Scene of the Crime …” In Outrage and Insight: Modern French Writers and the “Fait Divers,” pp. 70-86. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1995.

Study of brief newspaper stories of “scandal, sensation, and disruptions of the norm,” and their relationship to writings by the Surrealists, particularly Aragon's Nightwalker.

Additional coverage of Aragon's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72, 108; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 28, 71; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 22; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 72, 258; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists and Poets; European Writers, Vol. 11; Gay & Lesbian Literature, Ed. 2; Guide to French Literature, 1789-Present; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 2.

William Calin (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Calin, William. “The Poets' Poet: Intertextuality in Louis Aragon.” Symposium 40, no. 1 (1986): 3-15.

[In the following essay, Calin explores Aragon's use of collage, and its meaning to his view of literary tradition, in some of his major poems.]

Scholars are aware of the pervasive presence of intertextuality in the work of Louis Aragon. The poet himself defined one aspect of the intertextual process—what he calls collage—in his thought and in the creation of his works. Allied to collage as an esthetic phenomenon is Aragon's vision of literature, especially the literature of the past, viewed as a cultural phenomenon. His cultural vision, which dates from the surrealist years, can be seen in the interviews that he gave to D. Arban and J. Ristat:

il s'était au cours de 1921 pratiqué une rupture entre les dadaïstes et nous, c'est-à-dire ceux-là qui sont devenus nommément les surréalistes en 1923 … sur la question même de l'activité littéraire. En particulier à cause du refus de Breton, d'Eluard, de moi-même, de Soupault, de jeter par-dessus bord du point de vue pur et simple de la table rase, ce qu'on appelle aujourd'hui l'héritage littéraire … [les] surréalistes, les gens de ce siècle qui se sont le plus attachés à redonner vie véritable à des oeuvres du passé abusivement accaparées par l'académisme et l'université, qui ont rappelé l'attention sur des écrivains abusivement rayés par les modes et l'enseignement de l'attention des générations nouvelles. …1

Je me souviens avoir été invité une fois, peu de temps après la dernière guerre, et j'y suis allé innocemment, à l'École polytechnique où les jeunes gens de la génération d'alors m'ont profondément méprisé parce que je parlais des chansons de geste et des poèmes du Moyen Age. … eux pensaient que ça ne valait rien, que ce n'était pas intéressant, et que mieux valait n'en pas parler. J'étais d'un avis différent, je le suis encore. Pour moi, la tradition française passe, comme on le sait, par divers auteurs méprisés, passés sous silence.2

The cultural and the esthetic function together. Aragon's vision of the past is concretized, given flesh so to speak, through the functioning of collage; and he makes the intertextual process function by incorporating material from the tradition. I propose to examine how the phenomenon works in three of Aragon's most successful long poems: Brocéliande, Les Poètes, and Le Fou d'Elsa.3

In Aragon's great Resistance poem Brocéliande (1942),4 the reality of the German occupation is projected onto a legendary medieval past, derived from the troubadours and from Arthurian romance. Aragon chooses a medieval theme in order to delude Vichy censors (his “contraband” corresponds to Occitan trobar clus) and because the Middle Ages offers Frenchmen of his generation examples of deeds in arms and of respect for woman absent from modern French bourgeois culture and from the recent pseudo-heroism of the Germans. This genuine medieval chivalry was embodied in works of literature invented by Frenchmen, part of France's cultural heritage offered as a gift to other countries, such as Germany.

Although there are allusions to French texts and authors in Brocéliande—Marie de France, Thibaut de Champagne, Arnaut de Mareuil, the epic Huon de Bordeaux—for conscious textual imitation, Aragon turns to Dante's Commedia. Brocéliande comprises a series of alternating cantos in twentieth-century free verse and in terza rima. Aragon chooses Dante in order to underscore how the innocent Celtic Other World is transformed by Hitler into an inferno (“Du fin fond de l'enfer Soleil nous t'appelons” p. 334), and because Dante honored French literature in the De vulgari eloquentia and praised an Occitan, Arnaut Daniel, above all modern poets, the only personage in the Commedia to speak a language other than Italian.

In Canto 5 (pp. 339-41) the forest of Aragon's Brocéliande, narrated in terza rima, subsumes, grows upon, and ingests the wood of the suicides, Canto 13 of the Inferno. Dante tells of warped boughs and poisonous thorns, monstrous stunted bushes in knots, nocchi, (v. 89), which are the bodies of the suicides in hell. Their leaves are torn apart by loathsome harpies, creatures with human necks and faces but clawed feet, piè con artigli (v. 14). The damned are tortured by these harpies, by other creatures, men and beasts, who rush through the wood tearing leaves and causing fractures, rotture (v. 132), and by Dante the Pilgrim, who himself mangles a twig. The twig belongs to Pier delle Vigne, the Emperor Frederick II's chancellor, a just man (giusto [v. 72]) faithful to his lord; “già mai non ruppi fede/al mio segnor” (vv. 74-75). Nonetheless, by committing suicide he was unjust to himself; and, according to the Dantean vision, since Pier and the others uprooted the soul from the body, an unnatural act, their souls are imprisoned in a strange body, a vegetable form beneath them in the order of nature, until Doomsday, when their earthly flesh will be restored but only to be hung from the branches of these trees.

Dante's mesta/selva (vv. 105-06), pianta silvestra, (v. 100), and alberi strani (v. 15) are metamorphosed by Aragon into an arbre étrangement triste (p. 339), which twists (tord) its vegetable arms into the equivalent of the Dantean knot. The tree is bound by chains of birds. Dante's harpies also appear in Canto 4, as clouds of locust-birds with griffe labourante and dents (p. 337), who bite the land of France. They are an image of German war planes, in particular the Stuka dive bomber, that created havoc during the Exode. On one level, Aragon's trees imprison people in much the way that Merlin was entombed in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. However, since “Ce n'est pas Merlin qui est prisonnier” (p. 339), this is a symbol or an allegory for young men of the Resistance hiding in the Maquis and hanged from trees or, tied to wooden stakes, shot by a firing squad. Hence the “blessures du tronc” (p. 339) far more serious than the rotture of leaves in the Commedia, for it is not a poet-pilgrim who tears one twig but “d'atroces bûcherons” (p. 339) armed with axes and a bourreau (p. 340) who come to martyrize the trees. These are the Nazis or their French collaborator allies. They martyrize not one great politician, as in Dante, but a host of anonymous freedom fighters, no less idealistic, just, and faithful than was Pier delle Vigne, who all seek glory (gloire [p. 340]), all sons of the motherland, as Pier was the feudal son of his emperor.

However, Aragon repudiates the Christian fatalism of the Commedia. His men are not suicides. They are murdered by the bûcherons yet accept death gladly. They fall willingly and nobly, a sacrifice for the good. Because their deeds are not unnatural they can be reborn. In poetic terms, their blood will fertilize the earth, and with an Apocalyptic shower of fire, a storm from heaven, a new harvest will be reaped and a better world created. For the trees will be cloven, flowers torn apart, the sky itself rent asunder, and, as in Caesarian birth, men will leap out of the bark:

L'étoile neigera le long des paraboles
Orage des héros orage souhaité
Grande nuit en plein jour cymbales des symboles
Se déchire la fleur pour que naisse le fruit
Le ciel éclatera d'un bruit de carambole
Et l'homme sortira de l'écorce à ce bruit.

(p. 341)

Whereas Dante's men are damned, Aragon's will be saved. And their Apocalypse will occur not in a distant future; for on the trees of Brocéliande we find “lorsque la nuit sur la forêt descend / L'INRI d'une défaite à son front de ramures” (p. 340). These trees are the crosses of innocent martyrs, images of Christ. Using Dante's own allegorical method, Aragon assimilates his freedom fighters to Christ, King of the Jews (Jesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum), mocked, tortured, defeated yet who rose from the dead to triumph over his persecutors:

Est-ce la nuit du Christ est-ce la nuit d'Orphée
Qu'importe qu'on lui donne un nom de préférence
Celui qui ressuscite est un enfant des fées.

(p. 332)

In Dante the trees cannot speak. We hear only their sighs, guai (v. 22), the Harpies bring lamenti (v. 15) upon them, and Pier delle Vigne tells his story only when the Pilgrim breaks a twig. Speech is associated with violence; words hiss forth with the flow of blood, “si de la scheggia rotta usciva insieme / parole e sangue” (vv. 43-44). Indeed, Virgil has the Pilgrim wound the trees intentionally, for otherwise he would never have discovered or believed the secret of the forest. In Brocéliande also there is silence. A tree sighs, gémit (p. 339); names are throttled in the woods or murmured in silence. Aragon tells us that the Collaborators deny the truth of the Resistance and execute Communists in secret, so that no one will know, so that even their memory will perish. However, at the moment of death they cry out ton nom (p. 341) under the hail of bullets. Ton nom? Is it France the mother of men? Mary the Mother of God? Marie de France, the French mother of poetry? Perhaps all three. And the nightingale on the sepulchre, bird of love and of charity, symbol of the preacher of God and of the poet of love, “le centurion veut en vain l'étouffer” (p. 331); he shall sing on the branch the liberation night of love. And he shall be Louis Aragon:

Une clarté d'apocalypse embrasera le noir silence
Quand au scandale des taillis le rossignol
L'étincelle de chant qui répond au ciel incendié de son signal
Ah que je vive assez pour être ce chanteur.

(p. 346)

Pier delle Vigne was a poet, Virgil a poet, Dante a poet; and Aragon as speaker, prophet, and witness, shall sing for his age the patriotism and commitment, the passion and fury, of his predecessors. The Speaker in Brocéliande, Aragon's persona, intervenes obtrusively in the action. He does not forget, he does not keep silent. Although perhaps he will not live to see the great night, he shall sing of it like the watchman in a medieval alba. Replacing Merlin, replacing Dante, he also contributes to the good fight. Heroism is embodied in sapientia as well as in fortitudo. Although speech can be throttled, speech can also be shouted forth. And it is the duty of the French poet, son of a French Merlin, Arnaut Daniel, and Marie de France, to shout forth the young men's names, to tell the truth, and to call for victory.

Les Poètes (1960, revised 1969)5 is no doubt Aragon's most personal, most esoteric book of verse. It is metapoetry, a sustained series of meditations on the creative process and the poet's own evolution as a creator. These meditations also concern the poets Aragon has known and loved, the friends he has cherished, and the books he has read.

The intertextual richness of such a work is scarcely calculable. The Prologue alone (pp. 159-67) names almost thirty writers ranging from medieval Persia (Nizāmī, Hāfiz, Sa'dī, Omar Kayam) to the Europe of romanticism (Hölderlin, Pushkin, Desbordes-Valmore, Nerval, Aubanel) to Aragon's own contemporaries (Machado and Lorca). Other poets appear later in the book. Special attention, whole sections, are devoted to Cervantes, Desnos, Mayakovsky, and the Czech surrealist and communist Nezval. Aragon is a master of parody and pastiche. He recreates in French the style of the Spanish romancero to evoke the death of Machado; he pastiches the Molière comédie-ballet in one scene, seventeenth-century burlesque in another. he writes in the style of Desnos on Desnos, and in the style of Verlaine, Carco, and Apollinaire to evoke the Paris of their epoch. “La nuit des jeunes gens” (pp. 265-88), in which three poets, overheard by a fourth, discourse on poetry while sauntering through Paris, recalls Aragon's own surrealist prose, Anicet and Le Paysan de Paris, and also recreates for our time the mood and temper of La Fontaine's Songe de Vaux.

Beyond this, Les Poètes is governed by a deeper, more basic pattern of intertextuality, Aragon's book, “theatrical” in appearance, assimilated by the reviewers to a play or an opera, begins with a Prologue, in which an actor is presented in a manner to create Verfremdungseffekt; the actor then sings a lyrical passage directed to and concerning the sky, stars, and the firmament. The following section, entitled “La tragédie des poètes” (pp. 169-217), concerns first an old man in his room, frustrated over the shortness of life and his incapacity to satisfy his intellectual desires; second, a young man, also in his room, also struggling with fate and the creative spirit; finally a beautiful woman in love. The remaining sections contain nocturnal and theatrical-visionary scenes of magic and conclude with glorification, indeed apotheosis, of a woman. My reading of this sequence leads me to propose that it is grounded in, and takes its inspiration from, the greatest single artistic masterpiece of modern times, Goethe's Faust (with overtones from Marlowe and Gounod). Aragon finds in Goethe's text the archetype of man's tragedy and triumph as a rebel, the notion of the creative spirit ever striving, ever consecrating the self to meaningful activity, ever rising higher in the quest. Goethe's words, “Es irrt der Mensch, solang' er strebt” (v. 317) and “Die Tat ist alles, nichts der Ruhm” (v. 10188), for that matter Faust's pact with the devil:

Werd' ich beruhigt je mich auf ein Faulbett legen,
So sei es gleich um mich getan'. …
Werd' ich zum Augenblicke sagen:
Verweile doch! du bist so schön!
Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen,
Dann will ich gern zugrunde gehn!

(vv. 1692-93, 1699-702)

become in Aragon's mind the situation of all poets and the condition according to which all art has to be created.

Fascinating indeed is the way the Faustian vision is transformed under the Frenchman's pen. Goethe's Prologue in Heaven recounts a dialogue between God and Mephistopheles. Neither exists in Aragon's universe. His persona, his speaking voice, is both god and devil, “Je suis l'Archange et Lucifer” (p. 166); his anguished inner debate with himself is the modern equivalent of the romantic confrontation of Faust with “der Geist, der stets verneint!” (v. 1338) yet who also ‘Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft’ (v. 1336). Significantly, in the Prologue Goethe's light of the sun, God's day, the glory of the firmament—the imagery of Sonne and Tag—are transformed by Aragon into a night vigil, ce soir (p. 161), the time of the Unconscious, the irrational, of an esthetic invention, in which a lone poet contemplates the stars, stars in the pantheon of verse. For in his firmament are to be found not angels praising God but images of the poets he loves, men like himself whom he contains within himself. He praises them; they praise no one.

Then, the old artist gives way to a younger one, and old creation to a renewed vision, not by a pact with the devil or a visit to a witch's kitchen, but uniquely with the cry “Je parlerai de ma poésie” (p. 179). The quest for knowledge, power, and love is reduced, fused, into a poet's obsession with his art. In place of the innocent Gretchen, seduced by a dashing hero whom she adores, we find a poet, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, an older woman formerly seduced by a dashing hero she adored and still cherishes years afterwards. Unlike Gretchen, Desbordes-Valmore survives her loss, joys in her passion, and lives on, albeit in suffering, to love and create. The various magical theatrical spectacles in the Faust, grotesque and fantastic—the Prologue at the Theater, the Witch's Kitchen, Oberon and Titania's Golden Wedding, the Emperor's hall—become, in Aragon's intertext, a surrealist dream-play concerning the torture of Prometheus the poet, benefactor of mankind, and a surrealist magical spectacle, grotesque and fantastic—“Spectacle à la lanterne magique”—where Goethe's mock-resurrection of the Shakespearean Oberon and Titania and of classical Paris and Helen are parodied by a fantastic union of Julienne and Jean-Julien, “Les amants de la place Dauphine” (pp. 230-36), underscored by a refrain-couplet from the French neoclassical burlesque poet Charles Dassoucy. The Walpurgisnacht scenes, “In die Traumund Zaubersphäre” (v. 3871), inspire “La nuit des jeunes gens” (pp. 265-88), where poets debate the magic of poetry, not in the Brocken, not in the Pharsalian Fields, but in the magical, dream-inspired Paris of the 1920s. Finally, Faust's marriage to Helen of Troy, the wedding of the German medieval and classical Greek spirits, giving birth to issue, their son Euphorion, who, however, dies and whose death causes Helen to disappear, is transformed by Aragon into his own concrete, enduring marriage to Elsa Triolet, which gives rise to artistic creation in prose and verse that will also endure. Like Gretchen, like Goethe's Mothers and the Ewig-Weibliche, Elsa leads Aragon onward and upward, he sees the world through her eyes, she is his guiding spirit. Because of her, he strives and creates. And, leading a politically-oriented social existence (like Faust in his later years, who cried: “Solch ein Gewimmel möcht' ich sehn, / Auf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke stehn!” [vv. 11579-80]), committed to bringing the light of truth to the City of Light, Aragon receives from Elsa alone the forgiveness and apotheosis that Faust ultimately attains through the intercession of Gretchen, the Mater gloriosa, and assorted women saints.

Faust serves then as a major intertextual nexus (fabric, structure) that shapes our reading of Les Poètes. In addition, Aragon has inserted in his poem collages—pre-texts—of briefer scope, that serve as mises en abyme and textes générateurs. The most important of these is a lyric by Mayakovsky, translated of course by Elsa Triolet:

La nuit
                              a imposé au ciel
                                                  une servitude de tant
                                                                                et tant
C'est l'heure
                              où l'on se lève et où l'on parle
aux siècles
                              à l'histoire
                                                            à l'univers

(p. 304)

Aragon claims that he would exchange this poem he loves and all of Mayakovsky's opus for one term in the Russian language, revealed to him also by Mayakovsky, a functional image, the hare as light dancing on the wall. Nonetheless, in spite of his willingness to sacrifice poetry for poetry and a metaphor for a metaphor—one collage for another—Aragon loses and sacrifices nothing. He keeps both the image and the poem. For Mayakovsky's pre-text in ten brief Futurist lines states the themes and motifs—night time, the sky or heaven, the stars, poetry, the poet's duty to speak to history and to posterity—that the Frenchman will amplify in two hundred thirteen pages of intertext. Aragon does not renounce the Mayakovsky verses; he devours, assimilates, and creates from them his grandiose meditation on the creative process which is also, in fine, a meditation on Mayakovsky, one among so many poets in Les Poètes cut down in their youth by a hostile world.

If Argaon states his readiness to lose Mayakovsky, this is because in his private mythological universe, Mayakovsky does not exist in and for himself but for another. On November 5, 1928, Aragon met Mayakovsky; on November 6, 1928, he met Elsa. For Aragon, time B.E. (before Elsa) is the past; time A.D. (anno dominae) is the present. Mayakovsky is a sort of John the Baptist who preaches in the name of the Savior who comes after. Thus, in Les Poètes, Mayakovsky appears in the section “Le discours à la première personne” (pp. 293-325). The section immediately following is entitled “Elsa entre dans le poème” (pp. 326-48). In this section the Speaker keeps Elsa awake at night (he is jealous of the men she dreams about when asleep: the anguish that accompanies creation corresponds to the pangs of jealousy) by explaining to her the genesis and composition of his verses: “Je lui montre la trame du chant” (pp. 334-45). Les Poètes contains its own criticism. The critic is, of course, Aragon himself but also, presumably, Elsa. He points out to her, in Les Poètes, that one of the poems in Les Poètes, the one in which he the Speaker assumes the role of St. John the Apostle at Patmos, hiding in a cave with his eagle, is inspired by and can only be understood in conjunction with Elsa's novel Roses à crédit, in which the heroine, Martine, is compared to a bat beating its wings, imprisoned in its (her) room. Aragon also learned from Elsa that bats navigate through a system of radar located in their tongues. The text of the lyric in question does indeed reveal a paradoxical juxtaposition between or fusion of the speaking personae St. John and Martine, between eagles and bats, and between Patmos and Paris's Fourteenth Arrondissement:

Je suis Jean du Calvaire qui fus témoin de la Croix et du supplice
Est-ce que je puis me taire dans cette caverne où j'ai juste assez
D'espace pour meurtrir ma tête aux parois comme font les insensés
                                                            A qui souffrir paraît une injustice
Je suis l'Oiseau prisonnier de son malheur qui se débat aux barreaux
Incompréhensibles de sa cage et s'y déchire à plaisir les ailes
Je suis l'Oiseau qui ne pouvant comprendre une restriction du ciel
                                                  Se fait à plaisir son propre bourreau
Oú donc ai-je vu déjà se produire une telle métamorphose
C'était une jeune femme et non pas un vieux carnassier comme moi
Un immeuble neuf au vingtième siècle une histoire de tant par mois
                                                            Dans la décomposition des roses
Qu'est-ce qu'il me prend de Pathmos à tourner vers la Porte d'Orléans
Mes yeux nocturnes traversant au loin les espaces anachroniques
C'est que le malheur en tout temps partout bat des mêmes ailes paniques
                                                                      Pris dans le piège pareil du néant.

Either Aragon as Speaker reveals to his readers (and to Elsa) the actual genesis of his text or he has reshaped the lyric to conform to an idea derived from his private domestic myth. In any case, Elsa's novel is, within the fictional world of Les Poètes, the texte générateur for one six-page lyrical passage of Les Poètes, and perhaps for much more. After all, Martine's bat and St. John's eagle are birds, and the bird is surely the dominant image, the arch-image, of Les Poètes as a whole. Elsa's and Martine's bat, St. John's eagle, Jove's eagle that tears at Prometheus, Poe's raven, the Narrator who soars into the sky, who is both a flying angel and flying Lucifer in rebellion—these are figures for the creative process, for the pain, suffering, exaltation, and liberation of the poet, for making words and images. Aragon contains his poets within him. To give them birth, he tears open his belly, wounding himself. But he does not contain Elsa Triolet. She possesses him, she gives birth to him, she creates him, for she is God. He is to her as a creature to the Creator, he belongs to her. By engendering him, she is said to engender and generate all his verse, including the text in which they both appear, Les Poètes.

It is not easy for a poet or a lover to maintain such a program and retain his sanity. Which brings us to Le Fou d'Elsa (1963),6 perhaps Aragon's most sustained effort in verse. During the height of the Algerian War he tells of the Fall of Granada in 1492, lamenting that a superior, cultured, Muslim civilization was destroyed by Castilian barbarians (the ancestors of General Franco and of French pieds noirs), thus that Islam never had a chance to flourish in Western Europe. In the surrealist tradition he also renews the conventions of fin' amor by having his protagonist and alter ego, a fictional seventy-year-old Arab-Andalusian poet of the fifteenth century, fall in love with Elsa Triolet, whom we know to be Aragon's flesh and blood wife in twentieth-century France. As in Les Poètes, Aragon's persona—in this case the Fool—adores an inaccessible deity who has created him, through whose eyes he views the universe. Out of love for her, he goes insane and loses his identity, even his name. He is known as “The Fool”—both madman and jester—and, as jester, as the sacred fool of his society, partakes of wisdom, sancta stultitia. Aragon's hero is the embodiment of scandal—daring to love in such a manner—and the prophet and witness to a new order, a future dominated by the Ewig-Weibliche, where:

L'avenir de l'homme est la femme …
Je vous dis que l'homme est né pour
La femme …
On verra le couple et son règne
Neiger comme les orangers.

(pp. 184-85)

Most important of all, like the protagonist of Les Poètes, like the Speaker of Brocéliande, the Fool is purported to be a poet, the last great singer of al-Andalus. His city is held up to praise because it is a land of culture, inhabited by versifiers who perform their work publicly and discourse on art and the creative imagination. More to the point, the Fool, like Aragon himself, is a poets' poet. In a dream he addresses his spiritual children, the writers who will come to Granada after him: Juan de la Cruz, Chateaubriand, and Lorca, quoting the works of all three. He also beholds Don Juan. He dreams of them, assimilates them, and sings for them. And, in one of the most moving passages in all of Aragon's writings, the veilleurs, phantoms of the great poets, painters and literary characters, past and future, of whom the dying fool has dreamed, they who have formed him intellectually and played such a role in his life, come to escort him to his grave:

Ah quand Grenade au petit jour Guitare ô coeur à mort blessé
Dans les bras de brume des champs comme une brune en ses amours
Sommeille encore et le soleil à peine est rose sur les Tours
Ici qui vous fait accourir avec les chansons du passé
Ce sont fantômes qui s'en vont à ma rencontre ou papillons qu'attirent
                                                                                                    les dernières lampes
Et celui-ci marche sur la mer familier des dauphins
A l'un la mort l'autre la vie on voit le temps battre à leur tempe
Un tiers venu renverse au sol l'heure comme un verre de vin

(p. 402)

Et voilà les morts d'après moi leur foule au-delà de ma vie
Leur cortège descend de la neige à l'orange de soudain reflue et gravit
Au-delà du Sacro-Monte ce sentier roux comme un renard
Qu'allez-vous faire cavaliers par la Sierra de Viznar
C'est un jour étouffant qui se lève où l'août est lourd et chaud

(p. 403)

Like Les Poètes, Le Fou d'Elsa alludes to textes générateurs, inserted as collages, that launched the author onto the creative path: a poem by the Soviet writer Mikhail Svetlov, translated by Elsa Triolet (the refrain: “Grenade mes amours / Grenade ma Granade,” [p. 20]); a nineteenth-century French song beginning “La veille où Grenade fut prise” (p. 16) read by Aragon in 1960; and, obviously, the recent fictional corpus—three novels—by Elsa Triolet: Le Cheval roux, Le Rendez-vous des étrangers, and L'Ame. Indeed, Le Rendez-vous des étrangers contains Svetlov's text as collage and mise en abyme. Aragon also constructs his book in the style, language, texture, and even genre appropriate to his theme: he recreates brilliantly the rhythm of the Koran and of various medieval Islamic poetic forms, including the qasīdah and the zajal. He follows the Arabs in alternating prose and verse and in composing an elaborate, ornate Kunstprosa of unusual verbal richness. Last but not least, he has Jean Molinet and Christopher Columbus, meeting in the Spanish camp, speak French, in a scene recounted by Aragon in a reasonably accurate pastiche of fifteenth-century Middle French.

The intertextual foundation of Le Fou d'Elsa comprises two major pre-texts: the first one is the romance Lailā and Majnūn by the Persian poet Jāmī. In the Persian text, a reworking of an earlier romance by Nizāmī, the hero is driven insane by passion, a love-dementia which will become the dominant theme of Le Fou d'Elsa. Jāmī himself was seventy years old in 1484, thus is almost the exact contemporary of the Fool, who, according to Aragon, read the Persian romance, identified with its hero, and wilfully followed him into insanity. On his deathbed, the Fool beholds in a vision the tomb of Jāmī, who has just died. Thus the historical poet Jāmī becomes an alter ego for the imaginary poet the Fool, himself an alter ego for the flesh-and-blood Louis Aragon, and the Persian romance Lailā and Majnūn one of the central mises en abyme in Le Fou d'Elsa. A second mise en abyme is La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas, the first masterpiece of modern Spanish literature and still another work treating fin' amor. Rojas plays a role in Aragon's story: he is to be found in the Spanish camp where he recites his play before a select public (pp. 370-76). Aragon quotes passages in French and in the original Spanish. Indeed the love of Calisto and Melibea ends as tragically and as beautifully as those of the various Fools and their Elsa-Lailā.

Finally, and here Le Fou d'Elsa is indeed unique in Aragon's work, the poem manifests a structure of intratextuality and artistic pseudo-mystification. Within the book is to be found the Fool's dīwān “Chants du Medjoûn” (pp. 71-116), the collection of lyrical texts he allegedly composed for Elsa. It is accompanied by a learned commentary ascribed to the Fool's assistant and disciple Zaïd. The rest of Le Fou d'Elsa—Aragon's book as a whole—can be considered an elaborate commentary on the Fool's dīwān enclosed within it, recounting how it was composed and what happened to the Fool as a result of its composition; and as mise en abyme the dīwān states in lyrical form the themes that the englobing, incorporating text will treat narratively. Similarly, the first section of Le Fou d'Elsa, containing a most interesting incipit, “Tout a commencé par une faute de français …” (pp. 15-25), reveals how the book came into being, explains its composition, and discusses the chant liminaire—another autotext, another mise en abyme—also contained within it. This chant liminaire, in the form of a ballade, takes as its refrain the incipit of the French song—La veille où Grenade fut prise—mentioned above:

J'ai tout mon temps d'homme passé
Sans lendemain dans les fossés
Attendant une aube indécise
La mort à mes côtés assise
Enfant-roi du palais chassé
La veille où Grenade fut prise. …

(p. 22)

Aragon is strikingly modern in that he constructs a work of art which begins with, and one of whose principal themes is, its own genesis and its own criticism, a poem by a poet about a poet writing poetry about poetry. In this he is no less strikingly medieval, for Le Fou d'Elsa recalls medieval Occitan and French works—the razos, vidas, Le Roman du Castelain de Couci, Machaut's Remede de Fortune and Voir Dit, among others—which are poetic pseudo-biographies or pseudo-autobiographies, which were purportedly written in order to explain the circumstances under which the protagonist, a poet of love, allegedly wrote his poems of love. Guillaume de Machaut also was a poet who wrote poetry about a poet writing poetry. Thus Aragon maintains his conviction that the Middle Ages and the twentieth century, and the Third World and Europe, are bound by aesthetico-cultural ties that make up the fabric of history and of art. In this way, he tells us, writers, lovers, and fighters understand the past, live the present, and create the future, for all men.


  1. Aragon parle avec Dominique Arban (Paris: Seghers, 1968), p. 63.

  2. Jean Ristat, Qui sont les contemporains (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), p. 319. For Aragon's views, Les Collages (Paris: Hermann, 1965) and Je n'ai jamais appris à écrire oules incipit” (Geneva: Skira, 1969). Scholars have discussed intertextuality primarily in the prose works: Wolfgang Babilas, “Le collage dans l'œuvre critique et littéraire d'Aragon,” RSH, 38 (1973), 329-54; Daniel Bougnoux, “Blanche ou l'oublid'Aragon (Paris: Hachette, 1973); Lionel Follet, Aragon, le fantasme et l'histoire: Incipit et production textuelle dansAurélien” (Paris: Éditeurs Français Réunis, 1980), especially chapter 8.

  3. For a recent study of two of these works, from the perspective of epic, see William Calin, A Muse for Heroes: Nine Centuries of the Epic in France (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1983), chapter 17.

  4. Aragon, L'Œuvre poétique, vol. 9 (Paris: Livre Club Diderot, 1979), pp. 321-50.

  5. Aragon, L'Œuvre poétique, vol. 13 (Paris: Livre Club Diderot, 1981), pp. 157-355.

  6. Aragon, L'Œuvre poétique, vol. 14 (Paris: Livre Club Diderot, 1981).

Angela Kimyongür (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Kimyongür, Angela. “Introduction.” In Socialist Realism in Louis Aragon's Le Monde réel, pp. 1-8. Hull: The University of Hull Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Kimyongür presents an overview of Aragon's sociopolitical views in his novel cycle Le Monde réel.]

Louis Aragon owes his popular reputation to his poetry, both his Surrealist poetry of the early to mid 1920s and his Resistance poetry of the Second World War; but to evaluate him solely in these terms is to fail to acknowledge the varied nature of his literary career as poet, novelist, literary critic and journalist, a career which, from the late 1920s onwards, bears the imprint of his membership of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF). The focus of this study will be the cycle of novels he wrote between 1934 and 1951 entitled Le Monde réel. The cycle is made up of five novels: Les Cloches de Bâle (1934), Les Beaux Quartiers (1936), Les Voyageurs de l'Impériale (1942), Aurélien (1944) and Les Communistes (1949-51), which together constitute a portrait of French society from the Third Republic until the débâcle of 1940. More than this, the novels are an attempt by Aragon to translate his political allegiance to the French Communist party, which he joined in 1927, into literary expression through his espousal of the doctrine of socialist realism. The novels will be analysed in the light of his literary criticism, since it is impossible to discuss Aragon's fiction in isolation from the theoretical work in which he elaborates his aims as a novelist. To ignore his aims and discuss his novels as self-contained units divorced from their guiding purpose is to do him an injustice, as well as to risk over-simplification, and fails to recognise his place in the wider cultural context of an international literary movement.

Socialist realism had been formulated in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and its precepts were eagerly taken on board by Aragon and elaborated in both his critical writings and his fiction. This study aims to analyse the five novels of Le Monde réel as attempts to translate socialist realist theory into fictional practice. My choice of these five novels is driven primarily by Aragon's own view of them as a thematically and theoretically coherent cycle, but can also be seen in the context of recent studies which acknowledge that socialist realism is not necessarily the impoverished literary form which western critics have frequently branded it and which indicate that there is room for attempts to analyse the achievements as well as the defects of socialist realist fiction. The analysis of these novels can equally be placed in the wider context of literature in its relationship with politics and ideology.

The approach taken by the present study is to see Aragon's adoption of socialist realism in 1934 as a central development in his artistic career, distinguishing him as it does from the many other politically committed writers of the interwar period who, although unwilling to commit themselves so wholeheartedly to the expression of a specific political vision in their writing, were as convinced as was Aragon that it was the writer's duty to engage not just as an individual but as a writer in the political and social debates of the day.

The interwar years and the 1930s in particular were a time of considerable interest in the exploration of the relationship between literature and political or social concerns. The whole question of whether or not it was acceptable or indeed desirable for the writer or intellectual to incorporate his political views into his artistic or intellectual activity was the subject of intense debate, all the more so in view of the increasing politicisation of writers and intellectuals in the reaction against fascism, a reaction which resulted in increasing numbers of them rallying to the socialist and communist causes at this time. The years 1927-8 for example were marked by the entry into the PCF of Surrealists such as Aragon himself, Breton and Eluard, and by Marxist intellectuals such as Nizan, Lefebvre and Politzer, while fellow travellers such as Gide and Malraux added to the numbers of those for whom literary activity and political life could not be divorced. Earlier evidence of such political involvement was the polemic aroused from the early 1920s over the question of the political commitment or engagement of the writer. An early discussion of this question took place between Barbusse and Rolland during the years 1921-2. The debate, which took the form of a series of open letters, was not conducted as a debate about political commitment, since the term was not yet in common currency, but concentrated on the different ways in which the intellectual could best demonstrate his social responsibility. Despite his continued contact with both the socialists and communists after the split of the socialist party at Tours in 1920, Rolland maintained that the duty of the artist lay in remaining free and detached from partisan debate: a result of his independence of mind, which was a central factor in his arguments about the role of the intellectual. Barbusse, on the other hand, who sided with the communist party at Tours and who was a respected intellectual within the party during the 1920s, was principally interested in winning intellectuals over to communism. Anyone who resisted, he considered to be socially irresponsible, maintaining that the intellectual freedom dear to Rolland was neither a necessity nor a right, but a privilege which should come second to the exigencies of the moment. This opposition represents a common one between the writer who believes that art is not a self-sufficient activity but should engage in some way with the issues of the day and the writer who goes a step further than this to promote a specific ideological standpoint.

A very different attitude to the role of the intellectual is represented by Julien Benda who complained in La Trahison des clercs (1927) that the ‘clercs’ were abandoning their duty as intellectuals and becoming involved in what he called ‘les passions politiques’, and condemned their espousal of partisan politics in their work. A less defensive position was taken in the pages of the journal Esprit where the issue of commitment was debated during the 1930s. While the discussion was conducted in deliberately non-partisan terms, it was acknowledged that the intellectual is not working in a vacuum, but within a given society and therefore has a duty to accept his responsibility within that society.

It is against this background of interest in the political role of the writer and intellectual that the intense cultural activity of the 1930s should be viewed. Left-wing writers and intellectuals were involved in a series of international cultural and anti-fascist events which took place across Europe. These events included, most notably for Aragon, the 1930 Kharkov Congress of International Proletarian Writers (RAPP) and the 1934 Moscow Soviet Writers Congress at which the doctrine of socialist realism was officially unveiled. While the influence upon Aragon of the Kharkov congress, marking as it did the dominance of the RAPP and its sectarian cultural policies, is difficult to quantify the Moscow congress had a profound effect upon him. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, having been in something of a literary wilderness since his break from the Surealists, he was more than ready for the new beginning which socialist realism must have seemed to promise him. Secondly, as Michael Scriven has pointed out, the impact of the Front Populaire upon the PCF, placing it at the heart of political activity in France, was to help create an atmosphere of cultural collaboration rather than isolation. Consequently, ‘the Soviet Writers’ Congress (…) provided a unique forum at which communists and non-communists could discuss positive measures to promote an anti-fascist cultural front.’ Such an atmosphere doubtless contributed to Aragon's enthusiasm for the new literary theory. He reported upon the congress in both L'Humanité and Commune, and in the latter called upon the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (AEAR), recently created in 1932, to take the lead in developing a version of socialist realism in France which would be based upon French culture: ‘L'AEAR doit montrer aux écrivains et aux artistes la voie par laquelle nous contribuerons à créer la culture de l'avenir, la culture socialiste des Soviets de France et du monde entier, en reprenant l'héritage de la culture française, remise sur ses pieds.’ Not all of the French participants in the Congress embraced socialist realism as unequivocally as did Aragon. J.-P. A. Bernard has pointed out that figures such as Malraux, Jean-Richard Bloch, Rolland, Barbusse, Nizan and Gide voiced objections or reservations. The non-communist fellow travellers in particular were very suspicious of such a dirigiste approach to literature. Even a loyal party member such as Nizan, who was also present at the Moscow congress, did not embrace socialist realism as unreservedly as did Aragon, preferring to talk instead in terms of ‘littérature responsable’ and ‘litérature révolutionnaire’. He was as keen as was Aragon to produce literature which had a clear ideological message, literature which would help to bring about revolution. He accepted the general principles of socialist realism, but unlike Aragon, who firmly believed in the possibility of translating the precepts of Soviet socialist realism into an authentically French form, Nizan remained unconvinced that the Soviet model of socialist realism was suitable for France. This reticence on the part of both fellow travellers and the other major communist writer of the time meant that Aragon became the most frequent commentator on, and practitioner of, socialist realism in France in the 1930s. Although journals such as Commune and Europe published accounts of the Moscow Congress and a number of articles on the subject of socialist realism, it was not until the late 1940s that the party's critical attention would focus on socialist realism in any substantial way.

This study will evaluate how successful Aragon was as the first and, for a time, the only French communist writer to attempt explicitly to incorporate the doctrines of Soviet socialist realism into a specifically French cultural framework and then to put these principles into fictional practice. The study will begin with an analysis of the factors which led Aragon in the first place to espouse the precepts of socialist realism with such enthusiasm, and by means of reference to his key critical writings on the subject, it will provide an overview of Aragon's interpretation of the theory of socialist realism and identify those features which emerge as being central to his understanding of it. This overview will provide the framework for an analysis of Le Monde réel by means of a detailed and systematic comparison of the novels with the principal features of socialist realism as Aragon defined them. This approach lends itself to a thematic study of the novels which, unlike a chronological analysis which tends to see individual works in isolation, will highlight similarities and differences of practice. This is particularly necessary when most critics are agreed on the unevenness of quality of Aragon's achievements in novel writing. This framework should provide a standard by which the novels can be measured and therefore a means of accounting for such differing success other than the subjective preferences of the critic. It will also offer a means of evaluating Aragon's fictional practice of socialist realism in order firstly to establish the extent to which he is able to incorporate the precepts of the theory into a fictional framework, and secondly to determine the aesthetic success of his novels. In other words the aim is to assess the compatibility of the literary enterprise of novel writing and the ideological task implicit in socialist realism.

Ideology is of necessity at the heart of a literary theory which is defined in terms of the propagation of a socialist outlook on the world, and it is as well to make clear the way in which this term is to be used since, as Susan Suleiman has commented, ‘There as few words in our language (…) as ambiguous, as open to contradictory interpretations, as the words “ideology” and “ideological”’. It can be argued that all fiction, or indeed all culture, and not simply culture which bears its affiliation upon its sleeve, is an ideological process in the sense that it serves the interest of a particular social or political group. This point was made succinctly by Paul Nizan when he maintained:

Toute littérature est une propagande. La propagande bourgeoise est idéaliste, elle cache son jeu(…) La propagande révolutionnaire sait qu'elle est propagande, elle publie ses fins avec une franchise complète. Les critiques bourgeois feront les délicats, disant qu'une propagande ne saurait avoir valeur d'art, on sait assez que l'Art doit être désintéressé. Ce piège grossier de la critique nous fait rire: ces bons domestiques bourgeois de la critique japperont en vain. L'art pour nous est ce qui rend la propagande efficace.

Here Nizan uses the rather emotive term ‘propaganda’ to assert not that all literature is merely utilitarian, for he emphasises that art should coexist with propaganda, but that all literature has a purpose beyond the purely literary: to convey a message, to persuade the reader in some way. He distinguishes between revolutionary literature which is explicitly propagandist, which conveys its ideological message openly, and forms of literature which operate more insidiously in such a way as to conceal the true nature of their ideological purpose. The latter form of propaganda corresponds to one commonly accepted view of ideology within Marxist thought: that ideology is ‘illusion, distortion, mystification’ and may be ascribed to those works which do not contain explicit political, social or philosophical messages, but which impose their views by means not readily discernible to the reader. The power of ideological discourse of this type is to be found, as A. P. Foulkes says of propaganda, (here using the term in a sense clearly opposed to that espoused by Nizan) ‘in its capacity to conceal itself, to appear natural, to coalesce completely and indivisibly with the values and accepted power symbols of a given society.’

The type of ideology conveyed in Le Monde réel is, by contrast, explicit. There is no attempt to lull the reader into a false sense of security by tacitly reinforcing the status quo. The novels are articulated around a socialist view of the world, or more precisely around the view of the world held by the PCF and are a self-confessed attempt to convince the reader of the validity of these views. Ideology for Aragon then has the more neutral sense used by Suleiman in her analysis of the ideological novel when she identifies a discourse as ideological ‘if it refers explicitly to, and identifies itself with, a recognized body of doctrine or system of ideas.’ There is no sense in which the ideology of the novels attempts to conceal itself or tacitly to uphold the values of the system in power, but instead challenges the dominant power of the day and attempts to undermine it by offering an alternative, communist view.

The extent to which Aragon is successful in doing this and at the same time remaining, as he chose to do, faithful to the novel form, an intrinsic part of the bourgeois cultural heritage, is a question which needs to be addressed both in the context of Aragon studies and in the wider context of ideological literature.

Selected Bibliography

Place of publication is Paris for works in French and London for works in English unless otherwise stated.

1. Works by Aragon

i) Books

Anicet ou le panorama, roman. Gallimard, 1921, Collection Folio, 1983.

Traité du style, Gallimard, 1928, Collection L'Imaginaire, 1980.

Les Cloches de Bâle, Denoël et Steele, 1934, Collection Folio, 1978.

Les Beaux Quartiers, Denoël et Steele, 1936, Collection Folio, 1978.

Pour un réalisme socialiste, Denoël et Steele, 1937.

Les Voyageurs de l'Impériale, Gallimard, 1942 (censored version), 1947, Collection Folio, 1972.

Aurélien (Fribourg: Librairie de l'Université Egloff, 1944, Collection Folio, 1976).

La Diane Française, Editions Pierre Seghers, Collection Poésie 44, 1944.

L'Homme communiste, 2 vols, Gallimard, 1946 and 1953.

Chroniques du Bel Canto (Genève: Edns Albert Skira, 1947).

La Culture et les hommes — conférence, Edns Sociales, 1947.

Les Communistes, 6 vols, La Bibliothèque Française, 1949-51.

La Lumière et la Paix, discours prononcé au Congrès National de l'Union Nationale des Intellectuels le 29 avril à Paris, Edns des Lettres Françaises, 1950.

Hugo, Poète réaliste, Edns Sociales, Collection Problèmes, 1952.

Le Neveu de M. Duval, suivi d'une lettre d'icelui à l'auteur de ce livre, Editeurs Français Réunis, 1953.

La Lumière de Stendhal, Denoël, Collection Grise, 1954.

La Semaine Sainte, Gallimard, 1958, Collection Livre de Poche, 1970.

J'Abats mon jeu, Editeurs Français Réunis, 1959.

Entretiens avec Francis Crémieux, Gallimard, 1964.

Oeuvres Romanesques croisées d'Elsa Triolet et Aragon, 42 vols, Robert Laffont, 1964-74.

ii) Articles

‘Le Prolétariat de l'esprit’, Clarté, 78 (novembre 1925) 335-7.

‘Le Prix de l'esprit — I’, Clarté, n.s. 1 (juin 1926) 7-9.

‘Le Prix de l'esprit (suite et fin)’, Clarté, n.s. 4 (octobre-décembre 1926) 122-3.

‘L'AEAR salue le premier Congrès des Ecrivains soviétiques’, Commune, 11-12 (juillet-août 1934) 1153-7.

‘Le Premier Congrès des Ecrivains soviétiques’, L'Humanité (27.VIII.1934) 6.

‘Du réalisme dans le roman’, Vendredi (3.IV.1936) 5.

‘Réalisme socialiste et réalisme français’, Europe, XLVI, 183 (mars 1938) 289-303.

‘Les Ecrivains et la Paix, discours du 29 juin 1946 au Congrès des Ecrivains’, Les Lettres Françaises (5.VII.1946) 1,3.

‘Le jeu du Capifol’, L'Humanité (4.I.1947) 4.

‘Aragon répond à ses témoins’, La Nouvelle Critique, 8 (juillet-août 1949) 75-87.

‘L'Ouverture et l'avenir’, Cahiers du Communisme, 43 (1967) 247-50.

2. Secondary Sources

Adereth, Maxwell, Commitment in Modern French Literature. Politics and Society in Péguy, Aragon and Sartre, Gollancz, 1967.

Adereth, Maxwell, The French Communist Party: a critical history (1920-84). From Comintern to ‘the colours of France’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).

Association des Ecrivains Soviétiques ‘Statuts de l'Association des Ecrivains soviétiques’, Commune, 10 (juin 1934) 1148-51.

Becker, Lucille F Louis Aragon (New York: Twayne Publishers, Twayne's World Authors Series, 114, 1971).

Bernard, Jean-Pierre A., Le Parti communiste français et la question littéraire 1921-1939, préface de René Remond (Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1971).

Bibrowska, Sophie, Une Mise à mort. L'Itinéraire romanesque d'Aragon, Denoël, Essai, Dossiers des Lettres Nouvelles, 1972.

Bou Mansour, Fouad ‘Le traitement du thème politique dans Le Monde réel d'Aragon’, Unpublished doctoral thesis (3ème cycle), Université de Paris IV (Sorbonne), 1978.

Carassus, Emilien Les Grèves imaginaires, (Edns du CNRS, Centre régional de publications de Toulouse, Littérature, 1982).

Caute, David Communism and the French Intellectuals, André Deutsch, 1964.

Eagleton, T., Ideology, Verso, 1991.

Fisher, D.J., ‘The Rolland-Barbusse Debate’, Survey, 20 (Spring-Summer 1974) 121-59.

Flower, J.E., Literature and the Left. Society, Politics and the Novel Since the Late Nineteenth Century, Methuen, 1985.

Foulkes, A.P., Literature and Propaganda, Methuen, New Accents, 1983.

Garaudy, Roger, L'Itinéraire d'Aragon. Du surréalisme au Monde Réel, Gallimard, Collection Vocations, 1961.

Garguilo, René, ‘Du réalisme socialiste au réalisme sans rivages’ in Roman, réalités, réalismes. Etudes réunies par Jean Bessière. Université de Picardie. Centre d'études du roman et du romanesque. Presses Universitaires de France, 1989.

Garmy, René, ‘Les Cloches de Bâle’, L'Humanité (31.XII.1934) 5.

Geoghegan, Crispin G., ‘Le Cas Aragon: a case history of the development of a French intellectual through Dada and Surrealism to Communism’, Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Keele, 1976.

Geoghegan, Crispin G.,‘Surrealism and Communism: the hesitations of Aragon from Kharkov to the Affaire Front Rouge’, Journal of European Studies, 7 (1978) 12-31.

Gontier, Fernande, La femme et le couple dans le roman de l'entre-deuxguerres, Klincksieck, 1976.

Green, Mary J., Fiction in the Historical Present. French Writers and the Thirties (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1986).

Haroche, Charles, Les Langages du roman, Editeurs Français Réunis, 1976.

Huraut, Alain, Aragon, Prisonnier politique, André Balland, 1970.

Kelly, Michael, ‘Aragon and the Spirit of the Popular Front’, Quinquereme, 11 (January 1988) 3-13.

Kimyongür, A.M., ‘Aragon's La Semaine sainte: a socialist realist novel?’, Journal of European Studies, xxiv (1994) 243-64.

Lévi-Valensi, J. Aragon romancier, Sedes, 1989.

Lukàcs, G., The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, Merlin Press, 1963.

Mander, John, The Writer and Commitment, Secker and Warburg, 1961.

Mathewson, Rufus W., The Positive Hero in Russian Literature, 2nd edition, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975).

Mirsky, D., ‘Les Cloches de Bâle d'Aragon’, L'Humanité (22.I.1935) 4.

Molodoshanin, Margareth, ‘Louis Aragon: the novel and political commitment’, Unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Manitoba, 1976.

Nadeau, Maurice, Histoire du surréalisme, suivie de Documents surréalistes, Seuil, 1964.

Pascal, Roy, ‘Aragon - Les Communistes,Modern Quarterly (Summer 1952) 169-78.

Ravis, Suzanne (ed.), Aurélien ou l'écriture indirecte, Champion, collection Unichamp, 1988.

Robin, Régine, Le Réalisme socialiste: une esthétique impossible, Payot, 1986.

Roy, Claude Aragon, Seghers, Collection Poètes d'aujourd'hui, 1962.

Savage, Catharine, Malraux, Sartre and Aragon as Political Novelists (Gainesville: University of Florida monographs, no.17, Fall 1964, 1965).

Scott, H. G.(ed), Soviet Writers' Congress 1934, The Debate on Socialist Realism and Modernism in the Soviet Union, Lawrence and Wishart, 1977, (Facsimile reprint, first published as Problems of Soviet Literature, edited by H.G.Scott, Martin Lawrence Ltd., 1935).

Schalk, David L., The Spectrum of Political Engagement: Mounier, Benda, Nizan, Brasillach, Sartre (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Scriven, Michael, Paul Nizan: Communist Novelist, Macmillan, 1988.

Scriven, Michael and Dennis Tate (eds.), European Socialist Realism (Oxford/New York/Hamburg: Berg, 1988).

Soukup, Gerald T., ‘The realism of Louis Aragon: a study of four novels of Le Monde réel’, Unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1973.

Suleiman, Susan, Paul Nizan: pour une nouvelle culture, Grasset, 1971.

Suleiman, Susan, Authoritarian Fictions. The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

Verdès-Leroux, Jeannine, Au service du Parti. Le parti communiste, les intellectuels et la culture (1944-1956), Fayard/Edns de Minuit, 1983.

Waters, Lorraine M., ‘The Presentation of a Political Perspective in the Early Socialist Realist Works of Paul Nizan and Louis Aragon (1933-1936)’, Unpublished M.A. dissertation, University of Hull, 1986.

Robin Walz (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Walz, Robin. “The Baedeker of Hives: The Opera Passageway and Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris.” In Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris, pp. 13-41. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Walz explores Aragon's depiction of the Paris Opera Passageway in his novel Le Paysan de Paris and the socio-historical role of the Passageway in Parisian culture.]

paysan, anne (de pays). n. Homme, femme de compagne.—Par extens. Rustre, personne grossière: Un franc paysan.—Œnol. Se dit, dans la classification des vins de Bordeaux, de ceux qui occupent le dernier rang.

peasant (from pays, country). n. Countryman or country-woman.—By extension, Unsophisticated, uncouth character: A simple peasant.—Œnology. Name commonly given to the lowest order of Bordeaux wine classifications.

Larousse du XXe siècle (1932)

Toward the end of the first half of Le Paysan de Paris—that portion dedicated to the Opera Passageway—some of the owners of the arcade's shops got a peek at what surrealist Louis Aragon had been writing about them since the summer of 1924. The commercial proprietors, Aragon recounted, were shocked by a series of articles in the literary review in which installments of his novel first appeared.1 “The other day, there was a meeting of the arcade big shots. One of them brought along Numbers 16 and 17 of the Revue Européenne. They discussed it bitterly. Who provided this information? … They would like to meet him, this obstinate enemy, this Machiavellian character. And what would they say to him? What would bees say to the Baedeker of hives?”2

At first the shopkeepers failed to connect the author of the articles with the dadaist habitué of the arcade's Certa café. Instead, they suspected a completely innocent commercial agent, who up to that point had faithfully represented the passage's interests, of having betrayed them. Shortly thereafter, Aragon's articles were attacked in the Chaussée d'Antin, a local activist newsletter that defended the interests of the neighborhood's shopowners against the Haussmann Boulevard Realty Company. The arcade's proprietors found the financial disclosures in Aragon's articles, as well as his surreal embellishments, frightening: “Where did he get those figures? Is it possible?3

A few pages further into his novel, Aragon confessed that he had a propensity toward effusive descriptions. He did not like the idea of a world determined by facts; he preferred the powers of chance to those of observation. The arcade's commercial terrain provided Aragon with a rich source for surrealist musings, continually turning its images and objects into something else. Walking-canes in an illuminated display first became luminous fish in the darkened ocean of the passageway, then swaying kelp, then prostitute-sirens from the Rhineland. The true name of this arcade, Aragon proclaimed, was the Passage de L'Opéra Onirique: the Arcade of Dream Divinations. Everything base was transformed into the marvelous: “The foreigner reading my little guide lifts his head, and says to himself, ‘It's here.’”4

The task of this [essay] is to explore the intersection of the history of the Opera Passageway and Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris. Insofar as Aragon included descriptive details about the Opera Passageway in his book, it has sometimes been used as a guide to the arcade itself.5 But Aragon's choice of the Opera Passageway as a central location in the novel was more strategic than documentary. Generally, the arcade's historical reputation was one of marginal commercial success and social disrepute. By the 1920s, the passageway had become an impediment to the completion of boulevard Haussmann, an urban renovation that would facilitate the flow of automobile traffic in the metropolis at the expense of the neighborhood's residents and the arcade's proprietors. In addition to being an “ur-form” of modernity and an “outmoded space,” in 1925 the Opera Passageway was a socially contested urban space. Aragon used the contemporary controversy of its imminent destruction to draw attention to his own book, a “Baedeker of hives,” designed to capsize and capture the reader's imagination with its instantaneous and continually metamorphosing visions.


Since 1919, the Certa café within the Opera Passageway had served as the favorite bar and unofficial office of the Paris dada movement's entourage. Located in lower Montmartre, the commercial arcade was tucked away within a building block whose double-entranced facade opened onto the northern side of the boulevard des Italiens. The labyrinthine location of the Certa kept the activities of the dada group out of view of both the bustling activity of the boulevard and the Left Bank literati. A forgotten location amid the urban landscape of early twentieth-century Paris, it was the perfect spot to feed the conspiratorial imaginations of those writers and artists who would soon proclaim the surrealist revolution.

The first half of the nineteenth century had been the heyday of covered passageways in Paris. According to the Guides Joanne (predecessor to the Guides Bleus), in the mid-nineteenth century there were more than 150 passages and galeries in Paris. The most elegant were covered passageways which served as commercial arcades, characteristically “lined with luxurious stores and splendidly illuminated by gaslight, providing a place for an evening promenade or rendezvous when it rains.”6 Of sixty-three covered passageways built in Paris, from the Galerie de Bois in 1786 to the Palacio de la Madeleine in 1935, two-thirds were constructed under the Restoration and the July Monarchy, including the Passages de l'Opéra in 1822.7 Establishments in these covered passageways included restaurants, cafés, clothing boutiques, and bookstores, such entertainments as theaters, ballrooms, and panoramas, and the purchased services of reading libraries, bathhouses, and toilets. As a social space, the arcades were renowned for a characteristic trilogy of loafers (flâneurs), pickpockets, and prostitutes. According to one guide of the era, the arcades were an “Eldorado of nonchalance.”8 By the time the dada group had discovered the Certa café in the early twentieth century, many passageway arcades suffered from decades of relative neglect.

In recent years, philosopher Walter Benjamin's Passagen-Werk has reawakened a critical interest in the arcades and their relation to surrealism.9 Rather than blaze a theoretical path along the lines of Benjamin-inspired studies, I have pursued a more modest historical inquiry that provides a supplemental perspective to those accounts. Among Parisian arcades, the Opera Passageway had a particular and checkered history. The arcade served as the location for Aragon's surreal musings for first half of Le Paysan de Paris, and he well may have drawn inspiration from its long-standing insolent reputation. Yet Aragon's scathing comments about the arcade's businessmen suggests that he may have cared less about the passageway itself than in exploiting its ill repute for his own purposes. A brief recapitulation of Benjamin's interest in the arcades, in relation to surrealism, will help draw out this distinction.

As presented in his well-known essay, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” the arcades were a crucial architectural form for Benjamin for a number of reasons.10 First, the arcades shared an affinity with Charles Fourier's utopian socialist vision of social harmony through architecture during an era of early industrial capitalism. Second, the concentration of consumer goods within the arcades was culturally dynamic and innovative, creating aesthetic affinities in this new era of industrial art, connecting mass merchandise displays and Grandville's fantastic caricatures, dioramas and photography. Third, the arcades, and later the boulevards during the Haussmannization of Paris, created a new social space, successively inhabited by a vacuous bourgeoisie driven by commodity fetishism (criticized by the likes of Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert), a modern urban crowd of dandies, flâneurs, and prostitutes (celebrated by Charles Baudelaire), and historically visionary Communards (championed by realist painter Gustave Courbet, revolutionary politician Auguste Blanqui, socialist theoretician Karl Marx, and iconoclastic poet Arthur Rimbaud).

To give his research into these historical realms of nineteenth-century Parisian urban culture contemporary significance in the interwar years of the twentieth century when he wrote the essay, Benjamin drew inspiration from Michelet's dictum that “Each age dreams its successor.”11 According to critical theorist Susan Buck-Morss, Benjamin saw in the arcades “ur-form” ruins that anticipated the rise of spectacular commercial capitalism. Benjamin believed that a dialectical reading of a wide range of such nineteenth-century culture, discerning “modern” from “ruin,” could help to establish a critical philosophy of history for the twentieth century.12 The significance of such an analysis lay in the ability to engage simultaneously in ideological critique and social description. This approach to cultural analysis, sorting through historical ruins to separate out capitalist contradictions from utopian socialist possibilities, is referred to as the “redemption of physical reality.”13

In “Surrealism, the Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” Benjamin identified surrealism as the only intellectual movement of his contemporary era to dream the future out of the ruins of outmoded, nineteenth-century cultural modernity.14 Given the surrealists' complete rejection of bourgeois ethics and values and their pursuit of new forms of consciousness, Benjamin found a “profane illumination” in surrealism. The shocking and mysterious effects provoked by surrealist experiments with chance encounters, states of intoxication, and the atmosphere of places, Benjamin emphasized, had their source in the concrete, material basis of everyday life. Benjamin hoped that such a surreal illumination could emerge directly from materialist culture itself, through a historically critical analysis of “dialectical images,”15 and he criticized the surrealists for their self-assigned role as magicians of the world.

Looked at another way, though, the crucial distinction is between common reality and surreality, not between materialism and alchemy. For the surrealists, the everyday world was already classified and ordered according to previous patterns of thought, circumscribed by what Breton called the “paucity of reality” (le peu de réalité), the “least common denominator of mortals.”16 While modern Paris provided a cultural terrain for surrealist inspiration, Breton knew that the commercial and political interests transforming the urban landscape resisted and thwarted surrealism. “I know that in Paris, on the boulevards, the beautiful luminous signs are making their appearance. Those signs mean a great deal to me as I walk, but actually they represent only that which annoys me.”17 While the technological wonders of contemporary life suggested new possibilities of consciousness for Breton—“wireless telegraphy, wireless telephony, wireless imagination”—poetic reconfiguration was required to achieve the transformation to surreality.

Moreover, surrealism could not be achieved solely through ironic negation; positive revaluation was required as well. In the classic debate over the distinctions between dada and surrealism, dadaist Tristan Tzara insisted upon the continual negation of all artistic values, while surrealist Breton modified his anti-art stance toward the rehabilitation of such values as beauty and love.18 In this surrealist transposition of aesthetics, the imaginative powers of the interpreter were indispensable. Surrealism, while formed out of everyday culture, was not directly expressed by it (as Breton would later argue against Georges Bataille in the “Second Manifesto of Surrealism”). Even in its psychic automatism, surrealism required the participation of the alchemist to achieve the metamorphosis to the marvelous. As quintessentially represented by Robert Desnos semiconsciously dictating prose from trance states, the production of surrealist texts necessarily entailed a performative dimension.19

The Opera Passageway, with its mishmash of shops and their curiously populated window displays, was not intrinsically surreal. Neither did the arcade inspire surrealists simply because it was an “outmoded space.”20 The marginality of the Opera Passageway to the city's commercial and urban landscape was not a by-product of the twentieth century; its fringe status had been intrinsic to the structure since its opening a century earlier. While some sources claim that the Opera Passageway had been one of the fashionable arcades of the Restoration and the July Monarchy, other sources suggest that it suffered from commercial failure and had always been a location of social vice.21 Reviewing the checkered past of the arcade assists in discriminating between its inherited characteristics and those surreal manifestations conjured up by Aragon in the Passage de l'Opéra Onirique.

In 1821, Viscount Morel-Vindé was granted permission to build a double-barreled commercial arcade on family-owned property in the Chaussée d'Antin district of the second arrondissement (today the ninth). Less than twelve feet wide, the arcade's three-story galleries ran north and south, the Clock Gallery (galerie de l'Horloge) to the east and the Barometer Gallery (galerie du Baromètre) to the west. Constructed in 1822 and expanded in 1823, the sixty-one ground-floor spaces in the Opera Passageway were originally designed to take advantage of the flow of foot-traffic to the Opera, which had been relocated to the adjoining Royal Academy of Music following the assassination of the duc de Berry on the steps of the rue Richelieu Opera House on 13 September, 1820. It is doubtful, however, that the passageway ever gained much of a clientele in this regard; the Opera's main entrance was on rue Le Peletier, whereas the two galleries of the arcade opened onto the boulevard des Italiens. The only access to the Opera was at the very back of the arcade, where an extremely narrow alleyway (periodically closed by the police) connected rues Grange-Batélière and Le Peletier. Unlike many other Paris passageways, which provided connecting routes between main thoroughfares, the Opera Passageway was something of an urban backwater from the beginning. Its design was less a channel than an eddy. In contrast to the bustling activity of the boulevard des Italiens, for the Englishwoman of letters Frances Trollope in 1835, as for Aragon and Breton in 1919, the arcade primarily provided shelter from the rain.22

The commercial enterprises of the Opera arcade were never all that impressive. Comprising second-rate boutiques, its allure was more chintz than satin. Although the 1826 Guide des Acheteurs, ou Almanach des passages de l'Opéra boasted a kind of modern glamour, most of the shops sold a mélange of odd merchandise (bimbeloterie).23 The largest concerns of the passageway were jewelry and porcelain shops which, despite elaborate descriptions in the Guide des Acheteurs concerning the noble history of these craft professions, sold factory-manufactured ornaments, metalplated accessories, and artificial pearls.24 On the whole, the Opera Passageway may have confirmed the suspicions of those contemporaries who claimed the arcades were lackluster commercial ventures.25 Indeed, great commercial success seems to have eluded the arcade's merchants. Throughout the nineteenth century, its establishments frequently closed or changed ownership.26 The touted attraction of the “Europorama,” offering dioramic views of European cities and an exhibition map of Jerusalem, was replaced by a children's theater in 1834, an “automatic museum” in 1845, and was followed by a series of ball, dance, and dramatic theaters, until its final incarnation as the Théâtre Moderne in 1904.27 After a fire destroyed the Royal Academy of Music in 1873, the Passages de l'Opéra lost even the marginal connection to its namesake.28

As a social institution, however, the reputation of the arcade was famous, if not infamous, as a key gathering-site of the Parisian demi-monde. According to Musée Carnavalet director Georges Cain, this “foul passage noir, illuminated by hazy lamps, emitting nasty smells from neighboring ovens, and equally distressing odors,” was the low-life rendezvous of Opera sycophants, bit actors, and stagehands, as well as dandies, evening adventurers, and casual prostitutes of all regimes, 1821 to 1873.29 While the reputable society of king, emperor, and tout Paris attended masked balls at the opera house of the Royal Academy of Music, the expansive basement underneath the Opera Passageway served as the location of the somewhat more disreputable, licentious, and lascivious bal d'Italie (although there was significant crossover in clientele from the former to the latter). The Opera Passageway was also known as the petite bourse du soir, where financiers and politicians could conduct their unofficial business transactions without attracting the watchful eye of the police. Criminal loitering and prostitution were common features of many of the arcades, and under the July Monarchy police prefect Mangin regulated the business hours of certain arcades and cracked down on street prostitutes (filles publiques).30 Among arcades, the Opera Passageway enjoyed the dubious distinction of being the only one under surveillance by direct royal ordinance, and it was noted in guidebooks for having its “indecent and ignoble alleyways” closed at night for public benefit.31

The story of the covered passageways during the Second Empire and Third Republic, with the Haussmannization of Parisian boulevards and the appearance of department stores such as La Samaritaine and Le Bon Marché, is usually recounted as one of decline.32 What is certain is the arcades received diminished attention in guidebooks to Paris. In Calignani's New Paris Guide for 1844, for example, the arcades were praised as convenient and successful commercial ventures: “All the taste and elegance of the Parisian shopkeepers are here displayed, and they are the grand resort of all the loungers of the town.”33 By 1873, however, Calignani's Guide merely stated that “These are a grand resort of all the loungers of the town.”34 Without the accompanying taste and elegance, presumably the status of the “loungers” diminished as well. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, passageways received scant mention in Paris guidebooks, and those few mentioned were noted only by address.35

What is less clear is whether this decreased vogue for the arcades actually meant, as Edmond Beaurepaire claimed in La Chronique des rues (1900), that as commercial and urban centers the arcades were “languishing, abandoned, and left in the dust.”36 As late as 1916, for example, the Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris noted that although business in the passageways had slowed considerably, nonetheless they were concentrated in some of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Paris. Foot-traffic in the nearly three kilometers of combined passageways, the commission concluded, continued to be active.37 Thus, while situated in the shadow of the boulevard and department store, in many neighborhoods the arcades remained active commercial and social spaces.

The Opera Passageway displayed these ambiguities well. While the Eugène Rey bookstore was the only establishment with a commercial profile worthy of inclusion in the 1920 Bottin-Mondain, a number of the arcade's establishments had remained in business for several decades. Of the shops mentioned by Aragon in Le Paysan de Paris in 1925, the medical supply and gun shops had opened in 1877, the cane and pipe shop in 1882, the Flammarion bookstore in 1888, Vodable's tailor shop in 1891, the Eugène Rey bookstore and Vincent's barbershop in 1898, the print shop and the bathhouse in 1899, Arrigoni's restaurant and L'Événement printshop since 1905, and the Biard café and Saulnier's restaurant since 1910.38 Other enterprises, such as shoe-shine stalls and prix-fixe restaurants, occupied the same spaces, although their owners changed. Some businesses, such as Arrigoni's restaurant and the Certa café, were prosperous enough that when the passageway was destroyed in 1925, they successfully moved to other locations.39 While not as glamorous as Le Bon Marché or La Samaritaine, the relative longevity and modest prosperity of some of the Opera arcade's shops suggest that their characterization as “outmoded” and “ruins” requires further consideration.

Aragon's Paysan de Paris recapitulates many of the commonly known features of the Opera Passageway, and in some ways, his documentary observations are unexceptional; it is the anomalies in his descriptions that provoke greater interest. Why, for example, does Aragon rename the galerie de l'Horloge the “Thermometer,” instead of leaving it the “Clock”? Is it merely to make the names of the two galleries rhyme? Or are Barometer and Thermometer a better pair for determining the “weather” of the arcade? Or do the allusions to pressure and temperature assist the reader in making an imaginary transformation of the arcade from an inanimate structure into a living one, pulsating with blood and libido? Aragon's lacunae are equally provocative. What is the Dada cocktail, priced at four francs, that appears on the menu from the Certa café reprinted in Le Paysan de Paris? And why does that woman from the handkerchief shop keep getting locked into her own boutique, having to be rescued by her customers?40 Whatever documentary evidence about the Opera passageway might be contained in Le Paysan de Paris, suggestive details woven into the printed pages remind the reader that the meaning of Aragon's prose lies elsewhere.


As art historian Molly Nesbit has stated, Le Paysan de Paris “gave off the odor of a guide to Vieux Paris” while remaining essentially a literary work of surrealism.41 At times in the book Aragon evokes a near-nostalgia for the old places of the arcade, now finally being destroyed by the last vestiges of Second Empire Haussmannization (itself something of an urban anachronism by the 1920s). But the odor of Vieux Paris was more the novel's by-product than its essence. Aragon felt little attachment for the passageway itself. He was put off by the shopkeepers' petty responses to his articles in the Revue Européenne. And despite his affectionate remarks for the owner of the Certa café, he did not frequent the establishment after it moved to the rue d'Isly. It seems unlikely that nostalgia was Aragon's primary motivation.

Insolence seems a better choice. The Opera Passageway was generally despised by preservationists and modernizers alike. In 1916 the Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris had agreed, in principle, that the arcades were worthy of historical preservation.42 The destruction of the Opera Passageway, however, passed unregistered in their procès-verbaux. Among urban modernizers, most would agree with Edmond Beaurepaire's turn-of-the-century assessment of the arcades that “Progress has condemned them, and frankly, it's not worth getting upset about.”43 Neglected by those who ostensibly cared about such matters, and scorned by champions of urbanization, the Passages de l'Opéra fell to the pickaxe in February 1925. Within this historical context, Aragon's choice to situate his ruminations within the Opera Passageway assumes political significance. Against a naive faith in historical progress, conservative or modern, Aragon's writings about the passageway exuded an “organization of pessimism.”44 Whatever odor Le Paysan de Paris gave off, it was designed to offend the tastes of established society.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Vieux Paris had ceased to describe a premodern social order, and had come to express a conservative sense of nostalgia evoked directly from the urban landscape itself. In the early nineteenth century, ancien Paris, Paris d'autrefois, or Vieux Paris referred to former social classes and professions, and to traditional entertainments, festivals, and parades.45 After midcentury, however, the urban landscape of Paris was becoming increasingly detached from this social conception. “Nearly every day, the Paris prefecture gives its blessing to the renaming of streets with complete indifference to the activities of the neighborhood,” P. L. Jacob complained in Curiosités de l'histoire du vieux Paris (1858). “This practice, which shows no sign of slowing down, occurs without any respect for the people who live there.”46 Jacob objected to the renaming of streets, precisely because it entailed a loss of memory of Paris as a lived social space.

With the Haussmannization of Paris during the Second Empire, conservateurs of “Old Paris” turned archaeological ruins into direct expressions of various golden ages, from Lutèce to the Ancien Régime, detached from either social origins or the contemporary context. This shift in the meaning of the Parisian landscape, whereby city fragments constituted a kind of nostalgic imagination, was formalized in the creation of the Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris in 1897.47 With the founding of this commission, the modernization of Paris—entailing widespread urban transformations in the construction and distribution of water supply, electrification, and transportation—now assisted an immense preservation effort.

In preparation for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, the Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris produced a small tourist pamphlet to promote its own conservation efforts.48 In the past, the commission lamented, the architectural and archaeological preservation of Paris had been largely a piecemeal affair. The commission boasted that, thanks to its efforts, the march of progress would actually go hand-in-hand with preserving the appearance and memory of the old city (the archaeological opportunities created by the construction of the metropolitan subway system in 1898 providing the most illustrative example). Conserving these bits and pieces of the city, the commission assured the readers of its pamphlet, amounted to no less than the spiritual glory of Paris itself:

Its museums … its monuments … its panoramic views … its incomparable river … the fantastic profiles of medieval fortresses … the palaces of the monarchy … the multiple clocks, domes, and campaniles that silhouette the horizon. Its flower gardens, and finally, the luxurious Parisian forest, so dear to the population. …

Isn't Paris the real birthplace (patrie) of these enumerated wonders, the sacred source from which the arts, sciences, and letters spring forth?49

Since 1897, the commission bragged, it had preserved the Hôtel de Toulouse, the Palais Royal, the Arc de Triomphe, and many churches, plaques, and street names. Where demolitions were unavoidable, architectural wonders and old neighborhoods could be preserved in paintings, drawings, and photographs, and conserved in the Musée Carnavalet.

This impulse to conserve, and to create, nostalgic feelings about the Parisian landscape through buildings, material fragments, and images, goes a long way toward understanding the cultural shift in Vieux Paris from a social to an imagined urban space. A nostalgic Parisian pittoresque was overlaying and dissolving—and would eventually replace—an earlier sense of the Parisian vie populaire.50 This nostalgia for images of nineteenth-century Parisian popular life, which no longer had actual ties to the modern city, increased as the twentieth century developed. André Warnod, prolific popular author and member of Vieux Montmartre, waxed nostalgic about bals, cafés and cabarets, the lives of popular artists and entertainers of Old Paris, and he lamented the lost art of flânerie in contemporary Paris.51 Eugène Atget's photographs of forgotten shop signs and traditional street trades (pétits métiers) were purchased by, and safely tucked away within, the Musée Carnavalet. Many guidebooks to Paris were abundantly illustrated with sketches of picturesque Parisian types. Photo-illustrated books such as Les Cent Vues de Paris, and tourist guidebooks such as Baedeker's handbook and Hachette's Guide Bleus, equated the glory of the contemporary urban landscape with sites and images of monumental Paris.52 Nostalgia for Vieux Paris was not necessarily opposed to modern urbanization. On the contrary, the contemporary transformation of the urban landscape made an antiquarian, imaginary past possible, preserved in museum artifacts, documents, and photographs.

But the odor of Vieux Paris that Aragon evoked in his surrealist novel was neither picturesque nor practical; it offended both antiquarians and moderns. By locating the first part of his surrealist novel in the Opera Passageway, Aragon let the imagination of his double, a crude and uncouth “peasant,” loose within a forgotten urban terrain. His peasant was not simply a naïf, he was the descendent of Restif de La Bretonne's paysan perverti, who reveled in his self-corruption.53 The peasant was singular, like the heady glass of red wine he enjoyed—un sens unique. The peasant was not drawn to the commercial spectacle of Paris: He preferred the sensual favors sold by the women of Madame Jehan's massage, or the anonymous intercourse permitted through bath chamber vents, to the commercially packaged sexual fantasies advertised in the pages of La Vie Parisienne. Aragon appropriated, from the previous century, the attributes of Balzac's Les Paysans—drunken, debauched, envious, insolent, cynical, and deviously clever—and he enlisted that scorned identity in a surrealist revolution of peasant versus bourgeois. The fantasies embedded in Le Paysan de Paris were less an expression of Vieux Paris than its subversion.

In the early twentieth century, the contested urban space of the Opera Passageway made the location a political springboard for Aragon's literary diatribe. Yet he was not the only person to comment on the passing of the arcade. While neglected in official treatments of Paris, in antiquarian histories, or commercial guides, the destruction of the Opera Passageway was amply covered by Parisian newspapers. Many Parisian dailies carried articles about the destruction of the Opera Passageway in the months before the completion of boulevard Haussmann in February 1925. For the duration of the previous year, the arcade had been the only obstacle preventing the joining of boulevards Haussmann, Italiens, and Poisonnières. By writing about the arcade at the moment of its disappearance, Aragon participated in a contemporary political debate about the meaning of modern life and urbanization.

Early into Le Paysan de Paris, Aragon reproduces a number of placards posted by the arcade's disgruntled business owners as their storefronts were being demolished.54 In the face of certain expropriation, some of the arcade's businesses held out as long as possible. Excerpts from these handbills, highlighting the fundamental injustice of being driven out of business in the name of progress, were reproduced in the newspapers as well. Le Temps quoted a bill posted on the shoe-shine's windows, “My lease runs eleven more years! I cry out, Thief! Everything must be liquidated.”55Le Matin quoted the same cynical placard as Aragon, from the wine merchant who ended his complaint, “Long live Justice!”56 But mostly, the proprietors were trying to salvage what they could from their doomed businesses, “Final day! Sale on everything in stock! Unbelievably low discounts!”57 The arcade's proprietors remained businessmen to the end (hence Aragon's chastising of their small-mindedness when they discovered his articles in La Revue Européenne).

Some journalists expressed their sympathies for the fate of the arcade's merchants in commentary articles. In his “Mon Film” column for Le Journal, popular novelist and journalist Clément Vautel lamented the loss of the arcade to urban development.58 With the vestiges of Haussmannization finally and irreversibly set into motion, a boulevard of Second Empire design was sluggishly being realized fifty-five years into the Third Republic, Vautel sarcastically remarked. In his view, commercial speculators profited the most from the boulevard's expansion, and their gains were insufficient to compensate for the losses incurred by the evicted. Vautel was particularly sad about the closing of the Rey and Flammarion bookstores. Undoubtedly, he concluded ironically, some new establishments will profit from the bookstores' displacement, “The buck will chase away the book!”59 Other articles expressed a restrained sense of community loss in the face of inevitable urban modernization. In Le Figaro, Emile Darsy wrote nostalgically about the closing of Le Pousset bar—the last refuge of boulevardiers, veterans of European and colonial wars, and tourists from the provinces—located along the facade of the Passageway.60Le Temps journalist Georges Montorgeuil paid tribute to Vincent's barbershop, which he claimed (exaggeratedly) had passed from father to son for a hundred years.61

Yet even for these journalists, the forward historical march of urbanization seemed inevitable. “Everything passes, even passages,” noted Le Journal.62 More thoroughly than other reporters, this anonymous journalist articulated the absurd place of the Passages de l'Opéra amid the contemporary Parisian landscape.

Along the boulevard, the brilliant facade [of the Opera Passageway] joined in the movement and splendor of Parisian life; so many vibrant, charming, and well-patronized boutiques—Roddy, Pousset, the Khédive, the Flammarion and Rey bookstores. Inside, it was something else entirely; shoe-shine stalls, dismal herb-shops, empty and half-closed-up bazaars. The composition of assembled shops—some stores with display cases filled with indiscernible objects, poorly illuminated and never sold, other shops of extremely fine quality, including some astounding lingerie, and a few popular hideaways—was simultaneously quite modern and extremely old.63

The Opera Passageway clung to a tenuous existence during a period of rapid urbanization. It did not require an aesthete like Aragon to see fantastic juxtapositions inherent in the continued existence of the Opera Passageway. No one doubted the arcade's inevitable passing; the question was what its disappearance portended.

In this brief moment of contested meaning over the fate of the Opera Passageway, Aragon's explicit nemesis in Le Paysan de Paris was the daily, L'Intransigeant. Among Parisian newspapers, L'Intransigeant was the most enthusiastic in its support of the destruction of the Opera Passageway in order to complete boulevard Haussmann, for that would open up the flow of automobile traffic in the center of the city. In the mid-1920s, front-page newspaper coverage of la circulation, the traffic circulation problem across Paris, was second only to la vie chère of postwar inflation. In this discussion, L'Intransigeant came down fully on the side of the automobile: “The street is not a garage. It exists for the swift flow of traffic. Those who cannot follow at this speed obstruct traffic. Even if the street belongs to everyone, it is not for those who obstruct it.”64 To facilitate the flow of automobile traffic, the newspaper suggested banning horse-drawn carts in the city altogether, moving bus stops to the sides of the street (rather than the center), consolidating bus lines, and terminating overland rail systems on the periphery of the city. Further, it advocated posting traffic signals on street corners, widening commercial streets for truck transportation, and combining electric, gas, compressed air, and water lines in common underground canals. Finally, the newspaper praised the city's Comité de la circulation for having recently adopted many of these suggestions. L'Intransigeant fully ascribed to an ethos of modern and rational urban development.

Since February 1924, when Aragon first read in the pages of L'Intransigeant that boulevard Haussmann had reached rue Laffitte, until the arcade's destruction a year later, the daily proclaimed its open hostility to the continued existence of the Opera Passageway as an obstruction to rational urban design. The newspaper charted the advancement of boulevard Haussmann from rue Tailbout to rue Laffitte, to rue Drouot, and finally to the boulevard des Italiens.65 Over the course of that year, the Opera Passageway was frequently discussed in L'Intransigeant and always in derisive terms. In the summer of 1924, the newspaper printed a photograph of the facade of the “Passages de l'Opéra, Galerie Baromètre” and noted with disappointment that the inhabitants were refusing to leave their shops, despite the fact that this was the final building standing in the way of the completion of boulevard Haussmann.66 In January of 1925, the newspaper carried a photograph of Vincent's barbershop, depicting two middle-aged barbers attending to customers seated along the mirror-lined walls. After the fifteenth of January, the newspaper gloated, the passageway's barber would be forced to abandon his “salon.”67 At the end of February, L'Intransigeant published a photograph of old shop-signs being removed from the passageway's facade in order to make room for the new, glamorous signs that would soon illuminate the future boulevard Haussmann.68 The newspaper expressed no sympathy for the residents of two hundred apartments destroyed in the course of the arcade's demolition. Instead, it complained that promised new apartment buildings had not yet been constructed and that the Chaussée d'Antin subway station had not been completed.

The newspaper's position against the Passages de l'Opéra had been made clear by Lucien Descaves early in the fall of 1924.69 After Aragon's articles had already begun appearing in the Revue Européenne that summer, Descaves posed the question: Why all this fuss about the destruction of the Opera Passageway? The Salmon and Pont-Neuf arcades had disappeared without any great commotion, he noted. The latter had been discredited by no less than Emile Zola (in Thérèse Raquin). Besides, Descaves claimed, there were still the Panoramas and other passageways—the Passages Jouffroy, Verdeau, Vivienne, Colbert, Choiseuil, and Madeleine. “If that doesn't suffice,” he concluded, “then you're being difficult.”

Descaves's own journalism career had begun in the Opera Passageway, working for the weekly magazine L'Évenement, which had published out of the arcade for two decades. The magazine's owner, Edmond Magnier, was nice enough, Descaves opined, but he was without financial resources, poorly managed a fledgling magazine, and lacked commercial ambition. (Descaves found the same faults in the passageway's aging barbers.) Ultimately, it boiled down to the fact that the Opera Passageway had always been a commercial and urban backwater. Quoting from Alfred Delvau's 1867 Les Lions du jour, Descaves reiterated: “A passageway is a sort of jetty going through freestone, which assists pedestrians in cutting from one street to another, rather than being swept along by the flow of traffic. But what distance does the Opera Passageway diminish? What kind of shortcut is it? …” The principal defect of the Opera Passageway was that it had no rational function within the overall design of the city. Providing shelter from the rain no longer sufficed.

It is within the context of L'Intransigeant's heralding of a narrowly commercial conception of urban modernization, and the venom it displayed for the continued existence of the Opera Passageway as an impediment, that Aragon's choice to locate his surrealist musings within the arcade assumes an immediate and localized political meaning. As a direct rebuke to the newspaper, Aragon championed all the attributes of the arcade that were despised by the modernizers. Like his fellow surrealists Francis Picabia and Marcel Noll, he had rented hotel rooms let by the week or month and he frequented the arcade's brothels and public baths.70 Like Philippe Soupault and André Breton, Aragon delighted in the campy melodramas staged in the Théâtre Moderne.71 The principal activity of the Opera Passageway was flânerie. The slothful pleasures of daydreaming, intoxication, idle conversation, and illicit sexual contact determined its entertainment value. But beyond these immediate sensual satisfactions, the Passages de l'Opéra provided a shortcut to the surrealist imagination.


You see, dear reader, living in Paris costs less than at home.
Paris is Paradise for travelers of limited means.
All pleasures, all comforts, are possible for a modest sum.
Here, no one cares how you support your lifestyle.
In a word, it's anonymity.
You are free to do whatever you like.

Guide de Poche 1900

Aragon cared about the decrepit Opera Passageway insofar as it inspired him to surrealist visions. Aragon's concrete experiences of wandering about the arcade were poetically transposed into writing. The meandering design of Le Paysan de Paris was designed to reproduce a corollary surreal effect upon the reader's imagination, forcing out familiar reading habits through a continually shifting textual terrain of random juxtapositions and metamorphosing visions.72 To accomplish this, Aragon wrote a guide to the surrealist imagination in the style of a guidebook to Paris.

To understand this design, it helps to compare Le Paysan de Paris with actual guidebooks to Paris. In the opening portion of the novel, Aragon systematically takes the reader through the Opera Passageway, noting location numbers and giving a brief characterization of each shop. He enters the “Gallery of the Thermometer” at the Eugène Rey bookstore (where one could read magazines without having to buy them), pauses briefly at no. 2 (the concierge's lodging), continues on to the cane shop (of prostitute-sirens), and so on to Le Petit Grillon café, the ladies' and men's hairdressers, and to the shop of Vodable, “The Gentleman's Tailor.” After moving down and back up that gallery, Aragon then crosses over to the Gallery of the Barometer, where his wandering leads to his two favorite spots in the arcade, the Théâtre Moderne and the Certa café. Throughout, Aragon describes his field of vision, notes unusual juxtapositions of objects filling the arcade's shops, comments upon the activities of its inhabitants, and lets his mind wander into philosophical speculations and flights of fancy. The book's documentary style is punctuated with surreal visions. It is a guidebook to surrealism.

Yet by employing this design, Aragon implicitly reminds the reader that actual guidebooks also rely upon imaginary visions, albeit in a greatly weakened form. Contemporary walking guides to Paris, such as the Guide pratique à travers le Vieux Paris, employed strolling techniques similar to Aragon's.73 Readers were invited down orderly, textual promenades of Parisian neighborhoods and boulevards; the contemporary location of businesses and buildings were identified, as were the historical associations such places should evoke. A typical promenade was “Number 15, Neighborhoods of The Trinity and Our Lady of Lorette,” a tour of the ninth arrondissement that included the Opera Passageway.74 The guide led the reader down rue Caumartin (nos. 65 to 1) and then turned right up the boulevard de la Madeleine (“the even-numbered buildings are built on the site of the former rue Basse-du-Rempart, which extended down to the city wall built by Louis XIII”). The guide next led the reader down the boulevard des Capucines, which featured the place de l'Opéra (“built between 1858 and 1864, where Charles Garnier's opera house was constructed from 1861 to 1875”). After a brief detour down the rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin (“it was called rue Mirabeau in 1791”) and rue Meyerbeer (“[Léon] Gambetta resided at number 55”), the guide arrived at the boulevard des Italiens: “Number 12. Opera Passageway (1823), opens to the Morel-Vindé Hotel, previously known as the Gramont Hotel; it led to the Opera on rue Le Peletier.”75 The walking itinerary continued for another dozen pages, among which the Opera passageway was one of the least remarkable notations.

But by now, this guide to Vieux Paris had established an imaginary affinity with surrealism; through the written text, the reader was required to imagine himself immersed in impossible simultaneities of time and space—a watered-down version of Benjamin's adage about the surreal power of words to supersede material reality: “Language takes precedence.”76 Overly pedantic, banal, and narrowly limited in its vision, the guide nevertheless asked the reader to imagine that the sites existed in spaces simultaneously occupied by Roman Lutèce, medieval, aristocratic, revolutionary, and contemporary Paris. It invited the reader to envision features no longer there—a road now filled by rows of buildings, streets and buildings with alternate names, the Le Peletier opera house (which had burned down in 1873). As such, this guide to Vieux Paris was a catalog of impossible classifications, a morass of details about which cardinal lived here or which duchess lived there, a literary reference from the nineteenth century, the name of a café from two hundred years earlier. In its textual excess, the reality of the lived-city was displaced by the presence of words.

Some guidebooks also played to the sensual desires of their readers. The illicit pleasures Aragon enjoyed in the Opera Passageway were the subject of another genre of commercial guides. The Guide des Plaisirs à Paris, for example, instructed the French-speaking tourist in Paris on “How to have a good time, Where to have a good time, What you have to see, What you have to know, How you have to do it.”77 In this guide to “Paris Pleasures,” tourists were given a textual promenade through the low-life entertainments of Montmartre cabarets, public balls, after-hours restaurants, and the underground dens of criminals, prostitutes, and transients.

Vastly outstripping the repertoire of the Opera Passageway, the Guide des Plaisirs à Paris provided readers with countless opportunities to purchase pleasure. If one went to L'Abbaye de Thélème after hours, this otherwise respectable restaurant was transformed into a “Rabelaisian Love Mass” from ten o'clock at night until sunrise. One could frequent Le cabaret de l'Enfer (“Hell Cabaret”), which required purchasing a ticket “Good for entry into the Hot Pot” (à la chaudière), or the macabre Le cabaret du Néant (“Obliteration Cabaret”), where the customers were called asticots de cercueil (“coffin worms”). For voyeurs, the lesbian bar Le Hanneton (“The Beetle”) was characterized by the guide as a “must-see pathological curiosity.” The guide also provided information about the dangerous and sordid realms of Paris (les dessous), low-life bars such as Le Chien-qui-fume (“The Smoking Dog”) and underground restaurants such as Le Père Coupe-Toujours (“Father Always-Cuts-the-Drinks”). Readers also learned about the nocturnal byways of Les Halles and the open-air dances located on the netherworlds of the Paris periphery (bals de barrières), but they were advised that none but the courageous should frequent them. The guidebook even had a dictionary of French slang at the back, so that the tourist could feign familiarity with local speech.

This genre of guidebook was available to the English-speaking tourist of Paris as well. Prohibition-fleeing tourists from America may have delighted in Basil Woon's The Paris That's Not in the Guidebooks, and Bruce Reynolds's Paris With the Lid Lifted and A Cocktail Continentale (“Concocted in 24 Countries, Served in 38 Sips, and a Kick Guaranteed”).78 On a certain level, the textual appeals to unbridled sensuality found in these “pleasure guides” were no less imaginary than Aragon's book, and they certainly offered a more abundant selection. But a crucial distinction separated this genre from his “Baedeker of Hives,” articulated in a phrase found on the cover of the Guide des Plaisirs à Paris: “With this guide, one can set a budget for one's pleasures in advance.” Renseignements—information and instructions—was the overriding principle in all such “practical” guides: which attractions and monuments to see, which restaurants to frequent (and how much it would cost), prices for ground transportation, and tables of monetary exchange rates. Above all, commercial guides protected readers against the dangers of being disoriented and lost in Paris. But such a loss of bearings was precisely what the surrealists wanted their readers to experience.

Therein lay the critical difference in imaginary trajectory. Commercial guidebooks organized tourists' expectations of the city, whereas the surrealist authors of Paris sought to destabilize their readers' imaginations. In the novels of Aragon, Breton, and Soupault, the experiences of wandering through Paris were given form as surrealist literature. Various explanations have been offered for how their experiences were transposed into writing. In Le Paysan de Paris, Aragon identified the libido as the unconscious force attached to his field of vision.79 Some years later in Les Vases communicants, Breton claimed that material things themselves exercise a powerful influence upon the mind as an invitation to “come to the other side” (passer le pont), in the same way that the elements of a dream control the dreamer.80

Contemporary critics have developed these ideas further. Literary critic Rose M. Avila has located the origin of Aragon's surrealist visions in a sublime bodily frisson, in which external reality and the poet's pleasure principle paradoxically merged into each other.81 Art critic Hal Foster claims that Aragon and Breton used the technique of the dérive, aimless wandering through the outmoded quarters of the city without forethought or plan, as a method for provoking uncanny experiences that were then recorded as surrealist texts.82 Literary theorist Margaret Cohen has sought an Althusserian structural corollary to the libido in the Parisian landscape itself, whereby the intersection of the totality of economic, social, political, and ideological discourses creates “the collective equivalent to the individual unconscious.”83 Yet by whatever method those surrealist authors fused material reality with their imaginations, the pleasures discovered by readers of their novels were provoked by the printed word. As literary critic Peter Collier has emphasized, while strolling and the free play of desire were experiential motors for Aragon and Breton, ultimately their fantastic and impossible writings were what mattered most, “a collage of rival texts, creating a new reality transgressing the framework both of traditional text and conventional reality.”84 Paris was an ideal setting for Le Paysan de Paris, Nadja, and Les Dernières Nuits de Paris, for the city landscape leant itself to surreal juxtapositions whose corollary written texts forced readers' minds out of everyday concerns and mental habits.

A dim awareness of the city's capacity to overwhelm the tourist was a latent dimension even in “practical guides” to Paris. In addition to organizing a vast amount of information about the city, these guidebooks provided instructions on how to safely traverse this potentially threatening environment. One such guide, Guide de Poche 1900, was written for budget-conscious French provincials (“How to get by in Paris on 4 or 5 francs a day”) coming to Paris to visit the Universal Exhibition. The first chapter of the guidebook was devoted to forewarning the reader of the certain dangers befalling the provincial tourist.85 When arriving in the station, the guide warned, wait until the train completely stops before disembarking, for disoriented movements may result in physical injury. Once inside the station, beware of station porters who may steal your bags or demand exorbitant tips, or of seemingly friendly con-men who smile as they fleece you of wallet, purse, or suitcase (vol à l'américaine). Once outside the station, be on guard for thieving taxi drivers (maraudeurs de nuit). But above all, the guide emphasized, know where you are going in advance. The best housing arrangements are those made by parents or family acquaintances, but if you have neither, write to us at the guide and we will send you a complimentary list of recommended hotels. After a brief account of how to plan one's budget wisely, the remainder of the guidebook described famous locations and monuments of Paris and was illustrated with sketches of pittoresque Parisian street types.

With the guidance of the Guide de Poche, even provincials of limited means could avoid the certain but unknown dangers of the city. Other and more familiarly known commerical guides, like Baedeker's Guides and Hachette's Guides Bleus, were pitched to a middle-class clientele. Since the urban dangers associated with traveling on a shoestring budget were not as great a concern for the bourgeois traveler, these guidebooks focused their efforts upon “reliable information.” The guides contained everything the traveler could possibly want to know, “to employ his time, his money, and his energy so that he may derive the greatest possible amount of pleasure and instruction from his visit.”86

Both Baedeker's and the Guides Bleus (previously Guides Joanne) had been published in multiple editions since the mid-nineteenth century.87 Each volume opened with practical information about how to get around the city and where to find essential services such as hotels, restaurants, the post office, monetary exchange offices, theaters, music halls, concerts, sporting clubs, and foreign embassies. An historical essay on French history and art followed. The guides established itineraries for touring the city based upon the divisions of Right Bank, the Cité, and Left Bank. All of the museums in Paris were listed, with a complete inventory of all of the collections in the Louvre (which constituted a substantial portion of each guide). Typically, the guides ended with brief descriptions of Versailles, Fontainebleau, Château-Thierry, Chantilly, and St. Denis (more fully detailed in an additional Environs de Paris volume). Throughout each guidebook, multiple maps were inserted in the text, together with a detachable map book located at the end of the volume, so the reader could always cross-reference his location.

While the Guide de Poche explicitly warned its readers about an urban terrain fraught with danger, Baedeker's handbooks and the Guides Bleus implicitly guarded their patrons against direct contact with the actual city. Under the guise of being authoritatively informative, the instructions provided guidance to make it possible for the tourist to traverse Paris without anxiety. Moreover, the various editions of Baedeker's and the Guides Bleus maintained a standard format that played down actual urban transformations and helped the reader familiar with the format feel at home. A stable text stood in for a constantly changing city. As such, commercial guidebooks to Paris constituted an extremely narrow kind of modern imagination for its readers, a monumental ideology devoid of historical processes and social references.88

The surrealist impulses in Le Paysan de Paris, Nadja, and Les Dernières Nuits de Paris, by contrast, ran in the opposite direction. The “anxious visions,” as Sidra Stich has characterized the psychological effect of surrealist art,89 of those books challenged their readers' imaginations to achieve a level of mental complexity equal to the unconstrained urban landscape. In those surrealist novels, there was nothing precious about the city itself. If Paris had been the capital of Europe in the nineteenth century, for the surrealists it was the capitale de la douleur, painfully giving birth to the twentieth century.90 Whether the newborn would develop a surreal consciousness was uncertain. As Philippe Soupault commented about Georgette and her brother Octave in Les Dernières Nuits de Paris, two ordinary Parisians with whom the novel's narrator earlier had been fascinated, but was now just bored:

One day, in a café—one of those cafés they love so much—I saw them listening with particular attention to a refrain spit out by a gramophone: it was the hackneyed of the hackneyed:

Paris, c'est une blonde.
Paris unique au monde.

The imbecilic words spilled themselves before them and they listened with open mouths, ravished, convinced.91

Soupault's recasting of Mistinguett's popular song, ça, c'est Paris! (“Paris is a blonde/Paris, unique in the world”) expressed the denouement of consciousness, not its liberation. As it was commercially configured, nothing about the city automatically invoked surrealism.

At the same time, Paris was at the center of the surrealist revolution in consciousness. As a continually transforming urban landscape, the city overflowed with a concentration of ready-made materials that the surrealists hoped they could poetically reconfigure for a revolutionary audience.92 Mass culture was the common denominator of consumer capitalism, but its meaning was not restricted to a bourgeois conception of social order or its entrepreneurial values. A prescient surrealist forebear, Baudelaire had recognized half a century earlier in “The Painter of Modern Life” that the spectacle of modern life could be detached from inherited aesthetic traditions and reformulated into instantaneous images which captured the ephemeral beauty of the present moment.93 In many ways, Le Paysan de Paris was Aragon's extensive soliloquy to the same. Neither logic, philosophy, nor religion could guide an individual reliably through modern life in any meaningful way, Aragon concluded in “The Peasant's Dream” at the end of his novel. Rather, he appealed to individuals to give poetic form to their own, concrete experiences of the contemporary world.94

Such poetic reconfigurations could be cached nearly anywhere, even in the pages of Aragon's nemesis, L'Intransigeant. During the summer of 1924, the same time that the newspaper was gloating about the imminent demolition of the Opera Passageway, L'Intransigeant carried a series of front-page commentary articles by eminent artists and authors on the imaginary dimensions of life in contemporary Paris. In a characterization more modernist than surreal, Fernand Léger compared Paris to a gigantic movie. The spectacle of modern life, Léger suggested, is a vast electric and mechanical spectacle of rapidly multiplying images, conducted by an accelerating current, a expansive network within which humans move in rhythm.95 In an intermittent column titled “Petits Films de Paris,” novelist Pierre Mac Orlan discovered a “new romanticism” in the shadows of Parisian nightlife. The lures of old criminal underworld haunts of the Belle Époque, Mac Orlan noted, were being superseded by the charms of modern fox-trot bars.96 According to poet André Salmon, the city produced “unconscious poets” across the social spectrum; bank tellers who dream they are in nightclubs while on the job, chauffeurs who create collages out of magazine advertisements, and little boys who mistake the métro kiosk for a movie-ticket counter (“Excuse me please, but when does the next Charlot [Charlie Chaplin] movie begin?”).97

Even surrealist Philippe Soupault took his turn writing for L'Intransigeant.98 In “Our Other Daily Bread, ‘My Newspaper,’” Soupault wrote about the inestimable influence of the daily paper upon the contemporary mentality. Thanks to a single, folded piece of newsprint, produced in concert with the telegraph, the telephone, and the typewriter, time and space had ceased to be meaningful as categories. “Our newspaper” not only tells us about “our neighborhood,” he noted, but about what is happening in San Francisco and in Timbuktu as well. In the cold light of rationality, he emphasized, there is no reason that we have to know about some man who has just won the lottery, the sudden death of some forty-eight-year-old millionaire, or the automobile accident of Baroness X. These things interest us, Soupault asserted, simply because we have developed a taste for reading them, on a daily basis. And we have come to believe that we must read about them, on a daily basis.

Thanks to the international daily newspaper, Soupault believed his consciousness was simultaneously connected with thousands, or even millions, of other readers: “Faithful readers, we are not isolated, and we hear the heartbeat of the world itself.” The details in the press that fascinated Soupault, and that he assumed also seized the minds of sympathetic readers, fed the eccentric and insolent spirit of surrealism itself. In this way, mass culture contained both the raw materials and poetic visions ready to assist the surrealist revolution in consciousness. The urban landscape of Paris inspired poetry. Surreal gems could be unearthed from the most banal sources of print mass culture. The 1920s seemed primed for the surrealist revolution.


  1. Louis Aragon, “Le Paysan de Paris,” La Revue Européenne, Part I, nos. 16-19 (June-September, 1924), and Part II, nos. 25-28 (March-June, 1925).

  2. Louis Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris (Paris: Livre de poche, 1966), 106-7.

  3. Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, 107.

  4. Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, 111.

  5. Bernard Delvaille, Passages et galeries du 19e siècle, photographs by Robert Doisneau (Paris: A. C. E. Éditeur, 1981), 32-35; Johann Friedrich Geist, Arcades: The History of a Building Type, trans. Jane O. Newman and John H. Smith (Cambridge, Mass.: M. I. T. Press, 1983), 480-88; and Patrice de Moncan and Christian Mahout, Le Guide des passages de Paris (Paris: Seesam-R. C. I., 1990). As a point of practical consideration, Margaret Cohen points out that the temptation to treat Aragon's novel as a documentary source stems from a general lack of easily found sources of information about the Opera Passageway, in Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 95.

  6. Adolphe Joanne, Paris illustré: Nouveau guide de l'étranger et du parisien, 2nd ed. (Paris: Librarie de L. Hachette et Cie., 1863; 1st ed. 1855), 187.

  7. Bertrand Lemoine, “Index chronologique,” Les Passages couverts en France (Paris: Délégation à l'Action Artistique de la Ville de Paris, 1989), 246-47.

  8. Amédée Kermel, Le Livre des Cent et Un (1831), quoted in Moncan and Mahout, Le Guide des passages, 44.

  9. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: M. I. T. Press, 1989); Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge, Mass.: M. I. T. Press, 1993); and Cohen, Profane Illumination. See also Josef Fürnkas, Surrealismus als Erkenntnis: Walter Benjamin, Weimarer Einbahnstraße und Pariser Passagen (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzeler, 1988).

  10. Walter Benjamin, “Paris, capitale du XIXe siècle” in Paris, capitale du XIXe siècle: Le Livre des passages, trans. Jean Lacoste (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1989), 35-59. English translation, Walter Benjamin, “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 146-62.

  11. “Chaque époque rêve la suivante.” Michelet, Avenir! Avenir!, quoted in Benjamin, “Paris, capitale,” 36.

  12. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217-64.

  13. See Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, 287-330; and Cohen, Profane Illumination, 17-55.

  14. Benjamin, “Surrealism, The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Reflections, trans. Jephcott, 177-92.

  15. See Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing, esp. 217-21.

  16. Breton, “Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality,” in What is Surrealism?, trans. Rosement, 17.

  17. Breton, “Introduction to the Discourse,” 19.

  18. Georges Hugnet, “Dada in Paris,” in Robert Motherwell, ed., The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1981), 165-96; and Nadeau, History of Surrealism, 59-68.

  19. Michael Beaujour, “From Text to Performance,” in Denis Hollier, ed., A New History of French Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 866-71.

  20. Foster, “Outmoded Spaces,” in Convulsive Beauty, 157 f.

  21. The favorable assessments of the Opera Passageway seem to be drawn primarily from Richard, Le Véritable conducteur parisien (1828); Amédée Kermel, Les Passages de Paris, in Paris, ou le Livre des Cent et Un (1831-34); and Edouard Kolloff, Schilderungen aus Paris, 2 vols. (1839), frequently cited in Geist, Arcades, and in Moncan and Mahout, Le Guide des passages. Some of the unfavorable assessments are treated in the body of my discussion.

  22. Frances Trollope, Paris and the Parisians in 1835 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836), 357.

  23. Le Guide des acheteurs, ou Almanach des Passages de l'Opéra (Paris: Imprimerie de David, 1828). See also Geist, Arcades, 485. The term bimbeloterie was not used in the Guide but was recorded in city of Paris cadastre and patentes of the arcade's shops.

  24. Galerie de l'Horloge, nos. 10/12 MM. Baruch and Cerf Weil (porcelaines), no. 15 M. J. F. Veyrat (orfèverie plaquée d'or et d'argent), nos. 19/21 M. Bourguignon (perles artificielles), in Le Guide des Acheteurs, 28-31.

  25. Amédée Achard, “Rue de la Chaussée d'Antin,” in Louis Lurine, ed., Les Rues de Paris (Paris: G. Kugelmann, Éditeur, 1844), 39-48; Brazier, Gabriel, and Dumersan, Les Passages et les rues, ou la guerre déclarée, Vaudeville en un acte (Paris: Chez Duvernois, Librairie, 1827).

  26. Archives de Paris, DQ18 331, Cadastre 1809-51 [-1870], 2me Arrondissement, Quartier de la Chaussée d'Antin. Registration of commercial establishments in the Opera Passageway was spotty from the Restoration through the Second Empire. Still, high turnover may be inferred from the lack of coincidence between the more than fifty businesses registered in the cadastre and the owners of establishments listed in the Guide des Acheteurs.

  27. “Boulevard des Italiens,” in Bernard de Montgolfier, ed., Les Grandes Boulevards (Paris: Paris-Musées, 1985), 38.

  28. The separation of the arcade from the Opéra was inevitable, with or without the incineration of the Royal Academy of Music; Garnier's new opera house was slated for opening in 1875.

  29. Georges Cain, “Le Passage de l'Opéra,” in À travers Paris (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, n.d. [1907]), 336.

  30. Moncan and Mahout, Le Guide des passages, 49-52.

  31. Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris, “Séance du samedi 9 décembre 1916,” Item no. 32, “Les passages couverts,” Procès-verbaux, année 1916 (Paris: Imprimerie Municipale, 1918), 270-73.

  32. Moncan and Mahout, Le Guide des passages, 54-65.

  33. Calignani's New Paris Guide (Paris: A. and W. Calignani and Co., 1844), 124. The English translation is from the guide.

  34. Calignani's New Paris Guide for 1873 (Paris: A. and W. Calignani and Co., 1873), 32.

  35. Moncan and Mahout, Le Guide des passages, 61.

  36. Edmond Beaurepaire, La Chronique des rues, series “Paris d'Hier et d'Aujourd'hui” (Paris: P. Sevin et E. Rey, Libraries, 1900), 64.

  37. Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris, “Séance du samedi 9 décembre 1916,” 271.

  38. Archives de Paris, DP4 1876, Cadastre, Passage de l'Opéra (1876), D9 P2 420, Faubourg-Montmartre Patentes (1905), D9 P2 530, Faubourg-Montmartre Patentes (1910).

  39. Arrigoni's restaurant moved to the Passage des Princes, cf. Sommerville Story, Dining in Paris (New York: Robert M. McBride and Co., 1927), 115. The Certa café moved to the rue d'Isly, cf. Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, 101.

  40. The answers the these questions were later provided by Gilbert Joassart, owner of the Certa café. A Dada is a layered cocktail of port, sherry, and Madeira, invented by Aragon, Breton, and Soupault in 1919. The dame au mouchoirs was imprisoned in her shop by Aragon and Breton, who blocked her door with the heavy potted palm plants used to decorate the gallery. She remained trapped until a passerby moved the planters out of the way. Cf. Marie-Louise Coudert, “Au temps du «Certa»,” Europe, nos. 454/455 (1967), 231-37.

  41. Molly Nesbit, Atget's Seven Albums (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 198.

  42. Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris, “Séance du samedi 9 décembre 1916,” 270.

  43. Beaurepaire, La Chronique des rues, 67.

  44. Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, 62-63; and Benjamin, “Surrealism,” 190-91.

  45. As shown, for example, in the works of François Victor Fournel: Enigmes des rues de Paris (Paris: E. Dentu, 1860); Tableau de vieux Paris: Les Spectacles et les artistes de rues (Paris: E. Dentu, 1863); Chroniques et legendes des rues de Paris (Paris: E. Dentu, 1864); and Les Rues de vieux Paris: Galerie populaire et pittoresque, 2nd ed. (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1881).

  46. P. L. Jacob, Curiosités de l'histoire du vieux Paris (Paris: Adolphe Delahays, libraire-éditeur, 1858; orig. published 1834), 6.

  47. The Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris was established by the Paris Préfecture in two meetings of the municipal council, 15 November 1897 and 17 December 1897; cf. Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris, Séance du vendredi 28 janvier 1898, Procès-verbaux, année 1898 (Paris: Imprimerie Municipale, 1899), 1.

  48. Commission Municipale du Vieux Paris, 1897-1900, Guide à l'Exposition Universelle (Paris: Ville de Paris, 1900).

  49. Commission, Guide, 12.

  50. See Nesbit, “Ombres Portées,” in Atget's Seven Albums, 154-211.

  51. A representative slice of André Warnod's books about Vieux Paris during the period include Le Vieux Montmartre (Paris: Eugene Figuière, 1912); Bals, cafés et cabarets (Paris: E. Figuière, 1913); La Brocante et les petits marchés de Paris (Paris: E. Figuière et cie., 1916); Les Bals de Paris (Paris: G. Crès, 1922), Lily, modèle (Paris: L'Édition française illustrée, 1919); Les Plaisirs de la rue (Paris: Éditions française illustrée, 1920); Les Berceaux de la jeune peinture: Montmartre, Montparnasse … (Paris: A. Michel, n.d. [1925]); Les Peintres de Montmartre: Gavarni, Toulouse-Lautrec, Utrillo (Paris: La Renaissance du livre, 1928); Les Artistes du livre: Dignimont, lettre-préface de Colette (Paris: Henry Babou, 1929); Visages de Paris (Paris: Firmin-Didot et Cie. [1930]); and Ancien Théâtre Montparnasse (Paris: Coutan-Lambert, 1937). After the World War II, Warnod wrote reminiscences of his years in Montmartre, as well as an embellished biography of Henri Murger, whom Warnod regarded as a bohemian brother, in La Vraie bohème de Henri Murger (Paris: Editions Paul Dupont, 1947).

  52. Robert Bonfils, Les Cent vues de Paris (Paris: Librarie Larousse, 1924).

  53. I.e., Restif de La Bretonne, Le Paysan perverti (1775), and La Paysanne pervertie (1784), published together as Le Paysan et la Paysanne pervertis, ou les Dangers de la ville (1787). The surrealists considered Restif a spiritual ancestor.

  54. Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, 34-38.

  55. Georges Montorgeuil, “Feu le passage de l'Opéra,” Le Temps, 3 February 1925, 4.

  56. “Haussmann-Les Italiens. Au confluent de deux boulevards, deux époques sont aux prises,” Le Matin, 5 February 1925, 1.

  57. Ibid.

  58. Clément Vautel, “Mon Film,” Le Journal, 13 October 1924, 1.

  59. In French, a play of words on livre: “La livre aura chassé le livre!”

  60. Emile Darsy, “Un boulevard chasse l'autre. Hier, le ‘Pousset’ a fermé,” Le Figaro, 4 February 1925, 1. Aragon, Breton, and Soupault also frequented Le Pousset.

  61. Montorgeuil, “Feu le passage de l'Opéra,” Le Temps, 3 February 1925, 4. According to Paris cadastre records, the barbershop had been in business since 1889, or for thirty-five years.

  62. “Bientôt le passage de l'Opéra ne sera plus qu'un souvenir,” Le Journal, 6 February 1925, 1. The quote plays on the double-meaning of passage—a passageway and as a passage in time: “Tout passe, même les passages.”

  63. Ibid.

  64. “Circuler,” L'Intransigeant, 27 October 1924, 1.

  65. “Anniversaire d'un coup de pioche,” L'Intransigeant, 15 February 1924, 1. See also “Le Boulevard en perce,” 19 January 1924, 1; “Vieux Refrains. Contrusions … Contrusions … C'est la pioche du démolisseur qui répond,” 6 August 1924, 1; “Paris qui se transforme,” 17 January 1925, 1; “Les rues qui marchent,” 28 January 1925, 1.

  66. “Le Paris qui s'en ira,” L'Intransigeant, 8 August 1924, 1.

  67. “Place au boulevard Haussmann!” L'Intransigeant, 9 January 1925, 1.

  68. “La Lumière qui s'étient,” L'Intransigeant, 24 February 1925, 1.

  69. Lucien Descaves, “Paris qui s'en va: Le Passé d'un passage,” L'Intransigeant, 21 September 1924, 1.

  70. Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, 23-24.

  71. Philippe Soupault, “Théâtre Moderne: Fleur-de-Péché,Littérature, no. 14 (June 1920); and André Breton, Nadja (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 43-44.

  72. Rose M. Avila, “The Function of Surrealist Myths in Louis Aragon's Paysan de Paris,French Forum, vol. 3, no. 3 (1978), 232-39.

  73. Marquis de Rochegude and Maurice Dumolin, Guide pratique à travers le Vieux Paris, nouvelle édition (Paris: Librairie ancienne Édouard Champion, éditeur, 1923).

  74. Rochegude and Dumolin, Guide pratique, 271-89. The quotations and summaries that follow are all taken from this source.

  75. Rochegude and Dumolin, Guide pratique, 276.

  76. Benjamin, “Surrealism,” in Reflections, 179.

  77. Guide des Plaisirs à Paris, nouvelle édition (Paris: Édition Photographique, n.d. [1900]).

  78. Basil Woon, The Paris That's Not in the Guidebooks (New York: Bretano's Publishers, 1926); Bruce Reynolds, Paris With the Lid Lifted (New York: George Sully and Co., 1927), and A Cocktail Continentale (New York: George Sully and Co., 1926).

  79. Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, 44.

  80. André Breton, Les vases communicants (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), 53.

  81. Avila, “The Function of Surrealist Myths,” 232-39.

  82. Foster, “Outmoded Spaces,” 159 f.

  83. Cohen, Profane Illumination, 34.

  84. Peter Collier, “Surrealist City Narrative: Breton and Aragon,” in Eduard Timms and David Kelley, eds., Unreal City: Urban Experience in Modern European Literature and Arts (London: Manchester University Press, 1985), 220.

  85. “L'Arrivée à Paris,” in Guide de Poche 1900, 1-12.

  86. Karl Baedeker, Paris and Its Environs. Handbook for Travellers, 19th ed. (Leipzig: Karl Baedeker, pub., 1924), v.

  87. Baedeker's guides were published continuously from 1865 on. Hachette's earlier Guides Joanne (1855) were replaced by the Guides Bleus in 1921. The summary that follows is based on a random collection of Baedeker and Hachette guides published between 1884 and 1924.

  88. This argument was first developed in Roland Barthes, “The Blue Guide,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 74-77. See also Cohen, “Ghosts of Paris,” in Profane Illumination, 77 f.

  89. Sidra Stich, ed., Anxious Visions: Surrealist Art, with essays by James Clifford, Tyler Stovall, and Steven Kovács (New York, Abbeville Press 1990).

  90. The phrase is taken from a collection of poems by Paul Éluard, Capitale de la douleur (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1926).

  91. Soupault, Last Nights, trans. William Carlos Williams, 133-34.

  92. Collier, “Surrealist City Narrative,” 214.

  93. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 1-42.

  94. Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, 233 f.

  95. Fernand Léger, “Images Mobiles. Spectacle.” L'Intransigeant, 29 May 1924, 1.

  96. Pierre Mac Orlan, “Le Fantastique de la nuit,” L'Intransigeant, 2 July 1924, 1. His series “Petits Films de Paris” ran on the front page of L'Intransigeant, 12 June to 29 August 1924.

  97. André Salmon, “Poètes sans le savoir,” L'Intransigeant, 28 June 1924, 1.

  98. Philippe Soupault, “L'Autre pain quotidien. «Mon journal».” L'Intransigeant, 14 June 1924, 1.

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Aragon, Louis (Vol. 22)