Marie-Rose Carre (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: “René Crevel: Surrealism and the Individual,” in Yale French Studies, Vol. 31, May, 1964, pp. 74–86.
[In the following essay, Carre examines Crevel's role in the evolution of surrealism and discusses his philosophical and literary legacy.]
“The greatest masterpiece,” Jean Cocteau once remarked, “is never more than an alphabet in disorder.” For once, his Surrealist enemies might want to agree with him. When, after the thunder of the great war had been stilled, Breton and his friends assumed the task of building up, from its basic notions, the new consciousness of our society, their hope was precisely that of finding a way of arranging the alphabet so new, so striking, and so binding in its force that it would suppress any memory of the old system of verbal expression. Instead it would nurture into the reborn world an outburst of feelings, perceptions, and thoughts, infinitely richer and more luminous than what could be expressed within the limits of Cartesian and Christian systems of reason then imposed on modern man, the victim of his civilization. “Europe is crystallizing; it is being mummified by the wrappings of its frontiers, its factories, its tribunals, its universities. Spirit is frozen and cracking under the mineral planks which press up against it.” This was the cry the Surrealist group of 1925 sent out to the “Recteurs des Universités européennes.” In the same year, turning to the “Ecoles du Bouddha,” they hailed the spiritual freedom which they imagined resplendent in the Orient: “There the soul finds the absolute word, the fresh phrase, the interior landscape … create new dwelling places for us.”
In the consciousness of European youth at this time, the vocabulary transmitted by generations of writers, all of them suspect, had suddenly lost its inner strength and collapsed into ridiculous intestinal rumblings. In his attack on Anatole France—Un Cadavre—, Breton had sounded the trumpet: “Loti, Barrès, and France—mark with a red letter the year that laid low these three sinister men: the idiot, the traitor, and the bloodhound.” With such representatives the old order of the well-to-do bourgeoisie was bankrupt, despite what some people insisted on calling a military victory. Why should the words that explained, justified, honored, and exalted this order and its concomitant horrors survive? “The modern age is at an end. The stereotyped gestures, acts, and lies of Europe have completed the cycle of disgust.” This text of 1925, published under the title La Révolution Surréaliste was signed by fifty-one young men. Since then, their anger has not stopped ringing and tormenting the conscience of our affluent society. Destined to separate and follow their own paths, some failing to pursue an inhumanly arduous task, some toiling in secret toward the new world of their own choice, some falling victim to the immensity of their vision, they had, nevertheless, revealed to the complacent audience surrounding them with derision or smiles of faked sympathy (“il faut que jeunesse se passe”) that literature was not a refusal to face one's responsibility toward humanity. The poets of the new twentieth century could not be deterred from claiming the right to criticize and soon destroy a respectable way of life, upset their system of value and take away from science the tools with which to build their new City. Their name, derived from the Greek verb to make, was sufficient justification. “Once again,” Breton said in 1926, “all we know is that we are to a certain extent endowed with words and that, because of this endowment, something great and obscure tends imperiously toward expressing itself through us. … It is a singular and untiring summons. Perhaps our only duty is to liquidate a spiritual estate which it is in the bests interests of all of us to give up. Yet it is still a matter of life and death, of love and reason, of justice and crime.”
Among the young men who committed their lives to creating the new breed of man attuned to this singular and ceaseless appeal, few came with more hope and less confidence than René Crevel. For him, the moment when these promises would tend to be realized meant literally that life might become preferable to death. Tragically dispossessed, nurturing a great nostalgia for an imaginary state in which each gesture would be creative and therefore self-justifying, he had to give himself to a faith in need of apostles and recreate his own energy in the face of the infinite boredom of the finite world as he knew it. Born in 1900, he had joined the group of experimenters around Breton toward the end of the Dadaist period and was then still caught in the struggle of breaking away from the hold of a bourgeois family. Like Philippe Soupault and Michel Leiris, he had been educated in the XVIe arrondissement and had attended Jeanson de Sailly. “Ivory towers; but the ones that linger on are so phony they could be knocked down with a flick of the finger. They're done in pasteboard, designed to be coffins for mosquito skeletons. … A being finds his identity in thought and, in his thought, sees primarily his raison d'être. The ‘I think therefore I am’ formula was the keystone of all the structures built in a void.” Such formulas had stunted his mind and those of everyone around him. “The interior life was offered to us as the supreme goal, the goal of goals; living men were advised to embrace silence and immobility; in all this, the attributes of life turned out to be no different from those of death.”
Other attributes of life, projected on planes of still unimaginable richness, were evoked by Surrealist proclamations. “The mind,” said Aragon, “is capable of grasping relations other than those found in reality: chance, illusion, the fantastic, dreams. All these species were brought together under a single genus: Surreality.” This new faith did not propose, then, to refurbish a worn-out vocabulary, to be used in compositions of various kinds, or to set in motion a political revolution, after which certain powers would fall back into armchairs prearranged for a comfortable occupancy. The goal, clearly and frequently stated, was to create new perspectives, for the investigations of the human mind, new forms of thought and perception, so charged with a still undefinable force that they would be at once image, word, and action. At this point, toward which our age is still toiling, reality would not appear as one and definable, obedient to the Academy's insistence that a self-respecting painter should present it only under this guise; rather it would be multi-shared, susceptible to interpretations from many points of departure, each one as acceptable as the one that might have been substituted for it. The advent of Christianity had, in fact, operated a similar change in the mind of pagan peoples. Now the coming of the scientific age threatened to take the lead in a revolution of the same import, but because of the nature of scientific reasoning, its influence would, in our poets' estimation, contribute more to a stiffening of the satisfied dogmatism of our society than to its liberation. “Idealism, pragmatism, and realism, Crevel says, no longer take on the quality of booby-traps which were thought to be poet-traps.” Unlike the nineteenth century romantics, these new poets are not utopians. They are not going to lead the people, in the footsteps of Lamartine and Hugo, to a promised land. The military, the bourgeois industrialists, even the leaders of the Communist party in France, tightening their power over the daily life of the population, had put up barricades against art and poetry, and therefore needed to be swept away. Never had society been so harshly condemned by its youth; the example would set a precedent never to be forgotten; when that had happened, then “l'esprit, l'esprit vainqueur,” rearranging words and images in total liberty, would reach a certain, though perhaps temporary truth which would radiate life, life as it had never before been sensed. Superhuman as these promises sounded, those who made them stood ready to keep them, and Crevel in 1925 marked with emotion the moment when Lautréamont and his “bague d'aurore” had lead him “to the threshold of his shattering friendship with Breton, Aragon and Eluard.”
In 1924 Breton included Crevel in the list of nineteen young men having passed the test of “Surréalisme absolu.” Crevel's contribution to this period of surging enthusiasm had been important, for it was Crevel who introduced them to the fruitful practice of hypnotic sleep coupled with automatic writing, as well as with other activities. Matthew Josephson tells of an evening at the home of one of Picabia's friends, “Mme de la Hire,” when most of the company had been “put to sleep.” Among various incidents, he reports that Crevel was found, a rope in his hand, trying to persuade a group of young men and women to hang themselves from the ceiling light.
In the atmosphere of extraordinary exaltation and assurance permeating the group in 1925, Aragon had written that “Surrealism's data have the value of experimental scientific data.” To which Breton, in another tone, had added: “The really extraordinary thing, Madame, is that on the shore where you had tossed us half-dead, we hold on to a wondrous memory of our disaster.” Crevel, who had confessed in 1924 that “there was no human contact which prevented him from feeling alone,” had learned both to absorb some strength from Surrealist ideas and attitudes and to assert his independence. If necessary, he would set himself apart from a group whose intentions ultimately were different from his own. We know that he very soon withdrew in bitterness from the sessions of hypnotic sleep and later, in his review of Les Pas perdus, accused Breton of having prolonged the evenings mercilessly in order to bring his subjects beyond sanity, just to prove that this was not a game, nor simply minds playing with words. For Crevel, the expected reward was to find, by incontrovertible intuition, that he was really a being different from what a distorted system of values let him now perceive himself to be. The result would give him possession of a method of expressing himself and his real, multiformed truth.
Playing with words, then, was criminal when lives were at stake: “I have no idea of what [Breton's] present intentions are. … André Breton's responsibilities, which had been dispersed, are now joined in a weighty bundle, are becoming more precise. A bastard vanity gives the impression of fleeing from overly human beaches. Is it a constantly lowering tide? … There is no moisture on the sands. Les Pas perdus? They are annals of the life of a littérateur—the last littérateur. Victimized by words, Breton is no longer aware that they have meaning and value and impose a commitment on whoever uses them. … Breton's self-assurance is reminiscent of Montherlant's.” For Breton had cried: “Drop everything, take to the roads, …” and then let the words die on the page. In the manner of the symbolists, they were decorative play-words used for their harmony in a sentence; they revealed how he believed in words for themselves, the way priests claimed God as a guarantee of their precepts, chiefs of state used Fatherland, Duty or Fraternity, and mothers respect, affection, or brushing one's teeth. Breton was seeking to acquire a certain power for himself which he would exert over human beings around him. The century of the new world risked being brought to a stop on the last, fabricated word of “Lâchez tous.”
“I would like to set up a combination that would give me the innocence of a checker player. I would not give up happiness, but would live, act, play with thoughts … happy to hear, to dance, to drink in order to forget the others who have placed limits on me without aiding me.” “To act with thoughts” is precisely the Surrealist dream of supreme power that was still inaccessible to the man “étranger, extérieur au spectacle” who sought in human beings, beyond the trite exchange of words, “tristes simulacres,” the...
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