They pass it round secretly, under the eyes of the police, in the guise of books and poems. The anodyne pretext of literature allows them to offer you at a rock-bottom price this deadly ferment which it is high time to make generally available for consumption. It is the genie in the bottle, it is the gold of poetry in a solid bar. Buy, buy the damnation of your soul, at last you are going to lose your way, here is the machine guaranteed to capsize the mind. I announce to the world this momentous news item: a new vice has just been born man has acquired one more source of vertigo–Surrealism, offspring of frenzy and darkness.
That , my friends, is a quote from Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant. A strong quote describing the movement he followed and somewhat founded along with the father of Surrealism Andre Breton. Breton and Aragon started a journal that served as a literary bridge between Dadaism and Surrealism. Where Dadaism was considered ‘anti-art’, Surrealism was art without censorship – non-sequitor and chaotic. Aragon’s Paris Peasant is not a novel. You won’t find a protagonist. You won’t find a story line. You won’t find a love triangle or an unsolved murder. You won’t follow it from beginning to end without questioning. But you will experience it, languish in streets of Paris through the eyes of Aragon, his cynical, incisive, and ever so imaginative eyes. For instance, he takes four signs indicating the businesses on the inside of the building and transforms it into a class on story and observation:
Demon of conjectures, fever of phantasmagoria, pass your sulphurous and nacreous fingers through your tow hair and answer me: who is Prato, and on the first floor with its paradoxical lift what is this agency which I am obstinately convinced must be a vast organization in white-slave traffic. Turn round, and see, there right opposite is the little restaurant where, in our progress towards the depths of imagination, I find the traces of the Dada movement. When Saulnier seemed to expensive for us, we used to come here, appeasing our inopportune appetites as best we could with food cooked in rancid coconut oil and with their sharp, unpleasant wine, consumed in a stuffy, vulgar atmosphere. What memories, what revulsion’s linger around these hash houses: the man eating in this has the impression he is chewing the table rather than a steak, and becomes irritated by his common, noisy table companions, ugly, stupid girls, and a gentleman flaunting his second-rate subconscious and whole unedifying mess of his lamentable existence; while, in another one, a man wobbles on his chair’s badly squared legs and concentrates his impatience and his rancours upon the broken clock. Two rooms: a bar room with a zinc counter and a door opening on a low-ceilinged, smoke-filled kitchen and a dining room extended at the end of an alcove just big enough to accommodate a table, settee and provide the space for six extra customers. The chorus girls of the Theatre Moderne, their lovers, their dogs, their children, plus a few commercial travellers, are the chief occupants, these days of the restaurant’s settees. The whole scene – sweaty walls, people, stodgy food – is like a smear of candle grease.
Among his musings and descriptions, the language will simply stun you. The endless stream of humorous and depicting adjectives make you realize how many words have been lost to time and sadly, are not placed carefully in narratives with the literary prowess of an Aragon.
Aragon’s masterful use of language makes the depth of his disdain palpable and still, au courant. If only we had more criticism of journalists like this(which, by the way, is one the most hilarious footnotes I have read in awhile):
I shall have passed through this world with a few people all graced with a quality of absolute purity, that same purity you may have had the fortune to glimpse in the sky one summer evening (Andre Breton, for example) scorned, insulted spat upon. But if one day my words become sacred – the are already – then let my laughter echo back from far away. My words will never serve your miserable ends, you who thought to sneer at us, filthy creatures. And when I say journalist I always mean scum. To hell with you at L’Intran, Comoedia, L’Oeuvre, Les Nouvelles Litteraires, etc., morons, creeps, bastards, swine. All of you, without exception: glabrous bugs, bearded lice, burrowing your way into reviews, into dubious publications of all sorts, you’ll get what’s coming to you in the end. It all stinks. Ink. Squashed cockroach. Shit. Death to all you who live off the lives of others, off their lives, their boredoms. Death to those whose hand is pierced by a pen, death to those who paraphrase what I say
Hell of a footnote. Not to mention the fact that he, himself, was a journalist. Is this a Myspace blog from today? No, indeed. Eighty years ago and still applicable. But this is why Aragon is so relevant especially when it comes to Paris and Surrealism. Besides the fact that he started Litterature with Andre Breton, Paris Peasant walks us through the streets of L’Opera and the Buttes-Chaumont with same observant gaze as he does with the feelings of love and desire in a feeling for nature. Breton is the more famous, but Aragon should not be disregarded. He was a lifelong Communist and came out as a bisexual later in life. Can you really dismiss someone like that? We shouldn’t. The open and complex mind of Aragon gave us some of the best of Surrealism as well as realism through a broad body of work. But perhaps I am always a sucker for the things written when an artist was poor, hungry and fed up with the establishment. The man who walks the streets and sits in the old cafes and simply writes what he knows with an arrogant honesty. Chaotic and uncensored as it may be, a peasant as intellectual as Aragon is worth history’s regard.
Movie Pairing: Try watching Paris, Je T’aime. Short films shot in the neighborhoods of Paris which is the only unifying theme. Some heartwrenching shorts in here. A great companion piece to Paris Peasant
By Louis Aragon
Translated from the French by Simon Watson Taylor