Books

A French Surrealist’s Eclectic Remembrances of His Cohort, Finally in English

Phillipe Soupault delights in humanizing the celebrated with intimate particularization and paeanizing the obscure with encomium.

Philippe Soupault, ‘Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism’

Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism is a diminutive, stylish book that kicks off by appreciatively documenting a curiously seedy period of transition within the anti-rationalist French avant-garde: from Dada to Surrealism. Published by legendary City Lights in late 2016, this alluring collection of amiable reminiscences was penned by co-founding Surrealist poet Philippe Soupault (1897–1990) and first appeared in French in 1963 as Profils perdus. City Lights has bracketed this English translation with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti, the director of the publications program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an afterword by poet Ron Padgett.

Polizzotti’s contribution is essential, as he not only contextualizes Soupault within the Parisian avant-garde but corrects some dating errors of Soupault’s and reverses some of André Breton’s bowdlerizing, revealing the essential conceptual contribution that psychologist, philosopher, and psychotherapist Pierre Janet played in Soupault and Breton’s budding Dada-cum-Surrealist movement. (Breton had neglected the erudite Janet in his accounts.) On the other hand, Polizzotti keenly reports that “Soupault tends to assign himself the starring role a bit more than is warranted,” thus advancing the thesis that every biography is a disguised autobiography.

Though essentially about his experiences as a rather blissful young man, Soupault wrote this book of portraits at age 66, sparing it the typical excesses of literary juvenilia. Indeed, his generally urbane tone is neither ironic and frivolous, nor competitive and facetious. His clipped, fluid prose avoids academic stodginess with élan, and there is nothing insolent, narcissistic, lecherous, or self-protective about it.

Amedeo Modigliani “Pierre Reverdy” (1915) (image via Wikimedia)

The translation by poet Alan Bernheimer has flair too, delivering Soupault’s appealingly eclectic text in delightful form to the Anglophone audience for the first time. Soupault’s sharp but sweet anecdotal memories of fellow experimental artists and antagonists include laudable short portraits of Guillaume Apollinaire, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, sad surrealist René Crevel, novelist Georges Bernanos, painter Henri Rousseau, poet Charles Baudelaire (whom he sketches as a precursor avant-gardist) and lesser-known poets Pierre Reverdy and Blaise Cendrars. Given the heroic stature of some of these audacious subjects, within their chapters Soupault seems to delight in making large small and small large, humanizing the celebrated with intimate particularization and paeanizing the obscure with encomium.

With a seductive cubist cover painting by Robert Delaunay of a scowling Soupault ignoring a quaking Eiffel Tower, this enjoyable collection of crisp recollections popularizes what was once essentially arcane. Like Marc Dachy’s essential Discoveries: Dada: The Revolt of Art, Soupault’s book — with its pocket size, short chapter format, and reasonable price — makes for the perfect travel companion. Even though the essays presume a certain level of familiarity with the French avant-garde, they have an engaging quality that transmits Soupault’s palpable love for experimental art and for his — quelle surprise — exclusively male subjects. Lost Profiles offers witty and unexpurgated views of venturesome men during a daring era, but it is in no way a sufficiently broad-spectrum historical overview of the birth of the avant-garde in Paris.

Soupault, whose style of disaffection favored plain living and high thinking, lived a lengthy literary life, never ceasing to write improbable tales. Rather young during World War I when he served in the French army, he saw the Parisian art spirit of the times as one based in Dada iconoclastic destruction, bent on devastating conventional systems of representation, traditional morality, and all sorts of “rational” social organization (which the Dadaists saw, in light of the war, as depraved and crazed). This effervescent mood, which fêted scandal, was particularly incited in Paris by the arrival of Tristan Tzara. This closed a circuit, as Dadaist Tzara had been influenced by Parisian Cubism: borrowing and intensifying the anti-logic of juxtaposition, condensation, and displacement specifically from Synthetic Cubist collage. For Soupault, Tzara’s tipsy Dada showed the nonsense latent in all sense.

André Masson, “Automatic Drawing” (1924), ink on paper, 23.5 x 20.6 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York (image via Wikimedia)

As Soupault writes, Dada was out to “destroy all the established values, the literary practices, and the moral bias” in the interests of what Apollinaire (an outspoken and thought-provoking defender of Cubism) called the “new spirit” in art. Perhaps that is one reason that the essay “Steps in the Footsteps” (“Les pas dans les pas”) has been moved from the end in the French edition to open the collection in English: It is here that Soupault recalls how he and Breton were first affiliated through Apollinaire’s friendship and encouragement as they came to know Tzara and participate in the earliest performances of the Paris Dada movement. In 1919, with Breton and Louis Aragon, Soupault co-founded the Dada journal Littérature. That same year, Soupault collaborated with Breton on Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), the text of automatic writing that inspired André Masson’s automatic drawings. Together, these works are widely considered the foundation of the Surrealist movement and the greatest contributions by the original Surrealist group.

Of course, Soupault had a famous falling out with Breton’s goatish brand of Surrealism (a term taken from Apollinaire’s text Onirocritique that was itself snatched from Artemidorus’s ancient Greek treatise on dream interpretation) arising from the movement’s increasingly Soviet Communist ties and Breton’s self-anointment as leading arbiter. In 1927 Soupault and his wife Marie-Louise translated William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience into French, and the following year Soupault authored a monograph on Blake, arguing that he had anticipated the Surrealist movement.

After putting down this fulfilling read, a few nasty thoughts kept haunting me. Soupault’s anti-rational Dada-Surrealism was largely the art of generalizing where the particular was in play. Dada-Surrealism rejected the tight correlation between words and meaning, which perhaps sounds familiar in our era of Trump post-factuality: slippery conceptual bullshit moves that exploit Soupault-type forms of verbal extrapolation in the interests of far-right political manipulations. It seems to me that what Soupault wanted to show us was that verbal impossibilities could produce astonishing transgressions that liberate the mind from conservative militaristic convention — something quite the opposite of spectacular post-factual speculative conspiracy theories (think Pizzagate) that support Trump by liberating thought from a concern for credibility.

In that sense (and that one alone), Soupault’s avant-gardism helped cultivate a taste for the ambiguity of the post-truth political economy of the alt-right, with its toxic mix of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, and oligarchic tendencies. Indeed, hard-right Trump trolls are similar to their Dada predecessors in that they do not recognize any limits to truth claims. For some, merely saying things that are not usually said openly is part of the transgressive thrill of Trumpism. Even when Trump himself is caught in an egregious lie, his anti-globalist, nationalist supporters manage to believe that he is instead revealing critical truths, and that any reporting to the contrary actually exposes the anti-conservative bias of the perceived media and cultural élite.

Like the Dadaists, the trolling radical right has always been acutely sensitive to the emotions of shockingly vulgar communications whose primary goal is cognitive manipulation. Trump panders to prejudice by liberating previously repressed aggression, viciousness, and mockery and redirecting it at immigrants, people of color, women, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. So it saddens me to say that I could not help but notice that the alt-right trolls and the Dada-Surreal heroes share many of the clever cognitive-dissonant techniques in their messaging. Of course, the evil onus is on the alt-right (already a passé term, as this group’s objectives are no longer an alternative to anything but central to sites of forceful power). Therefore, it is important to note that Soupault did not stop his intellectual pursuits with the anti-rational Magnetic Fields. Following his co-founding of Surrealism, he practiced journalism and directed Radio Tunis from 1937 to 1940 after he was arrested in Tunisia by the pro-Vichy regime during WWII. After the war, he resumed his journalistic activities, worked for UNESCO, and taught at Swarthmore College while writing essays and novels.

The reality of Trump has now sunk in, and the sense of trauma on the cultural left has deepened (with the stakes only likely to get higher). As a starting point for political activism/artivism, perhaps artists engaged in increasingly vehement expressions of dissent may wish to consider how best to combat the normalization of Trump’s impulsive anti-rationalism through the refusing anti-rationalist eyes of Soupault’s disaffection, conversely tempered by his journalistic rigor and educational commitment. This double-bladed approach of utilizing anti-rational (“post-truth”) mind games and facts-based objective accuracy may best frustrate Trump’s insatiable desire for recognition and get under his oh-so-thin skin.

Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism is now available from online booksellers and City Lights.

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