Breton vs Ehrenburg: A Détournement on the Boulevard Montparnasse
“The Surrealists are kindly disposed to both Hegel and Marx and to the Revolution, but what they refuse to do is work. They have things to keep them busy. They study pederasty and dreams, for example…They apply themselves to gobbling up an inheritance here, a wife’s dowry there…They begin with obscene words. Those of their number who are less sly admit that their program consists of making amorous advances to girls…For them a woman means conformism. They preach a completely different program: onanism, pederasty, fetishism, exhibitionism, and even sodomy.”
-Ilya Ehrenburg, 1934.
Don’t make jokes where a good smack upside the head is due. I’ll never cease to admire André Breton for running up on Ilya Ehrenburg instead of cracking a friendly quip or shaking his hand. Breton’s aggressiveness was anything but Quixotic. The risks he took in slapping, not just Ilya the smarmy socialist realist, but Ehrenburg, representative of the Soviet Union, were great, and that he did so on the eve of the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture made it all the riskier. The consequences were dire: marginalization at the congress, increased tension between friends, and indirectly, Crevel’s suicide … And for what? Not because of the epithets, which were indeed mostly true (if not entirely for Breton himself, then certainly for the eventual scope surrealist of the movement – do we not hate work? Do we not embrace multifarious desire and perversion? Are we not fetishists, exhibitionists, sodomizers?) But at a more fundamental level, if poetry is as we claim not a product but a mode of existence, then we surrealists simply cannot treat it with ironic distance. It is no external object, it is ourselves (whoever we are, whomever we haunt). A satirist or a cynical man of letters can third-person themselves from their work – an attack, no matter how vitriolic, is still academic. As for us, we do not chuckle and wink, we assume an attack position. Where modern man is “reasonable” and thus subject to almost any kind of abuse, which he will brush off with cynical humor, the surrealist, subject to the rigour of her mad Order, lives by a much stricter code of conduct and – yes, why not? Honour. Accordingly, confrontation between Breton and Ehrenburg takes on a Kaiju-like proportion in my mind. I see it blending with everything epic and cartoonish I love about the imagination. Something like this:
After dinner, the Paris Surrealists and their Czech cousins walked down the Boulevard Montparnasse, on the way to Man Ray’s place. When they got to the Closerie des lilas café, Toyen pointed out to Nezval that Ilya Ehrenburg was leaving the café and about to cross the street.
“Where is he?” demanded Breton. “I have never seen him.”
Toyen pointed him out.
“I’m going to settle accounts with you, Sir,” Breton said, stopping Ehrenburg in the middle of the street. “Who are you, Sir?” asked Ehrenburg.
“I am André Breton.”
“Who are you, sir?”
André Breton’s eyes grew red, and he danced up to Ilya Ehrenburg with the peculiar rocking, swaying motion that he had inherited from Arthur Cravan. It looks very funny, but it is so perfectly balanced a gait that you can fly off from it at any angle you please; and in dealing with miserabilists this is an advantage.
“I am André Breton, the onanist!” and he slapped him.
If Breton had only known, he was doing a much more dangerous thing that fighting a journalist, for an apparatchik is so small, and can turn so quickly, that unless Breton bit him close to the back of the head, he would get the return-stroke in his eye or lip. But Breton did not know: his eyes were all red, and he rocked back and forth, looking for a good place to hold.
“I am André Breton, the pederast!” and he slapped him.
Ehrenburg struck out. Breton jumped sideways and tried to run in, but the wicked little dusty gray head lashed within a fraction of his shoulder, and he had to jump over the body, and the head followed his heels close.
“I am André Breton, the fetishist!” and he slapped him.
Ehrenburg braced, himself, and with a shake became ten thousand fathoms tall; in his hands his two−bladed trident looked like Stalin Peak. His face was black, his fangs were long, and his hair was bright red: he looked ferociously evil. He hacked at the Breton’s head. Breton, also resorting to magic, gave himself a body as big as Ehrenburg’s and a face as frightening; and he raised his Surrealist Object, which was now like the pillar of Heaven on the summit of the Percé Rock, to ward off Ehrenburg’s blow. This reduced Eluard and Toyen to such trembling terror that they could no longer wave their banners, while Nezval and Péret were too scared to join in.
“I am André Breton, the exhibitionist!” and he slapped him.
Toyen shouted to the surrealists: “Oh, look here! Our Breton is killing a snake”; and Breton heard a scream from René Crevel. Benjamin Péret ran out with a stick, but by the time he came up, Ehrenburg had lunged out once too far, and Breton had sprung, jumped on the soviet’s back, dropped his head far between his fore-legs, bitten as high up the back as he could get hold, and rolled away. That bite paralysed Ehrenburg, and Breton was just going to eat him up from the tail, after the custom of the early Dadaists, when he remembered that a full meal makes a slow surrealist, and if wanted all his strength and quickness ready, he must keep himself thin.
“I am André Breton, the sodomizer!” and he slapped him one last time.
“That wasn’t a good thing to do,” mumbled the disheveled journalist.
Breton went away for a Crème de menthe at the café, while Péret continued to beat the stunned Ehrenburg. “What is the use of that?” thought Breton. “I have settled it all”; and then Toyen pulled him up from his seat and hugged him, crying that he had saved the surrealists from ignominy, and Nezval said that he was a providence, and Crevel looked on with big scared eyes. Breton was rather amused at all the fuss.
Jason Abdelhadi is a librarian and aspiring surrealist medium (in the tradition of Crevel and Desnos) from Ottawa, Ontario. He forswears any and all talent and merely transcribes what is offered to him… His learning is comparable to that of Švankmajer’s Faustus: humanistic, edible, and entirely useless. He dedicates his every sleeping moment to the surrealist revolution in the hopes of a drastic future.