- Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life
Katharine Conley's book sheds light on a whole new area in the history of surrealism in inter-war France that has remained thus far silenced and unchallenged: the cultural and social impact that surrealists brought to everyday life. As she conducts a close reading of Robert Desnos's poetic legacy, Conley proposes a challenging view on what could be called "everyday life" in surrealist communities. She offers a groundbreaking perspective of the surrealist poet Desnos who had so far been recognized solely as one of the leading members of the original surrealist group. In Conley's study, Desnos's contribution is presented in a larger cultural context and he is thus introduced both as a mediator of popular culture and as a popular intellectual. Among all the poems analyzed in this study, Desnos's illegal Resistance poems are given special consideration as they serve as probing examples of his political action and of the scope of his writing. They also blend, writes Conley, "the prosaic and the poetic, the popular and the elite" (12).
First, Conley opens up the field of popular discourses in the context of surrealism and views Desnos and his entire poetic corpus (including his song lyrics) from an entirely new perspective as she redefines the notion of the marvelous. In doing so, she decentralizes the role of Breton in the movement and makes evident how Desnos "shaped the very definition of surrealism" from Rrose Sélavy to his "Dernier poème." According to Conley, Desnos introduced "a significant alternative to Bretonian surrealism. From this standpoint, Conley shows how surrealism remained successfully pluralistic, playful, political and dedicated to the marvelous in everyday life" (213).
Furthermore, this study frames surrealism from a Cultural Studies perspective and invites the reader to look upon surrealism through the lens of its own specific political milieu. Conley challenges us to rethink the way in which vanguard movements of the 1920s until the 1940s have been categorized and she deliberately broadens the frontiers of surrealism. As Conley problematizes the notions of nostalgia, race and culture in the inter-war period, she argues that Desnos and Duchamp's response to gender anxiety opened up a new window in the surrealist movement (see Chapter I, "The Automatic Sybil as Rrose Sélavy"). Most importantly, Conley guides us through the surrealists' rich involvement with [End Page 135] popular culture and radio concerts. Her analysis of Desnos's collaboration with Charles Trenet offers, for example, refreshing and innovative views on surrealism (Chapter III, "Radio and the Mediation of Everyday"). Desnos emerges from this study as a "public intellectual," as a "true popular poet" who gave equal emphasis to the written word through journalism and poetry.
In addition, this study invites us to revisit the question of memory in inter-war France and the extent to which "acts of Résistance" radically transformed Desnos's destiny and gave birth to the mythology of his last poem. It is in Chapter IV, entitled "Paris Watchman," that Conley provides a close and moving look at the itinerary of Desnos in the years that preceded his arrest in 1944.
This book is thoroughly researched and presents a significant amount of new research material and illustrations that are bound to be of interest to the scholarly community at large. It will be especially beneficial to any specialist (scholars, teachers and graduate students alike) interested in European literature, history, poetics, vanguard movements and in Cultural Studies. This work will undoubtedly become a chief reference work in French Studies.