Robert Desnos /// First Book of Prophecies
It seems appropriate to inaugurate this New Year with some genuine omens. The ones we have in mind come from the hand and, presumably, the soul of French poet Robert Desnos, and though they are mostly expired by now, their expiration also seems appropriate. Everything old is new again, and what could be older than… the future?
Desnos was a poet, lyricist, novelist, and, in the most active sense of the word, a dreamer. Or a dreamer, let us say, in the active-passive sense. If he is known at all outside of France, it is for his association with the Surrealist movement, and perhaps for his untimely death (from typhus) shortly after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt. As early as 1922 he was associated with André Breton and many of the other writers and artists who would undertake La Révolution surréaliste. Among these, he was singled out for his talent at automatic writing, which is perhaps only to say that he had a facility for improvisation, or for eliminating unnecessary filters while simultaneously structuring others. He was an enthusiastic and skilled participant and practitioner of trance, hypnosis, séance, and, above all, sleep, under whose influence he became a medium for the retrieval and production of a broad range of accidental beauty à la Lautréamont. Still a teenager he had noted in one of his journals (for example):
I am lying down and see myself as I am in reality. The electric light is on. The door to my mirrored wardrobe opens by itself. I see the books concealed within. On one shelf lies a copper paper-knife (it is also there in reality) shaped like a yataghan. The knife stands up on the tip of the blade, stays balanced there, wavering, for an instant, then slowly sets itself back down on the shelf. The door closes again. The lights go out.1
Desnos knew how to dream, but also, and more importantly for his art, he knew how to create visions. Following an early series of experiments with Breton, the latter, in awe of what the poet composed while in a state of self-induced reverie, declared that
Surrealism is the sign of the times, and Robert Desnos is its prophet. A man exists who dreams out loud, without sleeping, and who flatly rejects, at full volume, the life lived according to convention. They don’t know it, but the writers and artists of our day are at his mercy.2
As this first of his Three Books of Prophecies shows, Desnos was prophet not only of the Surrealist movement but of the still young and already turbulent modern world. Among the occasionally disconcerting predictions he makes—dating from July 1925—Desnos seems to anticipate the production, in 1944, of uniquely “gruesome” weapons, and announces that Nagasaki will be visited by fire and molten steel (though in this case he gets the date wrong). Published posthumously in the French journal Pleine marge, the texts were also included in Gallimard’s edition of Desnos’ collected works, along with an introductory note explaining that the poet
recorded these “prophetic” writings in three student notebooks… The first, the only one containing drawings, forecasts world history through the year 1999; the second describes the destinies of the poet’s friends; and the third prophesies his own future. By calling him the “prophet” of surrealism, hadn’t André Breton opened a path to Desnos, which he then followed for the purpose of justifying his “legend”? The “Prefatory Note” seems to suggest as much.3
Digital facsimiles of the original manuscripts, some images of which I have included below, are available at andrebreton.fr.
PREFATORY NOTE Believe in Eternity, in Eternity first of all. I have made up my mind to obey the breath of prophecy. It is come. And thus confronted with my own legend, my commitment to it grows even deeper. Tied, bound to the fleeting and eternal present. Prophet with no regard whatsoever for my rationality Prophet rather according to my passions Heart passions Dream passions and in accordance with the Breath.
Robert Desnos July 29, 1925
FIRST BOOK OF PROPHECIESTremble Naples, grain of sand on the shore of a bloody sea. Less than two years into the 1930s and you won’t even be a grain of sand anymore, only a reminder of crime and catastrophe. As for you, O France, what care I to describe the beginning of your agony in 1943—a dream that will last too long. My country, old nightmare! The wine in 1929 will rival the finest. The kind we share during times of human fellowship. Okay, probably not as good as vintage 1937. For the latter will be the finest of the fine, the tide to cleanse all souls, the mystical wine of anguished hearts. This shall be wine without comets or stars, the Wine-On-High preceding our plunge into the abyss. In 1932 a new flag will fly over the buildings, and sudden torrents will topple crosses known for their solidity. Easter isn’t just for Sicilians anymore but O country of the South, pampered with palm trees, you will find companions in Denmark and Tunisia Gruesome weapons will be at the ready from then on (1944), but the ambitions of the eccentric and deadly astronomer will be dashed along with his ships
July 29, 1925
Translated from the French by Louis Cancelmi.