• Robert Desnos
January 1, 2016

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.



 

Desnos Prophecies Book 1 Notice

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 PROPHECIES

Tremble 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

Desnos Prophecies 2

There is Nothing to forgive No use asking the heavens, or Providence, or Luck, for help in 1936. So deserters will find the roads strewn with the slugs of treason. But happy is he who lives to see the 50’s. If he can find a way to love even his own downfall, the Universe will be a fertile place for him, in strict but unstable retirement For henceforward I see no rest for beating hearts German city what is your name? Nuremberg! Famine and plague cross your toll bridge tax-free in 1929 Before 1935 and as early as 1930, I see descending upon you O Eiffel Tower a fate even heavier than your own unwieldy structure. January 1936 will see the uniform Paris skyline plucked of its crest. No fireworks in honor of Bastille Day this year but parallel streams of blood upon the Seine 1999 will reproduce old miracles: the bottomless bottle of wine and the ominous flights of ravens over Marseille. An isle in the South Pacific will disappear among the flames We will remember the Carnival of 1961 and not only in Venice and Nice but even in stupefied London and Lahore and throughout the Indies. A new calendar for the third millennium after Christ will bear the name of an ocean. But you will never know the years in digits. An animal washed ashore not far from Dublin will be taken for a wonder, but it will only spread plague and desolation. Farewell, too, to that lovely American vessel, laden with calipers and compasses. Neither Polar nor Equatorial waters will restore the shipowners your treasures or your passengers. One of them, however, will live nine whole years on a deserted island until, in 1970, a herring boat or silk transport discovers his sanctuary O Roger On this very date, Humanity, conquerer of disease, a most terrible malady will decimate your ranks, and only the blood of a certain species of bird will provide an antidote to the sickness. On this very date the most beautiful marriage ever celebrated beneath the heavens will take place between a quasi-divine adventurer and his preordained child bride. At the mere mention of liberty, bronze statues will tremble, and it will take no small amount of work to melt down and refurbish them into the giant trumpets of the Celebrated One. The equatorial forests having all but disappeared will no longer be useful as terms of comparison but because of the new essence of life our similes will be built on the deep forests of the North, firs and blackthorns and even antlers and Reindeer flesh. You will pluck this leaf the day of your fondest love, ah, may it come I see an enormous lighthouse falling into the Atlantic among the spatters of shadows and stars 1948 A naval battle—not the last—expands the Sandwich Islands in 193 That’s all I know 1941 will unify the cemeteries

Desnos Prophecies 8

Joy great joy 1947 will listen to sorcerers and prophets and think they’re wearing Phrygian caps I shall meticulously describe for you the fate of Ceylan and Jersey, sister islands, twins in God’s own image. A tidal wave will purify you both, then on one of you the double-plus diamond will be discovered and, on the other, light and terrestrial warmth and this in 1981 And schism will torment your last days, Pope numbered XVI, in view of Gaelic and Australian defections And the sea will blanket Holland if not the whole quasi-republican council And the ancient race of sky-makers and beguiled ones will re-emerge from the shadows Russia your destiny is white as snow and in order to come out on top you will lose everything even your name from the Mongolian steppes to the Polish frontier 1985 A sect known as the assistants will secure the triumph of human independence through divine assassination, and not only in China but all throughout South America from 1955 to 1980 1991 year of sleep and dreams despite countless disasters at sea, occasional conflagration of the world’s largest forests, and the fall of Nagasaki, queen of the East, visited by fire and molten steel 1990 there will be a shortage of wheat and not only of wheat but of night as well. Volcano days. Pacific, Pacific traveler, graves filled, mountains razed And out of the flood the spirit will be reborn (it was never dead) when Neptune is conjunct. You will cry out for deliverance mortal flesh but too late for the prophet dead in July who here concludes his first book of prophecies And not only the prophet but his surest friend and the very reason for his love, his endless love

July 29, 1925

Translated from the French by Louis Cancelmi.

  1. Robert Desnos, Littérature, number 5, October 1, 1922.
  2. André Breton, “Robert Desnos.” Le Journal littéraire, number 11, July 5, 1924.
  3. Robert Desnos, Œuvres. Edited by Marie Claire Dumas. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.

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One comment

  1. […] a translation of the First Book of Prophecies and a brief introduction to Desnos, see here. For facsimiles of the original manuscript and other digital artifacts of Surrealism, visit […]

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