Soupault’s first novella Le Voyage d’Horace Pirouelle is rather light and after a first reading, it is possible to dismiss it as a lark. But the novella has a more serious dimension, and a theme that is important to understanding Soupault’s difference from the other surrealists. Pirouelle moves across the face of the earth with bizarre rapidity, forming what may be seen as empty friendships and empty love relationships and leaving them without second thoughts. Unlike André Breton, who had obsessive love interests and would drop everything for them, Soupault instead appeared to float above obsession and engagement. Instead, he falls into groups and goes along with them, but without much motivation. In Le Voyage, we follow him in the guise of a Liberian character based on an African he had barely met in a café, in which Soupault’s alter ego visits Greenland. He falls into a trance in the igloo of the Frenchman Henri Simmonet, and spends a long period with him doing almost nothing except eating and sleeping.
Soupault’s Pirouelle intends to write up his voyage for the International Geographic Society of Los Angeles, without however having much of anything to say, or without any of the surveying equipment necessary for such an undertaking, and to do so is a kind of game for him. His diary notes are in turn a reminder of Arthur Rimbaud’s accounts of travel in the Harrar, which document Rimbaud’s peculiar days without any sense of emotional involvement, as if he were as alive as a piece of furniture. Arthur Rimbaud writes of his last trip, as he is being carried out of Abyssinia with a gangrenous leg:
Levé de Balloua à 6 1/2. Entrée à Geldessey à 10 1/2. Les porteurs se mettent au courant, et il n’y a plus à souff[rir?] qu’à la descente de Balloua. Orage à quatre heures à Geldessey.
La nuit, rosée très abondante, et froid (Jouffroy 133).
[Got up in Balloua at 6:30. Arrived in Geldessey at 10:30. The carriers went swiftly, and there was no more suffering until the descent from Balloua. Storm at four o’clock at Geldessey.
The night, with abundant dew, and cold.]
Some of Rimbaud’s notations simply note that it is cold, or arrival and departure times: “Vendredi 17. Levé Dadap, 9 1/2. Arrivée à Warambot à 4 1/2” (Jouffroy 135) [Friday 17. Got started Dadap, 9:30. Arrived Warambot 4:30]. Pirouelle’s notations are just about as cold and businesslike as Rimbaud’s. Like Rimbaud, Pirouelle has a keen objective eye, and rarely forays into the subjective domain. There is no poetry at all in Rimbaud’s letters from the Harar, which is what Soupault copies, as he apparently enjoyed its direct simplicity.
Soupault’s writing takes off just after World War I, when the story of Horace Pirouelle was first written (1918). His first novella is told in diary form by the lead character, as a dispassionate description of events, which take place over a period of two or three years. For the first two thirds of the story the effect of the violent events on the victims is downplayed, creating the impression that the violence has no more importance than it does during the sequence of a Punch and Judy puppet show. Then, Horace Pirouelle discovers (in an isolated igloo) a group of newspaper clippings in an old trunk that belongs to a loner named Simmonet. The clippings concern acts of random violence in Paris, in which a woman is shot by accident, and another man is nearly killed by a random terrorist, after he suffers a bullet fired into his car for no apparent reason. Horace Pirouelle is himself no stranger to random violence, as he has just committed similar acts of mayhem, such as firing his pistol into strangers’ igloos purely for the joy of it. There appears to be a collision of values between Pirouelle’s behavior and Simmonet’s, but in fact they are identical. The common denominator is a certain deadness to experience caused by the lack of meaning they feel in their world. Pirouelle’s brief diary entries notate his own violent behavior, but do not moralize, as his violent actions apparently have about as much interest to him as the weather, which he notes down with similar objectivity. Pirouelle, in fact, has a private chuckle at the Eskimo superstitions because he knows they will lead them to think that the revolver blasts into their igloos were caused by Towarsuk, the God of Thunder.
Dans la nuit sans étoiles les fenêtres éclairées des igloos voisins me fournissaient des cibles excellentes. Je devins très adroit. Mes voisins, pour expliquer certains morts mysterieuses et subites qu’accompagnait un coup de tonnerre, affirmaient que c’était une punition méritée qu’infligeait Towarsuk, le grand diable (31).
[In the starless night the lit windows of the neighboring igloos furnished me with excellent targets. I got very good. My neighbors, in order to explain certain mysterious and sudden deaths that were accompanied by thunder, affirmed that it was a deserved punishment inflicted by Towarsuk, the great devil.]
The narrator reveals through the diary entries Pirouelle’s lack of any emotional empathy. Later, Pirouelle puts the local sorcerer to death during a blizzard and has no qualms over this killing. It is Pirouelle’s violence that Soupault evokes throughout the story, only to seemingly contrast it with Simmonet’s pacifism, but Simmonet’s non-engagement is the mirror image of Pirouelle’s in that they are both dangerously disengaged with their own feelings.
In Le Voyage d’Horace Pirouelle the two characters seemingly represent these two sets of values: the Liberian for liberty and spontaneity, the Frenchman Simmonet the virtues of reflection, and abstract thought, but underneath they are identical in that neither of them is connected to any kind of friendship, love relationship, or much of anything outside or inside of themselves. The one thing that seems to fascinate all of his characters is the way in which words are used.
The narration, to recapitulate for those who have not read this rather marginal early work which nevertheless announces all the major themes of his later oeuvre (which would continue for more than seventy years), follows Pirouelle across the frozen white tundra of Greenland; there, he gets a wife by holding his rival over his head longer than the rival can hold Horace; he explores the great expanses at the top of the world with a homosexual Eskimo and a team of dogs; he spends a couple of years in an igloo with Henri Simmonet, and from there, he gets on a ship and discovers some post cards from the South Seas in the captain’s cabin. A man on the move, Horace Pirouelle appears to be half of Philippe Soupault’s personality.
In Horace Pirouelle, Soupault narrates surrealist activity but without any kind of surrealist telos. He has no larger concern for his community. Within the Greenland Eskimo culture, Pirouelle inscribes chaos. While the narration is dry and factual, being in the form of diary notes, and it appears to be a parody of Rimbaud’s crisply factual notes of his journeys in the Harar; the adventures are fantastic and lethal for everyone but Pirouelle, who lives as if he were adrift in a dream. He does not seek love, money, or anything else. There is also fame, since he hopes to describe his journey for the International Geographic Society of Los Angeles, just as Rimbaud had contemplated writing descriptions of his experiences in the Harar for similar organizations, but this is secondary, and is something he never really attempts to achieve. He names Mount Pirouelle (41), and thinks about planting the flag of Liberia in a block of ice (65), but there is a certain self-mocking hilarity towards these aggressive imperialistic acts on the part of Pirouelle, as his main interest is in the seemingly gratuitous act of individual experience.
Philippe Soupault is no longer a well-known writer on this side of the Atlantic although his work was very well-known in the 1920s and 1930s as he had co-founded the surrealist movement with Breton. In 1926, Soupault was ejected from the movement for a variety of peccadillos including his rejection of the surrealist movement’s newfound Marxism. Soupault had been a member of the haute bourgeoisie of Paris by birth. As a young man he had run the French Atlantic petroleum fleet. He also later edited books for Bernard Grasset, ran Radio France in Tunis during World War II, and worked for UNESCO as a globe-trotting executive, as well as working as a journalist for a variety of French dailies and monthlies for decades. Soupault’s journalism was sometimes artistic, but he also covered French elections and followed various candidates, as well as reporting from the United States, Russia, Germany, and many other countries. Soupault’s energy and enthusiasm, as well as his multidimensional talents, enabled him to publish at least a dozen novels, at least again as many critical studies, some twenty volumes of poetry, a half dozen mémoires, to note only a few of the genres. When Soupault was excommunicated from surrealism the movement lost one of its most talented contributors, and it could be said that after his departure in 1926, the movement collapsed into various kinds of stasis, and never found its mercurial feet again.
It was propaganda that infuriated Soupault and led to his engagement with anti-politics, without being against any group in particular, and this has a positive aspect, but could also be described as escapist. One of Soupault’s first published poems was this, also about travel, this time from within a train station:
La foule tournoie
un homme s’agite
des femmes autour de moi
chacun se précipite me bousculant
Voici que le soir tombant
Avec ses paroles j’emporte son sourire (Poèmes and Poésies 11)
The crowd turns
a man moves
of women around me
all brush against me
Within her words I carry her smile]
Against a poetry used on a football field of political yardage, Soupault’s poetry is revolutionary only in the sense that it praises oddballs and children, balloon sellers and madmen. Soupault was thought to have been on the Allied side during World War II and after the Vichy government was installed he was imprisoned in Tunis for the crime of high treason in which he was suspected of having passed military information to the American army (Mousli 326-37), but he was apparently innocent and ultimately released. Soupault’s writing is sympathetic to the poor of the earth, the homeless and the insane, those who do not fit in, or who are lost, but he does not look to poetry to change anything, and the figures in his writing are poorly known, and consist of other itinerants, even at one point writing an entire book in praise of Chaplin’s tramp (Charlot).
The enigma of the Soupaultien poetic text, is revealed in a line from Soupault which Edmond Jabès cites:
Je me glisse comme un souvenir et comme un papillon (5).
[I glide like a memory and like a butterfly.]
Soupault insisted that poetry was not something that was made by a few solitary geniuses or by a given group. It was a faculty given to all humans, just as the capacity to dream is given to all humans. He quotes the famous sentence of Lautréamont, “La poesie doit être faite par tous, non par un” (Essai 115). [Poetry should be made by all, not one.]
In the Surrealist Manifestoes, Breton says of Soupault, during their early collaboration on the automatic writing of Les Champs Magnétiques (in 1919) that Soupault’s character was “…moins statique que la mienne…” (Manifestes 33) […less static than mine…], and that it was Soupault who refused to allow the slightest rewrite of any of their automatic texts (33), maintaining spontaneity with all of its faults. Soupault was not interested in the arguments of poetry but in its “tonalité,” (Essai 117), which he explicitly compares to that of popular songs (116-17), whose allure is universal, because the “liberté de ces poèmes” (ibid) [the liberty of these poems] can be “sublime” (ibid).
Soupault’s engagement with poetry as made by all, just as dreams are made by all, remains closer to one of the original inspirations of the surrealist movement. As Breton tried to translate surrealism into the political dimension via first Marxist and then anarchist politics, he translated the poetry of surrealism into realism, killing it in the process. Manifestoes and political tracts came to dominate the movement’s publishing efforts in the 1930s and beyond. His surrealism deals instead with the poem as inhabiting a non-affiliated dimension that is impossible to translate into the political realm. Soupault’s surrealism is being revived, with many critics such as Myriam Boucharenc, Jacqueline Chénieux-Gendron, Adélaide Russo, Dominique Carlat, Amy Smiley, Marie-Louise Lentengre, Jacqueline Gojard, Valentine Oncins, Debra Kelly, Anne Clancier, Nathalie Nabert, and Sylvie Cassayré (to name only a few) working to recreate it. The wish to revalorize this intimate and paradoxically more global surrealism (Soupault spoke several languages, including English and German, while Breton never spoke any language except French), is to see in its inward and personal quality a poetry which seeks to clarify poetry as a separate realm away from the agenda-driven claims of modernist radicals, but one which also stands for nothing aside from itself, and the endless journeys Soupault undertook about the world.
Although Soupault’s position is impossible to reinscribe into the metanarrative of politics which has become a major focus of cultural studies in the wake of the Frankfurt School, there is a marginal tradition within anarchism to which it might be grafted, a position that might best be summed up in anarchist Rudolf Rocker’s lengthy treatise, Nationalism and Culture (first published in 1937). Breton’s attempts to create a normative surrealism to which all members had to answer is distant but similar to the attempts by Stalin to make for a normative “hegemony” (Rocker 540) and to “subject other peoples to their will” (ibid), and created a centralization that Rocker argued is “the root of the real causes of the greatest catastrophe that has ever befallen the human race” (541). Soupault’s intransigent freedom is not a panacaea any more than was Rocker’s now-largely-forgotten text. Soupault’s inability to form a lasting family is part of what he gave up as he allowed his inner self to flourish against any form of belonging (abandoning wives and girlfriends and constantly starting new arrangements rather than holding to secure commitments, as is abundantly described throughout the Mousli biography, and which led some of his partners to suicide or to profound distress). Freedom can become license. In the “pursuit of happiness,” (Rocker evokes this phrase in his closing argument, 554), must this always already evoke the individual at the expense of the group? Soupault was against many of the right things: racism, nationalism, sexism, sadism, and yet “poetry” as he defined it is such a solitary value that it cannot be absorbed into any political metanarrative. The ability of a Soupaultien federation of poets to arise remains a murky proposition at best. How does one create a group that allows for absolute personal liberty? The surrealists didn’t know, and Soupault didn’t know, but Soupault held out that true freedom lay in the dream and the dreamer, which are never fixed, but must keep moving.
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