Robert Desnos

John Florens | Aug 29, 2023

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Robert Desnos was a French surrealist poet and resistance fighter, born on July 4, 1900 in the 11th arrondissement of Paris and died of typhus on June 8, 1945 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia one month after its liberation by the Red Army on the last day of the war.

Self-taught and at odds with his family and school, Robert Desnos was introduced to modernist literary circles in the early 1920s and joined the Surrealist adventure in 1922. He participated in a brilliant way in the experiments of automatic writing and published his first texts using the pen name of Rrose Sélavy, a female character created by Marcel Duchamp. Editor of La Révolution surréaliste from 1924, he worked as a journalist for several newspapers, reinventing criticism as a literary act. In 1929 André Breton, who was committed to communism, excluded him from the Surrealist movement. A great lover of music, he wrote - like Max Jacob - poems with a song-like quality that reconnected with childhood. On November 3, 1933, the broadcast by Radio-Paris of La Complainte de Fantômas, which announces a new episode of the Fantômas series, is a resounding radio success.

After becoming an advertising writer, he became preoccupied with the rise of fascist perils in Europe and joined the frontist movement in 1934. He joined the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists and then, after the May 1936 elections, the Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals. In 1940, with France defeated by Nazi Germany, he was counted among the degenerate artists hated by Vichy and survived with Youki, his companion of nine years, thanks to the complaisance of the collaborationist daily Aujourd'hui, which published his drawings under a pseudonym. From July 1942 until his arrest on February 22, 1944, he participated in the AGIR resistance network. From Compiègne, he was deported on April 27, 1944 to Flöha, via Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Flossenbürg. Exhausted by two weeks of a death march that brought him to Theresienstadt at the end of April 1945, he died in a Dantean revival a month after the Sipo agents abandoned the camp. Recognized shortly before his death by a Czech student who had been mobilized, his body was repatriated in October and buried in the Montparnasse cemetery.

His work includes a number of collections of poems published from 1923 to 1943 - for example Body and possessions (1930) or The Night of loveless nights (1930) - and other texts on art, cinema or music, collected in posthumous editions.

Years of youth

Robert Desnos was born in Paris at 32, boulevard Richard-Lenoir. He is the second child of Lucien Desnos and Claire Guillais. In 1902, the family moved to the working-class district of Les Halles, where his father was an agent for poultry and game, but also deputy mayor of the district. They lived at 11, rue Saint-Martin, in "that corner of Paris that smells of sulfur" where, in the past, alchemists and other "sorcerers" engaged in strange metamorphoses. Gérard de Nerval had found a source for his imaginary journeys there. In 1913, the family moved to 9, rue de Rivoli, another universe. But the Paris of artisans and shopkeepers left a deep impression on the child, one that would appear abundantly in his work. His daydreams were nourished by the unusual spectacle of the streets, between the cloister of Saint-Merri and the tower of Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie, and the varied world of images offered to him by posters, the illustrations in L'Épatant and L'Intrépide, and the illustrated supplements in the Petit Parisien and the Petit Journal.

At six or seven years old, Desnos draws strange shapes on his notebooks. At twelve, he switches to color, and his secret world is tinged with fantasy. The child dreams of being a "free child". Desnos made his first communion in 1911 in the church of Saint-Merri. At school, he was not a good student. He was deeply bored and could not stand the patriotic discourse that developed there. He prefers to read Hugo's Les Misérables and to embark on Baudelaire's Les Marins. He also had a passion for popular culture: novels - Émile Gaboriau, Eugène Sue, Jules Verne or Ponson du Terrail -, and comic books, with a particular affection for the elusive Fantomas, whose exploits were recounted in the heart of colourful works. He plunges with delight into the railway station romanticism engendered by The Mysteries of New York, or Chicago, or even Paris. The surrealists will meet later on this point by baptizing the marvellous in the popular naivety "involuntary poetry". With the cinema, his bookish adventures become almost reality. Of all this, Desnos will testify in his stories and his criticisms of films.

For the time being, he was still only a teenager when in 1916, with only a school certificate acquired in 1913 and his elementary diploma, he decided to leave the Turgot school. Faced with his father's desire to encourage him to continue his studies in order to embrace a commercial career, he opposed his fierce desire to become a poet. Put on notice to manage on his own, relegated - but he also "wants" it - in a maid's room, he multiplies the small jobs. For a while, he was a clerk in a drugstore on the rue Pavée, but the most important thing was elsewhere: Desnos, drinking the living water of what was offered to him, forged a solid and vast self-taught culture. While the first world conflict drags on, he meets young people in common revolt against the butchery of the trenches. As early as 1918, he began to write some poems, some of which were published in the Tribune des Jeunes, a magazine with socialist tendencies. His influences are perhaps Apollinaire or Rimbaud; more surely Laurent Tailhade, Germain Nouveau and, most certainly, those anonymous "whores" of the nights of Saint Merri, that the boy had contemplated from the top of his sixth floor, at the intersection of the rue des Lombards and the rue Saint-Martin...

"The whores of Marseille have oceanic sisters whose unhealthy kisses will mold your flesh...

This Fard des Argonautes, dated 1919, and published the same year in the avant-garde review Le Trait d'union, oscillates between the illuminations of a certain Bateau Ivre and the great mythological catch-all from the sensational magazines. The young man has no scholarly culture; he has built himself up in bulk, wading through the immediacy of life that he eats to his heart's content, and the dreams of the nights that he notes at the very first awakening. "What writers have to say is for everyone", he repeats in front of the obscure languages and the amphigouris of the serious poets... His awakening to the flesh was also not done seriously. No teenage loves nor shadows of young girls in bloom: it is in full winter at sixteen years, in the arms of an imposing matron, that all that was played.

In the immediate post-war period, Desnos becomes Jean de Bonnefon's secretary and manager of his publishing house. He met unsociable people, non-conformists hobnobbing on the side of the town hall. Around 1920, thanks to the poet Louis de Gonzague-Frick, he was introduced into modernist literary circles. At Georges-Elzéar-Xavier Aubaut's, a notorious homosexual and very singular character who dresses up like Pierre Loti, adorns himself with jewels and claims to be Huysmans' former secretary, he meets Benjamin Péret and the Dada adventure. But, despite his efforts, Desnos does not manage to penetrate this milieu. Moreover, the time for his military service had come. He left for Chaumont and then to Morocco. When he returns, just one year later, the Dadaist storms will have already fizzled.

Surrealism and the first writings

While he played the skirmishers between date palms and palm trees, trying to deceive his boredom as he could, in Paris, the dynamiters of the official thought as well as of the social order launched their first grenades. Between 1920 and 1922, the painter Francis Picabia opened the way to rupture and André Breton launched his famous Lâchez tout in the second issue of the magazine Littérature. Dada put away, a new adventure begins. Benjamin Péret had spoken to Desnos about Breton before he left for the army. He had described to him the furious outbursts against his time of this young man of twenty-five years. No doubt it was during a leave that the soldier Desnos finally established contact with "these star counters", in the words of Victor Hugo. Everything happened at the Certa, a bar in the Passage de l'Opéra, which has now disappeared. Aragon, Breton, Radiguet (who died in 1923), Tzara, Soupault, Cendrars, Vitrac - a friend - and a few others met there. Desnos climbed into the basket without being asked, because he had already experimented in his own way with automatic writing, a form of expression as uncontrolled as possible. In 1922, it is certain, he joined the Surrealist adventure.

The student proves to be very gifted. He found a family among all those who recognized themselves in Les nécessités de la vie et les conséquences des rêves, a work published by Paul Éluard in 1921. To see beyond or within... Desnos immediately imposes himself by his exceptional verbal capacities (an inexhaustible flow of words where the words are called by sound affinities) and puts his ardor to enter the most diverse experiments. He participates in a brilliant way in the experiences of hypnotic sleeps, of dreams or fantasies. In fact, "he speaks surrealist at will".

The dream, this door open on the unknown, Desnos had already opened it. During the winter of 1918-1919, he had noted in his notebook :

"I am lying down and see myself as I really am. The electricity is on. The door of my mirror cabinet opens by itself. I see the books in it. On a shelf is a copper letter opener (it is also there in reality) in the shape of a yatagan. It stands up on the end of the blade, remains in an unstable balance for a moment and then slowly falls back onto the shelf. The door closes. The electricity goes out.

When the first issue of La Révolution surréaliste appeared in 1924, the preface signed by Jacques André Boiffard, Paul Eluard and Roger Vitrac read:

"The trial of knowledge being no longer to be made, the intelligence no longer entering in account, the dream alone leaves to the man all his rights to freedom. Thanks to the dream, death no longer has an obscure meaning and the meaning of life becomes indifferent.

In fact, Desnos is a seer: he is this medium who, while asleep, answers the questions of the assistants, initiates poems or drawings. During these sleep sessions (the first of which took place at Breton's house on September 25, 1922), it was a question of finding the primary freedom of thought that had taken up residence in this state of somnolence

"Surrealism is the order of the day and Desnos is its prophet.

Desnos moved into the studio of the painter André Masson at 45, rue Blomet (see the very large plaque), in the Necker district, not far from the heart of Montparnasse and near the Bal Nègre, which he frequented assiduously. He was introduced to opium. This was the time of the three surrealist fortresses: Breton, rue Fontaine, Aragon, Prévert, Queneau and André Thirion, rue du Château and this rue Blomet where Desnos counts Joan Miró and the playwright Georges Neveux among his neighbors. Clear, furnished with oddities found at the flea market and a roller gramophone, Desnos's studio has no key, only a padlock with letters whose composition he remembers every other night. From 1922 to 1923, he gave himself up there only to the work of laboratory from which should result Langage cuit, what Breton calls the words without wrinkles, and to the poetic research. The Cold Gorges of 1922 are one of the outstanding examples. Later, it is undoubtedly also in this den that he will write The Night of loveless nights.

This experimental journey towards the new word is a dead end, and Desnos knows it. Didn't Lautréamont say "a philosophy for the sciences exists. There is none for poetry". No matter, it is necessary to leave on the roads, according to the word of Breton. Sounds the hour of the poems of The Aumonym and the exercises of Rrose Selavy. Follows Les Pénalités de l'Enfer (1922) and Deuil pour deuil (1924). These terrible children that are the surrealists claim a spirit in perpetual ebullition and, for the time, still a humor without limits. Desnos embodies that more than any other. An anecdote of 1925 deserves to be recalled: at the time of the first representation of Locus Solus of Raymond Roussel, the room remains of marble whereas the poet applauds with all rupture:

"Ah! I understood, says his neighbor, you are the slap...- Perfectly!, he answers, and you, you are the cheek.

In the years 1924-1929, Desnos was editor of La Révolution surréaliste. But he had to make a living: he worked as an accountant for the medical publications of Librairie Baillière, wrote on commission for Jacques Doucet (De l'érotisme, 1923), became, for a time, an advertising broker for an industrial directory, and then cashier for the newspaper Paris-Soir. From 1925, he became a journalist, first at Paris-Soir, then at Le Soir (and finally at Paris-Matinal). He wrote a bloody article about this job for the magazine Bifur :

"Today's journalism is journalism in name only. Readers beware! The eighth-page ad in the major daily newspaper about the caged-bed manufacturer influences the front-page columnist's paper as much as the famous secret funds and embassy subsidies that some political parties have used as an easy argument to discredit their opponents. Is a newspaper, moreover, written with ink? Perhaps, but it is mostly written with oil, margarine, ripolin, coal, rubber, even what you think... when it is not written with blood!

The years of love

Desnos then devoted a passion to the music hall singer Yvonne George. She is the "mysterious one" who haunts his dreams and reigns over his poems of Darkness. He probably met her in 1924. If one believes Théodore Fraenkel, the faithful friend, this love was never shared. He will dream it more than he will live it, source of inspiration for numerous poems, among which those of 1926, dedicated to the mysterious one. An occasion for Desnos to renew with the lyricism.

As soon as these poems reach him, Antonin Artaud writes to Jean Paulhan:

"I came out of a reading of Desnos' last poems overwhelmed. The love poems are the most completely moving, the most decisive I have heard in this genre in years and years. Not a soul that does not feel touched to its deepest strings, not a spirit that does not feel moved and exalted and confronted with itself. This feeling of an impossible love digs the world in its foundations and forces it out of itself, and it seems to give it life. This pain of an unsatisfied desire picks up the whole idea of love with its limits and fibers, and confronts it with the absolute of Space and Time, and in such a way that the whole being feels defined and interested. It is as beautiful as the most beautiful you can know in the genre, Baudelaire or Ronsard. And there is no need for abstraction that is not satisfied by these poems where everyday life, where any detail of daily life takes space, and an unknown solemnity. And it took him two years of stomping and silence to come to this.

Desnos gives this mysterious woman a face and a voice. She is this Star of the Sea offered in 1928 to Man Ray. She is the one for whom the poet's pen lets flow:

"I dreamed so much of youThat you lose your reality..."

Yvonne George died of tuberculosis in 1930, at only thirty-three years old. Desnos will love her desperately beyond the grave.

In 1943, his only novel, Le vin est tiré, was published. The poet transposes there his tragic experience of the frequentation of a group of "intoxicated". This group is centered on the very beautiful, and very drugged, "Barbara". As the story unfolds, almost all of the characters are killed by the drugs they consume.

As for Youki Foujita, with whom he has lived since 1930, she is represented by the mermaid. Divided between these two loves, the impalpable and the tangible, Desnos attributes to himself the form of the seahorse. In fact, he never dares to decide and the star becomes a mermaid, which can be read in Siramour.

There is flesh, there is love. Between the two slips the cornerstone of the eroticism. The poet, who had already narrated his sexual convulsions in "Les Confessions d'un enfant du siècle" (La Révolution surréaliste no 6) becomes Corsaire Sanglot, the hero of La Liberté ou l'Amour (1927) where the freedom of the senses is total, in a din of extraordinary images and storms of all kinds. It is the prose of scandal. For society, the work will be mutilated by a judgment of the court of the Seine, but the work also displeases some surrealists, who do not see in this text the audacity necessary to any transgression. Desnos "recovered"? Still, a cleavage is born. Whereas Breton will slowly starve himself to finish in statue of Commander, Desnos swims against the current, always further...

Break with surrealism

In 1929, a change begins whose premises are present in The Night of loveless nights and Siramour. Breton reproaches Desnos for his "narcissism" and for "doing journalism". Moreover, Breton wanted to lead the group towards communism and Desnos did not cross this line. In La Révolution surréaliste, the group of dissidents (this group includes, in addition to Desnos, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Georges Bataille, Jacques Prévert, Georges Limbour, Roger Vitrac, Antonin Artaud, Philippe Soupault, André Masson and Joseph Delteil) then takes action. After having settled their account with Anatole France and Maurice Barrès, they targeted in Un cadavre the "Master", who had become a "castrated lion", "palotin of the Western world", "pheasant", "cop", "priest" and "barnyard aesthete".

Aragon, charged with the definitive execution of Desnos, wrote, among other things, under the title of Body, Souls and Goods, in Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution :

"Desnos' language is at least as scholastic as his sentimentality. It comes so little from life that it seems impossible for Desnos to speak of a fur without it being vair, of water without naming the waves, of a plain that is not a steppe, and everything in between. All the stereotype of the romantic baggage is added here to the exhausted dictionary of the eighteenth century. One would say a vast tinette where one poured the debris of the poetic debaucheries of Lebrun-Ecouchard to Georges Fourest, the pretentious slag of the abbot Delille, of Jules Barbier, of Tancrède de Visan and Maurice Bouchor. The lunar lilies, the daisy of the silence, the moon stopped pensive, the sound midnight, one would not finish any more, and still it would be necessary to raise the idiotic questions (how many treasons in the civil wars?) which compete with the sphinxes of which it is made in passing an anguishing consumption. The taste for the word "male", the allusions to ancient history, the refrain in the larirette style, the interpellations addressed to the inanimate, to butterflies, to Greek demigods, the forget-me-nots everywhere, the arbitrary and stupid suppositions, a use of the plural which is essentially a gargle, the stupid images, it is not the way of expressing oneself that makes this book a masterpiece...".

Desnos, with Corps et Biens (Bodies and Goods), published in 1930, takes stock of this adventure.

Fantomas and the Phony War

Youki Foujita now shares the poet's life. She is the light, but also the concern. The couple left rue Blomet for rue Lacretelle and then moved to 19, rue Mazarine where Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, Félix Labisse, André Masson, Antonin Artaud and Picasso all passed by.

For Youki, he writes poems with the appearance of songs. Desnos is a great lover of music. Jazz, salsa discovered during a trip to Cuba in 1928, tango, fado and records of Damia, Fréhel, Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier, songs that reflect his popular Paris, furnish his record library. But there are also 78s of Mozart, Beethoven, Erik Satie and, especially Offenbach. As for poetry, music must speak to all. He improvised himself as a musical chronicler. In 1932, thanks to Paul Deharme, Desnos embarked on a radio career where his imagination, his humor and his warm words would work wonders. He quickly became quite famous and radio offered him resources that print journalism (he had left most daily newspapers to write only in weeklies published by the NRF) no longer provided.

On November 3, 1933, on the occasion of the launch of a new episode of the series Fantômas, he created at Radio Paris the Complainte de Fantômas which punctuates, to music by Kurt Weill, a series of twenty-five sketches evoking the most striking episodes of the novels of Allain and Souvestre. Antonin Artaud, who was in charge of the dramatic direction, played the role of Fantômas, while Alejo Carpentier was responsible for the soundtrack. The success is great. In addition, he published the poetic series of Sans Cou (1934). In 1936, he undertakes the tour de force to compose a poem per day. This exercise of recasting the automatic writings of the golden age lasts one year. Some poems appear in Les Portes battantes. It will be the only publication of these years of radio success.

Thanks to Armand Salacrou, he joined the Information and Publicity agency, where he led a team in charge of inventing advertising slogans for pharmaceutical products (Marie-Rose, Lune deworming, Quintonine, family tea, Frileuse wine). The poet then became an advertising editor at the Foniric Studios and led the team that invented and produced the day-to-day programs broadcast on Radio-Luxembourg and the Poste Parisien. He tried to make his listeners dream thanks to the suggestive capacities of radio and to make them active in the communication by calling on their testimonies. In 1938, his program La Clef des songes was a great success. He read on the air the stories of dreams sent by the listeners. The radio experience transforms the literary practice of Desnos: of the writing this one moves towards more oral or gestural forms. The essential for Desnos is now to communicate, and literature is a means among others. Thus Desnos writes various songs of variety, interpreted by people like the Father Varenne, Margo Lion, Marianne Oswald and Fréhel. Gradually his projects became more important: in collaboration with the composer Darius Milhaud, he wrote cantatas such as the Cantata for the inauguration of the Musée de l'Homme, commentaries for two films by J.B. Brunius (Records 37 and Sources Noires, 1937) and worked with Arthur Honegger and Cliquet Pleyel for film songs.

In this happy period Desnos was aware of the rise of fascism in Europe. Although he fell out with Breton and his friends in 1927 because he refused to follow them in their commitment to the Communist Party, this does not mean that he lost interest in politics. He could be defined as a radical socialist, a lover of freedom and humanism. His political commitment will continue to grow in the 1930s, with the "rise of the perils". As early as 1934, he participated in the Front movement and joined movements of anti-fascist intellectuals, such as the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists or, after the May 1936 elections, the "Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals. Passionate about Spanish culture, he was very shocked by the Spanish war and the refusal of the Senate to involve France in it. As the international situation became more and more threatening, Desnos renounced his pacifist positions: in his opinion, France had to prepare for war in order to defend the independence of France, its culture and its territory and to prevent fascism. Also, as a fellow traveler, he agrees to lend his support to events of the Maisons de la culture, and agrees to write reviews of records for the communist newspaper Ce soir.

Mobilized in 1939, Desnos went through the phony war convinced of the legitimacy of the fight against Nazism. He did not let the defeat of June 1940, nor the occupation of Paris, where he lived with Youki, get him down. His radio activity having ceased, he once again became a journalist for Aujourd'hui, the newspaper of Henri Jeanson and Robert Perrier. After Jeanson's arrest, the newspaper was quickly subjected to German censorship, but Desnos cunningly monitored his words and succeeded in publishing "mine de rien", i.e. under a pseudonym, drawings and even a few literary articles that encouraged the preparation of a free future.

This is what allows him to face, very sparingly, the daily expenses. Too poor to share Pablo Picasso's table at the Catalan, a restaurant at 25 rue des Grands-Augustins that was supplied by the black market, he bought food from the kitchen on the pretext of feeding his cat in exchange for a few jokes to liven up the room.

Resistance and deportation

For Desnos, the struggle is now clandestine. On January 20, 1940, he wrote to Youki: "I have decided to take from the war all the happiness it can give me: the proof of health, youth and the priceless satisfaction of pissing off Hitler. From July 1942, he was part of the AGIR network, to which he passed on confidential information that reached the newspaper, while also making false papers for Jews or Resistance fighters in difficulty.

In 1943, he was warned that this network had been infiltrated (many of its members were denounced, arrested and deported), but he remained a member of it while joining, on the recommendation of the poet André Verdet, the Morhange network, created by Marcel Taillandier. From then on, in addition to the intelligence missions he carried out for the former, he was certainly involved in much more direct and violent missions. Under his name or under the mask of pseudonyms, he returned to poetry. After Fortunes (1942) which makes the assessment of the years 1930, he devotes himself to research where poem, song, music can ally. These are the verses of État de veille (1943) or the Chantefables (1944) to be sung on any tune. Then Le Bain avec Andromède (1944), Contrée (1944), and sonnets in slang, like Le Maréchal Ducono, virulent attack against Pétain, which continue, in various forms, its fight against Nazism. "It is not poetry that must be free, it is the poet," said Desnos. In 1944, Le Veilleur du Pont-au-Change, signed by Valentin Guillois, made a vibrant call to general struggle, when the poet was arrested on February 22.

That day, a phone call from a well-placed friend warned him of the imminent arrival of the Gestapo, but Desnos refused to flee for fear that Youki, who was addicted to ether, would be taken away. He was interrogated on rue des Saussaies and ended up in Fresnes prison, in cell 355 of the second division. He stayed there from February 22 to March 20. After an incredible search, Youki found his whereabouts and managed to get him to carry some packages. On March 20, he was transferred to the Royallieu camp in Compiègne where he found the strength to organize conferences and poetry sessions (he wrote Sol de Compiègne). For her part, Youki made numerous approaches to the German police and got Desnos' name removed from the list of transports. But on April 27, the poet was part of the so-called "tattooed deportees" convoy, a train of 1,700 men whose destination was Auschwitz. Desnos was redirected on May 12 to Buchenwald, arriving there on May 14 and leaving two days later for Flossenbürg: this time, the convoy had only a thousand men. On June 2 and 3, a group of eighty-five men, including Desnos, was transported to the Flöha camp in Saxony, where there was a disused textile factory that had been converted into a factory for Messerschmitt carlings made by the prisoners. From this camp, Desnos wrote many letters to Youki, all of which testify to his ardent energy and desire to live. On April 14, 1945, under pressure from the Allied armies, the Flöha kommando was evacuated. On April 15, fifty-seven of them were shot. Towards the end of April, the column was split into two groups: the most exhausted - including Desnos - were taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezin (Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), while the others were left to their own devices.

According to Pierre Berger's testimony, the journalist Alain Laubreaux, an active supporter of the collaborationist policy and a notorious anti-Semite, personally intervened so that Desnos would be deported as planned on the next transport. Laubreaux and Desnos had a long-standing animosity for each other, marked in particular by the slap that Laubreaux received from Desnos at Harry's Bar. For Pierre Barlatier, Laubreaux was responsible for the death of Desnos.

Theresienstadt, the poet found

At Theresienstadt, the survivors were either abandoned in the casemates and makeshift cells or sent to the Revier, the infirmary. Desnos was one of them. Lice were rife and typhus was rampant.

On May 3, 1945, the SS fled; on May 8, the Red Army and Czech partisans entered the camp. The liberators dragged with them some doctors and nurses in order to save whoever could still be saved. On a straw mattress, dressed in the striped garment of a deportee, shivering with fever, Desnos was no more than a prisoner number. Several weeks after the liberation, a Czech student, Joseph Stuna, was assigned by chance to barrack no. 1. While consulting the list of patients, he reads: "Robert Desnos, born in 1900, French nationality". Stuna knew very well who this Desnos was. He knew the surrealist adventure; he had read Breton, Éluard... At daybreak, the student set out to find the poet in the middle of two hundred and forty "living skeletons" and found him. Calling for help from the nurse Aléna Tesarova, who speaks better French than he does, Stuna keeps watch and tries to reassure the dying man at the risk of his life. Desnos just had the strength to get up when he heard his name and breathed out "Yes, yes, Robert Desnos, the poet, it's me". Thus Robert Desnos comes out of anonymity... Did he leave them a last poem, as one would think? Nothing is less sure.

After three days, he enters a coma. On June 8, 1945, at five in the morning, Robert Desnos died.

Paul Éluard, in the speech he gave at the presentation of the poet's ashes in October 1945, wrote

"Until death, Desnos fought. Throughout his poems, the idea of freedom runs like a terrible fire, the word "liberty" clatters like a flag among the newest and most violent images. The poetry of Desnos, it is the poetry of courage. It has all the possible audacities of thought and expression. He goes towards love, towards life, towards death without ever doubting. He speaks, he sings very high, without embarrassment. He is the prodigal son of a people subjected to prudence, to economy, to patience, but who nevertheless always astonished the world by his sudden anger, his will of emancipation and his unforeseen flights of fancy ".

Robert Desnos is buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

By decree of August 3, 1946, Robert Desnos alias Valentin Guillois Cancale was posthumously awarded the medal of the French Resistance.

History and myth of a "last poem

After the war, a last poem by Desnos was published in the French press, allegedly found on him by Joseph Stuna. In reality, this text is the result of a rough translation from Czech of the last stanza of a poem by Desnos written in 1926 and dedicated to Yvonne George, J'ai tant rêvé de toi :

In the camp infirmary and in his moribund state, Desnos had neither the physical nor the material possibility of writing anything. We also know for certain that Joseph Stuna only brought back Desnos' pair of glasses.

Indeed, the last stanza of the poem (a first translation from French into Czech) accompanies the announcement of Desnos' death in the Czech newspaper "Svobodné Noviny" dated July 1, 1945. On July 31, the same newspaper publishes an article on the last days of the poet under the title One hundred times more shadow than shadow with, in addition, the famous last stanza of J'ai tant rêvé de toi. The article, translated from Czech into French (translation of translation), appeared on August 11, 1945 in Les Lettres françaises. The translator did not recognize, under the new title, the 1926 poem. Alejo Carpentier said that "the future of poets was written in advance in their poems".


The archives and manuscripts of Robert Desnos entered the Jacques Doucet Literary Library in 1967, bequeathed by Youki (Lucie Badoud), the poet's companion and deposited by Henri Espinouze, the second husband of Youki.

The general collection of the library as well as the Collection de Jacques Doucet, thanks to the mediation of André Breton who was literary and artistic advisor to Jacques Doucet at the beginning of the 1920s, already preserved texts by Desnos - some of which were joined a posteriori to the Desnos collection with the donations of Suzanne Montel and Samy Simon.

Anthology publications

Desnos will write many scenarios. If he is not a theorist, he nevertheless advocates an agreement between the pamphlet, the metaphysics and the poetry. The cinema of the dream, Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau, is still too poor to satisfy him, but he deals with what he sees and multiplies the criticisms.

It is thus possible to distinguish two Robert Desnos in his relationship to the cinema: the one who writes scripts, published but never filmed, and the one who writes about the cinema during the 1920s. Between the two, it is always the poet who expresses himself. Here, it will be a question of Desnos facing the cinema of his time. It is a question of understanding how the artistic convictions of the surrealist poet (priority of the dream, imagination, tragic exalting love) are articulated with the cinematographic reality of the 1920s. Desnos wrote about cinema mainly between 1923 and 1929 in Paris-Journal, then Journal Littéraire, Le Soir, le Merle and finally Documents. These texts reflect the feelings of the Surrealist group, of which he was one of the most active members, towards cinema. The questioning around the dream and automatic writing are found there. Desnos adopts there a lyric and polemical tone.

Desnos always insisted on the fact that he did not want to make criticism: "I always tried not to make criticism. As far as the cinema is concerned, I have limited myself to expressing desires" or again: "Criticism can only be the most mediocre expression of literature and can only be addressed to the manifestations of the latter. The notable actions always escape the psychological control of these auctioneers, who, of their hammer, make resound sparingly the carillon of the common life ".

What interests him, it is to attach the cinema to the existence, the creation to the life. "To defend the cinema was to break down the academic hierarchy between minor art and major art, elite art and popular art". What Desnos asks to the spectacle of the screen, it is to represent the desired life, to exalt what is dear to him, to give him "the unexpected, the dream, the surprise, the lyricism which erase the basenesses in the souls and precipitate them enthusiastically to the barricades and in the adventures", to offer to him "what the love and the life refuse us".

Dreams and eroticism

Desnos very often connects in his writings the cinema and the domain of the dream and the eroticism, that he never dissociates from the love. For him, the film as the dream is an adventure, it allows to escape from the sordid reality and to reach the marvelous. He finds in the very conditions of the cinematographic representation, (light beam, darkness, solitude) an equivalent of the dreamlike state, between the real and the unreal, the conscious and the unconscious. The cinema becomes in a way a "dream machine", able to reproduce the conditions of sleep and the advent of the dream. Desnos imagines a director able to make a film as one dreams, the dream being for him "a cinema more marvelous than any other": "It is a cinema more marvelous than any other. Those to whom it is given to dream know well that no film can equal in unforeseen, in tragedy, this indisputable life to which is devoted their sleep. From the desire of the dream participate the taste, the love of the cinema. For lack of the spontaneous adventure that our eyelids will let escape to the awakening, we go in the dark rooms to look for the artificial dream and perhaps the exciting capable of populating our deserted nights. I would like a director to fall in love with this idea.

The importance given to the dream is doubled by the one given to the eroticism, which we also find in his novel and poetic work. In his article "Eroticism" published in 1923, Desnos compares the cinema to a drug, able to take the man in an artificial dream which allows him to support the bland and routine character of his existence.

Eroticism is for him an essential quality of the cinematographic work, since it allows the access to the imaginative, emotional and poetic power of the spectator. As Marie-Claire Dumas explains it, "what in good surrealist Desnos asks to the cinema, it is that it fulfills, by its moving and expressive images, the most intimate desires of the spectators that the everyday life disappoints or represses".

Desnos adopts, in many of his articles, a voluntarily polemical tone, characterized by the use of pejorative terms like "imbeciles", which is doubled by firm and unquestionable assertions, the whole in the present tense which reinforces the idea of truth: "One of the most admirable factors of the cinema and one of the causes of the hatred that the imbeciles carry to him is the eroticism". By this assertion, Desnos places himself implicitly in the camp of those who "understood" the value of the cinema, including for their own artistic productions, while strongly criticizing the stupidity of those who see there only vulgarity and poverty.


Desnos, in his writings on the cinema, does not hesitate to engage, to take sides and to assert his freedom of judgment. He is extremely critical on the French production of the years 1920, reproaching him above all its lack of freedom and its servile attitude towards the financiers and the money. He denounced the change of nature operated by the money on the cinema: from popular origin, it becomes enemy of the people and subjected to the censorship: "Fabulous treasure, the freedom does not conceive the avarice. French cinema is a permanent scandal. Everything in it is vile, vulgar and shows the soul of a policeman and a servant. Do not ask why! Money is guilty. There are directors in France who are capable of making beautiful films. But to make beautiful films you need a lot of money. The money is in the hands of the most contemptuous class of the country. And those who lend money to directors control the scripts and impose the actresses. That's how in France the cinema, a mode of popular expression, is in the hands of the enemies of the people".

He did not hesitate to contribute to the debates of his time: the appearance of talking pictures, which implied the disappearance of subtitles, which Desnos considered "a means of direct emotion that should not be neglected", the conditions of hiring extras, which Desnos did not hesitate to call the "real trade of extras", while denouncing unacceptable working conditions. He also defends the neighborhood cinemas, which, according to him, are more capable of communicating the emotion of a film than a large anonymous theater: "With their grotesque architecture where velvet, gilding and reinforced cement combine to produce horrors, comfortable, no doubt, with their deep armchairs conducive to sleep induced by absurd films, the cinemas, the large cinemas are the last place where, now, we can feel some emotion. While the local cinemas still have the privilege of sincerity and enthusiasm.

Cinema and poetry

It is important to note that the journalistic texts published by Desnos on the cinema are very useful to those who want to understand his poetic universe. Indeed, Desnos is fascinated since his childhood by the world of the dream, by the discovery of the eroticism and the feeling in love. He seems very sensitive and receptive to dreams, to their magic, their power of evocation and the imaginative freedom that they allow, far from the censorship that society imposes on the individual. He does not cease to claim the freedom of creation and to denounce the censures as for the nudity or the eroticism. He refuses the logic of the philistine, who would like a literary cinema, intelligent, putting aside the instincts and passions of the man. Marie-Claire Dumas explains that "critic of cinema, Robert Desnos has thus clear-cut, offensive positions, where the surrealist imperatives to which he adheres (priority of the dream, the imagination, tragic exalting the love) play a major role". One sees it in his poems "where the images scroll in perpetual metamorphoses, where the lyric voice punctuates, with the manner of the subtitles, a scenario of the most fantastic, plays the role of stupefying with which the screen is endowed".

"Like the film, the poem is the place of fusions and the most ardent confusions". This formula illustrates perfectly the thought of Desnos as for his poetry, and the richness which he detects in the cinema: one and the other feed, enrich themselves in turn. The cinema seems to put in images what the poet puts in verse. The power of seeing, light and movement are an obsession for the poet, who seems to be looking for a cinematographic poetry until the end.

"The articles of Desnos offer a partisan reading of the cinema of the twenties: it is a surrealist who sees and testifies. One understands then the interest carried by Desnos to the documentary: the voice is bound to the image, but in a very free unison ". The image is therefore at the heart of Desnos's thinking, it is the image that allows access to the surreal, it is the keystone of the cinematographic and poetic edifice. Thus, far from being a film critic, a figure from which he himself detaches himself, Desnos would rather be considered as an artist and a journalist engaged in the debates of his time, and ready to defend an emerging art of which he seems to foresee the future possibilities. The cinema represents for him a new means of placing freedom and creation at the heart of art. Desnos appears here as a visionary and a precursor, since having seen before many people in the seventh art an inexhaustible reservoir of poetry and freedom.

Writings on painters

Long active supporter of the surrealist movement, of which he was one of the pivots, his writing is in fact imprinted with the universe of dreams, and feeds on the strength of the image. Thus, to reach his poetry passes by the taking into account of the way in which he nourishes the poetic writing by all the forms which bring him the various arts, visual in particular. He is in particular author of a work published in 1984, the Writings on the painters, text in which one finds a kind of poetic art, and this in particular through the glance which he carries on the work of Picasso, "I speak about the poets as much as painters", he explains in this direction. It is because of the ultimatum that André Breton poses to him, which does not support any more the perpetual research, to which Desnos strives tirelessly, of new means and other materials that he introduces in the surrealist poetry, and point already sensitive since years between the two men, the leaning of Desnos for the journalism, that Desnos breaks painfully with the surrealist movement. For Breton, being a poet can certainly be reconciled with a food trade, but certainly not with a writing trade which according to him enters in competition with the poetic writing (in this direction where that becomes a utilitarian writing). The big question that arises when Desnos leaves the Surrealist group is whether he has broken with Surrealism. It is likely, if we are to believe his comments on Picasso, whose genius he describes by his ability to be both one and multiple in his art, that the same applies to his own writing: "Now turn the page, the border is crossed, the barrier fallen. Picasso himself opens the doors of life for you.

Anecdotal works

"There is no work that is not anecdotal". The practice of the anecdote, "small historical fact occurred at a precise moment of the existence of a being, in margin of the dominant events and for this reason often little known. It is a characteristic element of the writing of Desnos. And it is what puts in evidence in particular the work on the tone, often mocking, polemical, although in appearance badinage. One sees it in the text on the Buffet; or the comparison between Braque and Picasso which were confused; or still in the narrativized passages on the forgers: all these small accounts are presented like anecdotes and take however place in a totality which is called Writings on the painters. They are a kind of small chronicles, which are not without a link to a practice that was dear to him, and which earned him, let's remember, his quarrel with the surrealist party, namely journalistic writing. In the Writings, he treats thus on a tone in appearance anecdotal a subject also of this order.

One notes a real accumulation of biographical references of Picasso, of singularized places that he frequents, as if these places said more (and the poet affirms it, since he explains that to have access to Picasso, it is necessary to see him in his workshop) on the painter than his painting finally. Also of the order of the anecdotal, one can recall his propensity to establish apparent digressions, which finally say more about his thought than any formal theorization. One thinks here of the digression on "the sawfish and the weasel", which he mentions because - and in any case a priori only for this reason, denotes the term remorse - "they are charming animals". A light tone, almost banter, which appropriates the multiple reality that the anecdote represents in order to make it his own.

The anecdote thus allows the articulation between the journalistic aspect of his writing, of the order of the chronicle - it is enough to see his titles which are often very factual, like "The last Kahnweiler sale", "Picasso's paintings"... or even the use of a narrative system in a supposedly critical text (notably the texts grouped at the end of the Écrits, under the title "Rembrandt (1606-1928), Visit to the Painters of the Painters"), a strategy reinforced by the omnipresent use of direct speech and visual, spatial and temporal elements.

This work on the anecdote is implemented by many processes, of which the installation of a heterogeneity sought in all respects, by the introduction of various types of speech for example, but also by the mixture of the tones (tone almost burlesque for example): what Desnos sees in the painting of Picasso, in agreement with his own practice of the writing, it is a "magisterial art and", and a painting of the contradictions. It is the same for the style: we have here a poetic writing, whose introduction of a journalistic glance allows the renewal and to which it confers a force of the immediacy. He explains for example that "a still life is an anecdote of the life of some fruits and some vegetables, as a portrait is an anecdote of the face of a being". We can go as far as to speak of the anecdote, a fundamental element that allows us to speak of a journalistic writing, as a "testimony". It is a way of introducing the real to give breath to the surreal.

A "delirious and lucid" writing

The years 1940 mark a return to the poetry and the painters, after Desnos had turned away from it for a time to be more interested in the radio and the journalism. His big question then seems to be to know to what extent a mathematics of forms can be reconciled with the surrealist inspiration. In other words, how could poetry be "delirious and lucid". And there again, it is by turning to Picasso that he seems to find a way to explore in this field, and it is in the texts that he dedicates to the Spanish painter that he elaborates his own stylistic theorization of his way of practicing poetry. Marie-Claire Dumas explains in this sense that "from now on, in the field of the painting, a painter takes the step on all the others: Picasso. It offers the example of all the freedoms, of all the unleashes, as of all the masterships. Delirious and lucid, such would be the painting of Picasso, in the image of the poetry that Desnos pursues ".

Picasso seems to be the one who reached pictorially this perfect balance between delirium and lucidity, the one that the journalistic writing, which precisely claims to be lucid by its nature, can bring to the more "delirious" aspect of surrealism. It is in this sense that Marie-Claire Dumas affirms that "henceforth Desnos does not dissociate any more the destiny of the work of art from the social coordinates where it is registered. To the state of general crisis, Desnos reacts by a lucidity without bitterness, which tries to take the measure of the man and to exalt all the possible ones of it ".

The work of art has this of fascinating that it is at the same time factual, lucid, by its immediate presence, and at the same time delirious, since it exists in its own universe, according to its own laws which have of limits only the imagination of their creator.

The text testifies to a stylistic search for modalization, as evidenced, for example, by the large number of epanorthoses, reformulations to give the impression of seeing the discourse established before our eyes, and to recreate the spontaneity of the anecdotal precisely, or the preteritions: "Everything has been said about Picasso, including what was not to be said. I will therefore refuse today to contribute to the more or less burlesque glossing of his work. This passage is a way of giving legitimacy to his statement, which is certainly yet another way of glossing Picasso's art, but a way that is not, unlike the others, burlesque, that is other, and that passes through an anecdote (namely, the fact that he sometimes crosses paths with Picasso and that Picasso recognizes and greets him). But it is not so simple, and what should also be noted is that this anecdote is precisely told in an almost burlesque tone, since Desnos mocks himself by explaining that he does not recognize Picasso when he meets him, because of his myopia. We are in a kind of parody of the burlesque genre (it is a question of treating a noble material, the painter Picasso, in a tone a little low, trivial, by the allusion to myopia). Here is a contradiction (key element in the poetic writing of Desnos and in his conception of the art) which is probably looked for by the poet, whereas he describes a painter himself often defined as contradictory. This will to mix the materials, as he mixes the tonalities, the registers, the speeches, the genres, and the terms, is strongly affirmed in his conception. In a very general way, its poetics is characterized besides by "the search for a popular and exact language".

Poetry and testimony

"Beautiful weatherFor men worthy of the nameBeautiful weather for rivers and treesBeautiful weather for the seaRemain the foamAnd the joy of livingAnd a hand in mineAnd the joy of livingI am the verse witnessing the breath of my master " .

Finally, poetry (in the broad sense) becomes a witness, which is again in line with the journalistic aspect we mentioned earlier. However, it is above all a witness of joy, a witness of what by definition is not rational: it is an uncontrollable and unforeseen gush. One would almost find here the idea of "delirium", implemented by the writing itself, by the zeugma, "remain the foam and the joy of living and a hand in mine and the joy of living", wobbly construction which marks a jolt of the writing; and in fact, semantically, it is the same since the joy of living is similar by the construction to the foam, element which appears when the sea is violent and agitated: thus the hand itself, by lexical contamination, becomes delirious. Moreover, foam is also the mark of madness, or anger, and joy is manifested by laughter, which is traditionally associated with a somewhat diabolical aspect of man precisely because of his irrationality.

Between delirium and lucidity, one finds there the own definition of Robert Desnos, if one can speak thus, knowing his aversion for the categorization of which the definition can be a manifestation, of the surrealism, since he left it precisely because of the fact that it was doomed to suffocate itself, to become a kind of automatism and thus simple application of a sterilizing formula, moving away from its initial constitution between the dream and the look on the real world


  1. Robert Desnos
  2. Robert Desnos
  3. Prononciation en français retranscrite selon la norme API d'après Meyers Grosses Universallexikon.
  4. M.-C. Dumas (dir.), Robert Desnos, Les Cahiers de l’Herne, « Chronologie », p. 401.
  5. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n et o Pierre Berger, « Robert Desnos », dans Poètes d'aujourd'hui, Seghers, 1949.
  6. ^ Lahire, Bernard (2006). "4. De la nécessité d'un second métier". La condition littéraire : La double vie des écrivains. Paris: Edition La Découverte. pp. 132, 142, 308. ISBN 978-2-7071-4942-8.
  7. «Robert Desnos». Encyclopædia Britannica. Consultado el 18 de agosto de 2016.
  8. a b c d Introducción a A la misteriosa. Las tinieblas.
  9. Conley, Katharine (2003). Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday life (en inglés). University of Nebraska. Consultado el 18 de agosto de 2016.

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