Robert Desnos (July 4, 1900 - June 8, 1945), was a French poet, and an early member of the Surrealist movement. He was also a film critic, journalist, and radio writer who lived in Paris, during the 1920s, with other avant garde writers. Ultimately, the members of the group would separate—not so much because of artistic differences,but due to their politics; particularly their differing views of Communism.
Among Surrealists, Desnos was once heralded as the "prophet" of a technique of poetic writing sometimes called "automatic writing," where the author, suspended in a self induced hypnotic trance, writes from a deeply unconscious space, one that borders between wakefulness and a dream state. The Surrealists valued free expression of thought above control or reason; a medium that encouraged artistic expression without formal structure or editing of thoughts.
During the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, Desnos would become a part of the French Resistance. He was arrested and taken to a concentration camp where he lived out his final days trying to lighten the burden of his fellow prisoners with his poetic gifts. Tragically, he died shortly after his camp was liberated by Allied Forces, and the poems he wrote while imprisoned were subsequently lost.
Born the son of a cafe owner in Paris, Desnos’ poems were first published in 1917, in La Tribune des Jeunes, and in 1919, in the avant-garde review, Le Trait d’union. In 1921 and 1922, he performed two years of compulsory military service in the French army, both in France and Morocco. While on leave, he met the poet Benjamin Péret, who introduced him to the Dada group, a coalition of artists opposed to World War I. He also developed close ties with André Breton, the French poet best known for writing the "Surrealist Manifesto," in 1924.
It was while working as a literary columnist for the newspaper, Paris-Soir, that Desnos became an active member of the Surrealist group and developed a unique talent for using the literary technique of "automatic writing," sometimes called "sleep writing." Although hailed by Breton in his 1924, Manifeste du Surréalisme, as being the movement’s master of this form, Desnos’ continuous work for various journalistic publications and his disapproval of the Surrealists' involvement with Marxist politics, caused a rift between the two men.
Nevertheless, Breton went on to praise Desnos in his novel, Nadja: "Those who have not seen his pencil set on paper—without the slightest hesitation and with an astonishing speed—those amazing poetic equations… cannot conceive of everything involved in their creation…, of the absolutely oracular value they assumed." Surrealism in the 1920s, already well explored through visual arts and literature, was to receive experimental and creative treatment with Breton at the vanguard of the movement, along with other poets, such as Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, and Paul Éluard.
The Surrealists' view of the unconscious as a source of creative power and insight—and therefore a source of unfettered artistic inspiration can be, at least partly, attributed to the pioneering psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud, during that era. The term hypnagogic—a state of dreaming yet being half awake—was coined by the nineteenth century French psychologist LF Alfred Maury. A hypnagogic trance was to be revered as an "altered state of consciousness" by surrealists, and an important gateway to their writing. However, the political philosophy of socialism, which was beginning to take root in Europe, and which was initially embraced by surrealists, would prove to be at variance with their most sacred value—freedom of expression.
In 1916, while still a teenager, Desnos began to transcribe his dreams, to draw, and to write his own poetry (by 1917). He believed in the power of the written word not only to evoke, but to persuade, which may explain his continuing interest in journalistic writing, as well as in the unstructured "spoken thought" of surrealism. In 1944, one month before he was arrested, Desnos wrote in Reflections on Poetry, "Poetry may be this or it may be that," but, he continued, "…it shouldn't necessarily be this or that…except delirious and lucid." It was, perhaps, in the juxtaposition of these two diametrical elements that the poetry of surrealism was born.
Between the years of 1920 and 1930, Desnos was very prolific, publishing eight books of poetry. His first book, Rrose Selavy, published in 1922, was a collection of surrealistic aphorisms. Early works reflect his imaginative and fanciful love of word play. In 1936, he committed and challenged himself to writing a poem a day.
His work became more structured as he matured and gave up the many excesses of his youth, which included drug experimentation. Although his writing was still adventurous, it was less obscure, while retaining its distinctive and lyrical rhythms. He married the former Lucie Badoul, nicknamed "Youki" ("snow") by her ex-husband, the painter Tsugaharu Foujita. One of Bresnos' most famous poems is "Letter to Youki," written after his arrest.
In 1926, he composed The Night of Loveless Nights, a lyric poem about solitude, curiously written in classic-like quatrains, more similar to Charles Baudelaire than Breton. During this early creative period, Desnos idolized entertainer, Yvonne George, a popular cabaret singer, who was also a part of the Parisian cultural milieu. Although, he does not name her specifically in his poems many (La liberté ou l'amour! 1927) can be attributed to her, especially those that reflect unrequited love, a recurring theme of his.
His return to formalism and more mainstream writings are most likely what set him apart from other surrealist writers. He became further alienated from them due to their increasing association with Marxism. The nexus between Marxist economic ideals and the philosophy of the "beloved imagination" of surrealism, seemingly companionable, would prove to be fragile. And Desnos, always an independent thinker, refused to subject himself to 'party dictates.' Soon enough, however, his writing would take issue with the Vichy regime under Nazi occupied France.
By 1929 Breton had definitively condemned Desnos, who in turn had aligned himself with the French philosopher and writer Georges Bataille. Bataille was to experience a similar falling out with Andre Breton and the surrealists; however each writer would find their own unique avenue for contributing to the development of surrealism during its peak in the 1930s.
His career in radio advertising began in 1932, working for Paul Deharme and "Information et Publicite." During this time, he developed friendships with Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Antonin Artaud, and John Dos Passos. Desnos published many critical reviews on jazz and cinema and became increasingly involved in politics. He wrote for numerous periodicals, including Littérature, La Révolution surréaliste, and Variétés. Among his numerous collections of poems, he also published three novels, Deuil pour deuil (1924), La Liberté ou l’amour! (1927), and Le vin est tiré (1943).
In American Poetry Review, Louis Simpson wrote that when the Nazis occupied France, Desnos, "began his own war with the Germans." As a member of a press group, he was able to meet with the Nazi press attache who gave out the news and he would then pass that on to his contacts in the French Resistance. He wrote a series of essays that subtly, yet sardonically, mocked the Nazi occupiers. He wrote poems against the collaborationist's, publishing under various pseudonyms and these were also disseminated. Simpson claimed Desnos "was practically asking to be arrested, and one day the Gestapo came and took him away."
Desnos died February 22, 1944. Desnos was first deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia in 1945, where he died from typhoid, only weeks after the camp’s liberation. He is buried at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. Although most of his writings were lost, an earlier poem to his wife, in revised form, was found on his person:
In this excerpt from No, Love Is Not Dead is a moving soliloquy that sounds like it could be Desnos' own elegy.
Desnos's poetry has been set to music by a number of composers, including Witold Lutosławski with Les Espaces du Sommeil (1975) and Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1991) and Francis Poulenc (Dernier poème, 1956). Carolyn Forché has translated his poetry and names Desnos as a significant influence on her own work.
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