Tosh Berman of TamTam books:
The complete four issues of the journal Le Grand Jeu (The Great Game). A publication edited and published in the years 1928 to 1930 by René Daumal, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and Roger Vailland. Surrealists by nature, but not part of the band of outsiders. Mostly had an interest in the spiritual life of drug taking, almost dying, and the difference between the awaken and dream/sleep life. The beauty of this publication is the dynamic relationship between Daumal, Gilbert-Leconte and Valland. Basically they were teenagers — super bright teenagers, but nevertheless very young and adventuresome. The first thing that occurs to me is the photographs of this editorial group. All of them are bordering on beautiful, and at the very least, very handsome. As they get older, and as drug addiction takes place, their look becomes more decadent looking. I love that. As for the writing, it is truly awesome. There is a tight collection of writers/thinkers who contribute to the publication, and this is a superb edition by Atlas Press – who specialize in European avant-garde movements and their journals. A super important publication then and now, as well a remarkable introduction by Dennis Duncan, who provides us with the sense of time and adventure that took place in Paris in the late 20s. Buy it!
3:AM Magazine August 5th, 2015.
Sam Dunn Is Dead & Theory of the Great Game.
By Richard Marshall.
Sam Dunn Is Dead, Bruno Corra, Atlas Press, 2015
Theory of the Great Game: Writings From ‘Le Grand Jeu Edited by Dennis Duncan by Rene Daumal & Roger Gilbert-Lecomte etc, Atlas Press, 2015
First up, an uncharacteristic example of Futurism, long out of print in Italy and never in print in English, here’s a ‘bitter wit’, as John Walker precisely renders it in his introduction, where ‘… never has disenchantment been depicted with such verve and gusto.’ Corra was the pseudonym of Bruno Ginanni Corradini, an aristocrat born in 1892. With his brother Ginna he studied art, alchemy, oriental philosophy, theosophy, occult science generally and published ‘The Art of the Future’ in 1910 which is one of the first explorations of the avant garde written anywhere. He wrote a manifesto alongside Marinetti on Futurist theatre, authored another on Futurist cinema and experimented with Futurist films to create with his brother the first Futurist film, ‘Futurist Life’, in 1916. He co-authored the novel ‘The Island of Kisses’ with Marinetti in 1918 and prefaced his brothers’ collection of short stories ‘Trains with Socks On’ in 1919. But then he tired of Futurism, dropped it completely and wrote conservative novels until he died in 1974.
According to the intro by Walker the novel ‘Sam Dunn is Dead’ works more according to principles he outlined in his manifesto for theatre rather than for any kind of novel. It is, according to Corra in his preface to the 1928 edition, the first ‘synthetic novel’ because it cuts out ‘… preparatory chapters, superfluous sections, pointless detail, or drawn-out, lazy clichés… etc… etc.’ It’s a novel that moves from Paris, the Ligurian Riviera to the Fjords of Norway. There are few authorial asides or comments. He plays a few meta-literary games :
‘… while he was uttering these monosyllables his eyes were fixed, in an attitude of immense concentration, on the spiral of smoke rising from the cigarette held tightly between his pale fingers as it insinuated itself into the warmth of the atmosphere.
A moment. To each his own. This “insinuated itself” is not mine. In a peculiar way it is not even my idea to emphasise it.’ And that’s it. But the novel has a dandy feel to it, a disturbed strangeness belied by its smooth surface, a John Steed tonal accomplishment that fixes up a cosmopolitan archness with debonair magus atmospherics.
The Sam Dunn character is a genius of the occult, taking energies from the people around him, having powers that may lead to a new world. Rosa Rosa’s illustrations are limpid and strange in keeping with the odd text. It is lighter and funnier than the usual Futurist mélange, and less infused with the muscular techno-thrill power- kick machismo that seems to fuel so much of the movement and its sometimes nasty, fascist politics. Carra’s exit from the movement strikes us now as well judged. But nothing is ever quite as it seems in this sort of set-up. If the need is to unfreeze oneself from the folded, frozen self of the tamed and the humble then Carra’s exit from the movement can be understood as another way of continuing. It’s never clear who remains conscious of their revolutionary destiny once lives pan out and terribly mundane details accumulate and fuss around a biography. Rene Daumal (who we’ll come to later) in one edition of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ writes: ‘ Man or society must, at every moment, be on the point of exploding, at every moment renouncing this explosion, and always refusing to rest in a defined form…. resignation, as opposed to abjection, is power itself, for the body replaced in the world thereby participates in all of nature.’ So it could be Carra was somehow staying true to his original crack at utopianism by stepping aside. Perhaps he agreed with Ballard that smiling whilst being suburban was the genuine revolutionary life. But then we recall that Stewart Home called out Ballard as being no more than a ‘travel writer.’ This is the territory where jokes are just ways of walking in an opposite direction.
Maybe Carra’s writing is tamer than it needs to be. The mind-altering frenzy and psychopathic energies of audacity, derangement and shamanic glut are missing. But perhaps that’s the point. There is a devious humour in the decadent surrealism of the character and the scenes depicted and the events recounted. There is a wind-up quality to it all, a refined aristo pitch that lounges around like an insane episode of ‘Made in Chelsea’, cutting its own elegant throat but with creepy style. This is a Futurism that senses the danger of silk scarves rather than fast cars, jet engines and bullets. As such it’s probably less tired than the rather clichéd tropes of the movement now seem, but more exhaustingly sarcastic. The lightness of the writing is part of a refined and rather brilliant antinomianism that refuses to consent to anything, including the perpetual motifs of Futurism found even within itself.
But my take on Futurism is a little awry, spinning the line that at its core this was a fascist movement. It wasn’t. It was the start of contemporary utopianism in its modern idiom. In Stewart Home’s authoritative ‘Assault on Culture’ Home shows how utopian projects aimed at bringing about collective unity by fusing categories that were separate in their own settings. So during the medieval times utopianists sought to break down the separation of religion and the world by bringing about heaven on earth. In contemporary times religion is replaced by art and utopianism attempts to fuse art with politics.
“So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!… Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!” proclaims the ‘First Futurist Manifesto’. Futurism was the kick-start movement that replaced religion with art as the key idiom of utopianism.
Carra’s novel makes clear that Sam Dunn is not merely an artist but is rather the apotheosis of the absolutist Futurist project: the character transforms more than just art by fusing together the whole world, its politics, fashion, technologies and its sense of time and event, space and dream as well as art via Sam Dunn’s transformational powers.
What followed the Futurist pioneers of the modern utopian idiom were the Dadaists. Richard Huelsenbeck gave the modernist utopianism a stronger theoretical grip than anything the Futurists managed in his Dada manifesto ‘”What Is Dadaism and What Does It Want in Germany?” Later, in his 1920 essay “En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism” he writes: “The Dadaist considers it necessary to come out against art because he has seen through its fraud as a moral safety valve”. And further, that “Dada is German Bolshevism. The bourgeois must be deprived of the opportunity to ‘buy up art for his justification’. Art should altogether get a sound thrashing, and Dada stands for that thrashing with all the vehemence of its limited nature.” Clearly Dada wasn’t just an art movement.
As late as 1936 he was writing against all attempts to brand it as such, and in so doing attacked the Surrealists:
‘”Tzara, in Paris, eliminated from Dadaism its revolutionary and creative element and attempted to compete with other artistic movements… Dada is perpetual, revolutionary ‘pathos’ aimed at rationalistic bourgeois art. In itself it is not an artistic movement. To quote the German Chancellor, the revolutionary element in Dada was always greater than its constructive element. Tzara did not invent Dadaism, nor did he really understand it. Under Tzara in Paris Dada was deformed for the private use of a few persons so that its action was almost a snobbish one.”
‘Le Grand Jeu’ competed with the Surrealists. As Stewart Home makes clear:
‘Paris Dada was later renamed Surrealism. Under this title it became the most degenerate expression of the Utopian tradition during the pre-war years. Whereas Berlin Dada rejected both art and work (themes that were later taken up by the Situationist International), the Surrealists embraced painting, occultism, Freudianism and numerous other bourgeois mystifications. Indeed, if Surrealism had been a movement in its own right, rather than a degeneration from Dada, any claim that it belongs within the Utopian tradition would be open to question.’
The creators of the magazine ‘Le Grand Jeu’ didn’t see things exactly like that. They attempted to fuse the ‘bourgeois mystifications’ listed above to a utopianism of collective action. In this way they attempted to transcend the limitations of Paris Dada, utilizing the very bourgeois gadgets that condemn the Surrealists in the eyes of Home as well as themselves. Could it be done?
It’s clear that another acerbic insight from Home is relevant here. Home writes that art is a legitimated form of male emotionality. It’s impossible to read ‘Le Grand Jeu’ without having this notion burning through your mind. Home is characteristically brutal and corrosive:
‘The ‘male’ artist is treated as a ‘genius’ for expressing feelings that are ‘traditionally’ considered ‘feminine’. ‘He’ constructs a world in which the male is heroicised by displaying ‘female’ traits; and the female is reduced to an insipid subordinate role. ‘Bohemia’ is colonised by bourgeois men – a few of whom are ‘possessed by genius’, the majority of whom are ‘eccentric’. Bourgeois wimmin whose behaviour resembles that of the ‘male genius’ are dismissed as being ‘hysterical’ – while proletarians of either sex who behave in such a manner are simply branded as ‘mental’.” So according to this perspective, art is done by posh boys for posh. With this in mind, the mental activities and ideas of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ are somewhat diminished. Or rather, they have to be judged with this limitation held in mind.
‘Theory of the Great Game: Writings From ‘Le Grand Jeu’ is a selection from the three published and one unpublished editions of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ magazine. Published in Paris between 1928 and 1930 it was edited by a small band of young guys from provincial Reims who wanted to change the world. The granular individuality of the Surreal challenge was to be replaced with a particular species of the collective Universal Mind. They declared that the time of the individual, the Surrealist time, was over. They called time on Pico della Mirandola’s individualised utopia, the time that informed surrealism. In its place they announced the advent of Baudelaire’s time, the time of the utopian collective. Baudelaire’s ‘correspondences’ were mystical systems taken from Swedenborg that denied the ‘discursive schemes of successive causality and of a world divided into individual objects…’ The editors of Le Grand Jeu were proposing a metaphysics that broke with the language of subject and predicate, cause and effect, replacing it with one that reached to the grand process-metaphysics of Heraclitus and Nietzsche. They proposed a Hegelianism that mixed with the materialism of Marx, making a double distinction within both idealism and materialism. They required absolute idealism as ‘… a beacon of fate lighting the way for revolution.’ But they also required an absolute materialism opposed to primary materialists ‘… who got tired and wanted a new system of total repose; of spiritual spinelessness so that it becomes easy for them to say… “Me, I am a real revolutionary, and much more orthodox than you, monsieur …” They insisted on the occult mysticism fused with group participation. Gilbert-Lecomte wrote his essay, ‘Vision of Epiphysis’ on this.
The dead-end routinised time that was Western society was assaulted by an esotericism involving copious drug use, parapsychology and poetry in the mould of Rimbaud and Mallarme. Its politico-mystical occultism was wild, incoherent, over-indulgent and for the short time festered like an iterating Bacchanalian pox on post-Dada Surrealism. Dennis Duncan’s excellent intro sets the scene and gives us the background to the excoriating derangements of the group via selected texts from the editions that make up this beauty of a book. Duncan’s intro has a set piece that tells us about the mythic meeting at the Bar du Chateau that was ostensibly intended to prevent the fragmentation of the Surrealist group but ended in further fragmentation and the beginning of the end of Le Grand Jeu too. (Having said that, the third edition was produced after this meeting, and the fragments for the unpublished fourth as well. And Le Grand Jeu was always far too combustible a project, and the relationships binding its four lead characters too intense and unstable for it to have ever been anything other than a sudden eruption that disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.)
Surrealism was already a farce. By the time of this meeting Artaud and Bataille had left – Bataille commenting on the proposed Surrealist collective that it was filled with ‘a load of fucking idealists.’ In the bar that night however were Man Ray, Magritte, Arp, Aragon, Tanguy, Crevel, Breton and Queneau amongst many others so it certainly wasn’t a dead duck yet. One of the key elements of the meeting was an attack on opinions coming out of ‘Le Grand Jeu.’
This fact points to the appeal of these guys: not only were they sick of their straight commoditized, complacent enemies, they were also wanting to provoke their potential allies as well. They didn’t care for what Breton wanted them all to do, seeing him as another vanguard generalissimo pitching rules and orders on their heads. Listening to leaders was part of the problem as far as they were concerned and they were just not going to play nice with faux deviants whose mentality seemed to mimic the bourgeois machine against which they raged.
What kinds of things did they do to provoke the Surrealists? They talked about God and said they preferred an executed serial killer to a pair of executed anarchists. They linked up with Artaud and Jarry. They refused to sign a petition supporting students against the violence of the state. One of them even wrote a sympathetic piece on a really right-wing police chief. Vailland, the guy who wrote this piece, ended up a communist and star novelist. He was asked to leave the group so that the others didn’t have to keep making excuses for him and his last contribution was in the final published issue, issue three, where he announced his leaving. Reading this stuff, you get a sense that this was all a twisty insane way of defeating the inquisitional judgments that characterized what they saw as a failed and stultifying pre-revolutionary scene. For them the situation required blood and moon craziness to redirect social synapses into something thrillingly new, refreshed and collective. They indulged in experimental metaphysics and took copious drugs to this end. They saw no point in merely building a left wing political party or joining up with a Surrealism that seemed at times to be nothing more than just another idealist protest group. Instead readers of the magazine were to come face to face with themselves. The idea was ‘to make them despair.’ What they suspected was that the avant-garde-ists and all their potential allies were largely acting in bad faith and were merely concocting intellectual and artistic distractions.
Their assessment of Breton’s Surrealism was therefore pretty close to Homes’. In contrast to Breton’s sham they presented theirs as a movement against hope and without Ideals, where any frenzy ‘should not be mistaken for enthusiasm.’ This was ugly youth claiming what they called ‘Dogmaclasm’, a movement that was ‘wholly and systematically destructive.’ Morality and science – ‘thirty centuries of experiments in a vacuum’, were to be smashed. All dogmas were to be critiqued, and revolt was an absolute term.
In rejecting the Surrealists – those who ‘lived off the corpse of Dada’ – they accused Surrealist action of being nothing but ‘trompe l’oeil’, a ‘confusion’. They accused Breton of being less sure than they were of the obvious desirability of fusing leftist Hegelianism with Marxism and Surrealism. This was for them the obvious position for revolutionary action. They found Surrealist experiments such as the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ and Automatic writing as little more than parlour games, contrasting them with their own ‘technologies’ of depersonalisation, transportation of consciousness, clairvoyance, mediumship, Hindu yoga, the ‘systematic confrontation of both lyrical and oneiric fact with the teachings of the occult tradition’ and primitive mentalities.
The group of four editing the magazine – Robert Meyrat, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Roger Vailland and Rene Daumal – expounded what they labeled a ‘Simplist’ point of view. This was a return to ‘a state of childhood simplicity, the belief in a mystical state of unity and thus the rejection of distinctions (distinctions, for example, between dream and reality or between the visible and invisible) which were seen as nothing more than social constructs: unnecessary, acquired.’ They took much of their inspiration from Jarry and they had their own private God, Bubu, whose name they took from Jarry’s ‘Pere Ubu.’ ‘Bubu, navel of the world, has granted me this vision’ is the sort of thing they’d write. Decadent experimentalism, absinthe fuelled and unutterable guided their actions and fed their minds. Opium became the drug of choice. They were interested in paroptic vision where subjects attempted to see hidden objects. There’s a picture of Daumal wearing goggles trying to see the content of a locked box he holds. They were also into sightless movement, running through the streets at night with their eyes closed. They were also interested in the ‘Bloody Mary’ illusion, which Douglas Heaven in ‘The New Scientist’ calls a ‘ … Halloween trick that conjures ghosts of the mind’. By concentrating on the surface of the mirror, rather than the reflection, the reflection then appears uncanny. Daumal tried many occult orientated technologies to alter states of perception. He writes in ‘Nerval The Nyctalope’:
‘Here is the method I discovered for taking leave of my body (I have since learned that in occult science it has been known from Antiquity): in the evening, like everyone else, I went to bed, and, carefully relaxing all my muscles, making sure that each was wholly given up to itself, I took long, deep breaths in a regular rhythm, until my body was no more than a foreign, paralysed mass to me. Then I would imagine myself getting up and dressing , but – and this is the essential point where I insist that those who wish to emulate me will require uncommon courage and powers of attention – I imagined each movement in its slightest detail and with such exactness that picturing the action of putting on a sandal would take precisely the same time as it would to put it on in corporeal life.’ Persevering with this, disciplining himself in order to accomplish such a marvellous feat of concentration, he becomes capable of miraculous powers:
‘Seen from the outside , I was asleep. But in fact I was wandering effortlessly – with the desperate ease , moreover, that those who remember dying know so well – I walked, and at the same time, unmoving, saw myself walking, in parts of the town that were entirely unfamiliar…’
The insane derangements of the group enabled them to arrive at mystical perceptions of another universe without the fraud of organized religions reeling back these ‘workers of horror’ to the diversion that turns all living purpose into earthly ends. They agreed with the sentiments of Rimbaud’s ‘A Season in Hell’ that ‘Morality is an infirmity of the brain’ and that all beauty was bitter and to be reviled. Art, literature, all that jazz, it gets destroyed just as absolutely as all the rest of civilisation’s junk. Rimbaud’s ‘I envied the happiness of animals; caterpillars which are symbols of the innocence of limbo, and moles, symbols of the slumber of virginity’ became their own jealousy. The rejection of innovation – artistic, literary – the profound destruction of self – the self-mutilating magic action of the group was the reason why they were too far away from the surrealists and post-Dadaists. They alighted on a collective suffering that was a sort of final sarcasm, and were damned for it.
Death was an obsession, a symbolism that they dredged from Baudelaire and Rimbaud of course and became from the very start moreover another of the distinctions to be overturned, an illusion that led to them playing Russian Roulette and Daumal writing to Gilbert-Lecomte: ‘If you wanted to kill me, I would not have the right to resist.’ By the time they got to producing the first edition of the magazine they were all about transforming their mystic metaphysics into a Simplist approach. The magazine contained extended studies of Simplist themes, shock prose and poetry alongside reviews of literature, theatre and cinema. They also contained samples of visual arts from sympathetic associates. They were less acerbic than the surrealists and more friendly towards religion, especially the mystical elements. Communism was the obvious correlative of Simplism, but they refused blind adherence to the Party.
Morphine addiction, hospitalization, detox and relapse knocked out Gilbert-Lecomte. Daumal connected up with the Gurdjieff mystic scene, married the former wife of a poet and with her looked after Gilbert-Lecomte in Reims, the four’s old home town where they had first met when school boys there.
When Aragon was charged with incitement to murder by writing his poem ‘Front Rouge’ in 1932 with lines like ‘kill the cops/comrades/ kill the cops’ the Parisian literary establishment split over whether it defended or opposed him. It was in this context that Gilbert-Lecomte wrote: ‘… with these accounts of idiotic disputes and revolutionary activity… don’t you realize that Le Grand Jeu is fucked irremediably?’ Reneville attacked the poem, the others supported it, Daumal protected Reneville, a crisis meeting was held and everything fell apart. Reneville was asked to retract his criticism of the poem and he refused, saying, ‘It would have meant me writing a eulogy for Aragon’s poem. How sad to find such an attitude in those who sought to rid themselves of all spinelessness.’
Daumal left for New York, Gilbert-Lecomte joined Breton and the Surrealists, as did Le Grand Jeu sympathisers Harfaux and Henry. Daumal kept on with the Gurdjieff mysticism and worked a little on the Pataphysics science of imaginary solutions inaugurated by Jarry. He wrote essays on the limitation of philosophical language and saw an alternative in Hindi. He wrote a collection of poetry ‘The Counter-Sky’ which won the Prix Jacques Doucet in 1935, and in 1938 wrote a satire of the literary scene he’d left behind. He died of TB in 1944.
In 1933 Gilbert-Lecomte wrote two volumes of poetry and Artaud wrote a preface. He fell on hard times what with drugs, poverty and the police hounding him around Montparnasse. He married a German Jewess who shared his addiction but was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz whilst he died in 1943 of tetanus contracted from a dirty needle on New Year’s Eve. Vailland became a reporter, was a dandy and because he was earning decent cash his opium addiction didn’t bring with it the problems it had for Gilbert-Lecomte. He joined the Resistance, then the Communists, became a novelist and screenwriter and won the Prix Goncourt for his novel ‘The Law’ in 1957.
Since then different formulations of the modern Utopian project have erupted such as Cobra, the Lettristes, Pataphysics, the Situationists, Fluxus, Auto-Destructivism, Mail Art, Punk, Neoism, Class War etc etc. Some were around before the demise of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ . Some had wimmin. Some weren’t even posh no matter what gender. What ‘Le Grand Jeu’ was avant-garde as distinct from underground, a distinction Stewart Home makes in terms of ideological coherence. Avant-garde-ists are more coherent, tending towards what James H Billington calls ‘Radical simplification.’ Some avant-garde movements, such as Fluxus, degenerate into underground. Some underground movements begin underground and stay there, such as The Dutch Provos, Motherfuckers, King Mob, Yippies, Mail Artists, Punks and Class War.
It’s worth reading both of these books to see if there’s anything they did that can be reused. The insane commodification of everything, including both underground and avant-garde groups, can be opposed by our spontaneous reactions to these and other utopian writings. In this way our reading will be like reacting to our fave popular music with insane dance spasms like we do. Don’t read these guys as specialist geniuses but grinningly absorb them into improvised elaborations of human community so money is abolished along with all the terrorist distinctions money brings. Of course that’s terrible theory but no worse than the trippy generalizations of all of these whack-job groups working on the narcotic fringe of the collective cortex where sometimes it’s not the quality that counts but the width of their derangements.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
On One: The Writings of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte
The Book is a Ghost
Thoughts & Paroxysms for Going Beyond
Translated by Michael Tweed
Solar Luxuriance ($13)
Theory of the Great Game
Writings from “Le Grand Jeu”
René Daumal & Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, et al.
Edited and translated by Dennis Duncan
Atlas Press ($29.95)
by Garrett Caples
In 1929, during one of the Paris surrealist movement’s periodic crises, André Breton called for a meeting between his group and the various dissident figures working along similar lines to discuss “the possibilities of common action,” as the letter of invitation read. To say that this meeting was a failure is an understatement, and indeed it served as a prelude to the further fragmentation of Breton’s group documented in his “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” (1929). Far from encouraging “common action,” Breton opened the meeting with an extensive list of accusations against Le Grand Jeu, the group behind the magazine of the same name that ran for three issues between 1928 and 1930. Le Grand Jeu was denounced for everything from its use of the reactionary word “god” to one member’s pseudonymous article in Paris-Midi in support of Paris’s right-wing chief of police. This last accusation stuck, however, for it was true, and led to Le Grand Jeu’s eventual splintering. A pyrrhic victory for Breton.
What is curious about this affair is how seriously Breton took Le Grand Jeu, the core of which was three high-school buddies from Reims. At the time of the meeting, René Daumal, already a successful avant-garde poet, was about to turn twenty-one while his friends Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and Roger Vailland (author of the Paris-Midi article) would only turn twenty-two later that year. The members of Le Grand Jeu were admitted admirers of surrealism, and Breton had even unsuccessfully lobbied Daumal and Gilbert-Lecomte to join his group. Some of Breton’s rancor here might be attributed to this rebuff, as well as Le Grand Jeu’s willingness to collaborate with former members of his group, like Robert Desnos, André Masson, and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes.
Of the founders of Le Grand Jeu, Daumal has been the only one with much presence in the Anglophone world, both as the author of two novels, A Night of Serious Drinking (1938) and the unfinished, posthumous Mount Analogue (1952), and as a Sanskrit-translating devotee of Gurdjieff. As far as I know, Vailland, later a Stalinist and a Prix Goncourt-winning novelist, has never been translated. But the most intriguing figure of the entire Grand Jeu remains Roger Gilbert-Lecomte (1907-1943), a poet whose work elicited Antonin Artaud’s only review of a contemporary book of poems. Most of what American readers know about this poet stems from the efforts of Artaud translator David Rattray, whose translation of selected Gilbert-Lecomte poems, Black Mirror, appeared from Station Hill in 1991 and whose book of selected prose How I Became One of the Invisible (Semiotexte, 1993) included the biographical essay “Roger Gilbert-Lecomte.” Thus I’ve taken the simultaneous publication of two books—Theory of the Grand Game: Writings from “Le Grand Jeu” edited and translated by Dennis Duncan from London’s venerable publisher of the European modernist avant-garde, Atlas Press, and The Book Is a Ghost: Thoughts and Paroxysms for Going Beyond by Roger Gilbert-Lecomte edited and translated by Michael Tweed from San Francisco’s ultra-indie Solar Luxuriance—as an opportunity to get acquainted with the wider current of the poet’s work.
Le Grand Jeu was essentially a parasurrealist group influenced by theosophy and mysticism, whose researches focused on such activities as meditation and derangement of the senses through the use of drugs, with the goal of achieving a revolution in human consciousness. If such activities could be considered poles of the group’s spectrum, the future Gurdjieff follower Daumal clearly represents the former, while the morphine-addicted Gilbert-Lecomte—who infamously died from an infection brought on by shooting up through a dirty pantleg—embodies the latter. The reality is of course more complicated, as Daumal only survived Gilbert-Lecomte by a matter of months before dying of tuberculosis, possibly exacerbated by his own youthful experiments with the highly toxic chemical carbon tetrachloride, but you get the idea. From surrealism, in addition to a pantheon of heroes like Rimbaud and Saint-Pol-Roux, Le Grand Jeu borrowed its rejection of the conventional divide between subjective experience and the objective world, between dream and reality, a rejection that in Breton’s work would culminate in the theory of objective chance put forward in Mad Love (1937). In his essay “The Power of Renunciation,” published in Le Grand Jeu 1 and translated in Theory of the Great Game, Gilbert-Lecomte states his position thusly:
The revolt of the individual against himself, by means of any regimen of specific ecstasy (use of intoxicants, auto-hypnotism, paralysis of the nerve centers, vascular disturbances, syphilis, dedifferentiation of the senses, and all the contrivances a superficial mind might adopt out of a simple appetite for destruction), taught him his first lesson. He has perceived that the apparent coherence of the external world—the same world that should, it seems, be differentiated from the world of dreams—collapses at the slightest shock. This coherence is only verifiable by the senses; thus it varies with the state of these senses; it is solely a function of the individual himself and everything happens as if projected from the depths of his consciousness on to the outside world. . . . The first step towards unity is to discover within oneself the same chaos as that which surrounds us all.
This is all well and good, but it brings us up against a certain limitation of Gilbert-Lecomte as psychological theorist. When Breton wants to make such a point, he seldom fails to do so without an extensive briefing of evidence based on his own anecdotal experience, subsequently drawing on the insights of previous thinkers and fellow surrealists in order to argue his position. But Gilbert-Lecomte generally doesn’t mount arguments so much as make declarations of belief, as befitting Le Grand Jeu’s more religious sensibility; he begins with his conclusions and proceeds from there. This is not to complain that his conclusions are less hard-won than Breton’s—though this is undoubtedly the case—but simply that they are less compelling when divorced from the lived experience Breton always brings to bear on his essays.
Gilbert-Lecomte seems strangely aware of his limitations as an essayist. As he writes in “The Evolution of the Human Mind” (in The Book Is a Ghost), “Throughout my life, I have only presented anew, as many times as possible, the same work.” Gilbert-Lecomte has his set of ideas and each essay provides an occasion to mull them over anew. Chief among his tenets is a philosophical and religious monism, a belief in the essential oneness of the universe. His “philosophical system,” as he writes in the “Notes & Fragments” section of The Book Is a Ghost, “can be defined as the monotonous affirmation of unity through the reflections of phenomenal multiplicity.” “Monotonous” is not a label most essayists would willingly self-apply, but Gilbert-Lecomte is superbly indifferent to anything outside of his chosen theme. “Art is not a goal,” he insists in “The Value of Art,” “it cannot be a goal for only one goal exists: the return to primordial unity. Art will be one means among others—for some people—for reaching this goal.” Still later, in “Lizard, Crack,” whose French title is an untranslatable portmanteau of both those words, he laments: “Nothing proceeds from Diversity to Oneness anymore. All primordial sense of Unity has been lost. Reduced to dead ritual, to the utility of moral precepts, religions have even forgotten the mystic passions that they once employed to their own material ends.” But the limitations of his approach make themselves felt whenever he tries to push toward a larger conclusion. Again, from “Lizard, Crack”:
If man wants to account for the era that he is living in, he requires one postulate and only one: the universality of human consciousness. That is, the historical human mind, sum of all individual consciousnesses, possesses a unity, a personality, an essential difference, neither more nor less demonstrable than that of each individual consciousness. Thus the laws governing the evolution of the human mind, according to the vast mirrors bearing countless reflections of the great analogy, are those of the microcosm (individual human consciousness) as well as those of the macrocosm (biological processes, laws of nature).
The trouble with such conclusions is that ordinary experience gives us far more evidence to the contrary, that the macrocosm and the microcosm such as he’s delineated them here are essentially discontinuous, that there is little universality to human consciousness, that different things really are different. In the absence of any demonstration otherwise, such assertions feel much like those of Evangelical Christians claiming they’ve been saved by Jesus. They’re not convincing because they give you no reason to believe.
In any case, let it not be supposed by such a comparison that I’m knocking Gilbert-Lecomte or Le Grand Jeu. Theory of the Great Game and The Book Is a Ghost are both valuable contributions to a fuller understanding of the historical surrealist movement, and there are many splendid contributions by other hands in the former I haven’t addressed here. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, Gilbert-Lecomte is most engaging in the latter book’s “Notes & Fragments” section, where, freed from discursive pressure, he can give free rein to his poetic facility. “A man is given, and the flickering lookouts of his senses fix themselves upon a sensible world—an extension of himself,” he writes in “Problem and Parabola.” “Containing within himself all that lies beyond he is contained in the closed vessel of the horizon.” While there’s little to distinguish this thematically from the “monotonous affirmation of unity” running through his work, the expression here is far happier; “the closed vessel of the horizon” is a particularly compelling phrase, above and beyond what it might mean, raising the question of whether expressions of pure belief are more suited to poetry than prose.