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October 23, 2017

France and the Surrealists

On this day in 1924 Anatole France died. France's real name was Jacques Anatole Francois Thibault; he took his pseudonym from his father's Parisian bookstore, "Librairie de France," rather than from any premonition of becoming the personification of French literature for his generation. He wrote in every genre, and his collected works run to twenty-five volumes, but he is best remembered for his erudition, ironic wit and elegance rather than for any one book. When he won the 1921 Nobel Prize, the Committee cited his "nobility of style, a profound human sympathy, grace, and a true Gallic temperament."

France's style was opposite to the naturalism of Emile Zola, and he viciously attacked Zola's expose novels on alcoholism and prostitution. Nonetheless, when Zola took up the Dreyfus cause, France was the first to sign Zola's famous manifesto, and at Zola's contentious funeral France became famous for praising him as "a moment in the conscience of mankind." By the time of his death, France was not only regarded as the grand master of French literary style but as an icon of nationalism and political commitment.

For all of the above reasons France was given a state funeral; this in turn provided an ideal stage for the anti-bourgeois theatrics of the Surrealist movement. By 1924, Andre Breton and others had split away from the impromptu anarchy and nonsense poetry of the Dadaists, and towards a more directed "Surrealist Revolution." Their first public, orchestrated "scandal" was directed towards France and his funeral: they asked for official permission to open the casket and slap his corpse. Denied this, they handed out a pamphlet on the day of France's funeral entitled "A Corpse," in which Breton applauded the national tribute: "Let it be a holiday when we bury trickery, tradition, patriotism, opportunism, skepticism, and heartlessness.... His corpse should be put in an empty quayside box of the old books which he loved so much and thrown into the Seine. Dead, this man must produce dust no longer." Matching symbolism with symbolism, "A Corpse" was distributed among the estimated crowd of 200,000 which gathered to pay tribute to France, the funeral parade beginning in front of the Institute of France, near the bookshop of France's father, and proceeding along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Three days later Breton published his first "Manifesto of Surrealism." In it he praised dreams, and Freud, and all those attempting to break free of "Logic." He warned that "Surrealism will usher you into death, which is a secret society. It will glove your hand, burying therein the profound M with which the word Memory begins. Do not forget to make proper arrangements for your last will and testament: speaking personally, I ask that I be taken to the cemetery in a moving van." He also gave tips to the would-be surrealist writer, and offered this sample:
    POEM

    A burst of laughter
    of sapphire in the island of Ceylon
    The most beautiful straws
    HAVE A FADED COLOR
    UNDER THE LOCKS
    on an isolated farm
    FROM DAY TO DAY
    the pleasant
    grows worse
    A carriage road
    takes you to the edge of the unknown
    Coffee ....

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