The cult of artistic and existential evasion in Dada and surrealism made suicide a leitmotif of literary life in inter-war France. Dadaists and surrealists exploited suicide as a figure of evasion from reality, from social and moral conventions, and from the "bourgeois" concepts of talent, ambition, and remuneration associated with literature. Galvanized by the "intolerable malaise" of the war experience (Soupault, Memoires 1914-1923, 70-75, 96), Andre Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Louis Aragon questioned the very validity of literary activity. In the first issue of their ironically entitled review, Litterature (1919), the upcoming poets asked French literati: "Why are you writing?" In 1924, the young critic and novelist Marcel Arland suggested that the whole spiritual atmosphere shared by his peers was similar to the Romantic "malady of the century" ("Nouveau Mal du siecle" 11). Since Dada and surrealism were seen as the products of a "new malady of the century," their suicidal tendencies recalled those in the Romantic "malady."
Thus, in his essays "Le Suicide en litterature" (1930) and "L'Art de mourir" (1932), Paul Morand argued that the deaths of many contemporary avant-garde artists were as esthetically motivated as the suicides of Werther's admirers. (1) Victor Crastre also thought that the 1929 suicide of the former dadaist Jacques Rigaut "echoed Werther's gunshot" because "Dada and surrealism clearly affirmed the value of suicide" ("Jacques Rigaut" 253). (2) In the 1979 preface to his novel En Joue! (1925), which had anticipated a number of suicides in the milieu of the French avant-garde, Philippe Soupault, a veteran of both artistic movements, wrote that he chronicled an epoque in which "the sons of the bourgeoisie failed to overcome the insecurity, anxiety, and chaos of the post-war years" (11). The present article will explore the place of suicide in the mythology and artistic praxis of the French avant-garde between the two world wars. I contend that many French literati involved in the activities of Dada and/or surrealism viewed suicide as an ideal means of evasion from reality conceived by the positivist theory and as an ultimate artistic statement, a "lived poem" far superior to a "written poem" by virtue of its "realism" and "sincerity."
Suicide as a Founding Myth of Dada and Surrealism
Choosing their "ancestors" from among those artists who seemed to have realized literally the ideal of evasion, dadaists and surrealists were profoundly influenced by the personal mythology of Arthur Rimbaud, the Count of Lautreamont, Jacques Vache, and Arthur Cravan. According to these models, one could escape the vanity of art through complete "silence," realize one's anti-social stance by leaving society, and flee positivist reality in dreams, the unconscious, drugs, and death. In the cultural mythology of the French avant-garde, Rimbaud and Lautreamont incarnated the ideal of artistic, social, and existential evasion. Their personal myths provided a paradigm for life-in-poetry. Andre Breton, who saw no value in literature if it was not supported by the writer's attitude to lire, wrote that "Rimbaud was a surrealist by virtue of his lifestyle" ("Manifeste" 38). According to their myths, Rimbaud rejected art (he "fell silent") and society (he left for Africa), while Lautreamont was the author of a sole text, died young and left no biographical trace.
Soupault modeled his frequent trips abroad along the lines of the Rimbaud-Lautreamont paradigm. "J'etais toujours, plus ou moins consciemment, influence par la destinee de Rimbaud," recalled the poet, "lui qui avait decide, a n'importe quel prix, de fuir les milieux litteraires. L' `exemple' de Rimbaud, et le besoin de m'evader [...] m'obligerent, le mot n'est pas trop fort, a partir" (Memoires 1923-1926 167-68). (3) Soupault was not the only young Parisian avant-gardist who drew on the revered "example" to show his contempt for "literature." His Russian colleague and peer, Boris Poplavsky, who arrived in France in 1921 and promptly contracted the spirit of Dada, described his own ideal model of a poet, characteristically mixing the myths of Rimbaud and Lautreamont to express his "most profound disgust for literature." Wrote Poplavsky
All I want is to express myself. To write one "naked" mystical book, like Lautreamont's Les Chants de Maldoror, then "assommer" several critics by leaving, becoming a soldier or a worker, doing away with the revolting dualism of real and described life. [I want] to concentrate on pain, to protect myself by contempt and silence. (287)
Building surrealism's genealogical tree, Breton paid special homage to Jacques Vache and Arthur Cravan. (4) Both men had already enjoyed the reputation of "precursors" among dadaists who admired their anti-artistic and anti-social attitudes. According to Breton, Vache's virtue was "to have produced nothing" ("Pour Dada" 210). Cravan, Oscar Wilde's nephew, had conveyed a similar disgust for literature in his review Maintenant, published on wrap paper from a butcher's store and distributed from a vegetable cart. Using suicide to express his anti-artistic attitude, Cravan announced that he would kill himself in public. After reading a presuicidal note, he disrobed and chased the audience with kicks and insults (Conover 23). This spectacle anticipated Dada's demonstrations in Paris. Future suicides Rene Crevel, Boris Poplavsky, Drieu La Rochelle, Jacques Rigaut, and Julien Torma participated in these shows haunted by Cravan's spirit.
In 1919, Jacques Vache and his two friends were found dead, officially from an accidental opium overdose. But according to his myth, Vache committed suicide, taking his unwitting friends along. In 1920, Arthur Cravan disappeared on a boat promenade, and it was never clear whether it was a suicide or an accident. The interpretation of their deaths constituted one of the founding myths of Dada and surrealism--suicide as the ultimate act of esthetic self-assertion and social and metaphysical transcendence. "Sa mort eut ceci d'admirable qu'elle put passer pour accidentelle," wrote Breton about Vache ("Confession" 24). While the ambiguity of their disappearance provided a model "deathstyle" for Breton's peers, Vache's and Cravan's artistic and existential self-effacement linked them to Rimbaud and Lautreamont. (5) Dadaists and surrealists projected the would-be suicides of Vache and Cravan upon the myths of Rimbaud and Lautreamont which furnished different models of evasion, not associated with self-destruction. Thus, when Jacques Rigaut ended his days by finally committing his well advertised and long expected suicide, Victor Crastre wrote:
L'historien litteraire "tirera parti" de cette mort qui nous rappelle celle d'un autre initiateur de Dada: Jacques Vache [...] Rimbaud et Lautreamont, [...] n'ont pas tente cette forme d'evasion. Rimbaud au moment ou il "renonce", ne se tue pas: il part [...]. Pour moi le desespoir de Rimbaud ne se trouve en rien diminue du fait que celui-ci ne s'est pas tue. ("Jacques Rigaut" 253-255)
The dadaist-surrealist split of 1922-23 had at its core the tension between the ethically valuable posture of "complete silence" (6) and the more artistically fulfilling "literary temptation." Surrealism proposed a mild version of dadaist self-effacement. It permitted creative activity …