Going for Baroque in the Twentieth Century: From Desnos to Brossard
Conley, Katharine, Quebec Studies
J'escoute a demy transporte
Le bruit des ailes du Silence.
--Saint-Amant, "Le Contemplateur" (1628)
The twentieth century witnessed a resurfacing of the baroque. Less a time period than "un levier methodologique," according to sociologist Michel Maffesoli, the baroque designates a sensibility focused on the material world (1990, 154).(1) Etymologically, baroque comes from the Portuguese word for "irregular pearl," and it is a term used to designate a style of writing, art, and architecture created between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries and characterized by great liberty of form and fantasy. In the twentieth century the baroque re-emerges both in surrealism and postmodernism. For what Maffesoli calls "un Barocchus post-modernus" is arguably equivalent to an earlier twentieth century baroque, the surrealist baroque, but with a greater emphasis on the body, emblematized by the natural and irregular form of the "baroque pearl" (154).(2)
Both the surrealist and the postmodern baroque share fundamental characteristics with the sixteenth and seventeenth century baroque in Italy and France. These include a tendency towards reversibility and short-circuited time, and a propensity for doubling. The baroque penchant for reversibility, which Maffesoli describes as "justement ce type de reversibilite que l'on retrouve dans la post-modernite," also results in a short-circuiting of linear time: "Il y a dans l'artifice et le fantastique baroques un immanence evident dont la vertu essentielle est d'arreter la course du temps" (167, 157).(3) The connection between the historical baroque and surrealism may be intuited in a statement by Gerard Genette in "L'Univers reversible," an essay on the French baroque poet Saint-Amant: "Une dialectique perplexe de la veille et du reve, du reel et de l'imaginaire, de la sagesse et de la folie, traverse toute la pensee baroque" (18). Furthermore, the short-circuiting of time which results from baroque reversibility highlights the suspended moment of reversal--a moment in which time becomes immobilized. Genette describes such a moment--a consequence of reversibility and inherent to the baroque imagination--as provoking "une sorte de vertige de l'infini" (1966, 17).(4)
With Baroque d'aube (1995), Nicole Brossard embraces aspects of the baroque that, in the twentieth century, were previously explored by the surrealists, particularly Robert Desnos. But whereas Desnos's surrealist baroque highlights reversibility, timing, and doubling, Brossard's postmodern baroque goes beyond these surrealist baroque qualities by focusing more on materiality in the form of embodiment. Brossard re-visions aspects of Desnos's surrealist baroque in three-dimensional shapes, from the geometric form of a pair of spiral earrings to the corporeal form of a woman's body. Her novel illustrates how, in her hands, the surrealist baroque has become not only postmodern, but also embodied and sexualized "au feminin."
Nicole Brossard's Baroque d'aube is a novel that includes indirect references to the French baroque, that goes for baroque in the loops and short-circuits of her intentionally complicated plot, and that is situated self-consciously in a literary tradition extending from Louise Labe to Hugo, Rimbaud, and the surrealists. Of all the surrealists, it is Desnos, specifically in his poetic novel from 1927, La Liberte ou l'amour!, whose work resonates most obviously at once with the baroque and with Brossard's postmodern Baroque d'aube. While there are no direct references to Desnos in Brossard's novel, I see in her reworking of surrealism a particular affinity between her representation of the writing process and that of Desnos, and I find in both her and Desnos's work, clear evocations of a baroque sensibility. I will focus here on how Brossard has internalized and recast aspects of surrealism that are typified by Desnos--specifically her recasting and embodiment of the surrealist baroque in human female bodies and in other three-dimensional shapes--and I will examine how the work of both poets hearkens back to aspects of the sixteenth and seventeenth century baroque. …