As the surrealist René Crevel lay dying in a sealed apartment, waiting for the gas to finish him off, he pinned a note to his jacket:
"Please cremate my remains. Disgust." (p. 89)
In classical Indian aesthetics, "Disgust" is one of the eight rasas or "emotional savors" (the others are: eros, humor, pathos, fear, rage, courage, wonder). In the tenth century, after much philosophical head-butting, a ninth rasa was added to the list: shanti; tranquility, peace.
Crevel may have ended his life in bibhatsa—disgust, recoil—but he lived the other seven rasas in full and wondrous measure. In another world, perhaps he would've been a cheetah chained to a sultan's slave; in this one, he wrote crazy books, saw crazy things, fluxed, burned, and died.
Peter Dubé's slender volume from the always interesting Lethe Press gives us the last thoughts of René Crevel. Let's sit with this Agamemnon descending into Hades, waiting for the woman with dog's eyes to close his own. He can smell the gas. Colorless green ideas will soon sleep furiously. He has heard the dead all his life. Now he shall have his silence. Everything's been said, everything's been done. Only disgust remains. Disgust that the Past could not, after all, be killed. The surrealists took the Past, nailed it to Dali's cross, and three days and two nights later, when the bitch failed to zombie out, they declared the Past well and truly dead. But Language is a fish turned inside out and its spines caught in the throats of the orphans anyway. The surrealists spoke and the Past turned up to throw tomatoes. They gathered and the Past brought the wool. They shouted and the Past croaked through their ruined throats. The surrealists had to learn the lesson the hard way. Listen, the Past can't be killed because every word is a mummy. A total Oedipussy. Don't frown. The dying deserve a little humor, that's all.
I suppose an explanation is in order. Perhaps even an apology. This is a review, or rather, it should be a review. Begin with a hook. Describe what the book is about. Good points. Weaknesses. Items of interest. End with a gentle encouragement to buy. Or in Koestler's mocking (and unfair) description of English newspaper reviews " . . . one introductory sentence, the story retold in three or four; a word of mild criticism and a gentle wind-up . . . " (The Yogi and the Commissar, 1983).
But I can't do it. Not with this book. Or rather, not with this subject. Not when SF claims to be the literature of estrangement. The surrealists are our brothers with one foot in the grave and the other on the sun. To reduce Crevel's life to a gnomic commentary would be a grotesque humiliation, akin to forcing a tiger to cower on a chair. The book is still strong with me. I know I should wait, let the rush of feelings ebb, shut the limbic system the fuck up and then write. I am going to regret this, but I also regret that I write far too few things I regret. So to hell with the review.
Is this book worth buying? Yes, of course it is, you cheap bastard. You'd probably spend more on a fatburger. Before, I'd never heard of René Crevel. Dubé's book made him a brother. If you are sufficient in siblings, buy something else.
Reading this book induces an ache. It's not an ache for surreal writing that induces wonder or disorients. Allah Subhanahu wa táala be praised, we all know we have plenty of such writing. Once an Everest is conquered, it is only a matter of time before it is trivially conquered. No, the ache is not for the achievement but for the passion behind it. The kind of explosive passion that marked the matutinal years of the twentieth century: the Cubists, the impressionists, the quantum theorists, the first flight, Freud, Gandhi, Jung and Marx, the First World War, the American expats in Paris . . . there was a new Christ to crucify daily. Reading this book brings an ache for the Cambrian era of our modernity, that all-too-brief period when the whole damn world seemed to have Greek fire in its veins, when men like René Crevel were the rule, not the exception. It's hard to believe people cared so much about what was written, how it was written, why it was written. When René Crevel meets Andre Breton's surrealist group—then still in formation—at the Café Certa for the first time, Dubé has Crevel say:
The first time a young man finds himself in company like this, awash with a passion for ideas, alive in the fire of words, is unique; it's a kind of first love, a great blood-deep desire to know and experience. It churns and is unsatisfiable, but it transports you. It turned my world on my head. To say I was ready for it would be too soft: I was aching for it. (p. 8)
It is not that we, the inheritors, haven't felt or don't feel this way about people and ideas; it's that we've become wary of talking about our passions in this manner. Must maintain the ironical stance, old sport.
In any case, Breton's group believed that reason had to be subverted, overthrown, if artistic expression was to achieve its fullest potential. Breton wrote in the First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924):
I believe in the future resolution of these two states, so contradictory in appearance, which are dream and reality, in a form of absolute reality, of super-reality, if we may call it that.
The unconscious was to be the bridge between these worlds. Dubé describes how Breton encouraged experiments in automatic writing, free association, and uncensored writing in all its bride stripped bare of her bachelors stuffed in colander trees. It led to some seriously meaningless text. Once, when he was still a new member, still unsure about his worthiness, Crevel mentions his experience at a séance conducted by one Madame Dante, and then nothing would do but to hold a session at Andre's home. Crevel faked the session, babbling nonsense to the utter delight of his wide-eyed audience. Other sessions followed, and Crevel is soon joined by a fellow faker "R" and later, by others. But something strange happens. The fakery turns real. Crevel begins to hear voices, voices that he eventually names "the Interlocutors." Creatures with mouths that are "circles of darkness: holes" and faces that "are cloudy, change subtly, but constantly" (p. 64). The voices eventually take over his dreams, as well as his waking life. At the end of one session:
I awoke from that account to find myself, and a half-dozen of my friends and collaborators in a dining room. A rope was in my hands, and in the hands of a few of them, and we were tying nooses. One rough rope was already hung, the great open coil of it waiting for a willing neck. A quivering sign hanging in the air. The still-entranced had busy hands, weaving more to join with it. We were all preparing our own deaths. (p. 26)
Though Andre puts an end to the séances, the experience bonds the two men in a friendship that would sustain Crevel even as it drained life from him.
Did I say this was a love story? So it is. At least in Dubé's version of it. René Crevel loved Andre Breton. Andre Breton hated homosexuals. Crevel was a homosexual. Locked in this syllogistic noose, Crevel goes through something like Elizabeth Kuber-Ross five stages of dying: shock, denial, anger, resistance, and finally acceptance. Towards the end of his life, he reads one of Andre's poems and is set free of this particular struggle.
In tears, I remembered the day in my hospital room when he read to me, with so much passion in his voice that it quivered and broke with emotion . . . . His most profound convictions, his deepest needs made him ready to hold a hundred different opinions and to love his contradictions. So he could love me even as he despised whole areas of my life. And in that instant, I knew that my friend, like me, was starving for the absolute, struggling for it . . . and I loved him, paradox of paradoxes, even more so for holding me at arm's length. (p. 60)
The book is described as "a fantasia on voice, history, and René Crevel." So it is. But I read it as a fantasia on fantasia. Why do we care what happens in fantasia? In the imagination? Who really gives a rat's monkey's ass if the Middle Kingdom falls or not? Seriously. What's an elf's death shrieks compared to the twinge in my toe? Yet it matters. It shouldn't, but it does. I don't know the answer to this question. Jayarāśi Bhatta, an Indian materialist in the late eighth century, offered one in the title of his only known extant work: "Tattvopaplavasimha," or The Lion That Devours All Categories. Jayarāśi's Lion is the Imagination. Against the imagination, all categorical distinctions crumble. You and I, fact and fiction, space and time, the real and the unreal, the gross and the subtle. We are, as Dubé has Crevel say, "almost infinite bodies made of subtler stuff than flesh and blood that could move through walls and buildings, water and trees, through space, through time itself . . . ." (p. 20). I'm the Middle Kingdom, the elf's death shriek, the sum and excess of my fantasias. Read, and I become.
What rubbish. What brave words. So what it it's probably wrong or meaningless? So what if the surrealists' economics is a pathetic shambling fantasia of wishful thinking and high talk. So what if they were mostly hypocrites and homophobes? So what it they were wrong in nearly everything they said or believed? What matters their failures compared to what they attempted! Dali. Miro. Duchamp. Magritte. Man Ray. Robbe-Grillet. Aragon. Artaud . . . . If these are error's progeny, then we've been mis-educating our children. We must build schools to teach the technology of folly.
I left the book, René Crevel, and the slowly enveloping death with a memory. I had forgotten him, this seventeen-year-old friend of mine, who calmly told me over chai in an Irani restaurant, one monsoon day in Mumbai, that he'd tried to take his life a few years earlier. I didn't know what to say. My friend had good cause, so the "why" wasn't in question. He also liked drama, so I had my doubts. Now I wish I had asked him what would have been my first literary question: "What did you think while you lay dying?"
This book is one answer. A cautionary tale. Ignore the caution, if you will, but savor the tale. Such a life, our Agamemnon. Such a lust. So ferocious a life deserves a great book. Fortunately, in this case, it has one.
Is the gas on, for God's sake? What does it take to die around here? Area man fails to kill himself, blames unpaid gas bills. Ah, it's here. "Here, here." (p. 90) Light a match, buddy. Peace.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From the Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet is out now from Zubaan Books.