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.