Paris Peasant is commonly considered the most exhilarating and enduring of Louis Aragon’s surrealist prose works. It appeared in instalments in La Revue européenne before being published as a single text in 1926. It comprises four sections: ‘‘Preface to a Modern Mythology’’ (‘‘Préface à une mythologie moderne’’), ‘‘The Passage de l’Opéra’’ (‘‘Le Passage de l’opéra’’), ‘‘A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont’’ (‘‘Le Sentiment de la nature aux Buttes-Chaumont’’), and ‘‘The Peasant’s Dream’’ (‘‘Le Songe du paysan’’)— the last was added for the 1926 publication.

  The first section is a quasi-philosophical diatribe against rational mental habits and the pursuit of truth. In keeping with ideas being circulated by the Surrealist group of which Aragon was a key member, the narrator sets out his intention to apprehend the sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence. ‘‘The Passage de l’Opéra’’ and ‘‘A Feeling for Nature’’ constitute the core of the text and are literary reconstructions or meditative strolls in two places in Paris, the first a 19th-century arcade in the Opéra quartier, and the second a park in the northeast of the city. The fourth section is a further pseudoepistemological debate and a series of pronouncements echoing one of the Surrealists’ elected predecessor’s texts: Lautréamont’s Poésies.

  Breton chided Aragon for betraying surrealism in Paris Peasant. An essential aim of the movement was to undermine rational thought in order to reveal the hidden part of the mind. They derided narrative since it relies on logic and on coherent, commonsense temporality. Aragon creates a kind of narrative out of those fragments which were generally considered by the Surrealists to be outside narrative structure. Thus a collage of shop signs, newspaper cuttings and municipal inscriptions are incorporated verbatim into the text in what is teasingly a disruption of the narrative and at the same time a revitalizing of it. These signs are made to glow strangely by appearing in a literary text, just as in the real world they are imbued, for all their ordinariness, with the spirit of the marvellous. Aragon has described Paris Peasant as a work of ‘‘surrealist realism,’’ and this (collage) procedure is a textual imitation of how the marvellous erupts in reality. The implied dialectic here is that just as societal language can become poetic, so poetic language ought to be useful to society. Surrealist procedures imitate and parody both the serious philosophical debate about objective reality in which the Surrealists were then engaged, and the lyrical excesses inherent in automatism. Paris Peasant is full of extraordinary and ingenious arbitrary imagery, and there is a genuine parody of automatic writing in part V of ‘‘A Feeling for Nature.’’

 The ‘‘Passage de l’Opera’’ section is in part a vociferous defence of the arcade’s small traders against its proposed demolition by the Boulevard Hausmann Building Society in collusion with the City of Paris administrators. This defence includes collage material, and also involutes into the text the tradesmen who have read the early part of ‘‘Passage de l’Opéra,’’ a literary trick possibly borrowed from Gide. The ironical pamphleteering embedded in the text hints perhaps at the revolutionary political position that Aragon was to adopt from 1930.

 

The walk in the arcade provides a pretext for abstruse musings and poetic observations on the following locales, trades and services: lodging-house (for liaisons), bookshop, the Certa café, restaurant, stamp-dealer, hairdresser, wine-merchant, tailor, shoeblack, lavatory, gunsmith, orthopaedist, massage-room, and (erotic) theatre. As the narrator on his stroll pauses (in his narrative) before each window, a series of panegyrics is delivered. In Aragon romancier Lévi-Valensi has drawn attention to the textuality of the arcade that can be seen as a metaphor for future novels. The arcade is also a microcosm of the city and of modern mental life. With its display of desired objects it is also a paradigm for the unconscious.

 

The Buttes-Chaumont park is as ambiguous an environment in which to take a stroll as the Opéra arcade. Where the arcade, as Benjamin has shown, is at the same time public street and private interior, so the park is a condensation of the countryside, both town and country, a public space for private thoughts ‘‘the town’s collective unconscious.’’ Reflection on how mythologies are created in cultures leads the narrator to the discovery that his own mind follows the same procedure when it contemplates objects. The charm of ‘‘A Feeling for Nature’’ relies chiefly on the collision of different discourses to humorous effect. In part VI Aragon meets Noll and Breton, who propose a stroll in the Buttes-Chaumont. They arrive by taxi, ‘‘drunk with openmindedness,’’ and part VII then consists entirely of a physical geography of the park, complete with details of its roads and contours, followed in part VIII by a delirious monologue addressed to Night. Another collision follows with the inscriptions of municipal worthies, when Noll perceives a white spectre on the Suicides’ Bridge. After a passage of Hegel-inspired thought (‘‘the concrete notion emerging from the pure reedless waters’’), Woman, the eternal female, is suddenly invoked as the cohesive force behind the world’s appearances. In contrast, in the last pages the narrator tears his head from his body and it undergoes exaggerated metamorphoses into, for example, a blackberry, picked and discarded by a schoolboy, until the man finally becomes ‘‘a sign among the constellations.’

‘‘The Peasant’s Dream’’ relaunches the inquiry into the purpose of metaphysics, concluding that it is ‘‘notion or knowledge of the concrete.’’ The philosophical utterances are best read in the same way as the vertiginous imagery. The narrator proceeds to describe how the ‘‘general law’’ is accessible through a specific woman and falling in love. Among many bizarre and some unfathomable statements, the narrator-poet makes an impassioned plea for a poetry of the concrete.

Paris Peasant is a grand surrealist work, in its imagery, its obsession with identity and chance, its dream-evocations of ‘‘real’’ Paris, its discrediting of reality. It celebrates the ordinary, glories in anti-elitism, eulogizing waiters and hairdressers and spelling out a utopia in which everyone is an artist. It is a memorable experiment in constructing narrative from the raw material of the external world and in baring the process of its attempt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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