Liberty or Love! by Robert Desnos

Thursday, December 8, 2011 § 0

Liberty or Love!: The Surrealist Novel as an Erotic Encounter with the Meta(phor)ical Esthetics of Poetic Subjectivity  

A Book Review by 
David Detrich                                                      

Liberty or Love! (1924) by Robert Desnos is a Surrealist novel that embodies the true spirit of romance in the Parisian style, as the narrator Corsair Sanglot pursues the enchanting Louise Lame through Paris on an erotic adventure from the Rue des Pyramids to the Bois de Boulogne. The narrator follows her through the streets as she gradually undresses, leaving her cami-knickers for him to find, and walking towards the Bois de Boulogne, where she is finally naked under her fur coat. This is Surrealist romance at its finest, with the promenade of Louise Lame symbolizing her interactions with the world. Liberty or Love! is a novel of Surrealist eroticism, and continues in the tradition of Soluble Fish (1924) by André Breton, where the narrators write in poetic prose about their youthful encounters with the marvelous.

Liberty or Love! begins with a rhymed poem by Arthur Rimbaud called The Night-Watch (1923), which looks to the future of an aging character who tries to regain his youthful energies in a world that is troubled by unrest, as he perceives "Breasts to swell thoughts of love or, if not, death." This line may have inspired the title of Liberty of Love!, and without love life does not seem worth living. The narrator of The Night-Watch will see "...a girl swim through the breaking waves of light Till love be reconciled with liberty," a theme that Robert Desnos has developed in his Surrealist novel.

Liberty or Love! begins with the chapter called The Depths of the Night which introduces the narrator Corsair Sanglot whose swashbuckling name is reminiscent of the narrator of Aurora (1926-27) by Michel Leiris. The narrator of the novel writes with the skill of a poet, a trend which makes the Surrealist novel worthy of critical attention from a 21st Century perspective in which the innovative novel has become more creative with the use of unpunctuated prose in an expanded metaphorical sentence structure.

When I reached the street, the leaves were falling from the trees. The staircase behind me was no more than a firmament sprinkled with stars among which I could clearly distinguish the footsteps of a certain woman...
                                                           Liberty or Love!
                                                           Robert Desnos

The poetic image of the staircase is an artistic idea that could be realized by painting a staircase blue, and sprinkling glitter on the wet paint to give it a starlike effect. The woman is Louise Lame, whom he pursues through the streets of Paris along the Rue de Rivoli past the Place de L'Etoile, where he finds her cami-knickers. She begins to strip naked under her fur coat on a walk through Paris to the Bois de Boulogne, where she is finally naked under her fur coat.

How many times, in stormy weather or by the light of the moon, did I get up to contemplate by the gleam of a log-fire, or that of a match, or a glow-worm, those memories of women who had come to my bed, completely naked apart from stockings and high-heeled slippers retained out of respect for my desire...
                                                            Liberty or Love!
                                                            Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos writes with insight into eroticism, while foreshadowing events in the evolution of Surrealism into the 21st Century with the glow of a match as a theme that reminds us of the presence of the narrator, while his writing style is similar to the soft focus techniques used by Man Ray in the film L'Étoile de Mer (1928), influenced by the film techniques of the Italian Futurists, who feature silent black and white films of a woman's feet in romantic situations.

Retracing my steps and going along under the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, I finally saw Louise Lame walking ahead of me.
                                                            Liberty or Love!
                                                            Robert Desnos

The Bois de Boulogne is a large park in Paris with nature trails running to an ancient stone structure that may be an archeological remnant of an ancient civilization, with stone steps ascending to a rock structure, and a reflective river with park benches for lovers.

Naked, now she was naked under the fur coat.
                                                           Liberty or Love!
                                                           Robert Desnos

This is the height of erotic adventure, and Liberty or Love! is a novel that describes the Surrealist street theatre of Paris, continuing the tradition of romantic relationships found in Soluble Fish (1924) by André Breton, with his walk through the Paris streets. For the reader who is interested in this genre there is Flesh Unlimited: Surrealist Erotica (2000) edited by Alexis Lykiard, which features erotic works by Guillaume Apollinare and Louis Aragon, and you might also consider erotic works by Benjamin Péret and Man Ray which appear in 1929 and Mad Balls: Surrealist Erotica (2009). Plus there are numerous examples of Surrealist erotica written by women who excel at sensitive descriptions that still seem proper, and which are written in poetic prose.

Louise Lame clasped her handsome lover tightly. Her eyes sought out the effect this conjunction of her tongue on his flesh had on his face. It is a mysterious rite, and perhaps the most beautiful.
                                                           Liberty or Love!
                                                           Robert Desnos

To interpret Liberty or Love! by Robert Desnos an understanding of romantic Paris is helpful with a tour of the Bois de Boulogne, a large park with nature trails that is the scene of Louise Lame's walk, and from the complexity of his writing a number of directions in critical interpretation can be pursued.

For Desnos within an inevitable, destined format, within the discipline of a fixed-form poem, every liberty of the imagination was possible. One form could yield a variety of interpretations - literal, fanciful, aural, visual, legally sanctioned, and clandest- ine. 
                                                  Robert Desnos, Surrealism, 
                                                  and the Marvelous 
                                                  in Everyday Life   
                                                  Katharine Conley

Liberty or Love! by Robert Desnos is a classic novel of Parisian romance written in the genre of the Surrealist novel, with a plot development which is subjective and metaphorical, and which gives the reader the esthetic pleasure of experiencing the marvelous as an appreciation of the poetic spirit of the 1920s.  The characterization of Louise Lame makes her similar to the female leading character in Aurora (1926-27) by Michel Leiris, or to intriguing female poet/artist in the novel Nadja (1928) by André Breton, and represents the limits of erotic interaction that can be experienced in the Paris of the Surrealists.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. This year he is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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