There is a photograph of Robert Desnos, taken, in 1930, by Man Ray.* In it, he is surrounded by four people. To his left is the sculptor Andre Lasserre; to his right is André de la Rivière, the actor; while behind him is the surrealist artist Georges Malkine and, although she is often mistaken for a man, his wife Yvette. The heads of Lasserre and de la Rivière are turned upwards, towards the Malkines, who are kissing. Desnos, however, is staring forward, at the camera, with an expression on his face that is almost indescribable. While the two men either side of him appear happy, healthy, and, more to the point, of this world, Desnos has the look of someone, or something, who has not slept for a hundred and fifty years. There is the hint of secret knowledge in his sly smile; and his disinterest in the scene behind, and above, him suggests, at least to me, that he knows more than most about the act of love. It was this photograph, more than my passion for transgressive and surrealistic literature, that inspired me to seek out Desnos’ work and which ultimately led me to Liberty or Love!
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.
When La Liberté ou l’amour! was first published it was almost immediately withdrawn due to controversy over the content. It was reissued, following the removal of several offensive passages, a year later. The version that I read, from Atlas Press, which also includes the earlier Mourning for Mourning, is unexpurgated. However, for a modern sensibility, there is nothing in the text that is genuinely shocking. In the first few pages, the narrator – who is obviously a stand-in for Desnos – sniffs some discarded underwear, inhaling the ‘intimate odours’ and wondering, ridiculously, ‘what fabulous whale, of whatever colour, could distil a more fragrant ambergris.’ There are numerous references to sadomasochistic practices, which, on more than one occasion, involve teenage girls; but this doesn’t extend far beyond spanking [although there is the suggestion of rape when one girl is said to be ‘tenderly sodomised.’] Indeed, the most troubling passage in the book is likely to upset your stomach more than your moral equilibrium. This is the Sperm Drinker’s Club, where men gather to sample male and female ejaculate.
As one would perhaps expect of a surrealist novel, and this particular publisher, there is not a great deal of plot and even less in the way of well-developed characters. What there is involves the adventures of Corsair Sanglot and, to a lesser extent, his lover Louise Lame. Yet, in the main, Desnos uses this couple, and the situations into which he drops them, as vehicles to explore his ideas about love. At one point he intrudes upon the action to inform us that: ‘I still believe in the marvellous when it comes to love, I believe in the reality of dreams, I believe in heroines in the night, in beauties of the night, forcing their way into hearts and into beds.’ Which is a lovely, romanticised view, albeit one that is slightly at odds with some of his other statements. For example, when discussing the deeds of Jack the Ripper – who is mentioned numerous times throughout the text – he claims that ‘love is not merely some kind of pleasantry.’ This indicates that for the author it is something to be taken seriously, of course, something dramatic and, considering the link to the Ripper and the previously discussed S&M, potentially violent. I do not believe, however, that he is advocating literal violence, more a violence of feeling or experience. Indeed, later it is written that love cannot be divorced from ‘a feeling of panic and sacred horror.’
Love is, however, only one half of the novel’s title, and liberty is, in my opinion, and the author’s, just as important. The book begins with a woman shedding her clothing in public, a woman who is, by virtue of this act, liberating herself. This undressing could be seen in a sexual context, for the man following her, as previously noted, picks up her clothes, and smells her underwear; but I think there is a broader significance. Desnos was, I believe, interested in all forms of freedom, not just sexual freedom. In fact, surrealism, as an artistic movement, was concerned with rejecting conventions, with aesthetic [and moral] liberation. This is born out in the novel under review here, which not only lacks traditional characterisation and plot, but also revels in the unexpected. At one point, for example, Louise dies, only to reappear later. More beguilingly, there is the story of the skinless leopard, which is inspired by Louise’s fur coat, the talking cobblestone, and the mermaid who changes her scales, creating ‘a snowstorm of green and white.’ These episodes are not treated as strange excursions, they are fully integrated into the text, and are accepted by those within it on face value.
Before finishing, it is worth looking at the title one last time. Love or Liberty. In order to get closer to understanding Desnos’ beautiful, yet often confusing, work, one must, I feel, account for that or. The author is suggesting that it is a choice, that it is one or the other, that we cannot have both love and liberty. Indeed, he writes that love is ‘the only valid reason for temporary slavery.’ When in love one does not have absolute freedom, because one’s hopes, one’s desires, one’s happiness, one’s day-to-day life, is tied up with someone else, these things are at least partly dependant upon another. Love means, for me, and this is perhaps why I consider myself incapable of it, vulnerability, it means a voluntary relinquishing of complete control and power over oneself; it means holding out your arms for ‘the gentle handcuffs.’ Indeed, I saw in Liberty or Love! a message to myself: ‘Young convict, it is time to print a number on your calico shirt and fetter your ankle with the heavy ball of your successive loves.’