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Two Intellectual Responses to the Dilemma of Political “Engagement” in Interwar France:Andr Breton & Pierre Drieu La RochelleChristopher Terrence RyanThe period between the First and Second World Wars has become well-known for its political instability, economic unpredictability, and cultural vibrancy. Following World War I, many European artists and intellectuals struggled to express their disillusionment with a world turned upside-down. Many intellectuals found meaning and renewal in the revolutionary possibilities of radical politics. Others, however, were only willing to meet the commitment of political “engagement” in their own very personal and individual ways. This essay examines the lives of two French intellectuals, the Surrealist writer Andr Breton and the fascist writer Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Similar in their bourgeois origins, war experiences, political variability, and artistic preoccupations, they nevertheless gravitated towards opposite political poles: Breton as a communist and Drieu La Rochelle as a fascist and Nazi collaborator. This essay investigates the attractions and dilemmas of intellectual involvement in politics, as well as the forces that propelled two men of similar origins and aspirations toward opposite political ideologies. Heightened political activity was not a monopoly held by French intellectuals in the years after World War I. Deep concerns over French diplomatic, financial, political, and social ills prompted many in French society to turn to political extremes in search of solutions. The First World War left much of France in ruins and drained off the vast majority of her young men. Despite victory, France remained concerned with her national security throughout the interwar years. Frenchmen felt betrayed and alone as they faced a rebuilding Germany across the Rhine. French financial failures brought hard times, and forced France to lean heavily on financial assistance from the United States.1 Traditional French party politics were at a loss to redress the nations many problems. Parliamentary factionalism paralyzed the Third Republics ability to meet the demands of a changing world order. In the 1920s and 1930s political activity on the extremes of both the Right and Left increased in intensity. The rise of the French Communist Party in the early 1920s, frequent strikes, mass socialist demonstrations,as well as significant parliamentary victories by the Left in the 1930s, prompted the renascence of many nationalistic, right-wing organizations. By the 1930s, the conservative and nationalistic organizations of pre-war years had evolved into a radical fascist Right, providing a revolutionary “third alternative” between liberalism and communism.3Contributing to the polarization in interwar politics was the wide-spread participation of intellectuals. Interwar intellectuals were heirs to a long tradition of political involvement, building upon precedents set during the Enlightenment and French Revolution. However, it was the Dreyfus Affair in the late 1890s that created the tone and character of twentieth-century intellectual involvement in politics. The highly polarized nature of the crisis between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards set the stage for Left-Right opposition in the interwar years. Intellectuals between the World Wars were able to have a profound impact on events and ideas, due to the fact that this long tradition of political activity established intellectuals as defenders of the national spirit, of a great cultural and aesthetic mission civilisatrice to the rest of the world which they believed belonged to France alone.4 French society deemed their pronouncements on political affairs worthy of a respectful hearing. In particular, political parties at the far ends of the spectrum were eager to acquire the credibility gained by boasting well-known literary and artistic celebrities. Correspondingly, interwar intellectuals remained receptive to promises of artistic freedom and reputation offered by both the fascist Right and communist Left. While the Communist Party attracted many intellectuals in the 1920s, most were discouraged by Stalinist excesses in the 1930s and offered their services to the extreme Right by the eve of World War II.5At opposite ends of the political spectrum, communism and fascism seemed to be worlds apart. Yet, if one allows that the political spectrum is not best seen as a straight, but a circular line, it seems possible that at certain points, the two extremes of Right and Left shared affinities in the origins and goals of their radicalism. Andr Breton and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle may indeed have been ideologically closer than first impressions indicate. the early years:family life, youth, education, influencesAndr breton (1896-1966) was born in Tinchebray, a small town in Normandy, and grew up in Lorient, a fishing port on the Atlantic. The boy was close to his father, a small businessman, but was often at odds with his straightlaced mother who brought up her son with a puritanical bourgeois morality.6 Bretons biographer, Anna Balakian, portrays the Breton household as “modest,” and his parents “grimly conscious of the economic realities of life” in planning a safe career for their son.7 Feeling stifled by the conventions and conformity of a typical bourgeois lifestyle, Breton eventually sought to shrug off those institutions and values, such as family and work, that he considered to be intellectually and artistically inhibiting.8Breton received a proper bourgeois education, graduating from the Lyc e Chaptal in Paris in 1912, and begining medical studies at the Sorbonne the following year. He records 1913 as the year of his intellectual awakening and points out that while “my physical presence was on the amphitheater benches or at the laboratory tables, my mind was elsewhere.”9 His imagination was roaming the streets of Paris and mulling over the works of Rimbaud, Lautr amont, Val ry, and Apollinaire. These writers taught Breton to commit himself to the problems of life rather than to literature as a meas to financial gain and were instrumental in helping him to formulate his own ideas on the role and responsibility of the poet in society.10While Breton was influenced by many writers of his time, he did not heed the patriotic calls of Maurice Barr s, Paul Claudel, and Charles P guy. He would never forgive these “patriotic” writers whom he saw as opportunists falsely glorifying a war that sent a generation of youth off to its demise. Confessing that “nationalism had never been one of my strengths,”11 Breton displayed an intellectual independence that isolated him from many of the authors and ideas that influenced many of his generation. He concluded it was useless to devote himself “to that which does not motivate me to my proper impulses.”12 As a youth, Breton was determined to pursue his own ideas and seek out his own inspirations independent of the bourgeois expectations of his family, his schools, and his contemporaries. Pierre drieu La Rochelle (1893-1945) was born into a middle class, politically conservative, Catholic family. Drieus childhood seems to have been particularly unpleasant, for he feared and hated his father, an unsuccessful lawyer, who constantly ridiculed him for any displays of weakness or cowardice. Drieu loved his mother dearly, but she often neglected him in the pursuit of her active social life.13 Consequently, Drieu spent much of his childhood immersed in books and daydreams about Napoleonic grandeur, military heroism, and colonial adventure, which he readily contrasted with his own familys decadent and pusillanimous bourgeois lifestyle. 14 Drieu was very conscious of his familys social status, especially after his fathers shady financial dealings had resulted in a sharp decline in the familys economic status while Drieu was an adolescent. Drieu confessed that “family life offered me nothing but repugnant trials, I lived between a father and a mother who were torn apart by adultery, jealousy and financial troubles.”15Drieu was able to separate himself from the negative influence of his early family life and began to assert himself in both the upper-bourgeois Catholic coll ge and the +cole des Sciences Politiques. He enjoyed the “group experience” of his school days, but was often wary of his inferior social position. While he was invited into the upper-class homes of his friends, he often assumed an air of intellectual superiority to compensate for his sense of class inferiority.16Drieu was heavily influenced by his trip to England at the age of fifteen, where he first cultivated a life-long love for all things English. He discovered there an energy and dynamism, evident in the British love for physical sports, which he readily contrasted against his view of France as a weak and decadent country.17 It was in England that Drieu first discovered the work of Nietzsche, which further reinforced his growing interest in the role of power and responsibility of the individual will and the man of action in society. Drieu reports that his intellectual awakening came at the rebellious age of seventeen when:On the eve of my baccalaureate exam . . . [a]bruptly I discovered reactionary thought. Thereafter it was Maurras, the Action fran aise, [Jacques] Bainville, Georges Sorel, and by way of them I linked myself to a long chain of French reactionaries. . . . All had the effect of multiplying the formidable blow that I had received at Oxford when I was sixteen: Nietzsche.18Unlike Breton, Drieu was fervently drawn to the call of the nationalistic writers of the older generation, particularly the novelist and political thinker, Maurice Barr s. He admired the Barr sian emphasis on the individual will, the “Self,” which stressed the union of the intellectual life with the life of action and political “engagement.” Drieu was inspired by the Barr sian cult of national energy that glorified “eternal France,” but never truly subscribed to the Barr sian idea of “integral nationalism” which celebrated the intrinsic and native-born qualities of all Frenchmen. Drieu was also drawn to some of the ideas of Charles Maurras and Georges Sorel. For a time between 1911 and 1914, Drieu was a member of the Cercle Proudhon, an antidemocratic, nationalistic, monarchist organization of young right-wing students, many of whom attended the prestigious +cole des Sciences Politiques with Drieu. Founded in 1911, it sought to revitalize the nation according to the “best” in French tradition, including the ideas of Proudhon, Maurras, and Sorel.19 Like many of his generation, Drieu was drawn to a rightist stance in reaction to the liberalism, democracy, pacifism, positivism, and narrow rationalism of the older generation. Like so many, Drieu longed for the “realism” of direct energetic action and the glamour of war.20For both Drieu and Breton, intellectual and political initiations seemed to have come less from proper bourgeois institutions of learning than from the wealth of literature and ideas fermenting in the prewar years. Both would draw on these ideas in the formation of their intellectual and political revolt against the bourgeois values of their youth. the war experienceWhile both men came of age intellectually and politically in the last years of the Belle +poque, it was the First World War that hastened their development and helped to forge beliefs that would be instrumental in their later ideologies. Drieu was drafted in 1913 at the age of twenty and spent the next few months tied to the routines of barracks life, until war was declared in 1914. “What had I felt when war had been declared? Liberation from the barracks, the end of the old laws, the arrival of possibilities for me, for life, for new laws, young laws, bold and surprising.”21 Free from the stifling bourgeois conventions of his family, Drieu rejoiced in the “savage liberty” that military service promised from “social convention, preparations for life, for a career, and for the distant future.”22Drieus romantic notion of war soon changed on the battlefield of Charleroi, where Drieu mused, “war today means being prostrate, wallowing in the mud flattened. Before, war meant men standing upright. War today means every possible position of shame.”23 While Drieu got to know the discomforts and horrors of war, he also discovered its ability to liberate the most primal, virile, and “noble” instincts in man. Achieving the rank of sergeant and serving as a platoon leader, Drieu received three battle wounds in the course of his distinguished service at Charleroi, the Marne, Artois, Verdun, and the Dardenelles. He would always remember fondly the exhilaration of a bayonet charge that he had led in 1914 at Charleroi, where “all of a sudden, I found myself, I found my life. This was now me, this strong man, this free man, this hero. So, this was my life, this sudden joyous surge that would never ever stop.”24 Drieu emerged from the war acutely aware of his own courage and virility, and was determination to find a means of expression that would communcate the intensity of his wartime experiences. Recovering in a hospital from battle wounds, Drieu discovered the work of the poet Paul Claudel and developed a taste for more “modern” styles of literature. He was done with flowery bourgeois literary styles, and adopted a more direct, abrupt approach: “I had some urgent things to cry about the war, about man in war, about the confrontation of life and death, and it was absolutely necessary that I find a means that measures up to the violence of my cry.”25Drieus first collection of poems, Interrogation, was published in 1917 and was very favorably received. Drieu was soon being touted as one of Frances most versatile young writers.26 His early writings revealed a discreet but passionate “cult of France,” and a sense of fraternity or love for his comrades in the trenches, the death of whom solidified and internalized his love for his country.27 Drieu had high expectations for the regeneration of France by the new generation of youth tempered by war and ready to seize political power.28 He was convinced that his generation had proven itself superior to the older one, for they had held at Verdun and the Marne, while their elders had lost at Sedan. He believed that “now we have the right to speak . . . strong from thousands and thousands of energetic acts . . . and our elders have only to keep quiet.”29However, for most veterans, energetic acts had been exhausted on the battlefield. While enough veterans were elected to the Chamber in 1919 to dub it the “blue horizon chamber” after the color of the French army uniform, the victory of the rightist Bloc national marked a return to traditional democratic conservatism. Drieu had hoped that his generation would seize power, “[b]ut no. We allowed them to continue and keep their places. The veterans had let themselves be totally frustrated.”30 Drieu was disgusted with the inability of his generation to act, and continued to look for a group dynamic enough to transform French society. Andr Bretons war experience was less dramatic, and perhaps less exhilarating, yet no less formative than Drieus. Mobilized into an artillery unit, Breton was soon assigned to the Service de Sant , perhaps because of his brief exposure to medical school. He found himself not very adept at military exercises and could not easily reconcile himself to the prospect of trench warfare. Years later, he still resented the manner in which the war uprooted the aspirations of a generation in order to “hurl them in a cesspool of blood, stupidity, and mud.”31While not moved by patriotic appeals, Breton served honorably as a medical assistant assigned to psychiatric hospitals where he participated in the treatment of evacuees from the front suffering from shell-shock, delirium, and other mental disorders. He revealed that some of his first inspiration for Surrealist literature came from the fact that he was “able to do experiments on the patients using the process of psychoanalytical investigation, in particular, recordings, for the purpose of interpretation of dreams and associations of involuntary thoughts.”32At this time, Breton became acquainted with the work of Dr. Pierre Janet, a French professor of psychiatric medicine whose books on psychiatry were widely used by French medical students of Bretons era. While Breton and the Surrealists held Freud in high esteem, it was Janet who linked scientific psychology with the pursuits of the creative mind. Janet was a proponent of the therapeutic use of “automatic writing” (a form of Freudian “free association”), but was also receptive to its possibilities on the normal mind. By freeing the creative mind from social constraints, it could uncover the uncharted recesses of the unconscious mind, allowing insight into mans most fundamental understanding of himself. This explosion of the boundaries of reality would eventually abolish the man-made frontiers between material and spiritual existence, revealing all reality to be one continum.33 The practice of psychiatric medicine and the study of psychological theory gave Breton an early conceptual basis for Surrealism, while a personal encounter during the war brought him face to face with an individual whose attitudes contributed much to the tone and temper of early Surrealism. In 1916 Breton befriended Jacques Vach , a volatile precursor of Dadaist contempt for conventional art and society. In the course of their wartime friendship, he taught Breton detachment and sarcasm, to see life as absurd and to live for the moment. After once watching Vach parade about in a British officers uniform, brandishing a pistol in a crowded theater, Breton claims to have realized “the depth of the pit that had come to separate the new generation from the one that preceded it.” Vach had a profound influence on Breton, who would later declare that Vach “always incarnated for us the very highest power of disengagement.”34 By the time of Vach s suicide in 1919, Breton had formulated many of his ideas for Surrealism and had been transformed from the sensitive poet to the nihilistic rebel. Bretons immediate postwar outlook was somewhat different from Drieus. Having seen firsthand the horrors of war, yet not having experienced the thrill of combat, Bretons response was an ambiguous mix of expectation and disillusionment. He expected that disgruntled veterans would play an active role in the transformation of post-war France. However, he found most veterans apathetic rather than revolutionary, as most were glad to be done with their ordeal, and were hesitant to group themselves into veterans organizations that could channel their discontent. Breton himself was glad to be out of uniform, but was not willing to return to medicine, and for a time, drifted in indecision, disillusionment, and uncertainty. Ideas and solutions eluded him, and day by day, he was prey to a sense of “fatalism.”35 The only way to deal with recent experiences, he found, was through the response learned from his friend Vach –derision and scorn for the absurdity of life. He concluded that “no compromise was possible with a world to which such an atrocious misadventure had taught nothing.”36disgust towards a bankrupt franceBoth Breton and Drieu became thoroughly disenchanted with the condition in which they found post-war France, and decided that politically, morally, and intellectually, French society was bankrupt. In the last years of the war, Breton began to cultivate his literary contacts. Publishing the review Litt rature along with his friends Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and Philippe Soupault, Breton came into contact with the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara who revealed to Breton the artistic movement that seemed to so clearly correspond to Bretons own turbulent sentiments–Dadaism. Tzara was one of the founders of Dadaism, an international pacifist movement born in Zurich in 1916, which repudiated all political, moral, and artistic values held by conventional society. Dada was a pessimistic revolt against all tradition and all rational thought, and as Dada poet Louis Aragons manifesto of 1920 illustrates, Dada was in effect a revolt against everyone and everything:No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians, no more sculptors, no more religions, no more republicans, no more royalists, no more imperialists, no moreanarchists, no more socialists, no more Bolsheviks, no more aristocrats, no more armaments, no more police, no more countries, enough of all these imbecilities, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more.37In an early Dada manifesto, Breton explained that “Dada is a state of mind. . . . Dada gives itself to nothing. . . . I speak and I have nothing to say. I do not have the least ambition.”38 Soon after the war, Tzara and his group came to Paris, and with Breton and his friends, began to stage a number of Dada demonstrations consisting of banging drums, obscene insults, parading in outrageous costumes, and reciting nonsense poems, all designed to shock bourgeois society. Dada served Breton well as a release for his anger and disgust, but as time passed, he realized that he did have ambitions and he did have something important to say. Drieu La Rochelle was also disappointed by the failure of his generation to take action, and was disgusted with a post-war France that was all too identical to pre-war France. In 1922 he wrote that while France had won the war:It took half the world to contain a people that my people, alone, had tread on with ease for centuries. . . . On our soil, our flesh no longer held its place. . . . Behind us in each house in the place of those who were dead or of those who had not yet been born there was a foreigner. He was alone with our women. . . . We did not go to bed alone with Victory.39Drieu was disgusted with Frances declining population growth, which was made shockingly apparent by the war. He also was ashamed at French weakness in the face of stronger powers and resented the influx of foreign labor following the war.40 Drieu was sickened by what he saw as the decadence of French society, for he believed thatsterility, onanism, [and] homosexuality are spiritual maladies. Alcoholism, drugs are the first steps that lead to this failing of the imagination, to this decadence of the creative spirit, when men prefer to submit rather than to assert themselves.41Drieus search for a group that would transform society with “thousands of energetic acts” led him to the early Dada and later Surrealist group of Andr Breton. Having befriended Louis Aragon in 1916, Drieu was introduced to the Dada group after the war. He was impressed not only by the groups literary boldness, but also by their youthful energy and independence, their antirationalism, their internationalist opposition to xenophobic nationalism, and hostility towards the older decadent generation.42 Drieu later wrote that his period with the Dadaists/ Surrealists was one of great pleasure, as he believed that this prodigious troop of young men and poets, I firmly believe, are the most alive group in the world today. . . . This encounter has been for me an enormous event.”43The role that Drieu played in the group is sketchy and it is unclear to what extent he participated in Dada and later Surrealist group activities. While he lent his name to a number of Dada/Surrealist documents, Drieu did not always feel comfortable in the group, for he was often torn between both revolutionary and reactionary rebellion.44 When the Dadaists held a mock trial of Barr s in 1921, Drieu was reluctant to participate. The Dadaists abhorred Barr s as the symbol of stagnant cultural traditionalism and rabid nationalism, yet Drieu was unwilling to denounce his idol. When bluntly prodded by Andr Breton to confess whether or not he still found Barr s appealing, Drieu replied evasively that he retained a sense of respect for Barr s.45 For the time being however, he had found a much needed friendship and camaraderie with the Dada/Surrealist group–a sense of attachment and belonging that he had craved since his days in the trenches. the purging of western societyThoroughly disgusted with the bankrupt society which sent them off to a war that had accomplished so little, Breton and Drieu both declared war on the decadence that had created it. Both proposed to initiate a thorough regeneration of France and Western society through force and violence, by first wiping the slate clean and starting anew. Breton had believed in the message of Dadaism, but by 1921, began to feel that Dada had run its course. His article “Apr s Dada” (After Dada), written in 1922, revealed his concern that “there is more at stake here than our carefree existence and our good humour of the moment. . . . [T]he sanction of a series of utterly futile Dada acts is in danger of gravely compromising an attempt at liberation to which I remain strongly attached. Ideas which may be counted among the best are at the mercy of their too-hasty vulgarization.”46By 1921, the two dominant personalities in the group, Breton and Tzara, had begun to clash. Bretons attempts to root Dadaism in a tradition of rebellion and clearer political purpose were criticized by Tzara, who opposed any attempts to treat Dadaism as a serious vehicle of political protest.47 In 1922 Breton bid adieu to Dada and urged his followers to “Let go of everything. Let go of Dada. . . . Let go of your hopes and fears. . . . Take to the roads!”48 Breton was now free to translate destructive and pessimistic Dada revolt into a more constructive Surrealist R volution, although the Surrealists would never abandon the Dada propensity for spontaneous violence. Breton clarified and explained the Surrealist position in the first Manifeste du Surr alisme, which appeared in October 1924:Surrealism rests on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin definitively all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in the resolution of the principal problems of life.49To facilitate the Surrealist revolution, the review La Revolution Surr aliste was founded in December 1924 proclaiming, “We must arrive at a new declaration of the rights of man!” A “Bureau of Surrealist Research” was also created to investigate and collect Surrealist material, and assured the public that “[w]e are on the verge of a Revolution!”50 The Surrealists had set out on their quest to transform the world. The Surrealists first public “scandal” was a derogatory pamphlet in 1924, Un Cadavre, on the death of novelist and national literary hero, Anatole France, whom they despised as the epitome of the pretentious bourgeois literary establishment. This four page tract was a collection of short essays, including contributions by both Breton and Drieu La Rochelle, which ridiculed and defamed the novelist in the most irreverent manner. Drieu asserted that “our devotion rests with those who died young . . . in the blood and scum” of World War I, and asked the youth of his generation, “what good was this old grandfather, anyway?”51 Breton was less diplomatic:Let it be a holiday when we bury trickery, traditionalism, patriotism, opportunism, skepticism, and heartlessness. . . . To put away his corpse . . . throw the whole thing in the Seine. Dead, this man must produce dust no longer.52Breton would later explain that “Anatole France represented the proto-type of all that we loathed. . . . [W]e hold his attitude as the most shady and the most despicable of all.”53While Un Cadavre had assailed a well-known national figure, Surrealist revolt had not yet adopted a political tone. Many significant political events of the early 1920s, such as the 1922 Rapallo Treaty, Mussolinis march on Rome, French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, Hitlers Munich putsch, and the death of Lenin in 1924, received no mention in early Surrealist writings.54It was the threat of war in Morocco in 1925 that prompted the Surrealists to assume a more openly political stance. In 1925 they published an open letter to Paul Claudel, the poet and French ambassador to Japan, regarding the French suppression of the colonial uprising in Morocco. The Surrealists asserted that “we hope with all our strength that revolutions, wars and colonial insurrections come to annihilate this Western civilization which you defend.” In addition, the grudge was a personal one, for in an earlier letter, Claudel had both referred to the Surrealists as “pederasts” and had exaggerated the importance of his own noncombatant role in the First World War. This was too much for the Surrealists, who retorted by calling Claudel a hypocrite for pretending to be both a poet and a politician, and advised that he “write, pray, and slobber on; we demand the dishonor of having treated you once and for all as a pedant and a swine.”55This literary outrage was soon followed by outright violence when the Surrealists instigated a brawl at a banquet honoring the poet Saint-Pol-Roux. Amidst a tension created by their recent letter to Claudel, the Surrealists became even more agitated at the presence at the “table of honor” of two guests: Mme. Rachilde, an outspoken anti-German chauvinist and M. Lugne-Poe, suspected of counter-espionage against France during the war. When Breton rose to defend his friend Max Ernst against the anti-German diatribes of Mme. Rachilde, Maurice Nadeau reports that:Suddenly a piece of fruit . . . flew through the air and splattered on an official amidst cries of “Long Live Germany!” The uproar quickly . . . turned into a riot. Philippe Soupault, swinging from a chandelier, kicked over plates and bottles on the tables. Outside, idlers gathered. Blows rained down from right and left.56Many Surrealists were beaten and arrested. Right-wing journals, such as the Action fran aise, demanded reprisals and the Surrealists expulsion from France. For Breton, “the importance of this episode is that it marks the definitive rupture of Surrealism with all conformist elements of the period.”57As Breton assumed greater influence over La R volution Surr aliste, the movement began to take on a more clearly political tone. Their opposition to the Moroccan uprising of 1925 united them with the Marxist group Clart . Founded after World War I by such French liberal intellectuals as Henri Barbusse, Jules Romains, and Romain Rolland, Clart was originally conceived as an “international of the mind” in defense of vague socialistic, humanitarian, and pacifist ideals.58 United in their distaste for conventional society and its imperialist wars, the Surrealists and members of Clart jointly published in 1925 La R volution dabord et toujours! (Revolution Now and Forever!):



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