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1919 __ « Mon Tombeau »
Robert Desnos (1900-1945)
Comment : Surrealist Voice and Technology.In "Mon Tombeau" an early poem from "Prospectus", Desnos had already emphasized the experiential importance of listening. He anticipated the way that Breton would describe the automatic experience as an act of listening in "The Mediums Enter" : an act that allows the ear to be penetrated by the "murmur" of "our own unconscious". Listening -- especially to the surrealist voice -- is generative of surrealist experience. "The words, the images are only so many springboards for the mind of the listener", Breton wrote. Such listening is meant to be fundamentally receptive, for "we, who [...] in our works have made ourselves into simple receptacles of so many echoes, modest recording instruments". The voice in "Mon Tombeau", whether disembodied or from beyond the grave, issues strangely from a phonograph. Desnos's love of music is evident. The "singing" phonograph -- an anthropomorphic machine -- "sings" a song belonging not to him but to an exotic stranger. It embodies the rhetorical principle of prosopopoeia in two ways -- as the personification of an inanimate thing and also as a figure of speech in which an imaginary, absent, or deceased person is represented as speaking. For substituted for his own voice is the mediated voice of the Kaffir, a warrior from what is now northern Afghanistan, who represents Desnos's life-long fascination with adventurers, like Fantômas, and who may have been inspired by a comic book adventure story from Desnos's adolescence. Since the Kaffir's song is followed by France's revolutionary slogan "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité", presented as a vocalized epitaph, the warrior is a stand-in for the Revolutionary-era French citizens who longed for social change. The phonograph, which, on top of the poet's grave, sings a song belonging to someone else, emblematizes a double act of ventriloquism on the part of the poet. His own disembodied voice is mediated twice, one by the phonograph and once by the Kaffir warrior's song -- and perhaps even a third time, insofar as the "song" is not necessarily original to the warrior but acts as a screen or an appropriated vehicle or mode of transmission for the warrior's distress. From beyond the grave, in other words, the poet hopes to be heard, thanks to technology (the phonograph) and also through the voices of others, no matter how distant and foreign they may be. The interposition of a relatively new technological innovation -- the phonograph -- between the poet and his listener-reader and the emphasis on technologically mediated poetic language anticipate Breton's image of the "modest recording instruments". Desnos's phonograph, like Breton's "recording instruments", speaks not only for him but also to him, in a voice from his unconscious auditory imagination that is utterly familiar and yet strange enough to "sound like" that of a shy foreign warrior. Again like Breton's instrument, Desnos's phonograph requires interpretation in a manner similar to that of the words and images springing unbidden from the surrealist's mind during the automatic process. Desnos's image of the phonograph incorporates the surrealist preoccupation with machine aesthetics carried over from Dada. It represents a system of communication that functions in a way that symbolizes how automatic surrealist telepathy moves the desires of the buried self (in other words, the unconscious) through the barrier of the earth (the body) and into the visible, colorful grave (the poet's "tombeau" -- referring to his physical grave and to the traditional form of posthumous poetic homage called "tombeaux", for which Stéphane Mallarmé was well known) in order to find expression through the phonograph (the voice). Like a radio voice, the voice in his poem is disembodied. Deharme explicitly describes the radio "speaker" as someone who must become "a sort of phonograph". Morevoer, the radio voice resembles Breton's idea of the surrealist voice, which emerges similarly from the unconscious without any connection to an exterior, visible body and haunts the listener, insofar as it calls to mind something or someone else. [...] A disembodied voice, like the disincarnated radio voice, writes Allen Weiss in "Phantasmic Radio", is evocative of 'ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience", and causes "the radio work to returns as halluciation and phantasm; it is thus not unusual to find the radio fantasized as receiving messages from the beyond. [...] [W]ith no visible body emitting the sound, and with no image whatsoever to anchor the sound, the radiophonic work leaves a sufficient space from fantasizing" (Allen Weiss). (Katharine Conley)
Original excerpt 1 : « My grave, my pretty grave, / will be painted with enamels / with boating tackle / and a sailor's tattoos. / On my grave a phonograph / will sing night and day / the sad song of the Kaffir warrior / distressed by a licentious wink. / On my grave a record-player / will recite this epitaph. / LIBERTY EQUALITY FRATERNITY. »
Original excerpt 2 : « À Eugène et Lucienne de Kermadec.Mon tombeau mon joli tombeau, / il sera peint au ripolin / avec des agrès de bateau / et des tatouages de marins. / Sur mon tombeau un phonographe / chantera soir et matin / la complainte du guerrier cafre / navré d’un coup d’œil libertin. / Sur mon tombeau un phonographe / récitera cette épitaphe / LIBERTÉ ÉGALITÉ FRATERNITÉ. »
Source : Desnos, Robert (1919), "Prospectus", In L'Almanach des Saisons, 1921; In "Destinées Arbitraires", Poésie/Gallimard, 1975; In Oeuvres, Gallimard, collection Quarto, 1999 & 2003, p.20.
Source : Conley, Katharine (2003), "Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous on Everyday Life", University of Nebraska Press, pp. 100-102.
Urls : http://www.robertdesnos.asso.fr/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=63&Itemid=64 (last visited )

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