GERARD BERJEAU: A MEETING WITH THE PROPHET OF THE NEW SURREALISM
"Le terrorisme pushes the world against our face, le surréalisme pushes it away so that we can look at it, study it, think about it. So we can change it if we want."The air creaks with the heat. All around me is a mad tangle of vines and sunflowers, and above me the sky is a crazy blue. Berjeau himself, a bull-backed Gaulois slab of a man, is lifting his cottage door off its hinges. For a moment I think he’s going to swat me with it, like a Cyclops, but instead he lays it across two trestles in front of me, with a satisfied “bon.” He hitches his trousers up with thumbs as thick as barge rope. “And now, mon amie, we eat.”
My first encounter with Berjeau was the week before, at a literary festival in the old cattle town of Espalion, about a hundred miles west of his home in Provence. He stood on the gothic Pont-Vieux in a traditional Inuit coat, sealskin boots, and a fox-fur hood, a wooden paddle in his fist, and delivered an unsettling surrealist tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack: ‘The Song of the Green Raven.’
“Je suis le corbeau vert,” he sang bitterly, “et je dénonce votre brisement comme un sèche-cheveux cassé”—I am the green raven, and I condemn your shattering like a broken hairdryer. The poem ended with Berjeau on his knees, the paddle snapped, sweat pouring down his face, declaring: “le jour d’ambre est muet”—the amber day is silent.
I asked him afterwards, as he caught his breath on the riverbank, why was he dressed as an Eskimo? Had that something to do with the attack? “Rien du tout—nothing, of course, until I made it so. You see, it was un composition—a putting together of things.” For Berjeau, poetry is ‘le soudage’—welding—an image drawn from his early career as a steelworker.
Berjeau the poet-welder sees le terroriste as his anti-creative opposite: “le poète composes, le terroriste pulls things apart. Atoms from atoms. Heads from shoulders. Limbs from bodies. Sons from mothers. One half of society from the other. Le poème est une bombe à l’inverse. Compression, not explosion.”
A week after his performance, I tracked him down to his plain stone cottage on the edge of a quiet town called Bollène, which sits alongside the southern stretch of the Rhône valley. I find him at work, writing his manifesto of the new surrealism.
Berjeau is setting himself squarely against the first wave of surrealism in the 1920s. On his desk is a copy of the original 1924 surrealist manifesto, furiously annotated. “You know who wrote this, with André Breton? It was Leon Trotsky. They call it a manifesto for ‘revolutionary art’—they say the artist is the ‘natural ally of revolution.’ One word of every two is ‘revolution’. This is not le surréalisme, it is le socialisme. The world today is tired and sick of revolution. Our heads, our poor heads, they are spinning comme des moulins.” He lays his wide hands quietly on his desk. “When all is revolution, what is the revolutionary act? To be still.”
Outside in the courtyard, Berjeau plies me with saucisson sec and halves a glistening brick of pâté de tête with a Swiss Army penknife, the only bit of cutlery in his house as far as I can tell. I borrow it to excavate a reeking, cider-soaked Camembert that takes the roof of my mouth off. Berjeau sees my watering eyes and nods approvingly. “These are serious times. They demand serious cheese.”
I ask him where he was when he heard about the horrific truck attack in Nice. “Here in Bollène, to celebrate le quatorze juillet with my best friend—a bottle of Château La Croix Chabrières. I am sitting in an ugly bar called Le Tintin—mon Dieu, so ugly, but I like to drink in ugly bars: it makes me feel beautiful.” He sighs—“mon amie, it is too much, l’absurde marée du mal.” The phrase is from the surrealist poet Paul Éluard—the absurd tide of evil.
“What is happening to France is this: the attacks—at the Bataclan theatre, along La Promenade des Anglais, in a village church—they are making normal things suddenly not normal, suddenly strange. Sigmund Freud would say ‘unheimlich,’ not ‘homely’ any more. In an attack, our home stops being our home. A church becomes hell. A celebration becomes a battlefield. And this is what surrealism does—like the way Magritte hangs a rock in midair—it takes the normal, and makes it unheimlich—as if France itself is a canvas of surrealism.”
So is he saying terrorists are artists after all? “Ah, mais non! And here is why: terrorism destroys thought. It collapses our minds. Art opens minds and provokes thought. Surrealism insists that you think. Dalí, Apollinaire, Magritte… they force you to think. They push towards the rational, not away. Trauma is the enemy of reason. In the face of horror, our minds fly away, we dissociate. In surrealism, we associate.”
As if to demonstrate, Berjeau snatches up the last of the Camembert, and quotes a fragment of Picasso: “The doves eat cheese, and the cheese eats words, and the words eat bridges.” He pops the caustic rind in his mouth, and gasps: “It has eaten my words!”
I ask Berjeau what effect the terror attacks are having on France as a whole. “It is nothing small: our reality is changing. Cette guerre sera longue, says our Prime Minister. Nous devons vivre avec le terrorisme—we must live with terror. But what does that mean, to live with death? This is the absurd, the impossible. Life in France is close to becoming the possibility of the impossible: another attack, and then another, and the whole country will suffer an existential crisis.”
“We have no time to think anymore. An attack happens and the newspapers ask us, over and over: ce que l’on sait, ce que l’on sait, what do we know? Ce que nous savons? We must know everything! What now? What man? What attack? Who died? How many? We must know! But this knowing, what is it?”
“It is un déplacement perpétuel, like too much water in a bath, running and running—too much information. Ceci est le paradoxe: more information than ever, but more forgetting. The forgetting it happens now almost at once. Something happens, and pouf—it is gone. Like it never was. We have so many events that we have no events. There is just, as Debord said, la spectacle—in which each event suffers remplacement précipité by another.”
“Everything crushed into an instant. There is no time. There is no space. It is what Marinetti said in 1909: “time and space are dead.” And why? Because of speed. For one hundred years we have been living in the world of the Futurists. What is the world now but a world of speed—vitesse hurlant—screaming speed and war?”
“’We will glorify war,’ said the Futurists. They ran like young lions after death. It is a cult of death; surrealism is a cult of life! Have you seen the famous collage by Penrose, where the groin of the woman is replaced by a horizon? Surrealism is all about the horizon. Distance. Space is feminine: we are faced today with the closing up of the horizon, the denial of the feminine. Everything pressed up against our eyes.”
“Look at the great art of surrealism: huge horizons, echoing space. The strange calm of de Chirico, the aquatic ambiance of Tanguy. As Éluard said: the heart has so much space, tant d’espace, that it defies the stars. Le terrorisme pushes the world against our face, le surréalisme pushes it away so that we can look at it, study it, think about it. So we can change it if we want. Not only to let the world change us. That, mon amie, is why surrealism is revolutionary.”
Surrealism, for Berjeau, means distance but not escapism. “Surrealism is not fantasy, it is a dissection of reality.” Berjeau the surrealist sees himself, above all, as a poet of reason: “I want to say with Apollinaire, me voici devant tous un homme plein de sens—I stand before you, a man of good sense.” And with that, he picks up his cottage door and hangs it carefully back on its hinges.
Written by Charlie Skelton
Photographed by Salva Dordali