Electronic Voice Phenomena       


The Pillow Talk of Robert Desnos by Richard Milward

Posted 19 August 2013 by | Comments Off


In his commission for the EVP tour, novelist Richard Milward unpicks the strange life of the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos.

Robert Desnos made a career out of talking in his sleep. A poet, psychic shapeshifter, cat lover and considered by his peers to be able to ‘speak surrealist’ at will, Desnos was the natural master of what he called WORDPLAY, SOFTSPRAY: the unharnessed, unrehearsed conjuring of remarkable puns and tongue-twisters, babbling like a most lucid, louche lush. As he said so himself: MY HEAD IS LIKE A PIGGYBANK IN WHICH WORDS, IDEAS, MEMORIES JINGLE PELL-MELL. I SHAKE IT ALL UP. MY MOUTH RELEASES A COIN.

Playing the part of a glass-skulled, glossolalic guinea pig, Desnos was discovered by the Surrealists and invited to participate in what they called their ‘period of sleeps’. Between September 1922 and February 1923, the Surrealists dedicated themselves to their dreams, holding nightly séances in cafes or their apartments, on the hunt for voices from the beyond. Though Desnos kept a Ghost Journal and believed he’d been visited regularly by phantoms, the aim of the Surrealists’ séances wasn’t to communicate with the dead but to coax out the life lurking in the unconscious.

Desnos quickly assumed the role of poster boy for the period of sleeps. Not only did his eyelids seem heavy in every photograph taken of him, Desnos claimed he had the narcoleptic knack of inducing deep sleep whenever and wherever he wanted.

And you never knew quite what you were going to get when Desnos went under. He used to break pencils while writing or drawing furiously in a trance. His body was like his unconscious mind’s ventriloquist’s dummy. One night he might question WHAT IS SECRETED BY THE SECRET ANDEAN OR PYRENEAN EAGLE’S PERINEAL GLAND?, while another night he might offer ENTICING TORSOS ON THE TABLES OF NURSES, SOON TO BE CARCASSES IN HEARSES! Desnos was obsessed with death but sometimes he did sketch chirpy birds perched on the moustaches of men with suns and moons in their boots, and he frequently appeared to fall in love with the other Surrealists’ wives.

When dreaming, humans have the freedom to fall in love with whoever they like, and they can get away with it because the fantasies remain locked in their heads, or they disperse before dawn. Desnos, however, unrolled the lurid blueprints of his brainwaves nightly before his peers and, though perhaps masked by his wordplay, occasionally he fired thinly-veiled pining ejaculations at the women of the group. One night he said of the painter Francis Picabia’s wife, apparently half-asleep: FROM EVEREST MOUNTAIN I AM FALLING DOWN TO YOUR FEET FOREVER, MRS EVERLING. Of Paul Eluard’s – soon to be Salvador Dali’s – wife, he sleepspoke: AT THE GALA OF STARS, THIS SLOGAN IS SCRIBED IN ASTRAGALS: GALA. Desnos even stole Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego, RroseSelavy, for himself, as a pseudonym to deliver his poems: RROSE SELAVY FANCIES PASSION IS THE FIXATIVE THAT PREPARES PLUSH FLOORS FOR FOREPLAY.

Soon, it seemed a good day and night’s sleep was unhealthy for Desnos. He became thinner, nervous and HUMANITY’S BROOD IS A PHANTOM PLATOON WITH A SPOONFUL OF BLOOD more aggressive as the period of sleeps wore on, and his behaviour much more unpredictable. In the height of his derangement, he was notoriously seen chasing fellow poet Paul Eluard around the back garden, with a knife, seemingly in a trance but possibly LUST, LOBSTERS AND FROSTY FORESTS living out some form of sordid wish fulfilment. Not long after this episode, thepope of Surrealism, Andre Breton, called an end to the period of sleeps due to what he called  ‘considerations of elementary mental hygiene’.

There were some, however, who felt Desnos’s unhinged behaviour was just a pantomime.It was felt I LOVE THE COUSINS’ BOSOMS MUZZLED IN OPPOSUMS his wordplay was perhaps too whimsical or sophisticated to have been sprayed directly from his unconscious – but, even so,to memorise and deliver these lines quickfire as Desnos did so would almost be akin to him inventing rap fifty or sixty years early.

Ultimately, Desnos was kicked out of the Surrealists – not because of his erratic IN THE QUARTERS OF MORTALS, WARTS AND ALL CRAWL THROUGH THE PORTALS behaviour or accusations of inauthenticity, but because he took up what Breton considered a filthy occupation: journalism.

Desnos’s words and a different kind of Occupation would land him in even greater trouble as the Second World War broke out. As a member of the French Resistance, Desnos published anti-Nazi literature AND ALL THIS BLOOD CARRIED IN MILLIONS OF MINDS THE SAME LEGEND:under a host of new pseudonyms: RISE UP AGAINST HITLER AND DEATH TO HIS LEGIONS!

Desnos was eventually arrested and deported along with other French political prisoners, branded with an F in a bright red triangle and RROSE SELAVY MIGHT DON A PRISONER’S GRUBBY GARB BUT HER RAGE MOUNTS ON MOUNTAIN RANGES, he was herded from camp to camp,from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Buchenwald, to Terezin in Czechoslovakia. It’s unsettling to imagine what kind of paranoid wordplaygunspray was shaking around Desnos’s piggybank head after his capture – however, YOU DREAMT ABOUT THE EIFFEL TOWER LAST NIGHT? he continued to preach surrealism to the end, giving lectures in the concentration camps MY, THAT’S AN EROTIC DREAM and he tried to keep spirits high by telling his comrades’ fortunes, YOU DREAMT ABOUT A SNAKE LAST NIGHT? or interpreting their dreams: GOD, THAT’S EVEN WORSE.

Perhaps it’s a blessing Desnos couldn’t foresee his own future. While in the Terezin concentration camp he contracted dysentery and typhus and, though he was still alive when Allied Forces liberated the camp in May 1945, his ailments were such that he could not survive another month. IF SILENCE IS GOLDEN, RROSE SELAVY’S EYES CLOSE AS SHE SLOWS DOWN.

Apparently Desnos’s ashes were returned to Paris in a cocktail shaker because the French embassy in Czechoslovakia refused to pay for an urn. It seems appropriate then that you could still shake him all up thoughDesnos’s mouth had ceased to release any more magic surrealist coins. The piggybank was cracked, the ejaculations dried up and the puns petered out, but still the spirit of Bobby Desnos’s out there somewhere, free to dream in a permanent period of sleep.


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