Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism
by Philippe Soupault
translated by Alan Bernheimer
City Lights Press, 2016; 118 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
One of the founders of the Dada and Surrealist movements, Philippe Soupault is a genial guide to the people and principles in his recollections gathered in Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. But don’t let his personal warmth and generosity obscure the tenacity of his convictions.
In one of the longer essays, “Following in the Footsteps,” Soupault imagines being interviewed by three young seekers, which causes him to recall the milieu surrounding the birth of these revolutionary ideas and actions. Some critics considered Dada a “schoolboy prank” or a “publicity campaign” designed to promote the budding careers of its merry pranksters. His descriptions of events do support the claims, events where people like Tristan Tzara declaimed poems on the spot integrating random words pulled from a hat or where they crashed a standard literary event and created havoc.
However, the destruction that Dada enacted and the vision that Surrealism sought to embody arose from a context, one that I believe remains relevant. Soupault says at sixteen, he “had the vague but persistent impression that I was witnessing the end of the world, the decline of a civilization” (4–5). European culture buried itself in the pointless, bloody trench-stand-off of World War I. For his generation, the war’s end didn’t “represent victory…but rather a sudden awakening” (9), and Russian Revolution was “the start of a new era” (7).
As a result, Soupault says, “we wanted to destroy” (11) any social convention, but especially the forms of thinking, that led to such dead-ends. And yet, Dada reached a crisis. Soupault wisely observes that “one can’t continuously repudiate without wanting to repudiate oneself” (15).
Joining with André Breton, who had been in the war and had studied Freud, these artists sought the freedom of “all bias, all preconceptions” (17). Relying on psychological insights of the time, they evolved “experiments” designed to access and reveal how “the mind provided images and not logical propositions” (17). His conviction was unwavering, that “poetry in a way illuminated life, and vice versa, but this reciprocity creates interferences and correspondences” (80).
The profiles, then, describe others who were likewise devoted to the ways and means of this illumination, reaching back to Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud as ancestors. He praised Apollinaire because he was “extremely scrupulous” (22), René Crevel because he was an “insurgent’ (31), and James Joyce for his “ruthless method” of uncompromising care while translating Finnegans Wake.
Lost Profiles is a book for our time, a way to entertain what seems “absurd” (a word the Surrealists embraced) in order to achieve a different kind of synthesis, a truth that includes what seems contradictory. To get there, we need more who have Soupault’s singleness of intention, his ferocity of commitment, and his hearty embrace of humanity.