L’ Immaculée Conception by André Breton et Paul Éluard



face à faceL’ Immaculée Conception par André Breton et Paul Éluard

Translated by Megan Flocken

The following three sections tell the story of an immaculate conception. I say ‘an’ rather than ‘the’ quite purposefully: this very project of Breton and Éluard challenged the privileged rank of Mary’s unstained birth—and the Catholic Church’s doctrine which sanctified the same. To these authors, any artistic creation may very well be a ‘pure fertilization’, without the mark of sin. It is likely that ‘sin’, here, can be equated with grammar—as much of the following flouts customary syntax and invigorates semantic constructions. Without shame, these poets inveigle their own language. We shall see how—through Conception, gestation (Intra-Uterine Life), and Birth. For this selection, I leave out ‘Life’ and ‘Death’, which close out the life-cycle of thought that these authors portray. What follows this life-cycle, in their 1930 publication L’Immaculée Conception, is a series of even more linguisticly depraved experiments in ‘Possessions’, which simulates a downward spiral of madness in five stages: mental debility , acute mania, general paralysis, delirium, and dementia praecox. (For similar effect, I include the footnotes for this selection in plain text.)

Why such fascination with madness and heresy? Part of the surrealist project is to destroy language by taking it to its limits. In due deference to the cataclysmic stretch and abyssal depth these artists wish to reach in and through the linguistic sign, I have tried to preserve their language rather than substitute my own words, even at the expense of clarity and poetic pizzazz. I find that the choice of their words and their order within a phrase condition a reading pace that is important to their experiment. They repeat a word, exploring its various homonyms; for these cases, I tend to leave the repetition in tact, which accounts for some hyphenated neologisms. Otherwise, I have noted repetitions in footnotes. There are very few points when I have inserted punctuation to preserve the authors’ semantic content that is often more apparent in French, whose parts of speech include more immanent hints than English as to the agreements between subjects or nouns and their adjectives and verbs. ‘Let us rise above grammar!’ says Nietzsche. The terror that Breton and Éluard wreak upon the word sends me happily to join Nietzsche’s ranks. Speaking of joining ranks, I also have suspicions that the difficulty of these authors’ prose—particularly the arcane use of signifiers—bears another motive: to thin or challenge the ranks of the burgeoning surrealist movement. Dali, for example, is by this time an avid correspondent and contributor to surrealist causes and productions in Paris, but he had come to France only two years prior to the publication of this text, in 1928—knowing very little French. This text is difficult reading for any non-French (and French) speaker. Further, Dali and Breton’s relationship exhibited strain almost from its beginning, and Gala, who would become Dali’s life-long partner, had at the gestation of this work, just left Éluard for Dali. I am indebted to two docents at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg for elaborating on this historical information which accompanied the frontispiece Dali drew for this very work, on exhibit at the museum in September 2013.

“Man, that inveterate dreamer,” Breton opens his 1924 ‘Surrealist Manifesto’. Indeed, there is an important relationship, for the surrealist, between language and dream. The surrealist use of language performs the interiority of dreaming. There is nothing outside the text to corroborate its sense. One can only re-examine the words of Breton and Éluard to ensure that one has them ‘correctly’. Theirs is not a logic that corresponds with a universal and rational world. In this way, the surrealist author demonstrates the logic of a dream–which operates through its own immanent, interior sense. Unlike the language of reason, the dream does not know a ‘rational’ temporal duration, nor does it make universal demands of intelligibility. The surrealists invoke a dreamlike language to remind us how there are indeed many times, personal ways of thinking, and, as Breton notes in his first manifesto, “man is soluble in his thought!” This co-authored edition, released in the same year as the so-called, ‘Second Manifesto of Surrealism’, submerges its reader in the womb of thought to find the navel of the dream. Provocatively thereto, our authors suppose: “the only dream is of not being born.”
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A day grasped between two other days and, as usual, not a night without stars, the long womb of the woman climbs, it is a stone1 and it alone visible, it alone genuine, in the cascade. All that which is so many times undone comes undone again, all that the long womb of the woman has so many times undertaken, conserving her pleasure more pure than the coldness of feeling absent of herself, it undertakes2 again. This is not to hear a breathing of the wild beast very close by her.3 This is not the gift that one would like to make of a lone piece of this unearthed treasure which is not the life that one would want to have received since as well the long womb of the woman is her womb and that the dream, the only dream is of not being born4. The habitual night is so sufficient. Ignorance there so well settles its account. It does not interrupt love, which neither goes to bed nor rises. We have blown well on the coals, we are each looked good in the face to the point of losing each from view.5 A moment ago again, in a moment again6… we were each only us.

Man does not reproduce himself in a spark of laughter. Man does not reproduce himself. He has never peopled his bed as with the ardent eyes of his love.7 He supposes the problem resolved. The problem is rarely resolved. The ragmen have sons who are in reality the sons of kings, sons who confuse, on opening their eyes, the diadem of their mothers with the marvelous tops of carrots. Vipers are born somewhere. The fathers of the family believe nothing. We only cut the head off of the desire. Places. says the conductor of the old omnibus, the conductor who will resemble you, who will resemble me, without pity for the horses a-head of the calm sea. And, like he is very polite, places, to you he adds, if you please. The phantom omnibus is already far away.

He must stay the same, always, with this disconcerting speed of the gymnast, with this ridiculous way of carrying one’s head8. But here the statue falls into dust, as it refuses to keep9 its name. You luckily know nothing of this and it is hardly whether you look from the side10 of the mural image which shows Mazeppa, alone, boundless on the steppe. He makes me feel that since yesterday he has moved. This room is absurd, keep watch11. There are here walls that you will never overcome, walls that I will shower with insults and threats, walls which are forever colored by old blood, of blood shed.

Intra-Uterine Life

To be nothing. Of all the ways that a sunflower has of loving the light, regret is the most beautiful shadow on the sundial. Cross bones, cross words, volumes and volumes of ignorance and of knowledge. For where must one begin? The fish is born of the thorn, the troll of the walnut. The shadow of Christopher Columbus turns itself on the Tierra del Fuego12. It is not more difficult than the egg.

A grand assurance—and grand without term of comparison—permits the revenant to deny the reality of the forms which enchain it. But we are not yet there. The forbidden gestures of statues in the mould have given these imperfect figures and revenants: Venuses whose absent hands caress the hair of poets.

From one bank13 to the other, the washerwomen spill out14 the name of a fantastic character who wanders the earth while simulating hatred for all that he embraces. Their songs are all what transports me and which is yet transported, like carrier pigeon photographers take involuntary15 pictures of the enemy camp. Their eyes are less far from me than the vulture from its prey. I have understood that the face of the woman only shows itself in sleep. It is in the glare16, among the settled grasses of the heavens. From within as from without17, it is the pearl which is worth a thousand times the death of the diver. From outside,18 it is the admirable frond19, from inside20 it is the bird. The brambles tear it and the blackberries stain it black, but it accords to the bushes the singular source of its bubbling with light. We cannot know what it has become since I have uncovered it.

The doe between two leaps likes to look at me. I keep her company in the clearing. I fall slowly from the heights, I still only weigh what gives weight from minus hundred thousand meters.21 The extinguished chandelier which lights me shows teeth when I caress breasts that I have not chosen. Big dead branches pass through them. The valves which open and close in a heart which is not mine and which is my heart, are all what will sing of it, useless,22 by a measure in two times23: I scream, nothing24 hears me, I dream.

This desert is fake. The shadows that I look into let show25 the colors like so many useless secrets.


The calculation of probabilities becomes confused with the child, black like the fuse of a bomb set on the passage of a sovereign who is the man by26 an individualist anarchist of the worst kind who is the woman. Birth is, except for this, only a roundabout.27 A parallel halo applied28 to the son of the man and the woman does not risk making appear less dull the ratty swaddling clothes which are prepared for him and the cradle like a sewer in which we pour him with the dirty water and the salt of stupidity which left to await29 his coming like that of an obedient phoenix.

The neighbor insists that he is made in the image of the wood fire, the neighbor’s wife that we cannot do better than compare him to airplane air and the degenerate fairy who has elected domicile in the cellar inclines to give him for ancestry the gypsum crystal30 which has one foot on idleness, the other on work. For all, he keeps his promises. Each one wants to learn his filial tongue and interpret his silence. We say everywhere that he favors with his presence a world which could no longer do without him. This is the pointsman on all fours, the one who provokes with sure stroke31 the derailment with view of the bridge, celebrated by the Illustrated News. He carries the life-saver in a medallion. “Papa” is a moon-shaped disc32, “Mama” now is concave like the dishes.

For suspending the effect of a presence as obstinate as that of the vase of brass on the hearth of saltpeter, a ray of honey comes to do its hair in the bedroom. All the compliments of custom have been useless. There is no one here. There has never been anyone.33

dali - immaculee conception

dali – immaculee conception

1une pierre is a stone, and also invokes St. Peter with the keys.
2s’entreprends; in its English translation, there is a switch made between the subject and the direct object of what is undertaken, such that the subject (‘the womb’), which is absent in the French phrasing, appears and the object (signaled in the French by ‘se’ in ‘s’entreprends’), disappears. All this, to preserve the present verb tense of ‘undertakes’.
3C’est à ne pas entendre un souffle de bête fauvre tout près de soi.
4le seul rêve est de n’ être pas né; the passé composé for ‘être’ uses ‘avoir’ as an auxiliary verb to conjugate it (even though the standard translation for this line is ‘not having been born’.
5on s’est bien regardé en face au point de se perdre de vue. Again, the auxiliary verb gives me a clue as to the difficult translation.
6Tout à l’heure can mean both what has just happened (a moment ago) and what is going to happen soon (in a moment).
7Il n’a jamais peuplé son lit que des yeux ardents de son amour.
8’avec ce port de tête ridicule’ an example of how the authors stretch the parts of speech—it is ambiguous as to whether it is the way one is carrying one’s head that is ridiculous, or, whether the concept ‘carrying one’s head [ port de tête] itself is ridiculous. Port de tête is an idiom, which poses problems for literal translations. This being said, a more literal translation reads “with this ridiculous carrying of one’s head’.
9de garder
10regardes du côté. Here, again, an ambiguity: ‘regarder de côté’ is the idiom, sidelong look, or, to look askance (more poetic). The authors, instead, have regardes du côté.
11prenons garde
12Archipelago off southern coast of South America
14se jettent, as in, the river spills out/flows
15les pigeons voyageurs photographes prennent sans le vouloir des vues; Tricky! 1) This phrase piles on a very unsuspecting group of nouns, turning ‘carrier-pigeon’ into an adjective. 2) The verb ‘prennent’ could be in the subjonctif tense, which tends to signal the will or subjective intent, especially when it describes a person’s actions. In this phrase, however, that which is taken is accidental/involuntary.
17Du dedans comme du dehors
18du dehors
19’frond’ can also mean, ‘revolt’, as in the Frond, a set of 17th century French insurrections, and also ‘sling-shot’, a common weapon used in these skirmishes. Following suit with the natural images which precede this usage and come after it, I have chosen its botanical denotation.
20du dedans
21je ne pése encore que ce que donnent à peser de moins cent mille metres ; ‘de moins cent’ is a puzzle: no article for ‘cent’
22Sont tout ce qui se chantera d’inutile sur une mesure ; ‘sont’ refers to the valves (les soupapes) while ‘se’ of ‘se chantera’ refers to the heart. Also, ‘inutile’ is an adjective, referring to the heart, or to the song that the valves sing. Phew.
23une mesure à deux temps ; Both ‘mesure’ and ‘temps’ mean ‘time’ in this context. I stick with ‘measure’ in the first case for just a bit of clarity.
25je creuse laissent apparaître; apparaître is also ‘to bring into being’, but I determined this turn of phrase to be too out of place.
26par, which, in this context, could be ‘in the name of’. I have gone with the simplest phrasing so as not to complicate an already complicated text with red herrings (I do not wish to give the reader the idea that there is any extra emphasis on name, names or naming here).
27La naissance n’est, à ceci près, qu’un rond-point. I have, at this point in the passage, chosen to use the article to signal the general case of the noun.
28Une pareille auréole appliqueé
29le sel de la bêtise qui a laissé attendre sa venue
30Le gypse en fer de lance; Here’s an example: htp://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gypse_-_fer_de_lance_(Ile_de_France_-_France)_5_.jpg
31à coup sûr
32un disque en forme de lune
33Il n’y a personne ici. Il n’y a jamais eu personne. To demonstrate, again, the play of ambiguity: in the first sentence, ‘Il n’y a’ translates as ‘There is’ as in, ‘There is no one/nobody’, whereas, in the second sentence, ‘Il n’y a’ translates as ‘There has’, as in ‘There has never been’. ‘Personne’, too, undergoes a shift in semantic content from one sentence to another.


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