Tag Archives: French Canadian

Surrealist Film at Pravda: Thoughts on Breton’s Automatism and Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose

17 Feb



Pravda ran a Surrealist and Experimental film night series over the summer, and although I’m terribly late in posting about it, my friend and I had such a great time that I figured better late than never. One night of Surrealism can lead to many more!

Pravda is a subterranean Russian speakeasy in Soho, near two of my favorite bookstores, Housing Works and McNally Jackson. They serve delicious food and have a fantastic vodka selection. I cannot recommend the horseradish-infused vodka enough.

Occasionally they host special events, such as Salon Dinners, Roaring Twenties Parties, and Surrealist & Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 30s. The film nights are such a treat! The films are actually silent, and they hire a musician to play live piano music!! I was enthralled. Inspired. They showed films by Man Ray, whom I’d studied at Scripps College, as well as other artists.

A little background::: Surrealism developed out of Dada during World War I in Paris. André Breton is the key player here. Using Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic methods on soldiers, the French poet worked at a neurological hospital. In 1924, he wrote the Surrealist Manifesto, a work that defined the cultural revolution:

“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

While Surrealism affected all the arts, I want to pause right here to focus on the connections between Surrealist literature and the Beat Generation. The idea of Surrealist automatism is key here. Automatism is the practice of writing without self-censorship. The Oxford University Press defines it as:

Term appropriated by the Surrealists from physiology and psychiatry and later applied to techniques of spontaneous writing, drawing and painting.

“Spontaneous writing.” Sound familiar? Jack Kerouac wrote a writing manifesto called “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” In it, Kerouac wrote, for example:

Not “selectivity” of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought….

I haven’t yet done any extensive research into this to see if the connections are accurate, but there is a cultural connection to Kerouac and automatism. On Wikipedia (obviously not a true source to go by, but one that can be a launching pad for actual informed research) I read:

The notion of Automatism is also rooted in the artistic movement of the same name founded by Montreal artist Paul-Emile Borduas in 1942; himself influenced by the Dadaist movement as well as André Breton. He, as well as a dozen other artists from Quebec’s artistic scene, very much under restrictive and authoritarian rule in that period, signed the Global Refusal manifesto, in which the artists called upon North American society (specifically in the culturally unique environment of Quebec), to take notice and act upon the societal evolution projected by these new cultural paradigms opened by the Automatist movement as well as other influences in the 1940s.

Remember that Kerouac’s parents were from Quebec, and he and his family used to travel back and forth to visit relatives. The Automatism of Quebec happened in 1942, when Kerouac was already an adult, having graduated from high school and moved to New York by that time. Still, it’s possible that the seeds were planted in both Kerouac and Borduas around the same time and place, in at least the small point that they spoke French, the language of Surrealism.

In “Earwitness Testimony: Sound and Sense, Word and Void in Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight” for Empty Mirror, Gregory Stephenson makes the claim:

Indeed, in method and intention, Old Angel Midnight could be said to be closer to the sound poetry of the dadaists, Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, and to the automatic writing practiced by the surrealists, André Breton and Philippe Soupault, in their book-length exercise in textual autogenesis, The Magnetic Fields, originally published in 1919.

There’s much more to be said about Surrealism, Automatic Writing, Spontaneous Prose, and Surrealist Film, and the evening at Pravda whet my appetite.



Tasty Tuesday: A French Road-Trip Supper

9 Apr

Jack Kerouac’s parents were French Canadian, and he described some fantastic meals in The Town and the City.  While he was on road trips though, he barely had enough money to buy food sometimes.

Saveur magazine created a springtime menu for if you happen to find yourself roadtripping through France … or just dreaming of being there!

The menu includes:

  • olive spread with figs
  • crepes
  • the French Blonde cocktail
  • and more!

Get the dinner party recipe here.

What’s your dream menu for a road trip along France’s famous Route 7?

Sneak Peek of Burning Furiously Beautiful: Early Version of “On the Road” Tells Kerouac’s Mom’s Story

8 Jan


From chapter 1 of Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the book I’m coauthoring with Paul Maher Jr.:

In an unpublished prose fragment, Jack Kerouac incorporated his mother and father’s French-Canadian heritage into one version of his road novel. It was centered on his mother’s birth using the pseudonym of Gaby L’Heureux. Gaby’s pregnant mother unwisely took a long journey by train to visit relatives in St. Pacome in the Quebec province of Canada. Gaby’s mother, though poor, was pure at heart, according to Kerouac. She gave birth to a set of twins before dying in her bed. Gaby survived but her twin did not. Gaby’s widowed father, Louis L’Heureux, who stayed home in Nashua, tended a gloomy bar. Outside, staring at the canopy of stars reeling over him, he adjusted his collar, securing himself unwittingly for one more cruel “blow” to his life.

The mother’s body was brought back to Nashua accompanied by her Aunt Alice and the infant Gaby. Kerouac captured in this bit of wrtiting how the train moved through the New England countryside, and how the Merrimack River wended its way through New Hampshire, a land once inhabited by Algonquin Indians waiting for “life.”

Gaby’s piercing cries irritated the travelers, and she was unaware of the life all around her. At the train station, her father took her in his arms, and he looked down to her adoringly. Alice predicted that they would never be without troubles: “Life is sad, O my love….”

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