Theory of the Great Game: Writings From ‘Le Grand Jeu' - This book collects the writings of a radical group of writers close to Paris Surrealism--principally René Daumal and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte - as published in their now legendary magazine, Le Grand Jeu
‘Theory of the Great Game: Writings From ‘Le Grand Jeu’, Ed. by Dennis Duncan by Rene Daumal & Roger Gilbert-Lecomte etc, Atlas Press, 2015.
This book collects the writings of a radical group of writers close to Paris Surrealism--principally René Daumal and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte - as published in their now legendary magazine, Le Grand Jeu (The Great Game). Le Grand Jeu ran to three issues between 1928 and 1930, before collapsing due to its editors' infighting, drug use and vehemently unreasonable aspirations for both art and life. The Grand Jeu is often associated with Surrealism (they were invited to join the group), but their ideas were far more extreme. The magazine was the public face of a group of artists and writers who systematically attacked their perceptions of reality through narcotics, anaesthesia and near-death experiences.
Le Grand Jeu describes a politico-mystical outlook which combined a critique of the apathy and repression of contemporary Western society with a quest to take leave of the individual ego and to reconnect with a collective Universal Mind. The group's esoteric program united narcotic and parapsychological practices with asceticism, revolutionary politics (the Russian Revolution was barely a decade old) and a prophetic mode of poetry which they identified in antecedents such as Rimbaud and Mallarmé. In this definitive collection, the theories of the Grand Jeu are presented in the group's own words for the first time, through the essays and articles which formed the bulk of their magazine.
...But my take on Futurism is a little awry, spinning the line that at its core this was a fascist movement. It wasn’t. It was the start of contemporary utopianism in its modern idiom. In Stewart Home’s authoritative ‘Assault on Culture’ Home shoes how utopian projects aimed at bringing about collective unity by fusing categories that were separate in their own settings. So during the medieval times utopianists sought to break down the separation of religion and the world by bringing about heaven on earth. In contemporary times religion is replaced by art and utopianism attempts to fuse art with politics.
“So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!… Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!” proclaims the ‘First Futurist Manifesto’. Futurism was the kick-start movement that replaced religion with art as the key idiom of utopianism.
Carra’s novel makes clear that Sam Dunn is not merely an artist but is rather the apotheosis of the absolutist Futurist project: the character transforms more than just art by fusing together the whole world, its politics, fashion, technologies and its sense of time and event, space and dream as well as art via Sam Dunn’s transformational powers.
What followed the Futurist pioneers of the modern utopian idiom were the Dadaists. Richard Huelsenbeck gave the modernist utopianism a stronger theoretical grip than anything the Futurists managed in his Dada manifesto ‘”What Is Dadaism and What Does It Want in Germany?” Later, in his 1920 essay “En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism” he writes: “The Dadaist considers it necessary to come out against art because he has seen through its fraud as a moral safety valve”. And further, that “Dada is German Bolshevism. The bourgeois must be deprived of the opportunity to ‘buy up art for his justification’. Art should altogether get a sound thrashing, and Dada stands for that thrashing with all the vehemence of its limited nature.” Clearly Dada wasn’t just an art movement.
As late as 1936 he was writing against all attempts to brand it as such, and in so doing attacked the Surrealists:
‘”Tzara, in Paris, eliminated from Dadaism its revolutionary and creative element and attempted to compete with other artistic movements… Dada is perpetual, revolutionary ‘pathos’ aimed at rationalistic bourgeois art. In itself it is not an artistic movement. To quote the German Chancellor, the revolutionary element in Dada was always greater than its constructive element. Tzara did not invent Dadaism, nor did he really understand it. Under Tzara in Paris Dada was deformed for the private use of a few persons so that its action was almost a snobbish one.”
‘Le Grand Jeu’ competed with the Surrealists. As Stewart Home makes clear:
‘Paris Dada was later renamed Surrealism. Under this title it became the most degenerate expression of the Utopian tradition during the pre-war years. Whereas Berlin Dada rejected both art and work (themes that were later taken up by the Situationist International), the Surrealists embraced painting, occultism, Freudianism and numerous other bourgeois mystifications. Indeed, if Surrealism had been a movement in its own right, rather than a degeneration from Dada, any claim that it belongs within the Utopian tradition would be open to question.’
The creators of the magazine ‘Le Grand Jeu’ didn’t see things exactly like that. They attempted to fuse the ‘bourgeois mystifications’ listed above to a utopianism of collective action. In this way they attempted to transcend the limitations of Paris Dada, utilizing the very bourgeois gadgets that condemn the Surrealists in the eyes of Home as well as themselves. Could it be done?
It’s clear that another acerbic insight from Home is relevant here. Home writes that art is a legitimated form of male emotionality. It’s impossible to read ‘Le Grand Jeu’ without having this notion burning through your mind. Home is characteristically brutal and corrosive:
‘The ‘male’ artist is treated as a ‘genius’ for expressing feelings that are ‘traditionally’ considered ‘feminine’. ‘He’ constructs a world in which the male is heroicised by displaying ‘female’ traits; and the female is reduced to an insipid subordinate role. ‘Bohemia’ is colonised by bourgeois men – a few of whom are ‘possessed by genius’, the majority of whom are ‘eccentric’. Bourgeois wimmin whose behaviour resembles that of the ‘male genius’ are dismissed as being ‘hysterical’ – while proletarians of either sex who behave in such a manner are simply branded as ‘mental’.” So according to this perspective, art is done by posh boys for posh. With this in mind, the mental activities and ideas of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ are somewhat diminished. Or rather, they have to be judged with this limitation held in mind.
‘Theory of the Great Game: Writings From ‘Le Grand Jeu’ is a selection from the three published and one unpublished editions of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ magazine. Published in Paris between 1928 and 1930 it was edited by a small band of young guys from provincial Reims who wanted to change the world. The granular individuality of the Surreal challenge was to be replaced with a particular species of the collective Universal Mind. They declared that the time of the individual, the Surrealist time, was over. They called time on Pico della Mirandola’s individualised utopia, the time that informed surrealism. In its place they announced the advent of Baudelaire’s time, the time of the utopian collective. Baudelaire’s ‘correspondences’ were mystical systems taken from Swedenborg that denied the ‘discursive schemes of successive causality and of a world divided into individual objects…’ The editors of Le Grand Jeu were proposing a metaphysics that broke with the language of subject and predicate, cause and effect, replacing it with one that reached to the grand process-metaphysics of Heraclitus and Nietzsche. They proposed a Hegelianism that mixed with the materialism of Marx, making a double distinction within both idealism and materialism. They required absolute idealism as ‘… a beacon of fate lighting the way for revolution.’ But they also required an absolute materialism opposed to primary materialists ‘… who got tired and wanted a new system of total repose; of spiritual spinelessness so that it becomes easy for them to say… “Me, I am a real revolutionary, and much more orthodox than you, monsieur …” They insisted on the occult mysticism fused with group participation. Gilbert-Lecomte wrote his essay, ‘Vision of Epiphysis’ on this.
The dead-end routinised time that was Western society was assaulted by an esotericism involving copious drug use, parapsychology and poetry in the mould of Rimbaud and Mallarme. Its politico-mystical occultism was wild, incoherent, over-indulgent and for the short time festered like an iterating Bacchanalian pox on post-Dada Surrealism. Dennis Duncan’s excellent intro sets the scene and gives us the background to the excoriating derangements of the group via selected texts from the editions that make up this beauty of a book. Duncan’s intro has a set piece that tells us about the mythic meeting at the Bar du Chateau that was ostensibly intended to prevent the fragmentation of the Surrealist group but ended in further fragmentation and the beginning of the end of Le Grand Jeu too. (Having said that, the third edition was produced after this meeting, and the fragments for the unpublished fourth as well. And Le Grand Jeu was always far too combustable a project, and the relationships binding its four lead characters too intense and unstable for it to have ever been anything other than a sudden eruption that disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.)
Surrealism was already a farce. By the time of this meeting Artaud and Bataille had left – Bataille commenting on the proposed Surrealist collective that it was filled with ‘a load of fucking idealists.’ In the bar that night however were Man Ray, Magritte, Arp, Aragon, Tanguy, Crevel, Breton and Queneau amongst many others so it certainly wasn’t a dead duck yet. One of the key elements of the meeting was an attack on opinions coming out of ‘Le Grand Jeu.’
This fact points to the appeal of these guys: not only were they sick of their straight commoditized, complacent enemies, they were also wanting to provoke their potential allies as well. They didn’t care for what Breton wanted them all to do, seeing him as another vanguard generalissimo pitching rules and orders on their heads. Listening to leaders was part of the problem as far as they were concerned and they were just not going to play nice with faux deviants whose mentality seemed to mimic the bourgeois machine against which they raged.
What kinds of things did they do to provoke the Surrealists? They talked about God and said they preferred an executed serial killer to a pair of executed anarchists. They linked up with Artaud and Jarry. They refused to sign a petition supporting students against the violence of the state. One of them even wrote a sympathetic piece on a really right-wing police chief. Vailland, the guy who wrote this piece, ended up a communist and star novelist. He was asked to leave the group so that the others didn’t have to keep making excuses for him and his last contribution was in the final published issue, issue three, where he announced his leaving. Reading this stuff, you get a sense that this was all a twisty insane way of defeating the inquisitional judgments that characterized what they saw as a failed and stultifying pre-revolutionary scene. For them the situation required blood and moon crazyness to redirect social synapses into something thrillingly new, refreshed and collective. They indulged in experimental metaphysics and took copious drugs to this end. They saw no point in merely building a left wing political party or joining up with a Surrealism that seemed at times to be nothing more than just another idealist protest group. Instead readers of the magazine were to come face to face with themselves. The idea was ‘to make them despair.’ What they suspected was that the avant-garde-ists and all their potential allies were largely acting in bad faith and were merely concocting intellectual and artistic distractions.
Their assessment of Breton’s Surrealism was therefore pretty close to Homes’. In contrast to Breton’s sham they presented theirs as a movement against hope and without Ideals, where any frenzy ‘should not be mistaken for enthusiasm.’ This was ugly youth claiming what they called ‘Dogmaclasm’, a movement that was ‘wholly and systematically destructive.’ Morality and science – ‘thirty centuries of experiments in a vacuum’, were to be smashed. All dogmas were to be critiqued, and revolt was an absolute term.
In rejecting the Surrealists – those who ‘lived off the corpse of Dada’ – they accused Surrealist action of being nothing but ‘trompe l’oeil’, a ‘confusion’. They accused Breton of being less sure than they were of the obvious desirability of fusing leftist Hegelianism with Marxism and Surrealism. This was for them the obvious position for revolutionary action. They found Surrealist experiments such as the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ and Automatic writing as little more than parlor games, contrasting them with their own ‘technologies’ of depersonalisation, transportation of consciousness, clairvoyance, mediumship, Hindu yoga, the ‘systematic confrontation of both lyrical and oneiric fact with the teachings of the occult tradition’ and primitive mentalities.
The group of four editing the magazine – Robert Meynat, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Roger Vailland and Rene Daumal – expounded what they labeled a ‘Simplist’ point of view. This was a return to ‘a state of childhood simplicity, the belief in a mystical state of unity and thus the rejection of distinctions (distinctions, for example, between dream and reality or between the visible and invisible) which were seen as nothing more than social constructs: unnecessary, acquired.’ They took much of their inspiration from Jarry and they had their own private God, Bubu, whose name they took from Jarry’s ‘Pere Ubu.’ ‘Bubu, navel of the world, has granted me this vision’ is the sort of thing they’d write. Decadent experimentalism, absinthe fuelled and unutterable guided their actions and fed their minds. Opium became the drug of choice. They were interested in paroptic vision where subjects attempted to see hidden objects. There’s a picture of Daumal wearing goggles trying to see the content of a locked box he holds. They were also into sightless movement, running through the streets at night with their eyes closed. They were also interested in the ‘Bloody Mary’ illusion, which Douglas Heaven in ‘The New Scientist’ calls a ‘ … Halloween trick that conjures ghosts of the mind’. By concentrating on the surface of the mirror, rather than the reflection, the reflection then appears uncanny. Daumal tried many occult orientated technologies to alter states of perception. He writes in ‘Nerval The Nyctalope’:
‘Here is the method I discovered for taking leave of my body (I have since learned that in occult science it has been known from Antiquity): in the evening, like everyone else, I went to bed, and, carefully relaxing all my muscles, making sure that each was wholly given up to itself, I took long, deep breaths ina regular rhythm, until my body was no more than a foreign, paralysed mass to me. Then I would imagine myself getting up and dressing , but – and this is the essential point where I insist that those who wish to emulate me will require uncommon courage and powers of attention – I imagined each movement in its slightest detail and with such exactness that picturing the action of putting on a sandal would take precisely the same time as it would to put it on in corporeal life.’ Persevering with this, disciplining himself in order to accomplish such a marvelous feat of concentration, he becomes capable of miraculous powers:
‘Seen from the outside , I was asleep. But in fact I was wandering effortlessly – with the desperate ease , moreover, that those who remember dying know so well – I walked, and at the same time, unmoving, saw myself walking, in parts of the town that were entirely unfamiliar…’
The insane derangements of the group enabled them to arrive at mystical perceptions of another universe without the fraud of organized religions reeling back these ‘workers of horror’ to the diversion that turns all living purpose into earthly ends. They agreed with the sentiments of Rimbaud’s ‘A Season in Hell’ that ‘Morality is an infirmity of the brain’ and that all beauty was bitter and to be reviled. Art, literature, all that jazz, it gets destroyed just as absolutely as all the rest of civilisation’s junk. Rimbaud’s ‘I envied the happiness of animals; caterpillars which are symbols of the innocence of limbo, and moles, symbols of the slumber of virginity’ became their own jealousy. The rejection of innovation – artistic, literary – the profound destruction of self – the self-mutilating magic action of the group was the reason why they were too far away from the surrealists and post-Dadaists. They alighted on a collective suffering that was a sort of final sarcasm, and were damned for it.
Death was an obsession, a symbolism that they dredged from Baudelaire and Rimbaud of course and became from the very start moreover another of the distinctions to be overturned, an illusion that led to them playing Russian Roulette and Daumal writing to Gilbert-Lecombe: ‘ If you wanted to kill me, I would not have the right to resist.’ By the time they got to producing the first edition of the magazine they were all about transforming their mystic metaphysics into a Simplist approach. The magazine contained extended studies of Simplist themes, shock prose and poetry alongside reviews of literature, theatre and cinema. They also contained samples of visual arts from sympathetic associates. They were less acerbic than the surrealists and more friendly towards religion, especially the mystical elements. Communism was the obvious correlative of Simplism, but they refused blind adherence to the Party.
Morphine addiction, hospitalization, detox and relapse knocked out Gilbert-Lecomte. Daumal connected up with the Gurdjiff mystic scene, married the former wife of a poet and with her looked after Gilbert-Lecomte in Reims, the four’s old home town where they had first met when school boys there.
When Aragon was charged with incitement to murder by writing his poem ‘Front Rouge’ in 1932 with lines like ‘kill the cops/comrades/ kill the cops’ the Parisian literary establishment split over whether it defended or opposed him. It was in this context that Gilbert-Lecomte wrote: ‘… with these accounts of idiotic disputes and revolutionary activity… don’t you realize that Le Grand Jeu is fucked irremediably?’ Reneville attacked the poem, the others supported it, Daumal protected Reneville, a crisis meeting was held and everything fell apart. Reneville was asked to retract his criticism of the poem and he refused, saying, ‘It would have meant me writing a eulogy for Aragon’s poem. How sad to find such an attitude in those who sought to rid themselves of all spinelessness.’
Daumal left for New York, Gilbert-Lecomte joined Breton and the Surrealists, as did Le Grand Jeu sympathisers Harfaux and Henry. Daumal kept on with the Gurdjieff mysticism and worked a little on the Pataphysics science of imaginary solutions inaugurated by Jarry. He wrote essays on the limitation of philosophical language and saw an alternative in Hindi. He wrote a collection of poetry ‘The Counter-Sky’ which won the Prix Jacques Doucet in 1935, and in 1938 wrote a satire of the literary scene he’d left behind. He died of TB in 1944.
In 1933 Gilbert-Lecomte wrote two volumes of poetry and Artaud wrote a preface. He fell on hard times what with drugs, poverty and the police hounding him around Montparnasse. He married a German Jewess who shared his addiction but was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz whilst he died in 1943 of tetanus contracted from a dirty needle on New Year’s Eve. Vailland became a reporter, was a dandy and because he was earning decent cash his opium addiction didn’t bring with it the problems it had for Gilbert-Lecomte. He joined the Resistance, then the Communists, became a novelist and screenwriter and won the Prix Goncourt for his novel ‘The Law’ in 1957.
Since then different formulations of the modern Utopian project have erupted such as Cobra, the Lettristes, Pataphysics, the Situationists, Fluxus, Auto-Destructivism, Mail Art, Punk, Neoism, Class War etc etc. Some were around before the demise of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ . Some had wimmin. Some weren’t even posh no matter what gender. What ‘Le Grand Jeu’ was was avant garde as distinct from underground, a distinction Stewart Home makes in terms of ideological coherence. Avant-garde-ists are more coherent, tending towards what James H Billington calls ‘Radical simplification.’ Some avant garde movements, such as Fluxus, degenerate into underground. Some underground movements begin underground and stay there, such as The Dutch Provos, Motherfuckers, King Mob, Yippies, Mail Artists, Punks and Class War.
It’s worth reading both of these books to see if there’s anything they did that can be reused. The insane commodification of everything, including both underground and avant garde groups, can be opposed by our spontaneous reactions to these and other utopian writings. In this way our reading will be like reacting to our fave popular music with insane dance spasms like we do. Don’t read these guys as specialist geniuses but grinningly absorb them into improvised elaborations of human community so money is abolished along with all the terrorist distinctions money brings. Of course that’s terrible theory but no worse than the trippy generalizations of all of these whack-job groups working on the narcotic fringe of the collective cortex where sometimes it’s not the quality that counts but the width of their derangements. - Richard Marshall