Paul Nouge

Paul Nougé (February 13, 1895- November 6, 1967) was a Belgian poet and philosopher. He was one of the most influential members of the Surrealist school in Belgium. He was a friend and associate of fellow artists Louis Scutenaire, Marcel Mariën and René Magritte. His poetry influenced Magritte. A number of his poems have been translated into English by Robert Archambeau and Jean-Luc Garneau, and appear in Samizdat (poetry magazine).

Portrait of Paul Nouge by Rene Magritte 1927

A founder member of the Belgian Communist Party, Nougé brought an austere and trenchant intellect to the service of Surrealism, founding the review Correspondance in 1924 with Marcel Lecomte and Camille Goëmans and masterminding a collective strategy for the Brussels group, whose diplomatic deflection of Parisian influences fostered a deceptive blend of seeming modesty and occasional abrupt assertiveness. A biochemist by training, Nougé wrote aphoristically, producing tracts, open letters, and theoretical essays, gathered in Histoire de ne pas rire (1956). His assiduous commentaries on the surreal canvases of his friend René Magritte, printed as Les Images défendues in 1943, are as gnomic and provocative as the paintings.

"Paul Nougé, however, famously "vomitted Dada", and with the merging of Mesens and Magritte with the Correspondance group towards the end of 1926, Nougé assumed the leadership of the nascent surrealist group; Mesens' role was correspondingly reduced and the Dada influence was replaced by that of Parisian surrealism. Breton, Eluard and Morise had visited Nougé in Brussels in the summer of 1925 and, as a theorist and intellectual, he was clearly perceived by the Parisians as the leading figure of the Belgian group. The final issue of Marie - Adieu à Marie - therefore assumed a very different character, less Dadaist in tone, and rather closer to surrealism. As a purely Belgian, francophone production it marked a shift from the Dada cosmopolitanism of the previous issue and was more concerned with establishing a cohesive Belgian group. While the review also looks more serious, it nonetheless retains an air of Dadaist provocation, with Mesens staging a powerful pairing of images of menacing clenched fists (Comme ils l'entendent, et comme nous l'entendons, 1926) , photographed by Roland de Smet, using a simple process of inversion, where the same object, a knuckle-duster, is simply inverted. The result is a rather brutal and somewhat anarchistic message, further reinforced by Nougé's poem 'les syllables muettes', which begins: "Our mouth is full of blood. Our ears ring with blood. Our eyes light up with blood." [7]" From Neil Matheson's article ELT Mesens: Dada Joker in the Surrealist Pack.

David Sylvester, Magritte's biographer suggests that "The Theatened Murderer" and the 1927 "Girl Eating Bird" were scripted by Rne Magritte from a set of violent and erotic poes by Paul Nouge finally published in 1956. The poems were written circa 1926-1927 when both Magritte and Nouge were working together designing catalogues for Samuels, a fur company. Here are some of the poetry lines from "The Threatened Murderer":

[In the background, at the level of the window sil,
Four heads* stare at the murderer.
In the corridor on either side of the wide pen door,
Two men are approaching unable as yet to discern the spectacle.
They are ugly customers.
Crouching, they hug the wall.
One of them unfurls a huge net, the other brandishing a club.
All this will be called, "The Threatened Murderer."] Paul Nouge

The Understanding of Nature
from Optics Unveiled (1924) by Paul Nouge

The keyhole projects a ray across this nocturnal darkness.  On a table whose form one can just make out, a bottle becomes evident.  The bottle lights up vividly and one can see the sparkling of the liquid; it is a blue liquid.

The bottle and the light are alone on the table.

The light merges curiously with the blue water in the midst of an incomparable silence. 

Then a patch of brightness, a patch veined with red, reveals the wall.  Its form is not fixed; it shifts; it could be a changing face.  Objects slowly emerge: three roses, a smashed-open wardrobe, a hanging dress, a coat standing out against nothingness.  Finally a charming young woman in a low-cut dress who is supervising the experiment and who is holding in her hand, at the end of a hair, a little ball of elder-pith.

Quelques Écrits et Quelques Dessins was published as a parody by Nougé and Magritte in the fall of 1927 and is typical of the group's rebellion. Clarisse Juranville is named as the book's author. Juranville was the well-known author of the grammar textbook La Conjugaison enseignée par la pratique , first published in Paris around 1880 (Sylvester I: 75 and Mariën 17-18, 147-48). In the preface to Quelques Écrits Nougé explains, however evasively, that this notebook was recently found by Magritte. Having been neglected, it was in a horribly dilapidated state and would have surely been lost forever, had they not found, deciphered and restored the text in print (367). The book consists of five full-page drawings by Magritte and eleven poems by Nougé. They maintained the original grammar text's outward appearance, its clear typography and rather institutional cover design, frustrating the reader's expectations. They replaced verb conjugation charts with poems that challenge language usage and syntax, thereby uprooting the very meaning of the grammar text and the enculturation into language and society that it represents. The images impart no clear information nor do they teach any sort of language concepts.

The forward works to frame or set the stage for Nougé's assault on language and grammar, on pedagogy, and on the reader as well as setting forth the Belgian group's aims. He begins explaining that the writings of Clarisse Juranville have tended to be ambiguous (he uses the word équivoque , which may also indicate dubiousness as well as ambiguity) and that this text is as well (367). Her motivation is to evade habitual judgment (367). Nougé then tells us of her integrity as an author (she had never given into literary vanity), she loathed pleasure, and she wrote deliberately and out of necessity (379). In using Juranville as the false author and in creating this narrative around her and her work, Nougé and Magritte achieve several of their aims. They distance themselves from the work, which adds to its radical nature while simultaneously maintaining their respectability. They appropriate a legitimate, conventional and banal object, the grammar primer and its author, a grammarian, the very sources of enculturation and subvert them all. It is an example of Nougé's theory of disturbing objects ( objets bouleversants ), the idea of which is to take the most everyday object and change its function and meaning and by extension, the reader's relationship to it, thereby uprooting conventional knowledge. Quelques Écrits also further separates the Belgian group from the French Surrealists in that this practice of deliberate, even didactic rewriting of an existing text is absolutely irreconcilable with automatism.

The poems within read almost like grammar lessons in the way that Nougé employs various verb tenses in very simple phrases. In construction the phrases are simple, but that is not to say that their meanings are clear. No punctuation is used and capitalization is not consistent. He upsets both semantics and syntax. The language of the first poem reads like an analysis of the gaze:

It is me who looks at you
but you who looks at me
tonight your brother will speak to you
you will speak (respond) to him about your work
and nothing more (369, trans. is mine). [1]

In the last phrase can be felt a slightly threatening tone, especially when read along with some of the other pieces, for instance:

They resembled everyone else
They forced the lock
They replaced the lost object
They shot guns
They mixed drinks
They sowed handfuls of questions
They retired modestly
while erasing their signature (374, trans. is mine). [2]

An exercise in the past tense, this poem also underlines secrecy, collectivity, potential violence, and stands as a self- representation the Belgian group.


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