A MAN AND A WOMAN ABSOLUTELY WHITE by André Breton, Trans. by Jacques Houis

Deep under the parasol I see the marvelous prostitutes
Their dress a bit faded on the side of the streetlight color of the woods
With them they walk a big piece of wallpaper
Such as you cannot contemplate without a lump in your throat on the ancient floors of 
A house under demolition
Or a white marble seashell fallen from a fireplace
Or a net of those chains that behind them are blurred in the mirrors
The great instinct of combustion seizes the streets where they stand
Like grilled flowers
Eyes in the distance raising a wind of stone
While they sink immobile in the center of the whirlwind
To me nothing equals the meaning of their unimplemented thought
The freshness of the gutter in which their booties dip the shadow of their beak
The reality of these handfuls of mown hay into which they disappear
I see their breasts that are a point of sunlight in the dark night
The time they take to rise and fall is the only exact measure of life
I see their breasts that are stars on the waves
Their breasts in which forever weeps the invisible blue milk

Un homme et une femme absolument blancs 

Tout au fond de l’ombrelle je vois les prostituées merveilleuses
Leur robe un peu passée du côté du réverbère couleur des bois
Elles promènent avec elles un grand morceau de papier mural
Comme on ne peut en contempler sans serrement de cœur aux anciens étages d’une maison en démolition
Ou encore une coquille de marbre blanc tombée d’une cheminée
Ou encore un filet de ces chaînes qui derrière elles se brouillent dans les miroirs
Le grand instinct de la combustion s’empare des rues où elles se tiennent
Comme des fleurs grillées
Les yeux au loin soulevant un vent de pierre
Tandis qu’elles s’abîment immobiles au centre du tourbillon
Rien n’égale pour moi le sens de leur pensée inappliquée
La fraîcheur du ruisseau dans lequel leurs bottines trempent l’ombre de leur bec
La réalité de ces poignées de foin coupé dans lesquelles elles disparaissent
Je vois leurs seins qui mettent une pointe de soleil dans la nuit profonde
Et dont le temps de s’abaisser et de s’élever est la seule mesure exacte de la vie
Je vois leurs seins qui sont des étoiles sur des vagues
Leurs seins dans lesquels pleure à jamais l’invisible lait bleu

(1922?)

White Work and Blue Milk: Reading André Breton’s “Un homme et une femme absolument blancs” 

by Jacques Houis

The title may allude to the White Work (Albedo) in alchemy. The philosophical Mercury, 
represented by the Rebis, the alchemical androgyne: the purified reunification of the sexes, of fire and water, sun and moon, the offspring of Mercury and Venus’s adulterous 
liaison: the hermaphrodite, Hermes and Aphrodite.

Tout au fond de l’ombrelle je vois les prostituées merveilleuses

The poet as seer. The prostitutes shield themselves from the sun under parasols. Ombrelle= Ombre elle. The shadow is also shade in French, reflects coolness but has a dark connotation. That of prostitute? But these are marvelous prostitutes. The word “merveilleuses”, using the principles of the phonetic cabala, generates the poem- mères (mothers) and mer (sea), combined with veilleuses (feminine noun for one who stays up at night, one who watches over, and night-light)

Leur robe un peu passée du côté du réverbère couleur des bois

The prostitutes bring nature with them. A common theme in surrealism, the city as a natural environment. The streetlight is tree-like, “couleur des bois.” Its light has faded the prostitutes’ dresses, like a sun in the night.

Elles promènent avec elles…

Parisian prostitutes often walked dogs so they could say that was the reason they were out at night, a fragment of realism.

…un grand morceau de papier mural
Comme on ne peut en contempler sans serrement de cœur aux anciens étages d’une maison en démolition

The realism in surrealism again, with the image of wallpaper glimpsed on the walls of a building under demolition. You cannot contemplate it without emotion (serrement de coeur) or, applying the phonetic cabala, without a commitment to emotion (serment de coeur-oath of the heart). The syntax also yields a double reading. You will feel a lump in your throat if you contemplate it, but also you will not be able to contemplate it without a lump in your throat. And what does this “mural” depict? Something ancient, lost, demolished:

Ou encore une coquille de marbre blanc tombée d’une cheminée

Or a white marble seashell fallen from a fireplace. A scallop shell no doubt, the emblem of Venus Aphrodite, born of the sea foam, also the sign (coquille Saint Jacques) of the pilgrims who made their way from the medieval church Saint Jacques de la Boucherie (of which only the Tour Saint Jacques remains today) much restored and augmented in the 14th Century by Nicolas Flamel and his wife Perrine, with proceeds supposedly derived from Alchemy, to Santiago de Campostella in Spain, via Rocamadour, the site of chapels harboring “black virgins”, the medieval remnants of the cult of Aphrodite. Now, this pilgrimage is called the “camino Santiago” and “camino” in Spanish (way or path in English) amounts to “chemin” in French, and the word “cheminée” meaning both chimney and fireplace, is a homonym of “cheminer”, to walk along. As for “tombée”, une tombée, when a noun; it means fallen as an adjective and fall as a noun. In English, prostitutes are known as “fallen women.” The process at work here is one of “overdetermination”, a term coined by Freud and adopted by literary criticism, to describe the manner in which meaning emerges in the unconscious, by accretion of fragments (the unconscious not being able to generate statements, it “means” the way images do): the sign of Venus has fallen as the result of a certain itinerary. But what tells us Venus is truly involved, beyond the (probable) allusion to the scallop shell, and to white (sea foam) and marble? The next line does:

Ou encore un filet de ces chaînes qui derrière elles se brouillent dans les miroirs

This overdetermines the Venus meaning, confirms it, as it is an allusion to the net of chains her husband Vulcan-Hephaistos, the blacksmith, fashioned to imprison her and Mars, one of her lovers.  

Le grand instinct de la combustion s’empare des rues où elles se tiennent
Comme des fleurs grillées
Les yeux au loin soulevant un vent de pierre
Tandis qu’elles s’abîment immobiles au centre du tourbillon

The heat emanating from the fire of the male gaze envelops them, grills them, their own eyes in the distance raising a wind of stone (provoking a phallic response?) while the fallen women sink farther into the whirlwind…But:

Rien n’égale pour moi le sens de leur pensée inappliquée

To me nothing equals the meaning of their unimplemented thought. Shades of Rimbaud. An intertext confirming the status of the poet as seer, proclaimed in the first line, which derives from the teenage poet’s letter to Paul Demeny, known as the “Lettre du Voyant”:

“When woman’s infinite servitude is shattered, when she lives for herself and by herself, man, abominable up to now,- having given her her leave, she too will become a poet! Woman will discover the unknown! Will her worlds of ideas differ from ours?- She will find strange, unfathomable, repellent, delicious things; we will take them, we will understand them.”

La fraîcheur du ruisseau dans lequel leurs bottines trempent l’ombre de leur bec
La réalité de ces poignées de foin coupé dans lesquelles elles disparaissent

Nothing equals these things, for the narrator. The city is once more naturalized. Masculine heat and dryness give way to feminine cool (fraîcheur) and moistness (ruisseau, trempent.) The gutter, the Parisian “ruisseau” or stream, turns into something like a mountain stream, distinguished by how fresh it is, their booties (bottines) become bird-like, as they dip the shadow of their beak in the gutter-stream. The mention of the handfuls of mown hay in which the ankle boots (or the prostitutes themselves?) disappear, reminds us that the horse was still an important presence in 1920’s Paris, when the poem was written. The hay, of course, is another sign of the conversion of city into country, of artifice into nature, brought about by the prostitutes.

Je vois leurs seins qui mettent une pointe de soleil dans la nuit profonde
Et dont le temps de s’abaisser et de s’élever est la seule mesure exacte de la vie
Je vois leurs seins qui sont des étoiles sur des vagues
Leurs seins dans lesquels pleure à jamais l’invisible lait bleu

Mères veilleuses and mer veilleuses, according to the phonetic cabala. Their breasts are night lights because they are points of sunlight in the dark night. As stars on the waves they are night lights of the sea, but sailors also orient themselves at night according to their position. Their own up and down movement, corresponding to breath, is quite literally “the only exact measure of life.” The last line comes closest to the poem’s occult meaning, for it presents the prostitutes’ breasts, not as sexual objects but as maternal ones. Blue milk, which can seem like a typical surrealist invention, is actually a reference to a known property of human breast milk: a blue tint. Implicit in the poem is a yearning for the emancipation of the feminine, for the breaking of Vulcan’s chains, for the implementation of the “unimplemented” feminine, for both the integration of sexuality and motherhood (note that the prostitute’s milk is “invisible” and “forever weeps”) and the synthesis of male and female found in the Alchemical promise of “a man and a woman absolutely white.”

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