Kirby Olson

Kirby Olson is the author of several books of literary criticism that link Christianity and the avant-garde. Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist (SIUP, 2002) is the best-known. He is also the blogger at Lutheran Surrealism and is a professor at SUNY-Delhi.

Stores as Magic Places

When I was a child the only truly magic spaces were stores. Giving money to another person across a counter was the most highly charged experience imaginable, and when it was combined with looking directly at a grumpy old man at a corner drug store with a Hitler moustache, as if a mere child had the right to spend money in a world in which children were second-class citizens, it was fun beyond imagining.

Most days my friend Paul Allison and I, after coming home from school, would pool our tiny resources from paper route money and change we had found lying innocently in our mothers’ purses and get on our bikes to make a pilgrimage to Hartsville Pharmacy, the only store within reach of our endless suburb, about ten miles away. We lived outside Philadelphia, in new houses that intruded into the scarcer and scarcer resources of the forests—with their dwindling animal and fish populations and which held almost no enchantment for us. There was nothing in the forests to buy, and so we passed them on our bicycles, pushing the pedals towards that magic moment in which the pharmacist/grocer would take our small change and give us satisfaction.

The moment is almost too orgasmic to remember, and it seems indecent to do so. Looking up over his newspaper, with thick dark heavy glasses in front of inordinately bushy eyebrows, fingering his Hitler moustache, he would hand us over the things of our desire—red licorice strings, a Snickers bar, and Marvel Comics, of which I remember most fondly the hero known as Green Lantern.

After the event of the purchase, we languished. There was candy to look forward to, as well as the comic books, but the experience clearly fell into the category of post-coital, as what we had had to exchange with the grocer, the owner of the adult world, was now over, and we would have to wait for the next day, or the next, before we could gather enough small change and shyly proffer it again.

One day I became bitter over the very closeness of the encounter. How could the grocer demand such intimacy from boys only eight and seven years old? In revenge against a society that permitted such indecency, I turned to stealing comic books, pressing them flat against my stomach, and then buying a single Snickers bar, while snickering myself as he took my money, in thinking he had profited off of me, and exulted as I exited the pharmacy.

Why did I have this sudden change of heart? Weekends, my mother would drive us to a bazaar where children could pay to drive a race car around a track  The idea of continuous play was an even more obscene notion, as it extended the orgasmic state of payment to the possibility of two or three hours. I resolutely refused such a payment, and such a thrilling possibility, as if the miniature race track owners were one enormous filthy whore with the morals of a horse. Nevertheless, I was always impressed by those kids who were willing to play in such a public space, as other kids looked on, exactly as I am impressed by those men who openly consort with prostitutes in Amsterdam, walking down a filthy cobblestoned street with their hands on the wobbling butt of a flesh merchant. I would never be capable of such a thing. Even to think of it makes me want to puke in a white marble sink, but the idea that others are capable of this fills me with something like nostalgia for brazen humanity. It must have been the onset of puberty that filled me with shame.

I’ve always felt shopping should be a furtive experience, done in relative darkness, so I’ve always felt a certain gratitude for dark stores where I can feel my money in my pocket for a long time, as I play with it, while contemplating the many things on display. One of my favorite stores in this respect was a place simply called The Mart, somewhere in Doylestown, where my father often went to purchase everything from used socks (which struck me even then as a hilarious abomination, like selling used toilet paper) to broken fishing tackle and soiled golf tees. The prices of this dark place of the soul were within my meager resources, but my parents were with me, and the idea of spending money I had largely pilfered from their loose change in front of them was as repugnant to me as openly expressing sexuality before my parents. They could do it in front of me, because this was their right as their money had been legitimately earned, but I resented it when they showed pleasure in what they were doing. I wanted their purchases to be purely practical, not the joyous experiences mixed with wrenching guilt that they were for me.

Furtive buying in solitude, or in the company of a favorite friend, is the only kind of buying I would permit in an ideal world. I would never walk through a store together with another, just as I would never walk through a museum closely with another. The experience is fundamentally solitary. To look at a painting with another either kills the experience, forcing me to hold my breath until I can go back to my own deeper sensations, or else I manage an approximate intimacy, which is almost shattering in its convulsive nature, as I appreciate very reluctantly the eyebrows of the Mona Lisa, or the greenish backdrop of lightly shadowed mountains, with another. At present, I can only imagine doing this with my wife, and only for a limited period of time, as the experience is an earthquake of intimacy, just as purchasing a pack of gum was when I was small.

Collecting baseball cards was an early form of capital. It was not only the best hitters and pitchers, but those players who had a few anecdotes attached to them who attained the highest value. Juan Marichal, the Giants’ pitcher, had stolen my heart not only because of his eccentric style, in which he raised his leg nearly over his head in his wind-up, but also his erratic violence. Once, tormented by the catcher when he was at bat, he turned and hit the catcher with the Louisville Slugger, earning himself a place of immortality in my pantheon. Was it simply and purely that he shouldn’t have done this, that it wasn’t sporting? More so, it was that no one else I had ever heard of had ever done such a thing, even though it was obvious from my own experiences in Little League that virtually every catcher deserved this treatment for their whispered raillery interloping in the private intensity between pitcher and batter. Two’s company, but what catchers don’t get is that three’s a crowd. Juan Marichal was the first to leave the boundaries of good behavior and do what simply and obviously needed doing.

My collection boasted Juan Marichals from every year and in every outfit he ever wore. When he was drummed out of the league for unsportsmanlike conduct after one too many violent interactions with jeering interlopers, I turned away from baseball, and my collection was no longer something which acted like a bank, as Marichal had been the gold standard of absolute purity. Without him, the entire league had become a pack of fakes and pansies, all interchangeable, with no interior demons—just as the NBA today seems to me without the antics of a Dennis Rodman, shamelessly pushed out of the league in spite of his brilliant rebounding ability thanks to his roguish malfeasances and now reduced to rubbing the crotch of Las Vegas croupiers with his dice before he unloads them across a velvety green.

Today it is mostly bookstores I haunt, unable to purchase almost anything else but books with any kind of holiness. I search for books that thrill me with the iconoclastic, or what Pierre Klossowski called the solecisms of an author—weird, unexpected moments in which a sentence, a character or a scene in a book do something that is almost universally disgusting. It is only those moments which have any value to me, all the others being business as usual. It is the extraordinary intimacy of the solecism which I most highly covet, collecting them, thrilled by academic marginals who take on unlikely positions and defend them badly or with erratic genius, or poets who get priority wrong (I will only give away the obvious example—Keats—as I tend to hoard these things), or authors who invent new taboos to ruffle. Lutherans such as Paul Tillich, with an unexpected underside, who create meaning through a kind of intercourse with the reader, in which a certain turning away is accompanied by a reflexive and often violent turning towards God. I’ll pay money for that kind of thing, provided that I can do it in a dimly lit bookstore, with a clerk who is more or less out to lunch, and in which there is nothing like a “buy ten, get two free” deal which requires writing my name down or the punching of cards that will delay me unnecessarily and make what should be a fluid and anonymous exchange into an unwanted and unprovoked demand for public intimacy.


Desire: The Drive & Death of Surrealism

Philippe Soupault by Béatrice Mousli
Flammarion, 2010, 473 pgs
Purchase at Amazon

Philippe Soupault is no longer a well-known writer on this side of the Atlantic, although his work was very well-known in the 1920s and 1930s, the period during which he co-founded the Surrealist movement with André Breton.

In 1926 Soupault was ejected from the movement for a variety of peccadillos including his rejection of the Surrealist movement’s newfound Marxism. Soupault had been a member of the haute bourgeoisie of Paris by birth. As a young man he had run the French Atlantic petroleum fleet. He also later edited books for Bernard Grasset, ran Radio France in Tunis during World War II, and worked for UNESCO as a globe-trotting executive, as well as working as a journalist for a variety of French dailies and monthlies for decades. Soupault’s journalism was sometimes artistic, but he also covered French elections and followed various candidates, as well as reporting from the United States, Russia, Germany and many other countries.

Soupault’s energy and enthusiasm, as well as his multidimensional talents, enabled him to publish at least a dozen novels, at least again as many critical studies, some twenty volumes of poetry, a half dozen mémoires—to note only a few of the genres in which he worked. When Soupault was excommunicated from Surrealism the movement lost one of its most talented contributors, and it could be said that after his departure in 1926 the movement collapsed into various kinds of stasis and never really regained form.

Beatrice Mousli’s biography of Philippe Soupault (Flammarion, 2010, 473 pages) is a massive undertaking. I’ve read 35 or so volumes of Soupault’s work, but always found it difficult to understand the gaps between the words and the life, particularly in terms of his romantic escapades. Soupault himself said that in his Mémoires he would not attempt to give details about his romantic life, only his public life. He claimed this was a question of discretion (or perhaps it was the indiscretions). I never understood what happened between the first, second, third and fourth wives.

Muriel Reed, his lover and former student, was never an actual wife, but by American standards she would have been a common-law wife. Reed lived with Soupault in Paris after the Second World War and committed suicide from the balcony of their apartment. The few fugitive references to this woman were scarce in the literature until now. In the timeline that Soupault’s French editor Lydie Lachenal offers, she refers with one sentence to Reed’s fate: “Suicide de Muriel: un soir comme les autres elle se précipite par le fenêtre, du cinquième étage” (Chronologie 15). There is no motivation given in the Lachenal timeline.

In the Mousli biography much of the context surrounding Reed is reconstructed. We discover that she (who had lived with Soupault for twenty years outside of wedlock) was depressed and working on a story about depression. She had traveled in Russia, Albania, the United States, and to the island of Mauritius as a journalist for the magazine Réalities. In the winter of 1965, a few days after her 45th birthday, Reed killed herself. Getting more of the story of Muriel Reed helps give context to this period of Soupault’s life. Perhaps she was upset that he was so thoroughly unfaithful to her?

Soupault was also seeing a Surrealist woman named Nelly Kaplan, whom he dated several times a week (he shared Nelly with Abel Gance and André Breton). Soupault met Kaplan in 1954, and their relationship lasted until 1964, “…déjeuners et diners en ville les reunissant plusieurs fois par semaine” (421) a fact he didn’t hide. Soupault was still married to his wife, Re, during that time. The story of Soupault’s myriad, overlapping amours (only the official ones are sketched out, as there were prostitutes mixed in too) is evidenced in the testimonial Derniers Nuits de Paris.

The Surrealists had read Freud and took him to mean that the freeing of the id would result in a better society, in which alienation was no longer present as one could find immediate satisfaction and the result would be happiness. (Freud never actually said this, but most of the Surrealists had not read him very carefully.) Soupault had been raised Catholic but had discarded this tradition in favor of the notion that the Father and the Ten Commandments should be dismissed in order to free desire. Desire became the elixir of Surrealism, the gasoline that drove the movement: but it was also a Pandora’s box.

If desire became the goddess of the Surrealists, and if they sought to link erotic dreams to life, they created nightmares for the actual women in their lives. Only the toughest survived. Some ended up in mental hospitals, others killed themselves. The story of Reed is just one small part of Soupault’s life, but it is also important as he had put his apartment (and thus all his cash) in her name. When her well-connected American family arrived to clean up after her death they confiscated everything in the apartment including the paintings and pushed Soupault out. He never published much again, although he lived another twenty five years. Soupault’s race through life came to an abrupt halt.

If Mousli’s book gives us new information about Soupault’s women (information heretofore unavailable to all but the inner circle), it also gives new and precise information about the friendship that Soupault shared with Breton and many other Surrealists and members of the Parisian elite. While this information was covered to some extent in Bernard Morlino’s biography of 1986 and in Soupault’s own memoirs, much new information has been collected. Mousli gives us insight into Soupault’s writing career (including the mountains of journalism that has never been collected) and into his continuous travels on four continents to support his work for magazines and for UNESCO.

Much remains to be understood about Soupault’s intimate life, including the quality of his relationships. He appears to have put his sexual well-being first, and then his social prestige, but although he had time for many flings and impromptu relationships he did not take good care of his health. He smoked throughout his life, was hospitalized in his twenties for nervous exhaustion, incarcerated and given electro-shock therapy by the Vichy government in World War II, and was punched by Breton, among others in various misunderstandings, but still lived to be 93. It has long been thought that Breton was the adventurer in the sexual realm and that Soupault had been more or less a different species of fish.

This biography undoes that myth and reveals that Soupault and Breton were more similar than previously thought, and that long after they had parted company as founders of Surrealism they remained in touch. Mousli’s work breaks new ground and opens whole new areas for investigation while remaining fast-paced and illuminating.


Lachenal, Lydie. Philippe Soupault Chronologie. (Paris: Lachenal & Ritter, 1997).