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Portrait of Jacques Rigaut by Man Ray

Portrait of Jacques Rigaut by Man Ray

In an earlier post, I presented the synopsis of my novel in progress, Housebreaking the Muse. As noted, the novel is haunted by the figure of Jacques Rigaut, the French Dadaist, gigolo, addict, and suicide. Though I’d long had an interest in the Dadas, I didn’t hear the name “Jacques Rigaut” until I stumbled upon it in the following passage on page 233 of the 1990 Penguin Books edition of Paul Auster’s novel, Moon Palace:

I can’t remember all the pieces I worked on, but at least several of them come back to me when I strain hard enough: a meditation on money, for example, and another one on clothes; an essay on orphans and a somewhat longer piece on suicide, which was largely a discussion of Jacques Rigaut, a minor French Dadaist who declared at the age of nineteen that he was giving himself ten more years to live, and then, when he turned twenty-nine, held good to his word and shot himself on the appointed day.

In the margin, I wrote, “If true, a story?” I soon began researching Rigaut and, over time, began to piece together the biographical details of his life. Part of my research involved attempting a translation of the posthumous collection of his works, Écrits, published by Gallimard in 1970. I also wrote the story, “Jacques Rigaut’s Happiest Birthday – A Dada Bedtime Story” which has served as a seed for the novel.

The following is my translation of the fragment “Hope,” which appears in the “Early Texts” section of Écrits. When I published this translation on Maximum Fiction last year, I overlooked the the notes on this piece from the 1971 Gallimard edition of Écrits in which it appears. I’ve included these now following “Hope,” along with a few observations of my own.

Jacques Rigaut

The soul of dynamite, of which some alcohol had already betrayed the trace, sprung up from the amorphous mass of boredom, confounding in its flamboyance, day and night. More obscure than any apocalypse night, final rising, Remedy and Knowledge together, the most helpful of possibilities.

Round the tin of sardines with the key, flown easily away from the girdles of boredom, genuflection, tears, tears of joy, seeds of destruction in a brandished fist. There was a flash of lightening. An explosion so violent that no one heard it; hardly recognizable, the conscience of the world, refugee in the little alveolus of space between a meteor and its fluorescent trajectory, no longer recognizes the simulacra of life. A raw flame with neither center nor zenith chars the cadavers of gods. So be it.

Nothing of the sort happened.

UPDATE 10.25.10: Notes on “Hope” (from Écrits)

Notes on the Manuscript of “Hope.”

The manuscript is from Rigaut’s early period. It is written in pencil on a large sheet of squared paper. Very difficult to read; legibility poor.The draft title, “Revenge,” has been crossed out and “Hope” added in ink. Other passages added in ink: “confounding in its flamboyance, day and night”; at the beginning of the second paragraph: “Round the tin of sardines with the key […] tears, tears of joy.” A second version of the manuscript of this text (written in ink and shorter) on the reverse side of the paper bears the rough draft of “Spineless Remarks” and some accompanying notes and phrases, like “beautiful as a cannon, beautiful as waste,” etc.

It seems this text describes–in a very curious and personal kind of poetic code–the first attempt at suicide by Rigaut. N.B. the expression “An explosion so violent that no one heard it” (the revolver with which he wanted to shoot himself did not go off). The last phrase, “Nothing of the sort happened,” must have been of particular importance to Rigaut as it is found elsewhere [in his writing].

The manuscript of the first version bears on the verso notes about classes in the school of law [which Rigaut attended prior to and after World War I-ERD] and at the bottom (recto) these words:

|–Dr. Civil [law]

Dim –
|–administrative law
Lun –
Mar — Dr. Civil”

Since there are no classes on Sunday, this might only be a kind of small calendar revision for the examination passed on March 9, 1920. This document, therefore, allows us to place the first attempt at suicide around this date. [It is, of course, _possible_ that Rigaut used this sheet long after leaving law school, or that he wrote this text around March 9, but the events he describes–his attempted suicide–took place well before. It can easily be argued, however, that according to this hypothesis, the most probable date of the attempted suicide, and the date the text was drafted, are close to March 9, 1920.

These notes provide valuable context for this piece, underscoring as they do the situation in which Rigaut found himself. Only 21 and just one year removed from the butchery of WWI, Rigaut is in the process of completing his studies in law, which he had begun before the war. He must certainly have considered these studies a project begun by a wholly different individual from himself. One can imagine the alienation from these studies he must have felt, as well as the pain of going through with them. I see here a Rigaut playing out the bourgeois role envisioned for him by parents who had no concept of what he’d been through. Like millions of other French parents of the day, they simply assumed the war could be put behind and life could carry on as it had before the hostilities. Meanwhile, their son was already turning his back on a culture so eager to sweep under the rug the horrors of 1914-1918; as his now-meaningless exams approached, he’d tried and failed at suicide only to make it his “vocation” of nearly ten years, ten years that ended with another, this-time successful, attempt.