JF Ptak Science Books Post 2423
Never pass the opportunity to pick up a dropped book. Picking books up from the floor (in bookstores, libraries) has proven to be a definite education for me. It is where I first learned of the name of Ludwig Wittgenstein when I was (picking up the skinny Tractatus... which was not only on the floor but open and upside down, in D.C. in 1974), and the first exposure I had to Kurt Vonnegut (in the old Brentanos in Manhattan in 1969, finding Player Piano), just to name a few. I know it would be interesting to make a list of all of the good and bad that I've found on the floor, but the lost books are lost to uncaring and neglect of memory. One that came up just today is Andre Breton's selection of Black Humor--found on the floor of a bookstore I can't remember the name of but was on Rue Milton in Montreal in 1978. This was interesting because even though it was upside down it had an interesting rear cover design--flipped over it became a must-buy. I'm pretty sure I had heard of Breton at that point but had never read him--and there he was, in an unusual-looking little paperback, waiting for me to buy it for two dollars. I bumped into this old friend this morning, moving a box to get to a pile of the journal Comptes Rendus..., and then losing sight of the Angelo Secchi papers on spectroscopy from 1866 I was supposed to find in favor of looking through the in-the-way box. And in the bottom of the box was the Breton.
It was a collection of people who wrote wincingly and oddly and funny-bitterly, exposing things with uncomfortable not-sustained laughter. Breton includes selections form the work of 45 writers, many of which I admit to having never heard of before, and a number of others whose names were under years of braindust, and most of which I cannot read now with my mostly-failed French.
The book was published in 1940 and was immediately banned by the Petain French State government of occupied and controlled France, the government that was known more familiarly known by the name of the town in which the government's center was in, at Vichy. Breton (1896-1966) escaped France and spent the war in the U.S. and Canada and the Caribbean, but returned to Paris in '46 and saw his anthology (one of his many books) back into print in 1947. It was re-issued in 1966 (my copy) as the "definitive edition", though I am not sure that it is any different from the two earlier printings. That's okay, because it was Breton who moved out of Dada to found Surrealism, so he can say what he wants to say while saying it and not saying it.
Good French or bad, the references are still very useful--so far as I can recall, all of these writers were worth pursuing. (I left Picasso off the list even though he is represented in the collection because, well, I just don't like or need him.)
I'm certain that Breton would approve of this floor-reading education.
And by the way some give the term "black humor" to Breton. It is much older than that in the history of medicine, as a bilous, disease-causing agency. (For example, it is found in Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost i. i. 228 "Besedged with sable coloured melancholie, I did commende the blacke oppressing humour to the most holsome phisicke of thy health-geuing ayre".) It may well be: the OED finds an obscure 1916 reference using the term as it is intended today ("C. V. Stanford & C. Forsyth Hist. Mus. x. 212 They [sc. Russian songs] give utterance to a ‘yearning without hope’... Humour there is. But it is the black humour of the drunken headsman") and then another for 1951. No mention of anything in the mid-ground. Perhaps it is the first common usage of the phrase...