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Surrealism and the organism

Notes on Benjamin Péret's Natural History

Rachel Rodman 14 October 2013

Off the beaten track: Péret (1899-1959)

Péret draws upon his background in Surrealism, offering unique perspectives on chemistry and biology

Benjamin Péret (1899-1959) is primarily recognized as a writer. A leading French Surrealist, he authored many intriguing pieces. Many defy traditional logic.

Elephant on Wheels, for example, describes a set of films that elicit a literal “flood of tears.” Upon the strength of this flood, the doors of the theatre burst open, and audience members are carried into the street. In a similar spirit, Hand in Hand consists of 249 numbered bullet points, detailing a series of unusual images, e.g., “The pope, a phallus tattooed on his forehead, is perched on a cow” (#59) and “The 25 turkeys emerge from her mouth” (#147).

During his career, Péret also authored several pieces about chemistry and ecology. His science-themed collection, Natural History, consists of four essays. Each documents a rather different set of natural phenomena.

In one essay, The Mineral Kingdom, Péret recounts the chemistry of a very early earth. He vividly describes the origin of a variety of materials, including turquoise (“which instantly ran off howling like a beaten dog”) and the first emerald (it “roared fiercely...licked itself...and fell fast asleep”). He also hypothesizes that conditions unique to the early earth may have facilitated a remarkable nuclear transmutation, enabling the conversion of mercury (atomic number 80) to phosphorus (atomic number 15). In his model, a violent vibration of mercury (“snorting and neighing and bucking and leaping to left and right”) destabilized the nuclei, inducing a massive loss of subatomic particles. Within this violence, “phosphorus appeared.”

In another essay, The Four Elements, Péret details several novel ecosystems, not previously documented. He outlines, for instance, the favored environment and life history of the shot glass. He describes conditions – “when sea water evaporates” – that facilitate the growth of a long-lived morphotype of the shot glass, the “bristle” (“soie”). Each bristle, in turn, produces approximately fifty infant shot glasses every year, which are distributed into four litters. Many of these shot glasses do not, however, reach maturity, as they are instead consumed by a predator called “the crutch” (“la béquille”).

In the same essay, Péret in addition documents the life history of a rare, parasitic variety of begonia. In an early stage of its life cycle, the begonia persists on needles, which are present in tartar sauce. In this latent state, the begonia may remain indefinitely. In many cases, however, humans, attracted by the tartar sauce, will prick themselves on the associated needles, enabling the begonia to penetrate the skin. Once inside of a human host, the begonia transitions to a new, more active stage. Growing rapidly, it exhausts the infected person's resources, causing her “to yawn from morning to night.”

In The Four Elements, Péret in addition describes an intriguing network of biological systems, each dependent on the petroleum that is excreted by earthworms. Different varieties of this petroleum support, in turn, the early development of the marathon runner and the growth of tusks in elephants. One particularly interesting system, operating in cold environments, hinges upon the affinity that certain types of petroleum experience for tree bark. Clinging to the tree, the petroleum serves as an ideal substrate for the growth of three types of organisms: 1) sparrows (the eggs, specifically); 2) firecrackers; and 3) pins. In this shared environment, the firecrackers and pins often mate, generating hybrid offspring. At maturity, these hybrids – the “red billiard balls” – prefer to migrate to aquatic environments, where they prey upon fish. After a period of very rapid growth – in which they often exhaust their environment – the hybrids will sporulate, generating the starvation-resistant “will-o'-the-wisps” (“feux-follets”).

In The Four Elements, Péret gives particular attention to ways in which natural processes might be co-opted to serve the aims of industrial chemistry. Drawing upon his understanding of organisms and their environments, he describes a number of new methods to produce commercially useful products. He observes, for instance, that a special variety of fleas, nourished by fire and damp moss, can be used to modify the process of fabric coloration. The fleas, if mixed with the color agent, interfere with color deposition, generating a distinct – and, for some purposes – an aesthetically pleasing pattern. As another example, Péret describes using a special variety of hens in candle-making. Péret notes that appropriate growth conditions (river water, moonlight, and summer-like heat) induce these hens to produce tooth-like structures. Once harvested, these teeth – red and waxy – serve as ideal raw materials, enabling the sculpting of specialty candles.

In a third essay, The Vegetable Kingdom, Péret describes the manipulation of existing ecologies via the introduction of novel species. Some of these new forms are simple chimeras – or cut-and-paste GMOs – formed by combining the characteristics of existing species. These include “mistletoe...with cornflower blossoms” and pear trees that produce roses. Additional species, more profoundly novel, are the result of more concerted engineering. In Péret's landscapes, there are, for instance, several modified plants with the ability – introduced de novo – to extract and concentrate certain minerals. In these unique environments, a variety of willow is able to shape “flint arrowheads,” which it deposits along its branches. A variety of peony, meanwhile, excretes “nuggets of obsidian.”

In a fourth essay, The Animal Kingdom, finally, Péret examines protocols from synthetic biology. He outlines, in particular, several non-traditional methods for generating traditional organisms. In one section, he reports the synthesis of a tiger following the extreme compression of four ingredients: “kissed hands, a paperclip, some jelly beans and an address book.” This mixture is refined, later, “with a delicately embroidered necklace of magnetic iron.” A blue whale, similarly, can be synthesized using a base of “grilled incense,” which is subsequently coated with “circumflex accents.” A protocol for tortoise synthesis, finally, requires the liquification both of tomatoes and “Archimedes' principle,” which are later complexed with proverbs and copper filings.

In his collection Natural History, Péret draws upon his background in Surrealism, offering unique perspectives on chemistry and biology. He documents several remarkable phenomena, neglected by previous practitioners. Several of these projects, including the elucidation of the life cycle of the red billiard ball, would have required careful observation, performed over many generations. Other theories, such as those pertaining to the chemistry of the early earth, are rather more outmoded; they serve, instead, as curious vignettes, valuable to the science historian.

Much of Péret's work remains difficult to evaluate. The French Surrealists diverged from mainstream science in many respects. Many of their conventions were never documented. Without this background, modern practitioners have been unable to replicate several of the reagents employed in Péret's synthesis protocols. The means by which Archimedes' principle might have been “liquidised” (“liquéfié”), for instance, has occasioned particular controversy.

In Natural History, Péret advances a rather optimistic vision. In it, the natural world and the human-made world are entirely compatible. Products of human industry, such as the shot glass, may adapt themselves to the wild; natural organisms, like fleas, may be adopted by industry. There are, in addition, several equivalent methods of generating the “natural.” Tigers may, of course, be generated via the copulation of other tigers; they may also, however, be generated via industrial methods, using paperclips and address books. The natural and the unnatural may even coexist within a single organism, as in a modified species of willow, whose internal chemistry enables it to knap flint. Disruptions of nature, finally, may produce new opportunities. In a modern environment, hopelessly polluted by tartar sauce, the begonia is empowered to parasitize humans; marathon runners, similarly, take advantage of the new, earthworm-mediated abundance of petroleum.

As we continue to investigate Péret – discarding some of his theories, while admiring others – we may, at least, continue to appreciate the peculiar energy of his portraits. With force and color, Péret captures two of biology's most important themes: first, that organisms survive by exploiting their environments, sometimes in bizarre ways; and secondly, that organisms are governed by precisely the same chemistry as non-organisms. Molecules of incense, reordered, may contribute to the whale; molecules of jelly beans, reordered, may contribute to the tiger.

Related information:

Quotes were taken from English translations by Guy Bennett (The Four Elements) , Antony Melville (The Mineral Kingdom, The Vegetable Kingdom, The Animal Kingdom), and Rachel Stella (Elephant on Wheels, Hand in Hand).

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