Paul Éluard, pseudonym of Eugène Grindel (born Dec. 14, 1895, Saint-Denis, Paris, Fr.—died Nov. 18, 1952, Charenton-le-Pont), French poet, one of the founders of the Surrealist movement with Louis Aragon and André Breton among others and one of the important lyrical poets of the 20th century.
Éluard rejected later Surrealism and joined the French Communist Party. Many of his works reflect the major events of the century, such as the World Wars, the Resistance against the Nazis, and the political and social ideals of the 20th-century.
I was born to know you
To give you your name
(in Poèsie et Vérité, 1942)
Paul Éluard came from a lower-middle-class background. He was born Eugène Émile Paul Grindel in Saint-Denis, Paris, the son of a bookkeeper, whose wife helped out with the household bills by dressmaking. Éluard became interested in poetry in his youth in Clavadel, a Swiss sanatorium, where he was sent for treatment of tuberculosis. When he returned to France, he joined the army and was badly injured by gas. His first noteworthy volume of poetry was Le Devoir et l'Inquiétude (1917).
During a leave from the service in 1917, Éluard married a Russian woman, Helena Diakonova, known as Gala, whom he had met in Clavadel. Gala inspired several of Éluard's poems published in Capitale de la douleur (1926, Capital of Pain), which established his reputation as a poet. It includes some of his most famous love poems, such as 'L'Amoureuse' (Woman in Love) and 'La Courbe de tes yeaux' (The Curve of Your Eyes). Later its poems punctuated Jean-Luc Godard's film Alphaville (1965), in which the existential secret agent, Lemmy Caution, battles with a copy of this "codebook" against a totalitarian regime run by a computer Alpha 60. Poetry is the key to love and freedom. Éluard had compiled the book during the period, when Gala had a liaison with the artist Max Ernst. Godard chose the work partly because its title stood for the technocratic Alphaville itself.
Like André Breton, Aragon, Péret, Soupault and other intellectuals, Éluard emerged from the war disgusted with commonly accepted values of the bourgeois society. He was briefly involved with the Dada movement, which declined in the 1920s as many of its proponents joined the Surrealists. Éluard's early statement in verse of surrealist theories was Les Nécessités de la vie et les conséquences des rêves (1921). With the painter Max Ernst, who had moved to Paris in 1922, Éluard worked on a cycle entitled Les Malheurs des Immortels, a series of pictures made of scraps of illustrations cut out from old books.
In 1924 Éluard disappeared mysteriously. Rumours of his death were widely circulated and finally accepted as true. After seven months he surfaced and explained that he had been on a journey from Marseilles to Tahiti, Indonesia, and Ceylon. This absence from the Parisian scene was later connected with the loss of his wife Gala to the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, although their relationship started much later. Between 1921 and 1924 Gala had an affair with Max Ernst. He painted painted several portraits of her. Louise Straus, whom Ernst had married in 1918, described Gala as "that Russian female... that slithering, glittering creature with dark falling hair, vaguely oriental and luminant black eyes and small delicate bones, who had to remind one of a panther." Legally Éluard and Gala were divorced in 1932. They had one daughter, Cécile.
Freud's theory of the unconscious influenced deeply avant-garde writers; especially the technique of automatic writing was experimented as a method to liberate subconscious from the straitjacket of reason. However, Éluard practiced automatic writing very little, but it was one of Breton's favorite subjects. From 1924 to 1938 Éluard was a central member of the surrealist group. In 1933 he was expelled from the Communist Party partly due to an article published in Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, in which Ferdinand Alquié denounced "the wind of cretinization blowing from the U S S R ".
Éluard cooperated in 1930 with Breton in L'Immaculate conception, a series of poems in prose, in which they entered into communication with the vegetative life of the foetus and simulated demented states. "Of all the ways the sunflower has of loving the light, regret is the loveliest on the sundial. Crossbones, crosswords, volumes and volumes of ignorance and knowledge. The doe, between bounds, likes to look at me. I keep her company in the glade. I fall slowly from the heights, as yet I weigh only what minus a hundred thousand yards will weigh..."
Éluard married in 1934 Maria Benz (1906-1946), known as Nusch; earlier she had been a hypnotist's stooge in a circus and a small-time actress and model. Nusch did not only inspire some of Éluard's most tender love poems, but she was also a muse and model for the photographer Man Ray and Pablo Picasso, and for a time, she was the artist's mistress. Soon after the marriage, Éluard published with Man Ray a slim volume entitled Facile (1935). Nusch participated in the creation of the book, which included Éluard's love lyrics and eleven photographs Nusch's body. When Nicole Boulestreau wrote an article on the book, she coined the term photopoème: "In the photopoem, meaning progresses in accordance with the reciprocity of writing and figures: reading becomes interwoven through alternating restitchings of the signifier into text and image." (Le Photopoème Facile: Un Noveau Livre dans les années 30, Le Livre surréaliste: Mélusine IV, 1982)
In the late 1930s Éluard abandoned Surrealistic experimentations, partly as a result of his concern over the Spanish Civil War. After he renewed his affiliation with the Communist Party, Breton broke with him. During WW II, Éluard served in the French army and in the Communist Resistance. To avoid the Gestapo Éluard and Nusch constantly changed addresses. His poems Éluard published under such pseudonyms as Jean du Hault and Maurice Hervent.
Éluard's most famous works from these years, 'Liberté' and 'Rendez-vous Allemand', were spread throughout France. Nusch died unexpectedly in 1946, she suffered a stroke and collapsed in the street. Éluard's third wife was Dominique Laure, to whom he dedicated the collection Le Phénix (1951). Picasso, who once had potrayed Éluard as a transvestite, said that he is not going to honor him again by going to bed with his wife.
After the war Éluard was active in the international communist movement in the cultural field. He traveled in Britain, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Mexico, and Russia, but not the United States, because he was refused a visa as a Communist. Éluard's idealism, passion for peace, and inability to see the reality of the Soviet Union, led the poet to admire Stalin. With Picasso he took part in 1948 in the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw, Poland. Éluard saw poetry as an action capable of arousing awareness in his readers, and identified with the leftist struggle for political, social and sexual liberation. "So much fonfusion to stay so pure," wrote Salvador Dali on Éluard in his diary (Diary of Genius, 1966).
Éluard published over seventy books, including poetry, literary and political works, and poetic texts dedicated to such painters as Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso. Painting, like poetry, was for Éluard destined to disseminate truth belonging to both the real and the imaginary. The mission of poetry was to renew language in order to effect radical changes in all areas of human life, "poetry is a perpetual struggle, life's very principle, the queen of unrest." ('Poetry's Evidence', This Quarter; Surrealist Number, September 1932.) In Éluard's love lyrics woman performs as a liberating force. Love, to Éluard, was a kind of revolution of the spirit. In 'L'amoureuse' Éluard exemplified the effects of love, which unites one soul to another. Samuel Beckett, who translated the work into English, did not actually feel close to the Surrealists, but Éluard and Breton were among his friends.
Among Éluard's best-known later works are Poésie ininterrompue (1946) and Poèmes politiques (1948). Éluard died of a heart condition on November 18, 1952 in Charenton-le-Pont. At his funeral, organized by the Party, Picasso was seated next to Dominique. "In fact," she said later, "it was Éluard who was a friend to Picasso, and the other way around only to the extent that Picasso was capable of friendship."