Aragon, Louis (1897–1982)

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ARAGON, LOUIS (1897–1982)


French surrealist writer and Communist.

Louis Aragon, a prolific writer from the age of six, began his writing career thanks to an encounter with fellow medical student André Breton (1896–1966) at the height of World War I. United by a certain taste in literature, notably for the then obscure poet Le Comte de Lautréamont (1847–1870), and by their revolt against the massacres in the trenches, they were attracted to the iconoclastic fury of the Dada movement. In the aftermath of war, their rebellion took the form of surrealism, which sought to liberate the depths of the human psyche, particularly through the technique of automatic writing, and to bring about a revolution in everyday life. Aragon's most notable texts from his surrealist period are an account of his drifting through the French capital, Le paysan de Paris (1926; The peasant of Paris), and a collection of poems, Le mouvement perpétuel (1925; Perpetual motion).

In 1927 Aragon, along with Breton and others, joined the French Communist Party, then the only force opposed to French colonialism. Conflicts immediately erupted between the autonomy of the avant-garde and party discipline, between Aragon and Breton's bourgeois social origins and liberal attitudes (particularly regarding sexuality) and a "workerist" culture. Aragon broke with the surrealists, putting his writings in the service of the Communist "family" and choosing to write about "reality," both in his poetry and in novels. In 1931 he published "Front rouge," a virulent long poem that was seized by the authorities for its subversiveness. Breton and other surrealists supported Aragon's freedom of expression but attacked his loyalty to the Communist Party and "retrograde" realism.

During the 1930s, Aragon rallied to the theory of socialist realism, for example, in his novel Les cloches de Bâle (1934; The bells of Basel), and, following the Comintern's new Popular Front line of antifascist unity between Communist and non-Communist parties, developed the notion of a "national" literature that drew on the traditions of France in a progressive and antifascist way. In World War II, Aragon was a leader of the intellectual Resistance. His poetry of this period, clandestine for the most part, was written in a regular meter and was often addressed to his muse, the Russian novelist Elsa Triolet (1896–1970). These poems were more patriotic than communist, and some have passed into popular French culture, particularly as songs. At the Liberation, Charles de Gaulle hailed Aragon as a poet of the Resistance, but this prestige was tarnished by the settling of accounts between Resistance and collaborationist intellectuals during l'épuration, or purge. At the same time, the surrealists denounced his "chauvinism."

With the onset of the Cold War, Aragon, now a member of the central committee of the French Communist Party, was in the line of fire as a prolific author and director of the weekly journal Les lettres françaises. Revelations about the excesses of Stalinism—which the French Communist Party suppressed—led to disillusionment on Aragon's part, which he expressed indirectly in a long autobiographical poem, Le roman inachevé (1966; The unfinished novel). While increasingly vocal in his criticism, Aragon remained attached to communism and the Eastern bloc. As a result, he became more politically and culturally isolated: Aragon championed dissident East European writers as well as homegrown avant-garde movements, supported the student revolt of May 1968, and denounced the invasion of Czechoslovakia that same year, but was attacked by both non-Communists and by the conservative elements within the party leadership.

After the death of Elsa Triolet, the other side of Aragon's bisexuality became public, undermining the mythos surrounding the couple, whom the Communists had promoted as a rival to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Aragon continued to experiment in his writing but never left the Communist Party: his last public declaration was in support of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. When he died in 1982, a year after being awarded the Legion of Honor by President François Mitterrand, the often bitter obituaries written about Aragon showed that he had remained a contentious and passionately divisive figure in French culture.

See alsoBreton, André; Communism; Dada; Eurocommunism; Socialist Realism; Surrealism.


Bowd, Gavin. L'interminable enterrement: Le communisme et les intellectuels français depuis 1956. Paris, 1999.

Daix, Pierre. Aragon, une vie à changer. Expanded and updated version. Paris, 1994.

Kimyongür, Angela. Socialist Realism in Louis Aragon's Le Monde réel. Hull, U.K., 1995.

Ristat, Jean. Avec Aragon: 1970–1982. Paris, 2003.

Gavin Bowd