For the Record: Robert Desnos, Music, and Wartime Memory


The following is an attempt to shed some light on the as yet unacknowledged significance of Robert Desnos’s interest in music at the time of the Occupation and, specifically, his enthusiastic support of the production and playing of phonograph records as a meaningful form of cultural practice during the war years. Unlike those of his wartime contemporaries who refused to publish in the German-controlled public sphere, Desnos remained throughout the Occupation an assiduous contributor to the non-clandestine press, including a longstanding role as “critique de disques” at Aujourd’hui, a collaborationist Parisian daily where he penned on average one or two record reviews each month between October 1940 and February 1944—the last entry appearing just six days before his arrest and deportation for Resistance activities. These reviews, virtually unknown today, provide a revealing map of his frequent interventions in the non-clandestine press of the period. Like the Pathé-Marconi index of record releases that Desnos reviewed in 1941, these texts—for all their apparent triviality—offer “de précieux documents pour l’historien futur qui voudra écrire, d’une part l’histoire de l’état d’esprit actuel, d’autre part le tableau d’une activité intellectuelle en laquelle il est permis de placer notre espoir” (Aujourd’hui June 26, 1941). In a surprisingly candid fashion given the context in which the statement is made, Desnos urges not only his contemporaries but also later historians of the war years to listen in on the sounds of Occupation France as they are captured on records. How and why the poet came to attach so much importance to such an activity will be the focus of the following reflections.

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