The Four Elements
(from Natural History)
Translated from the French by Guy Bennett
The world is made of water, earth, air and fire and the earth is not round but bowl-shaped. It is a heavenly breast whose twin stands in the middle of the milky way.
The earth breeds flies, diurnal spirits appointed to protect it in hot weather for in cold weather, the earth dries out, becomes a gourd and no longer needs a guard, while in summer smoke comes out of its ears and, without the flies to guide it up into the air, clouds would lie about the earth like filthy rags.
When watered, earth gives:
1. Lipstick from which kisses are extracted.
There are two types of lipsticks: undulating, long-wave lipstick which, when distilled, gives flags, and light lipstick whose flower produces kisses. These kisses can be obtained in two ways, either by drying the flower plucked at the moment it blooms, or by crushing its seed which gives a highly volatile essence that is difficult to preserve.
2. The Turkish bath, which is obtained by kneading moist earth with curdled milk and makes so much noise that it has been gradually relegated to deserted regions.
3. The frog, which slowly devours the earth.
4. The cello, used more and more frequently in treating arthritis and, ground to a powder, enjoys great favor in the washing of delicate fabrics as it doesn't affect the color.
5. Glasses for the near-sighted, which are obtained by softening a little earth in a boiling infusion of China tea, then setting the mixture to cook in a double boiler.
A great many other things are extracted from moist earth as well, like the compass, the saveloy, the boxer, the match, the preposition, etc...that our grandmothers were still using but which can only be found today in antique shops.
By blowing on earth, that is by mixing it with air, you get the gooseberry if you blow lightly, if you blow violently, you get the tricycle.
The use of mechanical processes (whose origins will be discussed later) which allow one to insufflate the earth with greater quantities of air, has bred the sieve, obtained by forcing a powerful jet of air kept at room temperature into a pile of earth stained with chicken droppings. Clay, when reduced to dust and placed in a receptacle whose air, circulated by a powerful fan, goes from the point of freezing to fifty degrees above zero and vice versa every five minutes, gives the concierge. Invented by Albert the Great, it has since been perfected but is worn out more quickly now than in the past.
In a receptacle containing air at a pressure of three atmospheres and subjected to very low temperatures, earth gives the knitting needle. Increasing the pressure and lowering the temperature, you get the blackbird, the cradle, the pea and the horrible motorcycle.
In thin, toasted slices, earth becomes a fishhook, in thick slices singed on a roaring fire it becomes a urinal; rolled into balls and exploding in the fire it gives the grasshopper and, if the ball is large, the mustache.
Air, in its normal state secretes a steady cloud of pepper that makes the earth sneeze. On the ground, the pepper condenses until it gives the knick-knack in summer and the newspaper in winter. By simply placing the latter in a cool place it turns into a railway station or a sponge, depending on the number of pages. The pepper also condenses at a height of two thousand meters, then falls back to earth in a powder so fine that no one notices it, but the testament to such flagrant uselessness eventually appears as, unbeknownst to them, passers-by inevitably trample it. At greater heights, the pepper nourishes the stars, giving them their luster.
Painted blue, air makes undergrowth in dry weather; in rainy weather it makes bleach, but is then harmful to man who absorbs large doses of it for it causes ulcers, boils, and damages tooth enamel. Painted yellow, air is used to dress furs and, mixed with powder of cockchafer, cures lockjaw. When sucked on, air is used to repair innertubes, when salted, it becomes a bed. Warmed between the hands, it dilates to the point of changing into a whip. Torn to shreds and sprinkled with red wine, it gives the maestro, so useful to peasants at harvest time. Dried in the sun and preserved all winter in a dry place, in spring air will give the engagement ring which, due to its extreme sensitivity to variations in temperature, is very fragile and rarely reaches maturity.
Shut up in a closet, air tends to escape so as to blow out the door at the first possibility, taking the shape of a mushroom generally used today to fight wrinkles.
Pickled in vinegar, air gives the portr which, in windy weather, is as runny as overripe cheese. The runny porter is then collected, dried, carefully ground and then sown in a shady spot. Within a month the moon sprouts, emerges from the earth and blooms, for the moon is not a heavenly body as is generally believed, but the pollen of innumerable female runny porter-flowers that rises every evening, whereas the male flowers fall to the ground leaving their seed to sprout again. Every morning the moon plunges into the sea and, as it hits the waves, produces the tides. As it dissolves, the moon gives the sea its salty taste.
In the form of rain, water becomes an earthworm as it penetrates the soil. These earthworms, reaching great depths, gather in countless masses in natural cavities and produce petroleum by spitting. There are several types of petroleum:
1. Hobnailed petroleum which has but a brief existence for it is eaten by moths.
2. Petroleum beans favored by elephants because it stimulates the growth of their tusks.
3. Unicorn petroleum which, as petroleum, is useless. Only its horn, eroded by the wind, gives birth to the marathon runner, which is constantly used in the porcelain industry for the purification of the kaolin that must first be purged with squid ink administered in large doses.
4. Hoarse petroleum, so called because of the inelegant sound it emits. That's where we get the bells that spread the germs of infectious diseases.
5. Hairy petroleum, which attaches intself to the bark of trees in cold countries and, eventually, gives sparrow eggs, firecrackers and pins, in that order. When the firecrackers and pins mate they give birth to red billiard balls which terrify carp. Their ferocity is such that within a few days, the most abundant fishponds become barren and the red ball dies of hunger shortly thereafter, producing will-o'-the-wisps in the process.
6. Snowy petroleum, which is found only on the highest mountains of Europe. Above two thousand meters, this type of petroleum loses its qualities, tarnishes, becomes brittle and, if left in the sun, turns into a chair, a harmless looking lemur whose highly venomous bite can be fatal if not treated promptly.
River water, in moonlight, gives the hen whose feathers are much sought after in the production of low coastlines. In summer, the hens have no feathers but are bristling with red teeth which, when ground, are used to make candles, so useful in the countryside to detect the presence of water tables. These waters are inhabited by multitudes of keys which, as soon as a well is sunk, escape through the opening and fly off to nest on the tops of tall trees to the sound of their srill cries. After nightfall, they band together and attack dogs that flee at their approach, baying at the moon.
Having risen to ground level, well water evaporates quickly, leaving a beautiful light green residue at the bottom of the receptacle: the principle of causality, which, soluble in oil, is the father of the artichoke. When heated, well water hardens, dilates, and acquires, at a temperature of eighty degrees, a great elasticity which makes it susceptible to becoming a kangaroo within a few days. But this kangaroo is prey to respiratory illnesses, not to mention tuberculosis which has destroyed great numbers of them as well. That's why the deadwood kangaroo, which is much more robust than the others, is prefereed by rabbit breeders whose products, at its very contact, acquire a long, silky coat, which is highly prized in the production of flags. When the tempeature drops below zero, well water turns into a beggar which, sliced wafer-thin, is used in the production of grottos.
When sea water evaporates, it gives a bristle whose longevity is truly astonishing. There have been reports of thousand year old female bristles that still give birth every year to four litters of shot glasses, and each litter is made up of a dozen glasses... One can easily imagine that, in these conditions, the shot glass would have become, for man, a scourge worse than plagues of locusts had he not found a fierce enemy in the crutch. Indeed, each crutch annually devours tens of thousands of shot glasses and, in equatorial Africa alone, crutches, of which there are some twenty species, gather in countless flocks which, having devoured all the shot glasses they can find, begin to terrorize the natives, destroying their crop of calf's liver, thus reducing them to a state of poverty and famine.
Finally, there is also bearded water, about which little is known (it is used to make suits of armor favored by shivery old women), flying water, with which navigators plot their position, light water, from which swimming trunks are extracted, hardwood water, indispensable to confectioners, dusty water, used in carpentry, feathery water, hunted in December when its feathers take on their brightest colors, cinder water, used in electricity, and many others that will be discussed later.
An essentially mineral element, fire resides in stones and eggs. When damp and left in the sun, quivering stones give the best fire, velvety-smooth and fragrant, popular in the burning of churches; but they mustn't quiver too much for, if their quivering is too pronounced, fire melts, giving us tartar sauce whose needles, pricking anyone who touches it, inoculate him with begonias which makes the person yawn from morning to night. If the stone quivers intermittently, the fire coughs and spits a damp moss that extinguishes it, giving birth to fleas dreaded by dry cleaners for the damage they do to colored dyes. Disturbed by the presence of fleas, colored dyes lose their brilliance, so much so in fact that it is impossible to achieve a uniform color. On the other hand, this disruptive action is prized by those dry cleaners seeking to produce a marbled effect. They simply place equal parts of both fleas and coloring agent in a closed container and keep the mixture at a high temperature for a more or less lengthy period, depending on whether they wish to obtain marbling or moiré.
Left out in the rain all winter, windy stones give a blazing, but short-lived fire if care is not taken to soak these stones in the sea before using them, that is before putting them in a reed cage that favors the production of fire. The fire then attracts moles which it feeds on and which thus contribute to the increase of both its duration and intensity.
A great many types of fire are known. Among the most popular are thin sliced fire from which bottles are extracted which, set to soak in a quinine bath, give in turn a fire so hard that special tools are necessary to saw it into boards so sturdy and light that children make kites out of them. There is also clog fire, offspring of the sleeping car and the wheelbarrow, which is prized by composers for, stretched out on a soft bed and well-dressed, it emits, once it has been lightly salted, the symphony and, sprinkled with ink, the opera. One of the more common fires, the reeking fire, is obtained by steeping a bishop in cod liver oil. It gives off a foul odor, but facilitates the cultivation of asparagus, for reeking fire destroys the filecabinets that begin gnawing away at them as soon as they break soil. We should also mention cloud fire which keeps mice and rats from moving into uninhabited houses, muslin fire, indispensable in baking, ostrich fire, that all young women slip into their corsages the night of their first dance, limping fire, terror of doctors for it causes epidemics (as soon as it appears it is fought off with leek spray), beaten fire, which disturbs sleeping villagers the night before the harvest, stick fire, pill fire, powdered fire, dry fire, black and white fire, striped fire, doctoral fire, etc.
All of these fires can be readily found anywhere in the world in a more or less pure state, but they can be easily cleaned, either with fish bones, or by passing them through filter paper soaked in vinegar. There are, however, still other, rarer types of fire—button fire, for example, that goes so well on blonds, brain fire that is produced with great difficulty by pounding turkeys with couchgrass until you get a thick paste that you set out to dry in the sun after dusting it with equal quantities of finely ground iron and copper filings. If the filings are not fine enough, the paste runs and gives pennies; if they are too fine, birds peck at the paste which soon explodes in a cloud of black dust that sticks to your skin and that can only be washed off with a tincture of iodine. With one kilo of this paste, you get a knob of brain fire which is extracted from the dried pasted by breaking it open. But you must take care not to drop it onto wool, which would become rabid. Folded in turn, brain fire, mixed with ground heliotrope flowers, is prepared like tea and given to women who wish to have beauty marks. Among the rare fires, let us also note shutter fire, which seeps out of volcanic ash long after the eruption, at the rate of a few grams per ton of ash treated with cider, it is indeed quite rare; jowl fire, used as an ornamental motif; flying fire, forbidden in milliners' studios for it turns the employees against their bosses; rose fire, that can be found in the woods in springtime, very early in the morning; crossbow fire, which is a very rare illness affecting snails (one in ten thousand is stricken); shivering fire; suspender fire; breast fire; and finally crumb fire, which is occasionally secreted by the female penguin while laying eggs, but which evaporates very quickly if not immediately collected in sour cream.
Author of some fifteen collections of poetry, a novel, a natural history, more than thirty short stories, a pornographic farce, numerous theoretical and political tracts; editor of two anthologies, co-editor (with Pierre Naville) of La Révolution surréaliste, and co-author of Breton, Éluard, and Desnos, Benjamin Péret remains one of the most prolific, yet least known of the major surrealist writers.
Born on July 4, 1899, Péret, like many of his future colleagues, fought in the First World War. He moved to Paris in 1920, determined to make a career for himself as a writer. At a gathering for the Dada journal Littérature, Péret met André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Paul Éluard, and began to participate in their activities. His first book of poetry, Le passager du transatlantique was published the following year with illustrations by Hans Arp.
Numerous other publications followed, among them Au 125 boulevard Saint-Germain with illustrations by Max Ernst (1923) 152 proverbes mis au goût du jour with Éluard (1925), and Dormir, dormir dans les pierres, illustrated by Yves Tanguy (1927).
In 1929 Péret left Paris for Brazil. A revolutionary communist, he was imprisoned for his political activity and deported in 1931. Back in France, he organized with Breton the international Surrealist exhibition in the Canary Islands in 1935, then left for Spain where he joined P.O.U.M. in their fight against Franco. During this time Péret wrote three seminal collections of poetry, Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là, Je sublime (again, with illustrations by Ernst), and Trois cerises et une sardine, the latter being published upon his return to Paris in 1937.
Mobilized at the outset of the Second World War, Péret was quickly arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned, but released upon the surrender of French forces in 1940. That same year he left France for Mexico, where he would live for eight years, writing Les malheurs d'un dollar (1942), Dernier malheur, dernière chance (1945), and Feu cenral (1947, illustrated by Tanguy).
Shortly after his return to Paris, Péret wrote his first and only novel La brebis galante (1949, illustrations by Ernst), which was followed by, among other works, the collections Air Mexicain (1952) and Mort aux vaches et au champ d'honneur (1953). In 1955 Péret once again set out for Brazil, living with Indian tribes in the Amazon rain forest, and collecting material for his Anthologie des mythes, légendes et contes populaires d'Amérique, published posthumously one year after his death in Paris on September 18, 1959.
English language copyright ©2009 by Guy Bennett