Beyond the Fringe

The History of Surrealism

by Maurice Nadeau, translated by Richard Howard, with an Introduction by Roger Shattuck
Macmillan, 351 pp., $6.95

Selected Works

by Alfred Jarry, edited by Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor
Grove, 280 pp., $7.95

Alfred Jarry
Alfred Jarry; drawing by David Levine

As a movement, Surrealism had fallen apart well before 1939, yet even today it is remarkable how many of its features survive, sporadically, in the life around us, particularly in advertising and show-business. While I was reading this English translation of Nadeau’s book, I went to see the new Beatles film. Help!, a very unsatisfactory concoction, I thought, but interesting in that it was obviously made by people who have assimilated something of the Surrealist principles that Nadeau describes. The film is conceived as a dream in which no explanations are given. The location changes irrationally. The story, such as it is, is based on the magic significance of a ring, i.e., it combines a pun—ring/Ringo—with the mystic quest theme; a gas-pipe comes through the navel of an Elizabethan portrait, as it might in a canvas by Dali; the heroes are pursued simultaneously by Oriental priests (the Occult) and scatty scientists (cf. Jarry’s Dr. Faustroll); one Beatle shrinks like Alice in Wonderland, a great favorite of the Surrealists; all four Beatles have the edgy, jeering attitudes and uncouth expression of minor Ubus, and form a sort of quadripartite Id.

Although none of this rises above the level of commercial gimmickry, it is all Surrealist paraphernalia, whether it has been taken directly and consciously from the Surrealists themselves or has been relayed to the makers of the film through the Marx Brothers, the Goon Show, and other sources.

Traces of Surrealism can also be seen on all sides among various social and aesthetic rebels, such as the Beats (the Surrealists rejected the indignity of earning a living), drug-addicts (drink, drugs, and any other artificial paradises are better than the acceptance of the humdrum), and Pop artists (the irrational collocation of found objects can be a creative act). Two or three years ago, I noticed a strong neo-Surrealist feeling at the Writers’ Conference of the Edinburgh Festival. We were treated to a “happening,” very like the spectacles-provocations organized by Tristan Tzara nearly fifty years earlier; William Burroughs described his “cut-up” method of composition which seemed reminiscent of the Surrealist cult of chance; Alexander Trocchi, an admitted drug-addict, talked about the “exploration of inner space” almost in Occult terms. I may add that the Scottish poets on the platform, perhaps unnerved by these outbreaks of weirdness, drank themselves into such a state of incoherence that the atmosphere, on one occasion, became almost as rowdy as that of the famous first night of Ubu Roi in 1896.

It is difficult to decide what exactly these various manifestations mean. Are parts of the avant garde still soldiering on, fifty years behind the times? Did Surrealism, before it disintegrated, inject some inexhaustibly fruitful ideas into society? Or did it open a sort of Pandora’s Box that has never been closed again? Was it, in other words, a marvelous upsurge of hidden truths or merely the establishment, on a…

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