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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, by Simon Watson Taylor
Grove, 280 pp., $7.95

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 more or less permanent basis, of age-old, anarchistic saturnalia?

In stating the problem in this way, I am, of course, asking a rational question and this—from the Surrealist point of view—may be an inadmissible thing to do. I am struck by the fact that even expository books about Surrealism tend to be written in a non-rationalistic way. Nadeau’s history, for instance, is couched in a highly emotional tone, and another well-known study, Michel Carrouges’ André Breton on les données fondamentales du surréalisme (1950), is even more passionate. I am not suggesting that partisan feeling is wrong. The point is that reading Nadeau and Carrouges on Surrealism is like reading an explanation of Christianity by a Christian apologist who is not going to raise any serious doubts about fundamental points of dogma. Surrealism presents itself as a system of belief requiring an act of faith before it can even be understood. Something of this attitude has even rubbed off onto English and American academics who are interested in the subject, or perhaps these academics have become interested because they were potential converts. * Professor J.H. Matthews, an Englishman now at the University of Minnesota, recently produced a lucid, useful, but avowedly uncritical Introduction to Surrealism in which he declares: “No-one who has not viewed it from within can hope to fully comprehend Surrealism.” Professor Shattuck, in his Introduction to this new volume of translations from Jarry, refers to Dr. Faustroll as “an exasperating and haunting work” and adds that “terms in which to judge its success or failure scarcely exist outside its own pages.” Both these statements seem strange, coming from academics, because academic discourse is by definition rational and its function, in dealing with the irrational, is to define it and judge it in detail, from the point of view of reason. There is a difference between a normal university and the Collège de Pataphysique. Although Professor Shattuck is a member of the latter, I am willing to bet that he does not lecture pataphysically at the University of Texas, just as I do not expect Professor Matthews to punctuate his lectures at Minnesota with Ubu-like cries of Merdre. We don’t need propaganda for Surrealism from academics qua academics, and I think Professor Shattuck is writing as a believer and not as an academic when he states, in his Introduction to Jarry:

All his writings circle about the moment of authentic enactment that can make the unreal real and vice versa…

or again when he says of Surrealism in general, in his Introduction to Nadeau:

We had best be attentive to this intense catharsis-sublimation of the Twenties and Thirties. More urgently than ever our children face the challenge of liberating their desire, and here for their scrutiny lies one of the great corporate casehistories of that search.

Moment of authentic enactment” and “liberating their desire” I recognize as Surrealist phrases, but Professor Shattuck does not explain them, and I cannot give them any rational meaning. Of course, I cannot explain “reason” either, but I feel I know, on the level of academic discourse, what is meant by a rational explanation.

Looked at from the outside, the history of the “catharsis-sublimation,” as described by Nadeau, is fairly easy to follow in broad outline, although it is as chequered with quarrels and splinter-movements as the history of the Communist Party or of psychoanalysis. The starting-point was the First World War, which came as a traumatic shock to so many intellectuals. Since rational, civilized governments could perpetrate such horrors, it was felt that there must be something wrong with reason. One can quibble straight away about the logic of this; perhaps it is the irrationalism of governments, disguised as rationalism, that starts wars and wages them systematically; if so, what is wanted is more reason, not less. However, the first reaction was Dada, invented by Tzara in Zurich. The name is a nonsense term, signifying presumably that since language, the primary instrument of reason, has broken down, any combination of syllables is as good as any other. Tzara moved to Paris where, we are told, a number of young men were waiting for him “as if he were the Messiah.” By 1922, Dada had given way to Surrealism under the aegis of André Breton, who asserted himself almost at once as a stronger leader than Tzara. The theoretical difference between the movements was that Dada remained purely destructive and anarchistic whereas Surrealism claimed to have a positive content. It was “a mode of life,” an attempt “to change life,” “to transform the world,” not merely a literary school. Its adherents carried the traditional anti-bourgeois, anti-Catholic revolt to the last extreme, denounced patriotism, attacked the pillars of the Establishment, and were openly scandalous in behavior. For many of them, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive; others expressed their negative exasperation, or their positive thirst for the super-real, by commiting suicide.

What exactly Breton, Soupault, Aragon, Eluard, Desnos, etc. lived on is not explained in Nadeau’s book. We may suppose that they led a bohemian, hand-to-mouth existence, while they were evolving their Surrealist techniques of automatic writing and dream-association, and reconnoitering their spiritual ancestry: Apollinaire, Jarry, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Lewis Carroll, Gérard de Nerval, the Marquis de Sade, Rabelais, the alchemists, the Kabbala, etc. Freud confirmed their belief in the unconscious, although they did not emphasize that Freud’s work was meant as a rationalistic exploration of the unconscious. Like some Christian believers who assume that what belies common sense also refutes rationalism, they took Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle to indicate that science had transcended reason. Simultaneously, the painters and sculptors were being inspired by the pre-rational features of primitive art and the absurd nature of random objects picked up in the flea-market.

In its initial phase, Surrealism was both anti-political and anti-literary, although writing and the founding of reviews was an important, and indeed the most tangible, feature of the Surrealists’ activity. After being as hostile to the Russian Revolution as they were to Western bourgeois society, some of them went over to Communism and, in the end, almost all had a pro-Communist bias. How they managed to reconcile a belief in materialism with their emphasis on the mystical is not easy to understand from Nadeau’s book, and of course Surrealism as such could never be acceptable to Soviet orthodoxy. Possibly, they came to feel the need to attach their rebelliousness to some concrete political symbol and this was supplied for a time at least by the Soviet Union. Another concession was their gradual admission of the fact that they were writers and artists, rather than men of action, and it is notorious that some of the artists became extremely rich. Perhaps they were led to stress their aesthetic role, because the cult of the folk-unconscious and of anti-rationalism was being embarrassingly successful in Nazi Germany. When Breton left for America at the beginning of the Second World War, Surrealism as a movement had come to an end. By the Liberation, Existentialism had taken over in France and it is interesting to see that both Sartre and Camus, while they borrow quite a lot from Surrealism, are at pains to indicate their rejection of it.

If we stand a long way back and try to see this whole cultural phase in perspective, it appears as an intellectual and aesthetic explosion comparable to the Romantic Movement, and in fact the analogy has often been drawn. Just as the Romantics were in revolt against neo-classical convention and Enlightenment rationalism after the cataclysm of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, so the Surrealists attacked bourgeois conventions and nineteenth-century positivism after the cataclysm of the First World War. A point that has not been made, so far as I can discover, is that a contemporary intellectual movement in the twentieth century was Logical Positivism, which can be defined as an attempt on the part of rationalism to bring itself up to date by a close scrutiny of language. Its puritanical mistrust of loose language was the exact counterpart of the Surrealist cult of automatism. While neo-primitives in Paris were surfriding on the artificially stimulated waves of the unconscious, neurotic young men in Oxford and Cambridge were writhing in agonies of precision.

I think the people in Paris perhaps had more fun, but on neither side did language yield up its secret. Logical Positivism was not a science of language, and it was ultimately dessicating, if allowed to invade the emotional life. Surrealism was marked by a strong vein of religiosity and oscillated between destructiveness and mystic affirmation. The destructiveness was logical enough; man has not been let into the secret of creation and so, through pique, he may wish to smash what he can of it, as a child breaks an incomprehensible toy. This attitude is quite clearly indicated in Sade, Lautréamont, and Jarry. Breton presumably meant something similar when he wrote that the simplest Surrealist act is to go down into the street and fire at random into the crowd. Those Surrealists who committed suicide were no doubt also consistent on this score. But the positive professions of Surrealist faith are much less convincing and, in particular, Breton’s oft-quoted statement, made in 1929 in the Second Manifeste de Surréalisme:

Everything suggests that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the heights and the depths, cease to be perceived contradictorily. Now it is in vain that one would seek any other motive for surrealist activity than the hope of determining this point…(Nadeau, p. 159)

Nothing, surely, suggests the existence of such a point except the recurrent human feeling, thwarted daily in the experience of living, that everything must in the end somehow make sense; it should be noted incidentally that this feeling is also the fundamental emotion behind rationalism. The Surrealist does not want to formulate the sense in a fully articulate form; he wants to enter into mystic contact with it, or even to enter into it, as if it were some accessible state outside time, l’Eternel surréel, as Artaud called it. Therefore, in spite of frequent denials and a noisy hostility to revealed religion, he is really a transcendentalist. He locates the transcendent in the unconscious, which is at once individual and collective, and his channels of communication with it are automatic writing, dreams, drugged or hypnotic conditions, the acceptance of chance objects or events as signs, and the utterances of the mentally deranged. In the Premier Manifeste du Surréalisme, Breton blandly assumes that le fonctionnement réel of the mind is everything except the exercise of reason. This act of faith has certainly produced interesting results, especially in painting and sculpture, where inarticulate promptings can be concretely rendered and where technical questions of composition and draughtsmanship can engage the conscious mind, leaving the unconscious to supply the content. In literature, whose medium is language, it is much more difficult to set out consciously to be unconscious, and for this reason Surrealism must have a greater proportion of sheer rubbish to its credit than most other movements. Breton himself is a gifted writer, but he is not a natural translator of the unconscious, like Lewis Carroll, or Blake, or Baudelaire in certain moods, or lonesco perhaps in his early plays. His literary theme is not the Beyond, but nostalgia for the Beyond, which is quite a different matter. Nadja, the account of his association with a mad woman, owes its charm and its naive contradictions to the unhappy rationalist’s wistful longing to enter into communion with the crazy, just as Michael Leiris’s L’Afrique fantôme is a fascinating description of a civilized, Surrealist ethnologist trying hard to be at one with the uncivilized.

To refer to Breton as a kind of rationaliste qui s’ignore may seem like addressing a terrible insult to that now venerable figure, but he strikes one as being radically different from the genuinely unbalanced characters, such as Jarry, Artaud, and Raymond Roussel who, conversely, at times give the pathetic impression of trying to be sane. Breton and some of the others, in exclaiming about the marvels of the unconscious, are rather like people pressing their fingers on their eyeballs and raving about the beauty of the stars they see. The stars are visible to them all right, and they are pretty in a random, given way, but they are neither works of art nor philosophical systems. Breton wrote in the Premier Manifeste of tapping the strange forces of the unconscious and then “submitting them subsequently, if need be, to the scrutiny of reason.” Yet there is little or no discussion of the “higher rationalism” in any of the Surrealist writing I have come across. There is much talk of “desire” which, like Existentialist “freedom,” appears to be man’s spiritual autonomy, his proclaimed ability to assert his will against the forces of the universe. It would be difficult to quarrel with this as an initial conception because we are all pitchforked into the world as a bundle of appetites and are kept going by the instinctive unfolding of vitality and the illusion, or reality, of choice. But “choice,” or “desire,” or “freedom” can only be made more real by an ever greater conscious, i.e., rational, knowledge of what we are and of the conditions in which we operate. Such knowledge has always been infinitesimal in quantity compared to the welter of the irrational, and this may be because deeply rational statements are more difficult to achieve than irrational ones, because more organically complex. And what danger is there of rational knowledge ever destroying the marvelous, since the marvelous is all around us and gleams only too obviously through the fabric of rational discourse?

It is perhaps easy enough to see this now, when so much has happened in the last half-century to teach us that commonsense covers only a very limited area of experience and that the rationalistic study of the universe, far from diminishing wonder, increases it. The situation was probably different in the oppressively prosaic atmosphere of nineteenth-century France, when the revolt against commonsense had to be flamboyant and suicidal in order to exist at all. Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Huysmans, Léon Bloy, and Jarry, however different in temperament and ideals, all burned their boats and lived in a state of mystic, anti-bourgeois scandal. Jarry has been particularly celebrated in recent years because of his premonition of the Theater of the Absurd and the Theater of Cruelty, and it is therefore appropriate that a selection of his works should appear in English. The editors are to be congratulated on the excellence of the English versions, but why have they left out Ubu Roi, which is the basic text, and why have they not given us a demythologized account of Jarry’s life, instead of repeating the old story about his living on fish he caught in the Seine? What exactly was the truth about his drinking habits? How unbalanced was he exactly? Through a curious phenomenon of sympathetic mimicry, the people who write about him tend to write rather like him, and so perpetuate the puzzle. What is clear is that in Père Ubu he managed, by magnifying a schoolboy farce, to create a gross, ruthless, cowardly, clownish figure, a latter-day Falstaff, a modern man whose unconscious escapes directly through his lips, in a series of foul and yet sometimes endearing belches. The other figure of Dr. Faustroll, a sort of Professor Brainstorm, who rhapsodizes madly about various aspects of modern science, seems less convincing, because the poetic and fantastic detail of the book does not form any recognizable pattern. But Jarry is certainly a genuine eccentric, comparable to Lewis Carroll, although with a more sinister and splintered imagination.

  1. *

    As far as I can tell, there has not yet been much academic writing about Surrealism in France, either because the subject is still slightly scandalous or because of the regulation that a doctorate thesis cannot be written about a living author. André Breton, the prime mover, is still obstinately alive.

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