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The Arsenal Explodes

In response to:

The D-S Expedition: Part I from the May 18, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

The recent two-part article by Roger Shattuck (“The D-S Expedition,” NYR, May 18 and June 1) presents a summary distortion of surrealism; distortion is expected, it has never failed (and each new dispatch recalls to us by hearts and flowers the first mutterings by, say, Wallace Fowlie) the bourgeois press, and only its summary nature makes it opportune to express our complete contempt for the hollow mockery that passes, in America, as “scholarly” criticism. Misrepresentation is as close as possible to total, and so we limit ourselves to the following remarks.

Dada and Surrealism. “I have been taking sightings and soundings on them for many years,” writes Shattuck, “and cannot find a more satisfactory distinction between them than chronology.” One thing follows upon another, chronology indeed satisfies a great many things; the question is: Who is to be satisfied? If it is the art critics, who believe themselves to be on the way up, then they may lie down, and always do, by stilled waters; for those, altogether on the other hand, concerned by freedom, inseparably by love—no, and the cynosure offered by André Breton in 1924, the resolution of dream and reality, is an historical moment—incredibly stupid or hypocritical to deny it—of distinct departure which unlike dada can never be incorporated, and may be lost only in barbarism, achieved (as the notion has unfolded over half a century) only by total, permanent and violent revolution.

Automatism. “A great cloud of uncertainty still hangs over the authenticity and the significance of automatic writing.” Shattuck plays upon the ignorance of his readers by proposing that a number of “rarely asked” questions are not answered: he lists five. Were the problem of automatism a quiz game, Shattuck would be a thinker. The answers to automatism are immanent in the project, a whole literature about which Shattuck fails, dishonestly, to allude. He asks: “Are talent, sensitivity and training irrelevant to the operation of automatic processes?” And he quotes Breton from The Automatic Message, not however from that part of it which deals specifically with that proposal, relying on the fact that the article remains untranslated. A great cloud of uncertainty hangs over the authenticity and significance (not however the function, which clearly remains as philistine agent for the bourgeoisie) of certain critics.

Opportunism. Anna Balakian, in her recent biography of Breton, attempts to locate in Pierre Janet a formative influence on surrealism, at the expense of psychoanalysis. The proposition is from the start ludicrous: one will search in vain through the writings of Breton for anything but unfavorable regard, and with good reason, for the academic psychologist who preferred to find the unconscious une façon de parler, a conception so inept that only fools passing by are informed. One only needs to do the reading here, but Balakian wishes, so sadly and transparently, to present an “original” thesis. Shattuck provides an interesting validation of this point: he too must be “original,” and so writes: “[Balakian] stops too soon. One generation further back lies an even more fascinating source…”—and cites Hippolyte Taine. Lacking an intelligent conceptual framework, one could for hours cite more and more “fascinating sources” who are really “formative influences.” In fact, a number of precursors to Freud have something to contribute; the influence of psychoanalysis on surrealism remains seminal; it is notches on the academic scale which provide false alternatives.

For a complex of ideas finding its theoretical roots in Hegel, Marx and Freud, it does not well become the critics of surrealism if they have not at least read a primer or the college outlines. “Nobody can have all his facts straight,” as Shattuck remarks, but more, no English-speaking critic of surrealism has yet got any of the ideas straight. We cannot help noting that in her biography Miss Balakian speaks of “Hegel’s dialectical materialism” (sic) not once but several times. If she shows throughout she does not know Freud (and not having read him, announces new influences to his detriment), she now suggests she knows nothing of Hegel, much less of Marx: and all this by a woman who wrote a book entitled Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. There is, we must say, an end on the comical aspect of this idiocy: that segment of the poverty-stricken “intelligentsia” of this country which might still retain, even within an academic milieu outside of which it sees nothing, a certain interior lucidity, cannot find a cogent word on a subject which might be of passing concern, and there is perpetuated the involution of all potential to raise the level of discussion.

Surrealism has declared, in every authentic manifestation, its commitment to revolution; the displacement of the real import of that word by inhibitions in the writings of college teachers does not alter that commitment in the slightest. It merely means that there is promulgated the illusion that critics have something to add. What they add, besides comic relief, is in fact merely the expression of a stricken ideological framework which, to borrow a phrase from Roger Shattuck, dies hard—in fact, at the point of a revolver.

For the Chicago Surrealist Group,

Paul Garon

Louise Hudson

Franklin Rosemont

Penelope Rosemont

David Schanoes

Stephen Schwartz

John Simmons

Dale Ungerleider

April Zuckerman

Roger Shattuck replies:

I wish I could urge on the Chicago Surrealists to higher things. That much collective energy should serve some worthy purpose. Instead, they want to spar with a “scholarly” critic in the bourgeois press. I have always found a good polemic to be either in dead earnest or riproaring good fun. The Arsenal group writes a plaster-of-Paris prose that makes both impossible. I simply cannot follow what they are trying to say about the difference between Dada and Surrealism. Breton’s “Le Message automatique,” translated or untranslated, leaves no doubt about his desire, in preaching automatic writing, to dispense with special talent and “particular artistic vocations.” There’s no inclination on my part to doubt Freud’s influence on Surrealism. I’ll also stand by what I said about Taine, a thinker who entered Breton’s imagination much earlier than Freud. The Chicago Surrealists refer twice, resoundingly, to revolution. I urge them to read the best and most recent account of Surrealism by a participant: André Thirion’s Révolutionnaires sans Révolution (Laffont, 1972).

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