The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp
Unlike most literary men of the twentieth century, Breton was loth to reminisce…. He rejected the memoir as a literary genre…. Entretiens is the story of a mind rather than of a life; and none of Breton’s commentators has complained of the lack of intimate details and introspection because the substance of the mentally and sensually active life is the work itself, candidly laid before us, available but often undecipherable as a cryptogram. [P. 16]
Thus Professor Balakian lays out the lines of her study, André Breton: Magus of Surrealism. Later she quotes Breton himself on the “infinitesimal interest” of an author’s life as compared to “the message.” Balakian has gone on to write an honest, healthily partisan, well-informed book that sometimes stays too close to its subject but at least tries to come to terms with a powerful mind. (The subtitle seems inappropriate; she treats Breton essentially as an intellectual hero:)
The book moves in chronological order and mixes basic biographical information and interpretation with discussion of the texts. The brief remarks on Breton’s solitary upbringing in Brittany, between a dark northern countryside and the sea, have real pertinence. Balakian never pauses to ponder whether Breton (like Anatole France and Charles de Gaulle) may have found his initial vocation in his name. Breton threaded the needle of his life through the magic year 1913, when he was a medical student in Paris. A little later he wrote to and began seeing the two major poets of the era: Apollinaire and Valéry. After the war, which he spent primarily in hospitals and psychiatric centers, came five years of tentative, intermittent activity in Paris as a young poet and editor of the review Littérature.
His “Surrealist” experiments with automatic writing never really meshed with the Dada campaign of general decontamination. After two very difficult years Breton wrote a manifesto, launched a movement, and began publishing again. He had in fact made his reputation well before he was thirty. Although Balakian considers Breton primarily a poet, she gives long attention to his four Surrealist narratives (only Nadja has been translated) and briefly explains the political squabbles of the Thirties. A chapter toward the end of the book describes Breton’s unflagging work as a literary critic—both his astuteness as an interpreter and his influence in establishing a new canon of literary classics. Balakian’s summation proposes that Breton’s contribution was “a new humanism.” His reconciliation of conscious and unconscious is seen as an effort to “remake human intelligence,” and his position as having finally a “moral basis.”
Balakian compresses a great deal, too much really, into 250 pages. For several reasons we should be grateful to her. For instance, in the third chapter, “Medicine, Magic, and Mathematics,” she documents the genuinely scientific orientation that Breton, more than anyone else, brought to Surrealism. To my knowledge she is the first (except for a brief mention by Soupault) to recognize Pierre Janet, professor of psychiatric medicine and author of a volume called L’Automatisme psychologique, as a direct formative influence on Breton’s thinking about unconscious processes.
But she stops too soon. One generation further back lies an even more fascinating source that Balakian does not mention: Taine. In a book that still makes magnificent reading, De l’intelligence, Taine comes to the conclusion that “exterior perception is a true hallucination,” thus linking all forms of dream and unconscious to what we finally call “reality.” De l’intelligence is the first book Breton mentions in the Manifesto, and he comes back to it in a later work, Surrealism and Painting. Taine solicited many of his firsthand reports on an artist’s capacity to hallucinate from Flaubert; the revealing letters are all published. In a world where everything connects, Flaubert becomes the first Surrealist. Even scrupulous scholarship is drawn into the vortex.
It is also useful to find Breton taken seriously as a poet. Balakian concentrates almost all her attention on his imagery, which is obviously the most striking aspect of his work. But Breton had a finely tuned ear for free verse that leaned toward the orotund. I cannot concur that “his words are harsh, unpoetic, because many of them have never been pronounced orally” (p. 127). He observed that great poets are auditory and was so himself. His own diction fares best in short poems, which is good reason to doubt that “Breton also developed a new genre, the modern epic.” His long poems become bombastic; the modern epic, such as it is, took shape elsewhere.*
I have two further reservations about Balakian’s critical position. She wraps six of Breton’s prose works together and calls them a new genre: “analogical prose.” But two of the six are early automatic texts. The last four do hang loosely together, not as a new genre but as an outgrowth of the autobiographical, reflective, semi-journal form called in French the récit. Breton drew heavily on both Nerval and psychoanalytic case histories.
My other reservation is more serious. At the beginning of her discussion of automatic writing, Balakian severely reduces her critical maneuverability by accepting as true two of Breton’s main premises. “The absence of critical intervention in writing, which is Breton’s definition of automatism, precludes mechanical coupling of words by the deterministic function of the mind….” Yet, as I have implied earlier, without self-criticism the mind may well be victimized by all kinds of external determinism and built-in trivialities.
She also writes: “Breton’s notion of language is closely akin to that of present-day structuralists. If, as he believes, ‘The speed of thought is not greater than that of speech,’ then language is the concrete realization of thought.” Now we may have discovered the speed of light, but the speed of thought remains one of the great unknowns. The real interest of automatic writing lies in its exploration of the limitations of speech, not in its demonstration of the omniscience and omnipotence of that faculty. The possibility that the structuralists share some of Breton’s views on language does not prove anyone right or wrong. Because she accepts these two ideas, Balakian fails to get a purchase on Breton’s shortcomings as a thinker.
There are at least nine full-length books on Breton in French and English. The best of them are intellectual and literary studies; a few are fragmentary memoirs. Almost every writer of and on Surrealism speaks of it as a state of mind, a way of life, a liberation of the total sensibility. “Take the trouble to practice poetry,” exhorts the First Manifesto—meaning both to write it and to live it. “Dada and Surrealism stand for a total, absolute disavowal of anything literary,” writes Jacques Baron, one of the early participants. One writes, Breton says, to find other men. And Balakian, modifying some of her earlier statements about message and mind, chimes in: “Even in his most active years [Breton] had considered writing second to the creation of human contacts and to the search for the comprehension of the symbols of the human labyrinth.” Where, then, is one to look for a record of this wonderful Surrealist life?
In spite of the first paragraph I quoted, we have circled back to a very old and very powerful belief: human greatness achieves its fullest meaning when it belongs not to a set of detachable works but to the sustained quality of a man’s life. For this reason, a searching, comprehensive life of Breton is something we very much need. He exerted remarkable powers of leadership on an impossible crowd of artist types. He had the almost magical power to be “un flâneur, qui travaille toujours“—an idler, who is always working. His willfulness carried him to extremes of thuggery and violence, yet gave him a strong sense of self-preservation. As I know from having heard one of his talks, his voice and sheer physical presence made up a large part of his secret. His dignity allowed him an astonishing projection. Charles Duits describes Breton reading poetry.
He had no shame. He didn’t even know that one could be ashamed. He was the way he was, and put himself on display. There was something great about it, as well as something pathetic. He was naked. Naked among all those distressed people, who lowered their eyes, fiddled with their ties, coughed. [André Breton a-t-il dit passe, p. 44]
It is this sense of Breton the man that I fail to find in Balakian’s “semi-biographical book.” She makes his life congruent with his writings and seeks out little that he does not report himself. Even from a semi-biography we could hope for an account of how a man spent his time—not only in public but also alone, or in private. Or does the Surrealist life stop there? The question is crucial. It may not be necessary to document, for example, the details of Breton’s love-making. But as it happens we do have an earnest, occasionally comic discussion of sexuality published in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1925. In it a number of Surrealists (including Breton) supply a few facts about their sex habits and beliefs without yielding to exhibitionism or embarrassment. Kept in perspective, such details have a place in the account of a man’s life, along with his habits of work and sleep, eating and relaxing. If we are concerned with practicing poetry, these items are no more beside the point than a man’s philosophy or imagery. In fact Breton’s prose narratives record a large number of such details.
Or take the depression that afflicted Breton between 1921 and 1924—an interlude of doubt and hesitation about his own future and his role on the Paris literary scene. Balakian passes over it, unexamined and unexplained, in eight lines. She does not even mention a significant interview in the Journal du peuple in which Breton stated he was preparing one last statement, after which he would abandon writing completely.
What changed his mind? Duits reports an astonishing conversation, one summer night in 1943, in which Breton questioned the wisdom of his attempts to turn the “pure revolt” of Dada in the direction of Surrealism, toward transforming the conditions of existence. “Since Dada…basically, we haven’t done a thing.” Apocryphal? I should like to know, for there lies a personal and intellectual dilemma. Documented fully, but not therefore indiscreetly, Breton’s biography would provide a remarkable instance of a man setting out resolutely to live his life and discovering how his life lives him.
The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp is a book of another color. It examines the second of the two great figures of the D-S expedition—and is dedicated, to boot, to Breton. Arturo Schwarz’s book belongs to the same all-out format as William Rubin’s Dada and Surrealist Art, which I discussed in the previous issue; I shall not repeat the vital statistics. Though a sustained effort has been made to list, illustrate (seventy-five in color), and exhaustively annotate every (anti-) art object touched by Duchamp’s hands, this large volume does not contain Duchamp’s written texts. Therefore the title is misleading. For, after 1912 (the year he “stopped” painting), Duchamp’s work became increasingly verbal.
Schwarz divides his 200-page analytical text into two parts. The first describes Duchamp’s upbringing in a family of many painters, his trying out of available styles up to the age of twenty-five, and his decision to “get away from the physical aspect of painting” in order to put it at the service of the mind. Several of Duchamp’s interviews and Calvin Tompkins’s The Bride and the Bachelors cover the same story. But the deepest motives of Duchamp’s conversion remain obscure. The stimulating presence of Apollinaire and Picabia obviously played a role, as did the strange, self-generating literary work of Raymond Roussel. And possibly something unreported happened in Munich that summer of 1912—when Arp also was visiting the city of Kandinsky and Hugo Ball. Duchamp soon discovered puns, chance, ready-mades, and “playful physics.” In 1913, he achieved overnight celebrity because of his Nude Descending the Staircase in the New York Armory Show. He went around the rest of his life resolutely and masterfully not being an artist. One way was to “choose” a urinal to sign and exhibit as a piece of sculpture. There were others.
Part Two opens with a detailed analysis of a 1911 painting, A Young Man and Girl in the Spring. Schwarz considers it the key that unlocks everything. Its symbolism of the hermaphrodite, sun and moon, brother and sister convinces Schwarz that its theme is incest.
Duchamp punishes himself for desiring his sister and chooses for himself the same form of execution (hanging) that he chose for her. His solidarity with his partner continues until the moment of his death. This identification of the artist with his creation is as old as art itself. It helps us to understand another striking fact: many of Duchamp’s readymades are to be hung (hanged). [P. 99]
From here we move on through voyeurism, onanism, and disguised exhibitionism into the Large Glass, or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Schwarz’s is the most exhaustive examination I know of this famous work, which was begun in 1915 and abandoned uncompleted in 1923, was later cracked in transit and repaired, and is accompanied by a detailed set of sketches and notes. In the elaborate pseudo-circuit of mechanical parts, with one floating cloud form at the top, Schwarz sees the delayed or failed union of bachelor and bride, the triumph of self-love over love. He is dead serious about the symbolic content of these panes of glass now mounted (not hung) in the Philadelphia Museum.
Humanity’s first mirror was water; it was in water that Narcissus first admired his own reflection. Narcissus and Water are as closely linked as an object and its mirrored image. It may, therefore, not seem too farfetched if we suggest that the driving force of the Water Mill is not water, but what water can be identified with—Narcissus. Water is also a female symbol, and we have associated it before with the Bride. Thus, the ambivalence of the situation could not be expressed by the choice of a more appropriate element, since the outcome of the narcissistic trend is both desire for the Bride and onanism….
Identifying water with Narcissus unveils the hidden connections between the three common points of the Water Mill. Onanism and the incest-intention generate the guilt complex which is extinguished by castration. [P. 186]
Sic. (For the moment I shall withhold comment on this polluted prose.) In the ambivalence of the symbolism, Schwarz sees the therapeutic virtue of myth negotiating between reality principle and pleasure principle.
For a man who ostensibly abandoned art for chess, Duchamp managed to produce a fairly sizable oeuvre before he died in 1968. Apart from his own unbelievable text, Schwarz deals with it through excellent reproductions, a “critical catalogue raisonné” of over 200 pages, and two full bibliographies. If you cannot visit Philadelphia, you will find all Duchamp’s plastic work here in compact, though not quite portable, form. And you can read a six-page description of his last major work, Etant donnés, an alcove-sized, mixed media “sculpture-construction” made public in the Philadelphia Museum only after his death. Photographs are prohibited for fifteen years. I have not seen it. Schwarz argues that this obviously shocking peep show reproduces in trompe-l’oeil the solitary sexual moment which the Large Glass elaborately camouflages. Perhaps. But there is more. I am convinced that Etant donnés is Duchamp’s ultimate and most daring art history hoax, perpetrated upon (and with the connivance of) museums, critics, art historians, book reviewers, stunned public, and himself.
Schwarz has mobilized everything in sight in order to perform the definitive psychoanalysis of the great Sphinx of modern art. Every exegetical sentence, as well as the twice repeated epigraph (“Eros C’est la vie. Rrose Sélavy.”), says the same thing: the secret is sex. Specifically: incest. Thus the bride-bachelor is laid bare. And thus it would seem that I have been hoist with my own petard: what I complained of as lacking in the Breton biography is here granted, transformed beyond recognition, in Schwarz’s insistence on personal erotic motifs in Duchamp’s works.
Schwarz has command of a wide general culture, an almost miraculous knowledge of Duchamp’s life and work, and the mind of a cryptographer. The first seventy pages of his text are better than adequate. They make a comprehensive and comprehensible guide to the game of hide-and-seek that Duchamp played with art and language. But after that, Schwarz loses his footing and slips deeper and deeper into the trap set by Duchamp himself. He was one of the greatest practical jokers of all time. I have already quoted two of Schwarz’s commentaries. Here is another, on the witty, impeccably constructed semi-ready-made, Fresh Widow. That work consists of a miniature French window with panes of black leather and bearing its title in English. Schwarz properly recognizes a “three-dimensional pun.” But he is the man obsessed, not Duchamp.
The castration symbolism of this item is clear if we recall that the French colloquial term for the guillotine is “widow.” Thus this “French widow” may be a metaphor for the vagina dentata, which has already been recognized in a detail of the Bride of the Large Glass. Windows are, of course, ambivalent sexual symbols. Freud has noted that they stand for the openings of the body…. The adjective fresh, then, perfectly defines a male sexual organ which does not stop short of incest…. [P. 480]
A note on page 179 informs us that Duchamp read Schwarz’s manuscript and presumably raised no major objection to its publication. It takes a little while to grasp just what could have happened. Is this book real? Another artist reading such mishmash about himself would die of laughter or burn the book. Not Duchamp, the eternal feline. He must have licked his lips and whiskers for days, for he had devoured Schwarz. He had annexed Schwarz’s lucubrations to his work as a kind of bizarre outbuilding, its official chamber of horrors. Without that sly takeover, the book’s jargon and wrongheadedness would never have passed Duchamp. At least so I surmise. I cannot let it pass me.
Fresh Widow, to come back to cases, presents a constellation of plastic and verbal puns, two of which Schwarz does not even mention: “fresh paint” and saying “French window” with a cold in the nose. All the meanings Schwarz does detect may well have occurred to Duchamp; at least he would have been amused to watch Schwarz examining the entrails. But Schwarz never comes to terms with the fundamental dynamics of this work and of many others: Duchamp bears joyful witness to the possibility and the process of punning among verbal signs, visual signs, and the interpretations of both. By leading all meanings tediously back to sublimated incest, Schwarz collapses a multidimensional structure into one rut. He also snuffs out the joy. In another passage, Schwarz follows one of his Freudian analyses of onanism, incest, and the castration complex with this statement:
It should be clear, of course, that these patterns were entirely unconscious. The extraordinary poetic quality of the Large Glass resides precisely in the fact that its creator was led by forces and drives of which he was ignorant. [P. 167]
In view of the quotes Schwarz finds in Duchamp’s own notes, the artist was singularly lucid about the sexual overtones of his work—along with all the others. One finally senses (without ever touching it) the center of gravity in Duchamp’s playful physics. Not art, not sex, not just Rube Goldberg mechanics, but permutation itself, metamorphosis, rules everything. That is both the water and the mill, what Duchamp finds and what he makes. Everything is something else, this huge book included. Schwarz thought he was writing the definitive study of Duchamp. It looks to me as if Duchamp used Schwarz as his unwitting fall guy and straw man. For The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp is the old wizard’s last ready-made—on the face of it solemn scholarship, uproariously funny to a reader with his wits about him, a stink bomb in the motor of art history, a literally posthumous work. And for a few more years Schwarz himself will be on exhibit in his own Milan gallery.
At the close of World War I, an unexpected power vacuum had developed in the artistic avant-garde of the West. Symbolism had long since been melted down. By 1918 both Futurism and Cubism had seen their best days. The artistic and literary activity in Germany covered by the term Expressionism was lively but very diffuse. The New York Armory show had revealed vast but still unexploited possibilities in the United States. More than most people realized at the time, Apollinaire’s death in 1918 removed the incumbent hero and ringmaster of the postwar avant-garde. The succession was open.
Then, to their great amazement, several groups of artists and writers in different parts of the world discovered that they could lay their hands directly on the controls. No one would stop them. They were welcome. In New York, Picabia and Duchamp drew on the unlimited credit of the Armory show and raised Cain. In Zurich, Hugo Ball was aghast, and Tzara delighted, at the speed with which news of Dada circled the world and was converted into journalistic copy and commercial value. The Russian Futurists answered Lunacharsky’s call to artists to join the revolutionary bureaucracy. For a short time the Berlin Dadas hoped to have an opportunity to play the same role.
In Paris, Breton, Aragon, and Soupault suddenly found themselves famous and sought after in 1918 because of their new literary review, Littérature. All these men developed a keen sense of the public’s taste for scandal and of the nihilism working at the roots of the modern sensibility. (Many of them were also pack rats and saved every document for posterity and the collector’s market.) By a combination of presumptuousness and talent, they took command. Within two to three years the power vacuum had been filled.
In France, where the cross-currents tended to converge, the situation was peculiar. Duchamp, ten years older than the young generation, neither disappeared like Picabia after 1924 nor let himself be appropriated by any movement. He chose to become the cat that walked alone. His works and statements face in many directions, from mechanical engineering to joke art, from audience participation to art as a thing of the mind. But it turns out that all along this light-fingered operator was really engaged in a direct surgical incision into the cerebrum of culture, a painless esthetic lobotomy. After Duchamp it is no longer possible to be an artist in the way it was before. Because of his style and his cool, Duchamp has grown into a widely admired and imitated shadow-hero of the century. He is very hard to put down, or put aside.
Meanwhile, having rounded the corner of Dada, Breton and company pulled themselves together and founded Surrealism. Even though we may now want to tuck the whole D-S expedition away into history, we have not yet assimilated its attack on the autonomy of art and its sustained attempt to reconcile Marx and Freud. Since World War II, France has also exported Existentialism, the New Novel, and a theory of theories called Structuralism. If called upon to say which of these movements is the most compelling, the most enlightening, I would unhesitatingly say the D-S expedition, the whole thirty-year trip. It alone explored the possibilities of collective endeavor in psychic experiments, in political action, and in artistic creation. In a culture based primarily on individual achievement and freedom, it was a perilous and sometimes misguided venture. Inevitably, certain individuals like Breton and Ernst and Eluard stick out at the sides.
And, secondly, the D-S expedition tried to reincorporate the activity of art into everyday life after its long extrusion into a separate sphere. In my opinion we will finally be happy neither with the collectivization of art nor with the obliteration of the esthetic as a distinct category of behavior. Nevertheless, what Dada and Surrealism tell us on those counts in a capitalist-bourgeois context has an equal and complementary value to what we can learn from the Soviet experience as it yielded to totalitarianism. Furthermore, the D-S writers and artists produced a large amount of significant art-in-spite-of-itself. Some of those works will survive as major fetishes of our time. They deserve their fate.
Books on the D-S expedition have been arriving from all directions. In writing what follows, I began to feel like someone rating brands for Consumer Reports. My remarks in the opening section of this essay still pertain. None of these books applies to the D-S expedition the major rethinking it needs and deserves.
GENERAL BOOKS AND INTRODUCTIONS
Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp
by Pierre Cabanne,
translated by Ron Padgett.
Viking, “The Documents of 20th-Century Art,” 136 pp., 16 photographs, $3.25 (paper)
A relaxed mixture of history, reflection, and sabotage. At the close of his eighty years, Duchamp calls himself “exceedingly normal” in regard to women (Schwarz take note) and lucky “because basically I’ve never worked for a living.” Art is mortal. Men are more interesting than what they make. “I dream of rarity.” A superb set of underplayed conversations, enthusiastically translated, with photographs.
by Roger Cardinal and Robert Stuart Short.
Dutton, 168 pp., heavily illustrated, $2.45 (paper)
This is the best short introduction now available. Cardinal and Short combine narrative and analysis with great skill, and they convey a vivid sense of the collective spirit of the group. Many of the illustrations are little known. Weak on painting and on the knotty problem of automatic writing.
by Manuel L. Grossman.
Pegasus, 190 pp., $6.95; $2.95 (paper)
Grossman’s theater background gives him a good vantage point on Dada. Because he failed to go to the original German sources, he perpetuates some ancient errors about the Zurich interlude. But he does not distort the general picture or force the mood. I cannot agree with the idea he borrows (p. 165) that “all destruction entails a construction.” Not proven. Good on socio-historical background. Illustrations are sorely missed. Dada was very visual.
by Kenneth Coutts-Smith.
Dutton, 168 pp., heavily illustrated, $2.95 (paper)
Coutts-Smith’s superb illustrations overwhelm the text. What there is of it does full justice to German Dada, for which contribution we should be grateful. Unfortunately someone convinced him that the French are “rational” and Breton “cerebral.” That’s how he explains Surrealism. He brings Dada down to 1970.
Surrealists on Art
edited by Lucy R. Lippard.
Prentice-Hall, 213 pp., $5.95; $2.45 (paper)
Dadas on Art
edited by Lucy R. Lippard.
Prentice-Hall, 192 pp., $5.95; $2.95 (paper)
Two useful collections of texts by the participants, not restricted to art. The Surrealism volume strikes me as the more valuable of the two because the texts are less available. However, the Picabia items really belong to Dada; and why not include selections from Breton’s Surrealism and Painting instead of the familiar Manifestoes once again? Similarly, in the Dada volume, we are served Tzara’s 1918 manifesto instead of one of the essays from Lampisteries. I cannot understand the complete omission of Hugo Ball and of all American Dadas except Man Ray. One day de Casseres and de Zayas will be counted with the rest. Much of the material in this volume duplicates Motherwell’s Dada Painters and Poets. The texts by Hausmann, Grosz, and Heartfield are new in English and excellent sources. Lippard’s introductions have the virtues of accuracy and terseness. I take it that the note on the 1920 Spa conference (p. 58) is pure Dada. War reparations had nothing to do with “Sparta.”
by Sarane Alexandrian.
Praeger, 256 pp., 231 illustrations, $3.95
Alexandrian has been an active member of the Paris Surrealist group and shapes much of his exposition around Breton’s tastes and discoveries. Basically this is a modest and well-informed book with few axes to grind. The chapter on the Surrealist object, which Alexandrian accurately calls “an even more typically Surrealist creation than the collage,” proves disappointing. He bravely traces Surrealist painting through the Fifties and Sixties, but the newcomers’ work seems to be repetitively erotic. The collective side of the movement does not come through. Excellent illustrations.
SPECIAL STUDIES AND MONOGRAPHS
by Mary Ann Caws.
Twayne, 135 pp., $5.50
The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism
by Mary Ann Caws.
Princeton, 226 pp., $6.50
Professor Caws has written not a biography but a study of Breton’s works. On first reading I sorely missed the background. Political and personal squabbles are kept out. On second reading I began admiring the compactness and sensitivity of these 100 pages. In fact, the two chapters on Breton’s adventure journals (Nadja, Les Vases communicants, L’Amour fou, and Arcane 17) and on his poetry offer the best criticism in English of his literary achievement. With concrete examples she describes “the constant perception of contraries” in Breton’s work, an attitude or possibly a method which approaches a dialectic of unresolved antinomies. All is not perfection, however. Like most other critics, Caws is so attentive to Breton’s ideas and images that she seriously neglects the fluctuating tonalities of his style, especially in prose. There are a few too many muffed translations: “equal” for “equate” (p. 24); “made…occult” for “disappear” or “go underground” (p. 26); “extremist” for “fanatic” (p. 119). Part of the 1922 item in the chronology belongs to 1925.
In a subtle, somewhat dangling paragraph toward the end of this study, Caws calls Breton’s lifelong delight in pure images “an anti-intellectual exercise. Because the freedom of the Surrealist imagination depends on just that loosing of intellectual bonds, so that poetry can begin.” Fine. “Loosing,” but not “losing,” and therefore not entirely anti-intellectual: rather an attempted reconstitution of mind. But what is to be done if one undertakes a comprehensive scholarly study of Dada and Surrealist poetry, which means putting an intellectual frame around it? Caws’s second book partly meets that challenge.
First of all, she gives the impression of loving this poetry, its steep slopes and lush plateaus. Her basic method is to approach each poet through his published opinions about poetry and then to make a careful examination of his vocabulary, images, ideas, and dominant themes. Love, light, presence, fusion—they weave a fascinating pattern of recurrence and variation among the five poets studied. But if one follows the commentary more closely than the quotations, these poets begin to sound alike. Thematically, it is true, they form a cluster. But their diction separates them irretrievably. Their tone and rhythm are individual.
Caws does not even pause to mention the first thing that strikes you when you read some of Aragon’s lines in French: they are regular Alexandrines. (Some passages also rhyme according to a non-classic pattern Aragon discovered in Apollinaire. See pp. 61-62.) Eluard’s limpidity of expression and sound lies at an enormous distance from Tzara’s crashings. The Rumanian found many of his early effects in the novelty of a language he did not know very well. For me, his most successful poems have a halting linguistic violence all their own, a challenge to translators. “Traité de langage. / Quand le loup ne craint pas la feuille je me langeur. / Et quand au vol de négligence accroupie. Je me, en décomposant l’horreur, très tard” (Monsieur AA l’antiphilosophe, 1924). A few years later, in L’Homme approximatif, he has the language in hand and sends up an incredibly diffuse verbal barrage.
What disturbs me is that Caws’s thematic commentary passes over stylistic differences. I find it hard to believe she has a tin ear. At least the quotations are there to be read. She handles images with admirable skill. It’s good to see Desnos recognized. But why no mention of the patriotic poems that made Aragon the poet laureate of the Resistance? Or of his earlier communist hymns?
Surrealism and Film
by J. H. Matthews.
Michigan, 198 pp., 31 illustrations, $8.50
One of man’s oldest wishes, a variant of the fountain of youth, is to be able to direct his dreams. The Surrealist aspiration to mingle dreaming and waking belongs to the same tradition. In the beginning when most people saw film as a heightened form of realism, the Surrealists welcomed it as a new medium for the fantastic and the marvelous, as a substitute for opium and church going, as a blending of poetry and painting. They attended films, wrote about them, and tried their hand at scenarios. But only one of them ever became a successful commercial director: Luis Buñuel.
Professor Matthews has written two previous books on Surrealism, both highly sympathetic and theory-prone. This one is an improvement, partially because of the inherent interest of the subject. Even so, he makes much of it sound humdrum. The opening section deals with what the Surrealists read into commercial films like Nosferatu, King Kong, and Peter Ibbetson, and with one or two films like Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman whose director yielded to strong Surrealist influence. Almost half the book follows Buñuel’s career film by film. Man Ray, Artaud, and Jean Ferry get their due. As information the book is generally dependable and useful, especially for those of us who lack the opportunities to see these films. (A few quibbles. There should be a bibliography. I cannot locate the discussion of Shanghai Express referred to on p. 48. Matthews overlooks Hellzapoppin, one of the Surrealists’ favorites from the Forties.)
The focus on what is strictly Surrealist has serious side effects. It is as if film were born during the first war. Shadow theater, Mélies, and Cohl are never mentioned. René Clair’s Entr’acte, really the founder of the dynasty, gets short shrift, possibly because Picabia, who wrote the script, was a Dada. Another Dada, Hans Richter, is snubbed even though he was making films as early as 1921. We hear not a word of the great film history written by Georges Sadoul, an early Surrealist. As a critic Matthews turns away from some of the thornier theoretical problems. Does film provide a suitable medium for the unconscious? Or, as Walter Benjamin suspects, is it more a vehicle for propaganda? What about the artist as film actor, from Mayakovsky to Artaud?
Tristan Tzara: Dada and Surrealist Theorist
by Elmer Peterson.
Rutgers, 260 pp., $9.00
Professor Peterson believes Tzara is important primarily as a theorist. Since Tzara’s manifestoes had wide distribution between 1916 and 1924, and since at that time his personal prestige grew rapidly in avant-garde circles, the case can be made for those few years. Peterson makes it, but somewhat lamely. He omits the whole Cabaret Voltaire interlude in 1916 and all of Tzara’s earlier activities in Rumania. He gives scant attention to the two men who launched Tzara, Hugo Ball and Picabia. It is true only in a very symptomatic sense that “there is no better guide than [Tzara’s] writings” (p. 8) to the goings-on around him. For Dada principles and self-interest permitted him to falsify facts without a tremor.
After the Dada years, Tzara’s theoretical writings don’t measure up, in quality or influence, to Breton’s or Duchamp’s or even to Eluard’s. Peterson finally grants, quoting Camus as a kind of shock absorber, that Tzara capitulated to Stalinism. It seems clear to me that Tzara never wrote any theory better than the early pieces collected in Lampisteries. Peterson writes with a fine sense of the timeliness of Dada in a world on a jag since 1914. But I find his thesis untenable.
The Surrealist Movement in England
by Paul C. Ray.
Cornell, 331 pp., $10.00
Surrealism had considerable impact as a movement outside France in a few countries: e.g., Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. England was not one of them. English critics and artists watched Paris with interest and sympathy, and organized some shows. But few joined the cause. Professor Ray does not really try to demonstrate that Edith Sitwell and Dylan Thomas needed Surrealism in order to develop their poetic style. He does find a few good critical texts by W. H. Auden and Christopher Caudwell. This non-book could have made a respectable article.
Style and Theme in Reverdy’s “Les Ardoises du toit”
by Anthony Rizzuto.
Alabama, 204 p., $7.50
Max Jacob and the Poetics of Cubism
by Gerald Kamber
Johns Hopkins, 171 pp., $8.50
Jacob and Reverdy deserve attention. They loomed very large through the Twenties, especially for the poets and painters of the D-S expedition. But beside Valéry and Apollinaire, their stature dwindles. We cannot carry the whole past on our backs. Meanwhile, they have inspired two good books by American scholars.
Professor Rizzuto’s is a superb stylistic analysis of a 1918 collection of eighty-one short poems. He neglects no aspect, verbal, aural, or visual. And the poems are still poetry at the end. Since he supplies almost no translations (yet one of them is an incredible bloomer: “shingle” instead of “slate” for “ardoise,” p. 168), and sticks strictly to the text, this is a book for specialists and students of French poetry. Their gain.
Professor Kamber has written a careful, intelligent study on an even more difficult poet than Reverdy. The sheer bulk of Jacob’s work forces him to be spotty at times and to generalize in awkward ways. I have misgivings about the value of linking Jacob’s (or anyone’s) poetry systematically to Cubism. Jacob lived and worked with Cubist painters. They shared ambiguity as a central compositional device. Beyond that, the association begins to look like a label or an exercise.
PERIODICALS AND REVIEWS
Change no. 7: Le Groupe: la rupture
A group of French writers has finally decided to come to terms with Surrealism as a lesson from the past on which it is not always necessary to take a polemical stand. Their approach is almost sociological. This is the first careful and sustained scrutiny of the group as a collective effort—secret society or artistic collaboration. Breton’s comments on his first automatic writing in 1919, long alluded to by scholars, are finally published here. I am not surprised that he and Soupault considered certain passages of Les Champs magnétiques extremely comical. The old troopers Leiris and Bataille provide keen analyses of social dynamics plus high-level gossip. J. P. Faye, the editor of Change, proposes what looks like “the quantum jump theory” of literary movements. All these texts are fresh and valuable.
(Chicago) Autumn, 1970 (II in press)
A group of Chicago Surrealists under Franklin Rosemont puts out an occasional magazine called Arsenal, and other publications. Though highly derivative, they ring true. Rosemont and the others tout Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, C. L. R. James, and Edward Young; they knock Neruda and Lukacs, with gusto. They also produce manifestoes, and scream at all French scholars except J. H. Matthews. I find myself reading these texts with a mixture of nostalgia and amazement. Stephen Schwartz strikes me as the best poet writing for the group. For a time he put out an anthology in San Francisco called Antinarcissus. Surrealism dies very hard.
Works: A Quarterly of Writing
For five years John Hopper has been indefatigably publishing translations of Dada and Surrealist writing and collecting similar texts by Americans. A valuable little mag.
Cahiers Dada Surrealism
Published in Paris by l’Association internationale pour l’étude de Dada et du Surréalisme
Five numbers out since 1965. Original texts, articles, bibliographies.
Published by the American branch of the above association. One number published.
(This is the second of a two-part essay.)
No one can have all his facts straight. Balakian falls into the trap of making Tzara four years older than Breton. They were the same age. The political question had not really "been with the surrealists from the beginning" (p. 78) but fell in on them before they had gotten their feet under them. Breton never published Trotsky's life of Lenin in his magazine but reviewed it. It is far from accurate to call what happened in Paris in February, 1934, "the Nazi Putsch" (p. 166).↩
No one can have all his facts straight. Balakian falls into the trap of making Tzara four years older than Breton. They were the same age. The political question had not really “been with the surrealists from the beginning” (p. 78) but fell in on them before they had gotten their feet under them. Breton never published Trotsky’s life of Lenin in his magazine but reviewed it. It is far from accurate to call what happened in Paris in February, 1934, “the Nazi Putsch” (p. 166).↩