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The D-S Expedition: Part I

Dada and Surrealist Art

by William S. Rubin
Abrams, 526, 851 illustrations, 60 color plates pp., $35.00

Arp on Arp

by Jean Arp, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, edited with an Introduction by Marcel Jean
Viking, The Documents of 20th Century Art, 574, 40 illustrations pp., $17.50


Let’s call it the D-S expedition. Between 1915 and about 1947 an unruly group of writers and painters made a collective attempt to reach a new territory of mind. They said that they wanted a revolution and that they were ready to leave literature and art behind. They were far from indifferent to adventure and glory. History tells the story of other great fiascoes—the Crusades, the utopian settlements of the last century. The D-S expedition overturned no governments and never reached the people. Since it never really got under way, it could not leave anything far behind. Nevertheless the events are very real and they are ours.

Or call it Dada and Surrealism. In any case, the cultural police have now herded those rowdy crowds back onto the sidewalks of literature and art. It’s all firmly under control. Today, in the top class of French lycées, the works of André Breton are listed as recommended reading. American universities offer courses on the literature of Dada and Surrealism. It has taken me a year to write this review because a new book on some aspect of the D-S expedition seems to appear every few weeks. Was the expedition, after all, a success?

Purists insist on a careful discrimination between Dada and Surrealism as different or even opposed movements. I have been taking sightings and soundings on them for many years and cannot find a more satisfactory distinction between the two than straight chronology. The first six years or so, from 1915 to about 1921, belong to Dada. Duchamp and Picabia rocked New York during World War I. In Zurich Hugo Ball and his friend Richard Huelsenbeck stumbled on the unbeatable nonsense name that made a dozen reputations, especially Tristan Tzara’s. The biggest and socially most significant eruption of Dada took place in Berlin at the end of the war; it has been sadly neglected. The two big Paris seasons of 1920 and 1921 replayed—with a few adaptations—the two Zurich seasons of 1916 and 1917. Then, for twenty years, Surrealism held its own.

The textbook version of the D-S expedition says that the Cartesian cast of the French mind organized the anarchistic and nihilistic spirit of Dada into a constructive movement. Thus Surrealism is depicted as having a coherent doctrine, working poets and artists, and a firm place in history. Such a tidied-up account violates both the letter and the spirit of what happened. Dada was child’s play, literally and figuratively, and for a time it had wide appeal. Its spirit drew on a deep simplicity of purpose. “Drop everything. Drop Dada.” Breton’s good-bye to Dada expresses its logical essence. There is an incontrovertible order in being opposed to everything, including one’s own survival. In comparison, it is Surrealism that seems wayward and contradictory. Don’t let anyone tell you that Surrealism took all these high spirits and subdued them, fitted them into a rational synthesis. The situation was very different.

Until recently all physics textbooks contained an illustration of a historic experiment called the Magdeburg hemispheres. In some engravings the sphere is no bigger than a man’s skull, with a pair of horses pulling on each half. In others, performing for groups of burghers and nobles making astonished gestures in the carefully drawn landscape, eighteen to twenty horses strain at a globe as big as a hogshead. The ideas and individuals lumped together as Surrealism had no more cohesive force of their own than the two metal shells joined in Magdeburg. But after the interior chamber had been emptied by endless discussions and declarations, the surrounding pressure of Western art and bourgeois morality held the parts together with remarkable strength. In the case of Surrealism, however, we would have to revise the engraving to show a sphere divided into three parts and another team of horses tugging off in a third direction. For it was a triad of forces that wracked Surrealism: politics, science, and the spiritual.

Although the Surrealists, led by Breton, made some ridiculous mistakes, in the long run their political record is uncompromised. They did not allow themselves to be herded for long into the Communist Party corral. They defended Trotsky, refused to swallow communist fronts and the pap printed in l’Humanité, and were among the first to circulate statements condemning the Moscow trials. It makes a fascinating story in which Breton’s stiff-necked disposition lost him many friends and served him well.1

In one of his sturdiest political statements Breton tries to sort out the several stresses exerted on the Surrealist activities:

…all of us hope that power will pass from the hands of the bourgeoisie into the hands of the proletariat. Meanwhile, it is no less necessary, in our opinion, that experiments [expériences] with the inner life continue, and without any external control, even Marxist. [Légitime Défense, 1926]

The French word expérience means both scientific experiment and experience in the general sense. The emphasis here is scientific. Breton and Aragon were former medical students. Their review, La Révolution surréaliste, was designed to look like a medical journal, the better to set off the humor and scandal in its pages. The group established a Surrealist Research Bureau and conducted surveys on suicide, dreams, and sexuality. They published Freud on lay analysis and honored Charcot on “the Fiftieth Anniversary of Hysteria.” These scientific ambitions, though fumbling, were genuine and served as an antidote to what they were already calling “the literary alibi.”

The ground on which Surrealism established its foundations is described by the first Manifesto as “pure psychic automatism,” presumed to reveal “the real functioning of thought.” Like Gertrude Stein under William James and Hugo Münsterberg, they sought something other than literary results. A great cloud of uncertainty still hangs over the authenticity and the significance of automatic writing.2 Unfortunately none of the books under review explores the problem thoroughly and without bias. The confusion is increased by the fact that Surrealists turned to the unconscious not primarily for therapeutic purposes but for what they often called “revelation.” And here we have already slid a long way into the third domain of the spiritual.

The eighth number of La Révolution surréaliste contains an apparently unposed photograph of “Benjamin Péret insulting a priest.” It almost looks as if Péret, in an undershirt, is spitting at the startled figure in a cassock. However, attacks on church and clergy were obviously a matter of trustbusting. The most perceptive French critics (especially Monnerot, Carrouges, and Audoin) have insisted on the commitment of Surrealism to the spiritual and the sacred. Some of the early documents circulated within the group speak both of revolution and of “Surrealist illumination.” The language is clear: the Surrealist revolution “seeks above all to create a new kind of mysticism.” The members functioned very much like a sect of initiates, and the second manifesto brings all its weight to bear on discovering “a certain point of the mind” which would reconcile all contradictions—a modern version of the Holy Grail.

Occultism, objective chance, the revival of the chivalric and Arthurian traditions of erotic love, magic, and alchemy, the cult of the supernatural in woman—all these unstable items fed a faith that had unmistakable elements of transcendence. It comes out with intensity in much Surrealist poetry, in prose narratives full of quests and epiphanies, and in visionary paintings. Even Paul Eluard, the most “classic” of the poets, shows his hand in Donner à voir.

No mere play on words. Everything is comparable to everything else. Everything finds its echo everywhere, its justification, its resemblance, its opposition, its becoming. And this becoming is infinite.

The word with which the Surrealists tried to conjure so often, le merveilleux, belongs to a sustained attempt to find spiritual values in everyday life.

These, then, were the great attractive forces pulling Surrealism, and the whole D-S expedition, in three different directions: politics, science, and the spiritual. Though the Paris group held together for nearly two decades, it never achieved any complete synthesis or reconciliation of these forces. The dynamics shifted steadily both with the times and with the composition of the group. Such stresses help explain why it is difficult to discern the shape of the D-S expedition—its effort and its accomplishments. As I see it, substantial effort produced limited accomplishments in two respects. From Hugo Ball to Max Ernst to André Breton, the D-S expedition sought a redefinition and a reunification of mind in order to incorporate large segments of mental activity increasingly excluded by materialism (including Marxism). Secondly, they often tried to work collectively, in pairs or as a group, ready to believe that mind and imagination do not occur exclusively in the singular.

These are the most significant aspects of the entire undertaking, and also the most neglected. Both attempts must be counted as failures. Nevertheless, the D-S expedition remains one of the great modern case histories, because of and in spite of its failures. It has much to tell us about inducing and simulating mental processes and about the dynamics of artistic collaboration. It may even have dropped off a few works of art as it went past.

During these events, two men attained recognizable greatness, though they were by no means free from flaws and crotchets: Breton and Duchamp. For fifty years these contrasting figures, leader and loner, were resourceful and intractable in their opposition to an acquisitive society and to political and artistic compromise. Their methods were totally antithetic. Breton founded a counterinstitution—cell without party, brotherhood for research, nonresidential phalanstery. It was an attempt to fight fire with fire. Without the institutionalization of Breton’s moral conscience in manifestoes, public meetings, and private game sessions, it is hard to imagine the shape the avant-garde would have taken in France during the Twenties and Thirties.

Meanwhile Duchamp enacted a lengthy and elaborate pantomime of shaking out of his garments and off the soles of his feet every particle of the dust of Western art. Refusing all institutions except the ancient free masonry of chess, he performed a solitary rite of divestiture. It has had an effect as lasting as Breton’s negative institution. Though Breton sometimes acted like a toy Pope, and though Duchamp began to look like W.C. Fields trying to get rid of the fly paper, they were neither charlatans nor fools.3

In the United States we have been kept reasonably well informed about these goings-on. What could be reckoned as the third wave of publications is now engulfing us.4 It is having an unfortunate effect, for scholarship and surveys seem to be driving out the original texts. Meanwhile the D-S expedition is enjoying a combination of academic respectability and intellectual fashion. But where is the genuine article? Selected Writings by Eluard is still available in the serviceable New Directions volume.5 Books by Queneau and Leiris appeared, and more or less disappeared, several years ago.

  1. 1

    See Henri Lefebvre, “1925,” Nouvelle Revue Française, April, 1967; Robert S. Short, “The Politics of Surrealism, 1920-1936,” The Journal of Contemporary History no. 2., 1966; and my essay, “Having Congress,” in Critique, Cooper Union, 1972.

  2. 2

    In an age of extended professional training and widespread skepticism toward received values, it constantly confounds me that not only the young but also many certified intellectuals accept uncritically the superiority of spontaneous or unconscious products of mind over those subjected to conscious, rational control. In many situations it is difficult to tell whether this attitude is due to laziness, conviction, or bad faith. The practice and study of automatic writing (the label is highly unsatisfactory) could lead to a better understanding of the relations among nonverbal thought, interior speech (endophasia), and articulation, and challenge some of the monopolistic practices of linguistics in that area. The psychologist Jean Cazaux wrote a short book on Surrealism in 1938; the severe essays of Herbert J. Muller and Kenneth Burke in New Directions 1940 are still very pertinent. But most questions about autowriting (and painting) remain unanswered, rarely asked.

    1. Is the autowriter perched on a privileged frontier between sleep and waking (cf. Proust), or does he speak from the heart of the unconscious—trance, deep sleep, “inspiration”?

    2. Does the autowriter reach the seat of individual identity? or a repository of collective experiences and attitudes? or Huxley’s “Mind at Large,” Schrödinger’s “singular consciousness”?

    3. What does he dredge up: profound, suppressed thoughts closely connected to childhood and primitive knowledge? or a store of clichés, trivia, and drivel mostly of cultural origin?

    4. Are talent, sensitivity, and training irrelevant to the operation of automatic processes? (“The essential nature of surrealism is to have proclaimed the complete equality of all normal human beings before the subliminal message…a shared patrimony of which each one of us has only to claim his portion.” Breton, Le Message automatique)

    5. Are the published automatic texts, most of which are punctuated in sentences, retain basic syntax and logic, and have a literary tone, genuine examples of the form? If so, do they have primarily scientific or literary significance?

  3. 3

    One of the most penetrating and poetic descriptions of Surrealism ever written lies in Sartre’s vehement attack on it (What Is Literature? IV). Unerringly he pins down Duchamp and Breton as the principal agents of destruction. Duchamp, he insists, is a metaphysical and semiotic prankster, making holes in conventional meanings so that subjectivity itself begins to dribble out. Breton achieves destruction of the objective world by overloading it with signs, images, and unresolved ambiguities. The eloquence of Sartre’s writing hints at a kind of outraged sympathy with these two villains who tried (but failed) to destroy the “bourgeois ego.”

  4. 4

    Several earlier works are still in circulation. Robert Motherwell’s Dada Painters and Poets (Wittenborn, 1967, reprint) has had no counterpart for Surrealism. A number of informative histories are available by Hans Richter, Maurice Nadeau, Marcel Jean, and Patrick Waldberg. Works by three American scholars have concentrated primarily on the literary side of Surrealism: Anna Balakian, Herbert Gershman, and J.H. Matthews.

  5. 5

    Translated by Lloyd Alexander (New Directions, 1951).

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