In the Museum of Strangeness

The Autobiography of Surrealism

edited by Marcel Jean
Viking, 472 pp., $30.00

From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema

by Steven Kovács
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 297 pp., $22.50

André Breton thought that the historical success of failure of surrealism could be judged only by its efficacy in provoking a grave and generalized crise de conscience. Undoubtedly it failed in this respect, but the criterion is odd, since the vast crise de conscience known as modernity was well under way by the time of the first surrealist manifesto (1924), and in any case the surrealists could hardly provoke something of which they themselves were so plainly a symptom.

The world they wished to shake had already half crumbled, and it is because they don’t appear to have realized this that many surrealists seem provincial. John Berger memorably says of Magritte that “he hated the familiar and the ordinary too much to turn his back on them.” The surrealists could not turn their backs on the bourgeoisie. They were masters of insult and invective, always arraigning public men and addressing open letters to figures of authority. They wanted the prisons opened and the army disbanded. “All that is doddering, suspicious, infamous, sullying, and grotesque,” Breton wrote, “is contained for me in that single word: God.” Paul Eluard called Cocteau a swine and a stinking beast, and remarked. “Being careful never prevented anyone from being vile.”

Walter Benjamin, in an early article, pointed to the elements of bluff and provocation in all this, but he also thought the surrealists were the first people since Bakunin to have a radical conception of freedom. They perceived the world as caught up in an ecstatic conspiracy of respectability, and according to Benjamin they saw through the “unholy coupling” of idealistic moralizing and fierce political practice. There was nothing philosophical about their skepticism; it flared up with the sense of betrayal which was so large a legacy of the Great War. Like many others, of quite different ages and temperaments, the surrealists felt they had been fed on deception, that the very notion of truth was a casualty of the war. Ezra Pound spoke of “old men’s lies” and “disillusions as never told in the old days.” “Surely it must be realized,” Louis Aragon wrote, “that the face of error and the face of truth cannot fail to have identical features.”

There is an element of naïveté in this outrage, of course, particularly in France, where artists had been railing against the supposed ideals of the bourgeoisie for nearly a century. But a certain naïveté is inseparable from the surrealists’ energy. “Nothing is revolutionary except candor,” Robert Desnos wrote. When they were no longer shocked by the hypocrisy and fatuousness of their comfortable contemporaries, they were no longer surrealists.

Marcel Jean’s Autobiography of Surrealism lays out the brilliant literary and painterly pedigree the movement claimed for itself: Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Jarry, Apollinaire, Reverdy, Chirico are all rounded up and nicely quoted, along with Breton’s friend Jacques Vaché, a soldier-dandy and nihilist who said he objected to being killed in time of war and died from an overdose of opium in 1919. Jean traces surrealism mainly through the magazines where it blossomed and quarreled and flirted with communism and fell—Littérature, La Révolution surréaliste, Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, Minotaure, VVV—and allows the writers and painters to speak for themselves.

He had originally planned, he says, “an anthology of writings by surrealist painters,” but the book gradually turned into “an anthological history of written surrealism,” a complement to Jean’s own History of Surrealist Painting, published in French in 1959 and in English in 1960. There are texts by Breton, Eluard, Aragon, Soupault, Ernst, Desnos, Péret, Artaud, Leiris, Queneau, Magritte, Buñuel, Dalí, Duchamp, Tzara, Crevel, Picasso, Arp, Motherwell, Leonora Carrington, and a number of others. The last word is given to Breton, but the next-to-last word belongs to the rebelling Paris students of 1968, who brought surrealism to the walls of the Sorbonne, where they quoted Breton and scribbled assertions like “Dream is truth” and “Any view of things that is not strange is false.”

The last phrase makes a fine echo to Chirico’s suggestion, quoted early in the book, that we should “live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness,” but the implied vindication of what Jean calls “timeless surrealism” doesn’t quite come off. It was not surrealism that drove the students to the barricades in 1968. Surrealism, along with many other sources, offered an attractive rhetoric, and we may feel, with the sweep of hindsight, that surrealism was above all a rhetoric. It was not exactly an aesthetics that yearned to a politics, as Susan Sontag shrewdly guessed. It was an overreaching politics that could not leave the realm of romance.

And yet. There is a good deal to be said for rhetoric and romance if they are all you have. If liberty is a phantom, as the title of a Buñuel film suggests, it is essential to talk about it. Its return to reality may depend upon our familiarity with the idea. “The very word liberty,” Breton wrote, “is exalting. I think it is capable of preserving, indefinitely, the old human fanaticism.” And again, prophetically enough: “It would be wrong for man to allow himself to be intimidated by a few monstrous historical failures: he is still free to believe in his freedom.”

There is a certain negligence, even callousness, in such remarks (“a few monstrous historical failures”), but, there is also a fine fidelity to a battered belief. Breton saw the imagination as the only index of possibility; wanted the “already thought” to make way for the “thinkable”; waged pitiless war on the shabby reality he found all too many of his contemporaries settling for. He could be vague and superstitious on this subject, but it is usually clear that he wants more reality, not less, or even a different one. “The admirable thing about the fantastic,” he said, “is that it is no longer fantastic: there is only the real.” The fantastic is not an escape from the world. It is a promise, a hint of what a larger, less constricting world might be like, since a life that can be imagined can also be desired. It is in this sense that we should understand the surrealists’ insistence on dreams and automatic writing, their quest for the marvelous in everyday life, their canonization of chance and love. Il a peut-être des secrets pour changer la vie? a timid voice says in Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer. The surrealists thought they had the secrets.

They didn’t. But surrealism was not only a program, it was also a set of practices, notably a fund of disruptive techniques like collage or willed hallucination. Max Ernst spoke of “forcing inspiration,” and Dalí’s notion of critical paranoia meant frankly reading the world in the light of an obsession, “tangibly transferring the world of the delirium on to the plane of reality.” When Picasso, in Seated Bather, paints a woman’s head as a pair of vertical jaws mounted on a sort of anvil, it doesn’t much matter whether we call the result a piece of surrealism or not. Picasso’s relations with the movement were casual, and Breton pictured him as “hunting in the neighborhood,” not as a member of the surrealist house-party. But it is clear that in this painting, as in others of the same period and even some time later, a creature of the mind has invaded the seen shapes and spaces of cubism.

Equal rights for mental realities was a consistent feature of surrealist practice: fantasies and nightmares were painted or photographed or written about as if they had the status of objects or landscapes. Some very thin painting resulted, and some vacuous poetry. But the practice also gave us Miró, Eluard, Buñuel, Magritte. And the striking thing about the work of these men is not its escape into some realm of the arbitrary and magical but on the contrary its constant, embattled engagement with things as they are, its pursuit of an intricate human truth. Respecting Breton’s dream of freedom, they managed to stand it on its head. It is because freedom finally is impossible that it is indispensable to dream of it. “Surrealism,” Buñuel told Carlos Fuentes, “taught me that man is never free yet fights for what he can never be.” This strikes me as rather too absolute in its abandonment of hope, but Buñuel, to paraphrase John Berger, hates captivity too much to think of living anywhere else.

It is true that the cinema offers particularly obvious hindrances to imaginative freedom. The surrealists talked a lot about film, admired Dr. Caligari and early serials like Fantomas and Les Vampires, and beat the comparison between movies and dreams to death. But the production of a dream, however complex and ancient its causes or content, is a simple affair: one goes to sleep. A film takes time, money, calculation, technique, and the surrealists, with the exception of Buñuel, only played at cinema, wrote scripts and criticism, and liked the idea. The cinema for them, as Steven Kovács writes, was “an exquisite toy and nothing more.”

Kovács’s From Enchantment to Rage is not a sophisticated book (Dali’s fixation on the womb is a rather pronounced one.” “Being so close to death, members of the Dada-Surrealist circle had to indulge in black humor as a safety valve”), but it is substantial and it is historical, does not go questing for timeless surrealism. Kovács gives an account of the surrealists’ attitudes to film; examines Robert Desnos’s scenarios and criticism; writes at some length about Picabia’s and René Clair’s Entr’acte; closely studies Man Ray’s four films; discusses Artaud’s scripts and pronouncements; and looks at Buñuel’s and Dalí’s Un Chien andalou and L’Age d’or in detail.

It has become customary to attribute the excellences of these last two films to Buñuel, and the failed jokes to Dalí. Kovács bravely tries to set the record straight, rather schematically crediting flair and image to Dalí and structure and morality to Buñuel. In fact, as Kovács himself comes to see, there are only two things to be said about this collaboration: Dalí and Buñuel were close friends at the time of writing, each eagerly accepting the other’s suggestions, and many of the images in the films (donkeys, ants, orchestras, priests, paintings) can be seen to belong to the repertoire of both; and Buñuel directed the films, converted whatever there was in the scripts into movies.

L’ Age d’or was first shown at Studio 28 in Paris, in 1930. It shared the bill with a short comedy and an animated cartoon, and it was described as a film parlant surréaliste, a surrealist talkie. But it was also a film which spoke surrealist, as one speaks French or jabberwocky, and members of the Anti-Semitic League and the League of Patriots didn’t like its style. They bombarded the screen, smashed some furniture, and wrecked an exhibition of surrealist paintings in the foyer of the cinema. Showing of the film were then suspended by the police because it “caused disorder.”

The film has since become standard fare in film courses, at film clubs and festivals, but was shown commercially for the first time last year. The Public Theater in New York screened a handsomely restored print, along with a scratchier, fainter copy of Un Chien andalou. If the program had been stretched for half an hour, it could have included the film Buñuel made two years after L’Age d’or: Las Hurdes, called Land without Bread in English, a bleak documentary about a barren and backward Spanish community. It was also the last film Buñuel was to direct until he found a home in Mexico some fourteen years later. Taken together, the three films give us Buñuel’s picture of civilization as something like the torture of Tantalus, an arrangement which separates us, by a few inches or a few miles, but irremediably, from everything we need.

Buñuel said later that he had excluded “all narrative sense,” “all logical association” from Un Chien andalou, but the film in fact attacks narrative sense quite systematically and replaces logical association with chains of almost too legible metaphors. It begins quietly, like a fairy tale with the pace of a realistic novel. A title card says, “Once upon a time,” and a burly fellow, who happens to be Buñuel, appears in his shirtsleeves, smoking, sharpening a razor, testing it against his thumbnail. He steps out onto a balcony and takes a look at the moon. We see a young woman’s face in close-up. A hand holds her left eye open, while another hand approaches the eye with a razor. A cloud passes across the moon, as though slicing through it. In a very large close-up, the razor cuts into an eye, which leaks matter immediately. A new title card says, “Eight years later.”

People still gasp when this scene is shown. There is no way of reducing the intimacy of its violence. The fact that the same young woman appears soon after in the film, both eyes happily intact, and the fact that the sliced eye, on inspection, can be seen to be that of an animal—of one of the two dead donkeys, I take it, which later appear draped over two grand pianos—are not as consoling as we might hope. I don’t gasp any more, but I do have to sit tight in the cinema, energetically reminding myself that the eye being sliced is not the woman’s, that it is neither human nor alive.

Much nonsense has been written about this eye, but it is clear that however Buñuel and Dalí arrived at the image, there is nothing accidental about its place in the film. It assaults the very organ we are viewing with, blinds us by proxy, and our physical disgust is complicated by an obscure sense that some sort of ugly justice has been done, that we’ve got what we deserve. The casual narrative adds to the effect. We didn’t think he was sharpening the razor for that, and the cards suggest an idiotic storyteller who just doesn’t know what is in his tale. In later films, I should add, Buñuel rarely finds actual violence necessary. He gets quite terrifying results by the equivalent of simply showing the razor in the vicinity of the eye. Our own fears do the rest.

And so the film continues, constantly setting up narrative movements only to knock them down. The women leaves a room and finds herself in exactly the same place. Later in the film she leaves the same room through the same door and finds herself on a beach. A man is shot indoors, and the scene changes around him, as in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. By the time he hits the ground he is in a meadow. Meanwhile the title cards, at intervals, continue their placid, crazy commentary: “Toward three in the morning”; “Sixteen years before”; “In the spring.”

On the other hand, the film cannot resist the coherence of its imagery and gives in, with comic helplessness, to the associations which suggest themselves. Ants crawling in a hand make way for a close-up of a woman’s armpit, which in turn is followed by a close-up of a seaurchin’s spine, which dissolves to a head seen from directly above. Later the hair from a woman’s armpit appears magically on a man’s face. Even more strikingly, love and death (or perhaps love and damage) are consistently connected, in a travesty of Tristan. A man watches a girl get run over and becomes panicky with lust. He chases the woman who is with him round the room and over the bed, and as he fondles her breasts his head tilts back, his eyes roll up, showing their whites, and blood trickles from the corner of his mouth.

There is a similar image in L’Age d’or, where the lover, blood all over his face, mutters rabidly, “Mon amour, mon amour, mon amour, mon amour, mon amour.” In 1960 Buñuel added a sound track to Un Chien andalou which alternates between Wagner and a splendid old tango and emphasizes this effect. At times the couple chasing round the furniture actually appears to be dancing to the music.

But in the end, in spite of its assaults on narrative and time and space, the film does have a story. It is the story of countless other films, including L’Age d’or. A couple meet, are separated, meet again, the women goes off with another man. L’Age d’or, like the earlier work, has plenty of random events and narrative disturbance. A large cow sits on a bed and is casually shooed away as if it were a dog; a well-dressed man walks thoughtfully down a street, kicking a violin as he goes. A minister commits suicide and falls upward out of his shoes to lie on the ceiling. And again there is the wonderfully disconnected use of title cards. A card says, “Sometimes on Sunday,” for example, and the following shot shows a whole side of a street being blown up. Another card announces the founding of imperial Rome (in 1930, on a rocky island), and we see shots of St. Peter’s, a Vatican balcony, and what purports to be a French window in the same building with a note stuck to it: “I’ve spoken to the landlord; he’s letting us have the lease on very favorable terms….”

But the narrative line here, finally, is stronger than in Un Chien andalou; the same story more firmly told. Two lovers interrupt the founding of Rome with their squeals of pleasure as they grovel together in the mud, and are separated. Sex literally has to be stopped so that social life can start. It is as if Buster Keaton, who Buñuel once said could give lessons to reality, had decided to make a film of Civilization and Its Discontents. Later in the film, when the couple get together again, they are disturbed by a concert, and the woman goes off with the conductor of the orchestra. Culture strikes again, and the film at last abandons all pretense of randomness and concludes with a powerfully concentrated set of associations. The man, alone, in a rage, tears up a pair of pillows and finds his hands full of feathers which he seems to have borrowed from Breton’s Nadja. He pitches various objects out of a window—a plough, a burning fir tree, a large wooden giraffe, a live archbishop (who gets up and scurries away), and more and more feathers. A card then tells us:

At the precise moment when these feathers, torn out by his furious hands, covered the ground below the window, at this moment, we said, but very far away, the survivors of the Chateau de Selliny were coming out, to go back to Paris….

Selliny, called Seligny on another card, is a misspelling of Silling, the high castle in the Black Forest where the orgies of Sade’s Les 120 Journées de Sodome take place. Another card tells us more about the gruesome heroes of Sade’s story, and a door on a drawbridge opens to reveal the evil Duc de Blangis, who looks exactly like the Christ of conventional representations. Three other rogues come out, followed by a girl in a bloodstained gown. Blangis goes back, takes the girl in, and closes the door. We hear a scream. Blangis reappears, looking as saintly as ever, but mysteriously lacking his beard and mustache. The image changes to that of a snow-covered cross decorated with scalps, and a jolly paso doble brings the film to an end.

It is true that all this resists logical organization, and there is much clumsiness, both in the conception and in the execution of these images. But the clustering of thoughts is eloquent enough: rage, betrayal, sadism, Christianity, murder, sex, saintliness. This is precisely the world of Benjamin’s “unholy coupling,” the domain of deception and displacement the surrealists sought to explode.

The point becomes clearer if we recall that the film is framed by Sade at the end and what seems to be a fragment of a documentary about scorpions at the beginning. The cold of the cross answers the dry heat of the kingdom of the scorpions, and Buñuel apparently thought at one point of calling the film, from a phrase by Marx, In the Icy Waters of Egoist Calculation. The scorpion, we learn, is a friend of darkness, and “peu sociable.” Sade and the scorpions, as Stendhal might have said, are at least not hypocrites.

The documentary note is a clue, not a joke. Buñuel’s style is so modestly descriptive as to be disconcerting in its own right, quite apart from any upsets or aggressions the images of the films may offer. Most people fill in his silences with projections of their own, and what is remarkable about the projections of the first viewers of these early films is their insistence on romance. Cyril Connolly asked himself why Un Chien andalou made such a strong impression on him. Because, he said, it “brought out the grandeur of the conflict inherent in romantic love, the truth that the heart is made to be broken, and after it has mended, to be broken again.”

It is hard to reconcile this lofty tone with all the knockabout slapstick in the movie, and it is even harder to see why Breton would call L’Age d’ or “a unique exaltation of total love.” But then Dalí himself said that his intention in writing the film with Buñuel was to present the pure pursuit of love “amid ignoble patriotic and humanitarian ideals, and other miserable mechanisms of reality.”

Buñuel has a colder and more complicated mind than Dalí or Breton or Connolly, and he is a romantic only in the sense that he thinks the heart is made to be broken, not in the sense that he thinks there is any glory in it. He subscribes, like a good surrealist, to the doctrine of all-consuming passion, sees love as “the great irresistible summons,” as an early surrealist text put it. But he cannot present love as a pure unworldly force in a grubby universe. He can present the grubby universe all right, and does so with relish. L’Age d’or seems to anticipate W.C. Fields in its trampling on pieties about dogs, children, and the infirm. Have you kicked over a blind man lately? But Buñuel does not see the self as innocent, separate from the world, happy if left alone. His lovers sacrifice everything to love, the man abandons a diplomatic mission, causing untold suffering and death, evoked in a quick series of shots of desperate crowds which appear to have galloped out of Griffith’s Intolerance or Gance’s Napoleon, and is outraged when the minister calls him to tell him about the catastrophe. “C’est pour ca que tu me déranges?” he shouts in the funniest and most memorable line in the movie. “You’re bothering me for a thing like that?”

And yet this love is an endlessly interrupted obsession. When the lovers are not divided by society, they manage to distract themselves, crack their heads together, fall off chairs, become frightened, lose the track of their passion. At one point the man, consumed with desire, suddenly becomes interested in the foot of a nearby statue. He hushes the woman with a gesture of impatience, as if she were a child getting in his way, and stares fixedly at the stone foot, which at this moment is more important than his love, which in turn is more important than the world.

A surrealist questionnaire, sent out at the end of 1929, asked, “Do you believe in the victory of admirable love over sordid life or of sordid life over admirable love?” Hardly a neutral question. Most of the respondents tried to fiddle with the terms a bit but came down clearly on the side of admirable love. Buñuel, who had answered a series of other questions scrupulously and in detail, simply said, “I don’t know.” He doesn’t know who wins the battle, but he knows what the battle is about, and he refuses to simplify it. He saw surrealism as a schooling in reality rather than a retreat from it, and Jean Miró, perhaps the greatest of surrealist painters, saw it in the same way: as the promise of an exploration of reality which would include the imaginary. This was precisely Buñuel’s complaint against Italian neo-realism: it gave us generous social concern, but without any sense of the material world’s magic or the relation of desire to the way we see the objects around us.

There is thus a real sadness and a real defeat in the current, tepid meanings of the words surreal, surrealist. Freakish, dreamlike, whimsical, unexpected—all these connotations testify impressively to the complacency and narrowness of our sense of reality. We are so sure of what’s what that we can recognize deviations immediately, and we have consigned surrealism to the domain of advertising: beds on beaches and deodorants perched in mountain gorges. It is worth remembering that surrealism’s original aim was exactly the opposite: to enlarge and multiply reality by an onslaught on the tired habits of perception which allow us to believe that our daily blindness is sight.


It’s the Argument August 13, 1981