Popular culture picks its topics not randomly but nevertheless rather unpredictably. We’ve read two books utilising the history of classic surrealism as a topic. Of course, there are elements of sensationalism and mystification in all of popular culture’s exploits, but it is hardly more exploitational than academic recuperation of the same themes, no, in a substantial sense far less, at least for a large number of examples.
Some of you will have heard about China Miéville’s ”Last Days of New Paris” (2016). (A discussion from the surrealist viewpoint by Jason Abdelhadi turned up at the Peculiar Mormyrid blog.) China Miéville is a British writer of popular genre fiction, one of many ex- or quasi- political activists turned literary hacks, and for anyone who doesn’t mind entertainment literature, his various novels, which are basically each an experiment in a separate subgenre of genre fiction in the general area of fantasy, are extremely entertaining and contains nice sparks of a vivid imagination (perhaps especially in ”Kraken” and ”The City and the City”). ”Last Days of New Paris” is a fantasy about what would have happened if the allies didn’t win the war, and Nazi Germany still had Paris under siege, countered by surrealist resistance cells (and others) but above all by walking surrealist juxtapositions.
Fewer will have heard of Robin D Laws (we hadn’t before), a Canadian writer within the subculture of gaming. His ”Le livre des fourmis - the Book of Ants” (2014) is a guidebook to accompany one of a legion of post-Lovecraftian games called ”Trail of Cthulhu”. The idea is that the hypnotic spells and sometimes the regular dreaming of the early surrealists made several of them converge in visiting a particular, continuous and vast, dreamland.
|No, not these books of ants|
The books are, from a certain angle, remarkably similar.
They both deal with classic surrealism. Laws with an earlier focus and Miéville with a somewhat later. They both have studied a limited number of accurate sources and cannot be accused of any gross historical mistakes (hardly even any striking small ones). Dealing with classic surrealism is perhaps problematic, in that it is a vehicle of nostalgia, or possibly that it might contribute to rendering contemporary surrealism invisible; but nevertheless most of us do it every now and then.
They both deal with alternative histories. If it is attractive but problematic to follow Benjamin’s emphasis on the losers of history, we can still link the contemporary popular imagination’s obsession with alternative timelines to the surrealist insistence on the possible in its full, real and unreasonable width. The historically manifested, especially in hindsight, is indeed just one of a vast number of possibilities and not necessarily the most interesting one. In a lot of mainstream comics and SF, alternative timelines has become less a vehicle for imagination than a standard way of rationalising various inconsistencies, duplications of persons, premature deaths, and incongruent chronologies, which wouldn’t necessarily need rationalising… Here it has regained its ”utopian” function of encouraging the imagining of a world which is different to ours in some particular crucial way. Or maybe not.
Both have their own universe (imaginary world) which they connect with historical surrealism. Indeed historical surrealism borders to a number of other possible worlds, but probably the more dynamical ones are rather available through the surrealist imagination than through the nostalgic aura of the major historical figures and their historical circumstances, right?
Then come the highly significant differences between the two books.
The world which Laws has the surrealists tap into is a game world. Through automatic writing and hypnotic experiments, several members of the surrealist group gain access to the dreamlands. But not a dreamland of any recognisable old ”surrealist landscape" variety, but rather the forbidding-fragile-alien feudal expanses of Lovecraft’s dream cycle of fantasy stories. With its classic fantasy characteristics of feudalism, many of the surrealists unsurprisingly plot for revolts in that world.
Whereas Miéville conjoins various popular notions of postapocalypse, steampunk, and nazi fantasy into a deteriorating Paris where Germany won the war. Or rather, where the second world war still rages on but the Nazis still have the upper hand. Banal boyhood resistance fantasies are united with more modern fantasy theme of a war between two mythological races: but one of them is creatures from surrealist paintings and surrealist fantasies (called ”manifs”), and the other one is manifestations that the Nazis raise against them through a combination of sorcery and technology.
Especially against a WWII backdrop, it is pleasant to see the idea of plotting the surrealist irrational against the nazi irrational. That theme can be investigated on many levels, and this is definitely one of them. Back in the 30s, it was a regular item in Communist rhetorics (mostly but far from only Stalinist) to point out that surrealism was ”objectively” allied with Nazism because both emphasised the irrational. (There was even the famous incident where Bataille suggested it from an appreciative viewpoint, jealous of how effectively Nazism seemed to have mobilised mythology…) In spite of the obvious absurdity of the faith in the rational, in spite of Trotsky’s and many later Marxists recognition of the importance of free creativity, and in spite of Marxist intellectuals from Horkheimer & Adorno on emphasising the sinister rationality of Nazism itself, it is unfortunately not completely unusual to hear stubborn activists reinvent the sterile argument that the irrational equals totalitarianism over and over again.
So if we set up the surrealist irrational and the nazi irrational facing each other, an obvious difference is that the nazi irrational would be obsessed with circumscriptions, sifting a few ”authentic” themes from the vast width of possible themes, most disregarded as frivolous and unimportant, or even as perverted and decadent. These select themes are all focused on origin, on homogenising, on identity, on dualisms, on hierarchy and on an exclusive sense of unity. Whereas of course the surrealist irrational more focuses (though not exclusively!) on transformation, heterogenity and the unexpected.
But the most important difference is of course that the nazi irrational is utilistic: it is there for a purpose only, for providing a depth to ideology, breeding the required sense of inner unity, of xenophobia, and of faith in the ruling powers, but with a mythological dimension. The surrealist irrational is useless, or rather uninterested in its partial usefulness, not accepting it as a criterion. In Miéville’s novel, this is amusingly shown in how the nazi monsters of imagination are there to obey orders (which they, interestingly, are rather bad at), while the surrealist monsters are on a constant rampage of irrational behavior. The obvious self-contradiction that these free and useless surrealist monsters were raised specifically to fight Nazis, and that the main character in a novel can at least approximate lead one on a leash, has not been explored as a problem within the story.
|No, not these New Parises|
The thing that connects as well as distinguishes ”The book of ants” and ”Last days of New Paris” might be the game. Both books are written by tabletop roleplayers, and both books seem to be quite connected to different aspects of gaming. Laws’ book is written to facilitate gaming: It is a handout created as an ingredient for structured make-belief. It is something that beckons you to join in. Miévielle’s book has the character of a result, a report on a game that has already taken place. This is the artifact the author is left with after posing the question "How many surrealist paintings and poems can I work into an alt-history narrative?" And it suffers from it, in the same way that many surrealist game results gain and lose imaginary power depending on whether or not the reader or viewer has been caught up in the same game or not. Or perhaps: It suffers from it, because the game result without the game presentation separates it from the games that we play, where anyone can join in. Or perhaps: It is a bit too much of an in-joke and too little of an invitation to come out and play.
Then, Laws seems to repeat some popular prejudice about surrealism and specifically against Breton (some impulsive leadership moves, some weird behavior in love relationships, homophobia and a degree of stiffness). But then, in the mouths of those whom he has saying it, it is all reasonable and historically accurate. Yes, Breton did those things, which might give a very different impression if you have a partly more detailed picture of the background and the implications of the framework of surrealism, but which for some contemporaries affected by them no doubt would be (and were) described like this.
Our only serious objection, and doubt as to historical accuracy, is how Laws sticks to his suboptimal sources in not allowing much space to women in the group. All the major players are male, and women are either there as girlfriends (occasionally diligent girlfriends) or they are invisible or absent, except for Gala, who has a larger role in her demonic fatale function that has perhaps been nagged enough about. So what about Simone Breton’s work in the group, what about Denise Levy, Fanny Beznos, Renée Gauthier, Elsie Houston, etc? One might possibly argue that this too is a case of ”accuracy” sticking to the probable prejudices of contemporary agents. But it is an area where historical knowledge has advanced and current fashionable standpoints also in academia allow us to see more of the female personages, both those who are difficult to discern in the sources and those who are in plain sight there but equally long belittled or ignored by historiography.
Miéville is slicker and voices less opinions which are controversial to either the surrealist or the academic historian. Except when he has the mysterious occultist engineer Parsons (inventor of the S-bomb) consider the surrealists in Marseille ”nothing /…/ fops and artists” whose parlor games and poems are ridiculous pseudoresistance in the face of real problems – which is indeed a common opinion among political militants of the more macho kind, and perhaps of magicians. Nevertheless, in this story Miéville does admit a certain kind of revolutionary potential to the surrealist imagination and indulges in a mythologisation of the movement and many of its personnages, works and themes. Though only a certain kind of revolutionary potential, because it is only the products of surrealist imagination, not that imagination itself, which fuels Parsons’ bomb of irrationality.
Indeed, the most crucial difference between the two is, we think, that Laws focuses on surrealist personages, surrealist experiences, surrealist method, and surrealism as a social environment, whereas Miéville focuses on surrealist works. The latter is of course a far more distant, far more commodified, recuperated way. Miéville writes in a situation where surrealism is utterly distant and approachable mainly through the old artifacts it has left us, where the world where surrealism maintains its relevance is an alternate world with no specified relationship to our own. Representing surrealism by a few of its manifested images is a superficial approach. Even if many of them indeed are powerful, and imagining them made flesh is stimulating, surrealism of course always had a tendency to downplay its artifacts in favour of its atmosphere, its method and its state of mind: the basic pillar that poetry and fascinating images are not rare, precious and difficult to attain but are in fact easily available, in large quantities and on the spot, just by sidestepping censorship and aestheticism. It is in this respect that holding forth certain grand surrealist works becomes somewhat antisurrealist. Recognising a selection of remnants invites them into the sphere of the grand museum of achievements in Western Culture, far from the radical revision of value hierarchies and traditional cultural forms that surrealism aimed at and still aims at…
Since Laws focuses not on available products but on methods and experiences, surrealism is much more alive in his book. Of course he says nothing whatsoever about surrealism after the 30s, but through methods, themes and experiences it is immediately practicable in the present and has a more timeless relevance. Maybe we could even say that Laws examplifies a kind of contemporary relevance for surrealism through its timelessness whereas Miéville considers the very notion of contemporary relevance for surrealism a fascinating and entertaining laborious thought experiment. So why is it for him apparently still too far-fetched to imagine that it could possibly have a post-war relevance in this timeline?
So, Laws’ approach seems to allow for a larger relevance of surrealism than Miéville’s, but in the end the major difference is probably that while both are deeply rooted in popular culture, Laws is a more modest character and his book is intended as a tool to be used rather than a work of art to be admired. Miéville’s perspective could be interpreted as either highly unresolved or directly hypocritic about this: he places himself explicitly in the popular culture framework with its sets of standards, but with a certain kind of elegance and concern for style, disposition and personal smartness, his ambitions are nevertheless literary and he seems to aim to please the critics even in this popular form.
We should be generous enough to be able to applaud a popular mythologisation of historical surrealism, as long as this is a mythologisation that serves the imagination and resistance and brings surrealist elements into new contexts where they can develop new emancipatory meanings and connections.
The major question is whether these instances of digging up surrealism encourages imagination or just manifests stereotypes and cement prejudices for some more or less ideological purpose. Superficial treatment of surrealism in the academic world and even more in the world of art criticism and literary criticism, and various smart intertextual recontextualisations and allusions in contemporary art is clearly in the latter sphere: reducing surrealism to a nostalgic sign, a strawman to step on for the critic’s selfendowment, that ”punching ball and milking cow” as Guy Ducornet phrased it. When for example Hollywood, including Woody Allen, occasionally raises some dead old surrealists, it is in such a banalising vein. They do not come to life, they are talking mannequins repeating textbook phrases. Nothing has happened in the imagination and nothing will happen.
When surrealists turn up in Laws’ book, and to some extent in Miéville’s, this is more of an actual mythologisation, something coming to life, acting in a partly unexpected way facing unpredicted situations, not stereotypical or mechanical. It is scraps of imagination displaced into a new context where they sprout new stalks, new imaginary routes, branching out to ever new possibilities.
So let’s not necessarily take stands about historically right or wrong, or use a rigid predetermined standpoint to see how bad and evil a recuperative initiative this is, and instead recognise it as an attempt to use surrealist experience (as handed through history books) as elements in current popular forms of playing which are different from but have points of connection with our own. Please, anyone, feel free to contribute to the unleashing of the potential of the rich flora of images and ambiances that we keep dancing with or leaving as a trail in our wake, and then for anyone, playing games seems to be one of the obvious routes to get going.
MF & EB