Thursday, August 26, 2010
Let's talk about death. We sometimes denounce things as death-oriented, while still ravelling in spectacular death paraphernalia. Death is not a moral category. Death is a phantasm, a tiny void generating a blossoming thicket of stories and emotions. Death is a great mythology. With rather weak links to the biological facts of death (a totally different matter), and even weaker to individual death which we know squat about but make a big issue based on rumors, inductive logic and psychological projections. We are immortal in the sense that our individual death can't have a reality for us except as a chosen myth. Let's not talk about death. But what about the dead? Do we keep track of which ones of our friends are dead? Can we ever know? Does it matter for whether their experience is available to us?
Well, surrealists are often a bit grumpy here. "I shall leave no memoirs" goes an often quoted Lautréamont bon-mot. Why not? Because memoirs, and the biographical urge on the whole and all of personal image management (Public Relations), is directed towards death – trying to summarise life in a stable pattern as if finished and unchanging, as if useful for a particular instrumental purpose? (By the way, memoirs in that sense is very similar to novels in general, isn't it? simply death-orientation...) Yet that biographical act is also a sacrifice for the benefit of the living, for the sake of the savoir vivre of others. To actually die when the story is completed is just a vain gesture to get the last word.
There is little meaning in respecting the boundaries between individuals here. It's not just that we can claim other's experiences as a slightly vaguer sector of our own experience, it is also that we can see many of our ambitions and interventions as those of our forerunners continued, using us as vehicles! Experience is overindividual. This is rather obvious in a collective-constructive enterprise such as science, but even more so in a movement encompassing a larger sector of life (namely the attitudes of living in general) such as surrealism.
It did seem like many surrealists passed away last year. Actually, if comparing the numbers of deceased surrealists (and ex-surrealists), the number was not significantly larger than usual (23 as compared to an average annual 21.3 the past decade in my headcount), but nevertheless it was quite obvious that we were abandoned by a number of people who were still active, who were good friends of those most active, and/or who were relatively famous.
The number of surrealists (and ex-surrealists) dying is far more steady than the number of people leaving surrealism (which is dependent on general historical trends and the intensity of surrealist activity), but the latter figure is very difficult to calculate since in most cases it is not possible to distinguish (except often in hindsight) between those who merely cease to be active but remain surrealists at heart and those who abandon surrealism, or between those who do this definitely and those who take a temporary leave of absence. And we also cannot compare the figure with the numbers of surrealists being born (since that will be known only in a far longer perspective), nor with the numbers of people joining surrealist activities (which will become apparent to surrealists or surrealismologists elsewhere – if ever – only after a relatively long time lapse, because to begin with they are rarely apparent in public material, and it is not certain whether they are serious investigators by their own force or merely ephemeral curiosity-seekers or social friends).
Yet the number of surrealists dying is in itself a very concrete figure with a limited number of uncertainty factors. It is possible to model the number as a combination of mean lifespan and numbers of arrivals, and especially if we take into account the overall trends of surrealism (number of arrivals at different times in the past). The mean age of surrealists arriving does not seem to have changed very much over time and could be simplified into a timeless average. If we want a more complicated and possibly much sharper model we could try to account for the difference in trends in different countries and the overall contribution to the population of surrealists from each of these countries.
Ok, the humanistically minded will already have seen the (to them possibly blasphemous and cruel) trend of the methodological surrealist and the natural scientist here: treating human deaths as a phenomenon possible to consider matter-of-factly, to quantify, and even to predict (on a statistical level).
Because, on the individual level, every death is an exception and a reconfiguration of the field of possibilities. Well, most people passing away are like all these other people that we meet, possibly take a liking to, and never meet again; except in the sense that we for some reason have the uncanny certainty that it will not be possible to ever communicate with them again. All the things imaginable that we would like to try to do with this person, all the questions we would like to ever ask, are not possible anymore: it is a serious violation to the openness and uncertainty of the possibility field, both objectively and subjectively, and on the latter level very often feels unfair and bottomless in its definitiveness.
But many of us are bored or suspicious about conventional grief and long sentimental obituaries. In surrealism, paying too much attention to those departing by death can be seen as part of the pattern of belittling contemporary surrealist activity and regarding the days of glory past as "the real thing". Some do not consider this a big problem when it concerns real friends and/or active comrades, and there are some surrealist periodicals that occasionally devote most of their space to more or less conventional obituaries and reminiscences. Except for among personal friends, this always creates a definite feeling of not having enough living activity to write about.
Others perhaps correspond to the activist view that death is primarily a bourgeois mythology, and shout "let the dead bury the dead". In some cases this is pure self-defensive denial and rationalisation of one or other brand of shallow hedonism. In other cases it indicates a purely instrumental struggle where individuals are largely cannonfodder. From the latter perspective of course, some will be martyrs or possible to exploit for the cause in some other way. But neither shallowness nor instrumentalism are congenial to surrealism.
Death is always an occasion for attention to and reassessment of the works, ideas, deeds and historical function of an individual. It is a very often a pity that it comes just a little too late, because very often the person it concerns would have been able to clarify some things, and would have been able to benefit and learn from the comments... That is, of course, to the extent that the discussion is based on serious and honest concerns rather than conventional painting in bright colors, shallow mythologisation, denial and propagandisation, or finding a good angle at any price.
But specifically in a living movement like surrealism, the dead are not just dead but still around in a particular active sense since they are part of the collective experience. This is part of the specific reason for surrealists to be explicit surrealists. Most of surrealist activity could be carried out just as well or almost just as well without being referred to as surrealism. Applying that designation is to join in with a community of experiences, and extends this field of action and experience widely in time and space. In space, it is obvious that being surrealists facilitates establishing bonds and collaborating with surrealist groups and individuals in other parts of the world.
In time, it is just as obvious that we all can learn from the experiences of the surrealist groups, contributors and dissidents from the 20s onwards, from the paths taken, the adventures in spirit and everyday life, the daily life of all the groups as well as the individual works, thoughts and deeds of an André Breton or an Antonin Artaud just as well as by a Leonora Carrington or a Claude Cahun, or a Franklin Rosemont or a Sarane Alexandrian; or a René Alleau or a Gaston Bachelard, or an Annie LeBrun or a Matta, or, or, or any of us – it is a marvellously rich field of experiences which lies available to us all (and as an addition, some of these people are still alive and can communicate directly!).
Ok, we occasionally have to stop ourselves not to sound foolish, spiritistic or unnecessarily unreasonable when we want to refer to "oh, but Max Ernst told me this" "that was in our talks with Trotsky" "I remember it so well" "no, but we already tried that, it was in... 1929". But in general, of all the various parameters in mediating experience (language and translations, channels and technologies of direct and indirect communication, published and unpublished works, clarification and mystification, individual or collective accounts, etc) , just as whether one has met someone personally or not very often is not one of the decisive ones, currently dead or alive is clearly a less decisive parameter too. Our individual beings are in many ways merely approximative pragmatic fictions anyway, and in the activities we partake our experiences and ambitions are broadly mixed between those of us who are still alive in the biographical sense and those who aren't.
So far this year, we note the passing of: Jean Benoît, Wolfgang Frankenstein, Elizabeth Onslow-Ford, Alejandro Piva, Horus Schenouda, Ursula Trevelyan... Comrades or past fellow travellers, all with experiences worth our attention, which we may or may not integrate with our own ramblings-