Monday, January 3, 2011

Accumulation and subtraction

I was going to write pieces about the three major transition periods in surrealism (as announced in "Three eras of surrealism"), but it seems that the 1947 transition is so crucial that it can't be satisfactorily covered with a single essay, so why don't I just write about the aspect of subtraction and accumulation as a part, and consider the obituary of Sarane Alexandrian (as posted here within "experiment and failure revisited") a preformed part, and leave the third part unwritten for times to come? To draw many conclusions about this fascinating and still enigmatic period within surrealism will clearly require more research anyway.

The appearance of surrealism changes. Themes are added and subtracted, some themes are constant, some keep changing and look very different under different circumstances, some are integrated only in some surrealist actvities, some become part of the wider thing.


So, surrealism is importantly subject to historical change, and maintains an active relationship with its contemporary historical situation. Still, it takes caution to remain untimely, and pride in being so, and has no ambition whatsoever to justify itself by claiming a particular shortterm historical mission. The latter in fact means that it is not a vanguardism. It will not contribute to development, it is not allied with the forefront of current change, it does not despise that which is old. In that sense it is also not a modernism, if we employ the term in the sense that many, for example Michaël Löwy in his books about romantic anticapitalism, does. There are other senses of the word modernism, several of which will fit surrealism though. As long as we remember that it lacks the often central aspect of being a vanguardism.

However, we cannot say that surrealism "is not and has never been" a vanguardism. During its early years, it was one to the extent that it felt that its remarkable discoveries might be just what was needed to replace art, literature, aesthetics, entertainment and to fuse poetry and everyday life in a large and historically determinant scale. From 1925 on, doubts were surfacing. It was recognised in Breton's "Surrealism and Painting" that the surrealist aspect of pictorial arts probably was certain tendencies already present rather than something which should be made up de novo after a tabula rasa with the past; it was recognised that the category "poems" was not obsolete and it took its place in the journal beside the "purely" surrealist forms of texts, namely automatic texts and dream accounts; it was recognised that political action was not something to reinvent as a pure expression of surrealism, but perhaps political organisation and activism was rather a necessity on the side, a practical-historical, subjective and objective alliance, with imperatives and forms that could be very different from surrealism's own and yet still relevant to it. All of these concerns undermine the vanguardist claims, and the final expression of this "retreat" came in the the second manifesto, of 1929. In that text, the untimely character of the movement was emphasised, as well as the need to relate in specific ways to the historical circumstances yet still escape the public eye and (for the moment) stay in the shade, as well as keeping up experimenting without sticking to certain forms as if they were solutions.

So, after 1929 surrealism is not a vanguardism, even though many of its sympathisers and participants, especially in peripheral countries, still believed it to be one. And with the revolutionary upheavals and the rapid dispersion of surrealist concerns in art in the 30s, it still appeared like it might, allied with the most radical forces of the time, have stood amidst the forefront of historical change – until the defeat of the spanish revolution, and the general abandonment of hope and critical thinking in rallying to either side of the world war in its manifest slaughter, barbary and cretinism with unrestrained nationalist, chauvinist and rationalist ideologies. Therefore the surrealism that reorganised itself after the war was objectively something different again; something that had lost a cause. And even though it had a very favorable wind in the immediate postwar years, it was without the particular historical hope, it was a bit more like a worthwhile personal way and meaningful pastime among likeminded. Nevertheless, it refused to summarise and evaluate this experience.

Accumulation the 1947 way

Several have noted that there were two major tracks in the surrealists' experience of the war. Those who spent it in nazi-occupied or otherwise openly fascist parts of Europe (such as France, Belgium, Denmark, Czechoslovakia & Romania) represent one track: to maintain or even sharpen some of the ingredients characteristic of mid- and late 30s surrealism: hegelianism, marxism, political organising and intervention, interest in natural science, bachelardism, gestural automatism in art, an almost cynical ideology criticism, etc (this complex of themes was famously emphasised in Fauré's history of the La Main á Plume group, but probably others had noted it before).

Those who spent the war west of that, far from war scenes and/or in bourgeois democracies, regardless of whether as exiles or natives, (UK, Mexico, the Caribbean, USA) typically downplayed these currents and emphasised others, that were there in surrealism too, but mostly had been far more of subcurrents during the 30s: hermeticism, mythology, politics as removed from concrete intervention (utopianism and eternal anarchism), ethnography, an antiscientific stand, romanticism, naive or mediumistic mythology themes in art, etc. (As usual, it is necessary to take caution; both paths contained local variations and contradictions of course.)

In this situation, and with a far larger number of surrealists around than ever before, it was a delicate task to reorganise the surrealist movement. Some wanted to confront and evaluate. This tendency was associated with "Cause", the new office for coordinating international and external surrealist relationships; where, it seems, some of more systemally minded french surrealists were trying to improve organisational forms together with the more theoretically impatient currents in other countries, like the Czech surrealists, English dissidents, Egyptian and Romanian hotheads. But what happened was that there was a major accumulation instead of confrontation, that the western war experiences were made the main focus in a broad integrative way that did not actually deny any aspect of whatever surrealism had once been. It was decided to focus on arranging a big impressive exhibition on a mythological theme displaying breadth and continuity to the public. The ideas to gather an international meeting to discuss experiences, directions and differences internally were turned down, and Cause soon closed down.

The nazi war experiences, or the differences in war experiences, were not subtracted nor openly denied, but they were not given a special place as a crucial theme or topic. At that point, surrealism suddenly became not just untimely but in a sense timeless, climbing up from its actual place in history to some imaginary vantage point in thin air. And still, by doing so at that particular time, it was of course also fulfilling a particular historical function by negating, in an untimely way, the post-war optimism, consumerism and faith in progress, dismissing all of capitalism, nationalism, stalinism and americanism alike. And of course, many of the surrealists of nazi war experiences, and newcomers during the war, were estranged in this situation, some of them turning out as isolated dissidents, but many making the remarkable mistakes of rallying back to stalinist communist parties, or launching new minuscule avantgarde movements, or both.

All themes were accepted into the group, and indeed the different subgroups that had joined together in 1946-47 or had emerged in the crowd there had quite different special interests and perhaps not so much common ground except a general commitment. The "La Revolution la nuit" group had joined as a unit, but the circles around other recent rallying points like the "Clair de Terre" and "Troisème convoi" and especially the main wartime nexus the "La Main à Plume" group were only partially absorbed; the "dandy surrealists" emerged; there were philosophers, bataillans, occultists, architects, cineasts and jazzfans; people returning from exiles in the US, Latin America, the UK; old seasoned activists, antifascists, trotskyists, syndicalists; groupuscules of recently arrived exiles from Czechoslovakia, Romania, Egypt; etc. Perhaps there was a similarity to the situation in 1925 in that no obvious direction was to be discerned, especially not since the option of assuming one had been actively turned down in favour of a unified broad manifestation? Obviously it wasn't enough to focus on some rather nearby enemy, such as the soon emerging coalition of surrealists of nazi war experience that weirdly tried to return to the fold of the stalinist Communist Parties, or the fashionable existentialists, eager to replace surrealism as a trend, while the surrealists didn't give them much attention at all back. The series of purgings taking place 1948-51 still seem strange, hardly warranted by the reasons given, and it has been suggested (Richardson & Fijalkowski) that they were in fact consciously or unconsciously a ritual fire bath to create a new sense of tribal cohesion in the new period with the new people (almost all prewar members were thrown out in the purgings).

An apparent historical nivellation of surrealism's perspectives and themes, which turns out to be instead merely a clean sweep with the plethora of available contradictions and personal varieties and reservations, is that what it is? Which indeed guaranteed surrealism's survival throughout the low tide of the postwar decades, among other things by making it something of a secret society, which had a mission on the eternal level which it would usually not put to test against petty situations and contradictions in such unimportant times? An ark, simply put? (famously, the "second ark" was the title of Breton's catalog preface when the 1947 exhibition moved to Prague). It was quite obvious how the beloved ark metaphor became very fitting for the Czech group with the repression and censorship they were facing, but in France? At least it is not strange that a lot of surrealists or would-be-surrealists were unsatisfied, or disappointed, or pissed off, when they wanted to act on the basis of their own war experiences, and when they wanted to apply tools of pre-war surrealism in particular strategic ways on post-war situations, or just keep the level of immediate subversion relatively high; and found no support for it. It is not strange that the emergence of the new popular movements in the 60s created an unbearable tension which seemed to demand a rebirth of surrealism.

Accumulation the 60s way

It was quite another thing for the new groups emerging in the 60s. When thus reinventing a movement it seems necessary to assume the right to the freedom of picking up any themes from the past that might fill a new relevance in the new context. It might be necessary of course to understand the steps, abandonments and departures made throughout history up to then, but it is not necessary to defend the victorious or the orthodox part in each such contradiction. All of these old fights and positionings were necessary in order to take us where we are today as an inclusive collective and a real movement, but it is not always necessary now to take sides – and especially not to take the side that won – in conflicts that already have had their historical effect. Some decisive turns may be reconsidered, and understood as strategical mistakes or expressions of historical necessities of very limited extension.

When starting a new activity it is about trying to find the angles and attack points of surrealism's many-faceted body that seems most relevant to one's own historical situation (often by potentially negating the immediate expectations in that situation) and to one's own subjective desires (often by replacing known wishes with unknown wishes and wishes for the unknown); in that sense, surrealism is confusingly rich and the options are numerous. Yet not arbitrary or wide open. Any version of surrealism concocted must have an inner coherence and make enough sense in relation to other points of contact within the surrealist movement, be they recent, old or very old, to allow for joint experimenting and investigating, and eventually for mutual confrontation of directions.

Thus, the new activities arriving in and reinventing surrealism in the 60s based in the new radicalism paradigm of the day, was just like the 1947 historical compromise on one level a timeless-like smorgasbord of surrealism's entire width of themes and standpoints. And yet they were not all represented there. One of the main points was to pick up and combine the radical aspects of marxism, anarchism, psychoanalysis, anthropology, hegelianism, hermeticism and popular culture – and not just to pick up and combine them, but also to emphasise that some constellation of that general kind is necessary for each to develop its emancipatory content, and to emphasise the very political edge of them at the same time as the imaginative potential, and the aspect of humour. This is most easily seen in the Chicago group (and emphasised as such in for example Ron Sakolsky's Surrealist subversions) but something similar was present in some form in all of the new activities of that time.

Thus, we see that these two historical cases (1947 and 60s) of reinventions of accumulated or timeless surrealisms, constructions of a surrealism beside time, did not create arbitrary selections nor a neutral nivellated smorgasbord of themes, but instead were specific responses to particular historical demands on the organisational level. The 1960s one appear fairly unproblematic, but the 1947 one was controversial and still remains so.

Attempted subtractions

Let's, on the other hand, take a quick look at some subtractions popularly attempted. Many try to subtract politics; especially people in the process of making careers, or hoping to attain such by appearing to be in line with current trends. Many try to subtract the historical break with purely aesthetic concerns, or the historical change of arena from the high society and careers of art, literature and academia. Some even try to subtract the historical break with christianity. Some try to subtract collectivity, feeling content to do their little experimenting alone, or shy. Some try to subtract hermeticism, somehow constricting the "open rationalism" central to surrealism into a more or less narrow rationalism, as a clumsy overexaggeration of the combat against the misconception of surrealism as an irrationalism, and against current religious horrors. Some try to subtract artistic creation, as a clumsy overexaggeration of the combat against artistic careerism and spectacular functioning of images in society in general.

Obviously, subtracting either of these particular big parts makes such a big difference that it may become very difficult to be solidaric with the history and experience of the movement, and perhaps difficult to attain any coherence of the project that is not just personal-eclectic or short-term instrumental. Of course, it remains open to give each of these aspects more or less emphasis in one's own activity, but to actually subtract them appears to create a platform which may perhaps no longer be surrealism.

What's your favourite subtraction? In fact, many subtractions are possible without a fatal effect. Indeed, with most of surrealism's classic positionings and classic sources, it remains healthy and partly exciting to reinterrogate, reevaluate and scrutinise them.

If some want to subtract the pictorial world of 30s surrealism, this is obviously not a problem since it was a particular field of investigation. If some want to subtract automatism, this is obviously not a problem since it is a method among others for exploring the poetic world; or rather, an attitude or disposition that takes expression in certain methods, so that it will possibly always find expression in the field of surrealist experimentation, voluntarily or not. If many people want to subtract say communism, this is not a big issue because communism as such was never an essential part of the surrealist project, it was, and in fact repeatedly turns out to be again, just one reasonable political application/alliance of surrealism's essential revolutionary and emancipatory quest. So subtracting communism is strictly speaking in a sense not possible, when communism as such has never there been as a basic component part to start with. Some of those who want to subtract communism are perhaps convinced anarchists, who want to reinterpret the eternal sympathy and undeniable similarities between surrealism and anarchism as something which also would mean a necessary association on that level of practical political alliances, thus violating the more fundamental surrealist attitude that such alliances are necessarily conditional and temporary. Others who claim to want to subtract communism, seem to be those who in fact rather would like to subtract active politics, practical solidarity outside a chosen circle, constructive applications of nonconformism, ardent anticapitalism, and revolutionary aims in general, and that, that is a bearing balk which cannot be subtracted without fatal consequences, but on the other hand always will need reinvention as particular implimentations proper to the specific historical circumstances.

Mattias Forshage

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