Monday, January 3, 2011

Initial suspension

Of the several periods within the history of surrealism when the direction ahead has been uncertain, perhaps the most crucial was the earliest one.

Automatic writing and most of the immediate sources of surrealism had been discovered already in 1919, but only in 1922 when Dada had risen and declined in Paris, these themes were made a rallying point for the radical poetic circles, and only during the second half of 1924 they were launched to the general public (with Aragon's manifesto "Une vague des Rêves", Breton's surrealist manifesto and the "Poisson soluble" collection of automatic texts, the opening of the Bureau of Surrealist Research, and finally the journal La Révolution surréaliste).

But even at this point the group was very heterogenous and the direction somewhat scuttling. In fact very soon after the public launch, already in 1925, activities were becoming poorly held together, and the future was uncertain, Breton stayed at home and thought about quitting, all kinds of revellings and jokes were suggested to be among the central activities, personal contradictions thrived. While the last bonds of collegiality with the cultural circles were finally thrown aside in the huge scandal of the Saint-Pol-Roux banquet in the summer of 1925 (where famously a quarrel over nationalism at a cultural dinner lead to fistfighting and wrecking furniture), there was at the same time an open conflict between three animators in the group trying to pull it each in their own direction.

There was at the time a kind of "constructive opposition" taking shape through the politisation of the group. Most people were radicalised by the revolt in Marocco; Breton, Masson and others started reading Marx and Trotsky; certain individuals joined the Communist Party. This politisation also lead to finding new allies, foremostly the Clarté group of communists, but also the young philosophers of Philosophies, and some old dadas, and with the emerging Belgian and Serbian surrealist circles, and several other individuals; all of these collaborated on the manifesto supporting the Maroccan Rif rebellion in august 1925. The collaboration with Clarté and Philosophies was formalised, for a short while almost to the point of fusion, which was one of the things breaking up internal continuity in the surrealist group. Visavis this collaboration and visavis the revolutionary movement in general, the sense of autonomy of the surrealist group was vividly discussed among its members, and very differing strong opinions were represented. Also many other fundamental questions were heatedly debated. Including art, where Naville claimed that it is self-evident that there is no such thing as surrealist painting (and Morise had said something similar before), but soon thereafter the Galerie Surréaliste was opened and Breton started writing Surrealism and Painting.

The three alternatives can be discerned as follows: On one hand the seductive pessimism, maximalistic, individualistic, voluntarist on the spiritual level, foremostly animated – and given a very gnostic tinge – by the personal demonism of Antonin Artaud, very effective in formulating and fuelling radical opposition to not only society on the whole but the human condition in general – in early 1925 this seemed to be the dominant mode of the group, and very obviously productive. Secondly, the more methodical moralism, collectivistic, intellectual, voluntarist on the moral and organisational level, leaning towards a conditional collective involvement in politics, and based in the growing but not yet solid personal dignity, reliability and trust of Breton. Finally, a directly political voluntarism was slowly taking shape, based in consistent revolutionary defeatism, claiming that only proletarian revolution can create a surrealist revolution and make real the movement's demands and desires, therefore that political activism must be prior to surrealist activity from a surrealist viewpoint – this direction was energised probably more by general polarising dynamics of the times than by its major proponent, the not all that charismatic Pierre Naville. (It is too simplifying, and too eager to legitimate the winning alternative, to suggest that "artaudism" was only about spiritual revolution, "navillism" only about material revolution, and "bretonism" about combining the two – it tends for all three to obscure their main point and attraction – neither of those two alternatives nor their simple combination can be regarded as specifically surrealist!) Now if many other members wanted to moderate or combine these three paths, nevertheless these three characters insisted and eventually ended up in an implacable opposition towards each other (all three threatened to withdraw from the group at some point!). For one year it was quite uncertain which direction the group would take, and also whether it would actually survive this inner conflict.

But the outcome of the tug of war soon cleared. Breton had grabbed the editorship of La Révolution surréaliste already in 1925 explicitly to counter the "artaudian" negativist dynamics. Politics became a major interest for a large part of the group. Artaud left the group in 1926, at around the same period as a couple of literary figures uninterested in politics (like Soupault & Vitrac). Somewhat later several leading surrealist announced their individual and critical adherence to the communist party, (where they got constantly harassed by the stalinist officials of course). Politisation was still held up as an active problem, and Naville's book La Révolution et les Intellectuelles (1926) was appreciated and remained under discussion, but the surrealist group had become more of a coherent collective with a distinct direction, with a distinct mode of collectivity, and, with Breton as the undisputed central figure. Finally, Naville left the group to become a leading Trotskyist. During these years in the late 20s, surrealist painting was explored and surrealism largely stepped back from its claims to be able to replace the entirety of the forms in bourgeois culture with automatic texts, dream accounts and games, while the internationalisation of surrealism continued.

In 1929, Breton's new manifesto was published launching some new themes or strategies for surrealism, and a lot of people left the group, but it is not the turning point that most historians have wanted to make of it. A widespread misunderstanding is that everybody who didn't want to get into politics were expelled in 1929 with the appearance of the second manifesto. In fact, most of the apolitical members had already left long before (Soupault, Vitrac, Artaud, Delteil etc), and most of those who went in 1929 – before the second manifesto was published – were communists, or curious about communism, just like most of those who remained. One factor that has been held forth recently is that Breton's marriage collapsed at the time, causing some close friends of Simone Breton to leave the group in sympathy with her (at least Morise and Queneau). But it clearly seems like most of those who left were just inconvenient with the eagerness to regroup with larger coherence, with a sense of occultation and without vanguardism, with full moral commitment to an integrative poetic revolutionary project. It was people who wanted to be able to remain half-time surrealists, or couldn't accept other's critique of immoral and despicable activities under the excuse "to make a living", or were still hoping for literary, journalistic or political carreers. And since there were new members approaching, this indeed came to a dramatic decantation – a quick headcount of members of the surrealist group (the headcount cannot be anything but quick, because otherwise we'd need either to decide on particular criteria on whom to count this time, or to debate a large number of uncertain cases at length) says there were almost 40 members in the group in the beginning of 1929, but 22 in the end of the year, and with an overlap of only 11 persons. A dramatic decantation, but not a major course shift, rather a final realisation of the nature of the commitment demanded by this project at this moment in time.

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