Friday, January 6, 2012

Surrealism and Philosophy

A year ago I started working on an overview of the historical relationship between surrealism and philosophy. Not having had the time to write this up, I now find that Georges Sebbag (an activist in the French surrealist group in the 60s, who is now busy producing a broad stream of retrospective but not unsympathetical books about surrealism) is publishing a big book on the same subject. I have not read it yet (it's not released yet is it?), so I cannot say whether it will make my findings and emphasises redundant or increasingly relevant. But it may place it as a topic on the agenda, and certain side musings and rants of mine may possibly take their place in a broader discussion, so why I don't I try and go ahead offering them. Here, a reaction on a fairly recent rereading of Ferdinand Alquié's book about The Philosophy of Surrealism from the 50s, a highly controversial book written by a professional philosopher who was a good friend of the French surrealists and who was always defending surrealism in an often strikingly intelligent and insightful way in the intellectual debate.

I remember the book from my youth (read it 25 years ago) as a very sympathetic book, if slightly boring, and with a very strange basic thesis that surrealism is not hegelian but cartesian.

Rereading it for the first time now, I was at first shocked to see how slyly and instrumentally Alquié puts himself in the particular french assimilationist-cultural-syncretic tradition that has always (or at least since Carrouges, Malraux, Crastre and others published their thoughts about Breton) insisted that surrealism, and Breton in person, is in fact only about "good", that surrealism is radical in being the only ones in the 20th century who dared comprehensively defend human creativity and human goodness; romanticism, individualism and humanism. It is in this particular guise that Breton is indeed counted among the big names of 20th century culture in France. Purely assimilated, recuperated, in-defined. We might define this as an enemy strategy, giving surrealism a place among other cultural currents in the history of 20th century literature and art. (Here in Sweden we have most of the respondents of the 1995 Stora Saltet surrealism enquiry to cultural workers as an example.) At the same time, the leading proponents are very often very sympathetic to surrealism, sometimes very sensitive to its contradictions and openings, sometimes very respectful to its claims of autonomy and speaking for itself; it is clearly the ideology most commonly underlying surrealismophilia, and is held in its entirety by many of the best surrealism scholars. Alquié is clearly one of them. What he says is always congenial with at least some currents and potentials within surrealism, and always respectful and admiring (perhaps in a sense always obviously jealous of taking part in a real adventure). Many very good questions are posed, many very astute observations are made. And in the end, half of the standpoints defended are obviously wrong.

Alquié claims surrealism is essentially cartesian and thoroughly non-hegelian and most surrealists have simply misunderstood this objective quality of surrealism. This claim made the surrealists and especially Gérard Legrand furious already at the time the book came out.

Alquié claims surrealism is all about defending humanity as incarnated in the inherent will to do good and the inherent capacity of making the right judgment by the individual. Thus, just like he dismisses surrealism's hegelianism, he also dismisses its profound expectancies on collectivity, on chance, on deep negativity, on fury, on madness, except as polemical or transitional forms that disrobe the false goodness and humanity of conformism, capitalism and christianity, and he claims that for a true surrealist any of these tropes will have to be immediately abandoned once rhetorically used to prove again the faith in sound intuition for the human good.

Revolt can not be surrealist, and only a tool in passing for a surrealist, in Alquié's view, and thus anyone who maintains revolt, or any other of these negative attitudes, is in Alquié's view not a real surrealist but a dadaist stuck in childish negativity. Alquié does in fact seriously explicitly claim that even as incorporated in surrealism, those classic revolters among the forerunners and even advocates of surrealism were not actual surrealists: Sade and Vaché were not surrealists in the sense Breton claimed they were, Artaud and Tzara never understood surrealism because they remained revolters.

Revolution is still a true watchword of surrealism for Alquié, but he introduces a dichotomy between a good revolutionary attitude which is utopian, and a bad revolutionary attitude which is political. The fact that the surrealists were blinded and seduced by the political project, which made them join forces with dialectical materialism, with marxism, with the workers movement, etc, was just a misconception based on them erroneously believing they were hegelians.

And hegelianism, for Alquié, is, not incorrectly, fundamentally antihumanism. If there is such a thing as qualitative leaps, and if there is such a thing as objectivity outside the human mind, then that means that intuition, the good, and individualist humanism are threatened, and then one will jump onto any headless haphazardly-rationalised project such as politics, and abandon the supremacy of spontaneous individual intuition to dangerous speculative reason and to the dangerous collective.

So not only politics, revolt and negativity are not surrealist, but all the efforts towards objectivity and self-abandonment in surrealism: collectivity, chance, method, automatism, ritual as well as any inspiration from, including mock-replication and real pilfering of elements of science, cannot be really surrealist whenever the individual's intuitive judgment is sidestepped (which was one of the main points of such practices).

Surrealism is reduced to profound humanism. Half of the particularity of surrealism is dismissed right away, and the other half would be dismissed by implication. Alquié's view is really interesting as a well-phrased and intelligent systematical expounding of that very misrepresentation which, in far less clear-thought ways, is typically shared by the majority of the surrealismophiles, surrealism fans and surrealismologists within the cultural field, because according to it surrealist activity outside the cultural field is but a vain gesture and the only relevant place for surrealism is a source of warm inspiration for people's little cultural practices.

Well, you just go ahead. We who are active in surrealism place see far more in it; we are expecting far from more it, and we are seeing it deliver far more than that in our experimentation and our general collective experience which you guys will keep misunderstanding the relevance of.

Mattias Forshage


John Thomas Allen said...

Actually Alquie finds in *transcendence* the fulfillment of Surrealism, not humanism. And he does not have done with revolt in the manner you describe. I am active in Surrealism and this is one of my seminal texts.

John Thomas Allen said...

merdarius said...

Yes, Alquié is an interesting and rather rich philosopher, who is well-informed enough to form his own interpretation of surrealism based on historical evidence and empathy together, and whose interpretation in turn can be perceived differently by different readers. Clearly, it is surrealism that Alquié is explicitly speaking about, and I find his concept of the core of surrealism to be an overall humanistic deviation compared with the antihumanistic dynamics of surrealism which I prefer to emphasise. Would Alquié want to transcend humanism? Maybe, but I can’t see how that makes him succeed in escaping it. And I can’t see how Alquié is not dismissing revolt as childish and maybe sweet and a necessary stage but basically irrelevant to what he considers the constructive and good side of surrealism.

Anonymous said...

Never seen an artist/poet who has put this much work in Surrealism this viciously criticized.

I guess this guy (Kenneth Cox) having an online journal pretty much says it all.