Saturday, April 21, 2012

Surrealism and Philosophy III

The recent appearance of Sebbag's Potence avec paratonnerre – Surréalisme et philosophie did not - unfortunately - make my own ideas of a serious scrutiny of the conjunction surrealism and philosophy redundant (it is still open for someone else to do the broad historical synthesis). A serious and solid work, Sebbag's book nevertheless focuses entirely on the philosophical background and possible philosophical project of French 20s surrealism. If coming from a less reliable author, this could be interpreted as an attempt to confine surrealism to France and the pre-war era. But Sebbag was an activist of the French surrealist group 1964-69 and never supported schusterian liquidationism but at numerous occasions has acted as a sympathiser of the international surrealist movement and as a knowledgable writer on surrealism. Indeed, this is the kind of thorough yet reasoning empirical study that we often miss in what is being written about surrealism, and if we accept that the subject of the book is limited, it is in fact very useful and appears in parts quite brilliant; demonstrating a remarkable effort in source research as well as in thinking, based in solid knowledge about what surrealism is, it appears not just recommendable but very instructive. 

So there is not much about Bachelard, about Bataille, about the 30s objectivity craze including objective chance, about the sublime point, about the trajectories of Freud and Hegel and Marx and hermeticism, about inspiration from and controversies over modern physics, about gestalt psychology, about phenomenology, about symbols and imagination, about opposition to existentialism, about non-oidipal reinvention of everything, about the Alquié controversy, about the 60s rejuvenation and the thinkers and topics it brought into the discussion, about complex contradictions with structuralism and poststructuralism, about conjunctions with philosophy pulled in by Czech, North American, South American, British surrealists, etc etc – everything from the 30s onwards, including many (but not all) of these topics are mentioned on a few pages, in the book's third section of smaller essays on "Concepts surréalistes" and in the very loosely coherent chapter of lists of philosophers called "L'homme est un flamme parlante", but they are not fully discussed and not integrated into a general discussion of the relationship between surrealism and philosophy.

Instead, it is mostly about the concepts of the pre-surrealist and earliest-surrealist project of determining the "modern spirit" and the nonconformist postsymbolistic poetical idealism that fuelled that notion. It is about what is being illuminated when posing the introduction's pseudoquestion whether the poetic idealism of the early surrealists was novalisian, schellingian or berkeleyan... (why not hegelian or hermetic or gnostic? but primarily: why would there necessarily be a contradiction?) It is about exactly how much those authors or Kant or Nietzsche meant, and to what extent Bergson and others actually played a role for the surrealists in spite of their denial, and the ambiguous but enthusiastic use of French moralists and rationalists. It is about the philosophical implications of Lautréamont's Poesies, about the discussions with the "Philosophies" group, about Janets versus Freuds concept of automatism, about the notion of surreality, about the concept of the spirit and the defense of it. It is about the metaphysical and epistemological projects sketched in the earliest surrealist manifestoes.

So, if there just would have been a subtitle saying something about "the philosophical outlook in the origin of surrealism" or similar, rather than the somewhat misleading "surrealism and philosophy". And if we all do remember that surrealism is in fact an objective entity, international, historical, ongoing, which we contribute and relate to, which was successively revealed by the first surrealists in the 20s and later and which we are responsible together for the current meaning of – rather than a contingent doctrine constructed by those first surrealists which we can just sympathise with and perhaps try to apply as closely to the original form as possible...

It will be a standard reference, but with 650 pages in French (even though it is mostly clear academic French rather than obscurantist rhetorical French) it will hardly be one of these remarkable interventions that will, locally or globally, change our selfimage or educate the general public what surrealism is about. And my own knowledge of French is clearly insufficient to go into any detail and interpret, highlight or debate any of the conclusions (so please regard all my comments as very preliminary).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very sympathetic and clarifying reponse to this review came from Georges Sebbag himself in a personal email. The most important point he addresses is that he has indeed been planning a sequel to this volume, treating many of the questions, authors and times I regretted the absence of in this volume. He points out that a footnote on page 652 - that I missed - clearly states this intention. Great news!