Friday, March 29, 2013


(Excerpt from my postface to the Swedish 2011 edition of Breton's Manifestoes of Surrealism (Sphinx); a postface where I felt for once that I made a decent job of summarising what surrealism is all about... It would be good to get an occasion to make an English version of the entire text; this is just a quick translation of the section about Automatism to intervene in an ongoing discussion elsewhere)

The fact that surrealism from the beginning was equated with the automatist method has caused some confusion through history. Surrealism is a living movement, not a doctrine which lies when once laid down. Indeed, during the first few years in surrealism, surrealism and automatism were synonyms (as in the First Manifesto). But already at that time the surrealists were busy with a width, successively wider, of experiments and struggles, and fairly soon it was necessary to abandon the narrow circumscription of surrealism as a synonym of automatism, and instead the term was applied to the entire movement, the entire spirit, the entire arsenal of methods. And by the end of the 20s reasons were being felt to downplay the importance of automatism, at least in the sense that there were warnings against the thoughtless application of it as a recipe, and emphasises that the experience of automatism had been ambiguous. (Note: See the Second Manifesto, and even sharper in Aragon's "Treatise on style", then at greater length in Breton's "The automatic message".) And while a few historians have failed to grasp that the concept of surrealism was initially widened to mean more than automatism, there are others who have noted the critical evaluation of automatism around 1930 and loudly claim that surrealism abandoned automatism entirely. Both are equally wrong of course, and this should be obvious to any serious student of the activities and works of surrealists.

Automatism, originally the writing with such speed that all conscious aesthetical and moral concerns were incapacitated, has remained one of the most basic sources in its principle, but quite differently implemented, and of quite different relative weight in different projects, different methods, different points in time, different groups, different writers, different artists. The various guises that automatism appears in offer a remarkable width, the mapping of which perhaps still remains to do. And its most fundamental content is perhaps not the flow – it is for example substantially different from any spontanism or "stream of consciousness" – but rather the mediality. The automatism "opening the tap" is not only about sidestepping censorship and not primarily about quantitative production. It is rather the actual absence of conscious aesthetic concerns which is central, and whoever creates under those circumstances will be sidestepping their persons and thereby paradoxically revealing their inner resources, making themselves mere tools for poetry, which is something objective, larger and more general. It is necessarily done in an experimental way, it is about exploring something unknown, rather than assembling by recipe. This mediality will sometimes take the shape of rigid concentration, even discipline, which may to an external person seem confusingly unlike the expansive flow. But such a more general sense of mediality is typically implemented in the majority of surrealist games and methods, regardless of what is invoked is chance itself, or the product of collectivity beyond the purposes of any single individual, or mere sensibilities and material of unconscious character within the single psychic individual. It is, not the least, about demystifying inspiration, forcing inspiration, and, mark me well, this without depreciating it!

Often the results are not very striking: they may be predictable or just bland: that is a natural risk in any experimental undertaking. Two points must be made in this connection. One is that for surrealists it is very often not the final result, for example a poem or a painting, which is the interesting thing, but instead the experience, the application of the experiment, making oneself available for poetry; and the works coming out of it hold an interest that is highly contingent. Often enough they succeed in conveying new perspectives or unusual atmospheres and images, but it is not at all decisive whether they they do it or not, they may just as well be pure by-products of at most documentary interest – and the fact that still they have a form which makes it possible to put them next to works produced with completely different purposes and methods current in contemporary cultural production, may be confusing enough for those critics and historians who wants to judge over the works with an aesthetical (in the narrow sense) measure which is rigid, predetermined and timeless, and of course also if it struggles to be timely and is idea-based and relativising.

The second point is one which is almost diametrically opposite, and is presented in the First Manifesto, remembered in the Second and still has its relevance in particular situations, but which is almost entirely polemical within the cultural field. It is the point that the products of automatist methods will have a poetic, humoristic, surprising and prophetical character which often enough will turn out to be distinctly more interesting than most of what is produced with conscious aesthetical aims within contemporary literary and artistic practice. And this despite the fact that they will have a distinct naivity, a lack of outlook, a certain ridiculousness and an immediate absurdity. Or not really despite, but often thanks to this, since this will be capable of being preferrable –from all viewpoints – over works struggling to fit into the fashions and competition for recognition of the times.

Furthermore there are many questions around the importance of automatism that still remain to investigate critically. Within the surrealist tradition it is obvious that there has been, and still are, a width of interpretations, all the way from those emphasising how the experience and the traces must be interpreted and evaulated on an analytical level, to those who emphasise that the practice in itself is paradigmatical as an image of and a step in the reintegration of man; nevertheless for surrealism all such contradictions are clearly secondary compared to the intense curiosity that spurs us to ceaselessly expose ourselves to the experience. Most of those critical perspectives are actually put forth in passing already in the Second Manifesto anyway.

The story is well-known. Breton had become curious about free associations and hypnagogic images through his Freud-reading and his work as a doctor during the war. He was led to associate them with the application of methods of chance and of flow within litterature, especially with the flow in Lautréamont, and he got involved together with Philippe Soupault in writing The Magnetic Fields in 1919, which has entered the annals of history and the whole story is related in the first manifesto. There were strong connections with many of the chance experiments in Dada; Arp's poetry, Huelsenbeck's poetry, collective writing games like "Die Hyperbol vom Krokodilcoiffeur und dem Spazierstock". There were strong connections with mystical mediality, with spiritist and religios mediality (while of course denouncing those metaphysical assumptions that the practioners of these were content with), but more than anything with the distinct vision of poetical clarity as expressed in Rimbaud, and which in him explicitly was the product of a long and careful disorder of the senses. (Note: Some have made a big issue out of noting how the concept of automatism within surrealism has failed to stick to the concept within mysticism, or to purely therapeutical applications within psychoanalysis; which nevertheless was the basic point since the aim was something quite different! Just as irrelevant are all those literature historians who make a big issue out of "revealing", in opposition to the surrealists' own declarations of their dependence on Freud, that the concept of automatism in surrealism "actually" rests on some other authority within psychology; whole careers have been built on insisting on Jung, Myers, Janet or Taine.) Three years later, when the Dada movement was collapsing, it was chosen to pursue experimentation in this particular direction. Yet more automatic writing, and hypnosis, were put at the top of the agenda. Hypnosis was quickly abandoned, and instead accounts of dreams became very popular, and there came a number of different suggestions as to how to implement automatism in visual art. And also after automatism had been denied as the golden road to the surreal, people continued to write automatic texts, daily games continued to rest on one or other type of automatism, and important steps forward in surrealist painting was very often about the invention of new methods of implementing automatism. In more recent times, musical improvisation has been added as a new, distinct and fruitful area of automatist experimentation.

Mattias Forshage

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