Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Madder Love

In surrealism it has been relevant to talk quite a lot about sexuality, but many of these discussions has a lot to benefit from paying attention to discussions elsewhere about it in the past decades. For example, the concepts of "queer" are a bit of a revelation to the discussion about sexuality, which highlight certain things that are innate in the dynamics of desire and which are traditionally addressed but in a largely intuitive way in surrealism. Thus, I think the conjunction of surrealism and queer is crucial nowadays. Queer theory and the queer movement have made explicit several issues that were always essential to surrealism, sometimes in a way which clearly deviates from the more surrealist potential of the topic, sometimes in a way that has radical implications that surrealism might need to learn as new. Surely, surrealism and queer are natural allies in the struggle against neoconservative-christian core family ideology, sexual obscurantism and sexual hypocrisy, and in the exploration of the vast field of possibilities beyond normality, convention and fixed identities. Many concerns are shared or analogous, others divergent or simply irrelevant to each other. At the crossroad of these various concerns, I think that Peter Dubé's anthology Madder Love, about the conjunction of surrealism and male queer fiction, is highly interesting already from highlighting the conjunction it claims to explore.

Dubé himself is the only author in the book with anything like an active involvement in surrealism and a good knowledge about surrealism, and his introduction is the only text in the book which is not fictional. It is not a surprise then that this introduction provides the most useful clues to the sense of overlap between queer and surrealism, being one of the texts in the book that felt most original as well as most personal; bringing up all the basic motivations and concerns and complications, offering the example of himself as a case study along with certain necessary distinctions and reservations. There are definitely many questions which are still just breached upon ever so lightly, but it is more easy to identify them standing out between questions that have been discussed. Dubé emphasises the way in which surrealism and queer both are faithfully founded in and emphasising desire, both as a point of departure in itself and as the arena or watchword for the transformation of the self and the world alike, processes that go hand in hand, and not the least through the cultivation of heterogenity and nonconformism, beyond conventions and against family, religion, law and order.
    Rather too easily Dubé admits and echoes any criticism of prejudices on Breton's behalf, though, as a surrealist, only to get on to the point that the radical core of Breton's thought lies elsewhere and is what matters in the end (many of these issues of prejudice are real and should be recognised, but the superficial and categorical form in which the accusations are part of art history "general knowledge" today are very misleading, and anyway primarily used as arguments against surrealism or Breton on the whole, rather than as examples of contradictions with particular historical reasons within the manifestations of surrealism, which may have planted some obstacles but hardly affected the general direction of the inner dynamics of the movement).
    One thing which Dubé does not bring up, as he bases his comparison on his personal example, is the fundamental ground shared between surrealism and queer on the theoretical level, not just through the emphasis on heterogenity and transformation, but on the problematisation (or deconstruction, if you will) of normality: there is nothing naturally given and obvious about what is considered normal, the normal is always just a chosen narrow portion of the spectrum of possibilities, which always has its specific causal origins, its specific historic circumstances, and its ideological reasons for being emphasised. Concerning sexuality and love, on the theoretical level, it was definitely Sigmund Freud that provided concepts and explanations for much of how this occurs. After him, surrealism investigated one level of the consequences of this, while remarkable empirical studies cementing the foundations were provided by enquiries as diverse as that of Alfred Kinsey and that of Michel Foucault. Nowadays, the more philosophical formulations by writers like Georges Bataille and Gilles Deleuze are very popular.
    Then the stories. Interesting, with good and bad surprises. Taken all together, neither answering my questions nor all that convincing. But still unusually interesting for a literary anthology, of course... Indeed a lot of the included texts were very readable, fun and enjoyable, but very few I percieved as immediately moving for the spirit, and most added little or very little to highlighting particular possibilities of the conjunction of the two terms of the theme.
    The exceptional piece of the book was Stephen Beachy's, which succeeded in establishing a very strange atmosphere in a loosely coherent odd world of certain associative connections that seemed a bit random but obsessive; an un-pre-meditated poetry emerging from the weaving of the fantasies, in a way that I perceive as immediately surrealist and trust as undoubtedly productive. There were some elements that were recognisable as traditional gay fetishes, but they seemed to be mere associations that had been internalised as parts of the rules of the games in the personal mythology governing this strange world, rather than identity markers or (sub-)cultural markers. The way this personal mythology assembled all kinds of elements that seemed unexpected or random to the reader but absolutely necessary according to the unusual inner logic of the story, gave it a certain "suchness" of the special kind usually found in outsider art...
    I also much appreciated the ambitious experiments of Tom Cardamone and Craig Laurance Gidney, who determinedly set out to investigate certain particular regions of the imagination – much more convincing in the beautiful miniature by Cardamone (an instructive exercise in bachelardian material fantasy), less convincing but commendable and fun in Gidney.
    Of the remaining contributions, though different in terms of formal/stylistic genre, and in quality, I was very surprised to see so much convergence. It just seemed to me that most of the contributions in the book were based in a particular approach in terms of method: they were all built on a certain kind of exaltation of memory fragments of sexual encounters, disconnecting rather than connecting individual strong images of strong sensual/sensory details, mixed with scattered stream-of-consciousness associations and with a battery of usually unsurprising metaphors highlighting the erotic content, musing over these memory fragments with an obvious feeling of nostalghia (often combining tough attitude with sentimentality), and with a definitive collage aesthetic, sometimes very filmic and sometimes more literary-proustian.
    Of all the different stories that I roughly group as displaying these characteristics, Dubé's own was the one I liked best, and it had a bit of coherence-generating mechanism going in the metonymical pulsating between the photograph and the memory images around it, with some strong and/or unexpected images providing flaring beacons. Others like the manneristic porn of Sven Davisson (or the softer variety of Shaun Levin), or the pretentious rhetoric of Jeffery Beam, and others, I was completely unimpressed by.
    Ok, Boyer and Killian do not conform to this at all, and were really fun, but it's not obvious to me what they have to do with either of the terms of the theme (perhaps it's just something I miss...).
    Nevertheless, this particular angle that I find so many contributions coming from, seems very Beat to me, and, like Beat, in general very urban, American, masculine, posturing, verbose, self-conscious, rather deliric, underground, streetwise, dirt-containing, sex-focused, at best lyrical, associative, sensuous; ok I see how this can be one relevant idiom for writing gay fiction. But wherein would the opening towards surrealism lie? The general points made in the introduction are relevant. But based on these particular examples, I see less of such obvious surrealist aspects. Ok, there is something that makes you think of Bataille about it all too. The themes of transgression, of erotic overdetermination, of expenditure, of celebrating low materialism. Is this the connection with surrealism? Bataille is a rich and ambiguous writer whose approaches can be used from very different viewpoints; a surrealist Bataille is a particular Bataille. (Swedish radical-conservative gay catholic anarchist publicist Bo Cavefors – a hero in his publicist deed but quite confused theoretically and politically – once wrote about the "cock" in Bataille's writings, and I almost wondered whether he had read Bataille at all, I know of few writers with so little "cock" as Bataille, who keeps on his eternal celebration of the wound, the pain, the abyss, the existential exaltation of everything before this abyss, the masochist vertigo of letting everything go but in the sadean manner of staying at the edge and talking ceaselessly about it, and thus metonymically if you will then perhaps the ass, but hardly cock...) And what about Burroughs? Is he an important figure in these connections or not? I was personally into industrial music before I turned to surrealism so sure, I'm an old fan, and I do see surrealist aspects of Burroughs, but far more in his paranoia, especially the paranoic-critical image transformation series (often with a certain focus on sexual images) but probably also in his mindboggling metaphysical paranoia, than in his "low materialism" or his eroticism. Beat is clearly not surrealism, and very few (such as Ted Joans) have managed to bridge the gap, Bataille was a surrealist but most of the contemporary use of his theories and of his name is from clearly other viewpoints than the surrealist one, Burroughs was not at all a surrealist but is relevant to surrealism if we emphasise the surrealist aspects.
    And reading the authors presentations (indeed a small section of the book) feels, admittedly far more than reading the stories themselves, as the regular bundle of common misunderstandings of surrealism, gratefulness for spontaneity and weirdness to have released a productivity in purely literary terms. Is it only the uneducated general public who still equals surrealism with Salvador Dalí, while younger people who are into culture nowadays usually cannot distinguish it from collage aesthetics in general, William Burroughs, David Lynch, John Cage, psychedelic indie, sexual excess, odd Science Fiction? and so will not be able to distinguish surrealism from any pop-culture extremism, or twisted beat-style, or western mysticism, or industrial music/extreme-goth aesthetics, or retro-modernism, or whatever they are already doing? And by distinguish I'm not saying it is some specific boundaries of surrealism that need to be guarded, but a distinctness in overall aims and above all atmosphere that can't be compromised without missing the point, perhaps above all the trust in poetry to emerge from the unknown...
    But I really wonder, this particular pattern that I've been seeing in the stories, is it something significant of a common strain within the established field of "gay fiction" in general, or is it on the other hand specifically what writers in the gay fiction scene come to think of when they think about surrealism? Is it what they usually do, or is it a specific phantom that has emerged? Of course, I'm quite clueless here as I don't really have a notion of what is going within this gay fiction field; surely an established field, it surely has a bunch of conventions and a bunch of inner contradictions and a bunch of diverging or aberrant tendencies... It makes me really curious as to how the anthology was assembled: were the individual works themselves chosen, or a certain number of writers invited to contribute whatever they chose, or was an invitation circulated in a wider circle?
    On the other hand, much of my consternation with this material may have little to do with the particular context, and it may be various things that I feel baffled about merely since I read very little contemporary on-the-cultural-market prose whatsoever, and this is perhaps the only anthology of contemporary short stories outside the surrealist movement that I will read this decade... It is not just propaganda but probably very often true when the surrealists say that it is easier for "ordinary people" to grasp and practice surrealism than it is for people who come from cultural circles. Surrealism is dependent on that particular abandonment , that particular break with the concerns of the literary purpose. Otherwise it'll easily become mere exercise in style, perhaps focusing on nostalghia for a particular Paris interwar sense of urbanism and adventure, which easily becomes a facet of postwar American beat sensibility...
    Yet, in the restatement of the existence/potentiality/urgency of this particular field, and perhaps also in the unseen atmosphere ripe with fetishistic constellations of an opaque personal mythology in Beachy, and suggestions of certain particular movements of the imagination in Cardamone, or emerging from a distance after having read and reacted to all the text on the petty level of being texts... a reply of sorts, after all, to my questions, or kindred questions.

M Forshage

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