Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Open/closed/closed - political and other implications of organisational heterogenity

Miguel Perez Corrales who (like me) were on the editorial board of What Will Be, has posted a number of blog entries highlighting various part of the contents, which may provide inspirational glimpses to those who do not have the book. Sometimes the angle is surprising, and I had a rather hard time understanding the point of his criticism of either Swedish surrealist veteran Ilmar Laaban, about whom I had written a memorial article, or of me, in one of the posts. As a historical background to the heterogenity of surrealist organisation in the late 40s, where Laaban was involved in several more or less "dissident" forums, I had cited a number of reasons that were historically important for people not to rally uncritically to Breton at that particular time, and I even said that there was a point with a lot of them. Miguel dismisses them with that they mostly smack of stalinism.

Divergences in the 40s
It is an interesting fact that it was indeed the La Main à Plume and other groups in occupied Europe, which had a certain number of, at the time, left-opportunist quasi-stalinist members (several of whom later developed into actual stalinists) - but also many trotskyists and others -, that were the ones who insisted at the time on maintaining the epistemological project within surrealism that is connected with surrealism's hegelianism and which Breton was largely abandoning in his New York exile. The French group during the decades just after the war were indeed more interested in emphasising the esoteric aspect of surrealism's epistemology and the utopian and anarchist aspect of surrealism's politics, but hegelianism and marxism were part of the outlook of many important individuals and subgroups even in France during those times, and had a substantial revival with the revival of surrealist activities themselves in the 60s. Allowing stalinism a monopoly on Marx's thought is something that fashionable liberals and the most simplistic anarchists do. Nevertheless, isn't one of the most crucial things about surrealism's epistemology to see the broad ways in which a traditional, poetic and secret discipline like hermetism/esoterism overlaps with a systematic theory in the philosophical language about change, identity and meaning such as hegelianism (not without precedents: many radical romantics, radical occultists and symbolists did this)? And isn't one of the most crucial things about surrealism's politics that it has affinities with a broad range of emancipatory and revolutionary movements and may join forces with any such specialised agents for periods but cannot be reduced to either? Most of us agree that it was a mistake to join the French stalinist PC in the 30s, but an understandable mistake which had its reasons, and that it was a much more stupid and hardly understandable mistake to do it the 40s (though many surrealists out of respect for the Belgian surrealists or for Jaguer or for Jorn would excuse that too). But this is another question than that of abandoning a systematical theory on society and history (marxism) in favour of some timeless principles (anarchism and utopianism), or abandoning an explicit poetical, epistemological and metaphysical philosophy in 19th century terms (hegelianism) in favour of one obscurely expressed in "timeless" renaissance, medieval and late antiquity terms (hermetism). In both those cases it's not about betting on one horse for the moment, it is more about investigating overlaps and complementing possibilities or of failing to do so. It is also another question than that of either trusting Breton whatever he says and does and wait for him to tell you how the surrealist movement should be organised after the war, or critically considering Breton's position and choosing yourself how to organise. The latter is not less surrealist than the former, and is of course in no way stalinist by implication... We could even note that Breton himself, always an intelligent man regardless of whether one thinks he may be criticised or not, was not sure how to proceed with organisation after the war and famously pondered the question for a couple of years before he relaunched the old surrealist group at the insistance of many of his friends. The plethora of surrealist journals, grouplets and networks in the mid- to late 40s (and also the vast number of adherents rallying to the relaunched group) is indeed one of the most fascinating things about the history of surrealism.

Ilmar Laaban arrives at the Bureau of Surrealist Investigations in Stockholm in 1986
Then it is a completely different thing that Laaban of course had no sympathy whatsoever for stalinism. Refugees from the Baltic states in the 40s rarely had! It was not the least his activity as a Trotskyist in his youth in Estonia that made it necessary to escape Soviet occupation. While in Sweden he quickly started increasingly leaning towards anarchism during the late 40s. And made it a point, anecdotally, to refuse to stand as a member of the editorial board of imaginist journal Salamander for one issue where one writer insisted on a point which could be considered stalinist in an article about Mayakovsky.

But then, I also fail to see any particular "rationalism" in the positions of Waldberg (nostalgia for interwar surrealism, a dash of bataillian mysticism, and a good dose of bourgeois art-world-professional pragmatism) or Caillois (uncompromising insistence on the rigor of the quasiscientific aspect of surrealist experimentation, avoiding any pragmatism, and later turning towards a certain aloof poetic mysticism). As far as I know the "humanism" of Matta was an invective thrown at him a posteriori and bore no relationship to the ideological sense of humanism that surrealism would necessarily oppose (Or maybe he himself was responsible of some ambiguous comments about returning the focus to man when recognisable figures re-entered his paintings? Still far from ideological humanism though)...

"Humanist" paintings by Matta...

Well, of course, we surrealists are used to seeing raging anti-surrealists using factually motivated criticism of Breton as a pretext for presenting surrealism on the whole as completely illegitimate. But does that really mean that anyone who says that Breton can be criticised, speaks in unison with the stalinists and is allied with fashionable antisurrealist academics? No, I don't think so. Personally, I find it important that a surrealist today is struggling with the accumulated experience and ideas of surrealism and of the brilliant pathfinder Breton. His ideas have a bearing on our daily behavior only inasmuch as we are able to scrutinise what is their liberating core sense and what is historical contingency and temporary tactics including misguided tactics and directions. If Breton is made infallible, then he becomes a "great spirit" in the pantheon of minds, which we can feel inspired by at will, but whose experiences are less crucial to our own, whose organisational concerns need not be ours, whose ideas and actions is something more distant from us, which we are left to leave without concern in our daily life. That is reverence and canon; it is not the sense of being a movement.

Mattias Forshage

1 comment:

MF said...

Miguel has now posted a response at http://surrint.blogspot.com/2014/06/la-otra-nota.html.