Thursday, July 9, 2015

Surrealism and Tradition

(another excerpt from the postface to the Swedish edition of the Manifestoes of Surrealism. The paragraph about automatism was posted here earlier.)

A theme running through the surrealist manifestoes, which is not their main point but nevertheless very significant, is the retrospective invention of a surrealist tradition. This means laying bare a line of radical poetic thought culminating in surrealism itself. In contrast with the standard image of an avantgarde modernist movement wanting to make tabula rasa with tradition and invent itself as something absolutely new, surrealism has always and everywhere worked with finding precursors to socialise with, constructing the line, globally as well as locally, leading up to surrealism.

It is this very invention, the surrealist tradition, that Jean Schuster radically misunderstood when he proclaimed the dissolution of the French surrealist group and thought he was able to dissolve historical surrealism as such in 1969. Schuster was talking about the distinction between historical surrealism and timeless surrealism, and for him it followed logically that if historical surrealism had a beginning it must have an end. And why not there and then? Okay, but why? But if it was mainly hubris and lack of overview that convinced him that he was able to assess that surrealism was at an end, or that he had the authority to make this end come about on his own initiative, then his misunderstanding of timeless surrealism was far more fundamental. What he didn't understand is that timeless surrealism, all these elements to a radical poetic practice from all times and all societies, didn't exist in an independent way but formed a line only to the extent that this was tied together in historical surrealism. It was historical surrealism that was able to identify and connect such elements of timeless surrealism, and it was historical surrealism's search for sources of inspiration and for accomplices beyond time and space that made it meaningful to point out the quality of timeless surrealism in these. The surrealist movement has continued to explore and recognise such relatives in various cultural contexts, while external academics and critics recognition of in some meaning objectively surrealist bodies of work in art and initiatives outside surrealism remains a rather vain and in the end utterly pointless attempt at aesthetic genre determination.

The first manifesto lists a long row apparently disparate authorships as surrealist in the one or the other particular respect, while the second manifesto instead emphasises the ambiguity of the testimony of all the dead, and spits on some old heroes. In both texts the basic elements of the tradition are glimpsed here and there. In later texts other elements are added; "Limits not frontiers of Surrealism" emphasises British sources, while in "Prolegomena" Breton is a bit isolated and instead pronounces his own personal line, which is partly identical with the available surrealist tradition and partly his later discoveries, here fulfilling the function of suggestions into the canon of surrealism. Lautréamont and Rimbaud is the very foundation, while other recurring points of reference in these texts are of course Herakleitos, Flamel, Sade, Hegel, Nerval, Marx, Engels, Baudelaire, Moreau, Jarry, Freud, Lenin, Chirico...

Schematic historiography insists that surrealism was born from Dada. But the core of surrealism took shape as a radicalisation of French late symbolism and general modernism in 1919, before its initiators were familiar with Dada, and Dada became, from the viewpoint of surrealism, rather a mere temporary form of organisation, a brief period for making certain important experiences through emphasising certain partial domains of the spirit of the surrealist, and soon it had emptied its potential as a distinct direction. In that respect, Dada is for surrealism a similar entity as certain postsurrealist movements: pataphysics, abstract expressionism, lettrism and situationism, all interesting experiments with picking and refining selected aspects of surrealism, which soon were exhausted. No, the genealogical precursor of surrealism is instead symbolism, which was the particular form for insisting on poetry which the surrealists were based in and departed from and scolded. Other immediate but less direct precursors were absurdism, occultism and anarchist terrorism: often mediated via suspect sources and mere schoolboy admiration. Genuine fields of theory which had often been appropriated only through tendentious selections are represented by Hegel, Marx and Freud (*). On top of that there were whole areas of scholarship having presented themselves through similarly tendentious varities, such as various esoterics (alchemy, gnosticism, certain neoplatonism, kabbala, astrology, spiritism), modern natural science, pre-romanticism and romanticism (**).

It has been noted and deserves to be repeated that surrealism lays bare a line of continuity which is only partially contained by each of its exponents. NN is a surrealist "in xxx" and not in general: it is their active linking with each other in a line leading up to surrealism that clarifies this particular part of their work. Therefore surrealism cares little for trying to solve contradictions within and between these precursors. Surrealism is what is distinct here; while the incarnations of different parts of it, single sources of inspiration for it, don't need to be distinct in any way which is clear to anyone who are not themselves active as surrealists, and they take place there only to the extent they are inspiring as accomplices or useful as tools. That brings us to the very important passage in the Prolegomena speaking about the carpenter's tool bench, which has been noted to primarily emphasise a particular vigilance in maintaining as distinct those different frameworks which are employed. Surrealism never wanted to do rational syntheses of the freudomarxism kind. Freud was utilised as completely valid concerning those processes in the mind where his theories were at their sharpest, at their most heroically revelatory. Marx was utilised as completely valid for an analysis of society. The communist party was utilised, temporarily, as completely valid for organising the action on the social level. The surrealist group's own experimenting and theorising was and has remained completely valid for the themes and ambitions that are its own.

Anyway, we know that Hegel, Marx and Freud all can be used, and have been used, for quite a scope of this and that. Breton's utilisation in the 20s has been far from alone in surrealism, even if they certainly have been integrated into the collective experience not the least in that particular guise. The tradition of surrealism is not the least an unusual body of education. The freedom to invent the presurrealist tradition means among other things the freedom to use old writers to specifically whatever one's own curiosity and longing dictates, specifically what creative shortcuts emerging in the meeting, in coincidences, rather than the most rigorous reconstructions of the real author intentions or the currently fashionable interpretation trend at the university. This particular outlook and insight – wide but without complete overview, in chosen details both intimate and truly perverse – into selected old traditions, disciplines and authors is one of the things that characterises surrealism, in the 20s as well as today. Having an education without ever having gone to university has not been quite as unusual in France as it is in Sweden (at least now since the workers movements independent routes of education have been wiped away), in France where there has really been a sphere of public intellectual discussion outside the academies with a traditional central role for independent intellectuals.

It is of great importance for understanding surrealism to see that it is firmly founded in such an independent environment, that it has been positioning itself visavis cultural movements and popular movements rather than visavis academic trends, and that all of its fundamental theorists have lacked an academic education within the areas they can be said to have been most active in. This separates surrealism already to start with vastly from movements like existentialism, structuralism, poststructuralism and postmodernism, which have not just originated from but actually largely played within the universities.

Indeed it is surrealism that is largely responsible for having created that tradition where Rimbaud is a milestone in the evolution of poetry, and where Jarry and Lautréamont are great names, where the "small romantics" are as important as the big official names, etc. This reformation of the history of literature has hardly been one of surrealism's aims but is a mere byproduct. In contrast to, in turn, the deliberate reformation of the history of literature that the romanticists brought about, which the surrealists in their turn certainly make use of but for another purpose. Or, for that matter, to the poststructuralist selection of surrealism, that makes Artaud, Bataille, Char and others stand forth in the cultural context of recent decades as if they were isolated authorships and not lighthouses within a collective movement...

Mattias Forshage

(*) Let us examplify this bias with Breton's refences to Hegel in the Second manifesto, which may seem quite confusing to a Hegel reader. It has been shown that what Breton refers to is actually Hegel's French translator Augusto Vera's rather free summary of Hegel. From a completely other perspective came, later in the 20s, Kojève’s wellknown introduction of Hegel in France, which turned Hegel into the kind of phenomenological phillosopher he is mainly regarded as in that country. And what is the kind of marxism that the surrealists refer to? It is to a large extent the crash course cultivated within the Third International as the dogma it had become already in the Second International, namely Engels’s popular writings and especially the "Anti-Dühring". It is those and not any careful study of Capital (and of course not Marx’s youth writings, which were then still unpublished) which is the basis of the marxism of the surrealists. And the agenda in their specifically political lines of reasoning is largely what is dictated by the stalinist Third international in its French populist guise, which the surrealists try to fend themselves against but still fulfill and solve in passing, at the same time as they also study various fragments of less light source texts and especially the instance of contemporary advanced marxist theory in Trotsky's writings, and in the studies and agitation by the Left Opposition just taking shape at the time and in which the surrealists well knew several central agents personally.

(**) Especially romanticism has, in these texts from the 20s, a remarkable and somewhat bizarre French bias. At the same time as the surrealists gush forth antinationalist phrases and for polemically antinationalist reasons explicitly salute "thinking and writing in the German language" they have very little insight into this German tradition, just a few translations of Hegel, Marx. Engels and Novalis, and they can still speak about "the outbreak of romanticism in the year 1830" and discuss the romantic movement as if romanticism is synonymous with the late and pale French romanticism!

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