Tag Archives: Guy Debord

J. G. Ballard—Manhole 69 & The Concentration City

fig. 1. The cover of my increasingly thumbed 2002 paperback Collected Short Stories–now with added spine.

I have been reading J. G. Ballard, The Complete Short Stories (2002). My intention is to use Ballard to facilitate my ongoing research into the Science Fiction Spectacle. Along the way I plan on the occasional review with thoughts and ruminations on the side. Here are its first, sickly fruits.

fig. 2. The cover of New Worlds no. 55 in which Ballard’s “Build-Up” first appeared. Even though the cover illustration was not for his story, it nonetheless seems eminently Ballardian in retrospect: the wreck of a craft, a barren landscape and the lone survivor of this collective unconsciousness. Illustration by Terry Maloney.

The Concentration City (1957)

“The Concentration City”—originally “Build-Up” (1957)—is an early story that plays with what would become, in time, distinctly Ballardian themes. Here, it is the city become metaphor of a labyrinthine and neurotic psyche rendered in concrete and steel.

Possessing a suitably Kafkaesque name, the protagonist Franz M. wants to fly, to escape the bonds of Earth.[1] But his dream seems impossible. All is city, horizontally and vertically, as far as the eye can see. The city’s “Foundation” is a myth, pure speculation, and the idea of a free-space that is not the city remains just that—an idea whose improbability is underlined by the brutal fact that a cubic foot of space operates as the universal commodity, perforce with a dollar figure attached.

Ballard’s dystopian city become world/world become city is implicitly critical, a hellish vision of the anxieties surrounding the urban reconstruction and mushrooming suburbanisation of the 1950s. In the story the city is rendered suitably extreme and fantastical. Unlike the sense of real limits in the most horrific of dystopias (for instance, the spatial limits of We or 1984, or the temporal limits of Well’s The Time Machine), Ballard’s city fills all possible time and space—an urban moebius strip become manifest. And yet it is precisely in this nightmare vision that Ballard reveals a singular truth of the emergent ideology of “urbanism” in the post-war world: the future will be boring, ‘a vast, conforming suburb of the soul’.[2]

fig. 3. Presumably Franz M. “Build-Up” illustration by Gerald Quinn, New Worlds, no. 55.

Manhole 69 (1957)

In “Manhole 69” we follow the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of three men who are the subjects of a truly unsettling experiment. They have had their ability to sleep surgically removed or switched off. Over the course of the story, we come to see not only the hubris of the Promethean experimenters, set upon altering the deep fabric of not just human nature but its profound animal heritage, but more pointedly the deeply distressing psychological effects that are ultimately—and unintentionally—induced in the test subjects. By stories end, the subjects—Avery, Gorrell and Lang—have been reduced to a catatonic state and the experiment is a bust.

“Manhole 69”, alongside “The Concentration City”, can be conceived as constituting a manifesto of sorts for Ballard’s fictional obsessions—two halves of what would come to constitute the Ballardian. Indeed, “Manhole 69” inverts the movement of “The Concentration City”. Whereas the latter story manifested the neurotic topology of the inner self in the city, in the former the narrative drags the reader down into the suffocating confines of the individual test subjects themselves. Unable to escape, however briefly, the travails of being constantly conscious, the narcotomized Avery, Gorrell and Lang’s ability to distinguish the difference between themselves and their world quite literally collapses. Their attempt to escape ‘the group unconscious, the dark oceanic dream’ of their animal nature fails as assuredly as Franz M’s futile flight from the all-encompassing city.

The genius of Ballard’s science fictional conceit is to evoke something we all have experience of. Namely, the alienation of individuality: that claustrophobic sense of being absolutely cut-off and cast adrift in one’s self.

Why “Manhole 69”? The title appears to divide its fans—e.g., ‘despite its unfortunate name’, ‘best short story title ever’, etc. I fall into the latter camp, finding the name peculiarly evocative, precisely because it is simultaneously puzzling and erotically charged—classic Ballard! In the story the “Manhole” refers to the collapsing sense of reality experienced by the test subjects, when the gym in which they are ensconced seems to dwindle in size to more terrifyingly human dimensions: ‘This, then, was the manhole: a narrow, vertical cubicle, a few feet wide, six deep’ (62). “69” is the number of the door always locked to the test subjects, and through which their own contact with the sleeping world remains—namely, the scientists Neill and Morley. Put together they effectively name the syndrome the story is about: Manhole 69.[3]

fig. 4. The cover of New Worlds no. 65 in which “Manhole 69” first appeared. Perhaps by way of a Freudian slip it would later be referred to as “Manhole 65” in New Worlds no. 69, no less! Illustration by Brian Lewis.

Ballard and the Situationists

Boredom is counterrevolutionary. In every way.”—Situationist International, 1962[4]

As noted above, “The Concentration City” originally appeared as “Build-Up” in its initial publication, and subsequent reprints. However, it was renamed “The Concentration City” for its 1967 republication in Ballard’s collection, The Disaster Area. The re-titling appears to draw a connection between the Nazi concentration camp and the endless, claustrophobic city of Ballard’s story. Taken as parable of the new urbanism of the 1950s and 60s, replete with housing developments and the reconstruction and construction of towns on the basis of automobile traffic flows, the rebranded “Build-Up” begins to sound like a work in parallel with the more explicitly critical and revolutionary critique of urbanism carried out by the Situationist International.

In 1961, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, described the then new housing developments being constructed amidst post-war reconstruction as akin to Nazi concentration camp.[5] The following year, Vaneigem and the other situationists drew a link, in frankly psychoanalytic terms, between this new concentrated urban sprawl and the suffocating nuclear shelters that President Kennedy was then promoting as the family friendly solution to nuclear catastrophe:

The new habitat that is now taking shape with the large housing developments is not really distinct from the architecture of the shelters; it merely represents a less advanced level of that architecture. […] The concentration-camp organization of the surface of the earth is the normal state of the present society in formation; its condensed subterranean version merely represents that society’s pathological excess. This subterranean sickness reveals the real nature of the “health” at the surface.[6]

Was Ballard influenced by the Situationists? It’s hard to say definitively. No doubt he knew of them, considering his interest in and contacts with British Pop Artists and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Additionally, his obsessive interest in Surrealism, and his pathological interest in the car and the encroaching conformism of modern capitalist life would seem to indicate that he was open to their influence. He even had stories appear in at least two magazines that also contained articles on and/or translations of Situationist writing: Circuit no. 6, London, June 1968, and The International Times, no. 26, London, 16-29 February 1968. Though whether he had come across their writing in 1967 or before is something I presently cannot answer.

fig. 5. Detail of the cover of Circuit no. 6, June 1968.

Of more interest to me is the resonance between Ballard and the Situationists. The Situationists infamously argued that their critique of the society of the spectacle was ‘merely the concentrated expression of a historical subversion which is everywhere’—more pithily: ‘Situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[7] Certainly, the idea that a spectacle of everyday life mediated in large part by the new mass communication technologies was emerging more generally in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, Ballard himself attempted to distinguish his fiction in terms not dissimilar to this. For instance, in a 1967 interview he spoke—in terms not unlike those Guy Debord used in the same year—of ‘the fictional elements in experience [that] are now multiplying to such a point that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the false’.[8] In the same interview, Ballard reckoned that his turn toward writing a non-linear, fragmented, collage-style fiction—most obviously on display in the stories collected as The Atrocity Exhibition—was deliberately an attempt to conjure the modern relations between inner and outer life in a world saturated by the new medias:

we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth. We don’t live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did.[9]

There are real problems with Ballard’s attempt to theorise the modern world of the 1960s. In contrast to the Situationists, Ballard’s reasoning is more positivist and circular. For him the fictionalisation of everyday life seems to be caught up with its increasing non-linearity. Which one might argue is related to its technological decomposition: ‘we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth’. However, this seems to imply that previously life was not fictional—i.e., it was linear. In effect, Ballard is arguing that life has become fictional because it has become fictional. What is missing is any account of why it has become more fictional—apart from a type of technological determinism—or, more importantly, whether or not it was ever not fictional (only consider, for instance, the predominance of religious ideology in earlier societies, one of which—the Victorian—Ballard’s calls ‘linear’).

Hopefully I will return to a more detailed criticism of Ballard in the (non-existent) future.

Final thoughts

The choice of “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” was not merely driven by the fact that they constitute early exemplars of what would come to be known as the Ballardian turn in SF and the New Wave of the 1960s. As a callow youth in the early 1980s I was given a copy of the collection The Disaster Area and the novel The Crystal World by an older brother. To say that this constituted a perverse initiation of sorts is perhaps an understatement. The deeply disturbing worlds I found in these books was markedly at odds with the largely optimistic and anodyne ones I had so far found in the likes of Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov. Perhaps Herbert’s Dune was the closest I had then come to something approximating Ballard’s pessimism—though ‘close’ hardly does justice to either Herbert or Ballard, nor the shattering effect that the latter’s work had on my teenage psyche. Of the stories that made up The Disaster Area, “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” were the ones I kept returning to and reading obsessively. I recall desperately wanting to solve the impossible dilemmas they presented, the vertiginous puzzles that seemed to promise a future only of madness and inescapable despair, simply because they seemed so real and inevitable in comparison to all the other SF I had then so far read. Certainly, Ballard’s SF, more technological horror than utopian dream, would prove to be a better map of the coming dystopia of the capitalist millennium and beyond. 

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I am not sure whether dystopian fiction is the best SF because it foregrounds dystopia as the truth of contemporary society, and so presages its destruction (and so, too, SF’s end); or whether it is the worst SF because it gives up on the possibility of there being any truly human civilisation beyond the perils and pains of the present. Perhaps a little bit of both. Where Ballard’s pessimism shines, so to speak, is in its unremitting exposure of the pathologies of spectacular capitalism and the fact that these are the products of human activity. Where it fails is in its wholesale collapse into the pathological symptoms that he identifies, such that one begins to suspect that Ballard truly desires to simply dwell in the ruins.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Flight would remain a powerful image of escape and freedom throughout Ballard’s work: ‘I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown’. J. G. Ballard, ‘What I Believe,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. V. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 177.

[2] J. G. Ballard, ‘Interview with JGB,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 8.

[3] So far, the only indication I have found of Ballard acknowledging the more libidinal nature of the title—albeit very tangentially—in some comments on the editorial work of Ted Carnell of New Worlds: ‘Ted Carnell […] never really wanted any re-writing. The only things he sometimes changed were the titles, but not too often. There was a little story called “Track 12”—that was his title, not mine. We had an argument over that, because he’d just taken “Manhole 69” without querying what that meant…’, ibid., p. 119 (italics in the original).

[4] Situationist International, ‘The Bad Days Will End [1962],’ in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[5] Raoul Vaneigem, ‘Comments Against Urbanism [1961]’ https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/comments.html.

[6] Situationist International, ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation [1962].’ Online here.

[7] Situationist International, The Real Split in the International: Theses on the Situationist International and its time, trans. John McHale, London: Pluto Press, [1972] 2003, p. 7 (thesis 2); Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 17.

[8] J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction: A conversation  between J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth [orig. BBC Third Programme, 1967],’ in The New SF: An original anthology of modern speculative fiction, London: Arrow Books, [1969] 1971, p. 54. For the resonance with Debord, consider this from The Society of the Spectacle (1967, Ken Knabb’s translation, 2014): ‘the spectacle […] is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality’ (thesis 6, chapter 1).

[9] Ballard and MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction’, p. 57.

Neither space fish nor fowl

fig. 1. Alongside of Silurians, Lovecraftian Old Ones, and other so-called fictional denizens of Earth’s deep past, the Sea Devils are an amphibious pseudo-species that clearly embody the ambiguities of this blog.

Neither space fish nor fowl: a sinister year in review

When I set out about 18 months ago my aim appeared relatively simple: “writing on the Situationists and science fiction”. The plan was to take two routes: first, I would examine ‘science fiction’ as an idea that appeared in the writing of the Situationist International (something I have begun to do here); and secondly, I would use some of the critical tools of the Situationists—in particular Guy Debord’s related concepts of ‘spectacle’ and ‘cultural decomposition’—to examine science fiction as a sub-category of capitalist culture. To my mind, the best explanation of what I mean by ‘decomposition’ and its relationship to SF can be found here.

Since then, things became a little unstuck. In early 2021 I wrote up two long pieces on two Frederick Pohl stories from the 1950s (here and here). However, I feel somewhat deflated with the results. The articles in question suffered the twin problems of being overly ambitious and somewhat fractured in delivery. Rather than advancing the two axes of my research I toyed with them in a desultory fashion. Complicating things further I suffered from some non-COVID health problems while attempting to write and post these pieces. One of these problems was more serious and resulted in a brief hospitalisation, the other less so but chronic and long lasting. In short, the first half of last year was shit and I struggled with life in general, let alone the blog.

Despite this loss of focus, I was able to finally finish a translation of one of the few remaining works of Guy Debord that had remained untranslated. Indeed, while recovering my health I fell down a Surrealist hole that the Debord article was one of the fruits of (some other fruits can be plucked here and here).

Here’s my top 5 posts of 2021:

1. Surrealism: an irrational revolution (2 July 2021)

‘Surrealism: an irrational revolution’ is far and away my most popular post of the last year, four times more popular than the second most popular. This is almost certainly due to the fact that a “new” old work of Debord’s has a potential audience much bigger than my own peculiar take on SF.

2. To experiment with the creation of everyday life (2 April 2021)

I dare say that ‘To experiment with the creation of everyday life’ has ridden into second place on the coattails of Debord’s article. At best, it summarises some of my thoughts on the role played by artistic avant-gardes in posing the need to move beyond art in the 20th century in order to ‘turn our experiments once more to the vast canvas of everyday life’. It’s also got a great detourned graphic made by me:

fig. 2. “No poetry for the enemies of poetry” by antyphayes. Graphic detourned from Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, Rogue Planet, April 1956.

3. SF in the SI: science fiction, ideology and recuperation (9 August 2020)

In third place, ‘SF in the SI’ hews closest to my original aim for this blog, even though the post hails from 2020.

4. In praise of the infodump (23 November 2021)

‘In praise of the infodump’ in fourth, signals a return to form for the blog having been published recently (last November) after posting nothing in September and October of 2021 (this two-month hiatus being no doubt the blog’s nadir last year).

5. Hateful anti-christams (22 December 2020)

In fifth, ‘Hateful anti-christams’, another refugee from 2020, is yet another example of my ongoing fascination with all things Dadaist and Surrealist—to whit, another “new” old work: a translation of a short anti-poem by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters (the ultimate Dada-Merz mash up).

This year—in stinking hot, tottering, and imploding twenty-twenty-two—all I ask is that we finally—FINALLY—get rid of capitalism. Failing this, I’ll continue to blog away. In the coming months be prepared for: thoughts on SF authors J. G. Ballard and Cyril Kornbluth; a re-jigged version of my research into the ‘Science Fiction Spectacle’; the long awaited third part of ‘Thinking through The Time Machine’ (check out the first and second parts); and perhaps even another episode in the mysterious saga of La Hipótesis

Great SF Stories

fig. 1. 1939: still not much to see here. Cover of The Great Science Fiction Stories Volume 1, 1939 (published 1979).

A bit over two year ago I finished the final story in Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories. Over the 25 volumes, the editors—Martin H. Greenberg and Isaac Asimov—introduce us to their choice cuts of primarily Anglo-American SF between 1939 and 1963.

The collection is a good introduction to Anglo-American SF that takes you from the so-called Campbellian “Golden Age” right up until the precipice of the New Wave of SF in the 1960s. First published between 1979 and 1992 by DAW Books, The Great SF Stories is now sadly out of print. Many of the stories can be found elsewhere, and I have heard that pdfs of the collection exist on the interwebs. However, I desired the hard stuff, so I hunted the entire collection down through various online secondhand bookstores between 2016 & 2019.

As a result of the read through I’ve assembled a list of works that I liked, divided into three categories: Top shelf (three ***), Good (two **) and Not Bad (one *). My system, like most—or rather, all—is highly subjective. Make of it what you will.[1] The list is linked here—and can be accessed through the menu bar above. Or, if you want to cut to the chase, you can check out the Top Shelf picks alone, that can also be accessed through the menu bar above.

Over the coming months I am planning on revisiting some of the Top Shelf stories in order to critically assess them on this blog. Who knows, maybe an occasional Good and Not Bad will creep in too. And I will no doubt even change some of the ratings from time to time, depending on rereads and whim.

I found that reading Asimov and Greenberg’s selection spun me off further to pursuing stories from this period and beyond. As a result I’ve added other works not found in this collection to my list, drawn from author collections and other collections from the period—for instance, T.E. Dikty and E.F. Bleiler’s Best Science Fiction Stories, Frederick Pohl’s Star Science Fiction, Judith Merril’s The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy and Year’s Best S-F.

At the odyssey’s end I found myself wanting to continue the journey, so I first of all read Robert Silverberg’s one-off attempt to continue Asimov and Greenberg’s collection. Sadly, Silverberg didn’t continue with this. So, I began reading collections that fortuitously began the year following Silverberg’s selection of 1964 stories, notably Donald Wolheim and Terry Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction Series. I have plans to extend my reading into other collections from the 1960s and 70s, but here I begin to find certain limits that were a kind of negative factor in inspiring Asimov and Greenberg’s attempt to present a “definitive” collection from 1939-1963. When one reaches the mid-1960s SF collections begin to mushroom, alongside of the growing popularity of SF. Indeed, it was partly the scarcity of collections prior to the mid-60s that inspired Greenberg and Asimov’s 25 volume collection.

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fig. 2. 1950: things are heating up. Cover of The Great SF Stories Volume 12, 1950 (first published 1984).

One of my prime motivations for reading the entire collection was to get a better idea of the general themes and trends of this crucial period for SF. I have been reading SF since I was a wee boy in the 1970s. But it was only upon discovering the likes of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick in my teens in the 1980s that I began to understand the true power and importance of the short story. Over the years I increasingly turned to short SF, but my journey through written SF through the 1990s and 2000s was more of a meander while other things competed for my attention: primarily university, far left politics, avant-garde literature and parenthood. It has only been over the last decade that I have begun to more systematically explore the riches of short SF.

Having read the entire Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories collection, I can now heartily recommend it, but with a few caveats. Of the 30 stories that I rate as Top Shelf in the 25 years covered by the collection, only 7 of these lay in the so-called “Golden Age” period (1939-50)—and none in the first two years of the collection (1939 and 1940). No doubt what I rate as Top Shelf would differ for another reader. However, to that reader and all readers of this collection I would propose that the “real” Golden Age of science fiction—or at least what I term “Anglo-American” science fiction—begins around 1950. Something Barry Malzberg believes in too. [2]

The years that first leapt out in my read through were 1950, 1951 and especially 1952. What a year it was that could manifest “Delay In Transit” by F. L. Wallace, “The Altar At Midnight” by C. M. Kornbluth, “What’s It Like Out There?” by Edmond Hamilton, “Cost Of Living” by Robert Sheckley and “Ticket To Anywhere” by Damon Knight—to name just a few. 1957, 1963 and 1964 are also great years too.  

Nonetheless, without Campbell’s so-called “Golden Age” what would modern science fiction be? This model, replete with its fanzines, fannish conventions, DIY ethos, and Campbell’s much vaunted (by himself) “professionalisation” of the pulps, became the model par excellence for SF. It was exported on the coat tails of US cultural hegemony, replicating itself across the globe, starting scenes where there were none, and in other cases displacing and converting pre-existing ones.

Certainly, the unquestionably science fictional works that pre-exist this “Golden Age” both inside and without the Anglophone countries somewhat undermines Campbell’s late claim. Still, I am fascinated by the focus SF achieves from around 1940—though more so around 1950 (coincident with the arrival of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy in the US). Indeed, it is my belief that between 1950 and 1970, SF, in its own distinct and science fictional way, replicates the paths and patterns of modern literary and artistic culture outside the ghetto. From the enthusiastic fury of its half-baked DIY pulp origins, SF rapidly matures, aspiring after a literary renown the equal of the mainstream, only to find by the end of the sixties precisely the impasse reached by the European artistic avant-gardes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this sense I see the New Wave of the 1960s—and New Wave adjacent SF works—as signaling the end of not just the first phase of Anglo-American SF, but the end of literature in a similar way to the literary avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, the ‘end’ I speak of is not the actual cessation of the writing and consumption of literature, but rather the end of a project that was embodied in the avant-garde. The ‘freedom of the word’ announced amidst the poetic experimentation in France in the mid-19th century not only led to the ultra-modernist experiments of the Dadas and James Joyce (for example), but posed the possibility of a freedom of creative action beyond the expressive impasses reached upon the written page. It was Guy Debord’s wager that this movement toward self-destruction—that is, the formal experimental destruction of the received wisdom regarding what counted as ‘art’—demonstrated the limits of merely artistic experimentation, and the pressing need to transform such experiments beyond the canvas and the page into a revolutionary transformation of everyday life itself. It is to this ‘end’ and ends of art and literature that I am pointing to here.

This ‘impasse’ of the apparent self-destruction of so much of what we would consider ‘literary’, whether met with in SF or elsewhere, is what Debord called the “decomposition of culture”.[3] It is this that I seek to explore more fully on this blog, through critical reviews of individual works, as well as more general reflections on the place of science fiction in the three or four decades after the Second World War. I might even try and explain what I mean by ‘impasse’ and ‘self-destruction’ more clearly—at least more clearly than I have previously done!

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A brief note on my definition of ‘Anglo-American SF’. What it is: what is sounds like: SF produced in and or by people in the US and the Anglophone countries, broadly defined (Britain and ex-British Colonies, though primarily Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the period 1950-1970). The importance of this SF is undoubted, coincident with the rise to dominance of the USA in the post-Second World War globalisation of capitalism. However, it is hard to disentangle the “triumph” of Anglo-American SF as the dominant model of SF from the rise to cultural, economic and political dominance of the US itself (and, to a lesser extent for the period we’re talking of, the dominance of the British Empire prior to this). What do I mean? In the case of the classic John W. Campbell “competent man” SF promulgated in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, the resonance with the overwhelming influence of the US in the West after the war is obvious. But less noted—to my mind—is that even strains of SF that were more open to oppositional ideas (for instance H. L. Gold’s Galaxy), indirectly benefited from US cultural dominance. Which is not to damn such oppositional strains—far from it. Rather, it is to reckon with the context and conditions in and by which English language SF was singularly predominant in the period covered by Asimov and Greenberg’s anthology.


FOOTNOTES

[1] As the evil Hegelian-Marxian that I am, I prefer to think of the subjective as in truth a dialectical interplay of subjective and objective determinations—no subject is purely subjective, and perforce is capable of objectifying not only their subjectivity, but the world which they inhabit too.

[2] For instance, see Barry Malzberg, ‘Introduction: The Fifties’, in The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, eds. Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Prozini, Ace Books, 1979. Available to borrow online here.

[3] See the definition of ‘decomposition’, here. Debord spoke of the movement toward the ‘self-destruction’ of poetry in France in the 19th century as been bound up with the assertion of the ‘autonomy of poetic language’ around the time of the poet Charles Baudelaire: ‘Henceforth, poetry—which is to say the people who wanted a poetic use of language—rejected all reasoning beyond itself and gave itself the goal of contemplating its own power. While undertaking the demolition of all conventional forms of expression, this poetry simultaneously set itself against the society whose values it denied and proclaimed itself in revolt against “bourgeois” order. Such poetry rejected everything in the world that was not poetry, while progressing toward its self-annihilation as poetry’ (see, here). It is my belief that a similar movement exists in Anglo-American SF between 1950 and 1970.

In praise of the infodump

fig. 1. Astounding Science Fiction, September 1948, in which John D. MacDonald’s ‘Dance of a New World’ first appeared.

In praise of the infodump:
or, the joys and pains of reading science fiction in general and John M. MacDonald and Laurence Manning in particular, and various other works of the last century and more, and etcetera

1.

Why is the infodump so hated, so derided? I suspect that the chief reason is unstated—or barely suspected. Could it be that vast slabs of unadorned information impede our ability to suspend disbelief and briefly escape the humdrum world of wage labour and quiet despair?

Though often polarising, the infodump is a common feature of science fiction. For its detractors it is the very epitome of all that is non-literary about SF. For instance, the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia’s entry on the infodump notes that for some critics, ‘the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it’. For such critics the infodump simply is a literary flaw. But is there only one type of infodump, an impossibly perfect Platonic form whose perfection is, perversely, its distracting imperfection?

Recently, what set me off ruminating upon the infodump was reading a short story by John D. MacDonald: Dance of a New World (1948). The story is not one of McDonald’s best SF genre pieces (for that I would recommend Spectator Sport). But it’s not all bad. A solid tale to while away some of the perils of boredom.

For the first few pages the story tootled along, establishing character, plot and setting in relatively efficient fashion. From the first sentence, unquestionably a story of the future set on a more hospitable Venus than what we got, with one of the characters working as a supervisor of a work gang of local indigenous lifeforms called Harids. The Harids are conveniently insectoids, presumably so we don’t have to care too much about them being rendered zombie like all the better to slave away upon the human run plantation—no doubt one of many projects spreading the unalloyed joys of marginal economics throughout the solar system and beyond. All this information is deftly arranged by MacDonald, woven into a story that works hard to make more of less. A good example of the “show, don’t tell” principle in action. And then this happens:

Shane Brent went up to his room in Hostel B, shut the door wearily, listlessly pushed the News button under the wall screen and watched the news of the day with little interest as he slowly undressed. Crowds demonstrating in Asia-Block against the new nutrition laws. Project 80, two years out said to be nearing Planet K. Skirts once again to be midway between knee and hip next season. The first bachelor parenthood case comes up to decide whether a child born of the fertilization of a laboratory ovum can legally inherit. Brent frowned. Soon a clear definition of the legal rights of “Synthetics” would have to be made. He stopped suddenly as he had an idea. He decided to submit it to Frank. Why not get Inter-Federal Aid for a project to develop Synthetics to fill personnel requirements for future project flights? But would humanity agree to colonization by Synthetics? It still wasn’t clearly understood whether or not they’d breed true.

This block of information—a microdump perchance?—plays little or no role in the main plot. Nonetheless, it helps further set the scene—or rather flesh it out. After reading these tantalising flashes of the world that the character Shane Brent inhabits, I found the author’s previous efforts at convincing me of this future even more secure. Though clearly an infodump, it is far from the indigestible mass hated by the haters. The chief protagonist even interacts with it. It is an example of the infodump at the service of the story, working in concert with the “show, don’t tell” principle with the aim of further establishing mood and setting with subtle, not overwhelming detail.

Laurence Manning’s story, The Living Galaxy (1934) is, on the other hand, the very opposite of MacDonald’s wonderfully brief and efficient infodump. These days when Manning’s story is remembered, it is best known for being arguably the first, fully fictional rendering of the “generation starship” trope—though this is under dispute (see, the Generation Starships entry at SF Encyclopedia). Manning’s story is all infodump. It’s at its best in its initial conceit of fictional pedagogy: a future history presented as the past of the near immortal heirs of homo sapiens. Unfortunately, this wonderful set up is frittered away in its dull delivery. My heart goes out to my imaginary descendants in this story, having to sit through their marvellous past rendered boring. It seems as if school sux, even in utopia.

Being all infodump is by no means a slight upon this work. For is the absence of entertainment or convincing distraction the best damnation we can manage?

Indeed, I have not come to damn the infodump but praise it.

fig. 2. Wonder Stories, September 1934, in which Laurence Manning’s ‘The Living Galaxy’ first appeared.

2.

I believe there are at least two souls of the infodump. The first is all that is listed as worthy of despair; for instance, the too common reality of the indigestibly prolix and dull in information retrieval. But there is another, more striking class of infodump of which the example from John M. MacDonald above gives us a glimpse. One of its hallmarks is an excess of realism—though excessive only in a literary sense. What I mean is that the reality conjured is by way of a sensory overload, in which fragments of the imagined future (or “present”, for that matter) threaten to drown the reader. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is an excellent, though partial realisation of such an excess (more on this below). Nonetheless, both souls—variously dull and poetic—push at the limits of the novel, even if one is more self-consciously set upon breaking the conventions of literature.

The source of my ruminations on excessive realism is Guy Debord. He once wrote upon a situationist use of theatre which influences my thoughts here. Debord’s aim was decidedly more anti-literary, insofar as he envisaged the negation of theatre by way of ‘an excess of realism’. The characters would meet in a ‘normal’ situation lacking in ‘spirit or interest’, in which the conversation would be equally ‘normal […], which is to say, not very intelligent, not very stupid. A permanent and empty spectacle, like life […], with brief overtures of what could be’.[1] Such a vision reminds me of some of the achievements of literary modernism: from Lautréamont’s Maldoror to Joyce’s Ulysses by way of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The point being that the excess of realism Debord invokes is neither just tedious nor simply marvellous, but both (‘not very intelligent, not very stupid’ surely being alternate names for the two souls).[2]

Two of my favourite SF novels are arguably all infodump: Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Stapledon’s works, founding epics after the fact, are without peer. In the case of the former, the excessive nature of a future history is underlined by its being an unrelenting infodump, albeit in a more poetic register than most. Stapledon errs on the side of epic, the form in which the infodump is best suited, wedged as it were between the lyrical and the dramatic. Nonetheless, they are not the only examples of the prose poetry of the infodump. Walter M. Miller’s short story, The Big Hunter (1952), is also an excellent example. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) approaches the majestic scale of Stapledon by taking a leaf from the masters of modernity to turn its eye upon the epic quality of the future everyday. Indeed, Brunner comes close to Debord’s demand of an excess of realism. He falls short only to the extent that he concedes ground to the strictures of plot and characterisation.

I have often envisaged an infodump novel that would push further in the direction Brunner opened. Except, whereas Brunner inserted character and plot to relieve the reader of his assault upon their sensibility, I would strip the novel of all such concessions in order to leave the cavalcade of these fragments from a future mass culture. Undoubtedly, by turns tedious and entrancing, the two souls of the infodump would be reunited, all the better to underscore the necessary irreality of aspiring after the real upon the page.

Is it too much to imagine the infodump in its excessive guises as the real source of literature? I am thinking here of not just the dull and repetitive parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad and Odyssey, but especially of the hard prose of the chronicles, Herodotus’ Histories being the true grandaddy of all the infodumps. Closer to the present, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick comes to mind with its innumerable and often unjustly maligned digressions into whale history and folk lore. Stephane Mallarmé’s two paragraph prose poem Le Phénomène futur (1871) is more obviously science fictional, and a simple joy at two paragraphs in length, leaving its world building remarkably dense and slight simultaneously. Mallarmé, to my mind, constitutes a bridge of sorts between the SF ghetto and the 19th century literary avant-garde of Europe. On the far, more science fictional side of the bridge I can see Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848) and J. H. Rosny aîné’s La Légende Sceptique (1889), both prose poems of cosmic dimension. On the more self-consciously literary side of the bridge I spy Jorge Luis Borges—though he undoubtedly slummed on the far side as well. Surely Borge’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) is the prose poem of the infodump? Further away, harder to see, buried in the sub-structures of the bridge, an old, dog-eared copy of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658) lies wedged.

Can I be serious that all of these are iterations of the infodump? At the very least I believe not only in the merit of the infodump, but also that what we categorise under this term is somewhat less straightforward than is often imagined. Not only is the SF infodump not as dull or turgid as is often imagined, infodump-like examples of prose can be found scattered through modern literature and its more ancient progenitors. My attraction to the infodump is, nonetheless, leavened by a certain fascination with those that have set out to break literature, or at least give it a good thrashing.

For where does the infodump begin or end? On the page? In a conversation? Broken up into a cavalcade of memes? Indeed, I dream of the world as infodump, and of a work that is one great infodump, a science fiction tour de force that inevitably and simultaneously will be a grand misstep. My Zanzibar that is no longer Zanzibar. Necessarily, it will divide opinion. There can be no other way.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Guy Debord, Correspondence: The foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957-August 1960), trans. Stuart Kendall & John McHale, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 376 (letter to André Frankin, 24 July 1960).

[2] It’s worth noting that Debord saw little of use in the novel form (at least for situationist uses): ‘There is not much future in the détournement of complete novels, but during the transitional phase there might be a certain number of undertakings of this sort’. The only such uses that Debord approved of, insofar as they brought him and other situationists the use of money in a moneyed world, were Michèle Bernstein’s parodic detournements of Françoise Sagan on the one hand, and the Nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet, on the other: respectively, Tous les chevaux du roi (1960), and La Nuit (1961), both Roman à clefs of sorts, dealing with Bernstein’s life among fellow young International Letterists.

Surrealism: an irrational revolution

fig. 1. Preparing to attack.

A PDF of this document can be found here. Note that there are some differences between the version presented below and pdf (most notably, the complete bibliography is only available in the pdf version).

This has also been posted on Notes from the Sinister Quarter.

Surrealism: an irrational revolution

by Guy Debord

Translator’s Introduction

In September 1968 a brochure entitled Le Surrealisme: une revolution irrationnel (Surrealism: An irrational revolution) was published under the Encyclopédie du monde actuel (EMDA) imprint—one of its monthly Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel (Notebooks from the Encyclopedia of the Contemporary World). The author of this booklet was Guy Debord, despite no author being attributed on the brochure.

Considering the distinctly non-situationist nature of its publication (more on this below) Debord’s essay on surrealism is, perhaps, not one of his major works, despite being his longest published piece upon the subject. Nonetheless, it demonstrates two things very clearly: first, his familiarity with the surrealists; and secondly, the importance of the surrealist project, as it was originally conceived, for the situationists. And, despite the situationists never been named throughout the essay, Debord cunningly inserts them implicitly into the last line when he quotes André Breton as seer: “It will fall to the innocence and to the anger of some future men to extract from Surrealism what cannot fail to be still alive, and to restore, at the cost of a beautiful ransacking, Surrealism to its proper goal.”[1] By Debord’s reckoning the situationists simply were those other horrible workers Rimbaud had anticipated, who would come this time to begin again from the horizons where the Surrealists fell.[2]

Particularly striking, in the introductory section of the essay, is Debord’s synthetic account of the “self-annihilation”, “dissolution” and “destruction” that appeared in poetry and painting in the century before the surrealists. Debord had been refining his critique of what he also called the “decomposition of culture” since the 1950s. Scattered over various, mostly brief articles, one can find the elaboration of the situationist critique of “decomposition”, as well as elements of an historical account of its development across the arts, culminating in the “active decomposition” of Dada and Surrealism.[3] Certainly, a more theoretically nuanced elaboration of the self-abolition of culture and the decomposition of modern art can be found in chapter 8 of The Society of the Spectacle. But it is only here, in Debord’s essay on surrealism, that one can find in such succinct detail an account of the “self-annihilation” that appeared in the poetry and painting of the European avant-gardes. Debord’s essay is thus both accomplice and extension of his more explicitly situationist writing on the question.

Debord situates the Surrealists at the confluence of the revolutions of the early twentieth century. Not only the growing self-consciousness of the dissolution and destructive elements of Modern Art, but also in the phantastic eruption of psychoanalysis and, most importantly of all, “the last great offensive of the revolutionary proletarian movement” between 1917 and 1937.[4] There is no doubt that the fortunes of Surrealism and Dada are bound up with the insurrections and social dislocations of their time, a fact that the Surrealists became fitfully aware of and anxiously engaged with almost from the moment they marked out their anti-empire of dreams. Debord, though, is clear: the fortunes of revolutionary Surrealism faded with the defeat of the proletarian revolutionary movement. Which is not to say that he agreed with Surrealism’s chief failing in the face of the French Communist Party’s attempts to make them submit to their diktat (or better, disappear). As Debord wrote, regarding the pivotal importance of the poetic in the situationist conception of revolution,

[t]he point is not to put poetry at the service of revolution, but to put revolution at the service of poetry. We do not intend to repeat the mistake of the surrealists, who put themselves at the service of the revolution right when it had ceased to exist.[5]

Organised Surrealism eventually overcame its dalliance with and subjection to Stalinism, and this is to its credit. However, it was arguably too late to matter. Despite their efforts to constitute a revolutionary pole outside and against the French Communist Party—for instance in the anti-fascist Appel à la lutte, and the short lived Contre Attaque group—the results were ambiguous to say the least. After the Second World War, notwithstanding the ongoing activity of organised Surrealism and the obvious influence it exerted upon the post-war avant-gardes, the height of Surrealism’s revolutionary moment lay firmly in the past.

*

The imprint under which Debord’s essay appeared, Encyclopédie du monde actuel (EMDA), was a commercial project and resembles, in its aims, the various collectible encyclopedias I recall occasionally buying from newsagents in my youth and adolescence in Australia in the late 1970s and 80s. See here for a detailed account, in French, of EDMA and its various offshoots.[6]

The ex-Situationist, Donald Nicholson-Smith, has said,

The participation of the “situationist group” in […] [EDMA] wasn’t official. There were a few small-paying jobs to which some members of the SI devoted themselves. The work consisted in drafting “EDMA cards” and, eventually, monthly booklets. (Each perforated card included a 500- word-long text; each booklet contained around 30 illustrated pages.)[7] 

Debord’s booklet on Surrealism was one of many monthly booklets published under EDMA between November 1965 and November 1975. For instance, Mustapha Khayati wrote booklets on Marxism (translated and available here) and the Persian Gulf, and Raoul Vaneigem wrote a booklet on post-Second World War French poetry. Another booklet on Modern Painting, though written by a situationist, remains unattributed.[8]

Nicholson-Smith has recounted how he and his wife, Cathy Pozzo di Borgo, led their comrades into this publishing project, though he notes that it was hardly treated seriously by them, either as work or as an expression of situationist activity:

These editorial activities certainly couldn’t be described as “situationist.” Nevertheless, specific points of view are sometimes discernible in them. […] We were grosso modo [roughly] compensated per piece and individually by Editions Rencontre. This activity was, for all of us, as tedious as it was pleasant. Each person tried, in a general manner, to bypass or slyly parody the official constraints of “objectivity.”[9]

In the example of essay on Surrealism, the gist of Debord’s irony is surely contained in the subtitle.

*

All footnotes are mine. I have attempted to find, where available, English translations of all the works Debord cites in his article on Surrealism. In those cases in which I have been unable to find an extent translation, I have left the cited title in the original French. Further, in order to not overburden the translation with more footnotes than I have already provided, I have only footnoted references to works in those cases where Debord has quoted from them. Otherwise, information on available translations of other titles cited by Debord can be found in the Bibliography at the end.

Thanks to Peter Dunn and Alastair Hemmens for comments and help with the translation. Needless to say, all errors of meaning and style are attributable solely to me.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, June 2021


Surrealism: an irrational revolution

by Guy Debord

First published in Notebooks from the Encyclopedia of the Contemporary World (Cahiers de l’encyclopédie du monde actuel), Number 35, September 1968

There is hardly an aspect of modern life that is not more or less profoundly marked by surrealism—whether the arts, literature, advertising, or even politics. The modes of thought and creation elaborated by André Breton and his disciples have exploded everywhere—even still, when its subversive intent disappeared. Where did surrealism come from? Who were its adepts? And how has it evolved?

I. Origins

The crisis of poetry

1. Passionately partisan toward all the irrational aspects of human existence, the Surrealist movement is nonetheless the product of rationally understood historical conditions. It can seem that all modern culture was kept waiting over the last century for this ultimate moment. Such a process was first recorded in the history of French poetry. For instance, the founders of surrealism in Paris in 1924, all originally poets, acted on the basis of this primal experience.

2. Heralded by long-neglected tendencies in Romanticism—e.g., the extremist “Bouzingos”,[10] and the dream-work of Gérard de Nerval—the current which asserted itself around Charles Baudelaire in 1860 can be defined as that of the autonomy of poetic language. Henceforth, poetry—which is to say the people who wanted a poetic use of language—rejected all reasoning beyond itself and gave itself the goal of contemplating its own power. While undertaking the demolition of all conventional forms of expression, this poetry simultaneously set itself against the society whose values it denied and proclaimed itself in revolt against “bourgeois” order. Such poetry rejected everything in the world that was not poetry, while progressing toward its self-annihilation as poetry.[11]

3. This dissolution—manifest in the Symbolist era to the highest degree by Mallarmé, whose work was a progression to silence (“Verse has been tampered with”[12])—had arrived with the irruption of Rimbaud, with its new free language and surprisingly dense imagery. The Surrealists are the descendants of Rimbaud. Having wanted “the systematic derangement of all the senses,”[13] Rimbaud was finished with poetry by the age of 20, signifying the insufficiency of writing by fleeing to the antipodes after 1873.

4. More than in Rimbaud, the Surrealist subversion of language found its consummate model in the writings of the “Comte de Lautréamont”, aka Isidore Ducasse: Maldoror and the Preface to a then unknown work entitled Poésies. Lautréamont introduced into poetry a principle of destruction that did not come into more general use until later, and which was more radical than the Rimbaldian shock that dominated the years immediately after Lautréamont’s death at twenty-four in 1870. Unnoticed at the time, and still barely registered by the Symbolist critique twenty years later, Lautréamont’s œuvre would be rediscovered and promoted by the Surrealists. Lautréamont combined to an extreme a mastery of the powers of language and their self-critical negation. He reversed all the givens of culture and bequeathed to surrealism its definition of beauty: “beautiful […] as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”.[14]

5. Before 1914 the consummation of the process of the internal destruction of the old poetic forms was pursued by: Alfred Jarry (principally in the theatrical “Ubu” cycle); in some aspects of the work of Apollinaire—“Oh mouths men are looking for a new language”[15]—the theoretician of The New Spirit in art and poetry (e.g., the suppression of punctuation in his collection Alcools and his later “conversation poems” [16]); the Futurist poetry initiated by the Italian Marinetti, which had Russian partisans—notably the young Mayakovski; and the pre-Dadaism of the poet-boxer Arthur Cravan, who become in the Great War “a deserter from seventeen countries”.[17] In Zurich in 1916 the Dada Movement was founded, in which the poem was reduced to the juxtaposition of independent words by Tristan Tzara (“thought is made in the mouth”[18]); and ultimately to onomatopoeia by Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters.

Destruction in Modern Art

1. In the other principal field of what would become the artistic expression of surrealism—painting—an analogous movement of liberation and negation was produced in parallel with that determining the stages of innovation in modern poetry. Impressionism, inaugurated in the works of Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, broke with academic representation and submission to the anecdotal subject from around 1860. The autonomous assertion of painting was founded on colour and moved toward an always more radical challenge to the accepted norms of figuration.[19]

2. Toward the end of the century, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin pursued this research. Of these painters, Gauguin formulated the best program by writing that he “wanted to establish the right to dare everything”.[20] The Fauvism of their successors would, in turn, be surpassed around 1907 by the Cubism of Braque and Picasso. In the Cubist painting the represented object itself was disintegrated, beyond the perspective constructed amidst the Italian Renaissance.

3. Around 1910, an extreme tendency in Expressionism—a current principally from Germany and Northern Europe, whose content was explicitly linked to a social critique—constituted the “The Blue Rider” [Der Blaue Reiter] group in Munich, whose experiments in pure form led to abstraction: Paul Klee remaining on the frontier with Kandinsky the first to fully establish himself there. A little bit later Malevich’s “suprematism” consciously attained the supreme stage of the destruction of painting. Having exhibited a simple black square painted on a white background in 1915, Malevich painted a white square on a white background in 1918 during the Russian Revolution.

4. The anti-painting of the Dadaist movement more immediately determined the Surrealist explosion: collage, mixing image and writing, the correction of famous paintings (the Mona Lisa adorned with a moustache), and directly provocative objects like the mirror in which art lovers see only their own faces exhibited under the title of Portrait of an Imbecile (Portrait d’un Imbécile). Above all this absolute extremism was embodied in the work of Francis Picabia. Additionally, Giorgio de Chirico’s anxious portrayal of constructed landscapes in his “metaphysical phase” (before 1917) constituted one of the sources of Surrealist sensibility in painting and elsewhere.

5. Another decisive experiment for Surrealist painting was conducted by Marcel Duchamp. From 1912 he restricted himself to signing “readymade” objects, while composing a painting on glass which he left unfinished after many years of work: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even(La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même). Echoing the disdainful refusal which Rimbaud was the model for, Duchamp abandoned art from around the First World War, and for the last fifty years has been principally interested in the game of chess. His prestige has always been great among the Surrealists, none of whom have pushed contempt for artistic activity as far as he.

Freud and the exploration of the unconscious

1. The thought and affectivity that would define the Surrealist movement was influenced by the many challenges that exploded amidst the different disciplines of knowledge at the turn of the century. All these disputes converged on the refusal of Cartesian rationalism, which had reigned universally for a time in the history of European society. The old image of the world was shattered by anthropological ethnology, the appreciation of non-European and primitive art, Einstein’s theories of space-time relativity, and Planck’s discoveries of the structure of matter. Meanwhile, society itself was being called into question in certain respects through the dialectical thought originating with Hegel. However, at surrealism’s birth nothing produced an impact as decisive as that of the Freud’s psychoanalysis.

2. Freud’s discoveries of the role of the unconscious, repression, the interpretation of dreams, “Freudian slips”, and the aetiology and repression of neuroses, appeared in the last years of the 19th century. By 1910, Freudianism had become an international movement developing a theory and therapeutic. But in France, as in countries more generally submitted to the influence of Catholicism, psychoanalytical thought remained almost unknown and derided—even after the First World War. Psychoanalysis would find itself received in the poetic avant-garde in advance of its appearance in the medical milieu.

3. André Breton, who studied medicine, was one of the first defenders of Freud in France. Breton would derive a new form of poetry—automatic writing—from the Freudian technique of spontaneous association, and unveil it in his 1921 book, The Magnetic Fields, written in collaboration with Phillipe Soupault.[21] For surrealism, automatism—by which the creativity of the unconscious is recorded—represented the same method, now rationally understood, that accounted for the poetic language of Lautréamont and Rimbaud, and even the entire share of actual poetic creation evident in the bulk of poetry from previous times.

4. Surrealism considered that the possible uses for Freud’s discoveries went far beyond the foundation of a new poetry. They were also a perfect weapon for the liberation of human desire. Although such an interpretation did justice to the more revolutionary side of Freud’s work, it could not fail to oppose the conformist tendencies that remained in his social thought. The Surrealist position was comparable rather to Wilhelm Reich’s or the interpretations that have been presented in the wake of Herbert Marcuse’s. But a more fundamental misunderstanding arose from the unilateral Surrealist choice in favour of irrationalism, taken so far as a belief in occultism. Freud, on the contrary, always scientifically pursued an enlargement of the rational.

The malaise in civilisation

1. In the Surrealist revolt, what unified both the refusal of the old poetic conditions and the refusal of all moral and social values, was the experience of the First World War—into which the future Surrealists had for the most part been thrown. From the brutality of the conflict and the absurdity of the social order which imperturbably reconstituted itself upon its ruins, Dada drew its absolute and collective violence—which, in the troubled Germany of 1919, mingled with the attempted worker revolution of the Spartakists.[22] Surrealism did not retreat from the perspective inherited from Dada. In a social milieu less extensive but longer lived, it would incarnate a total critique of dominant values.

2. The Surrealist movement declared itself the radical enemy of religion, nationalism, the family and morality. It took up, with a vigour accentuated by the surprising forms of its language, all the positions of extremist anarchism (adding to it both a negation of science and common sense). It saluted in the work of the Marquis de Sade an exemplary manifestation of revolutionary thought.

3. Dostoyevsky stated that “without God […] everything is permitted”.[23] The Surrealists came to think this exactly—that everything is possible—and this euphoric confidence strongly coloured the first years of the movement. To their social critique (the first issue of the journal The Surrealist Revolution announced, “it is necessary to formulate a new declaration of the rights of man”[24]), they joined a firm belief in the magically efficacious value of poetry pushed to the absolute extreme. “In solving the main problems of life”,[25] the dictates of the unconscious would substitute itself for other psychic mechanisms.

4. From its first appearance, Surrealism was thus a report on the historic bankruptcy of bourgeois society—though only grasping the latter on the spiritual plane. It perceived and denounced the crisis of the bourgeoisie as being essentially a crisis of its psychic mechanisms, from which the Surrealists expected a concrete liberation resulting from the discovery of other psychic mechanisms. The disillusionment of the Surrealists regarding these soon led them to face the alternative of either acknowledging the need for a revolutionary struggle within present-day society, or simply accepting their self-imprisonment in the artistic representations they wanted to surpass—the latter being the sole area of the real world that their surrender to the dictates of the unconscious could effectively transform.

II. Aims and themes

The dictatorship of the dream

1. André Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) opens with a contemptuous critique of real life. “Man, that inveterate dreamer” is satisfied by nothing, except the memories of childhood.[26] The imagination alone gives access to “the true life” that Rimbaud said was absent.[27] The dream and poetry freed of all conscious control are indiscriminately translations of this. One moves toward “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality”.[28]

2. In the idealism of its first phase, surrealism defined itself as an insurrection of the spirit. In the third issue of The Surrealist Revolution, the insulting ‘Address to the Pope’ declared “no words can stop the spirit,” and the eulogistic ‘Letter to the Buddhist schools’ said that “logical Europe crushes the spirit endlessly […].”[29] At the same time the movement reproduced, somewhat abusively, a phrase of Hegel’s on a card:[30] “One cannot expect too much from the strength and power of the spirit”.[31]

3. To say everything is to completely reject the tyranny of social and mental rationality.[32] Surrealism was defined by Breton as, “pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”.[33]

4. Surrealist poetry, “ultimately, can do without poems”.[34] However, inseparable from the possibility of saying everything must also be the possibility of doing everything. Although the desire to carry out revolutionary action in the real world quickly led Surrealism to various tactical considerations, the Second Manifesto of 1930 would still evoke, to the end of expressing its revolt, “the simplest Surrealist act,” which would consist of “shooting at random, for as long as you can, into the crowd”.[35] The Surrealists would take up the defence of some contemporary criminal actions: the Papon sisters who slaughtered their employers,[36] and Violette Nozières who killed her father.[37]

“Change Life”

1. In seeking to apply Rimbaud’s watchword, (“change life”), by identifying it with one of Marx’s, (“transform the world”), the Surrealists in practice relied upon collective experimentation with specific processes.[38] Automatic writing was initially expanded upon during the “time of trances”—in which speech was given in a hypnotic state, notably by Robert Desnos.[39]

2. The founders of the Surrealist movement, individually and as a group, practiced a systematic wandering in everyday life (this was foreshadowed, in a derisory fashion, towards the end of their participation in the French Dadaist movement with the organised visit to the Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre church[40]). A group would randomly walk along roads, departing from a town arbitrarily chosen on a map. Breton would write, in Nadja, that his steps carried him “almost invariably without specific purpose” toward the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle; or that every time he found himself at the Place Dauphin, he felt “the desire to go somewhere else gradually ebbing”.[41] Aragon, in Paris Peasant, would evoke the passages of the 9th arrondissement and the nocturnal exploration of Buttes-Chaumont.[42]

3. Without doubt, the most immediately effective technique by which the Surrealists modified their conditions of existence, and the reactions of their entourage, was the deliberate recourse to collective scandal. For example, the sabotage of conferences and theatrical performances;[43] the insults and violence at the banquet given in honour of the poet Saint-Pol-Roux;[44] and the insulting pamphlets against Paul Claudel, or when Anatole France died (A Corpse).

4. But the quest for the marvellous—of encounters expected from “objective chance”, which is the very response that desire called for, when passing by bizarre objects whose meaning is unknown, such as those discovered in the flea markets of Saint-Ouen[45]—would finally play out around encounters with other people: friendship and love. On the Rue de Grenelle, the Surrealists opened a “Centre” in which any who could respond to aspects of their research were invited to present themselves. A text of Breton’s, entitled ‘The New Spirit’ and collected in The Lost Steps, related the attempt, inexplicably impassioned, of finding an unknown person that Aragon and himself had successively seen some moments before in the street.

5. The most famous of these meetings was with the young woman, Nadja, reported by Breton in the book which bears her name. Nadja was spontaneously Surrealist. Dream and life were mixed-up for her. Freudian slips and coincidences directed her behaviour. In the end, she was committed to an insane asylum. With regards to this, Breton’s comment, “all confinements are arbitrary,” reminds us that surrealism, though often attracted to explore the boundaries of madness, denied that we could precisely define its frontier.[46]

Surrealist values

1. “The word ‘freedom’ alone is all that still excites me”, wrote Breton in the first Manifesto.[47] The entirety of the Surrealist movement can be defined as the expression and defence of this central value. They identified it with the revolt against all constraints which oppressed the individual—first by affirming an absolute atheism. The cause of freedom drove surrealism to rally around the perspective of social revolution, and then to denounce its authoritarian falsification.

2. For Surrealism, passionate love is the moment of true life (even in realist poetry). A life which deploys itself in the dimension of the marvellous, which abolishes the repressive logic that is inseparable from the dominant productive activity. Even though Surrealism declared itself in favour of the general liberation from morality, as well as saluting the emancipatory value of the “utopian” critique of Fourier, more restrictively its own conception of love was in principle monogamous (above all through the impact of Breton’s personal influence).[48] The Surrealists would chiefly exalt “mad love, unique love”.[49]

3. The reign of poetry as a unitary reality—well beyond poems or fugitive poetic moments that dispense “at well-spaced out intervals” a grace which opposes itself “in all respects to divine grace”[50]—depends upon the hypothesis that “there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions”.[51] The “determination of this point” has been the essential motive of Surrealist activity (Second Surrealist Manifesto).[52] In its research, Surrealism wanted to mix the most modern and diverse experimental means with the occultist tradition.

4. Although they wanted to guard against defining an aesthetic or even attaching any importance to artistic activity as such, Surrealism traced a distinct definition of beauty, certainly applicable beyond the artistic universe, but in actuality rendered in the determinate artistic creations the Surrealists nonetheless furnished: for instance, the “convulsive beauty” that Breton announced at the end of Nadja.[53] Envisaged solely for “passionate ends”, it is the beauty born from the “puzzling” encounter with new relations emerging between objects and existing facts.[54]

The means of communication

1. Above all, surrealism found expression in painting and poetry. In these it obtained the most remarkable results. Automatic writing—of which Breton would say that its history is that of a continuous misfortune[55]—was quickly abandoned to the profit of a partially worked-up poetry.[56] Painting followed two principal directions: the exact reproduction of elements whose coexistence appeared contradictory (e.g., Magritte); and a formal freedom which constituted an enigmatic ensemble (e.g., Max Ernst).

2. Surrealism produced films within the narrow limits imposed upon it by the problems of economics and censorship. It sought a fusion of poetry and plastic expression in the poem-object. The dream accounts and various formulas for irrational collective play were also the “fixed forms” created by its activities.[57] Except in the case of the Belgian Surrealist André Souris, surrealism was not preoccupied with music, in which the contemporaneous experiments of Edgar Varese (after the semi-Dadaism of Erik Satie) pushed toward the general course of artistic dissolution. In principle Surrealism was contemptuous toward the novel, ignoring James Joyce, whose work marked the complete destruction of this genre by way of a liberation of language the counterpart of that which had ruined the old poetry. In contrast, surrealism did not intervene in architecture due to its lack of material means. Nonetheless, the Surrealists paid the utmost attention to some of the free creations and dreamlike currents in this domain: that of Postman Cheval[58] and Gaudi in Barcelona.

3. The critical activity of surrealism was considerable. This was primarily the case in the accounts of its own research into the dream and life (e.g., Nadja, Communicating Vessels). Increasingly, and in parallel, there was also the rediscovery and re-evaluation of past cultural works, both in painting—from Bosch to Arcimboldo—and among writers. The Anthology of Black Humour presented by Breton constituted the most famous monument of this latter aspect of the Surrealist oeuvre.

4. The theoretical and programmatic work which accompanied all the stages of the movement was principally carried out by André Breton. In Surrealism’s first phase, one must add to Breton’s Manifestoes, the writing—in different ways—of Pierre Naville, Antoine Artaud, Louis Aragon and Paul Nougé.[59] Later, Pierre Mabille (Egregores) and Nicolas Calas (Hearths of Arson) attempted a deepening of theory.[60] At the end of the Second World War, Benjamin Péret in The Dishonour of the Poets would defend the Surrealist positions on poetry and revolution, against the formal and political reaction of patriotic poetry.[61]

III. The men and their work

André Breton

1. The principal works by which André Breton asserted himself as the leading theoretician of surrealism were: The Lost Steps (1924), Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality (1927), Nadja (1928), The Second Surrealist Manifesto (1930), Communicating Vessels (1932), Mad Love (1937), and Anthology of Black Humour (1940).

2. Though his theoretical activity has long inclined cultivated opinion to underestimate Breton’s poetic work—to the advantage of those Surrealists considered more specifically poets (notably Paul Éluard)—today it is difficult not to recognise the highest poetic accomplishment of the movement in André Breton’s oeuvre. His principal publications are: Earthlight (1923), Free Union (1931), The Revolver with the White Hair (1932), Fata Morgana (1940), and Ode to Charles Fourier (1945).

3. André Breton’s activity as a critic, often mixed in with those of his books that should rather be designated theoretical works (in particular, The Lost Steps and Anthology of Black Humour), was also deployed, throughout his life, in a great number of articles and prefaces that considered all those old and contemporary works—from Maturin to Lautréamont, and from Germain Nouveau to Maurice Fourré—that could be related to the Surrealist spirit. In 1949, he unmasked—upon a first reading—a supposed unpublished work of Rimbaud’s, which had been authenticated by experts (documents pertaining to this collected in Flagrant délit).

4. One must reserve a special place for his critical and theoretical work on painting. It is expressed in books (from Surrealism and Painting in 1928 up until L’Art magique in 1957, the latter work in collaboration with Gérard Legrand), and in the numerous prefaces for exhibitions, which toward the end of his life became his principal work.

5. Finally, the most irreplaceable part of Andre Breton’s activity was his role as instigator and ringleader of the Surrealist movement, which, since its origin, has been identified with his life. Breton was the strategist of the entire struggle.

The Surrealist poets

1. Of all the early Surrealists, Benjamin Péret (1899-1959) remained ever faithful to the initial project—just as nothing corrupted the friendship that bound him to Breton. As well as fighting for the Spanish Revolution in the POUM militia, all his life Péret chose subversion, which he expressed in the supremely free form and content of his poetry: Dormir, dormir dans les Pierres (1925), From the Hidden Storehouse (1934), and I Won’t Stoop to That (1936).[62] His entry of the poem ‘Epitaph for a monument to the war dead’ into an Académie Française competition has been noted as the greatest scandal a Surrealist poem ever provoked.[63]

2. Paul Éluard (1895-1952) was the first Surrealist to be recognised as possessing the qualities of an authentic poet—despite belonging to the movement. After Capital of Pain (1926), he would publish several collections which benefited from a certain notoriety: Love, Poetry (1929), La Vie immédiate (1932), La Rose publique (1934), and Cours naturel (1938). Abandoning surrealism in 1939 to rally to the French Communist Party, Éluard was the author who maintained the most personal tone during the Resistance.

3. In contrast to his poetic collections—Le Mouvement perpétuel (1925), Persécuté, Persécuteur (1930)—Louis Aragon contributed, above all, to Surrealist expression in his prose works: Paris Peasant (1926) and Treatise on Style (1928), after producing one of the major works of the pre-Surrealist period: Anicent or the Panorama (1921). However, it was the polemics and prosecutions set in train by his political poem ‘Red Front’ in 1931 that produced his rupture with his Surrealist friends. Aragon joined with the Comintern line, and from then on dedicated himself to a militant and didactic poetry (e.g. Hourra l’Oural!, 1936), consisting of a return to traditional versification, which was to blossom in his neo-classical poems of the Resistance (‘Le Crève-Cœur’, 1940—‘La Diane française, 1945).

4. A little earlier, in 1930, Robert Desnos (1900-1945) renounced the “essential, unforgettable role”—as Breton emphasised in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism[64]—which he had played from the beginning of surrealism (Mourning for Mourning, 1924, Liberty or Love, 1927), to dedicate himself to a restoration of regular verse. He remained faithful to a political engagement which led him to the Resistance and then to his death in a Nazi concentration camp.

5. Many other poets embellished surrealism: Raymond Queneau,  René Char, Tristan Tzara (for a brief time after Dadaism and before he joined the French Communist Party), Jacques Prévert (almost all of his work would only be published 15 years later), and in his youth, Aimé Césaire. The Belgian, Henri Michaux, should be mentioned separately, because he never belonged to the movement, but drew close to it through an undeniably similar inspiration.

The painters and other artists

1. Undoubtedly Max Ernst is the greatest of Surrealist painters. Consistently exemplifying the Surrealist sensibility, Ernst experimented with all the possibilities taken up by subsequent painting: from his work Friends Reunion (Rendez-vous des Amis) (1922), constructed according to the aesthetic of the collage and heralding “pop-art”, to the lyrical abstraction of Europe After the Rain (L’Europe apres la Pluie) (1940-42), which, at the time of the Second World War marked out the path for “action painting”.

2. The Belgian René Magritte (1898-1967), upon discovering his own expressive form at the beginning of surrealism, e.g. The Lost Jockey (Le Jockey perdu), for ever after remained faithful to such precise figurative representations of impossible meetings—of which The Empire of Lights (L’Empire des Lumières), painted after the last war, is perhaps the most striking realisation.

3. Many other painters, originally from various other countries, participated in the Surrealist movement (Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Victor Brauner, Salvador Dali, Oscar Dominguez, Wolfgang Paalen, Roberto Matta, Toyen, Arshile Gorki), or were to some degree influenced by its results and momentarily fell under its sign.

4. Furthermore, surrealism has defined the work of many other creators operating in other arts. For instance, the American photographer Man Ray, and the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (the latter for a brief time until the early nineteen thirties). Undoubtedly, the most celebrated example is that of the cineaste Luis Buñuel. In 1929 he realised, in collaboration with Salvador Dali, the short film The Andalusian Dog (Un Chien andalou), and in 1931, the longer film The Golden Age (L’Age d’Or), which was almost immediately sabotaged by activists of the extreme right and then banned by the police. In both films lies the essential expression of cinematic surrealism.

The lost poets

1. If many of the original and later participants abandoned the Surrealist revolt after a time to settle down under various artistic styles, some, on the contrary, disappeared by living this revolt to the absolute extreme—and the refusal it proclaimed. They were swept away by the madness and despair that constituted the other face of the Surrealist demand for total liberation.

2. The most well-known case is that of the poet Antonin Artaud (Umbilical Limbo, 1924[65]). An actor as well, Artaud conceived a “theatre of cruelty” (i.e. direct aggression aimed at modifying the existence of the spectator), which is today at the centre of the most advanced theatrical research. Entirely devoted to an all-consuming metaphysical revolt, and quickly proving incapable of following the attempts at political revolution which preoccupied his comrades, Artaud was soon alone, and then found himself locked away for many years in an asylum where he wrote the astonishing Letters from Rodez. He would die soon after the Second World War, released but by no means pacified (e.g., To Have Done with the Judgement of God).

3. Leaving no other work apart from the texts collected in 1934 under the title Papiers Posthumes,[66] Jacques Rigaut openly displayed his passion for suicide, comparable to that which would later rule over the Italian writer Cesare Pavese. But what was an “absurd vice” to the latter, appeared a logical necessity to Rigaut the Surrealist. He played a part in that borderline tendency of surrealism that was always inclined to contemptuously judge the acceptance of the existing conditions that evidently included Surrealist activity—despite its extreme declarations. Some years before his death, at the beginning of the movement, Rigaut would address this critique: “You are poets, whereas I am on the side of death”.[67]

4. A similar desire for self-destruction possessed René Crevel, author of the story Difficult Death (1926), and the violent pamphlet Le Clavecin de Diderot (1932). In 1925, in the second issue of The Surrealist Revolution, Crevel responded quite positively to an enquiry entitled Is suicide a solution?: “Human success is fake money, lubricant for wooden horses. […] The life that I accept is the most terrible argument against myself”.[68] In 1935 he would commit suicide according to a procedure he described exactly in his 1924 book, Détours.

5. It is necessary to place Jacques Vaché here too, who killed himself some weeks after the 1918 armistice. He had written that “I object to being killed in wartime”.[69] Met by the young André Breton in 1916 in a military hospital in Nantes, Vaché certainly exercised the stronger influence. He diverted [détourné] Breton from what still attracted him to the vocation of poet.[70] Vaché lived and affirmed a “theatrical and joyless futility of everything”.[71] Nothing of modern culture—Alfred Jarry excepted—could resist his systematic disdain. Though dead before knowing of Dada, Vaché prefigured its general attitude. As in the case of Rigaut, the sole book of Vaché’s that exists, War Letters (1919), is a posthumous collection, only containing the rare letters that he wrote, almost all of which are addressed to Breton.

IV. The history of the movement

The revolt of the spirit

1. Napoleon’s celebrated remark to Goethe, “Destiny is politics”, can be applied more absolutely to the destiny of surrealism than all other modern adventures. Surrealism quickly found itself desiring to surpass its pure voluntarism of the spirit in order to meet political reality—first as progress, then defeat. Surrealism never went beyond this defeat, and all the parallel attempts that wanted to repeat the “automatic” innocence of its beginnings were simply disgraceful repetitions.[72]

2. The idealism of surrealism’s first phase was expressed in its most extreme form by Louis Aragon. Having evoked “senile Moscow” in his contribution to A Corpse (devoted to the death of Anatole France), he found himself entangled in a polemic with Jean Bernier, editor of the communist review Clarté.[73] In the second number of The Surrealist Revolution Aragon responded: “You have chosen to isolate as a prank a phrase which testifies to my lack of appetite for the Bolshevik government, and with it all of communism. […] I place the spirit of revolt well beyond all politics. […] The Russian Revolution? forgive me for shrugging my shoulders. On the level of ideas, it is, at best, a vague ministerial crisis. It would really be prudent of you to treat a little less casually those who have sacrificed their existence to the things of the spirit.”[74]

3. Above all under the influence of Antonin Artaud, the third number of The Surrealist Revolution (April 1925) was almost entirely dedicated to a hymn for the East—in which its thinking, pessimism, and even mysticism, is clearly preferred in its entirety to the technical logic of the West.[75] Asia is the “citadel of all hopes”.[76] But it is always a question of its thought. Nevertheless, for Artaud this coexistence of purely metaphysical demands and theatrical preoccupations would lead to his expulsion the following year.

4. In the same year, 1925, the Rif rebellion in Morocco—repressed with difficulty by the united action of the French and Spanish armies—gave the Surrealists the opportunity to intervene on the political terrain. In common with the editors of the journals Clarte and Philosophies (Norbert Guterman, Henri Lefebvre, Georges Politzer), they signed the manifesto The Revolution First and Always (October 1925) which declared, “We are not utopians: we conceive this Revolution only in its social form.”[77]

5. In 1926, Pierre Naville would go even further, in his essay La Révolution et les Intellectuels—Que pensent faire les surréalistes ?[78] He would rally entirely to Marxism, presenting the proletarian struggle as the sole concrete perspective and would thus quit the Surrealist movement.

In the service of the revolution

1. Under the pressure of these experiences, the Surrealists became close to the French Communist Party. Breton, who declared himself a partisan of all revolutionary action in July 1925, “even if it takes as its starting point the class struggle, and only provided that it leads far enough,”[79] joined the Communist Party a year later, at the same time as his friends Aragon, Éluard, Péret and Unik. They presented their position in the brochure Au Grand Jour (1927).[80]

2. The disillusion was rapid. The communists showed a keen distrust of all those who adhered to strange, independent preoccupations. Breton could not bear the trivial militantism that they wanted to impose upon him.[81] At the same time they deplored the respect that the communists showed for those that the Surrealists had condemned as bourgeois cultural trash (e.g., Romain Rolland, Henri Barbusse). The Surrealists’ opposition did not extend to an analyse of the evolution of either the Russian regime or the Communist International in the previous decade. So recently born from the desire “to have an end to the ancient regime of the spirit”,[82] the Surrealists would attribute the weakness of the Party at this moment strictly to its “materialist” and political functions, founded uniquely on its defence of “material advantage” (Breton, Legitimate Defence).[83]

3. Additionally, another tendency was constituted from Surrealism. Rejecting its politicisation, this tendency would evolve into a revival of literary activity by rejecting the group discipline that established Surrealism. The essence of this current’s common expression was the revolt against Breton, who was identified—not without cause—with such discipline. Breton was the target of the virulent A Corpse of 1930, written by Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, Robert Desnos, Michel Leiris, and Georges Bataille.[84] Though never a member of the Surrealist group, Bataille gathered for a time the dissidents around his journal Documents.

4. From 1930 the journal of the movement (which would cease to appear in 1933) changed its title, becoming Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution. Breton’s circle was dissatisfied with the Communist Party but declared that they would place themselves at the command of the Third International. Contrary to their opponent, Pierre Naville, who had become a partisan of Trotsky’s and his International Left Opposition, the Surrealists remained oriented toward the orthodox Communist organisation while claiming to keep their distance.

5. This ambiguous position would lead to a new crisis for Surrealism. In 1931 Aragon and Georges Sadoul rallied completely to the Communist line and renounced their Surrealist friends.[85] In 1933, Breton, Éluard and Crevel were formally excluded from the Party, because of an article in the Surrealist journal written by Ferdinand Alquié, which denounced “the wind of cretinization blowing from the USSR”.[86]

Surrealism alone

1. In France, after the fascist coup attempt of 6 February 1934, the Surrealists took the initiative of issuing a Appel à la lutte [Call to Fight],[87] which would become the first platform of the future Vigilance Committee of Intellectuals.[88] This committee, which demanded that worker organisations realise “unity of proletarian action”, would play a role in the origins of the Popular Front of 1936 in France.[89] But while the formation of the Popular Front would result in the dissipation of the contempt nourished among the left against the Communist Party—even silencing those critiques considered detrimental to common action (the intellectual milieu notably would orient itself toward a sympathetic position with the Communist Party)—the Surrealists would always find yet more adversaries in the Party, and so become more isolated. In 1933, in the brochure On the Time When the Surrealists Were Right, they denounced Soviet Russia and its “all-powerful leader under whom this regime is turning into the very negation of what it should be and what it has been”.[90]

2. The Surrealist declaration, The Truth About the Moscow Trials, read by Breton at a meeting on 3 September 1936, asserted: “we consider the verdict of Moscow, and its execution, to be abominable and unpardonable. […] We believe such undertakings dishonour a regime for ever.”[91] Stalin was denounced as “the great negator and principle enemy of the proletarian revolution.”[92] Further, “Defence of the USSR” must be replaced with the slogan “Defence of Revolutionary Spain”.[93] The same declaration saluted the revolutionary forces of the CNT-FAI and the POUM, and announced that the Stalinists “who have entered into a pact with the capitalist states, are doing everything in their power to fragment these elements [i.e. the CNT-FAI and the POUM].”[94] In 1937 the Surrealists were among those who attempted to mobilize international opinion by revealing the persecutions against the POUM and the sabotage of the Spanish Revolution. But alas, already in vain.

3. The final political foray by surrealism was made in 1938 in accord with Trotsky, exiled in Mexico. It was based upon an “International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art”, through which they wanted to associate independent artistic creation with authentic revolutionary struggle.[95] The manifesto, written by Breton and Trotsky, but signed in place of the latter by the painter Diego Rivera, declared: “If, for the development of the material forces of production, the revolution must build a socialist regime with centralized control, then to develop intellectual creation, an anarchist regime of individual freedom must be established and assured from the very beginning.”[96]

4. The Second World War scattered the Surrealists. Breton, Péret, Tanguy, and Calas would go to the Americas,[97] whereas Éluard remained in France and definitively rallied behind the French Communist Party. It marked the end of Surrealism’s political action, and, at the same time, the termination of the truly creative phase of the movement: almost all the most important books of Surrealism had been published before 1939. The most notable artists had already appeared and had produced the essentials of their œuvre, on which they would continue to work thereafter.

5. The nineteen thirties, in which the “Surrealist revolution” met with total defeat, linked to the collapse of revolutionary perspectives across the world and the concomitant rise of fascism and the march to the Second World War, was also the time in which Surrealism became better known in many European countries, the United States, and Japan—and in which different affiliated groups were established. Several “International Expositions of Surrealism”—the first in London in 1936, the second in Paris in 1938—have demonstrated the artistic richness of the movement.

Results

1. In France, after the war, the importance of surrealism was admitted, though initially in a paradoxical fashion. Many former Surrealists were recognised as having major artistic or literary value, but for personal works after their passage through the movement. For instance, Raymond Queneau for his novels (Pierrot mon ami, 1943, The Skin of Dreams, 1945), and his poems; Michel Leiris for his autobiography Manhood (1939); Jacques Prévert, who, with Paroles (1946) was the most popular poet of the time. Aragon and Éluard were recognised as masters of the poetry of the Resistance. Similarly, Tzara, who was also a poet of the Communist Party, though less representative. René Char, former Maquis leader, attained a certain notoriety with his Leaves of Hypnos. Henri Michaux was also discovered. Likewise, among the painters, it is Dali—having become Catholic and Francoist, and a methodical self-publicist—who offered the public a somewhat altered vision of Surrealism. In contrast, the movement was almost unknown in its real history, and figured no more in the actual avant-garde of the development of ideas. This role was now taken up by Existentialist thought and the literary productions of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Maurice Mereau-Ponty.

2. Nonetheless, as the fashions and enthusiasms of the post-war dissipated, Surrealism took its place as the principal current in modern art. A number of books contributed to illuminating this role: Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism, Ferdinand Alquié’s Philosophy of Surrealism, Victor Crastre’s André Breton and Ado Kyrou’s Le Surrealisme au Cinema.[98] At the same time, the resumption of diverse cultural experimentation necessarily led to the acknowledgment of Surrealism’s contribution, insofar as it embodied almost the totality of “avant-garde” results which had to be surpassed.[99] Many foundational Surrealist books were republished in the years immediately prior to this.

3. During the entirety of this time a Surrealist group continued to exist around André Breton. The group expressed itself in a succession of journals: Medium, Le surréalisme, même, and La Brèche. The latest to date is Archibras.[100] This group, composed chiefly of young adherents faithful to Surrealist orthodoxy, preserved a formal functional likeness with surrealism before the war. For instance, it decided upon several exclusions (notably that of Max Ernst, who accepted a Prize from the Venice Biennale).[101] It cannot be said that these epigones produced any striking work whatsoever. The main change in the thought of the group was constituted by an always more distinct recourse to occult interpretations, i.e., from the “Great Initiates” to Gnosis.[102]

4. Without doubt the central contradiction of surrealism was to produce a new artistic era based on the radical refusal of art. Surrealism has always been, nonetheless, conscious of this difficulty. Knowing well that it must reach beyond the artistic world, it attempted to finally break through this frontier—along which it still meanders—by way of revolutionary practice and its expectation of finding a sort of magical path. This paramount incompatibility was aggravated by circumstance: Surrealism found its time dominated by the contradiction of the revolutionary process itself. It did not clearly recognise this contradiction and reacted to the collapse of revolutionary perspectives by reinforcing its tendency to believe in traditional magic.

5. It is in such an art wrapped in magic (an art moreover that should comment upon itself rather than produce more in order to be finished with art) that Surrealism placed its last hope. It is permissible to think that the results of such a great human project are a little paltry, and that so many of its novelties have fallen into a well-worn conformism. Nonetheless, there remains the example of a demand that bears upon the entirety of life, and the fact that this protest found its own language. Perhaps the last word on the irreducibly successful part of the Surrealist adventure can be found in this prognostication from Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surrealism: “It will fall to the innocence and to the anger of some future men to extract from Surrealism what cannot fail to be still alive, and to restore, at the cost of a beautiful ransacking, Surrealism to its proper goal.”?[103]


TRANSLATOR’S FOOTNOTES

[1] André Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, ed. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 164. Translation modified. No doubt Debord considered the Situationist International precisely as these future men beautifully ransacking the Surrealist project.

[2] Indeed, in the early days of the Situationist International, Debord presented the group as precisely the “movement Breton promised to rally to if it were to appear”—a promise that he never kept (at least by situationist reckoning). See, Situationist International, ‘The Sound and the Fury [1958]’, in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[3] The classic early iteration of Debord’s critique of decomposition can be found in Report on the Construction of Situations (1957). However, its successive elaboration and transformation, particularly as it pertains to both the critique of Dada and Surrealism, and the emergence of the later critique of “recuperation”, can be traced through the following articles: One More Try if you Want to be Situationists (1957), The Sound and the Fury (1958), The Meaning of Decay in Art (1959), All the King’s Men (1963), The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art (1963), Captive Words (1966) and On the Poverty of Student Life (1966).

[4] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, [1967] 2014, thesis 191.

[5] Guy Debord, ‘All the King’s Men [1963]’, in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[6] André Decollogny, Portrait d’une encyclopédie de l’actualité : Encyclopédie du monde actuel EDMA (Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Bibliothécaire, 1977).

[7] Donald Nicholson-Smith, ‘On the Encyclopédie du monde actuel. Remarks collected by Gérard Berréby’, translated by NOT BORED! (2014).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jean-Francois Martos calls the Bozingos (Fr.: “les Bousingots”), an “extremist fringe” of Romanticism, “who appeared in France after the revolution of 1830, and who the Dadaists recognised as their forebears”. See, Jean-François Martos, Histoire de l’internationale situationniste, Paris: Éditions Ivrea, [1989] 1995, p. 83. Bohemian poets and artists, their members included Petrus Borel, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, Philothée O’Neddy, Xavier Forneret and Aloysius Bertrand. For a brief account of the Bouzingos, see, Enid Starkie, ‘Bouzingos and Jeunes-France’, in On Bohemia: The Code of the Self-Exiled, ed. Cesar Graña and Marigay Graña, London: Routledge, 2017.

[11] In sum, Debord’s perspective on the movement of decomposition in poetry—and by extension all of the arts.

[12]On a touché au vers ” Literally, “we have touched upon the verse” or more colloquially, “we meddled with the verse”, or even “we have struck a blow against verse”. See, Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Music and Letters [1895]’, in Divagations, ed. Barbara Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 2007, p. 183.

[13] Debord misquotes Rimbaud: “le dérèglement systématique de tous le sens”. The reference is to Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871: “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement [dérèglement raisonné] of all the senses.”. See, Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Wallace Fowlie ; updated and revised by Seth Whidden, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 306, 307.

[14] Comte de Lautréamont, ‘Maldoror [1869]’, in Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2011, p. 193 (sixth canto). Translation modified. For more on the surrealist definition of beauty see section II below, ‘Surrealist values’, point 4.

[15] Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘Victory (La Victoire)’, in Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), ed. Anne Hyde Greet, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, p. 336, 337.

[16] The term “conversation poems” [“poèmes-conversations”] was used by Apollinaire to describe his use of snippets of overheard conversations in some of his poetry. See, for instance, the poems ‘Les Fenêtres’ (Windows) and ‘Lundi Rue Christine’ (Monday in Christine Street) in Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), trans. Anne Hyde Greet, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

[17] André Breton, Anthology of Black Humor, trans. Mark Polizzotti, San Francisco: City Lights Books, [1940/5] 1997, p. 255 (‘Arthur Cravan’).

[18] Tristan Tzara, ‘[Dada] manifesto on feeble love and bitter love [1920/21]’, in The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, ed. Robert Motherwell, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1981, p. 87.

[19] For an account of Impressionism and its milieu, somewhat influenced by Debord’s critique, see T. J. Clark, The Paiting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his followers, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

[20] See, Paul Gauguin, The Writings of a Savage, trans. Eleanor Levieux, New York: De Capo Press, 1996, p. 214 (Letter to Monfreid, October 1902, Marquesas Islands). Translation modified.

[21] The Magnetic Fields [Les Champs magnétiques] was first published in 1920.

[22] For more on the Spartakist Bund and the German Revolution of 1919, see, Gilles Dauvé and Denis Authier, The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921, trans. M. DeSocio[1976] 2006; Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923, trans. John Archer, Leiden: Brill, [1971] 2005.

[23] See, Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, New York: Everyman’s Library, [1881] 1992, p. 499 (part III, book 9, chapter 7, ‘Mitya’s Great Secret. Met with Hisses’). The argument regarding “everything is permitted” is first presented in part II, book 5, chapter 5, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’.

[24] This demand was inscribed on the front cover of the first issue of The Surrealist Revolution. I suspect its origin was as a sign at the Central Bureau of Surrealist Research, 15 Rue de Grenelle—cf. Louis Aragon, ‘A Wave of Dreams (Une vague de rêves) [1924]’.

[25] The citation is in fact a détournement of a negative assessment of Surrealism that the surrealists published alongside other such examples in the first issue of The Surrealist Revolution (p. 25), under the title of ‘Extracts from the Press’. The entire citation, from L’Echo d’Alger, reads: ‘Surrealism appears to be synonymous with dementia. If it succeeds in replacing other psychic mechanisms in solving the main problems of life, we can abandon all hope of solving the problem of dear life.’

[26] André Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, ed. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 3.

[27] “La vraie vie est absente.” Wallace Fowlie translated this as “real life is absent”. See, Arthur Rimbaud, ‘A Season in Hell (Une saison en enfer) [1873]’, in Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 280, 281 (Delirium I: The Foolish Virgin, The Infernal Bridgroom).

[28] Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, p. 14.

[29] Antonin Artaud, ‘Address to the Pope [1925]’, in Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, ed. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 142; Antonin Artaud, ‘Letter to the Buddhist Schools [1925]’, in Selected Writings, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 105. Translation modified.

[30] In 1924 and 1925 the Surrealist group made a series of small cards to publicise their existence, particularly that of the Central Bureau of Surrealist Research at 15 Rue de Grenelle, Paris. Some of the cards reproduced quotes from favoured writers; others had slogans that would in their turn became famously associated with the group—for instance: “Parents! Tell your children your dreams”, or “If you love, you’ll love Surrealism”.

[31] The phrase of Hegel referred to, appeared in his inaugural address at the University of Berlin in 1818: “One cannot overestimate the greatness and power of the spirit” (translation modified). In the context of his address, in particular the recent Napoleonic period, Hegel emphasised this “strength and power” not only as a moment of the struggle for independence from the recent French “tyranny”, but also its significance for “spiritual life in general”, and the pursuits of philosophy in particular. No doubt the surrealists “abuse” of this phrase was doubly ironic for Debord. It suggests both the weakness of the “strength and power of the spirit/mind [l’esprit]”, as well as precisely drawing attention to the chief contradiction of the surrealist project: that their revolution of the mind was never able to adequately address the historical materiality of the spirit. Indeed, the young International Letterist Debord attempted to address this question when he and his comrades détourned this abused phrase while addressing a question asked by the Belgian surrealist group in 1954: “Does thought enlighten both us and our actions with the same indifference as the sun, or what is our hope, and what is its value?” To which Debord and his comrades replied, in part: “This world was born of indifference, but indifference has no place in it. Thought is valuable only to the extent that it awakens demands and compels their realization. […] One cannot expect too much from the strength and power of the spirit.”

[32] The Situationist International considered “the insubordination of words” and “the assertion of the right to say everything” the radical pivot upon which the Dada and surrealist movements turned. See, Guy Debord, ‘All the King’s Men [1963],’ and Mustapha Khayati, ‘Captive Words: Preface to a Situationist Dictionary [1966]’, in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[33] Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, p. 26. Translation modified.

[34] André Breton, ‘The Disdainful Confession’, in The Lost Steps [Les Pas Perdus], p. 7. Debord took up this claim of Breton’s in order to argue for its supersession: “it is now a matter of a poetry necessarily without poems”. See, Debord, ‘All the King’s Men [1963]’.

[35] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 125. Translation modified.

[36] In his A Cavalier History of Surrealism, the situationist Raoul Vaneigem writes that “it is hard, though, to explain the failure of the [Surrealist] group to raise a similar cry in support of the Papin sisters [as they did for Violette Noziere]” (p. 26). As far as I can tell, the Surrealist group did not release a dedicated pamphlet in support of the Papin sisters, as they did for Violette Nozière (see next footnote). They did, however, register their approval of the sisters’ murder of their bosses, in the fifth issue of Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution (1933).

[37] Note that Debord reproduces the Surrealist misspelling of the surname Nozière (i.e., by adding an “s”). For more on the Surrealist support for Violette Nozière, see the poem that Breton contributed to the pamphlet the group issued in support of her: André Breton, ‘All the curtains in the world… [1923]’, in Earthlight, ed. Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2004.

[38] At the end of his 1935 Speech to the Congress of Writers (a speech moreover that Breton had been prevented from giving in person due to his confrontation with one of the Russian Stalinist dignitaries attending), Breton had pointedly written: “Transform the world,” Marx said; “change life,” Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are one for us. See, Breton, ‘Speech to the Congress of Writers [1935]’, p. 241. We have seen above that the quote, “change life”, was taken from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. The Marx quote is adapted from the final thesis of his Theses on Feuerbach. In English this is rendered as “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” In French, “change” is rendered “transformer”—i.e., to transform of change.

[39] “L’époque des sommeils”—literally “the time of sleeps” or “period of sleeps”. I have used the same term—“the time of trances”—Richard Howard used to translate this phrase in his rendering of Maurice Nadeau’s The History of Surrealism (1965). Howard had previously rendered it both hilariously and inadequately as “Nap Period” in his 1960 translation of Breton’s Nadja (p. 31). For more on the “time of trances/period of sleeps”, see, André Breton, ‘The Mediums Enter [1922]’, in The Lost Steps [Les Pas Perdus], ed. Mark Polizzotti, [1969] 1996; René Crevel, ‘The Period of Sleeping Fits [1932]’, in Radical America: Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution, ed. Franklin Rosemont, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 1970.

[40] For a detailed account of the Dadaist visit to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, see, Michel Sanouillet and Anne Sanouillet, Dada in Paris, trans. Sharmilia Ganguly, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, [2005] 2012, pp. 177-180 (chapter 12, The “Great Dada Season”).

[41] André Breton, Nadja, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Grove Press, [1928] 1960, pp. 32, 80.

[42] See, in particular, the sections, ‘The Passage de l’Opera’ & ‘A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont’, passim., in Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant [Le Paysan de Paris], trans. Simon Watson Taylor, London: Picador Classics, [1926] 1987, pp. 27-123, 125-202.

[43] For example, the disruption of the Polti banquet. See, Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard, Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, [1944/1964] 1978, p. 103 (chapter 6).

[44] See, ibid., pp. 122-124 (chapter 7).

[45] See, Breton, Nadja, p. 52.

[46] Ibid., p. 141.

[47] Breton, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)’, p. 4. Translation modified.

[48] For more details regarding their paradoxical positions on sexual morality, see Vaneigem’s A Cavalier History of Surrealism, pp. 49-51.

[49] See, in particular, André Breton, Mad Love [L’Amour fou], trans. Mary Ann Caws, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, [1937] 1987.

[50] Breton, ‘Preface for a Reprint of the [First] Manifesto (1929)’, p. xi. Translation modified. Note that the most commonly available translation, that by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, the translators have rendered Breton’s “une grâce que je persiste en tout point à opposer à la grâce divine” as “a grace I persist in comparing in all respects to divine grace”. A more faithful rendition would draw out Breton’s intent of confronting or opposing his conception of the grace of surrealist activity to that of the divine.

[51] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 123.

[52] Ibid., p. 124. Translation modified.

[53] The final sentence of Nadja reads: “La beauté sera CONVULSIVE OU ne sera pas.” “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE OR it will not be.” Breton, Nadja, p. 160. Translation modified.

[54] Ibid., pp. 159, 50. Translation modified. Note that Richard Howard renders “des fins passionnelles” as “for emotional purposes”, rather than the more appropriately surrealist, “for passionate ends”. Regarding “puzzling encounters” being the very stuff of “convulsive beauty”, recall how Debord (in section I above, ‘The crisis of poetry’, point 4), spoke of how Lautréamont “bequeathed to Surrealism its definition of beauty: ‘beautiful […] as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’.”

[55] “I will not hesitate to say that the history of automatic writing in Surrealism has been one of continuing misfortune [une infortune continue].” André Breton, ‘The Automatic Message [1933]’, in What is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont, London: Pluto Press, 1989, pp. 100-101.

[56] I translate ‘une poésie semi-élaborée’ as ‘a partially worked-up poetry’. Debord’s intent is to show how far Surrealism had moved from its founding principles, i.e., ‘pure psychic automatism’ which was consciously opposed to the productions of art.

[57] For instance, perhaps the most famous of its games, ‘Exquisite Corpse’ (cadavre exquis), was in essence a word-game that can also be considered a collective engine for the production of surrealist poems.

[58] Consider Breton’s poem, ‘Cheval the Postman (Facteur Cheval) [1932]’, in Earthlight, ed. Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2004.

[59] There is next to nothing of Naville’s work available in English translation, at least from his period of membership of the Surrealist group, and in particular his important Marxist critique of Surrealism which marked the beginning of the end of his membership: La Révolution et les Intellectuels (1926).Artaud’s work has long been available in a variety of accessible translations—for more on Artaud see the section ‘The lost poets’, paragraph 2, below. Aragon until recently suffered a similar fate to many surrealists, but much of his work during his membership of the group (up until his departure for Stalinist climes) has now been translated. Unfortunately, more needs to be done on translating Paul Nougé’s work, some of which has now appeared in English, but so much more remains to be seen.

[60] Similarly, much of Pierre Mabille’s and Nicolas Calas’ most important Surrealist work has not seen translation into English. For the former, see Mirror of the Marvelous ( 1998).

[61] Péret targeted his former comrades Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, who had adopted uncritically the French nationalism espoused by the Communist Party during the war and occupation of France.

[62] Unfortunately, Péret’s literary work has received less attention from English translators and academics—perhaps due to his uncompromising radicality both artistically and politically. Selections from two of the listed works—From the Hidden Storehouse (De Derrière les Fagots), and I Won’t Stoop to That (Je ne mange pas de ce Pain-là)—are available in translation in Benjamin Péret, From the Hidden Storehouse: Selected Poems, trans. Keith HollamanField Translation Series 6, 1981; Benjamin Péret, Death to the Pigs: Selected Writings, London: Atlas Press, 1988.

[63] My translation of ‘Epitaphe pour un Monument aux Mort de la Guerre’ is available here: https://prolenoprole.home.blog/2019/04/25/.

[64] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 165. Translation modified.

[65] Published July 1925 by Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Française.

[66] Papiers Posthumes [Posthumous Papers] has not been translated in full into English. For selections, see both references to Rigaut’s works in the Bibliography below.

[67] See, Jacques Rigaut, ‘Pensées: Thoughts, Maxims, Jottings (A Selection)’, in Atlas Anthology III, ed. Alastair Brotchie & Malcolm Green, London: Atlas Press, p. 178 (no. 157). Translation modified.

[68] René Crevel and others, ‘Enquête : Le suicide est-il une solution ?’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 2 (15 Janvier 1925), p. 13.

[69] See, Jacques Vaché, ‘War Letters [Lettres de Guerre]’, in 4 Dada Suicides, London: Atlas Press, 1995, p. 230, Vaché to Breton, 9. 5. 18 (Letter Eleven to André Breton).

[70] See, André Breton, ‘The Disdainful Confession [1923]’, in The Lost Steps [Les Pas perdu], Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996, p. 2.

[71] See, Vaché, ‘War Letters [Lettres de Guerre]’, p. 216, Vaché to Breton, X. 29-4-17 (Letter Four to André Breton).

[72] In this brief phrase we find the essence of Debord’s critique of the failings of the post-surrealist avant-gardes.

[73] For more on Aragon’s argument with Bernier, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, pp. 109-110 (chapter 7).

[74] Louis Aragon, ‘Communisme et Révolution’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 2 (15 Janvier 1925), p. 32. What is most striking regarding the claim of Aragon’s “idealism”, is that he infamously joined up with the Stalinist inheritors of the Russian Revolution some six years after writing this. The insinuation here is that his “idealism” remained constant—both in terms of his unthinking criticism of the Russian Revolution, and his later embrace of the idealism of those Western leftists who excused the totalitarian horror of Stalinism in defence of its impossible ideal.

[75] For more on this, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, pp. 115-117 (chapter 7).

[76] Robert Desnos, ‘Pamphlet against Jerusalem [1925]’, in The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology of Ideas, ed. Dawn Ades, Michael Richardson, and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Tate Publishing, 2015, p. 103.

[77] Parisian surrealist group, ‘The Revolution First and Always! [La Révolution d’abord et toujours!] (1925)’, in Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, ed. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 96. Translation modified. For more on the relationship between the surrealists and the editors of Clarte and Philosophies, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 8, ‘The Moroccan War’, passim.

[78] ‘The Revolution and the Intellectuals: What do the surrealists think?’ Unfortunately, this important work has yet to be translated into English. For excerpts, and a discussion of its impact upon the surrealist group, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 9, ‘The Naville Crisis’, passim.

[79] André Breton, ‘Pourquoi je prends la direction de la révolution surréaliste’, La Révolution surréaliste, no. 4 (15 Juillet 1925), p. 3.

[80] Au Grand Jour (In Broad Daylight). I have not been able to find a complete English translation of this text. For discussion of its content and context, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 10, ‘Au Grand Jour’, passim.

[81] Debord would later develop a critique of such “militantism” as he saw it in the para-Trotskyist group Socialisme ou Barbarie during his brief membership, 1960-61. See, Guy Debord, ‘To the participants in the national conference of “Pouvoir Ouvrier”, 5 May 1961,’.

[82] Breton, ‘Pourquoi je prends la direction de la révolution surréaliste’, p. 2.

[83] Breton, ‘Legitimate Defence [1926]’, p. 33. The idea that the French Communist Party—and Marxism more generally—expressed a “vulgar” materialism, insofar as it was concerned with the material conditions of the proletariat’s life more than this life itself, would be taken up by Debord and the situationists as a part of their critique of the post-war “bourgeois idea of happiness” that permeated the revolutionary and non-revolutionary left. See, Situationist International, ‘Collapse of the Revolutionary Intellectuals (1958)’, Situationist International Online. For more discussion of the latter, with an eye to the context of the debate, see, Anthony Hayes, ‘The Situationist International and the Rediscovery of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement’, in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, ed. Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, London: Pluto Press, 2020.

[84] Jacques Prévert, ‘A Corpse – excerpt (Une Cadavre) [1930]’, in The History of Surrealism, ed. Maurice Nadeau, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978. For more on the context of the writing of the 1930 A Corpse, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 12, ‘The Crisis of 1929’, & chapter 13, ‘In the Service of the Revolution’, passim. For Bataille’s illuminating account of A Corpse, written some years later, see, Georges Bataille, ‘Notes on the Publication of “Un Cadavre” ‘, in The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, London: Verso, 1994.

[85] For more on this, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 14, ‘The Aragon Affair’, passim.

[86] Ferdinand Alquié, ‘Lettre à André Breton, 7 mars 1933’, Le Surréalisme au service du Révolution no. 5 (1933). For more on this text and its context, see, Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, chapter 16, ‘Surrealist Politics’, passim.

[87] Dated 10 February 1934.

[88] The Vigilance Committee of Antifascist Intellectuals (Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascists) was founded in March 1934.

[89] See, Various, ‘Comité de vigilance des intellectuels antifascistes’ (accessed 9 April 2021).

[90] André Breton and others, ‘On the Time When the Surrealists Were Right (Du temps que les surréalistes avaient raison) [1935]’, in Manifestoes of Surrealism, ed. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 253. Translation modified; André Breton and others, ‘When the Surrealists Were Right (excerpts)’, in Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, ed. Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, London: Pluto Press, 2001, p. 111.

[91] Breton and others, ‘Declaration: “The Truth About the Moscow Trials” (1936)’, pp. 117, 118.

[92] Ibid., p. 118.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Fédération internationale de l’art révolutionnaire independent, aka FIARI.

[96] André Breton, Diego Rivera, and [Leon Trotsky], ‘Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art [1938]’, in What is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. Franklin Rosemont, London: Pluto Press, 1989, p. 185. Translation modified.

[97] Breton, Tanguy and Calas would go to New York. Péret went to Mexico.

[98] Neither Crastre’s nor Kyrou’s books have been translated into English.

[99] Here, Debord is gesturing at the post-war avant-garde currents in Europe who were all consciously engaged with the legacy, and supersession of Surrealism and Dada: for instance, Revolutionary Surrealism, COBRA (aka The International of Experimental Artists), the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, Letterism, the Letterist International, and ultimately the Situationist International.

[100] Medium (1953-55), Le surréalisme, même (1956-59), La Brèche 1961-65) and Archibras (1967-69). All of these journals existed in the period after Debord’s own appearance in the milieus of post-war avant-gardism, i.e., in 1951. Perhaps this is why he failed to mention one other post-war surrealist journal, Néon (1948-49).

[101] In 1954—and consequently was expelled from the group.

[102] Breton would come to speak, in 1953, of the “poetic intuition […] finally unleashed by Surrealism” as “the thread that can put us back on the road of Gnosis as knowledge of suprasensible Reality, ‘invisibly visible in an eternal mystery’.” (Breton, ‘On Surrealism in Its Living Works [1953]’, p. 304). Earlier, in the 1940s he had spoken of the beings that may even inhabit such rarefied realms—the “Great Invisibles” (Breton, ‘Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not [1942]’, pp. 293-94). However, correspondences between the Surrealist project, and older hermetic and magical traditions were not limited to the group’s late existence—see, Breton, ‘The Mediums Enter [1922]’. As Debord notes, such tendencies became more distinct after the Second World War. For instance, Sarane Alexandrine, a member of the Surrealist group after the Second World War, even believed that the surrealist Pierre Mabille “initiated” Breton “into the secrets of geomancy and prophetical astrology” sometime in the 1930s or 40s (Alexandrine cited in, Tessel M. Bauduin, Surrealism and the Occult: Occultism and Western Esotericism in the Work and Movement of André Breton, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014, p. 24). Debord’s reference to “Great Initiates” is perhaps related to such initiations; it is also the title of Édouard Schuré’s 1889 book, Les Grands Initiés, on the subject of the ancient arts of “initiation” into the ways of esoteric and magical knowledge. Nonetheless, Breton considered such investigations as an expression of a materialist conception of the fundamental identity of thinking and the phenomena of the world. See, for instance, the late discussion of his friendship with Pierre Mabille in ‘Drawbridges [1962]’—Breton’s preface to a new edition of Mabille’s Mirror of the Marvelous (1940).

[103] Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930]’, p. 164. No doubt Debord considered the Situationist International precisely as these future men beautifully ransacking the Surrealist project.

To destroy the world

The catastrophe that we are approaching is unavoidable. It is no longer a question of preserving civilisation intact against the forces of barbarism. Civilisation is barbarism—this civilisation, our shared present. Now, it is the question of which catastrophe we face: one completely out of control, with all the terrible anonymity that capital conjures in chasing itself across the global climate; or one we consciously face together, joined in a human community that we create amidst the disaster to save ourselves and the planet. Guy Debord once wrote that “victory will go to those who are capable of creating disorder without loving it”.[2] Today, the disorder of capital creates us, and we must find victory amid this disorder and through it, whether we love it or not.

*

The world overturned would be charming
In the anti-man’s eyes
[1]

Last year, we were presented with what at first sight seems to be a paradox. Beside the heightened anxiety and fear accompanying the outbreak there was also a palpable sense of excitement. In our part of the world the pandemic has been far from the devastating blow that has maimed and killed millions. Rapidly, the initial panic of the unknown that lay in our immediate future gave way to blissfully quiet streets. To be sure, this was far from a catastrophe. But meanwhile, it was impossible to forget that this brief respite from the intensities of capitalist life had, as its condition of possibility, precisely the disastrous events unfolding across the globe.

Finding pleasure in this brief slowdown of global capitalism, I was reminded of something I had stumbled across in Ghérasim Luca’s writing. While finishing his work, The Objectively Offered Object, I was struck by two passages. The first, followed upon Luca’s declaration of his belief that he had foretold a devastating earthquake in Bucharest in 1941—an earthquake through which he lived:

During, or else immediately after, the earthquake, either the sole or the first human erotic desire is to masturbate. […] This explanation is accompanied by the enormous excitation provoked in the unconscious by infantile rocking motions. When describing their experiences during the earthquake, almost everyone spoke about the rocking of objects—and above all of light fixtures—with a masturbatory hand gesture. The desire to masturbate was being satisfied by this symptomatic action in each account. [3]

I find Luca simultaneously a puzzling and compelling figure. On the one hand, he and his comrades in the 1940s held to a revolutionary position that was intransigent, against both the depredations of Stalinism and those tendencies that threatened to drag the Surrealist movement back into the art ghetto from which it had emerged and fought against. On the other hand, Luca appeared to be immersed in what can only be described as the most intensely idealistic aspects of surrealism, namely the growing tendency to relate the surrealist theory of objective chance to the mysticism of astrology and magic. Certainly, Luca attempted a materialist reckoning with this, but so far, I remain unconvinced.

In the quote above, Luca’s symptomatic reading of the hand movements of survivors of the earthquake is suggestive but far from persuasive. To my mind, a more fruitful line of enquiry would be found in attempting to unveil the general erotic and sensual sublimations and expressions associated with disaster, as much as the absence of such. For instance, in the wake of situations that induce panic and rampant anxiety I have felt this urgent need to fuck or masturbate. More often it has been simply the desire to hug someone else, to reach out and feel the warmth of life and the living. Conversely, it has also manifested as the traumatic desire to avoid others. If not exactly erotic, perhaps all expression of Eros, in Freud’s and Herbert Marcuses’s sense of the word.

However, it was another passage immediately following upon the one above that struck deepest:

Two years earlier [in 1939], during a conversation with my friends in Paris, I had claimed that I would find great satisfaction in a major catastrophe—the destruction of the Earth by a comet, for example, as foretold by astronomers. In a time of violent revolutionary pessimism, like that during which this conversation took place, several weeks after France’s entry into the war, it seemed justifiable to exchange one desperate but vital solution for another that was so natural yet so alien to us. At the level of desire, such a catastrophe being predicted in advance would have offered me, hastily and for a limited time, the satisfactions a revolutionary transformation of the world would have given me over a whole lifetime.[4]

I believe that this desire for the world to be thrown off of course rather than continue along the same dreadful trajectory—with or without a positive sense of revolutionary transformation—can be closely correlated with the experience of alienation and estrangement under capitalism. Often, as an imaginary escape and recompense for my existence as a plaything of capital, I have revelled in the most brutal and brutalising visions of destruction. A particularly memorable one was visited upon me as a sales assistant working in a bookstore. It was toward the end of a particularly boring day’s labour, while cast adrift on a sale table in the main concourse of the mall, without the company of my fellow proletarians. Stupefied by the never-ending stream of masses jamming the shopping corridors and their bland enticements, I pictured myself manning a 50-calibre machine gun, and methodically shooting every person and thing that crawled and slithered. Inevitably I laughed manically all the way.

As André Breton once mordantly noted of such fancies,

Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in the crowd, with his belly at barrel level.[5]

To be sure, Breton was not suggesting that such a dream was a reasonable solution to the unreasonable demands of life under capitalism, but rather that such brutal fantasies are at least as sane as the insane social relations that nourish them—and perhaps, in an objective sense, saner than meekly accepting the nigh unbearable contradictions and humiliations of daily capitalist life.

Such fantasies are almost always related to the emptying out of daily existence at the hands of the oppressive and atomising effects of wage labour—a grim, fantasy recompense for the actual reality of having your lifetime stolen because of the unfortunate need for money in this world. In part, this must explain what Ghérasim Luca was attempting to describe above. The fantasy of catastrophe and destruction, if viewed with an eye to the depredations of capitalist subjectivity, is akin to the dream of revolution. That such fantasies are not dependent upon the practical replacement of capitalism by a better, more rational social order is beside the point. Rather, it is a question of the simple desire for this present state of being to end—suddenly and totally. The great refusal of this reality and its much-vaunted necessity. Surely, without the ability to imagine the end of the world—even its utter destruction—we cannot begin to imagine what we would put in its place.

Perhaps this is why I am unconvinced by a belief, proposed by Slavoj Žižek, Frederic Jameson and Mark Fisher (take your pick), that has recently become a platitude: that today it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. Visions of the end have been common coin in European culture long before the ascendency of the Christian tale of apocalypse—and in fact, the latter drew upon a longer tradition of apocalypse in Indo-European cultures. More proximally, the end of the world—or more precisely its destruction by various forces—has accompanied the rise to dominance of industrial capital. Indeed, some even conceived of this rise in terms of the clarion of universal destruction, spewing forth from the Satanic mills. What is more striking, to my mind, is not the opposition of hopeless disaster and utopia but rather their proximity: not just socialism or barbarism, but rather socialism and barbarism.

In truth, behind the guise of the cultivated critic who would sooner wield a phrase than a rifle, Žižek, Jameson, Fisher, and others, disguise their nostalgia for the actual dystopias of “really existing socialism” as a mourning for the passage of the utopian project. But such a project was never the property of the various socialist and communist Internationals that laid claim to it—at best they were the expressions of a desire that emerged from the everyday experience of proletarians themselves. At worst, they were the counter revolution incarnate.

For those like Ghérasim Luca, and other revolutionists caught between the Charybdis of fascism and the Scylla of Stalinism, the end of the world was palpably underway in the 1940s. In drawing attention to the similarity between the desire for catastrophe and revolution, Luca clearly posed the palpably destructive moment of revolutionary desire. This is not to fetishize destruction for the sake of it, but rather to be clear that not only is the destructive moment of revolution unavoidable, it is already happening under the guise of the much vaunted peace of the global market—replete with runaway climate change and wars that are in truth the never ending conditions of this “peace”.

To not merely preserve but rather revolutionize the idea of human community we must overturn this world. But before we can even do that, we must be clear: the present is already the destruction we fear. Nothing can wish it away; it is the truth we must not only better understand but more fully embrace.


Note on the détourned images, above: Words: after Ghérasim Luca; images: from Jack Kirby’s The Eternals.


FOOTNOTES

[1] From the poem, ‘Useless Stake’, in André Breton, René Char, and Paul Éluard, Ralentir Travaux, trans. Keith Waldrop, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change [1930] 1990, p. 50.

[2] Guy Debord, ‘Theses on Cultural Revolution [1958],’ in Situationist International Anthology, trans. Ken Knabb, 2006, p. 54.

[3] Ghérasim Luca, ‘The Objectively Offered Object [1945],’ in The Passive Vampire, trans. Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2008, pp. 59, 60.

[4] Ibid., pp. 60-61.

[5] André Breton, ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto [1930],’ in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998, p. 125.

Homage à Ghérasim Luca

fig. 1. “For the unlimited eroticization of the proletariat.” Words: after Ghérasim Luca & Trost; image: from Jack Kirby’s The Eternals.

We proclaim love—delivered from its social, individual, psychological, theoretical, religious, and sentimental constraints—as our principal means of knowledge and action. The monstrous brilliance and scandalous effort of its methodical exasperation, its unlimited development, and its overwhelming fascination—of which we have already taken the first steps with de Sade, Engels, Freud, and Breton—places within our reach, and that of any revolutionary, the most effective means of action.

This dialecticized and materialized love constitutes the relative-absolute revolutionary method that surrealism unveiled, and in the discovery of new erotic possibilities, which go beyond social, medical, or psychological love, we manage to grasp the first aspects of objective love. Even in its most immediate aspects, we believe that the unlimited eroticization of the proletariat constitutes the most precious pledge that we can find to assure the proletariat of a truly revolutionary development in its passage through the miserable epoch we are going through.

from, Dialectic of the Dialectic (Dialectique de la dialectique), 1945.


ANNOUNCEMENT

Coming up in the days and weeks ahead, we will be exploring why surrealist art doesn’t exist, the erotics of inescapable disaster, more complaints about the deleterious effects of critical critics, and–what we are most excited about–an all new never before seen English translation of an article on Surrealism by Guy Debord. We can hardly contain ourselves…

the sinister scientist

To experiment with the creation of everyday life

fig. 1. Who are the enemies of poetry? All those who use poetry as an end in-itself, not as a means for life and liberation. Which is to say all those who fetishize the poem over poetry itself. Graphic detourned from Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, Rogue Planet, April 1956.

I wrote the following essay for the collection Suddenly Curving Space Time: Australian Experimental Poetry 1995-2015 (Brisbane: non-Euclidean Press, 2016). In the essay I perhaps too briefly and bluntly attempted to outline the radical trajectory of avant-garde and experimental art in the 20th century against what now passes for “avant-garde” and “experimental” in the cynical art markets and cafeterias. If I were to write it today, I would be more forgiving of the original surrealists. Whereas I agree with Guy Debord’s critique of the surrealists, notably that André Breton in effect fetishized the irrationality of unconscious desire as the true font of all human creativity, I would argue that nonetheless the surrealists struggled—and Breton in particular—to distinguish the ongoing surrealist experimental inquiry into new forms of consciousness and everyday practices against its domestication as so many art objects readily commodifiable (particularly of the painterly styles that are now synonymous with ‘surrealism’). I hope to return to the question of this tension among the surrealists—between a properly surrealist practice and its reduction to art-objects—in a future essay.

The thrust of this essay is its call for a new revolutionary practice beyond merely the umpteenth iteration of so-called radical art—or the nth generation of boring political radicalism and reactionary Marxism for that matter. A pox on the artists and the wannabe politicians.

From the essay:

In 1957 when the situationists kicked off their experiments in living and ‘unitary urbanism’ they saw themselves as starting from the bases the surrealists had already staked out in 1924. Today we need to start again from the bases that the situationists established in 1968; and the surrealists in 1924; and the Dadas in 1916; and etc. However such bases are merely points of departure not closed projects to be emulated repetitively or ironically. In today’s world in which the look of surrealism has triumphed throughout popular culture, the original surrealists desire for a new way of living beyond the mundanity and horrors of capitalism seems more pertinent. As the situationists argued against their surrealist forebears, what is implicit is in need of being made explicit. It is not enough to limit our experiments to art alone. To the extent that our appropriations remain purely artistic—as poems, paintings, and even more process based conceptual works—is the extent to which we will be defeated and recuperated. The surrealists never tired of explaining: there is no poetry for the enemies of poetry. And poetry for the surrealists, beyond their paintings and poems, was synonymous with the playful creation and recreation of life itself. 

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, April 2021

To experiment with the creation of everyday life

Today in the worlds of artistic production and consumption the adjectives “experimental” and even “avant-garde” are used most often to describe works that are perceived to be formally different to more “mainstream” or conventional artistic modes of production (see Gerald Keaney’s introduction for more details with regard to written poetry). However such a formal definition of “experimental” often masks the historical roots of the terms use among the artistic avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century. For instance, both the terms “experimental” and “avant-garde” were deliberately used in order to evoke an association with the communist and anarchist political avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their experiments in new forms of social life. The present use of “experimental” often bears little resemblance to its avant-garde origins, having become a “floating signifier” of sorts (to use a phrase derived from semiotic theory). This is not necessarily a bad thing; however, it is worth considering why such a de-contextualisation took place and whether or not we should attempt to infuse once more contemporary artistic practices with the “experimental” utopianism from which it so obviously descends.

In the early 20th century, some artists in Europe and then elsewhere in the world styled themselves “experimental” and “avant-garde”. At the time such declarations were not merely in relation to the formal experiments in the arts—such as the various experiments with poetic and novelistic form (e.g. Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Joyce) and in painting and other plastic arts (e.g. Cezanne, Picasso, de Chirico, Giacometti). In addition to their startling formal playfulness, these artistic experimenters pictured themselves in the avant-garde of a social upheaval they saw all around—the rapid transformation and creation of a global society via the spread of capitalism and in particular the forces which opposed it. In 1917 the poet Apollinaire would call this the ‘New Spirit’.

The first self-professed avant-gardists, the Futurists, declared their art in keeping with the terrific technical development evinced by Industrial society, and to be in advance of the lagging culture of their day. However, their avant-garde ended in the decidedly archaic celebration of fascist brutality (though the Russian Futurists fared better, caught up in the brief cultural efflorescence in the wake of the Russian Revolutions of 1917). It was left to other contemporaries, notably German Expressionists, Russian Futurists, and various Dadas and surrealists, to draw out the potentially explosive and progressive nature of such artistic experimentation. The surrealists in particular declared themselves “determined to make a revolution” in order to break apart all the fetters of the mind, “even if it must be by material hammers!” (in their Declaration of 27 January 1925). However, the surrealists fell prey to the confusion of their times, in particular the enervating results of the Russian Revolution and the effective burial of the international working class movement by Stalinism. Capped off by the fascist counter-revolution of the 1920s and 30s, the brutal destruction of the Spanish Revolution by Franco, Hitler and Stalin, and the hitherto undreamt-of destruction of the Second World War, the new world fashioned on the backs of the industrial proletariat proved itself more resilient to the often solely artistic criticism of art made by these avant-gardists.

The post-1945 world saw the previously controversial styles of the surrealists and Dadas welcomed into the corrosive worlds of the art market and academic dissection, two processes that further stripped the formal achievements of the avant-gardes from their association and attachment to the revolutionary criticism of capitalism. In the 1950s and 60s artists and revolutionists associated with the Situationist International (1957-72) called such processes “recuperation”, pointing to the way then contemporary experiments in artistic form divorced from broader social and political criticism tended to dissipate precisely the social applications of such experimental creation and criticism. Against this “recuperation” the situationists proposed to realise the “revolution of everyday life” that the surrealists had originally proclaimed in the 1920s, but had dissipated in largely artistic ventures and misbegotten fidelities to Stalinism, Trotskyism and the irrationalist mysticism that many surrealists were never able to completely shake off.

The situationists argued that avant-garde artists should focus on the possibilities at hand in contemporary society. Capitalist industrialism and the increasing mechanisation and automation of production had ushered in a material abundance that immediately raised the possibility of a more leisurely and creative existence for all. However, the capitalist and bureaucratic classes East and West enforced a universe of work and militarism as the corollary of this new mass market of commodities (even while many of their ideologues pondered the coming future of automation and leisure). The situationists argued that under such conditions radical artists should focus on two tasks. Firstly, the elaboration of an experimental practice directed toward demonstrating the creative possibilities of contemporary technical and cultural potentialities beyond their capitalist use; and thus, secondly, the development and dissemination of a revolutionary critique of contemporary society which drew upon both the modern artistic and political-philosophical avant-garde movements. Accordingly, it was not enough to ponder the possibilities of automation and leisure, because without a decisive break with capitalist society such processes would be used to enforce new forms of work, unemployment and more marketing opportunities (as we future dwellers know only to well).

In keeping with the idea of the potentialities already present within the capitalist social order the situationists proposed “détournement” as their central method. Derived from the French verb signifying “diversion” and “hijacking”, the situationists argued that the most advanced artists had already used “détournement”—notably the collage and “automatic” techniques pioneered by Cubists, Dadas and surrealists. What they proposed, particularly in the face of the repetitive nature of formal artistic experimentation in the post-war period, was that détournement should be made the key method of the artistic and political avant-gardes. Thus, they later argued that Marx’s early conception of “revolutionary practical, critical activity” could be détourned from the mutilated version that traded under the name of “Marxism”. However, détournement is not simply “appropriation” or “reappropriation”, as some later day postmodernists would like to imagine. For instance, the situationists return to Marx was made alongside of their attempt to understand the nature of the contemporary capitalist spectacle. The situationists used the term “commodity-spectacle” to describe the then new mass consumer markets in commodities that were both the logical development of, and divergent elaboration of the capitalism Marx criticised. 

As the 19th century pioneer of détournement, Isidore Ducasse (aka the Comte de Lautréamont), had argued, the creative plagiarism that lies at the heart of all human endeavours cannot be reduced to the mere copying or facile rearrangement of previously fashioned components. Rather, détournement proposed to improve on the original, adapting ideas and repurposing them for current needs.

Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a role in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.—Isidore Ducasse, Poesies, 1870

The situationist conceived of “détournement” as both the most significant discovery of the artistic avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a sort of “ultima thule” beyond which solely artistic practices could not proceed. What they meant was that most attempts to revolutionise artistic expression (even those that ended in a Dada like anti-art) had effectively exhausted the formal innovation of the arts. Certainly, one could continue with different contents, chiselling away at the already discovered new forms (collage, automatic poetry, the use of found objects, abstraction, etcetera, etcetera). But all that would be achieved would be the elaboration of so many works of art, liable to be sold in the markets for art, or not as the case may be. Instead—and here the situationists clearly drew upon the original sense of “experimental” and “avant-garde” amongst the Dadas, surrealists etc.—experimentation must move away from the impasse of formal experiments and aim at the transformation of everyday life itself. The situationists initially attempted to experiment with the design and use of cities (under the name of ‘unitary urbanism’—see here, and here). Ultimately, they moved beyond this and took aim at the organisation of capitalism itself, helping to usher in the last great revolutionary experiments of the 1970s amidst the festive occupations movement in France in May 1968.

In 1957 when the situationists kicked off their experiments in living and ‘unitary urbanism’ they saw themselves as starting from the bases the surrealists had already staked out in 1924. Today we need to start again from the bases that the situationists established in 1968; and the surrealists in 1924; and the Dadas in 1916; and etc. However, such bases are merely points of departure not closed projects to be emulated repetitively or ironically. In today’s world in which the look of surrealism has triumphed throughout popular culture, the original surrealists desire for a new way of living beyond the mundanity and horrors of capitalism seems more pertinent. As the situationists argued against their surrealist forebears, what is implicit is in need of being made explicit. It is not enough to limit our experiments to art alone. To the extent that our appropriations remain purely artistic—as poems, paintings, and even more process based conceptual works—is the extent to which we will be defeated and recuperated. The surrealists never tired of explaining: there is no poetry for the enemies of poetry. And poetry for the surrealists, beyond their paintings and poems, was synonymous with the playful creation and recreation of life itself. 

In order to make poetry dangerous again we must turn our experiments once more to the vast canvas of everyday life.

Anthony Hayes
Canberra, January 2016

Frederik Pohl’s mass consumer (1): The Midas Plague

fig. 1. Interior illustration for ‘The Midas Plague’ by Ed Emshwiller, Galaxy Magazine, April 1954.

1.

There is something I find repellent about the idea of the book review. To my mind they rarely communicate more than the individual preference of the reviewer. Which is not to say that I believe we can find a single objective reading of any text, but rather that reviews—and here I am primarily thinking of reviews of fiction—rarely rise above the accident of opinion. If done well, the review can be a thing of beauty, a creative work in its own right. Even better, the critical review attempts to situate a text in the time and place of its composition and consumption, beyond the jaded whim of the reviewer. And perhaps best of all is the polemical review that treats the work at hand only as an opportunity to wade into the eddies of the historical present, with some combative advice on how best to remedy its dolorous state (preferably from an explicitly revolutionary perspective). Unfortunately, many reviews are rarely more than a hackneyed summary of the text with a vague judgment tacked on. But perhaps this is not the fault of any one reviewer but rather of the condition of reviews given the suffocating dominance of the mass market in book commodities. Today, the mundane truth of the review—whether hailing from blog or bespoke journal—is to be the handmaiden of the sales pitch, and little else.

Maybe this is why I feel less anxious and more relieved in reviewing old works—stories and novels past their publishing prime. Certainly, in the face of present turmoil I take comfort, after a fashion, in the relative stability of the recent past. ‘Stability’ here is strictly a temporal notion, in the sense that this time is over with, past, and complete (as it were), a relatively stable object of enquiry, even if this recent past was beset with its own instabilities and crises when possessed of the mantle of the historical present. Of course, in another sense the recent past is not done with to the extent that it remains with us: a constitutive element of the present insofar as it is an immediate condition of such. For example, the story I review below dealt with, in the 1950s, the then new reality of ‘mass consumption’ whose novelty has since metamorphosed into a mundane fact of the last half century of global capitalism. And perhaps here is where my review may play some critical or even polemical role: to defamiliarize ourselves from the suffocatingly commonplace by showing that what is apparently trivial or routine is anything but.

2.

Some months back I outlined a research project of sorts, what I called the science fiction spectacle. There, I wanted to draw attention to one thing in particular: the appearance in works of science fiction in the 1950s and 60s of what Guy Debord called variously ‘the spectacle’ or ‘the commodity-spectacle’. For now, it is enough to say that by this Debord meant the materialisation of a world view based upon and manifesting the rise to dominance of commodity production and consumption, first in Europe and the US and then the rest of the world. Since outlining this project, I have also been ruminating upon a related notion of Debord’s: the decomposition of culture. In my reading of SF, particularly Anglo-American SF between 1940 and 1970, I have been struck by how it formally recapitulates the progression of the European literary avant-garde of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Namely, we witness in SF of this time and place, the emergence of a self-reflective and recursive decomposition of the artistic object. By “decomposition” I mean, primarily, the literary “experiments” in the form and content of the short story and the novel. This can be seen particularly in the rise of the so-called ‘new wave’ in science fiction in the 1960s.

3.

So what has this got to do with Frederik Pohl?

“Finally, the review!”

Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954)

In the 1950s Pohl became known for stories that ruminated on the changing nature of contemporary society, particularly with regard to the transformations in the modes of production and consumption—what some called back then the emergence of a “consumer society”. His best known—and perhaps the classic iteration of 1950s SF satire—is the novel he wrote with C. M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953), aka Gravy Planet, in its original serial publication (Galaxy magazine, 1952). In the novel, Pohl and Kornbluth ably illustrate what Guy Debord would later describe as the “incessant fabrication of pseudo-needs”[1] consequent upon the rise to dominance of capitalist production:

He extended a pack of cigarettes. | They were Greentips. I said automatically: “No thanks. I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier.” And automatically I lit one, of course. I was becoming the kind of consumer we used to love. Think about smoking, think about Starrs, light a Starr. Light a Starr, think about Popsie, get a squirt. Get a squirt, think about Crunchies, buy a box. Buy a box, think about smoking, light a Starr. And at every step roll out the words of praise that had been dinned into you through your eyes, ears and pores. “I smoke Starrs; they’re tastier. I drink Popsie; it’s zippy. I eat Crunchies; they tang your tongue. I smoke—”[2]

Like The Space Merchants, I consider Pohl’s The Midas Plague as an instance of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ (briefly discussed in section {2} above). Unlike The Space Merchants, The Midas Plague is not a good story. Its central conceit, the inversion of the wealth of mass consumer society, such that a rich person consumes less than a poor one, is at first sight satirically sharp. The set-up, which presents what was once known as the working class utterly dominated by the necessity to consume the vast panoply of goods churned out of the automated factories of a future welfare state capitalism, is biting. Lamentably, the more Pohl works to make this conceit believable, the more it becomes tiresome. Nonetheless, judging from the number of times it has been reprinted and translated, The Midas Plague seems to be popular with someone.

The critic and author Barry N. Malzberg noted in an introduction to the work that,

The audacious and patchwork concept underlying this story […] was Horace Gold’s [editor of Galaxy] and according to Pohl he had offered it to almost all of his regular contributors, asking for a story centred on the idea. The idea lacks all credibility, everyone (including Pohl) told him, and everyone refused to write something so patently unbelievable until, according to Pohl, Horace browbeat him into an attempt and Pohl decided that it was less trouble to deliver something than continue to resist. To his utter shock, the story was received by Gold and his readership with great glee, was among the most popular GALAXY ever published (or Pohl) and one of the most anthologized. Whether this demonstrated the audacity and scope of Gold’s unreason or whether it confirmed Gold’s genius (or both) Pohl was utterly unable to decide.[3]

I can only sympathise with Pohl’s confusion here. Sure, it is ably written, but any claim this satire has to incisiveness or wit is lost in its overlong and ramshackle telling. Judging from Damon Knight’s near contemporaneous review, few people other than Horace Gold seemed to think much of it:

This [story] is good for one laugh, or possibly two, but there is some-thing gaggingly irrational after a while in the spectacle of Pohl’s hero choking down more food than he can eat. The question, “Why doesn’t he flush the stuff down the drain?” comes up several times during the story, but Pohl never answers it, he only makes vaguely relevant-sounding noises and changes the subject. The alternate solution, that of putting robots to work using up all the stuff the hero is supposed to consume, comes thirty pages too late in the story, but is hailed by everybody as a revolutionary idea.[4]

Unlike Knight I am less concerned with the failed “realism” of the story. That realism is at issue in fiction is patent—after all, such realism or “naturalism” is the very hallmark of the one-time avant-garde radicalism of bourgeois literature. However, it is here that science fiction helps reveal the chief impasse of such literature, perhaps even more than the modernist literature that set out to call into question nineteenth century realism. As the saying goes, the map is not the territory: more so when the territory in question either does not yet exist; or when it comes to pass, will most likely never exist in the way it was imagined. Of course, this is not a problem for those that conceive of science fiction as merely the fictionalised present. In either case, we are back at square one. Either the realism of a fictional future is inherently problematic (just because… the future…), or the realism of the novel itself is problematic simply because as a literary artefact it is necessarily more than simply the reflection of the true state of things.

The realism, or not, of The Midas Plague is at issue because Pohl attempts to fashion a coherent, realist picture of the future. And very quickly, as Knight points out, this sham coherence unravels. For Pohl’s future to “work”, one must accept that the vast majority of its denizens are idiots at best. Indeed, I suspect that this says more about Frederik Pohl the jaded ex-Young Communist League member, whose despair at the present state of capitalist society is underwritten by his loss of faith in the capacity of the masses to understand or even desire to change the nature of the present social arrangement.

What would have been more interesting by far would have been something akin to what Pohl and Kornbluth attempted with The Space Merchants: to whit, an extrapolation of current trends. But in The Midas Plague it is precisely the science fictional gloss that gets in the way of Pohl’s satirical intent. Still, buried in the ponderous extent of The Midas Plague lie elements of a genuinely radical critique of capitalism:

It wasn’t so hard to be a proper, industrious consumer if you worked at it, he reflected. It was only the malcontents, the ne’er-do-wells and the incompetents who simply could not adjust to the world around them.[5]

Unfortunately, the genuinely biting and occasionally funny satire quickly fades under the burden of the stupidities of plot and character. As Damon Knight remarked in his review,

The story proper is just as dull as it ought to be, but Pohl has embellished it with some additional scenes that are better than it deserves—fine, zany drunk episodes, involving a couple of very sharp minor characters and some highly agreeable mock poetry and politics.[6]

Fortunately for us, Pohl had another go at the fictional critique of present trends. A mere nine months after the publication of The Midas Plague he returned with The Tunnel Under the World, broadly similar in its interrogation of the new arrangements (particularly with an eye to what Debord called “pseudo-needs”). This time, however, he hit pay dirt. Tunnel… is a vastly superior work, whose fictional premise and execution lives up to its critical bite.

I will return to discuss Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World in my next post.

fig. 2. Cover illustration for Galaxy, April 1954: ‘An Expedition to Eden’ by Ed Emshwiller.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 51

[2] Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, chapter 8.

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘eForward’ to ‘The Midas Plague’, The Galaxy Project, Rosetta Books, 2011. In his memoir, The Way The Future Was, Pohl noted that The Midas Plague was one of only “two stories in my whole catalog which were suggested by someone else,” concluding, perhaps over-generously, that “it is a source of some chagrin to me that I like them better than most”.

[4] Damon Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’, Infinity Science Fiction, October 1957, pp. 108-109

[5] Frederik Pohl, ‘The Midas Plague’ (Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1954).

[6] Knight, ‘Infinity’s Choice’.

fig. 3. This has been a contribution to Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.

A tale of science fiction and decomposition

fig. 1. Robert Rauschenberg or Richard Powers?

Over at science fiction and other suspect ruminations, Joachim Boaz has written about the excellent Walter M. Miller Jr short story, Death of a Spaceman (1954, aka Momento Homo). James Harris has also been inspired to blog about the same story at Classics of Science Fiction.

Joachim plants his flag firmly in the camp of recursive sf:

‘I am far more interested in the way “Death of the Spaceman” interacts with pulp science fiction— i.e. “drivel written in the old days” about the “romance” of space (16). Donny negatively contrasts his own experience with the stories that are told about the stars and adventure.

‘Miller doesn’t set about smashing it all with a bludgeon  (like Malzberg would at the end of the next decade), but rather presents future experiences as prone to the same moments of painful self-reflection as life comes to its end. He charts the emotional roller coaster that waffles between moments of calm and the growing tension/anger/helplessness…. and after Donny tells all his “rotten messes” to the priest (20), he comes to the realization that we make who we are, sins and failure and sadness and all.’

This is the key to Anglo-American sf in the 1950s and 60s.

I like the idea that Malzberg’s bludgeon is seen as the continuation and maybe even culmination of Miller’s more self-consciously literary crafting of pulp SF themes. Guy Debord spoke about the decomposition of the arts as their trajectory under the solvent pressure of capitalism and commodity relations. “From Miller to Malzberg” could be the title of a book dealing with the high period of the decomposition of Anglo-American sf: 1950-1970. Surely a timing to generate scholarly disputes by…

I am intrigued by the idea that SF recapitulates a trajectory followed by European poetry, painting and literature in and around avant-garde circles through the 19th and early 20th centuries—and find it suitably weird too, as if I am reading a science fiction account of a future history. I often like to imagine alternative versions, science fictional anticipations of the decomposition of SF, a vision of a bizarre and cracked future 21st century written in the 1950s. One of my favourites is Walter Miller’s story of a robotic theatre in the early 21st century. The Darfsteller is a peek foreseen of the society of the spectacle in diesel punk attire. See some of my related comments on the science fiction spectacle here.

Incidentally, I continue get a kick out of the fact that in The Darfsteller, Miller even got the timing of the emergent collapse of the old Soviet Empire right: the late 1980s!

fig. 2. Death of a Spaceman–illustration accompanying Miller’s short story of the same name, Amazing Stories, March 1954.

SF as decomposition.

In the early 1960s the Situationist International hailed the arrival of self-conscious decomposition in modern cinema (for more on the situationist notion of decomposition, see here). In passing they noted that the so-called nouvelle vague, Truffaut, Godard, et al, were not the source of this. By the situationists lights this cinema ‘new wave’ was more of a marketing strategy of mutual aid rather than an avant-garde project unified around a program (like the surrealists and dadas). Unlike contemporaries such as Godard’s mannered and derivative À bout de souffle, and Truffaut’s riff on Zéro de conduite, the situationists saw in Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras a film of real import. Here was ‘the appearance in “commercial” cinema of the self-destruction that dominates all modern art’.

The situationists continued:

‘The film’s admirers do their best to find admirable little details wherever they can. Everyone ends up going on about Faulkner and his sense of timing […]. In fact, the reason they insist on the fragmented rhythm of Resnais’ film is so that they don’t have to see any of its destructive aspects. In the same way, they talk of Faulkner as a specialist — an accidental specialist — of the dissipation of time, accidentally encountered by Resnais, so that they can forget the time that has already passed, and more generally the literary works of Proust and Joyce. The timing — the confusion — of Hiroshima is not the annexation of cinema by literature: it is the continuation in cinema of the movement of all writing, and first of all poetry, toward its own dissolution’. (Cinema after Alain Resnais, Internationale Situationniste no. 3, December 1959)

I suspect that much of what passed for the ‘new wave’ in SF in the 1960s was akin to the corporate avant-garde of French cinema’s nouvelle vague. Like Godard and his band apart, the newness of the SF avant-garde was asserted more than signifying something truly new in the way dada and surrealism were new in 1916 and 1924. Nonetheless, one wonders what are the Hiroshima Mon Amour’s of SF, in which the ‘self-destruction that dominates all modern art’ appeared in ‘commercial’ form—but then, isn’t all pulp commercial? Here, ‘commercial’ is better translated as mainstream. I would argue that the Hiroshima’s of the sf new wave were books like Stand on Zanzibar (Zanzibar my love…), Dick’s Ubik or A Scanner Darkly, or Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (to name only a few of the better known and hopefully uncontroversial instances of what I term the decomposition of science fiction). Stories like Miller’s Death of a Spaceman, or Cyril Kornbluth’s Altar At Midnight can be re-conceived as akin to avant-garde steps in the emergence of more self-conscious expressions of decomposition and self-destruction in science fiction (albeit often more self-consciously literary, in the practice of particular authors who aspired to make of SF a realm of artistic dignity and renown, such as Kornbluth). Any number of Philip K. Dick short stories and novels in the 1950s and 60s can be conceived thus, or works of other, lesser known writers (Wyman Guin and Kris Neville come to mind).

Where does this get us? And what the hell am I talking about anyway!? Decomposition? Avant-gardes? Science fiction? Are you kidding me!?

Dystopia as consumer will and science fictional representation.

By comparing the progression of Anglo-American SF in the 1950s and 60s to that of the avant-garde arts of 19th and 20th century, I equally want to draw attention to the way Debord and others conceived of this progress as in fact a limit or impasse rather than merely the expression of an experimental flourishing—even if it is also the latter. Indeed, the experimental nature of the SF new wave has often been overstated—mostly by its hucksters—considering that their experiments were in truth the application of a preexisting (anti) tradition of formal experimentation already thoroughly practiced throughout the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Science fiction, born of capitalism and industrialism, is at best a herald of the coming future, no matter whether it is disaster or eutopia. Ultimately, SF has no place in the future it conjures. Like all literature and the arts, it shares in the estrangement and creation of the everyday. Unlike them, it foregrounds this estrangement, makes the true bizarrerie of the present explicit by drawing attention to its essential conditions and making them its materia prima: change and ephemerality.

To the extent that we still have SF—and it is an even larger part of contemporary culture than it was 60 years ago—is evidence not so much of the health of science fiction than it is an expression of our failure to build eutopia in the present. As I have argued elsewhere, SF invaded and submitted the utopian literature of the 19th century by building an empire on the wager that utopia will always be revealed as dystopia. SF’s triumph as a genre is intimately bound up with this wager, as much as its ability to best express the dystopian capitalist frenzy of accumulation and expansion which chases itself across the globe and on into the cosmos.