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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.

What is the sinister science?

fig. 1. Who is the sinister scientist? Collage by antyphayes.

1.

What is the sinister science? For a start, it’s this blog. But could it be something else?

2.

I have another blog called Notes from the sinister quarter. Originally, I set it up to be the platform for my PhD research—primarily on aspects of the life of the Situationist International (1957-1972). I took its name from Ivan Chtcheglov’s proto-situationist text, Formulary for a New Urbanism (1953).

In his article, Chtcheglov envisaged a city given over to the playful desire for the total creation of life. The city was presented as a possible realisation of Guy Debord’s idea of the ‘constructed situation’. The emphasis was on play and the ‘total creation’ of life in opposition to the chaotic, exploitative, and oppressive reality of the capitalist city.[1]  

In clear opposition to the so-called functional capitalist city divided into commercial, residential, industrial and governmental districts, Chtcheglov proposed that his city of play and desire would ‘correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life.’ [2] Thus, he imagined various districts—quartiers in the French—whose names indicated something that transcended the merely descriptive or habitual. But of all his proposed quarters one in particular stood out. 

The Sinister Quarter […] would replace all the dumps, dives and other gateways to the underworld that many peoples once possessed in their capitals: they symbolized all the evil forces of life. The Sinister Quarter would have no need to harbor real dangers, such as traps, dungeons or mines. It would be difficult to get into, with a hideous decor (piercing whistles, alarm bells, sirens wailing intermittently, grotesque sculptures, power-driven mobiles, called Auto-Mobiles), and as poorly lit at night as it was blindingly lit during the day by the excessive use of reflective phenomena. At its centre, the “Square of the Appalling Mobile.” And just as the saturation of the market with a product causes the product’s market value to fall, children and adults alike would learn not to fear the anguishing occasions of life as they explored the Sinister Quarter, but rather be amused by them.[3]

Of course, Chtcheglov, Debord and other young ‘International Letterists’ imagined their city of creative desire amidst their play within and without the dumps and dives of Paris—a living sketch of the projected sinister quarter and situationist city. Indeed, Chtcheglov’s Formulary… would prove crucial to the early years of the Situationist International, particularly of what would become known as ‘unitary urbanism’. By proposing the use of literary and other artistic works as ‘blueprints’ liberated from the mausoleum of culture to aid in the construction of future situations, Chtcheglov anticipated the later theory of détournement. Against much of the contemporaneous Marxist and Anarchist orthodoxy, Guy Debord would later make explicit what was implied by Chtcheglov’s vision: in order to be practical, any methodological critique of capitalist urbanism must encompass an argument for what comes after. Or even more succinctly: the critical means must encompass the end aimed for:

[T]he practice of utopia only makes sense if it is closely linked to the practice of revolutionary struggle. The latter, in its turn, cannot do without such a utopia without being condemned to sterility.[4]

3.

There is an article by André Breton that reminds me of Chtcheglov’s Formulary…—a precursor if you will. Breton’s article, translated as ‘Once Upon A Time’, was first published in the surrealist journal Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution, no. 1 (1930). In the article, Breton imagined establishing a house and grounds on the outskirts of Paris dedicated to placing its temporary denizens into a ‘position which seems to be as poetically receptive as possible’.[5]

What Chtcheglov did for the imaginary city, Breton attempted on the scale of a single building and its immediate surrounds. In Breton’s case a certain sinister quality pervades the entirety of his project:

Nothing grand. Just around thirty rooms with, as far as possible, long corridors that would be very dark or that I would myself make dark. […]

For each bedroom, a large clock made of black glass will be set to chime especially well at midnight. […]

There will be hardly anything but small study lamps with green lampshades that will be dimmed very low. The blinds will remain lowered day and night.

Only the white-washed reception hall will be lit with an invisible ceiling light and it will contain no other furniture, besides two authentic Merovingian chairs, and a stool on which will sit the perfume bottle tied up with a pale ribbon, inside which a discoloured rose will be immersed with its stems and leaves equally lifeless […].[6]

The décor is distinctly—and inevitably—dream-like, pervaded with the spectral gloom one would expect of such nocturnal visions. Breton perversely equips his playground with a single law, redolent of his own grip upon the reigns of surrealist (anti) power: a firm injunction against sex, ‘strictly forbidden, under penalty of immediate and definitive expulsion’ from the building and its grounds.[7] One wonders how such a directive would have been enforced in a zone otherwise given over to chance and play.

There are other details: rooms almost impossible to gain entry to—possibly the one most in keeping with Chtcheglov’s difficult to access quarter. What I find most fascinating, and commensurate with the Formulary…, is Breton’s idea of a distinctly anti-capitalist architecture as re-enchantment, as the recovery and practical elaboration of those fantastical stories we were told as children—stories whose main failing is precisely their role as forms of inoculation, subservient to the rapidly approaching adult world of wage labour and other alienations.

As Breton may have remarked, somewhere, anywhere: the sinister is what tends to become real.

4.

So, having got this far you might be wondering: is there a sinister science?

Without doubt, the sinister science blog draws inspiration from Chtcheglov’s imaginary city and Breton’s dream house. To that extent, I am more than happy to declare the surrealist and situationist lineage of this project. However, “the sinister science” is, for me, no mere bon mot or frivolous affectation—even if it is also this. I also sincerely believe in a sinister science, one that bears comparison to a more general sense of science—what is called Wissenschaft in German—rather than the modern restricted sense of what was once called the natural sciences.

If there is a single principle of the sinister science, it is error. The anti-royal road to truth is littered with our blunders and mistakes. In part, this is Hegel’s argument: the false is a moment of the true. But he continues: no longer as the false.[8] Hegel’s truth is not founded upon the principle of bivalence and “falsifiability”. Rather, error is resolved as a moment of the process of truth (and so, per the comments above, not false at all). Without digressing into an examination of Hegel’s truth versus conceptions of the truth value of propositions, for now it is enough to hold onto the following: Hegel is more concerned with truth as a process and the role of error in this process. Error, in Hegel’s sense, is only false to the extent that it is considered in abstraction from such sensuous processes, and so posed in a less than splendid isolation from the entire truth of the matter. Indeed, in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel draws attention to the crucial role that error has in the movement of truth, insofar as error and contradiction are generative of the processes which resolves them. Unlike the analytic sense of truth, Hegel’s truth is not a question of the truth value of a particular proposition considered in isolation. Truth, by his reckoning, is not so much arrived at as it is the form and content of the entire process.

However, Hegel’s conception of error and truth should not be confused with more recent conceptions of the relativism of truth derived from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche infamously argued that truth is merely the history of an error.[9] In contrast to Hegel, Nietzsche was not interested in the relationship between truth and error, but rather keen to demonstrate that all purported truths are merely so many fictions. All that make them true, by his reckoning, is the extent to which they embody a will to power that triumphs in the face of other, competing ‘truths’. More recently this has been recast by Michel Foucault as the theory of discursive power. As has been often pointed out, the chief problem with such claims is that they tend to be self-undermining. By presenting truth as the function of a successful will to power, such theories undermine their own implicit claim to being true.

Crucial to Nietzsche’s conception of the necessarily fictitious nature of ideas about reality is the belief in the utter irreconcilable difference of thought and being. In his reckoning, it is this difference that is at the root of the fictitious claims about being that have been fashioned by humans. However, in making this claim Nietzsche follows his master, Schopenhauer, albeit with the more transcendental aspects of the latter’s Kantian philosophy hacked off. Nonetheless, and despite his apparent loathing of the thinker of Königsberg, Nietzsche maintains the unfortunate dualism of Kant’s schema, insofar as thought and thinking are cast as irreducibly other to what is not thought. Thereby, even though Nietzsche and his followers claim the mantle of radical materialists, they in effect maintain precisely the spectral Platonism that they so loudly protest. Except, in their case, the dualism they eschew is hidden behind the assertion of a flat ontology of immanence.

fig. 2. “We know only a single science, the sinister science.” Still from the film Them! (1954).

To be absolutely clear, the sinister science is incompatible with Foucauldian and Nietzschean notions of error. As I hope I have made clear, the sinister science is closer to Hegel’s negative dialectic and Marx’s redeployment of this under the aegis of his ‘materialist conception of history’. Indeed, that this science is implicated in not only the criticism of all that is, but equally its transformation, is precisely what makes it sinister. And with due alteration, I can induce Hegel to remark that history is the sinister bench upon which the cosmos itself will be dissected and rearranged. Or, as Marx and Engels purportedly wrote, shortly before crossing out their fruitful error:

We know only a single science, the sinister science.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Ivan Chtcheglov, Formulary for a New Urbanism, 1953.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. Translation modified.

[4] Daniel Blanchard & Guy Debord. Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program, 1960. Translation modified.

[5] André Breton, ‘Once Upon A Time’, from The Dedalus Book of Surrealism 2, translated by Michael Richardson, Langford Lodge: 1994, p. 5.

[6] Ibid., pp. 2, 3-4.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.

[8] See, Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Preface, thesis 39 (T. Pinkard translation).

[9] See, Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.

Thinking through The Time Machine–Part 2

fig. 1. In the year 802,701 everyone will be either New Wave or Post Wave. Taken from the Eternity Comics version of The Time Machine, 1990.

In my first post on Thinking through The Time Machine, I proposed that the principle idea that lay at the heart of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine—that utopia is dystopia—became the ground and guiding principle of 20th century science fiction.

What is most troubling about The Time Machine is how bleak its perspective is upon human nature. Even before the ultimate revelation of Eloi and Morlock society, Wells’ protagonist ruminates upon the “quiet” that has befallen future humanity. In the year 802,701, Well’s Time Traveller—“for so it will be convenient to speak of him”—finds the ruins of an advanced culture and the childlike Eloi playing amidst the debris. At first, the Traveller speculates that the Eloi are what remains of the ineluctable decay of full luxury communism.[1] However, he is soon proved wrong. Upon discovering the presence of another species, the Morlocks, the Traveller revises his picture of a fallen, degenerate communism and replaces it with a picture of a fallen, degenerate capitalism:

At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position.[2]

For those familiar with the text, more revelations were to follow. In particular the horrible truth of the relationship between the Eloi and Morlock—though strictly speaking, the Morlocks, given that they have speciated and are no longer of a natural kind with the Eloi, are more subterranean cowboys than cannibals. Nonetheless, what remains consistent across the Time Traveller’s speculations, and the successive revelations of his errors, is the single “truth” that any human society derived of the struggle against material want and natural alienation, is doomed:

I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety. The rich had been assured of his wealth and comfort, the toiler assured of his life and work. No doubt in that perfect world there had been no unemployed problem, no social question left unsolved. And a great quiet had followed.[3]

In the two alternatives Wells presents—communism or capitalism—there is no escape from social entropy. The only real choice appears to be one of how best to ameliorate the decline. This is what I mean by arguing that Wells in effect proclaims utopia is dystopia. Despite the best laid plans, once a certain “ease” is achieved the rot sets in.

After the commercial success of The Time Machine and his early scientific romances, Wells’ would turn to the project of outlining a vision of utopia. What his early work and later “socialist” thinking shared was this dim view of human nature. At the heart of Wells’ picture of the future of humanity is the necessity of its decline—unless, that is, something was done about it. In works like Anticipations (1901), Wells’ would preach, to stave off for a time the necessity of decline and destruction, a eugenics Hitler would, perhaps, have been proud of. Such thinking was considered “progressive” in some corners, for instance among Fabian socialists who courted Wells’ “visionary” thinking.

To be fair to Wells, he soon moderated some of the more excessive racist and eugenicist remarks found among his early utopian speculations in Anticipations. However, across his work Wells’ vision of “socialism” had little in common with the various contemporaneous Marxist and Anarchist conceptions. Wells was no advocate of self-emancipation. For him, the shit of ages could only be removed by way of those better educated and disposed to remove the dirt—people such as himself. Indeed, Wells’ pessimism and disdain for the lower orders remained one of the constants of his mature work and so-called utopian vision.

In the realm of the burgeoning science fiction of the 20th century Wells’ wager—that short of a dictatorship of people like himself the future is dystopia—would soon be met, in part, by Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon’s vision in the 1930s was more Homeric and cosmic than Wells’. In contrast to Wells, Stapledon believed that the second law of thermodynamics, while inescapable, did not have any moral or social import—apart, that is, from the necessity for all finite things to pass in the infinite order. Stapledon is the Pulp Hegel to Wells’ more pedestrian analytic of apocalypse. Stapledon’s epic of the rise, fall, then rise and fall again of the human and its many progeny over billions of years is vastly preferable to Wells’ small-minded glimpse of eternity.  

fig. 2. Wells’ grim speculation at their most expansive. From the Marvel Classics Comics version of The Time Machine, 1976

Nonetheless, I am less interested in the literary criticism of Wells’ work than I am in its suggestive qualities. I am more interested in using Wells work beyond its limitations. For instance, in a future post I will look at his wildly speculative notion of the speciation of humans based on the capitalist polarity: i.e. of workers and bourgeoisie evolving ultimately into Morlocks and Eloi. Based as it is on the faulty logic of Ray Lankester’s notion of social degeneration, it is perforce ludicrous. But precisely because of this, and particularly considering Wells’ grim satirical intent, it is a fiercely suggestive idea.

Similarly, if we leave aside Wells’ undoubtedly dubious thoughts on the nature of social “evolution”, and his pessimistic and questionably “scientific” conclusions, we are struck by the stark beauty of his evocation of the passage of time—something Olaf Stapledon picked up on. The real force of The Time Machine’s narrative is best summed up in the Time Traveller’s headlong flight into far futurity. And there, ultimately to find the “vacuous naiveté” of the Schellingian absolute made manifest, that cosmic night “in which, as one says, all cows are black”.[4]

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.[5]

To be continued


FOOTNOTES

[1] H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, chapter IV (Heinemann text, 1895).

[2] Ibid., chapter V.

[3] Ibid., chapter X.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface, paragraph 16, Pinkard translation, 2018.

[5] Wells, The Time Machine, chapter XI.

The science fiction spectacle

fig. 1. ‘The Programmed People’, Ed Emshwiller, Amazing Stories cover, June 1963

It turns out that behind the so-called screen which is supposed to conceal the interior, there is nothing to be seen unless we go behind it ourselves, not only in order that we may see, but also that there may be something behind there that can be seen.”—Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807[1]

The Situationist International (SI) infamously claimed that ‘situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[2] In making what some have considered an outrageously egomaniacal claim, the situationists were simply restating an argument that had been around since at least Marx. Considering that the task of proletarian self-emancipation is the project of the proletariat themselves, the understanding of such a modern condition—“proletarian”—is likewise the project of the proletariat themselves and not merely that of intellectual specialists, whether proletarian or bourgeois, revolutionary or academic.[3] As Marx put it some five years before the foundation of the First International, people become conscious of the contradictions of the social production of their existence by way of ‘the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms’. Consequently, in any struggle to overcome such contradictions one must ‘fight it out’ amidst such forms.[4] There is a relationship of entailment—an identity in the Hegelian sense—between these ‘forms’ of consciousness and the ‘material’ conditions of capitalist life. Indeed, the ideological forms are so much material of the social relation, whether more or less materialized; more or less ineffable: the dreams and conversations of an epoch.

To the end of illustrating the science fiction spectacle—a subgenre of capitalist ideology and its immanent contradictions—I am going to compare and contrast a text by the Situationist International and an excerpt from a science fiction story by John Jakes. The Ed Emshwiller cover illustration (above), provides a suitable visualisation of the coming ‘programmed people’ become literal punch cards of the computerized masters. Note that all of these pieces were published in 1963.

The SI text muses on the police like nature of academic sociology, and its relationship to the coming science fiction dystopia of computerized ‘modern information technologies’. John Jakes imagines a near future—early 21st century—in which the imperatives of the fashion industry of the early 1960s and the principles of planned obsolescence have been extended to the human personality.[5] Both texts expound, in their own way, upon what the SI derisively calls ‘sociological beauty’: the ‘mystified and mystifying elevation of the partial that hides totalities and their movement’.[6] Missing from both, tellingly given the year of composition, is a critical feminist perspective. Beauty simply is associated with a sort of implicitly timeless “femininity”, which remained, regrettably, unquestioned.

1963 is fairly late in the development of the science fiction spectacle. For instance, other authors were in advance of John Jakes speculations. Just as the Situationists noted that they did not invent the critique of this new commodified society, merely pointed out certain explosive consequences of such criticisms, so too Jakes was already working an exploited seam, a “new” fictional tradition extending back as far as Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s Gravy Planet/The Space Merchants (1952/53) and further. Indeed, so-called ‘sociological science fiction’ can be seen, in part, to be coterminous with the science fiction spectacle.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will offer more thoughts on the science fiction spectacle.


Note that my method of inquiry and criticism is informed by the situationist practice of détournement, as opposed to the more conventional semiotic analysis that dominates much cultural criticism. In this way I am more interested in exploiting the critical insights that often sit uncomfortably alongside confused and bigoted themes in pop culture (for instance, in the story The Sellers of Dreams, which I use, below).

Check out this post of mine for more details.


fig. 2. ‘Sociological beauty’, internationale situationniste, no. 8, January 1963

Sociological beauty

This is an identikit drawing [Fr: portraitrobot] of the “ideal woman”, published in France-soir on 31 August 1962, and based on ten details taken from ten female celebrities considered the most beautiful in the world. This synthetic star furnishes an eloquent example of what can lead to the totalitarian dictatorship of the fragment, opposed here to the dialectical play of the face. This dream face of cybernetics is modeled on modern information technologies, which are truly effective as repression, control, classification and the maintenance of order—for instance, the identikit portrait has proved itself in police research. Obviously, the aims and methods of this information technology are opposed to the existence of knowledge, poetry and our possible appropriation of the world. Sociological beauty is the equivalent of industrial sociology or the sociology of urban life—and for the same reasons: it is a mystified and mystifying elevation of the partial that hides totalities and their movement. Inserted into the society of the spectacle without even wanting to think about it, the precise scientific moralism of sociology also indicates, along with beauty, its use: This new translation of Hic Rhodus hic salta can be read: “Here is beauty, here you consume!”[7]

—Situationist International, January 1963 [8]


The Sellers of Dreams

[pdf of the story in its original published format available here]

[A] crowd of distributors hurrying into the auditorium beneath a banner reading:

WELCOME
Things To Come Incorporated
World Distributors
“Last Year’s Woman Is
This Year’s Consumer”

[…]

“Gentlemen,” Krumm said, “first the bad news.”

At the unhappy grumble he held up his hand. “Next year—I promise!—TTIC will absolutely and without qualification be ready to introduce the concept of the obsolescent male personality, exactly as we did in the female market ten years ago. I can only emphasis again the tremendous physical problems confronting us, and point to the lag in male fashion obsolescence that was not finally overcome until the late twentieth century, by the sheer weight of promotion. Men, unlike women, accept new decorative concepts slowly. TTIC has a lucrative share of the semiannual male changeover, but we are years behind the female personality market. Next year we catch up.”

“May we see what you have for the girls, old chap?” someone asked. “Then we’ll decide whether we’re happy.”

“Very well.” Krumm began to read from a promotion script: “This year we steal a leaf from yesterday’s—uh—scented album.” The lights dimmed artfully. Perfume sprayed the chamber from hidden ducts. A stereo orchestra swelled. The curtains parted. […]

A nostalgic solido view of New York when it was once populated by people flashed on the screen. Violins throbbed thrillingly.

“Remember the sweet, charming girl of yesteryear? We capture her for you—warm, uncomplicated, reveling in—uh, let’s see—sunlight and outdoor sports.”

A series of solido slides, illustrating Krumm’s points with shots of nuclear ski lifts or the Seine, merged one into another.

“Gone is the exaggerated IQ of this year, gone the modish clothing. A return to softness. A simple mind, clinging, sweet. The stuff of everyman’s dream. Gentleman, I give you—”

Hidden kettledrums swelled. The name flashed on the screen:

DREAM DESIRE.

“Dream Desire! New Woman of the 2007-08 market year!”

—John Jakes, June 1963[9]

UPDATED 22 AUGUST 2020


Footnotes

[1] Thesis 165, Inwood translation (2018).

[2] Internationale situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’, internationale situationniste, no. 7, April 1962.

[3] See, founding document of the International Workingmen’s Association of 1864.

[4] Karl Marx, ‘Preface’, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859.

[5] Much as the fashion industry of the US and other Western nations at that time dreamed of a ‘peacock revolution’ for the male industry, Jakes imagines the world on the verge of another one, though this time in terms of the entire personality as commodity.

[6] Internationale situationniste, ‘Beauté de la sociologie’, internationale situationniste, no. 8, January 1963. Note that an earlier version of this translation is available here.

[7] “Hic Rhodus, hic salta!” is Marx’s détournement—i.e., plagiarism and correction—of Hegel’s “Hic Rhodus, hic saltus”. For “jump” (saltus) Marx substitutes “dance” (salta). See this.

[8] From internationale situationniste no. 8, January 1963, p. 33.

[9] From ‘The Sellers of the Dream’, Galaxy Magazine, June 1963, pp. 161, 162-63.