Friday, August 3, 2007


So, Surrealism. This was a fun week, and more cohesive and immediately relevant to the rest of my reading than I expected (or feared) it would be. The thing to realize about the Surrealists is that their intellectual background is, despite the language barrier, in many ways much closer to our own than that of many of the English and American Modernists: they are products of the same French tradition of philosophical education that would later produce Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and all the other sacred monsters of High Theory that have been forcibly absorbed, for better or worse, by our discipline in the past forty years. So we are part of the same intellectual tradition, at least by proxy; and even if we don't consider ourselves experts on Descartes or Hegel, the odds are we've picked up more of the gist of their systems and ways of thinking than we have of, I don't know, F.H. Bradley or C.H. Douglas or something.

Add to this the French emphasis on rhetoric and you have a pretty good explanation for the high caliber of the Surrealists' programmatic writing (seen primarily in Breton's manifestoes, of course, but this tone tends to infect their more strictly literary output as well). Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Moore, Lawrence, and Williams, despite their various levels of formal schooling, were all sort of (and of necessity) autodidacts, a fact that accounts for much of the continuing strangeness of their work and their ways of justifying it. By contrast, Breton and Aragon are like confident schoolboys: they know they can encase their artistic efforts in a watertight carapace of theory, and for this reason their self-justifications feel natural in a way that the Modernists' rarely do, in fact more natural than some of the writing it justifies. Even Lautréamont — whose work pre-dates Surrealism proper by about forty years and as far as I can tell was absolutely fucking insane — is just flat-out convincing, able to put together a series of declaratory sentences or marshal a quotation or an epigram in a way that puts most full-faculty-possessing American academics of our time to shame. (The one Anglophone Modernist who shares this tendency, of course, is James Joyce, thanks to his Jesuit training I suppose. No wonder he's always been so big in France.)

The ironic implication of this is that, for me at least, Surrealist writing today often says more about the culture that they supposedly hated so much than it does about their individual campaigns of revolt against it. How much of the attraction of Paris Peasant or Nadja, or even The Magnetic Fields or Soluble Fish, has to do with their "pooling" of a communal poetic subconscious (as Breton puts it in the Second Surrealist Manifesto, 179) and how much of it has to do with the particular debris floating around in that pool, and the fact that it was filled in a time and place that now seems so romantically alien (Paris in the 20s… sighs)? Of all of them, Aragon was probably the most aware of this contradiction, which is why he grounds Paris Peasant in the particulars of the group's milieu; and certainly Walter Benjamin, in his fantastic essay on "Surrealism" from 1929, realizes that it's their specific attitude toward Paris itself ("the most dreamed-of of their objects") that constitutes the Surrealists' real originality. (My pet theory is that the New York School, and particularly Ashbery, was also especially attuned to the culturally exemplary aspect of Surrealism, and it's this that accounts for his strange marriage of insurrectionary European absurdity with homely American sentimental pragmatism. Which in turn has significant effects for contemporary American poetry, much of which is running with one or the other half of Ashbery's synthesis.)

The other thing that fascinates me about the Surrealists is their constant propping up each other's proper names, in a way that would seem to belie Breton's repeated insistence that the individual is of no significance, that none of them have any talent in the usually accepted literary sense. One could certainly (someone probably already has) write a very interesting book on homosociality and Surrealism; Exhibit A would have to be Breton's little phantasmagoria in the first Manifesto about an imaginary castle "in a rustic setting, not far from Paris … [where] a few of my friends are living … as permanent guests," surrounded by "gorgeous women," where "[t]he spirit of demoralization has elected domicile," a place which sounds like a cross between Axel's castle and the Playboy Mansion. (Speaking of guys who live together: this reminds me, I decided that the four major Surrealists each correspond to a Beatle. In case you're interested, here's what I came up with:

Always trying to keep everything together. Talks a lot about love but you just know he's an asshole.
Most realistic, most cynical, perhaps most brilliant. Eventually decides he doesn't really like his friends.
Spiritual, and a little remote.
The silliest one; the one who has the most troubled solo career.

Kicked out of the band early on.

I'll add that I tend to think of any grouping of four people in Beatles terms. Anyone want to try this with Joyce, Pound, Eliot and Williams?)

A few other random observations:

Surrealists were the first hipsters (and hippies). In the countercultural realm as well as the academic, the Surrealists seem more our contemporaries than the Modernists. Breton shops at flea-markets for "objects that can be found nowhere else: old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, even perverse" (Nadja, 52); Aragon drolly observes the ravages of gentrification without being interested in doing much about it; Eluard drops a lot of names ("Max Ernst," "Pablo Picasso," "Arp"); and Desnos, and for that matter all the rest of them too, elevate "love" to the state of a ridiculous transcendental abstraction. We (OK, I) may recognize these attitudes as unsavory, hypocritical, or stupid; but they're certainly familiar.

Surrealism often overlaps with pastoral. Subjects for further study: Lautréamont (op cit.), Aragon's "A Feeling for Nature," Desnos' "Of the Flower of Love and the Wandering Horses," and various passages in Breton's first Manifesto and Soluble Fish. Also: of all animals the Surrealists seem to prefer birds (Eluard) and fish (Breton). Both are small, familiar, and difficult to anthropomorphize, one of them identifiably "poetic," the other conventionally "weird." Compared to the Americans, like Moore and Pound, a surprising dearth of dogs and cats: why? Because they're too domesticable?

Breton may have influenced Nabokov. This never occurred to me before, but the style of Breton's Nadja seems in many ways to be a model for Lolita: an anecdotal first-person account of a love affair with an obviously inappropriate partner (insane woman, underage girl) who is very dubiously portrayed as the chief instigator and controller of the situation, which ends with an extended bout of moral and intellectual self-justification on the part of its self-involved narrator. They even have a similar way of mixing aesthetic, emotional, and dramatic registers, all under a slightly detached, man-of-the-world tone; and they also both use fate and coincidence as the basic framing-device for their narratives (maybe more so in other Nabokov novels, like Pale Fire, than Lolita). The crucial difference is that Breton claims to be writing about himself, and offering us random episodes and coincidences taken from his everyday life, trusting that there is some pattern which neither he nor the reader can immediately perceive; whereas Nabokov uses an unreliable narrator, and reverse-engineers the ephemera from a pre-arranged pattern (I wonder if the link to Breton can be tied in with his famous hatred of Freudian analysis somehow.) Still, the similarities are striking. I don't know off-hand if VN ever made any statements on Surrealism (which I would guess he'd have been skeptical about: then again, he loved Queneau), but he lived in Berlin in the 20s and Paris in the late 30s and presumably would have been aware of the Surrealists in some capacity. In any case, it'd be an interesting avenue to explore, and if I'm right it would be another way Surrealism snuck in through the back-door of the American literary establishment.