5. Converting to Mysticism
No sooner had ascendant bourgeois power, thanks to the arms of criticism and criticism by arms, successfully shattered the unity of the old social and religious myth, than the new rulers felt the urgent need to reinstitute an organization of appearances a universal representation of the individual freedoms so essential to the conduct of business that could provide a justification for their function as an exploiting class. The tentacular expansion of the economy-nerve-centre of the bourgeoisie just as it would later be of the ruling caste of the socialist State was not easily reconciled, however, with recourse to a god, to a mysterious unity which the new conditions of social atomisation could not in any case either resuscitate or maintain.
By the beginning of the twentieth century art had been effectively annexed by the general system of the economy, and no choice remained to it save that between self-transcendence, which is to say its actualization as a mode of life in a society without hierarchies, and a slow agony. Dada had an awareness of the negative but not of the necessity of such a transcendence; Surrealism was aware of the necessity of transcendence but not of the necessity of negativity. In both cases the dice were loaded, but only Surrealism must be held to account by history for its reactionary attempt to restore to art a life that it no longer had, a life whose very memory was already lost to it. (We have already noted the great store that Surrealist art set by great names and great moments of the past, by their living relevance and by the need for them to be remembered.)
Little by little, as the dream of revolution broke up on the reefs of nascent Stalinism, but also as the society of the spectacle and of the commodity system inevitably co-opted anything that could be called artistic, Surrealism retreated to the heights of pure mind. From a fortress open to every wind blowing in from the old world, it began after the fashion of the Romantics reinventing an idyllic Middle Ages, complete with valiant knights, in the very shadow of the stock exchanges, banks and factories to entertain the fantasy of a powerful myth, stripped of any religious overtones, that would combat the poverty of the spectacle and that would draw its strength from a reconsecration of human relationships modelled on the reconsecration of art.
It would be hard to outdo this as sheer contempt for history. Not that such a project could absolutely never be made into reality for a time: after all, the Nazis launched a comparable operation, albeit one orientated in a diametrically opposed direction, when they sought to return to the reign of myth by reconsecrating everything that the Surrealists shat upon from the greatest height: the Fatherland, the Army, the Führer, the State, etc. As confused as they may have been, the Surrealists remained committed in the pre-war period to the destruction of capitalism in both its private and its State versions; they had not renounced the hopes they placed in the "final struggle", and they threw down the gauntlet in all sincerity to whatever served to sustain and modernize the exploitation of the proletariat.
The position of Surrealism after the Second World War flowed from a despairing view of history. This view was based on the successive defeats of a workers' movement whose revolution the Surrealists had awaited passively in the expectation that it would resolve their own problems. Breton himself offers a clear account of this in "Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not" (1942). He begins by evoking the failure of supposedly "emancipatory" systems:
Though I am only too likely to demand everything of a creature I consider beautiful, I am far from granting the same credit to those abstract constructions that go by the name of systems. When faced with them my ardour cools, and it is clear that love no longer spurs me on. I have been seduced, of course, but never to the extent of hiding from myself the fallible point in what a man like me holds to be true. This fallible point, even though it is not necessarily situated on the line traced for me by the original teacher during his lifetime, always appears to me to be located somewhere further along this line as extended through others.
This failure is explained without the slightest allusion to the critique of hierarchy, without ever addressing the question of the mechanisms of co-optation:
The greater the power of this man, the more he is limited by the inertia resulting from the veneration that he will inspire in some and by the tireless activity of others who will employ the most devious means to ruin him. Aside from these two causes of degeneration, there is also the fact that every great idea is perhaps subject to being seriously altered the instant that it enters into contact with the mass of humanity, where it is made to come to terms with minds of a completely different stature than that of the mind it came from originally.
There is also the unreliability of comrades-in-arms to be considered:
The evils that are always the price of favour, of renown, lie in wait even for Surrealism, though it has been in existence for twenty years. The precautions taken to safeguard the inner integrity of this movement which generally are regarded as being much too severe have not precluded the raving false witness of an Aragon, nor the picaresque brand of imposture of that neo-Falangist bedside-table Avida Dollars.
And Breton is galled by the general alienation of the movement:
Surrealism is already far from being able to cover everything that is undertaken in its name, openly or not, from the most obscure teashops of Tokyo to the rain-streaked windows of Fifth Avenue, even though Japan and America are at war. What is being done in any given direction bears little resemblance to what was wanted. Even the most outstanding men must put up with passing away not so much with a halo as with a great cloud of dust trailing behind them.
Breton's disarray of 1942 still embodies much of the despair felt by Artaud in 1925. In Le Drame du surréalisme, Victor Crastre presents a somewhat cavalier explanation of Artaud's lack of enthusiasm for meeting the Clarté people: "His unhealthy passion for being tormented, his taste for failure, even for catastrophe, prohibited him from searching for a social form of revolt, from conceiving of any optimistic plan for the transformation of the world." It would doubtless have been more to the point to inquire whether Artaud's vocation for failure did not stem rather from an instinctive rejection of history at a time when history gave every appearance of having been monopolized by the Bolsheviks. In view of this halt imposed on human emancipation in the name of the proletariat itself, it is not hard to understand that a lucid but isolated mind, and one in any case cut off from whatever left-wing opposition to Bolshevism still existed, should have apprehended historical consciousness as a consciousness of a void and as the utter negation of any individual history.
Artaud proceeded, alone, along a path that Breton would later impose on the Surrealist movement under much less dire circumstances. The tragic myth that Artaud constructed in order to cope with his state of self-division was something which in that early period he had to confront without the backing even of what Surrealism would eventually achieve, namely a real history which, as alienated as it may have been, did contrive to be at once collective and individual. Artaud's decision is registered in his Le Pèse-nerfs, where he talks of "bringing myself face to face with the metaphysics that I have created for myself on the basis of this nothingness that I carry within me", and, when he writes in the third issue of La Révolution Surréaliste that "Through the rents in what is henceforward an unliveable reality speaks a wilfully sibylline world", there is a clear intimation that he intends to devote his life to the deciphering of that "world".
Not long afterwards, the Grand Jeu group would briefly embrace the same anguished hope for a Renewal of myth before succumbing to the charms of esotericism, Zen, and Gurdjieff. When it came Surrealism's turn to tread the path of mystical retreat, it has to be said that it was better armed for it armed, as it were, by a higher tally of failures
First of all, Surrealism, in its attempt to salvage art, had already experienced the call of the sacred, the attraction of magic, the taste for the mysterious and the temptations of the hermetic tradition. It had pursued all of them to a degree, while continuing to focus most of its attention on the adventure of love, the exploration of dreams, creative activity, everyday life, and revolution.
Compromise with Communism certainly threatened the very soul of Surrealism. So much so, in fact, that Breton felt obliged (in 1929) to write:
I fail to see, whatever certain narrow-minded revolutionaries may think, why we should refrain from addressing the questions of love, dreams, madness, and so on-provided always that we place them in the same perspective as that from which they (and indeed we too) envisage the revolution.
One of Surrealism's chief faults, and one for which even the movement's basically ideological character cannot be blamed, is that it handed over all responsibility for the universal revolutionary project to Bolshevism, which, hewing fast to the logic of Lenin's work, had never done anything but undermine that project.
Although Breton did not concede any part of what he rightly considered to be fundamental, he could not help feeling that the break with the orthodox Communists represented a moving away from the historical possibilities opened up at "privileged" moments of everyday life. This was truly an instant when ideology came into play in the most striking manner, with all its power to turn the world on its head: the demands of subjectivity, never yet made the basis of the actual revolutionary movement, were now transformed into the abstract underpinnings of an ideology which the critical-cum-practical action of real history would have utterly dispelled, but which Lenino-Stalinism merely dubbed a "solipsistic ideology", and excluded on that basis from its own pseudo-revolutionary practice (i.e., the practice of the bureaucrats).
The revolutionary feels despair when confronted by the transformation of real historical movement into ideology. The Surrealists despaired on two counts: as would-be revolutionaries, they had an inkling of the revolutionary's despair; at the same time they felt the despair of the ideologues they were at being excluded from the ruling revolutionary ideology (the Bolshevism of the 1930s). Little wonder that they saw no other way forward than resolutely to embrace a mysticism founded on their earlier but since repressed commitments.
Surrealism thus plumped for a mystique of life, and of the lifting of repression, just when Nazism, at the culmination of a period during which the German people had demonstrated their own inclination to leap into unreality, was promoting a mystique of death and repression.
Georges Bataille was clearly aware of this when he called for the living forces of Surrealism to be thrown simultaneously into the struggle against fascism and into the struggle against the Stalinist run antifascist fronts. This idea, in any case somewhat dubious, was a non-starter.
The time had come, so far as the Surrealists were concerned, to listen to Artaud's words from an earlier day:
Enough language games, enough syntactical tricks, enough word-juggling and phrase-making! We must now seek the great Law of the heart, that Law which is not a Law, not a prison, but a guide for the Mind lost in its own labyrinth.
Surrealism's turn to metaphysics, however, was not just a response to individual confusions or to a particular set of circumstances. The painters' lobby, never much interested in the political debate, was much relieved to see the movement taking a mystical tack. Already attached to the notion of the magic of the creative act, this tendency had everything to gain from a revitalization of myth centred on the idea of beauty and on art as a mirror of the marvellous. Such a perspective would allow the painters to devote themselves entirely to matters aesthetic while loudly denying any concession to aestheticism. Their influence on Surrealism's change of course was certainly not negligible.
At all events, the appearance of "Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not", in 1942, clearly marks the shift to a purely metaphysical position. The conclusion of this text, in particular, gives the measure of the new orientation; it also exposes the close kinship between that orientation and the goals earlier set for himself by Artaud. Under the heading "The Great Transparent Ones", Breton writes:
Man is perhaps not the center, the cynosure of the universe. One can go so far as to believe that there exist above him, on the animal scale, beings whose behavior is as strange to him as his may be to the mayfly or the whale. Nothing necessarily stands in the way of these creatures' being able to completely escape man's sensory system of references through a camouflage of whatever sort one cares to imagine, though the possibility of such a camouflage is posited only by the theory of forms and the study of mimetic animals. There is no doubt that there is ample room for speculation here, even though this idea tends to place man in the same modest conditions of interpretation of his own universe as the child who is pleased to form his conception of an ant from its underside just after he has kicked over an anthill. In considering disturbances such as cyclones, in face of which man is powerless to be anything but a victim or a witness, or those such as war, notoriously inadequate versions of which are set forth, it would not be impossible, in the course of a vast work over which the most daring sort of induction should never cease to preside, to approximate the structure and the constitution of such hypothetical beings (which mysteriously reveal themselves to us when we are afraid and when we are conscious of the workings of chance) to the point where they become credible.
I think it necessary to point out that I am not departing appreciably from Novalis' testimony: "In reality we live in an animal whose parasites we are. The constitution of this animal determines ours and vice versa," and that I am only agreeing with a thought of William James's: "Who knows whether, in nature, we do not occupy just as small a place alongside beings whose existence we do not suspect as our cats and dogs that live with us in our homes?" Even learned men do not all contradict this view of things: "Perhaps there circle round about us beings built on the same plan as we are, but different, men for example whose albumins are straight," said Emile Duclaux, a former director of the Pasteur Institute (1840-1904).
A new myth? Must these beings be convinced that they result from a mirage or must they be given a chance to show themselves?
As fantastic as Breton's hypothesis may appear at first sight, it casts an unblinking eye on the posture of Surrealism in its final period. It flows from the same judgement as that made by the Nietzsche who exhorted us to embrace an amor fati to love our fate. It postulates that we have to choose between submission to the wretched vicissitudes of everyday life and a vow of fealty to mysterious forces that intervene in the guise of luck or ill luck in the enterprises of the individual will. These forces (and it is easy to see how duplicitously individual subjectivity, once deprived of its material and historical prospects of self-realization, will invent, while feigning to discover them) do not supposedly require us to reconcile ourselves with them by means of religious or magical rites; rather, our task is to provoke their emergence through a patient decanting of all our faculties, all our senses. This is an alchemical procedure, in fact, its goal the goal once sought by the hermetic tradition; and, sure enough, from this point on the hermetic thinkers would be inducted in force into the Surrealist pantheon.
The most cursory reading leaves us in no doubt that Breton is implicitly positing the permanence of human alienation, asserting that there is no way of ever disentangling ourselves from its thrall. And upon this basis he proceeds to set up an opposition, and a conflict, between the presumed positivity of a sacrosanct alienation and the negativity of the alienation of the present, alienation as an immediate datum of our current state of survival under the rule of the spectacle.
Thus the Surrealists took up the defence of myth, at a time when myth no longer existed, against the spectacle, which was everywhere. They were Don Quixotes tilting against housing projects; no one in that tune of change so much resembled the Cervantes character as these latter-day knights wandering between the devil of total freedom and the death of culture.
To these ageing men, sclerotic from so many defeats yet still animated by an unshakeable enthusiasm, the parallel and mentally accessible universe of gods and heroes of myth and legend held out the prospect of intellectual adventure via the concrete activity of the creator and discoverer of meanings, via the invention and celebration of obscure guides, via the athanor of all the Great Works of the possible.
The best analogy here is not hard to find, for it lies in the epic and world of the Celts, for whom the Surrealists now conceived a most vigorous admiration, as witness Jean Markale's account of L'Epopée celtique en Bretagne [The Celtic Epic in Brittany]:
First there is the Quest, that is to say the search (in every sphere, but most especially with respect to Man's equilibrium and happiness) for complete harmony with nature. But happiness is achieved only after a whole series of trials - the trials of life itself, violent, hard, and bloody; only then does Man come to know, does he learn the miraculous formula that allows him to face his destiny, for this miraculous power can be taught by no one: only he himself has the ability to make it out, piece by piece, along the roads he travels, in battles haunted by death, in the victory that he holds in his hands.
Then there is the quest for Woman, the Chosen One, who at times takes on a different countenance the better to lead Man astray, the better to make him prove his worth, the better to metamorphose him. For the woman of the Breton epic is necessarily a fairy, a goddess: she has powers that no man can snatch away from her, although she may bestow them, if she so wishes, upon a man of her choosing. For Woman is ever sovereign, whether she is a mere servant girl or one of those mysterious maidens who so often make their appearance in some castle looming from the shadows of the night only to vanish come morning into the mists of memory.
There is also what is called the Quest in the Other World, the search for the treasures hidden in that World, which cannot be very far away, since it is everywhere present - at every twist in the road, in a valley dominated by a castle, in a forest clearing, or on a mound blasted betimes by storms whose wild lightning flashes transform the landscape. This is a permanent descent into hell, into Man's deepest core, into the shadowiest lands of his consciousness, his imaginings and his dreams. But we always return, for mind always triumphs over matter. Death itself does not exist: it is denied. Arthur slumbers yet on the Isle of Avalon or in some cavern beneath the earth: he will return.
All the characteristic themes of Celtic literature supplied the base material out of which post-war Surrealism dreamt of constructing a new mythical imagery. These themes had of course been present in Surrealism from the beginning, complete with their sacred aspect. The turn towards the Beyond, towards the immanence of the myth-to-be-lived, meant a return to love, dreams, madness, childhood, the savage eye, mineral coincidences, the alchemical tradition, the art of the South Seas, of the Indians, of the Celts, mediumistic experimentation, automatism, etc. And all of them were now flung together in a veritable whirlwind of consolidation.
When he discovered Fourier's work, Breton saw it primarily as a "hieroglyphic interpretation of the world based on the analogy between the human passions and the products of the three realms of nature." In "On Surrealism in Its Living Works" (1953), he was more specific:
The mind then proves to itself, fragmentarily of course, but at the least by itself, that "everything above is like everything below" and everything inside is like everything outside. The world thereupon seems to be like a cryptogram which remains indecipherable only so long as one is not thoroughly familiar with the gymnastics that permit one to pass at will from one piece of apparatus to another.
In the general conversion of Surrealist values, which was governed by the hope of instituting a mythical edifice capable of fostering new forms of action, the importance of language remained cardinal, particularly the importance of poetic intuition, which,
finally unleashed by Surrealism, seeks not only to assimilate all known forms but also boldly to create new forms that is to say, to be in a position to embrace all the structures of the world, manifested or not. It alone provides the thread that can put us back on the road of Gnosis as knowledge of suprasensible Reality, "invisibly visible in an eternal mystery".
Prevented by its ideological nature from acceding to a critical use of language, and at the same time declining to engage in any effective critique of the ruling language, Surrealism ended up defining itself as a quest for the original, magical kernel of things, for what might be called the language of the gods. As Breton put it, "The whole point, for Surrealism, was to convince ourselves that we had got our hands on the 'prime matter (in the alchemical sense) of language" in other words, language in its primitive form, as it existed prior to any distinction between speech and discourse. As for the kind of intelligence that made such a return "possible, and even conceivable, it was, in Breton's view, "none other than that which has always moved occult philosophy".
In the 1940s the painter Wolfgang Paalen came to a similar conclusion with respect to pictorial language. Asking "What to paint?", Paalen suggested that artists should attempt the "direct visualization of the forces that move us, both physically and emotionally". He called this approach a "plastic cosmogony".
The texts that Demos and Crevel had dictated while plunged into mediumistic trances back around 1925 were now seen as operating in very much the same way as the manuals of the alchemists. For Surrealism, this was evidence of the movement's kinship with the hermetic tradition. Mythically restored, the unity of language and world meant that different kinds of phenomena could now be put on the same plane and so become subject to associations and correspondences. The sharpest attention was paid, however, to premonitions, objective chance and the various forms of occultism for which Surrealism had always had a latent affinity.
Breton had already been struck (as he recounts at length in Mad Love) by the accuracy with which his poem "Sunflower" (1923) foretold the circumstances of an especially significant romantic encounter of his:
The traveller passing through the Halles at summerfall
Was walking on her tiptoes
Despair was swirling its great lovely calls lilies in the sky
And in the handbag was my dream that flask of salts
Only God's godmother had breathed
Torpor spread like mist
At the Smoking Dog Café
Where the pro and the con had just come in
The young woman could scarcely be seen by them, and only askance
Was I speaking with the ambassadress of saltpetre
Or of the white curve on black ground that we call thought
Breton cites several other disconcerting coincidences, among them de Chirico's circling of Apollinaire's temple in a portrait done long before the poet, after being trepanned, was obliged to cover the spot with a leather patch; or, again, the large number of canvases in which Victor Brauner recorded a haunting obsession with ocular mutilation just shortly before an accident that cost him an eye. All such events would now constitute a whole for the Surrealists a whole nowhere better exemplified than in the dream.
Recounted or analysed, dreams now became either literary objects or the subjects of common-or-garden Freudian interpretation. Aside from their admiration for Ferdinand Cheval, who had well and truly set about realizing his dream in the shape of his Ideal Palace, the Surrealists never developed the perspective of the practical realization of dreams much beyond vaguely prophetic edicts: "The poet of the future", according to Breton and Éluard's Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (1938), "will surmount the depressing idea of an unbridgeable gap between actions and dreams." The turn to mysticism resolved this tension solely on the plane of an abstract coherence. In the first place, the dream was the marvellous in microcosm, lying within everyone's reach. As Paraclesus recommended, "Let all examine their own dreams, for each is his own interpreter." Here was the individual's way of initiation into the "practice" of myth, a way which opened (and this is the second point) onto a panoptical prospect, in accordance, once again, with Paracelsus: "For I tell you, it is possible to see everything through the mind" (Philosophia occulta). Myth was thus the ideal precondition for the expansion of the dream universe, the unreal reality of a fundamental unity of self and world - that state which Karl Philipp Moritz had described in his Fragmente aus dem Tagebuche eines Geistersehers [Journal of a Visionary, 1787] as "the ineffable joy of finding myself outside myself... I had lost all sense of place I was nowhere and everywhere at the same time. I felt delivered from the order of things, or thrust out of it, and I no longer had any need of space."
It was perhaps, once again, Benjamin Péret who offered the most ominous account of this dream system, at the same time putting his finger on its point of potential self-transcendence, its internal need for objective realization: "Heard in the morning on 20 May last, in a half-slumber punctuated by confusing images of the Aragon front, which I had left three weeks earlier, the following sentence shook me suddenly awake: Durruti's egg will hatch." There can be no doubt at all that in Péret's mind every possible measure had to be taken to fulfil (or to ensure that others would someday fulfil) this dream-borne prophecy.
The Surrealist exploration of human limits and potentialities likewise felt the impact of the change to a mystical vision of things. The experimental approach to the human was replaced by a purification of the ego by virtue of the alchemical Great Work. Concrete problems of subjectivity became problems of being. This ontological shift implied a movement from internal to external and evoked a cosmic unity divested of all anthropocentrism where the forces of the mineral, vegetable and human worlds all had their parts to play a universe where, in René Guenon's formulation, as approved by Breton, "historical facts have no value save as symbols of spiritual realities". This view, which tended towards an absolute objective idealism, was to find its poet in Malcolm de Chazal, whose sensitive analytical powers and mastery of general metaphors are displayed in his Sens plastique (1947).
Lastly (though this does not exhaust the avenues pursued by the Surrealist "quest"), we must note the metamorphosis of the passion of love into a veritable cult of Woman. In this connection a passage from Michel Leiris's Le Point cardinal (1925) clearly foreshadowed what was to come:
Then I saw that the Ingénue, her eyelids still lowered, was drawing my attention by means of an obscene motion of her hand to the portal of her thighs. I concluded from this gesture that I was being shown the only way out of the bedroom that remained open to me.
For mad love, with the possibility of its actualization blocked by historical upheaval, and considering the disgust it implied for what Breton called "the amorous ideal of pseudo-couples ruled by resignation and cynicism and hence embodying the principle of their own disintegration" for mad love, the only way out was a mutation into sublime love, based on a consecration of the female genitals (which myth lost no time investing with the meanings of life and death, of penetration and of chthonian depths, of the visible and the hidden, of air and earth, and so forth).
Thus Breton's hymn to the glory of Melusina, in Arcanum 17, betokens an abandonment of the love celebrated in L'Amour fou:
Love, only love that you are, carnal love, I adore, I have never ceased to adore, your lethal shadow, your mortal shadow. A day will come when man will be able to recognize you for his only master, honoring you even in the mysterious perversions you surround him with.
That love gives way, though with no explicit acknowledgement, to the mystery of Woman, lost only to be found once more, uniting in her person all the contradictions of the world:
Melusina after the scream, Melusina below the bust, I see her scales mirrored in the autumn sky. Her radiant coil twists three times around a wooded hill, which undulates in waves that follow a score where all the harmonies are tuned to, and reverberate with, those of the nasturtium in bloom...
Melusina below the bust is gilded by all the reflections of the sun off the fall foliage. The snakes of her legs dance to the beat of the tambourine, the fish of her legs dive and their heads reappear elsewhere as if hanging from the words of that priest who preached among the scorpion grass, the birds of her legs drape her with airy netting. Melusina half-reclaimed by panic-stricken life, Melusina with lower joints of broken stones or aquatic plants or the down of a nest, she's the one I invoke, she's the only one I can see who could redeem this savage epoch.
The monogamous inclination of most of the Surrealists was herewith offered a transcendent justification far better suited to it than an anti-libertine ethic which had occasionally taken on an unpleasant authoritarianism and often turned into a hypocritical glorification of fidelity, and by extension of jealousy. Responding to Péret's injunction, in his Anthologie de l'armour sublime, to "hail woman as the object of all veneration", Breton wrote:
It is solely on this condition, according to him, that love can come to be incarnated in a single being. It seems to me personally that such a process cannot be fully concluded unless the veneration of which the woman is the object is not shared at all, because that would amount for her to a kind of frustration.
Some day the dubious aspect of restrictions of this sort will need to be clarified in the light of the notion of sacrifice the pillar of all religions, and most especially of the Christian one. The fact is that Breton never attacked this notion, indeed on occasion he embraced it with a will.
An Anti-Christian Ecumenism
One question must have arisen very soon for those seeking the consecration of Surrealist values in the attempt to reconstruct a new mythic unity: how were the very notions of the sacred and the mythical to be separated out from religious systems? The boundaries are certainly difficult to fix, and perhaps when all is said and done it scarcely matters whether reference is made to Celtic heroes, or to the virtues extolled in the Sagas, rather than to Jesus Christ. Be that as it may, Surrealism, which is hardly open to the charge of indulgence towards Christianity, cannot, simply by preferring the here-below to the Beyond, evade the reproach, which it ought to have addressed to itself, that by plunging into the mists of the transcendent it was at the very least abandoning all hope of changing life and, concomitantly, transforming the world-a hope that it had always previously sustained, even if the movement's ideological nature precluded any genuine practical pursuit of it. It is not possible for myth to operate today: there is only the spectacle, and the spectacle alone rules. Placed now in a perspective so strongly inclined to put socio-economic conditions in brackets, the Surrealists' opposition to religion was bound to lose much of the force it had had in Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution, or for Péret, and it soon took on the ambiguous character of an anti-religious ecumenism.
In December 1945, in his Supplément aux Lettres de Rodez, Artaud proclaimed: "As for me, Artaud, I have no use for God, and I refuse to countenance anyone's founding a religion on my backbone or on my brain." This pronouncement did not prevent a few rumourmongers from putting it about that Artaud had undergone a conversion. It was against this calumny, the model for which Paul Claudel had supplied with his attempt to co-opt Rimbaud, and versions of which had recently been directed in an equally outrageous manner at de Sade and Nietzsche, that the Surrealist pamphlet of 1948, À la niche les glapisseurs de Dieu! [Back to the Kennel with God's Yapping Dogs!] was a well-justified protest. But what is one to think of the fact that only shortly afterwards Breton and his friends went along with a blatant attempt to co-opt Surrealism by the Christian Michel Carrouges, with whom they eventually broke off solely on the basis of internal disagreements?
The same kind of uncertainty was displayed by the Surrealists with respect to two essentially desacralizing strategies, namely the ludic mode and black humour. The older Surrealism grew, the more seriously it took itself. A playful spirit still often presided over the creation of works of art, but care was always taken that this spirit should never, as would have been consistent with its own logic, go so far as to destroy such works, to destroy their value by changing the rules of the game. Likewise, black humour, in essence a corrosive and negative force, as when it informed the behaviour of an Arthur Cravan, a Jacques Vaché or a Jacques Rigaut, now became nothing more than a critical aspect of a particular work. As negative and critical as it might be in that integrated role, it was never allowed to challenge art itself. Indeed Breton went much further in this direction, intimating in his Anthologie de l'humour noir that there was such a thing as an "art" of black humour. Let us be clear, however: the texts assembled by Breton in his anthology, and thus made available to all, were undoubtedly of a highly explosive nature, and the Vichy government was quite right to ban the book; but treating black humour as nothing more than an aesthetic category was in effect to suppress the instructions for the proper use of these texts and to obscure their true character, for they were the foam of a rage built up over the centuries against all forms of oppression, a rage that must in the end be unleashed, otherwise every kind of conformism would be able to drape itself in the robes of the extraordinary, and welcome subversive laughter with open arms.
From a mystical viewpoint, play is ritual and black humour resembles the devilish figures that the Church was cunning enough to retain in its architecture, even going so far as to carve them on the capitals supporting church roofs.
Is this to say, then, that Surrealism emerged from the Second World War as a purely speculative system? Yes and no. Paradoxically, the more successful Breton and Péret were in giving their movement the aspect of a mythic construct that had somehow strayed into the present, the more they helped nourish a certain sense of life, a sense that was repeatedly rediscovered during the series of revolutionary outbursts that began in 1968. In this way the eruption of life that had characterized Surrealism's earliest days, and then facilitated the movement's own eruption into cultural survival, now once more came to the fore in its original form, at once hastening the demise of culture as a separate sphere and helping to topple the mythic system of Surrealism itself. This collapse had to wait on the disappearance of Breton and Péret, however, for so long as they lived they were able, thanks to the authenticity of their own odyssey and thanks to their determination to fix their system firmly in place as a sort of centre of effort for all eternity, to infuse Surrealism with an appearance of life and turn it into an effective veil over reality.
If we bother to trace such resurgences of life through their various inverted manifestations in art and literature, we find that they flag and conserve all the diverse experiences whose more or less vivid traces humanity has left in its various cultures. It was as though Surrealism, on the eve of upheavals in which the will to live would throw the corpse of culture onto a joyful pyre, had wanted to save everything from past culture that was worthy of reincarnation in new forms of existence. The movement's attempt at synthesis, inciting us as it does to retrieve every single passionate bizarrerie of intellect or custom, must surely count as one of the greatest legacies of this century.
If there is any truth to the notion that the drowning see their whole life replayed before their eyes in a few short seconds, Surrealism might well be described as the last dream of a foundering culture.
Amidst the profusion of riches thus left in our care by Surrealism, the contribution of Lotus de Païni has the merit of going further back in time than any other. Her half-intuitive, half-reasoned analyses seek to ascertain what primitive mankind's structure of "feelings" meaning a unity of thought, sensation, emotion and action must have been, this on the basis of cave paintings whose very existence already betokens the breaking up of that unity. It was surely not by chance that this search for "knowledge of the soul of those far distant from us" was conducted at a time when the necessity for a new "structure of feeling", for a multidimensional and unitary life, was making itself acutely felt. A strange figure, who never participated directly in their movement but whom the Surrealists discovered and hailed, Lotus de Paini seems to quit the paths of the imagination in order to offer the revolution the poetic totality of the old world.