4. Promoting the Image as Object
Language and its Subversion
The adventure of the arts (painting, sculpture, poetry, literature, music) passes in its decline through three essential phases: a phase of self-liquidation (Malevich's "white square", Mutt/Duchamp's urinal rebaptized "Fountain", Dadaist word collages, Finnegan's Wake, certain compositions by Varèse); a phase of self-parody (Satie, Picabia, Duchamp); and a phase of self-transcendence, exemplified in the directly lived poetry of revolutionary moments, in theory as it takes hold of the masses, or in this notice posted on Saragossa Cathedral by Ascaso and Durruti, and followed up by the action announced: "Having learnt that injustice reigns in Saragossa, Ascaso and Durruti have come here to shoot the Archbishop."
Surrealism partook of each of these three tendencies but gave itself over to none of them; on the contrary, it deformed them to the benefit of the same separate art and separate thought whose demise they were intended to embody. Hence the real conflict was transmuted into ideology, into a system of ideas which was cut off from reality, simultaneously concealing and distorting it. On the moral plane this process created a confrontation between an ethic of purity and a surrender to compromise; on the aesthetic plane, submission to the ruling language of words, signs or art stood opposed to the refusal of that language, its redirection, subversion, and replacement by the magic of images and objects drawn from the adventure of everyday life.
True to Dada, Francis Picabia passed definitive judgement on art when he described it as "a pharmaceutical product for imbeciles". And here is Artaud, as late as 1927, in Le Pèse-nerf [The Nervometer]: "All writing is pig-swill. People who come down from their clouds to try and say anything at all about what is going on in their heads are pigs. All literati are pigs, especially those of the present time."
But it was not in the same spirit as Picabia or Artaud that Surrealism rejected art and writing. Its rejection concerned the writing only of an André Gide, an Anatole France or a Paul Claudel, the art only of the Cubists, the Abstractionists or the Salon painters. Even in 1952, speaking on Gide, Breton still felt compelled to assail what he called a "marvellous specimen of a species that we Surrealists have ever wished extinct, that of the professional litterateur, the individual perpetually gnawed by the need to write, to publish, to be read, translated, commented upon - the type of person who is sure that he will "hook" us, and that he will "hook" posterity too, through the sheer quantity of his production, just so long as this is not attained at the expense of style."
Unfortunately the distinction implied is a completely false one, and indeed allows the very worst varieties of literature to escape rebuke. For proof of this, were proof needed, one has only to re-read all the literary testimonials, all the effusive prefaces, all the backscratching puffery that the Surrealists allowed themselves to produce as favours to friends; alternatively, one has only to contemplate the unspeakable exercises in style published in the Surrealist periodicals of the post-war period.
At the same time, however, their creative experimentation brought the Surrealists face to face with the redoubtable language which is not merely the idiom of Gidean literature but, far more broadly, the dominant mode of all communication, all expression. They were thus very soon dealing with two correlations: that between this dominant language and the forces of repression and deception, and that between living speech and revolt. In Légitime défense Breton ridiculed Henri Barbusse, the Party intellectual, who was calling for artistic Renewal, in the following terms: "What does this artistic renaissance matter to us? Long live the social revolution, and it alone! We have a serious account to settle with the mind, we are too uncomfortable in our thought..."
Péret also took aim at the alienating character of detached thought and of the prevailing use of language: "There are certain sentences that completely prevent me from making love." Implied here, of course, is the existence of a language (understood broadly enough to include attitudes, songs, gestures, speech, and so on) which on the contrary encourages us to make love, and indeed to make revolution. Surrealism, though it may not have overlooked such a language completely, cannot be said to have come very close to it. The movement's confinement within culture limited it to developing and experimenting with a mere shadow of the revolution of language, and this under strictly isolated conditions: the Surrealists championed an emancipation of words and images that mistook a certain autonomy for real freedom and chance abstract associations for real gauntlets thrown down to the old world.
Still, the more radical felt the temptation to identify poetry, as the main counter-language, with revolutionary theory, which detaches itself from the real struggles of the proletariat, then rejoins them in the shape of a radicalizing practice. Thus André Thirion and Pierre Yoyotte did produce a number of fine Marxist analyses, even if critical thought was not significantly advanced thereby. The notion that the true language of poetry governs action and contributes to its fulfilment must in fact be sought elsewhere. Certainly such a language has nothing in common with the verbiage and the Stalinizing gullibility of Aragon's "Red Front". Nor does it jibe with insults and sarcasm (as in "Jean Cassou, Dog-Savant; Marcel Arland, the Town Sewer; Albert Thibaudet, Friend to Tooth Decay; Maurice Maeterlinck, Featherless Bird; Paul Valéry, Natural Born Clown; Cocteau the Stinking Beast", etc., etc.), unless such insults follow or announce events calling for an immediate scandalous or violent response. A case in point is the pamphlet A Corpse, published on the occasion of the death of Anatole France (1924). In sharp contrast to the ordinary use of the literary insult, A Corpse broke with the convention according to which no ill should be spoken of the dead, and effectively rehabilitated desecration; words here were not separate from action, indeed their role was to occasion action, and to establish a precedent.
Similarly, a genuinely poetic function is met by the following lines, published upon the death of Joffre, but three years before that of Poincare:
and President Poincaré
will ever endure in our memory
Péret and Éluard strove to bridge the gap between poetry and the act envisaged, but it has to be said that their call to murder in the following passage lies open to the charge which revolutionary tactics must perforce level at any gratuitous terrorism:
In France our own shithouse Mussolini has once more crawled out of the sewer. Poincaré presides as the "average Frenchman" over banal events and rotting straw men. How much longer can he stay the obviously willing hand of the assassin?
As a rule it was Péret who unerringly found the sensual language of the true cry of rage and execration. His Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là puts one in mind of the chants intoned by ancient Welsh bards, which according to Julius Caesar struck such terror into enemies that they had been known to fall dead on the spot. Rarely has the power of contempt, in the struggle against the oppressiveness and stupidity of authority, attained such an intensity of raw eloquence. The heroism of the patriot will remain a dead letter until we forget the words:
Rot Condamine de la Tour
Rot you spineless shit.
And great leaders will have to ponder their weight in history so long as little children continue to recite Péret's ditty about "Tiger" Clemenceau:
He has croaked
Eat him maggots "to the last ditch"
Devour this corpse
And let his bones whistle up the revolution.
When it came to the language of practice, however, Péret dealt merely with its most directly emotional and immediate dimension. Like all the Surrealists, whose real practice was more artistic than revolutionary, he never tested radical theory, reducing it instead to a challenge to the ruling ideological language that was itself couched in ideological terms.
Breton is on the way to a serious analysis of the language of the dominant ideology in "Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality", when he notes that "words tend to group themselves according to specific affinities whose general result is to recreate the same old world over and over again". But he fails to grasp that such a language is simply the most highly sophisticated and persuasive form of the ideological system which power (that of the ruling class or caste) uses to assert itself. Thus when he goes on, apropos of words, "It is enough that we direct our criticism at the laws that govern their assembly", he refuses to understand that only the language of total subversion - only radical theory or practical poetry - can successfully destroy both the dominant language and the old world. By contrast, to assert that "words play, words make love" is to claim to be combating the language of power while actually renewing and modernizing that language and giving it a fresh appearance of life.
The most lucid tendencies within Surrealist ideology were forever seeking to retrieve the repressed radical moment of Dada's final period, and indeed several such tendencies (paralleling differing attitudes towards art) are clearly distinguishable, including self-parody, the hope for transcendence, the will to destruction, and the literary option.
The subversive nature of Dadaism's word-collages was inherited by the Surrealists in its playful aspect only. It is true that Marcel Duchamp's dalliance with infectious phonetic puns and wordplay retained a certain demystifying power:
Le système métrite par un temps blénorrhagieux
The metritic system [not the metric system] during blenorrhagic
[as opposed to orageux, or stormy] weather
Du dos de la cuiller au cul de la dourairière
From the back of the spoon to the arse of the dowager
La bagarre d'Austerlitz
The dust-up [not the Bataille, and not the Gare] of Austerlitz
Rrose Sélavy trouve qu'un insecticide doit coucber avec sa mère avant de la tuer
Rrose Sélavy feels that an insecticide ought to sleep with its mother before killing her
Les punaises sont de rigueur
Fleas are required
Michel Leiris uses a similar method to illuminate the mysterious analogies thrown up by the reveries of subjectivity, by the secret agencies of the mind, as witness these two plays on words from his "Glossaire: j'y serre mes gloses" [Glossary: Where I Keep My Glosses]:
Épaves: elles pavent la mer
Wrecks: they pave the sea
Fantôme: enfanté par les heaumes
Ghost: something born of helmets
[The second "definition" here contains a covert reference to the fantastic scene in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto where a gigantic helmet appears in the castle yard.]
Whereas Leiris sought to uncover a language whose fluidity allowed it to express the vicissitudes of subjectivity, whose resonances referred us to the inner life of the individual (several of Leiris's books analyse language as the receptacle of a personal mythology), Breton for his part fostered belief in an objective counter-language in which the connections between words could escape the control of the dominant language and its rationality. The Surrealists clearly believed that the reigning language-in-itself could be successfully contested by means of an abstract form of language-for-itself. That there is such a thing as language-for-itself is amply demonstrated by the language of revolutionary moments. The signs of that language are many and various, and they all tend towards unification in a general insurrectional movement, in a global transcendence. Leiris showed this tendency at work in the individuals the art of children and the art of the mad exemplified it in a partial way. But it was only in such fragmented or epiphenomenal manifestations, unfortunately, that language-for-itself was perceived by Surrealism.
The Surrealists conceived of a counter-language-which to begin with never answered to anything beyond a need to get out of the rut of traditional poetry, to write a different kind of poetry-as an immediate given. This entirely literary requirement gave rise to research of two kinds: research into the autonomy of the relationships between words and research into the psychoanalytical unity of those relationships.
Lautréamont's evocation of "the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table" was the starting point for the Surrealists' laboratory experiments with language. The game of Exquisite Corpse was based above all on the principle of objective chance. It is defined in Breton and Éluard's Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme [Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism, 1938] as follows:
A folded-paper game in which sentences or pictures are created by several people, none of whom can tell what the contribution of any preceding player may have been. The classic example, which supplied the name of the game, is the first sentence ever obtained in this way: "The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine."
Breton proceeded, in Communicating Vessels, to try and identify an internal logic common to all sentences thus generated. The model, once again, was Lautréamont's phrase:
Anyone who contemplates the extraordinary power that can be exerted upon the readers mind by Lautréamont's celebrated formulation, "as beautiful... as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table", and who is willing to consult a key to the simplest of sexual symbols, must quickly concede that this power derives from the fact that the umbrella here can stand only for a man, the sewing machine only for a woman (this would be true, moreover, for almost all machines, a reinforcing factor in this case being that sewing machines, as is well known, are often put to onanistic uses by women), and the dissecting table only for a bed - which is itself the common measure between life and death.
When one compares Breton's observations with Leiris's approach, the difference is quite striking. Leiris sought to circumscribe the language of desire, whereas Breton wanted to establish and explicate a new kind of beauty to promote, in short, a more human aesthetic. Breton had one foot in literature and the other in reality as directly experienced. His entire work bears the traces of his resulting discomfort, even though he had the wit to transform this hobbled state into a thought of great elegance.
To the political right of Breton, the literary option carried the day. In the case of Éluard, for instance, that choice was unmistakable: "Lovers are not necessarily the authors of the most beautiful love poems, and even when they are they do not make their love responsible for it." Here direct experience is deemed less important than its representation, than its image a perfect epitome of the alienation of life by culture.
To Breton's left, meanwhile if we except Leiris, whose research, though of genuine interest, did not lead to any social practice, and so degenerated into positivism the memory of a possible transcendence shaped two contrasting trajectories, that of Péret and that of Artaud.
Apart from that portion of his work in which he sought to push poetic invective as far as it would go (notably Je ne mange pas de ce Pain-là), Benjamin Péret devoted his energies to the construction of a kind of linguistic Chateau de Silling whereby, much as de Sade aspired to produce an exhaustive catalogue of sexual fantasies, he strove to inventory every conceivable metaphorical combination. Péret was undoubtedly the only person ever to create a counter-linguistic world, a world directly accessible to all children and impenitent dreamers, and a world which cries out for social revolution as the only natural means of exposing its profound banality to all:
It was a great rage the great rage of a faded flower tossed upon a church roof that now shook Nestor. "Just think," America had told him, "I am Wurtemberg." And when Nestor had replied that New York was not in Wurtemberg, America had retorted angrily that New York had indeed been the capital of Wurtemberg ever since the sea legged squid had dragged into its pincers, known as tentacles, a child hanging from a branch on Fourteenth Avenue like a cherry from an olive tree. Nestor, sure that he was in the right, lit up a pipe that he had previously loaded with pearl oyster shells, which allowed him to say with pride, "I smoke only pearls." Lighting a pipe is not enough, though - you also have to smoke it. Nestor soon found out that this was an impossibility. His pipe was smoking but he was not.
(from La Brebis galante [The Amorous Ewe])
The discovery of automatic writing compensated for the lack of consistency in Dada's negativity, but it meant that the aspiration to a language of the totality was now abandoned in favour of the search for a merely linguistic totality. Automatic writing was Artaud's starting-point too, but he took the opposite tack to Péret, directing his attention to the inner life of the mind, to the drama of alienated consciousness. Though just as far removed as the other Surrealists from the historical dimension of the antagonism between spontaneous verbal associations and language-in-itself, Artaud did succeed in isolating this contradiction and treating it as an ontological malady, as the curse of being (whence his continual casting about for exorcisms of one kind or another). A manuscript of his pinpoints the origin of that oscillation within which he situated himself, somewhere between the disaster of writing on the one hand and spiritual and physical disaster on the other:
In the realm of the determinate, only those phrases which flow directly from the unconscious can ever reach full flower. But if perchance my conscious mind awakes, either because [lacuna in manuscript], or because of an external event, then I become aware of the obstacles that stand in the way of the fulfilment of my thought. Such obstacles are always of the same order: ideas are stripped of their meaning, of their neuronal or affective content, at whatever point in their formation or materialization one apprehends them, at whatever point one becomes aware of their degeneration, their deflation and in whatever sense one chooses to understand the term "ideas". A kind of amnesia is involved here, but it is a physical amnesia, an inhibition of the current that bears expression along. A sudden upset or blockage occurs, the lucid state produced by the active exercise of the mind is brutally dispelled, and ideas are thrown into turmoil because they cease being grasped, because of the dissipation and dispersal of who knows what vital magnetism. We enter a state of major confusion which we are tempted to blame on a chaos of the mind, that is, to treat the mind as a great unregulated mass, whereas in reality it is simply a void, and to seek remedy for what we assume to be a transient mental powerlessness, a momentary stumbling-block that can swiftly be corrected for by the psyche's central function. We try changing the object of our intellectual activity, imagining that such a change in orientation, by bringing the mind to bear on a new and better chosen realm, must perforce restore its vitality, but we are plunged instead into an atrocious despair, a despair rendered all the more frightful in that it centres on nothing, in that it is no longer connected to the general desiccation of the inner life of the emotions; a despair, too, that is truly absolute, because we perceive that it is the organ of intellectual activity itself that has suffered a trauma, that thought is degenerating, that the impulse to think has been prejudiced, that our animal magnetism is escaping in every direction, failing to overcome the obstacles in its path, petering out at its source, weakening with every renewed effort. What is more, although a belated analysis of our state of confusion and exacerbated weakness may be within our means, we are perfectly incapable of describing the dysfunctions it provokes or of showing how every component of the personality is drawn into the débâcle, how even the very feeling of the ego's existence is overwhelmed by this despair of the ego and its possibilities.
Something that Artaud and Péret had in common was a belief in archetypes. For both of them the impossibility of attaining total being or of acceding to the totality of language underlay a metaphysics in which a boundless solipsism allowed itself to be satisfied with entities pre-existent to all reality whose discovery and definition, and the modification of whose signs, are possible only by way of acts of clairvoyance. Thus Artaud's analysis of the hidden meanings to be found in rock formations, in his Voyage au pays des Tarahumaras [Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumaras], has a parallel in Péret's discussion of the painter Wilfedo Lam (although Péret does feel the need for some kind of material underpinning):
The true mission of the artist, whether painter or poet, has always been to rediscover within himself the archetypes that underpin poetic thought, and to reinvest that thought with a fresh emotional charge so that between himself and his peers a current of energy might be set in motion which will be all the more intense inasmuch as these reactivated archetypes emerge as the clearest and newest expression of the determining factors in his background.
Midway between Artaud and Péret, and given to voicing reservations about straightforward literary or pictorial work precisely because his de facto positions tended to justify them, Breton devoted a great deal of his attention to the metaphor as such, that is, to the metaphor as an aesthetic factor.
An anti-aesthetic aesthete, Breton was often content to revive the worm-eaten attractions of modern art's graveyards. His famous slogan, "Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all", is more valuable in itself than any of the examples he offers in support of it. Perhaps at some future high point in the final struggle this slogan will indeed become the watchword, but in the context of Surrealism itself it was never more than a glittering trace of subjectivity and of everyday adventure inscribed on the tattered fabric of the ruling language.
The first Manifesto proclaimed: "The marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful." We were already in the land of Fantomas versus Lafcadio, Nerval versus Lamartine, Jarry versus Zola the land, in short, of everything that now constitutes left-wing culture: clearer ideas in the service of a more general idiocy.
In Breton's mind the marvellous was also the foundation of the cult of the metaphor, casting beauty in a new light. Metaphors, of which the whole of Surrealist poetry (in the narrow sense) is a many splendored celebration, combine two sparks: the spark, produced by the interaction of contrasting assemblages, which destroys congealed language, and the spark, produced by the clash of subjective symbols, which creates a new language. The two become one in the light of the metaphor, in the convulsiveness of beauty.
The system of metaphor and image in painting thus constituted an ideological ruse whereby Surrealism managed for a time to avoid the fallout of cultural fragments generated by the explosion of 1915-1920. This was what kept the movement apart from mainstream literary and artistic production, which was condemned, in a pitifully regimented way, to the rehashing of the end of the novel after Joyce, the end of painting after Malevich, the end of sculpture after Duchamp, and the end of everything after Dada. It was also the means whereby Surrealism successfully concealed both the bankruptcy of culture as a separate and alienating sphere and the corollary need to advance from the archaic notion of a living art to the reality of an art of living.
Metaphor and image are self-sufficient. They are the basis of a cultural closed circuit whose seeming emancipation from the sway of culture is nothing but a mask for the fact that, so far from threatening culture's hegemony, it actually reinforces it. Quite apart from the contribution of the art of fascinating images to the growing voyeurism that attends the expansion of an economy of over-consumption which must display what it has to "offer" and can sell only what it displays, it is worth pointing out that appealing to the marvellousness of the metaphor system would be meaningless outside the context of an ideology taking on more and more esoteric overtones and tending to become indistinguishable from a hermetic doctrine.
Paradoxically (and rather as alchemy discovered sulphuric acid in a purely serendipitous way), the shift from the magic of language to the language of magic produced a genuine tool of demystification, namely the technique of diversion, or détournement. Admittedly Breton never defined this technique as precisely as the Situationists did later, as for example in Internationale Situationniste, Number 3 (December 1959 [Détournement as Negation and Prelude]):
The two basic principles of détournement are the loss of importance, and in the extreme case the complete disappearance, of the original meaning of each independent diverted element; and, simultaneously, the organizing of another meaningful whole which confers a new significance upon each of those elements.
Breton merely observed in Point du jour [Break of Day, 1934] that "All things are bound to be put to uses for which they are not usually destined", but he certainly applied the principle of détournement, as for instance in "Notes on Poetry", written in collaboration with Paul Éluard (La Révolution Surréaliste, Number 12, 1929). Valéry had writ ten, "A poem must be a feast of the intellect", and "Poetry is a survival". These edicts now became: "A poem must be a disaster of the intellect" and "Poetry is a pipe". It is also worth recalling the humorous use made of détournement by René Magritte when he replaced the figures in classical paintings by coffins. In the absence of a global critique, the tactic was never explored further or applied to the revolutionary struggle. Détournement was one of the weapons Surrealism left behind for its heirs to put to as good a use as they could.
The Savage Eye and the Civilization of the Image
There were two reasons for Breton's violent reaction to Pierre Naville, when, as editor of La Révolution Surréaliste, the latter defended the idea that there could be no such thing as Surrealist painting: the requirement that the metaphor thesis be internally consistent, and the money that several of the Surrealists made by dealing in art. If Surrealist painting wished to demonstrate a commitment to radical positions or to revolutionary violence, it could not point, as poetry could, to a critical or mordant discourse of its own. On the other hand it was readily compatible with the same ideology as the metaphor, for, just like the metaphors, its effect on the flow of discrete symbols and veiled wishes, as on the chance encounters of objective forms, was to produce condensations. And, unlike poetic writing, it had a market. Breton was well aware of this, and, while he invariably condemned the ostentatious pursuit of fame or wealth, he never made so bold as to define painting quite simply as a poetic occupation. Rather, he justified the Surrealist approach to the pictorial with the same arguments that he had used in connection with metaphor: just as words played and made love, so the eye "existed in its savage state" (Surrealism and Painting, 1928).
To proclaim the innocence of art in a period when art could be innocent only if it were transcended, only if it were realized, was to misapprehend the significance of Dada and to underestimate the fetishism of the commodity. The proposition that "the eye exists in its savage state" was self-glorifying in two equally unjustified ways. In the first place, this was a time when advertising and the news media (not to mention the fascist "happenings" of the moment) already knew perfectly well how to manipulate clashing images, how to milk "free" representations for all they were worth; it was therefore quite predictable that the ruling system would co-opt the new way of looking that Surrealism was so busily promoting. Secondly, it should have been plain to any avant-garde worth the name at least that the organization of social passivity, in its concern to minimize the recourse to police and army, was bound to foster the consumption of increasingly lifelike and increasingly personalized images, the aim being that the proletariat should move only to the extent required for the contemplation of its own inert contentment, that it should be rendered so passive as to be incapable of anything beyond infatuation with varied representations of its dreams.
Painting was a privileged sector of Surrealist activity; it was also the sector most thoroughly co-opted by what the sociologists, in their eagerness to avoid any analysis of the spectacle and the commodity system, like to call "the civilization of the image". Thus, for all its appeal, Breton's statement of 1929, according to which "Oneiric values are clearly now preponderant, and I insist that anyone should be treated as an idiot if they still refuse, for instance, to see a horse galloping across a tomato", must be placed in the context of the image-as-object distilling the commodity's power to attract, concealing the alienating relationships that the commodity entails, and reproducing the commodity as pure ideological appearance.
There can be no doubt that by the end of the 1920s Surrealism had already unresistingly accepted the inflated value placed on vision. "Every day," said Man Ray, "we are the recipients of open confidences; our eye can train itself to comprehend them without prejudice or constraint." And here is the Czech Jindrich Styrsky: "My eyes are forever demanding that food be thrown their way. They swallow it with brutal eagerness. And at night as I sleep they digest it."
Marx used to say to Engels, as they strolled about London, "That's their Westminster, that's their Parliament", and so on. How is it that the Surrealists never realized that by painting "their" buildings (even had they devastated them with images of desire something which they never did, there being in Surrealist painting nothing remotely comparable to Péret's Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là), that by painting "their" parks and covering "their" decors with faces out of dreams, they were just redoing the façade of the old world. Of course, this reproach would have no force whatsoever had not Surrealism longed so passionately to be revolutionary.
When not repressed entirely by the Surrealists, the memory of Dada's radicalism manifested itself less in the form of scandalous images than in the form of techniques that placed painting within everyone's grasp. This is how Max Ernst described his discovery of "Frottage" in 1925:
Starting from a childhood memory... in which a fake mahogany panel opposite my bed had served as an optical catalyst for a vision while half-asleep, and now finding myself at a seaside hotel on a rainy day, I was struck by the obsessive fascination that the floor, its cracks accentuated by uncounted scrubbings, was able to exercise upon my distracted gaze. I resolved to investigate the symbolic meaning of this obsession, and to assist my capacity for meditation and hallucination I made a set of rubbings of the floorboards, positioning sheets of paper on them at random and using graphite to bring up the pattern. When I carefully inspected the results, some areas of which were quite dark while others were but lightly shaded, I was taken aback by a sudden intensification of my visionary faculties, and by a hallucinatory sequence of contradictory images, each superimposed upon its predecessor with the persistence and speed that one associates with memories of love.
Curious, indeed enthralled, I ended up using the same method to explore all sorts of materials that happened to enter my visual field: leaves and their veins, the frayed edges of sackcloth, the brushstrokes of some "modern" painter, thread unravelled from a bobbin, and so forth. My eyes then perceived human heads, various animals, a battle that ended up as a kiss (The Fiancée of the Wind), some rocks, The Sea and the Rain, earthquakes, the Sphinx in its stable, some Little Tables Around the Earth, Caesar's Palette, some False Positions, a Shawl with Frost-Covered Flowers, the Pampas, etc.
Thus in a sense frottage became the equivalent of automatic writing. "It is as a spectator", Ernst adds, "that the creator, whether indifferently or passionately, witnesses the birth of his work and observes the stages of his own development." Instead, then, of emphasizing the possibility of a technique of this kind being used by all, Ernst stressed the painters transformation into a passive spectator, insisting on the joy of contemplation and not on the joy of creation. It is hard not to conclude that the Surrealist painters felt threatened by any tendency to treat art as a game, and that, as painting and sculpture acknowledged their affinity with the world of childhood and were secularized by a spirit of playfulness, these artists suddenly sensed a challenge to their dignity the dignity of honours and profit and felt obliged to move heaven and earth if need be to make sure their products did not lose the aura of the sacrosanct.
Breton's description (1936) of decalcomania, invented by Oscar Dominguez, betrays the same urge to reduce the technical relics of Dada's dissolution to a Surrealist "magical art":
Children have traditionally enjoyed folding sheets of paper after blotting them with wet ink so as to produce the illusion of animal or vegetable entities or growths, but the elementary technique of which children are capable is far from exhausting the resources of such a procedure. In particular the use of undiluted ink excludes any surprises in terms of "substance" and limits the result to a contoured design which suffers from a certain monotony resulting from the repetition of symmetrical forms on either side of an axis. Certain wash-drawings by Victor Hugo seem to provide evidence of systematic explorations in the direction which concerns us here; certainly an extraordinary power of suggestion is obviously expected to emanate from the entirely involuntary mechanical details which predominate, but the results are mostly limited to Chinese shadows and cloudy apparitions. Oscar Dominguez' discovery brings precious advice on the method to follow in obtaining ideal fields of interpretation. Here we can rediscover in all their purity the rocks and willows of Arthur Rackham which enchanted us when we were about to leave childhood behind. Once again, we are offered a recipe within everybody's grasp, a recipe which demands to be included among the "Secrets of the magical surrealist art" and which may be formulated as follows:
In order to open one's window at will upon
the most beautiful landscapes in this or any other world
With a broad brush, spread some black gouache, more or less diluted in places, on a sheet of white glazed paper and then cover this immediately with a similar sheet which you will press down lightly with the back of your band. Take this upper sheet by one edge and peel it off slowly as you would do with an ordinary transfer, then continue to reapply it and lift it away again until the colour is almost dry. What you have in your bands now is perhaps nothing more than Leonardo's paranoiac ancient wall, but it is this wall perfected. All you need do now is study the resulting image long enough for you to find a title that conveys the reality you have discovered in it, and you can be quite sure of having expressed yourself in the most completely personal and valid manner.
The technique of détournement was likewise incorporated into the alchemy of Surrealism's pictorialists, and thus rendered "occult" instead of being popularized in every form, as by rights it should have been.
The painters clique in Surrealism was much prone to apoliticism in the strict sense, and together with the neo-littérateurs constituted the right-leaning fraction of the movement. Aside from a handful of mediocre camp followers, most of the Surrealist painters "succeeded"; few among them displayed any scruples as to how their success was achieved, and many had no hesitation about quitting the group as soon as they were launched or as soon as the lackeys of the old world tossed them a bone.
Inasmuch as Surrealism did indeed inherit from Dada the project of the transcendence of art (and even if it dealt with this inheritance solely on an abstract plane), it is to two non-Surrealist painters, Giorgio de Chirico and Paul Klee, that credit should go for conveying the unconscious memory which made the agonizing décor of our reification and the return to the sources of creativity into essential aspects of Surrealism's most important artistic works. No one better than de Chirico (though he soon retreated into senility like Rimbaud fleeing to Harar) has perceived the invasion of things, the proliferation of stucco, the spread of human absence, the disappearance of faces, and the increased burden of anxiety borne by the cheap goods and theatrical props that crowd around us. No one better than Klee, with his ever vigilant intelligence, has captured the movement of creativity in its full freshness and spontaneousness; his work may well one day serve, just like Péret's, as one of the finest avenues open to future generations wishing to understand the culture of the past.
Surrealist painting pitched its tent between the two pinnacles represented by de Chirico and Klee on the one hand and the Dadaist abyss on the other. Max Ernst decked de Chirico's angst with his characteristic mineral concretions and luxuriant vegetation; Miró redid Klee in a fake-childish and more sophisticated manner; and Magritte, the painter most concerned with the image as poetic metaphor, offered the best response to the idea of a window opening at every instant onto a strange everydayness and its objects objects which every human dreams of humanizing.
Among the "littérateurs ", Picasso, a tireless and tedious creator of gimcrackery who eventually indeed "hooked us by sheer quantity", stands elbow to elbow with the canny Dalí, whose work, dedicated to the greater glory of the moronic, the deliquescent and the impotent, resonated remarkably well with the softening-up techniques of the society of the spectacle, and as a corollary ensured Dalí support from the most highly placed cultural and media functionaries.
There is a sense in which Dalí epitomizes both the failure and the success of Surrealism: on the one hand the derailing of creativity as a revolutionary force, on the other a seamless integration into the old world. Never opting firmly either for a poetry made by all or for the venality of the ruling system, Surrealism took something of both and produced an impoverished cultural hodgepodge. The movement's entire discourse is one long self-consolation whose growing pathos, accompanied by an ever more pressing appeal to the mists of magic, becomes only too comprehensible when we hear Breton condemning the dictatorship of the rational and calling instead for "machines of most ingenious design destined for no particular use" (a call which Tinguely, for one, would answer, constructing just such machines without, however, remotely affecting the ever tighter grip of the rationality of things); or, again, when we find jean Schuster, in 1969, quite willing to write that "All images are dangerous, because they facilitate the circulation of ideas."
As for Surrealist films, there is not much to be said, save perhaps that the movement's two masterpieces, Un Chien andalou and LÂge dor, had a profound influence on the cinema (Dreams That Money Can Buy, by Man Ray, Hans Richter and Max Ernst, is a film that deserves to be better known in France). LÂge dor embodied a violence, albeit one cloaked in aestheticism, that seemed at the time to presage a later development in which the Surrealist film, by taking its distance from the pictorial perspective, would achieve formidable agitational and demystificatory power. But everyone knows what became of Dalí; and Buñuel became what one might have feared for anyone who takes pride in being called a cinéaste.