Monday, December 10, 2007

Constant Critic and Surrealism

Joyelle has a new review up at constant critic.

It's of Taiwanese poet Hsia Yu's amazing transparent (yes, physically transparent), multilingual masterpiece "Pink Noise." I would say everyone should get a copy but I don't think anybody can.

Jordan Davis tries his hand at the old "hard" vs "soft" Surrealism and does perhaps a bit better than Ron Silliman's comment-folks. And though I have been known to complain about certain examples of what may be called surrealist techniques (though any number of other labels could be applied for most of these instances), I have to wonder why it is so important to find a "true" (or hard) Surrealism. Is it to rediscover the radical potential in Surrealism? Is it to historicize these techniques out of existence? (Do people ever speak about "soft New York School"?)

The people making these distinction seem to generally make the distinction between the Breton Crew (which of course was not the first use of "Surrealist" - that was Apollinaire, followed by Ywan Goll's journal - and which also tended to leak members - mostly the most interesting poets, such as Artaud - or work parallel to more interesting writers - Bataille, Cesaire, Vallejo etc)and Bill Knott, James Tate, Charlie Simic and Robert Bly.

It is interesting that the Rosemonts ("Chicago Surrealism")and their crowd (quite large it seems from the people I've been in contact with) are very seldom brought up as the anti-thesis of Soft Surrealism, since they not only worked directly with Breton in the 1960s but have also maintained Trotskyite politics.

Another interesting thing for me is that the Rosemonts' Crew (and other non-academic, "hardline" Surrealists) have been very international in their outlook. For example, I have received many emails from this crowd about my Aase Berg book (which has a blurb from Penelope Rosemont)and her interview in Bitter Oleander (in which she, to their dismay, called out Breton for his sexism etc). These Surrealists are part of a pretty extensive international network, which used to include the Surrealist Group of Stockholm, and that's why a lot of them were familiar with Aase long before the book came out. In fact, if you go to the Swedish Royal Library and search through the archives, you can even find a book they co-wrote with the Surrealist Group of Alabama (I'm not kidding). (I have a copy if anyone is interested.)

To me the Surrealist Group of Stockholm makes a very interesting case study (only non-Surrealist Americans don't know about them), as it was very Trostkyite and so hardline Surrealist that some members went insane (psychotic, from Surrealist games) and others (long after Aase had already left) were put in jail for involvement in anti-EU activities. In difference to many American debators (such as Andrew Joron in his pamphlet on Surrealism), the group also acknowledged the Romantic influence on Surrealism moving in their discussions freely between Breton Surrealists, de Sade, Romantics, Bataille etc - thus they seem both more hardline and less hardline than American poets.

However, most importantly (to my Humanist Brain) the group was the starting point for a number of may favorite Swedish authors, who have since then gone on to great acclaim, in both Sweden and the rest of Europe (including Aase, Eva-Kristina Olsson and others).

Finally, I would also like to say that one strange part about the true-vs-false Surrealism debates is that it is going on amidst American poets who don't seem to realize that European Surrealism continued, changed and moved in various stylistic and geographic directions. Thus for example, you get people like Henri Michaux, who I think has quite a bit of influence on Edson (probably a key figure in understanding US Surrealism since the 1960s), and Paul Celan, Vasko Popa and Tadic, Oyvind Fahlstrom, Aase Berg etc. It has not stood still. And in many of these countries, there have been debates similar to the one American poets are currently engaged in.

Part of my contention is that I have trouble with this urge to find a true origin. As the paper I will present on Finland Swedish Dada at the Big European Avant-Garde Convention this spring in Brussels will argue, things tend to be a bit more complicated than that. For example, certain aspects of "Dada" exists in many locations around Europe (Romania for example, if you read Tom Sandkvist's "Dada East" from MIT )before the movement is officially founded, or before the movement officially reaches these areas (Finland, Slovenia etc). The way Bjorling and Parland found out about Dada was when a negative critic called Bjorling a "dadaist" in a newspaper review of his second book.

If you want to hear the rest of it you've got to come to Brussels.


Blogger Jordan said...

Hi Johannes. I don't know the Rosemonts, and will make an effort to learn more.

I hadn't ever thought of Apollinaire as a surrealist -- an irrealist, maybe, holding more in common with Jarry than with Breton (I'd compare GA's aeronautical Jesus with AJ's crucifixion considered as a bicycle race, and then contrast them with AB & co's more earnest religiosity...)

Taxonomy is generally a foolish way to approach the arts, not that there's anything inherently wrong with foolishness. My (somewhat muted) point was that taxonomy is invariably used to indicate what does and does not bear investigation. My view is that I can always find something out when I pay attention to my wish to reread a poem, a journal, a book.

Safe travels to Brussels.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, while there's some point to taxonomy, I am just so tired of the whole taxonomizing.

Apollinaire wasn't really a Surrealist strictly speaking but he invented the term for "Parade" and "Breasts of Tiresius," his play. I mentioned that just to suggest how much more complex Surrealism is than the prevalent idea of a core/true/original Surrealism represented by Breton. (Besides, I think Magnetic Fields is his best work and at that point he was just "Paris Dada")

It strikes me as interesting why this urge to find a kind of final true historical/taxonomical defintion for these terms, and why Surrealism in particular seems to be the subject of such endeavors.

Of course there is also the idea of the avant-garde, a concept that has been used to define people as different as Mayakovsky and John Cage.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Why this urge for taxonomy? American history, I suppose.. *important* to know whether a newcomer is white/black, protestant/catholic, correct denomination (almost wrote demonization), correct branch of correct denomination....

Which is to say: good old everyday anxiety about the other, and the ordinary political use of those anxieties. In this narrative, surrealism == communism.

Incidentally, back in the early 90s I worked for a gallery director who did a lot of chasing after Oyvind Fahlstrom's work. It occurs to me you might also enjoy Alighiero e Boetti.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Is there anywhere I can read more about this intersection of hardcore Trotskyism and Surrealism? Did they try to organize workers around surrealist activities? Union meetings governed by chance operations? I'd like to read more about their activities in general. Though I don't suppose the UA library would have any books devoted to the subject.

I think taxonomies become problems when we try to identify, in an empirical manner, techniques or tropes within works, especially if those span decades. It seems that classifications always bear the mark of social formations extrinsic to the work studied--groups proclaim themselves surrealist or flarf or a set of films gets proclaimed 'noir'. Sure works with these designations share resemblances to one another, but it's the name, given in a particular historical context that sticks and facilitates connections between those texts and what we can say they are not.
Often these names are marketing terms and do contain assessments of value. Isn't Action, Yes a taxonomic designation? Is that name not intended to endow works under its banner with a shared sense of affirmation and purpose?

9:05 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You'll find the info on Surrealism and Communism (and Breton and Trotsky's relationship) in any history of the movement. The Second Manifesto is notoriously communist.

One of the problems with designating the historical Surrealism somehow "hard" or political because of their communism is that they lived in an era when you were forced to make one of two choices (right-wing vs commies), and Surrealism never fit in with the Communist Party, which was always suspicious of the Surrealists and what they thought were the Surrealists' bourgeois dedication to the unconscious.

But yes, some of the Surrealists did in fact do a lot of hands-on political activism. However this frequently led to their expulsion from Surrealism. Look for example at the example of Aragon who went all-out communist.

There are many more paradoxes in this history that a simple soft vs hard Surrealism doesn't account for. And it's that kind of taxonomy I don't like. Cold War Us vs Them frameworks.

But of course we always read through frameworks. You're right about that.

Action has always been very clear about our framework and how we see poetry etc (anti-"mastery," internationalist etc). In many ways AY comes out of being sick of the prevailing frameworks and wanting to alter them.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Yeah, I knew about Aragon's relationship to Stalinism, but am ignorant of the relationship b/t Breton and Trotsky. But it does seem perfectly understandable that the CP, whatever its other problems, would be suspicious of surrealism's claims to political efficacy.

I wasn't questioning the framework of AY--obviously it's internationalist and certainly not apolitical (though I find positions like Bernes' incredibly problematic and maybe I'll get around to responding to him), just asserting that it does have one and that it creates assertions of both aesthetic and political value.
Perhaps I misunderstood, reading in the comments both you and Jordan made a desire to abandon classification altogether. I agree that binary distinctions aren't often very interesting, but I don't think they're entirely useless. At least their deficiencies can be catalysts for discussion.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Though reductive, I think Silliman's classification have proved useful - they have sparked discussion. And I do think that he's largely correct in the way "quietism" always pretends it is open not programmatic (while accusing Silliman of being programmatic).

However, I thinks the "soft surrealism" merely evades a lot of important discussion - and I think that's what Jordan means when he says "taxonomy is invariably used to indicate what does and does not bear investigation."

I don't agree with Jasper's article either, but I thought it was interesting. I think James Pate's article was right on the money.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Nate said...

FYI, the best text to look at for the Breton-Trotsky relationship is the manifesto they co-wrote while Breton was visiting Trotsky in Mexico, "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art." The English copy I have is in Chipp's _Theories of Modern Art_.

7:36 PM  

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