1 | After a century’s depuration of Surrealism, and having rejected its confusion with a school or just another ‘ism’, the aesthetic propriety of any give creative work cannot be dismissed. How do you understand Surrealism’s aesthetic ideal?
JASON ABDELHADI | The canned response is that of course surrealism has no inherent aesthetic ideal, that it can embrace a wide range or even a totality of different modes of expression, negation, experimentation, and that to limit it to an aesthetic function in any regard is to miss the point entirely. This certainly holds true. The beautiful will be convulsive – this formulation is a negation of an aesthetic ideal insofar as what we understand as convulsion itself will never remain static. Nonetheless, it makes one wonder about the place of aesthetic ideals in the history of expression. If not from the point of a committed school, aren’t they always objectively speaking temporary anyway? Since surrealism has long forsworn the notion of school, and operates outside that boundary, would surrealism merely be an “open eyed” approach to the historical reality of aesthetic variation, negation, and so on? In contrast to the exquisite corpse, in the Ottawa Surrealist Group we have a game called “Blueballing”. A player starts to draw while the next in turn is watching closely. The next player has the right to “stop” the drawing at whatever point she sees fit, and is likely to continue in a manner that frustrates the initial player. One could see the surrealist aesthetic ideal, over and above simple collaboration and mutual aid, in a desire to frustrate, pause, interrupt, and re-direct the very “aesthetic” intentions of any work. This could mean treating aesthetic objects functionally, for example, or vice versa, treating unaesthetic objects aesthetically. Regarding aesthetics, as with many other domains of knowledge, the surrealist interest (rather than “ideal”) remains experimental and interventionist.
MATTIAS FORSHAGE | It seems worthwhile to resist the urge to kneejerk-react to the question and take it seriously. However, the fact that aesthetic implications of creative work are unavoidable does not necessarily mean that they can be formulated as a coherent or even converging “aesthetic ideal”…
We constantly wish to be overwhelmed and provoked in a way that offers a glimpse into the unknown especially in its aspect of dynamism subverting the well-known and pointing towards the marvellous, but admittedly we do more easily recognize this in certain works that in some substantial way resemble older surrealist works, which provokes an unconscious emotional reaction, recognizing an atmosphere beneficial for the dynamism of the spirit, and makes us, perhaps, sympathetically inclined. We should not need to be embarrassed about this, but we should continue making efforts to stay vigilant to take seriously potential revelations also in that we do not recognize at all.
MICHEL REMY | No aesthetic ideal can be defined. A mode of action in the fireld of aesthetics which will gladly welcome all that makes the limits of rationality and the habitual relationships with the world recede into the territories of the marvellous understood as the passage between man and the universe, thus enabling the former to interpret and recreate the latter – the marvellous as the matrix of myths.
2 | The classic expulsions that Surrealists carried out from the original Paris formation were of a behavioral nature. Poor-quality work was never judged. Even now, although expulsions no longer take place, when Surrealists comment on their peers they do so in the light of sympathies and alliances, which emphasizes the existence of a clique. To what point does this distort the understanding that one might have of the most important cultural revolution of the 20th century?
JASON ABDELHADI | This is something of a loaded question. What is meant by the word clique? What it boils down to is that surrealism does not concern itself with product integrity like some quality assurance mechanism in a factory. The most important part of the surrealist movement is the movement itself, the people comprising it and the potential to change the world through intersubjective collective adventure.
Disassociations, including expulsions, but also breakaways, re-connections, and others can and still do take place, for a variety of circumstances and in a variety of ways. It is an entirely legitimate byproduct of collective life and experimentation. In a world that is hostile to surrealist activity, where compromise and risk of recuperation are very high, it is important that we always take into account “sympathies and alliances”. Certainly there is a distortion, but it comes from an outside misunderstanding, something not all that important to the movement itself. It is part of a wider trend of good old revisionist liberal thought, the kind which can only understand radical fidelity to a cause in terms of totalitarianism. But I think in general there is agreement among many surrealists that correcting misinterpretations about the past or present seems like a secondary, if not increasingly futile waste of energy. Let the funhouse mirrors have their fun.
MATTIAS FORSHAGE | This observation is adequate but not quite as problematic as it may seem. The quality of work remains of secondary importance to surrealist activity. Emphasising the different standards for surrealist works and surrealist activity tends to construct them as comparable and equally valid distinct entities, which is an ideological construct within the framework of art and literature history and thus a party pleading for surrealist works over surrealist activity, and for a perhaps accomplished ”cultural revolution” over an ongoing adventure of the spirit and a yet unaccomplished project of emancipation.
Surrealist works function as autonomous focal points of the imagination in a wider and uncontrollable circulation, but they took shape as expression of surrealist activity, sometimes a surrealist activity explicitly within a historical continuity and a degree of formal organization, and sometimes a surrealist activity isolated, individual and/or intuitive, which would not be recognisable as a surrealist activity if it was not for the historical manifestation of the surrealist spirit by the historical movement. Great works are continuously reintegrated into the more manysided framework as they continue to inspire (and in a sense simultaneously continuously tugged out of this framework when reified as items in the canon of western art and literature history).
From the surrealist viewpoint, great works are those works that are major revelations and that keep inspiring. Any other criteria for great works are likely to be suspect and represent their canonization into official art and literature, and thus be separate from, and substantially contrary or even hostile to, the aims of surrealism. Less great works are not a problem and do not merit scorn, they are just the ongoing everyday experimentation out of which certain discoveries will emerge as great.
The fact that an ongoing surrealist activity may have seen necessary to part ways with a certain individual who keeps producing great work - a real scenario in several cases - is a problem for that individual who will be uncomfortable and more or less detached and have few frameworks to work in apart from the obviously inaccurate official art and culture, but not a problem for surrealism that will still be able to benefit from the revelations even if the individual has proven unbearable or untrustworthy…
MICHEL REMY | I do not think that the hackneyed conception of the surrealist group as a clique by contemporary Pharisees distorts any understanding of surrealism. Let them say what they want! This being said, surrealism is inseparable from a strong moral standpoint, only guaranteed by the group or peers. Expulsions still take place in different ways when mercantilism and compromises threaten the poetical impulse and the inexhaustibility of meaning.
3 | Surrealist magazines – where were previously just printed, and are now available in virtual format as well, with extensive recovery of the early days of the effort through facsimile and PDF editions – form a collection beyond comparison with any other movement, school or avant-garde over the centuries. I maintain that the most valuable ones are those that never countered other views of life and artwork that were alien and/or complementary to Surrealism. I believe these magazines to be the explorable space of counter-orthodoxy, of the full exercise of generosity, and of the sharing of sparse worlds. However, we still face an immense – declared or undeclared 0 rejection of Surrealism precisely because of its orthodox beginnings. How to separate wheat from chaff?
JASON ABDELHADI | This could be two totally different questions. First, can a surrealist magazine really exist in the way you suggest? It’s hard to see what a surrealist communication would look like that does not, implicitly or explicitly, counter prevailing “views of life”. This does not mean that there is not a wider scope for surrealist exploration outside explicit identification with the term. Sometimes it is indeed very fruitful to look outside the immediate movement to different ideas and practices. Other times we find things of surrealist interest in totally non-surrealist contexts (professional art, poetry etc.). Nonetheless, surrealism is a form of rebellion and non-conformist research. It is certainly useful to think of it collaborating with parallel types of revolt, whether these be expected (anarchism etc.) or unexpected. But it cannot ever be totally accommodating, especially to views of life that reductive, financially or religiously driven, quietistic etc. With regards to specific magazines, the risk is perhaps lower than an outright “allegiance”, since appearing in the same magazine with someone does not necessarily entail a strong affinity or commitment. In this sense, yes, surrealist publications in the past have certainly found ways of integrating in more or less interesting ways. As for a rejection of surrealism, that is to be expected, given its specific focus on untimeliness and non-compromise. Do we want it any other way? We recently had correspondence with someone who runs a very loose, pseudo-surrealist poetry blog. He seemed to think that by denying commercial viability surrealism was not opening itself up to the masses. It is important to distinguish mass-poetry, popular culture, and the “must be made by all” of Ducasse with commercial viability. Surrealism obviously cannot accommodate. And so I pre-empt the second question, which might be with regards to separating the wheat from the chaff among current surrealist magazines, journals, pseudo-journals etc. It’s hard to say what percentage of XYZ magazine is of sufficient surrealist quality to consider it wheat vs chaff. One is often surprised, often repulsed. One thing I can point to is a proliferation of the term itself in the Anglo-American context of e-journals and blogs of all kinds which, especially these days, seem to use “surrealism” as a bizarre excuse to focus on either “poetics” in the long tradition of American poetry journals, OR to justify the usual boring phantasmagoria. The distinguishing feature of the former would be the paraphrasing of surrealist rhetoric in editorials and mission statements, but, weirdly, the ignoring of that in terms of the rest of the content, which is typically just off-the-shelf poetry and nothing else.
MATTIAS FORSHAGE | It is never a choice between orthodoxy or renewal. There is a choice between rigor and eclecticism, but that is a question of integrity and method and not a question of wider or stricter delimitation. Typically a journal with a sense of urgency and direction will establish more or less of a particular spirit based on the constitution of its desires and imagination along with its specific delimitations and its contingent historical circumstances. Everything a surrealist journal is curious about will contribute to the surrealist experience.
Some will not trust their own intuition and will keep out stuff that seem peripheral in subject, alien in style, or just very different from hitherto manifestations, which may or may not create a stiff, limited, and more or less retrospectivist spirit. Others will not trust their own intuition and will include obviously peripheral items for being for example skillful, or good according to external standards, or because they relate to contemporary topics and trends, which will typically (but not necessarily) create a less inspiring eclecticist porridge.
MICHEL REMY | Those magazines you mention (but none is quoted) represent the margins of surrealism, just as magic realist paintings represent the margins and border territories of surrealism.
4 | Two terms within the Surrealist environment have always caught my eye, not because they appear inappropriate to me, but rather due to the compliment-rejection partition that they carry within: ‘Surrealist movement’ and ‘Surrealist civilization’. How different are the two, and what to they represent to the point of appearing antipodal?
JASON ABDELHADI | Perhaps the real antagonism is between “surrealist revolution” and “surrealist civilization”? In any case, they are certainly contradictions which have not been resolved. The “movement/revolution” paradigm fits in with a militant view point, a kernel of radical change from within the old framework that sees the need for total revolt. The “civilization” angle seems to be a highly utopian form of world-building, in centuries after the revolution, but also right now: surrealism as an alternative construct. In that sense the “civilization” would be less concerned with attacking current structures and more concerned with utopian dreaming. But the “surrealist civilization” itself is a contradictory term, implying walls, states, and in fact structures of taxation (if recent studies of the history of the “Deep History” origins of civilization can be applied). Whereas one could see “revolution” or “movement” and “surrealism” as almost synonyms, the term “civilization” seems much harder to digest in a surrealist framework, standing as it does for all that surrealism wants to destroy. One might have expected terms like “organization”, “commune” or even “federation” etc. But perhaps the contradiction and flimsiness is exactly what makes it an interesting term worth exploring. In any case, it is a very “open” idea and one that looks to the future to confirm its potential or not. With regards to the book La Civilization surréaliste, which some are still insisting is the secret magic tome of the future if only it will be translated into English… While some of the propositions and experiments are very interesting (group automatism, and especially Švankmajer’s off-topic masturbation machines) it perhaps only hints at the contradiction outlined in the question, and this by its very form rather than the actual content (being critical philosophical essays about the defense and weighing of surrealism, rather than militant tracts or games etc.). If we take it at face value, surrealist civilization could be questions around “infrastructure” of surrealist life – the planning around everyday necessities and contingencies (dare we ever use the word “policies”?) for those days “after the revolution”, and for the everyday people who are now firebreathing monsters.
MATTIAS FORSHAGE | The surrealist movement is a real entity and remains central to the sense of surrealism, and its real problems are hardly related to those raised by the more recent, more peripheral and more speculative concept of surrealist civilization. Surely, in Bounoure’s and Effenberger’s case, the latter was a bit of an exciting thought experiment prompted by the traditional Czech surrealist concept of the ”third ark”, a certain kind of utopia implied in the fragments surrealism would carry through either the surrealist revolution proclaimed in the 20s or the inherent collapse of western civilization. It clearly did not mean, for example, that present civilisation has significant surrealist aspects. It hardly meant, even though it was suggested as a pun in advertising material already at the time, that surrealism had passed its revolutionary phase and transformed into a restitutional project.
MICHEL REMY | The surrealist civilization is not a historical fact or even a fact. By proceeding to a critical analysis of the realities of the present day world, one may develop the necessity for an oppositional civilization within that world. That civilization cannot be defined – is it even ever definable? – except through the denunciations it puts forward. The surrealist civilization is founded on, and emerges from, surrealist movements here and there, all linked by the refusal of obedience – after defining what must NOT be obeyed – and strategies to parasite a society based on falsification and the debasement of language. The voice of this surrealist civilization will not belong to this or that one but will remain a transparent and critical conscience.
5 | the imaginative power and the experimental nature of Surrealism, which are essentially complementary aspects, are often evoked. However, given the unquestionable impossibility of perennial renovation within the environment of artistic creation, what one often sees in Surrealism is a repetition of resources, ways of being and language gimmicks. How does one address these variations, which are common to all creative landscapes?
JASON ABDELHADI | This question seems to situate surrealism solely within an artistic paradigm, which may be part of the problem. It is important not to conflate surrealist exploration with the standard (and sometimes fascistic) mottos of 20th century artistic modernism or avant-gardism, for example Ezra Pound’s “make it new” etc. Surrealism should be less concerned with whether something is an artistically new mechanism or not, and is instead interested in new forms of knowledge and knowing as such, by any means necessary. That being said, there is a lot of cliché, and as you imply, this may be inevitable (especially by newbies and disconnected individuals) with any kind of adherence to a “tradition”. I think it is fair to critique boring reduplications of the same experiments as “surrealisant” rather than properly surrealist, especially when they are coming from the more opportunistic, financially viable ends of the movement. This applies to cliché in surrealist theories and tracts as well poetic and artistic outputs. On the other hand, I do not think we should get caught up in a cycle of art-criticism. We need to look past the surface aesthetics and ask if an experiment is genuinely interesting beyond how it “looks” or “sounds” or whatever. In this regard a simple collage game could have really interesting implications (even if it looks classic). We are not modernists. I wonder if there isn’t something deeper at work in the repetition of all these collages, automatist texts, exquisite corpses etc. etc. To an art movement this would be indicative of a decadence or a flat period of imitation. Surrealism, always proud of going the opposite way, might even seek one day to re-appropriate these sentiments and stand-firm on the side of stupidity, repetition, and a refusal to play the innovation game so beloved of silicon valley.
MATTIAS FORSHAGE | Again not so much a problem. The basic activity of creativity and the basic upholding of surrealist activity will revisit and reinvent older methods and they will inspire the discovery and construction of new ones, probably in different proportions in different persons or groups, but without a substantial contradiction, since they both work towards the same aim of invokation of the poetic spirit and the revelation of the unknown. Practically, it might sometimes be a problem that some surrealist publications and the works therein may be very predictable in appearance, admitting only that which is more or less recognizable as belonging to surrealism, which is a regrettable limitation. And it can be difficult to recognize a similar or corresponding dynamics of the spirit in expressions that are very different in appearance, so that potentially very relevant phenomena can be, and are being, missed. But these are problems of unnecessary limitation for the surrealist activity. Whereas concerns for the reputation of surrealism or the overall standard of works of surrealism probably corresponds to a nervous will to legitimate surrealism in terms of official recognition rather than terms relevant to surrealism itself.
MICHEL REMY | I contend, if I may, the expression “unquestionable impossibility of perennial renovation”… A collage is a collage but what is glued together is the result of the magic encounter of a single individual mind with reality. Surrealism is a repetition of ressources in the same way and sense that when one writes, one repeats words – but which ones, in what order and where from, is what makes all the difference, and this is why all surrealist texts never repeat each other at any level and why automatic texts now written still hold the whole wonder of the marvellous.
6 | Aldo Pellegrini is one of the few scholars of Surrealism that specifically addressed its poetic sphere. Any list of Surrealist references will emphasize show the relevance of visual arts. This always seemed to be like a failure of the critics because the rejuvenating essence, even in the early 20th century, concerns the image itself and its many angles. Is this one of any number of adulterations to the Surrealist principles, or even they barely recognized the presence of a difference – except in purely technical terms – between imagery and poetics?
JASON ABDELHADI | In terms of the question of surrealist representation by outsiders, I don’t think your framing is entirely true, especially less so now that there are many scholars working in “surrealist poetics” (for good or probably for ill). In fact, a lot of English neo-surrealist and surrealisant journals seem to be based on scholarly theses from Joron etc. which focus almost entirely on written surrealist poems. But I don’t care enough about scholarship, what it thinks or how it perverts as such to want to list off a corrective bibliography. Who cares. Let them wallow. The more interesting part of the question of the image itself, and the moves by various surrealist groups (notably Madrid, followed by others like SLAG and Athens) to critique the naïve use of the image in surrealist attempts. It cannot be a question of just “making pictures” vs “making poems”, but should concern the very idea of imagery across all spectrums. In this sense, I don’t think there’s a poetic difference between “imagery” in an image and in a poem. But that it is certainly possible, and has been attempted, to have poems and images that operate outside the framework of “the image”, in the sense of easily recuperated or pre-mediated media. Do the experiments of game playing, of poetic materialism and “poetry by other means”, or those of surrealist walking, atopos theory etc. succeed in side-stepping the mediated dangers of the image? I think to a large extent they have opened new possibilities for poetic experience that is much less compromised than those espoused by markets. Sometimes the results are genuinely amazing and really different. But there is room to go much further in this direction. To avoid poetic effusions and find ourselves in a real objective poetry, the kind of poetic non-action that has quantitative negative effects on the market itself, as an index, and collective constructions outside it, to its undoing. Untying the noose and simultaneously doing up the shoelace.
MATTIAS FORSHAGE | I find this question very difficult to understand.
The image is surely an important principle in visual art and in poetic writing alike, as most people know. Poetry in the light of surrealism is an activity of the spirit and not a particular form, and is therefore a core in visual creation just as much as in poetic writing.
If visual surrealism has made more impact in society than written poetry of surrealism, this is hardly surprising just given the much wider circulation, much more utilized mass psychology, and much higher market value, of visual images than written poetry. It does not necessarily say anything particular about the relative merits of each form of expression, and it is certainly neither a success nor a failure.
Aldo Pellegrini was a surrealist to a much larger extent than he was a scholar, and he was hardly alone in addressing surrealism in poetic writing from a theoretical viewpoint, or surrealist poetics. Wasn’t its methodology, phenomenology and poetology a crucial topic for Breton, Aragon, Nougé, Tzara? What about Ristic, Cahun, Eluard, Caillois, Teige, Arenas, Gomez-Correa, Césaire? Laaban, Bounoure, Effenberger, Paz? Etc… While still staying with the old guys, that is.
And isn’t it just the formalistic division between poetry-imagery in visual works and written works that makes some people miss the poetics in the thought of Magritte, but also Dalí and many many others? And the fact that thinking about poetry as such necessarily concerns surrealist poetry since the poetic phenomenon is crucial in surrealism, and perhaps the same goes for the imagination, and this is obvious in sympathetic scholars like Bachelard, Blanchot, Alleau (and perhaps slightly less obvious to those educated in conventional cultural canon and its distinctions but nevertheless substantial like Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Barthes and even Deleuze)?
MICHEL REMY | Painting is part of the poetical impulse and the ultimate urge of creation. The image, whether written or painted, is always already NOT the outside reality but at the most elementary level a dovetailing of imagery and poetics.
7 | When they Surrealism first emerged, its social expectations revolved around what then stood as revolutionary actions, in particular what was seated on the propositions of Marx and Freud. Octavio Paz went as far as to declare that the 20th century would be remembered as the century of Freud and Surrealism. By eliminating Marx from his prophecies, he forgot – if it was indeed forgetfulness – that the marked would defeat, to say the least, every revolutionary intent, including the two that the Mexican pointed out. How does one view this in our day and age? Given the market’s virulent absolutism, what happened to the forces unleashed by Freud, Marx and Surrealism?
JASON ABDELHADI | This is an interesting thought: does the “Surrealism” contain Marx already, or is the omission a kind of post-factum removal of Marx from surrealism? But this seems to be a question about the present state of the world. In 2018, it’s probably no stretch to say that all three terms have had a resounding come-back, beyond the surrealist movement itself, and into popular discourse. Marxist thinking has had a major resurgence since the 2008 crisis and the current global instability is only furthering his re-appraisal, well beyond traditional activist circles and into the popular imagination. Coming from this, to give one example, we have the major popularity of not just Freudian but Freudo-Marxist-Hegelian theorists like Slavoj Žižek who are big celebrities now. This is correlated to a similar rise in neofascist mythology, which is derivative and which draws its lifeblood from the failures of the emancipatory imagined communities. As for surrealism, the term is flourishing: the word “surreal” was chosen by Merriam-Webster as the word of the year for 2017. While the extent to which these touch on real problems of surrealist inquiry or are just popular window dressing can be debated, there is certainly no denying that all three forces as cultural rallying points are back on the menu. In that sense, Paz was gazing nostalgically back from a future, a Fukuyama-esque 21st century he projected himself into, past the end of history, and not our timeline, where history is getting her revenge. The market, absolutist though it may be, is running out of space to grow; its apologists and defenders, its destroyers and undertakers, everybody seems to be coming out to play, to see what happens next. If we get something worse than the present, which is a huge possibility, the triple threat sandwich (Marx, Surrealism, Freud) will become more relevant in the degree to which antagonisms sharpen and resolutions are postponed onto the future. Even in a total apocalypse they would have plenty of fodder to keep up their critique. Surrealism itself may be underground, but is only in the realization of a surrealist future, whatever the hell that is, that the above three forces could have absolutely nothing further to say (aka the “greater movement” into which surrealism is absorbed).
MATTIAS FORSHAGE | This is probably in essence a big and often repeated question, smaller aspects of which have been discussed at length in various connections.
Very often the intent has been to claim that society has changed so fundamentally during the 20th century and thereby for some reason legitimize a withdrawal from any revolutionary ambitions of surrealism - or, even more stupidly, to claim that surrealism’s ambitions have actually been realized in society through the incorporation of disembodied fragments from surrealism and the historical admittance of surrealism into the cultural canon (along with psychoanalysis, modern art, relativity and quantum theory, and various expressions of the extreme in popular culture as well as ”fine” culture).
So is it a quote of Paz or a paraphrase? It’s not particularly interesting, and I don’t necessarily care which. If he actually said so it might be considered trivially symptomatic of the sentimentality and half-senility of a reconciliant ex-activist. If it was back in his identying the major ruptures of the 20th century, then indeed Marx’s thought would be excluded for having been launched in the 19th, and is not necessarily symptomatic of anything at all. Neither such a statement nor any vague invocation of nostalgia for the spirit of revolt and social uprising will challenge the inherent sense of revolt in surrealism, which will continue to seek new applications, new alliances and new forms.
MICHEL REMY | The forces unleashed by Freud, Marx and Surrealism have been pushed aside, stifled, prevented from voicing themeselves. But it does not seem that they have been liquidated. They wotk deeply, subterraneanly, with resurgences here and there. The incredible number of surrealist groups appearing in the world and as far as one can see, committed to the permanent spirit of surrealism, testifies to the unstoppable expression and the strength and powerful output of poetry and plastic works (Portugal, Brazil, Chili, Wales…)
EDIÇÃO COMEMORATIVA | CENTENÁRIO DO SURREALISMO 1919-2019
Artista convidada: Marcelle Ferron (Canadá, 1924- 2001)
Agulha Revista de Cultura
20 ANOS O MUNDO CONOSCO
Número 139 | Agosto de 2019
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