PRINT September 1966

Surrealist Theory and Practice in France and America

TOO MUCH, I THINK, has been made of Breton’s early psychiatric training, which was casual at best, but there is no doubt that it had its effect, and that a very large part of the energies of early Surrealism went into psychic—rather than psychiatric or even psychological—research of a quasi-scientific sort: it was a matter of a deliberate, although not systematic, exploration of the unconscious. The question is. Why the need for this exploration, and the answer is because the Surrealists hoped—we shall see whether realistically or not—it would produce a revolution of such proportions as to transform mankind. The revolutionary aspect, of course, is nothing new—Dada had been as iconoclastic as one could wish. But merely to destroy old values was for the Surrealists not enough; their aim was to replace them with something more positive, and it was to achieve this that they practiced “pure psychic automatism” and exploited the results of coincidence and chance. In this way, one would move from the negative revolution of Dada to a more affirmative one in which man himself was changed, freed from the constraint and servitude of an industrial and bourgeois order and made to see how full and free he really was, how rich in resources and possibilities.

Now, obviously, among the areas in which one must act to achieve this purpose were society and politics, since one could not transform mankind without acting on the milieu which imprisoned it. In my opinion, this aspect of the movement has been seriously neglected, for it was a fact that the development of Surrealism in other respects was paralleled at every step by a series of socio-political developments, and even that the out-come of the latter guided the direction in which the movement evolved. It was from a recognition of this fact that Breton was to write, in the mid-twenties, that those aspects of Surrealism which concerned the imagination would be useful and authentic only if they helped “change the conditions of life,” and that "We are not Utopians: the Revolution we seek is only conceivable as a social phenomenon”—all this à propos of the war in Morocco. One can think of any number of parallels with what was to happen in this country ten years later, and no doubt that was why the terrain was so well prepared when, after the start of the War, some of the Surrealists took refuge here.

But even at the outset these attempts were equivocal, if not almost hypocritical, and the failures to which they led determined the future of the movement. In the thirties there was the secession of Aragon after his return from the Karkhov Congress and his outright conversion to Communism, and while this might be considered a private affair its roots go much deeper. They were already exposed in the twenties in the abortive uni on of the Surrealists with the Marxists, who published the two magazines Clarté and Grand Jeu, and above all in the departure of Pierre Naville, at that time by far the most lucid theorist of the entire group. In leaving, Naville summed up the issue with his usual clarity: it was a choice between the “refusal to compromise one’s own existence and the sacredness of individualism by an effort involving the disciplined action of class struggle” on the one hand, and on the other “a revolutionary path, the only revolutionary path, the Marxist path (which) involves the awareness that spiritual strength . . . is ineradicably rooted in a social reality that it presupposes.” To all this, Breton could only comment that “we all would like to see the reins of power pass from the hands of the bourgeoisie to those of the proletariat,” leaving one free to infer that while they might like to see it they were not about to act to bring it about, an inference that was reinforced by the following phrase: “Meanwhile, we feel it as necessary as ever to continue our experiments with psychic phenomena.” In plainer terms, the revelation could wait, and in the last analysis, “We have nothing to gain by taking our stand in the political arena: in remaining above it we are all.the better able to serve the cause of the Revolution by recalling first principles.” Even Aragon, at this period, insisted, in his Traité du Style, that one could say something with out in conscience having to put one’s words into deeds; and this equivocation, hesitancy and, at the final break with the Communist Party, refusal, was to change Surrealism from a movement of revolution to an artistic movement that simply continued Romanticism and its off shoots, with all the gratuitousness that such a development implies. What was happening, then, is what happened in the United States ten years later, when an authentically artistic Left, of which the art and the politics were inseparable, failed to develop. This failure in America coincided first with the introduction of Surrealist art, then with the arrival of a certain number of Surrealists them selves; and this coincidence goes as far to explain the receptiveness to Surrealist techniques of the leftist artistic milieux of the late thirties, as it did to condition their work by making it, in sum, not hing but art.

Here again what happened in France led directly into what was to happen in America, for as its attempt to find an effective social persona failed, French Surrealism was more and more driven into a kind of art for art’s sake that lent it self very well to the much more abstract nature that Surrealist painting was to have in this country as the formal values took command. For there was only so much one could do with the “pure psychic automatism” with which Surrealist “literature”—they would not even have accepted the word at that time—began. The purely circumstantial works of the ”exquisite corpses,“ those collective, improvised creations which anticipate in writing what the ” happening" was later to be in a more theatrical vein, could not be made into something more durable than they were without negating their spontaneity. The free association of such early texts as Breton’s Poisson Soluble could at the best be repeated, but surely not gone beyond.

There was one further development, and a very crucial and profound one, but it shows the increasing estheticism of the movement. It began with the “objective chance” of Breton’s Nadja and then, under the influence of Dalí’s notion of “critical paranoia,” was to reach a point of perfection in Breton’s Les Vases Communicants and L’Amour Fou. What Breton had noticed in Nadja was the extraordinary way in which one person’s inner life happened to coincide with another’s, which, for him, was of course a part of objective reality: the subject seems by chance to harmonize with an object external to it, as when Nadja would use a favorite expression of Breton’s without knowing when she did so that it was so characteristic of him. But already in Nadja there were other coincidences that seemed to point further than mere chance, to a deeper unity of inner and outer: for example, the way in which Breton would happen to run in to Nadja not only by chance, without any appointment, but when, indeed because, he was thinking of her: in this way a dream can come true.

What this led to was something much less passive, more purposeful than the original notion of the Surrealist as simply an appareil enregistreur, a “recording device” on which the voices of the unconscious were transcribed as they rose up following their own laws. For the so-called “critical paranoia” that Dalí developed as a means of creation is an active thing: the creator, like the paranoid, bends external reality to his own wi ll, and in addition imposes this volition on others. As Breton saw, this is no longer the original Surrealist passivity, the “availability” to whatever unconscious forces happen to solicit one; the creator was now “at opposite poles from the mere reproduction involved in automatism and the use of dreams.” It is a “form of interpretation,” and this “active element” imposes on an “external occasion an internal goal.” The two—external and internal, waking and dream—become vases communicants indeed, and what connects them is a “common denominator situated in the spirit of man and which is nothing other than his desire”—the desire that makes Nadja appear like a genii when Breton wishes she were there, the desire that, “since the outset, has been the Alp ha and Omega of the Surrealist creed.” what has been reached, in other words, is something willed and conscious—an artifact, and it is from this time on (the mid-thirties) that one can properly speak of Surrealist art. The development is almost inevitable when one retreats from a commitment to social action: as Breton had already noted with great profundity, “Where skepticism and poetry meet, there literature lies in wait to spring on its man”; and a socio-political commitment would have been the proof that the liberalist or bien-pensant skepticism had been surmounted and the gratuitousness of poetry subordinated. After all, this is nothing new: it had already occurred in the 19th century when, after the failure of the revolution of 1848, various “art for art’s sake” movements ranging from the “realism” of Flaubert to the “symbolism” of Mallarmé came into being, all equally characterized by an obsessive and basically escapist concern with le mot juste, with pure craft.

What resulted in this country, then, was a variety of things, none of them salutary, although none altogether with out its logic in the circumstances. First, as Surrealism had been divorced from social action, so those American artists who came under its influence were cut off from their immediate past and their work as artists and members of society in the thirties; and this kind of rootlessness has led to the absurdly accelerated change and succession of styles we have seen ever since. Secondly, the orientation toward art for art’s sake brought about a concern with purely formal problems for which hardly an artist in this country was then prepared—we were that provincial! Thirdly, although what they had to deal with were formal problems the Americans found that Surrealist estheticism had little to offer in the way of formal solutions: Surrealist space and Surrealist color are simply illusionistic, not to say retrograde, and I think it has to be faced up to that the movement’s contribution in the purely pictorial realm is, at bottom, nil. Rather, its contribution was in a massive infusion of eroticism into imagery, as a consequence of its doctrines of “objective chance” and “critical paranoia”; but not hing in the American cultural tradition encouraged or even permitted the transplanting of this eroticism into American soil.

All that could be translated was the kind of Romantic egocentricity that, as we have seen, Pierre Naville put his finger on back in the twenties. And indeed, American artists were in this respect thrown back on the Surrealism of an earlier period than that at which they came to know the movement: they adopted the apolitical attitude of late Surrealism, but of its esthetic doctrines they had to take only the early one based on automatism; and this, deprived of its erotic content, whether latent or explicit, became largely an affair of muscular exercise, as in Pollock’s drips. And its lack of emotional content was compounded by another factor that we have already mentioned, the failure of Surrealism to develop a formal vocabulary of its own. Without it, and with out a native one of any actuality, the Americans had to turn to all that was left, namely Cubism and its more abstract, intellectual offshoots, and what emerged was that odd kind of work which is at once impetuous and cerebral. It might be predominantly linear, as with Pollock or Lichtenstein, largely planar as with de Kooning or Rosenquist, or somewhere in between, as with Gorky or Kline. In any event there was pictorially the same shallow, Cubist space, not the deeper, illusionistic, Surrealist one; and, in sensibility, the same contradiction between spontaneity and intellectualism. There might, of course, be only objects, as with the early Johns; but when, with the passage of time, the formal problems implicit in these objects came to the fore, the formal vocabulary that was sought to cope with them was once again—and, as we have seen, necessarily—Cubist: Johns’ work of the last few years is really a kind of sloppy reworking of Schwitters. For in the light of the intern al contradictions and failures that the development of Surrealism involved, all of which were exacerbated when it reached these shores, one is not surprised that its impetus pushed artists down a blind alley, and that solutions are now being sought in traditions that were unaffected by, or prior to, Surrealism.

Jerrold Lanes