The lassitude at the journey’s end
More tired now than before we left
Over there thoughts tend towards
The infinite, the eternal, the ineffable,
The sky and sleep, the deep and dreams,
Although we observe fleeting impressions
We cannot see things in their totality
We hear but we cannot comprehend
Once I was briefly mistaken for a native
But I am a true citizen of Nowhere
Resident only of wholly imaginary cities
Shimmered reflections in the mirror
Of the lake surrounded by mountains
An agent dealing in unreal estates,
The pregnant stillness before the flash,
The languid ease of definite uncertainty,
Hovering between three distinct stages
That could in the commotion and confusion
Of false memories and vanishing places
Merge and flow together inseparable.
Everybody loves the limpid sunlight
Causing the motes and angels to dance
But close the blinds, shut out beyond
And in the gloom come over to me,
Maybe we can step into that river again?
The idle rogue Al the Angle surveys the scene from the window of the 33rd floor apartment of a high-rise in the unfashionable north-eastern suburbs of Agartha where he’d holed up. He searches the horizons, the immediate, the distant, both the approaching and receding, for the event.
Lighting a cigarette he pauses before turning around dramatically to address his small audience.
“Well, fuck me sideways, backwards and every possible other angle, but blow me first, just after we have shared a glass of Kool-Aid Sangria. Though later my doves and darlings, my languid loves, for now I have to share my vision, the revelation at hand, and I need my cherished clan to bear witness because there are massed ranks of Powers, Principles and Intelligences seeking to crush and destroy the Great Work that we have just commenced, at every turn, every corner and from every angle. Of course every fibre of my being is flexing and straining to avoid this eventuality, but they are legion, their ways are not our ways, their procedures are obscure to the minds of man and I am, after it all, only human. So you are my heirs to whom I entrust everything, for the Process must be completed, we will prevail!
“Now hear this.
“Can you hear it?
“Here comes the drums, banging the tune to the end-times.
“It will be a hi-vis, lo-res Ragnarok.
“See the indeterminate warring factions ordering their indiscriminate followers around.
“Whose side are we on?
“Let’s not worry about sides; we have been spoiling for this for the longest time so that vengeance can finally be ours.
“They have taken us for fools for too long, first they say yes, then no, stop then go.
“To which I say enough already with your canting jargon, your cunning linguist stunts, your arrogant argot.
“The lion has awoken and that means war, trouble and more.
“The writing is on every wall for those who have eyes to see.
“For when they say peace and security then the world is lost.
“Can you see what I see?
“A world no longer just numismatic or hypostatic or statistical.
“Time for a change
“Can somebody in the house say yeah?
“But all this is the work of tomorrow, for now let the show start, the games begin. Let’s drink, ball and shout.
“Can I get an amen?”
Surrealism had an immeasurable effect upon the 20th and 21st Century novel, witness how the term ‘surreal’ is lazily and inappropriately applied to a wide spectrum of works that contain only a slight element of the fantastic, yet only a handful of novels were written by the Surrealists themselves. Andre Breton, the Pope of Surrealism, was vehemently opposed to the novel as an art form, scorning it as the medium of vain, bourgeois careerists and expelled members for publishing novels on occasion. Regardless of the heresy involved several Surrealists and fellow travellers did produce novels and this is a brief survey of the Surrealist novel with a summation of influences and precedents. I cannot possibly claim that it exhaustive and I am happy to hear about possible omissions. I have taken rather a broad view of what constitutes a novel and more focused view of the term Surrealist, hopefully without being dogmatic, however some limitation of scope needs to be applied otherwise the very word is rendered meaningless. In a further post I will discuss the Surrealist impact upon the novel.
Influences and Precedents
In spite of his disdain for the form Andre Breton heaped lavish praise upon the Gothic novel, in particularly Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. The libertine novels of De Sade can also be viewed as Gothic in a certain light. Another favourite was Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, which served as an important model for the quintessential proto-surrealist work, Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont. This unclassifiable book that hovers between a novel and extended prose poem would have such an impact upon the Surrealists that it is often called the Black Bible of the movement. Another major influence was the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, as it laid down the template of a compelling dream narrative. Closer in time to the Surrealists is Alfred Kubin’s Die andere Seite (The Other Side), a vivid expressionistic nightmare set in the mysterious capital of the Dreamland.
I am sure that Breton would argue that his 1928 text Nadja isn’t a novel, that it is part surrealist narration and part philosophical polemic, but it can be read as a novel of his brief relationship with the title character Nadja, after a chance encounter on a Parisian street. Containing some of his best known quotes including the closing line, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”, Nadja is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Surrealism.
Louis Aragon wrote an early invocation of the pleasures and vicissitudes of psycho-geography in Le Paysan de Paris (Parisian Peasant) and the painter Giorgio de Chirico published his strange and otherworldly novel Hebdomeros in 1929, that features many dislocations in time and space. Although both Georges Bataille and Rene Daumal were frequently at odds with official surrealism, though for differing reasons, they both produced novels that can considered part of the surrealist canon. Bataille’s pornographic Histoire de l’œil (The Story of the Eye) is a work of nightmarish eroticism while Daumal’s Le Mont Analogue. Roman d’aventures alpines, non euclidiennes et symboliquement authentiques (Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing) became a cult favourite in the 1960’s and was the inspiration of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. The dissident Cuban surrealist Alejo Carpentier novel about the Haitian Revolution El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World) greatly influence Latin American magic realism.
Herbert Read was the art critic responsible for introducing Surrealism into Britain and his only novel, The Green Child is an odd but appealing Surrealist fable. Leonora Carrington’sThe Hearing Trumpet is a whimsical delight about the 92 year old Marian Leatherby’s stay in a very strange old peoples home. Ithell Colquhoun’sThe Goose of Hermogenes is an occult romance with some truly bizarre imaginings. Much darker is the hallucinatory Der Mann im Jasmin (The Man of Jasmine) by Unica Zürn describing her mental breakdowns with disquieting exactitude. Lastly there is Dorothea Tanning’s debut novel Chasm, published in 2004, a powerful and poetic work of late, late surrealism.
During the late 1960’s/70’s Dorothea Tanning creating her ‘soft sculptures’, pieces of fabric sewn together to create eerie cuddly toys from hell, resulting in perhaps the final masterpiece of Surrealism, the truly unsettling installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202.
In a seedy hotel room with wallpaper that emanates despair (remember the only thing going on in Tanning’s childhood was the wallpaper), soft but disturbingly visceral bodies burst from the wall or merge with the furniture. Inspired by a song from her childhood about the gangsters moll Kitty Kane who poisoned herself in Room 202 because the walls were talking, I don’t ever want to check-in into that room at the Poppy Hotel. The whole malevolent atmosphere is reminiscent of David Lynch, though Lynch wasn’t to make Eraserhead until 1977.
Andre Breton’s apartment at Rue Fontane, above the strip clubs and clip joints of the Pigalle red light district was by most accounts almost a work of art in its own right. In 2003 the French auctioneers Calmels Cohen put over 5,300 lots under the hammer from Breton’s vast collection of books, manuscripts, works of art and objects at Drouot-Richelieu; the catalogue alone extends to 8 volumes. The sale included 150 items of Oceanic art, the most important being the magnificent Uli statue from Central New Ireland, Papua New Guinea that graced his desk for many years.
Once again it is instructive to look at the Surrealist Map of the World (reference my previous post Redraw the Map, Re-Write History and Re-Invent Reality) to see the importance official Surrealism attached to the islands of the Pacific. In this idealised rendering of how the world should be according to the Surrealists, Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago is centrally located and larger than both Europe and Africa and truly dwarfs Australia.
Central to Papua New Guinea artistic reputation within Surrealist circles were the Uli, ancestor figures used for rites and endowed with immense magical powers. When a chieftain died his skull was buried and a tree planted on top of the burial place. After the tree had matured it was then cut down and the Uli was fashioned from the wood. The Uli are often bearded with protruding jaw and phallus to represent the traditional masculine attributes of strength and protection, while also possessing breasts as the ideal chieftain must maternally nurture and provide. When the Uli wasn’t participating in fertility, initiation and funerary rituals it would be kept in its own special enclosure away from prying eyes.
Breton was very taken with the Uli, naming a beloved Skye terrier Uli and dedicating a poem which I have included below. I have also included photographs for some of the most outstanding examples of this figure that Breton calls Grand Dieu, as well as the Future Sound of London’s seminal dance track Papua New Guinea, the video of which doesn’t include either the Uli or Papua New Guinea much as far as I can see, but does have some magic squares.
Surely you are a great god
I have seen you with my own eyes like no one else has
You are still covered with earth and blood you have just created
You are an old peasant who knows nothing
To recover you have eaten like a pig
You are covered with the stains of man
One sees that you have stuffed yourself to the ears
You listen no more
You leer at us from the bottom of a seashell
Your creation tells you hands up, and you still threaten
You frighten, you astonish.