The Spectral Attitudes

kim3b855c_toyen_1
Toyen-Fardee pour apparaitre 1962

I previously posted The Pope of Surrealism, Andre Breton’s poem Free Union which is just one of many outstanding Surrealist poems that he produced in his long career. The Spectral Attitudes is from 1926, two years after the publication of First Manifesto of Surrealism. I have chosen a particularly unnerving spectral image by the wonderful Toyen, (see At the Chateau La Coste and many other posts) one of the most militant and loyal followers of Breton, to accompany the text. Translation is by David Gascoyne, the English poet who saved Salvador Dali from suffocation at International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936.

 

The Spectral Attitudes

I attach no importance to life
I pin not the least of life’s butterflies to importance
I do not matter to life
But the branches of salt the white branches
All the shadow bubbles
And the sea-anemones
Come down and breathe within my thoughts
They come from tears that are not mine
From steps I do not take that are steps twice
And of which the sand remembers the flood-tide
The bars are in the cage
And the birds come down from far above to sing before these bars
A subterranean passage unites all perfumes
A woman pledged herself there one day
This woman became so bright that I could no longer see her
With these eyes which have seen my own self burning
I was then already as old as I am now
And I watched over myself and my thoughts like a night watchman in an immense factory keeping watch alone
The circus always enchants the same tramlines
The plaster figures have lost nothing of their expression
They who bit the smile’s fig
I know of a drapery in a forgotten town
If it pleased me to appear to you wrapped in this drapery
You would think that your end was approaching
Like mine
At last the fountains would understand that you must not say Fountain
The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow
I have a boat detached from all climates
I am dragged along by an ice-pack with teeth of flame
I cut and cleave the wood of this tree that will always be green
A musician is caught up in the strings of his instrument
The skull and crossbones of the time of any childhood story
Goes on board a ship that is as yet its own ghost only
Perhaps there is a hilt to this sword
But already there is a duel in this hilt
During the duel the combatants are unarmed
Death is the least offence
The future never comes

The curtains that have never been raised
Float to the windows of houses that are to be built
The beds made of lilies
Slide beneath the lamps of dew
There will come an evening
The nuggets of light become still underneath the blue moss
The hands that tie and untie the knots of love and of air
Keep all their transparency for those who have eyes to see
They see the palms of hands
The crowns in eyes
But the brazier of crown and palms
Can scarcely be lit in the deepest part of the forest
There where the stags bend their heads to examine the years
Nothing more than a feeble beating is heard
From which sound a thousand louder or softer sounds proceed
And the beating goes on and on
There are dresses that vibrate
And their vibration is in unison with the beating
When I wish to see the faces of those that wear them
A great fog rises from the ground
At the bottom of the steeples behind the most elegant reservoirs of life and of wealth
In the gorges which hide themselves between two mountains
On the sea at the hour when the sun cools down
Those who make signs to me are separated by stars
And yet the carriage overturned at full speed
Carries as far as my last hesitation
That awaits me down there in the town where the statues of bronze
and of stone have changed places with statues of wax Banyans banyans.

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50 thoughts on “The Spectral Attitudes

  1. What a tremendous array of seemingly unrelated images. Is that the point of it? Is the Surrealist poem characteristically disconnected or perhaps I’m just missing the connection among all the vignettes he describes. The painting you chose is amazing. Spectral indeed. The foxes forming a ‘stole’ for the phantom woman. Fabulous!

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      1. There are 8 or 9 distinct parts. Each of them seeming to be an entity unto themselves. Finding the thread that runs through the whole thing is escaping me. That however, doesn’t prevent me from enjoying and contemplating it. Much of the imagery is indeed beautiful. And I love the part about drapery and the subsequent part about curtains.

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      2. I think it is best to see it as several dreams meshed together and it’s like waking up, you know it meant something but it elides you in broad daylight. That could be a cope out but probably the best light in how to see it.

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      1. That’s the bauty of surrealism: it allows the art work to penetrate each one of us and encourages us to give free rein to our thoughts and interpretations. It’s the what if of the art world, versus the this is what it is …

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  2. Mr. Cake, Breton’s poem, “The Spectral Attitudes” is marvelous, and I’m not just saying that. It does require several readings, at least for me. It’s as if the narrator is sending out an invitation, “Come down and breathe within my thoughts”, becoming a channel and opening up for guests, this is my very brief interpretation. If my memory is correct Breton used automatic writing, but did he also claim to have other paranormal abilities? Breton’s visual images are amazing, and a huge smile for,

    “Banyans
    banyans.

    I also want to mention the Toyen artwork that you selected, is a bit ghostly, so appropriate. Very enjoyable, a terrific post. ~ Miss Cranes

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All that talk of lovely ghosts reminded me of the poem and that suggested the Toyen’s Cut-Throat Apparition. By this time the automatic sessions were starting to get of hand, especially for Robert Desnos and Rene Crevel. He regularly consulted a medium as well, as mentioned in Nadja. The whole area of the esoteric was of huge interest to the Surrealists as it represented a third way that was neither religion or science. Thank you for your thoughtful comments regarding Breton. As I mentioned to Meg I had missed Toyen so this came to mind.

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      1. Mr. Cake, I find I’m looking at Breton in a new light, thank you for that. It’s an amazing poem on a lot of levels, and I’m delighted that you were missing Toyen. Do you know, did Breton own this one?

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      2. I don’t know actually. They would have been very close at this time. Information regarding this painting is scanty (and you know I search high and low for any information on Toyen) so I cannot give you a definite answer. The paintings of the sixties are all very eerie and spectral. As to Breton, well Michel Houelleberq who would hate everything Breton stands for said about one of his poems that however much he loathed the man he had to admit that the poem was amazing and gorgeous.

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      3. Thank you for the information on the painting. I imagine there were two groups, one that like Breton, and one that did not. To be fair, I think you have to at times separate the man from his work, and enjoy the art for the sake of art.

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      4. Breton had a lot of detractors and they certainly had a point. His insistence on dogmatic purity was too much on occasion. His expulsion of Max Ernst who had been there from the beginning and was always loyal just for accepting a prize was taking things too far. But for all his faults I have a soft spot for him. He stayed true to his beliefs, and he never excused tyrants, unlike a lot of artists and writers of that period.

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  3. What a joy to return to this painting and this poem on New Year’s Eve. Re-reading the comments, I am reminded of Dalí’s saying (again and as always, from memory): “I don’t know what it means, but I know it means something.” My own theory of metaphor is that the metaphor is defined by two (sometimes more) points and rather than settling on one or the other (as in a simile), the mind moves and flickers sub-consciously between the two extremes so that meaning is sensed, but rarely can be grasped or stated in definitive terms. Thus, the marvelous line, “The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow” has, according to my theory of metaphor, four defining points, namely, wolves … clothed … mirrors … snow. Each of these defining points creates an image, a very personal image, in each reader’s mind. The mind moves quickly between each defining point and meaning is lost in the rapid shift from image to image. Quite simply, “the hand cannot grasp it, nor the mind exceed it.” This means we have to return, as readers, to the unconscious level where the metaphors were first created. Then: “when we no longer seek it, it is with us.” This same analytical exercise can be performed for each line of the poem. Warning: Beware what academia does to the already twisted mind.

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