Mirror Images

mirror broken

(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four illustrations by Susanne Rempt).

All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realised that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence.  It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All that was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.

Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples)voodoo mirror

are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’

In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon the artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.mirror hand

One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’

However, for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. _20180102_164940 (1)Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.

Sens-Plastique

Malcolm de Chazal
Malcolm de Chazal

Born into a wealthy colonial  family with roots in the French aristocracy and which included several Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians, the writer, painter and visionary Malcolm De Chazal (1902-1981) spent his whole life on the island of Mauritius, with the exception of six years in Baton Rouge, where he completed his secondary education before attending Louisiana State University as an engineering student. Upon his return to the island he worked as an agronomist in the sugar plantations before quitting the field after he published a scathing critique on the methods and economy of the industry. He then worked as a civil servant before retiring at the age of 55. From 1940 however he increasingly dedicated himself to writing and later painting.

His most famous work is Sens-Plastique, a collection of thousands of aphorisms. The work was suggested after a visionary encounter with an azalea. While out for a walk, de Chazal observed the flower and then realised that the azalea was looking at him. He was then struck with the revelation that: “I became a flower while being myself all the time“, and that everything in the universe, be it animal, vegetable, mineral or human, was analogous. The aphorisms is Sens-Plastique are a riot of poetic analogy and concrete, visual metaphor.  It was hailed by the Surrealists; Andre Breton, Jean Paulhan, Georges Bataille and the originator of the term Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet all lauded de Chazal as a genius. Outside of French artistic circles the poet W.H Auden also championed Sens-Plastique.

In the 1950’s De Chazal took up painting at the suggestion of Georges Braque. His paintings are charmingly emblematic images of the landscape, flora and fauna of his beloved island home, the bold colours blazing with a visionary intensity.

An early supporter of Mauritian independence and the dismantling of a racial caste system that allowed vast inequalities to exist, de Chazal also wrote a ‘spiritual history’ of the rocks and mountains of the island. He became increasingly reclusive in his later years

Below are a selection of aphorisms from Sens-Plastique and a slideshow of his fauvist flavoured paintings.

Sens-Plastique

A fish in fear of its life turns into water. In the mutual pursuit of sexual pleasure—the fear of joy and the joy of fear—our bodies liquefy each other in the waters of the soul, becoming so spiritual that hardly any corporal self is left. When we wake up after love, we look around desperately for our lost body.

If our five senses didn’t serve as brakes to slow us down and filter our sensations, sexual pleasure would strike us like lightning and electrocute our souls.

We see a friend’s eye as one and indivisible. A stranger’s eye we take in part by part: the white, the iris, and the pupil.

Silence is a lawyer who pleads with his eyes.

A flowing river is an infinity of superimposed production belts.

The sunflower keeps its eye on the sun with its back turned to the shade. We die facing life with our backs to death, as if we were walking out of a room backwards.

Petals are a plant’s eardrum. Distant sounds make them quiver like the needle of a seismograph.

The kiss ends at the point of a needle. Sex ends fanning out. The kiss is an arrow. Sex is a fountain.

All the colours ‘rot’ in maroon, the rust of all rusts, the putrefying corpse of all dead colours, the sun’s humus, earth-color, resurrection’s winding-sheet, the shroud of life itself, the mound of eternity, the tomb of Light, Eternity’s burial vault.

Look too intensely at blue and your eye sees indigo. Look too intensely at red and you see garnet. If you look too intensely at yellow it turns green. A hypnotic stare injects blue into everything.

Water meanders on a completely smooth surface and toboggans down the glossiness of leaves.

The idealist walks on tiptoe, the materialist on his heels.

Ah is the shortest of human cries, Oh the longest. Man is born in an Ah and dies in an Oh, for birth is immediate and death is like an airplane taking off.

I am the owner of my shoulders, the tenant of my hips.

No matter how much leaves are fixed face to face they always look at each other aslant, whereas all fruits end up head-on however carelessly jumbled. A bunch of flowers is a house of coloured cards. A heap of fruit is a hive of coloured bees.

The flower has no weekday self, dressed as it always is in Sunday clothes.

The light would reach us more quickly in the morning and fade more slowly at night if the whole earth were divided into vast flower beds that called forth the light at dawn and clutched it longer at nightfall. Nature instituted summer for flowers long before man took summer over for his own uses.

To ‘hang on every word’ means to suck the eyes of the speaker.

The diamond scintillates less brilliantly when the fingers move rapidly than when they undulate and pivot. Glossy leaves throw off less light in a high wind than under the calm wavering of a breeze. Brusque movements of the eye cast a single gleam, and slow movements add a thousand others.

from Sens-Plastique

Malcolm de Chazal 1947

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Convulsive Beauty

The Lovers' Flower-From Nadja 1928-Leona Delcourt
The Lovers’ Flower-From Nadja 1928-Leona Delcourt

Andre Breton had ended Nadja with the bold statement that: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” In L’Amour Fou (Mad Love) from 1937 he further expands on the theme with the declaration: “Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial, or won’t be at all.” Accompanying the text are three photographs illustrating the types of convulsive beauty: Man Ray‘s Veiled-Erotic, a stunning nude study of the Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, Fixed-Explosive also by Man Ray and Brassai‘s strange Magic-Circumstantial. All the images had previously appeared in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure.

A Brief Survey of the Surrealist Novel

1928 Cover of Nadja-Andre Breton
1928 Cover of Nadja-Andre Breton

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.

Surrealist Novels

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’s The Hearing Trumpet is a whimsical delight about the 92 year old Marian Leatherby’s stay in a very strange old peoples home.  Ithell Colquhoun’s The 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.

 

Blind Date

Dorothea Tanning-Children's Games 1942
Dorothea Tanning-Children’s Games 1942

The multi-talented Dorothea Tanning is primarily known for her paintings and sculpture, however she was also an excellent poet and writer. Below is a piece first published in 1943 in the American Surrealist magazine VVV.

Blind Date

It must have been a very bleak winter that year.  I have no recollection of the weather, only the marvellous and relentless order in which everything occurred.  It was the time that the sewing machine broke loose; nothing could have been more inopportune or diabolically calculated-the leaves had been carefully gathered and stored and now they were to be sewn together. They were particularly good leaves, I remember, sere and thin, each with the track of the snail on its under side, exactly the kind of leaf for a birthday. And now the sewing machine had gone, fled without a word of warning. Chagrined, unnerved, and with an inexplicable feeling of portent, it was I who set out in hopeless search. The month was November but the day had no date.

You, casket of the terrible jewel, cove of the silent finless fish, empty socket of the absent eye, today you shall encounter your mirrored image unaware. But you must know that at the moment of occurrence you shall be absorbed utterly, utterly and finally. Speak not of will. Your will is a frail delusion. Once confronted by the image you are like a beam which is projected and withdrawn by the flame. If it is the true, the inconceivable image, then the veil is irreparably rent, and you have achieved the incomparable.

Rain, a gray steady soaking rain. And this demoniacal wind! It heaves and subsides, raves, moans and vomits and then, remembering something, screams. We meet in the street, in a block of elegantly respectable residences, houses inspired by Beckford and those inconsequential romantics who built “ruins” of brownstone and golden oak. And in this flange of dreary facades is one drearier than the rest, because it is the most idiotic in design and because it is abandoned. The rain beats at our raincoats, trickles down between our breasts and up between our toes, and we run up the curving flight of abandoned steps. Here is not simply a momentary shelter, for the door swings open and we are upon the threshold.

Approach, my child, my diabolical daughter of the veiled eye. Reach into that cunning reticule of yours, give me the onerous instrument. You open your eyes so wide, your eyes with the veil lying on them? Do you pretend you have not disposed of the beautiful beloved, the beautiful ones and the dull? Draw nearer, my child of the fateful mouth . . . .

We push our way through a tangled paludine growth which is rooted in the sweating ceiling of the foyer. The rooms are bare, the doors ajar. The silence breathes on our faces, draws blood from our ears and I am aware of a numbing melancholy, that wide featureless melancholy that includes everything and explains nothing. Hand in hand, then, (because that is how such things are done) we traverse the silent empty rooms and, nearing the end, we encounter a sleeping gray-faced man in a panama hat. He is a little like Sasha Guitry, the same bloated look, the same gash for a mouth, the same watch-chain, only instead of the soft belly he has embedded just under his diaphragm, an aquarium.   It is filled with a thick slime, pale yellow, in which writhes our runaway sewing machine. Quickly, I thrust my hand into the warm ooze and withdraw the gasping object.

“Listen to me; have I not already told you what to do here?” says the gray-faced man, waking up “How extraordinary!”

Without further hesitance I reach into my robe for the beautiful shining implement and, with one hand, perform my inevitable task. A final glance at the tangled heap of vine-twisted human wreckage and I perceive that I am now completely and finally alone. That is as it should be. Too late now for the leaves; they have shrivelled and ignited. There will be no sewing now, for the landscape is laid waste, burnt to a cinder, cratered and truncated as far as they eye can see.

Woman, when you lie with the cat who grins obscenely, the red-eyed dog with the hairless human arms, when you gaze with your veiled eyes at the many-armed calamary and helplessly desire him, when you swoon at the thought of the exquisite wound carved in the light of a phosphorous moon, do you then imagine you are sleeping? Is it possible each night to embark on that motionless viscious lake, to roam the interstices of that melancholy, monster-ridden park and still refuse to accept the name that guides your steps? Beware the sickly nobility of conscious will! Beware, my hard-eyed hard-eyed daughter, of the definitive hypodermic!

Arriving at the last room, I feel no pain.  The white tossing foam of my sensations covers and intoxicates me like some inexhaustible nepenthe. (How innocent is black as compared to that arch-color, white!) I see, calmly now, that the trap is set. The paralytic moment has come and I am to lose my castle or my king. But, as always in this precious instance, there is no choice. I am one vast fiery wound, closed and healed with a hardness impossible to the untouched. There is only a marvellous kind of synaesthesic awareness that the wallpaper is singing to me. And this is the song of the wallpaper.

Stitch the leaves then, stitch them carefully and with regard for the isolated time-beat.  Tremble a little upon the threshold. One feigned tremor flung magnanimously to that enormous sloth which is legion.  Today you have been born, out of abysmal sorrow and knowledge, out of warnings, wounds, pestilence, obscene, spasms, defilements; out of hates, and holocausts, guts and gothic grandeurs, frenzy, crimes, visions, scorpions, secretions, love and the devil.  Today you shall be married to your future.

Dorothea Tanning 1943