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 posts Redraw the Map, Re-Write History and Re-Invent Reality or Rapa Nui) 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.
In approximately 6 hours and 9 minutes both formats of my collection of 69 inter-related poems and short fictions Motion No. 69 will be available for purchase here. At the present moment only the e-book is available, somewhat ahead of schedule for a change.
Rather like its author, this collection is slim, elegant, charming and darkly attractive. Motion No. 69 shows also that there is truth in advertising after all. A must read for a rainy day on the beach, whether it is a Blue Monday or not.
The connection between Surrealism and magic realism, the narrative genre that first developed in Latin America in the mid twentieth century before becoming popular the world over, has always been hotly disputed. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, one of the giants of magic realism, viewed Surrealism with a great measure of disdain, and other Latin American were suspicious of the European Surrealists exoticising tendencies. However one of the first magic realist novels, El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World), was written by Alejo Carpentierwho was actively involved in the Surrealist Movement in the 1920’s. Mexico was to prove fertile soil for several leading emigre Surrealists, notably Wolfgang Paalen, Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Peret and Remedios Varos. The strongest link however was undoubtedly the other great Argentine writer of the Latin American Boom, Julio Cortazar.
Cortazarwrote a spirited defence of Surrealism in 1949, refuting the constant claims that Surrealism was dead, insisting that on the contrary that it was ‘Un cadaver viviente’ (a living corpse). His 1966 novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) is a landmark in Post-Modernism in its hyper-textuality (take a look at the table of instructions to see all the possible ways to read the novel), which clearly references Andre Breton’s Nadja and the artwork of Marcel Duchamp. Later in the sixties Cortazar would produce two outstanding collage books with almost infinite permutations. The greatest writer of the 21st Century, Roberto Bolano, acknowledged his debt to Cortazar, and indeed to the underground Surrealist current that he kept alive, in his writings and interviews.
Besides such Surrealist experimentation, Cortazar is one of the undoubted masters of the fantastic short story. Below is Axolotl, a Kafkaesque story of a man’s obsession with the Axolotl, the Mexican salamander, who with their Aztec faces, devour with their eyes in a cannibalism of gold.
Included as a bonus is The Veils song Axolotl. Not sure if they are familiar with the story, but it was featured on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return recently and that is enough objective chance for me.
There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.
I got to them by chance one spring morning when Paris was spreading its peacock tail after a slow wintertime. I was heading down tbe boulevard Port-Royal, then I took Saint-Marcel and L’Hôpital and saw green among all that grey and remembered the lions. I was friend of the lions and panthers, but had never gone into the dark, humid building that was the aquarium. I left my bike against tbe gratings and went to look at the tulips. The lions were sad and ugly and my panther was asleep. I decided on the aquarium, looked obliquely at banal fish until, unexpectedly, I hit it off with the axolotls. I stayed watching them for an hour and left, unable to think of anything else.
In the library at Sainte-Geneviève, I consulted a dictionary and learned that axolotls are the larval stage (provided with gills) of a species of salamander of the genus Ambystoma. That they were Mexican I knew already by looking at them and their little pink Aztec faces and the placard at the top of the tank. I read that specimens of them had been found in Africa capable of living on dry land during the periods of drought, and continuing their life under water when the rainy season came. I found their Spanish name, ajolote, and the mention that they were edible, and that their oil was used (no longer used, it said ) like cod-liver oil.
I didn’t care to look up any of the specialized works, but the next day I went back to the Jardin des Plantes. I began to go every morning, morning and aftemoon some days. The aquarium guard smiled perplexedly taking my ticket. I would lean up against the iron bar in front of the tanks and set to watching them. There’s nothing strange in this, because after the first minute I knew that we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together. It had been enough to detain me that first morning in front of the sheet of glass where some bubbles rose through the water. The axolotls huddled on the wretched narrow (only I can know how narrow and wretched) floor of moss and stone in the tank. There were nine specimens, and the majority pressed their heads against the glass, looking with their eyes of gold at whoever came near them. Disconcerted, almost ashamed, I felt it a lewdness to be peering at these silent and immobile figures heaped at the bottom of the tank. Mentally I isolated one, situated on the right and somewhat apart from the others, to study it better. I saw a rosy little body, translucent (I thought of those Chinese figurines of milky glass), looking like a small lizard about six inches long, ending in a fish’s tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our body. Along the back ran a transparent fin which joined with the tail, but what obsessed me was the feet, of the slenderest nicety, ending in tiny fingers with minutely human nails. And then I discovered its eyes, its face. Inexpressive features, with no other trait save the eyes, two orifices, like brooches, wholly of transparent gold, lacking any life but looking, letting themselves be penetrated by my look, which seemed to travel past the golden level and lose itself in a diaphanous interior mystery. A very slender black halo ringed the eye and etched it onto the pink flesh, onto the rosy stone of the head, vaguely triangular, but with curved and triangular sides which gave it a total likeness to a statuette corroded by time. The mouth was masked by the triangular plane of the face, its considerable size would be guessed only in profile; in front a delicate crevice barely slit the lifeless stone. On both sides of the head where the ears should have been, there grew three tiny sprigs, red as coral, a vegetal outgrowth, the gills, I suppose. And they were the only thing quick about it; every ten or fifteen seconds the sprigs pricked up stiffly and again subsided. Once in a while a foot would barely move, I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss. It’s that we don’t enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped—we barely move in any direction and we’re hitting one of the others with our tail or our head—difficulties arise, fights, tiredness. The time feels like it’s less if we stay quietly.
It was their quietness that made me lean toward them fascinated the first time I saw the axolotls. Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility. I knew better later; the gill contraction, the tentative reckoning of the delicate feet on the stones, the abrupt swimming (some of them swim with a simple undulation of the body) proved to me that they were capable of escaping that mineral lethargy in which they spent whole hours. Above all else, their eyes obsessed me. In the standing tanks on either side of them, different fishes showed me the simple stupidity of their handsome eyes so similar to our own. The eyes of the axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing. Glueing my face to the glass (the guard would cough fussily once in a while), I tried to see better those diminutive golden points, that entrance to the infinitely slow and remote world of these rosy creatures. It was useless to tap with one finger on the glass directly in front of their faces; they never gave the least reaction. The golden eyes continued burning with their soft, terrible light; they continued looking at me from an unfathomable depth which made me dizzy.
And nevertheless they were close. I knew it before this, before being an axolotl. I learned it the day I came near them for the first time. The anthropomorphic features of a monkey reveal the reverse of what most people believe, the distance that is traveled from them to us. The absolute lack of similarity between axolotls and human beings proved to me that my recognition was valid, that I was not propping myself up with easy analogies. Only the little hands . . . But an eft, the common newt, has such hands also, and we are not at all alike. I think it was the axolotls’ heads, that triangular pink shape with the tiny eyes of gold. That looked and knew. That laid the claim. They were not animals.
It would seem easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology. I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which did not succeed in revoking a mysterious humanity. I imagined them aware, slaves of their bodies, condemned infinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation. Their blind gaze, the diminutive gold disc without expression and nonetheless terribly shining, went through me like a message: “Save us, save us.” I caught myself mumbling words of advice, conveying childish hopes. They continued to look at me, immobile; from time to time the rosy branches of the gills stiffened. In that instant I felt a muted pain; perhaps they were seeing me, attracting my strength to penetrate into the impenetrable thing of their lives. They were not human beings, but I had found in no animal such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges. I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes. They were larvas, but larva means disguise and also phantom. Behind those Aztec faces, without expression but of an implacable cruelty, what semblance was awaiting its hour?
I was afraid of them. I think that had it not been for feeling the proximity of other visitors and the guard, I would not have been bold enough to remain alone with them. “You eat them alive with your eyes, hey,” the guard said, laughing; he likely thought I was a little cracked. What he didn’t notice was that it was they devouring me slowly with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold. At any distance from the aquarium, I had only to think of them, it was as though I were being affected from a distance. It got to the point that I was going every day, and at night I thought of them immobile in the darkness, slowly putting a hand out which immediately encountered another. Perhaps their eyes could see in the dead of night, and for them the day continued indefinitely. The eyes of axolotls have no lids.
I know now that there was nothing strange, that that had to occur. Leaning over in front of the tank each morning, the recognition was greater. They were suffering, every fiber of my body reached toward that stifled pain, that stiff torment at the bottom of the tank. They were lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of the axolotls. Not possible that such a terrible expression which was attaining the overthrow of that forced blankness on their stone faces should carry any message other than one of pain, proof of that eternal sentence, of that liquid hell they were undergoing. Hopelessly, I wanted to prove to myself that my own sensibility was projecting a nonexistent consciousness upon the axolotls. They and I knew. So there was nothing strange in what happened. My face was pressed against the glass of the aquarium, my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil. I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know. To realize that was, for the first moment, like the horror of a man buried alive awaking to his fate. Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl and now I knew instantly that no understanding was possible. He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the tank. Recognizlng him, being him himself, I was an axolotl and in my world. The horror began—I learned in the same moment —of believing myself prisoner in the body of an axolotl, metamorphosed into him with my human mind intact, buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures. But that stopped when a foot just grazed my face, when I moved just a little to one side and saw an axolotl next to me who was looking at me, and understood that he knew also, no communication possible, but very clearly. Or I was also in him, or all of us were thinking humanlike, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes looking at the face of the man pressed against the aquarium.
He returned many times, but he comes less often now. Weeks pass without his showing up. I saw him yesterday, he looked at me for a long time and left briskly. It seemed to me that he was not so much interested in us any more, that he was coming out of habit. Since the only thing I do is think, I could think about him a lot. It occurs to me that at the beginning we continued to communicate, that he felt more than ever one with the mystery which was claiming him. But the bridges were broken between him and me, because what was his obsession is now an axolotl, alien to his human life. I think that at the beginning I was capable of returning to him in a certain way—ah, only in a certain way—and of keeping awake his desire to know us better. I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man it’s only because every axolotl thinks like a man inside his rosy stone semblance. I believe that all this succeeded in communicating something to him in those first days, when I was still he. And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he’s making up a story, he’s going to write all this about axolotls.
The great Italian director Federico Fellini noticed Nico when she walked through the set of his most famous film La Dolce Vita and he immediately gave her a small cameo role starring as herself. This seemed to always happen to Nico, she had got her break in modelling by simply standing outside an upscale Berlin department store. With her striking, stunning beauty she was always going to attract attention.
Nico’s life is the stuff of legend and like all legends the exact details are somewhat hazy. She was either born in 1938 or 1943 in either Cologne or Budapest (though it was probably 1938 in Cologne). She started modelling at 16 in Berlin which led to a peripatetic existence that was to continue throughout her life. She spent a large part of the Sixties in New York where she met Andy Warhol and consequently become one of his Superstars, starring in his experimental extravaganzas, most notably Chelsea Girls. Warhol then decided that The Factory house band The Velvet Underground needed a chaunteuse and who better than Nico, the Teutonic Ice Queen with her distinctive husky, heavily accented monotone? The main movers in The Velvet Underground, the singer Lou Reed and the Welsh sound wizard John Cale initially met the suggestion with consternation. Nico was a notoriously capacious and difficult character who was also tone deaf. However she featured on lead vocals on three songs (Femme Fatale, I’ll Be Your Mirror and All Tomorrows Parties) on their ground-breaking and hugely influential debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico.
She left the group to pursue a solo career, however she only started to write her own material at the suggestion of Jim Morrison of The Doors with who she had a particularly intense relationship. After his death she dyed her hair black and started to sport heavy, dark clothes and recorded with the help of John Cale the desolate, wintry The Marble Index in 1969, the first of three albums unmatched in their crushing bleakness. Unsurprisingly there all sold poorly, as Cale remarked ‘you can’t sell suicide,’ and Nico spent the next two decades as the junkie Dietrich. Her addiction was such that hardened drug fiends crossed the road to avoid her.
Nico’s death was spectacularly bathetic. She had finally getting her act together: successfully kicking her heroin habit and re-established relations with her adult son Ari from her relationship with the actor Alain Delon. She was on holiday with Ari in the Balearic island of Ibiza when she announced that she was off to buy some marijuana and on the way fell off her bicycle suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. A taxi driver found her on the hillside and took her to four hospitals before she was admitted. She was misdiagnosed as suffering from sunstroke before dying the next day.
Nico, known as the Moon Goddess and Queen of the Bad Girls was cremated and buried in her mother’s grave in Berlin.