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
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.
I never looked at you in a sexual way before
But I am now and I’ve got a feeling
That once started I will find this cute
Compulsion near nigh impossible to stop
Now that the scales have fallen
From my eyes and you are transfigured
Into a Valkyrie, an angel, a vamp
An incandescent imago razing
My mind with intuitive intensity
Reducing my chaotic complexity
To a single lust, one driving desire
To possess you so that I can in turn
Be possessed and then engulfed,
No longer thrashing in the shallows,
Diving into the depths, a plaything
Of strong currents, subject to
The ebb and flow of tides
Battered by breakers and waves
Hearing oceanic roar, whale-songs
And the susurration of sighs
Only with you do I want or wish
To turn the petit mort into
An epic grand mal, a seizure to
Pause creation in its tracks.
But after that, what then?
I realise inside that your enigmatic
Wayward essence eludes, escapes
Me still; In my phantasy I have
Turned you into an alluring succubus
But it means nothing unless you
Reciprocate, dream of me,
In the dead of night, as an incubus.
Full of startling and vivid imagery, Andre Breton’s 1931 poem Free Union is one of the finest examples of Surrealist poetry as well as a magnificent and powerful declaration of love. It was a major influence on the Beats, particularly Allen Ginsberg.
A free union is a romantic bond between two or more people without legal, civil or religious regulation.
My wife whose hair is a brush fire Whose thoughts are summer lightning Whose waist is an hourglass Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow Whose tongue is made out of amber and polished glass Whose tongue is a stabbed wafer The tongue of a doll with eyes that open and shut Whose tongue is an incredible stone My wife whose eyelashes are strokes in the handwriting of a child Whose eyebrows are nests of swallows My wife whose temples are the slate of greenhouse roofs With steam on the windows My wife whose shoulders are champagne Are fountains that curl from the heads of dolphins over the ice My wife whose wrists are matches Whose fingers are raffles holding the ace of hearts Whose fingers are fresh cut hay My wife with the armpits of martens and beech fruit And Midsummer Night That are hedges of privet and resting places for sea snails Whose arms are of sea foam and a landlocked sea And a fusion of wheat and a mill Whose legs are spindles In the delicate movements of watches and despair My wife whose calves are sweet with the sap of elders Whose feet are carved initials Keyrings and the feet of steeplejacks My wife whose neck is fine milled barley Whose throat contains the Valley of God And encounters in the bed of the maelstrom My wife whose breasts are of night — And are undersea molehills And crucibles of rubies My wife whose breasts are haunted by the ghosts of dew-moistened roses Whose belly is a fan unfolded in the sunlight Is a giant talon My wife with the back of a bird in vertical flight With a back of quicksilver And bright lights My wife whose nape is of smooth worn stone and white chalk And of a glass slipped through the fingers of someone who has just drunk My wife with the thighs of a skiff That are lustrous and feathered like arrows Stemmed with the light tailbones of a white peacock And imperceptible balance My wife whose rump is sandstone and flax Whose rump is the back of a swan and the spring My wife with the sex of an iris A mine and a platypus With the sex of an alga and old-fashioned candles My wife with the sex of a mirror My wife with eyes full of tears With eyes that are purple armour and a magnetized needle With eyes of savannahs With eyes full of water to drink in prisons My wife with eyes that are forests forever under the axe My wife with eyes that are the equal of water and air and earth and fire
After much consideration,
I have come to the conclusion,
That you are not
Who you say you are.
You have always been here,
Not a visitor seeking shelter
From the winter’s storm,
This is your residence
Right here, with Hell
Just around the bend
In the depth-less sunless valley,
With Heaven just a vague rumour,
A distant, insincere promise:
This gimcrack structure,
Aging and weathered
In urgent need of repair
With its endless corridors
And cracked silvered mirrors
A dull pastiche of infinity,
Home to dismal phantoms,
Downwardly mobile angels,
Degraded coarse Demiurges,
Is your eternal abode
Where you wearily survey
With a monstrous apathy,
The chaos of creation,
The loop da loops of time,
This maze of memories.
I’m sure that there’ll come a time
When I’ll forget exactly…
…Who I’m supposed to be.
You see it’s a matter of quantity,
(Quality no longer enters into it)
All manner of obscure equations,
Metrics of analyzing othering,
With its multiplication of voices
And sub-division of selves;
While the host of personalities
Residing parasitically within
The remote fortress of my mind
Stake their claim,
Plant the flag.
For all the world
And its interlopers to see ;
Then identity will be little more
Than a possession
By outside forces unknown,
Be they alien, spectral or angelic:
But by then I will be passed caring,
For my empty hallucinating eyes
Will focus on the apparition
Hidden behind the revelation
Of the rent and torn veils:
Our glistening bodies glamorous,
All shimmering and stardusted.
At the school where I did anything but study They tried to beat out the boldness Only to encourage my wild and wicked side, So they changed tack and instead talked and talked Attempted to bore me from being bad But it was of no use, they couldn’t avail Because I was born sinister, one of the devil’s own; My sympathy is always for the rogues and rebels, The wanton and the wayward, waifs and strays, Those sweet tarts with sickly gold hearts. Even then my intentions were never honourable But always and forever criminal, amen.
Let me take you down the left hand path, Come on angel and crash with me On the west side with its sinister streets, Lift up your skirt and part those legs Let’s ride through the rippling night I will take you up to where I’m at, Before showing you what’s down below, Under the hill and beneath the deep blue. Then solve et coagula, our reflections Will refract in an avant garde rehearsal Then splinter before a final re-con Figuration on the distant sinister shore.
After, (for there is always an after, the story goes on, there is neither resolution or finality, even death is only a pause, a quick breather in-between, a brief respite, a stage), the unstable reality of Eden Falls had been snuffed out like a candle-flame, the Melancholy Lieutenant had found himself, in a certain sense only because he knew that he was well and truly lost, on the streets of some Northern city in winter. He didn’t look at all out of place though, the avenues and boulevards were crowded with shell-shocked and war-wounded soldiers just returned from some calamitous battle; hungry, cold and bitter their talk was all of sedition, revolution, uprisings and coup d’états.
After the third night of rioting the authorities had cracked down and began to round up suspected trouble-makers and imposed a curfew at nightfall. The Melancholy Lieutenant was caught up in the dragnet and taken to a grim faux Gothic government building that had been converted into a temporary prison to deal with the influx of detainees. He was put inside a small room along with four other morose veterans.
Time passed by slowly, nobody spoke or moved, apart for the times somebody had to relieve themselves in the bucket wedged into the corner. Occasionally a guard would open the door, point toward someone and signal for them to follow. The person never returned to the room, instead a new inmate would take their place.
After three others had left the room with the guard it was his turn. He walked a short distance behind the guard, up narrow stairs and through dusty corridors that contained numerous offices. The guard stopped before a wooden door that had been painted a dim shade of burgundy sometime in the last century and searched through the numerous keys on the ring attached to his belt. He opened the door for the Melancholy Lieutenant and closed it immediately behind him.
He was alone, though he guessed this is where he would be questioned, perhaps interrogated. There were no windows, naturally, and the bare room was devoid of furniture apart from a flimsy trestle table and three rickety looking wooden chairs. The only light source was an old fashioned lamp, without a shade, that rested on the floor. Somehow the dull light emitted seemed to intensify the sombre gloom rather than dispelling it, which was obviously the intention of the police or the secret services or whoever was running the show here.
Though he doubted that a cat could find comfort in this derelict hole he was truly exhausted so he sat himself down in one of the two chairs facing the door. Obviously the single chair facing the wall was where he was meant to sit, but the hell with that. Sleeping with his eyes wide open he waited for his accusers to make their grand entry.
(This is the further adventures of The Melancholy Lieutenant, a recurring figure in my fiction. The previous installments are Eden Falls and X Marks the Spot. To make matters even more confusing these are just part of a larger series of loosely linked experimental surrealistic science fiction noirs starting with Showtime, though there can be read in any order.)
Although I have concentrated on official Surrealism under the leadership of Andre Breton there was another Surrealism: a darker, underground current comprised of renegade and rebel Surrealists that contributed to the magazine Documents under the aegis of the troubling, sinister Georges Bataille.
A librarian and numismatist (a specialist in the study of coins and medals) Bataille in 1928 had written the nightmarish L’histoire de l’oeil (The Story of the Eye), a gruesome work of Surrealist pornography, under the pseudonym Lord Auch (a pun that translates literally as Lord to the Shithouse). In 1929 Bataille launched Documents, a heterodox journal that featured articles on archaeology, ethnography, art, film and popular culture featuring works by dissident Surrealists including Joan Miro, Andre Masson, Michel Leiris and Jacques-Andre Boiffard.
Andre Breton, fearing an intellectual rival from within, issued with his customarily vim and gusto the Second Surrealist Manifesto which purged and excommunicated any Surrealist who showed signs of heresy from official orthodoxy from the movements ranks. In retaliation Bataille issued the provocative pamphlet Un Cadavre (A Corpse) with a photo-montage of Breton wearing a crown of thorns with essays by Robert Desnos, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prevert and Alejo Carpentier among others.
Documents ran for 15 issues between 1929 and 1930. With its idiosyncratic look and melding of high and lows registrars it can be viewed as a very early example of a style magazine. The photography by Jacques-Andre Boiffard and Eli Lotar of mouths, masks, slaughterhouses and big toes, combined with the entries written by Bataille under the title Critical Dictionary retain a disturbing, provocative power.
Bataille and Breton would later be reconciled, however their later exploits will be the subject of a further post in this series on the darker aspects of Surrealism.
I have included a short entry on Man from the Critical Dictionary, which gives a taste of Bataille thought-provoking theory of ‘base materialism’. Also included are photographs from the slaughterhouse and big toe articles.
MAN. — 1. “An eminent English chemist, Dr Charles Henry Maye, set out to establish in a precise manner what man is made of and what is its chemical value. This is the result of his learned researches:
“The bodily fat of a normally constituted man would suffice to manufacture seven cakes of toilet-soap. Enough iron is found in the organism to make a medium-sized nail, and sugar to sweeten a cup of coffee. the phosphorus would provide 2,200 matches. The magnesium would furnish the light needed to take a photograph. In addition, a little potassium and sulphur, but in an unusable quantity.
“These different raw materials, costed at current prices, represent an approximate sum of 25 francs.” (Journal des Debats, 13 August 1929).
Max Ernst’s 1932 collage Le Facteur Cheval is a homage to the extraordinary creator of the Ideal Palace, that marvellous folly that the Surrealists so loved: Ferdinand Cheval.
Born in 1836 in the Drome departement of France, approximately 30 miles south of Lyon, Ferdinand Cheval left school at 13 with an apprenticeship to a baker, however he eventually became a postman. One day in 1879 while doing his 18 mile round in the small village of Hauterives where he lived, Cheval in his haste stumbled over a stone. Stopping to examine the cause of his trip, Cheval was stuck by the strange shape and beauty of the stone and it reminded him of a dream that he had fifteen years previously and which he had almost forgotten. In the dream, which he found hard to express in words, he had built a palace or castle or caves. He had told nobody about this dream for fear of ridicule, it felt ridiculous to himself. However the stone had brought back the dream and he put it into his pocket to examine at leisure.
The next day he returned to where he found the stone and to his delight he found many more stones even stranger and more beautiful than the cause of his near fall. Cheval said that the stones “represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature. I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.”
For the next thirty-three years Cheval built his Ideal Palace, pushing a wheelbarrow on his postal rounds to carry all the stones he collected. He frequently worked late into the night with the aid of a oil lamp, binding the stones together with lime, mortar and cement. The images of exotic locales that he saw on the postcards and illustrated magazines he delivered on his route inspired his imagination and found expression in the eclectic mix of architecture of the Ideal Palace, where Hindu Temple, Arabic Mosque and Swiss Chalet (among others) styles somehow form a unified whole.
Cheval, as he feared, was scorned by the local community, and his visionary Ideal Palace was derided as the work of a madman. This changed however when the project was featured in national newspapers and tourists started visiting. In 1905 a tourist register was opened. Cheval declared the Ideal Palace finished in 1912 and inscribed on the building ,”The work of one man.” He also stated his desire to be buried underneath the Ideal Palace.
Although Cheval comes across as a charming eccentric he was obviously a man of dogged determination, so when he learnt that French law strictly forbade his burial upon the grounds of the Ideal Palace, he set about building his own mausoleum, at the age of eighty. He spent the next seven years building another fantastical and beautiful structure. One year after its completion Ferdinand Cheval died and was buried in the mausoleum that he had constructed.
As well as the Surrealists, who would often embark on pilgrimage to a site which they considered to be a monument to naive art and the transformative powers of the imagination, the Ideal Palace was much admired by Picasso and Anais Nin, who published an essay on Cheval. In 1969 the Minister of Culture, the novelist Andre Malraux declared the Ideal Palace a cultural landmark and later in 1986 the Facteur Cheval was featured on his own postage stamp: a touching and luminous irony.
Today the Palais Ideal Du Facteur Cheval Monument Historique receives 120,000 visitors yearly and is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Art Brut/outsider art in the world.
From 1870 to the turn of the century the French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon worked almost exclusively in the medium of charcoal drawing and lithographs. Redon called this extraordinary body of work his noirs. Throughout his career Redon’s expressed intent was to place ‘the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible’, an aesthetic doctrine that strongly resonated with the Surrealists. Straddling that perilous hinterland between dream, hallucination and otherworldly visions, the noirs present a haunting, nocturnal world that is forever sliding into nightmare.
It was the publication of the bible of Decadence A Rebours by JK Huysmans in 1884 that Redon found fame. The archetypal world-weary Decadent Des Esseintes collects and describes in great detail Redon’s lithographs. After 1900 Redon turned to pastels and oils in paintings that reflected his interest in Buddhism and Japanese art and that became increasingly abstract in his latter years.