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.

Unreal Estates

The Fatal Temple-Giorgio De Chirico 1914
The Fatal Temple-Giorgio De Chirico 1914

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?

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.