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.
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?
The idle rogue Al the Angle surveys the scene from the window of the 33rd floor apartment of a high-rise in the unfashionable north-eastern suburbs of Agartha where he’d holed up. He searches the horizons, the immediate, the distant, both the approaching and receding, for the event.
Lighting a cigarette he pauses before turning around dramatically to address his small audience.
“Well, fuck me sideways, backwards and every possible other angle, but blow me first, just after we have shared a glass of Kool-Aid Sangria. Though later my doves and darlings, my languid loves, for now I have to share my vision, the revelation at hand, and I need my cherished clan to bear witness because there are massed ranks of Powers, Principles and Intelligences seeking to crush and destroy the Great Work that we have just commenced, at every turn, every corner and from every angle. Of course every fibre of my being is flexing and straining to avoid this eventuality, but they are legion, their ways are not our ways, their procedures are obscure to the minds of man and I am, after it all, only human. So you are my heirs to whom I entrust everything, for the Process must be completed, we will prevail!
“Now hear this.
“Can you hear it?
“Here comes the drums, banging the tune to the end-times.
“It will be a hi-vis, lo-res Ragnarok.
“See the indeterminate warring factions ordering their indiscriminate followers around.
“Whose side are we on?
“Let’s not worry about sides; we have been spoiling for this for the longest time so that vengeance can finally be ours.
“They have taken us for fools for too long, first they say yes, then no, stop then go.
“To which I say enough already with your canting jargon, your cunning linguist stunts, your arrogant argot.
“The lion has awoken and that means war, trouble and more.
“The writing is on every wall for those who have eyes to see.
“For when they say peace and security then the world is lost.
“Can you see what I see?
“A world no longer just numismatic or hypostatic or statistical.
“Time for a change
“Can somebody in the house say yeah?
“But all this is the work of tomorrow, for now let the show start, the games begin. Let’s drink, ball and shout.
“Can I get an amen?”
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.
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.
During the late 1960’s/70’s Dorothea Tanning creating her ‘soft sculptures’, pieces of fabric sewn together to create eerie cuddly toys from hell, resulting in perhaps the final masterpiece of Surrealism, the truly unsettling installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202.
In a seedy hotel room with wallpaper that emanates despair (remember the only thing going on in Tanning’s childhood was the wallpaper), soft but disturbingly visceral bodies burst from the wall or merge with the furniture. Inspired by a song from her childhood about the gangsters moll Kitty Kane who poisoned herself in Room 202 because the walls were talking, I don’t ever want to check-in into that room at the Poppy Hotel. The whole malevolent atmosphere is reminiscent of David Lynch, though Lynch wasn’t to make Eraserhead until 1977.