Vol. 30, Nos. 1 & 2, 2008
Robert McNab. Ghost Ships: A Surrealist Love Triangle. Yale University
Press 2004. 266 pp. $40.00
Paul Eluard. Capital of Pain. Translated by Mary Ann Caws, Patricia Terry,
and Nancy Kline. Black Widow Press 2006. 290 pp. $19.95 (paper)
Max Ernst: A Retrospective. Edited by Werner Spies and Sabine Rewald.
Yale University Press/Metropolitan Museum of Art 2005. 319 pp. $65.00
Dalí. Curated by Dawn Ades and Michael R. Taylor, with the assistance
of Montse Aguer. Rizzoli/Philadelphia Museum of Art 2004. 607 pp.
Guillaume Apollinaire. The Self-Dismembered Man: Selected Later Poems.
Translated by Donald Revell. Wesleyan University Press 2004. 141 pp.
Conductors of the Pit. Edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman. Soft
Skull Press 2005. 242 pp. $15.95 (paper)
Robert Desnos. The Voice of Robert Desnos: Selected Poems. Translated by
William Kulik. The Sheep Meadow Press 2004. 184 pp. $13.95 (paper)
Robert Short, et al. The Age of Gold: Surrealist Cinema. Creation Books
2003. 188 pp. $17.95 (paper)
1. Gala Evenings
On the 24th of March 1924, the French poet Eugène-Paul Grindel, only slightly better known to the world as Paul Eluard, stood up from a café table to buy matches and failed to return. For the next six months, his nearest and dearest would be left to wonder about his fate, their only clue a pneumatique Eluard had dispatched to his father threatening death to anyone who came after him. Eluard’s journey took him south to Marseilles, then by various steamers to Holland, Martinique, Tahiti, Java, New Guinea, New Zealand, Singapore, and Saigon, from where he would finally return to France in September. His friends, meanwhile, including the soon-to-be Surrealists André Breton and Louis Aragon, without even knowing to which latitudes Eluard had vanished, lost no time in reading his histrionic gesture as a modern-day reenactment of Rimbaud’s drop-out to Ethiopia some fifty years earlier.
In sailing to Indochina, Eluard was not, however, striking out as a gunrunner in an update of Rimbaud’s mythic change of life, but simply taking a break from a very real, in some ways very banal, and at all events intolerable home situation. Much as generations of art critics, university professors, and museum curators would later do to their exploits, the future Surrealists were already inflating their comrade’s escapade, interpreting it to suit their own expectations, and fundamentally missing the point.
About two years earlier, in the summer of 1922, Eluard and his Russian-born wife, Helena Dmitrievna Diakonova, whom he’d famously nicknamed Gala, had spent the summer in the Tyrol with the German painter Max Ernst and family. Eluard was already a great admirer of Ernst, and meeting him only cemented his devotion. Gala’s attraction was much more visceral. Ernst, for his part, was awestruck by both the Olympian poet from Paris and the alluring creature at his side, who knew her own desires and didn’t beat around the bush. When the Eluards returned home several months later, Ernst tagged along, leaving his bride and young son (the future painter Jimmy Ernst) to fend for themselves in postwar Germany. He moved into the Eluard family home in the Paris suburbs, basking in the attentions of the influential young poets and artists to whom Eluard introduced him and covering the house’s inner and outer walls with murals proclaiming the trio’s unorthodox living arrangements. The sexually uptight Breton remarked to his wife that one in particular, a huge nude of Gala, “surpasses in horror anything one could imagine.” Eluard defended Ernst’s works, putting a strain on his relations with Breton.
Then in its sixth year, the Eluards’ marriage had never been a model of exclusivity—Paul proudly showed off nude photos of his wife to all and sundry and, to Breton’s disgust, virtually raised promiscuity to an art form—and at first the husband insisted that no sacrifice was too great for his “spiritual brother” Max, whom he “loved much more than he did Gala.” The stresses were already starting to show, however; that same year, Eluard began his verse collection Repetitions with the lines “In a corner agile incest / Circles the virginity of a little dress.” The title of the poem is “Max Ernst.”
Regardless of their infidelities, Eluard’s assumption had always been that, at the end of the day, his wife would remain his “darling little girl,” and his alone. But Gala, an unrepentant materialist and established master at trading up, was already loosening her conjugal bonds.
By the spring of 1924, Eluard was feeling abandoned by his wife and thrown over by his friends, some of whom didn’t bother suppressing their mirth at his expense. Breton’s wife Simone, a more sympathetic witness, described Eluard bar-hopping every night, “throwing his money away, drunk, afraid to go to sleep alone.” He published the sad, alienated volume of poems Dying from Not Dying, which he dedicated to Breton as his “last book.” As Robert McNab nicely puts it in Ghost Ships: A Surrealist Love Triangle, his study of the trio’s ménage, Eluard
… indeed feared that these might be the last poems he would write, perhaps because he had felt so low for so long it seemed he would never again have anything uplifting to say. In contrast Ernst was on song and his inspiration constant, which Eluard could see better than anyone … His treasured friend had occupied every corner of his life, from the recesses of his imagination as a poet to the intimacy of his bedroom, from the front door of his home up to the attic … Eluard had given Ernst everything and now stood empty-handed, a hollow man.
Soon afterward, Eluard embezzled 17,000 francs from his fathers real estate business and set off on his grand voyage.
Though a comparatively minor episode in the story of Surrealism, Eluard’s journey, and the psychological, artistic, and political repercussions it had within his circle, adumbrate several of the key themes that would recur throughout the movement’s history: the role of adventure and chance, sexual tension and experimentation, the mixture of politics and aesthetics. It also points up the latent conflict between the international reach of Surrealism and the fact that much of it was generated by, and firmly grounded in, the French capital. Finally, as an acte gratuit, it anticipates and mitigates Breton’s later, more snarling definition of the “simplest Surrealist act” as firing blindly into a crowd of strangers.
Moreover, the ramifications of Eluard’s adventure engage one of the more persistent fallacies to vex Surrealism, fostered over the years by countless exhibitions and coffee-table books: that it was primarily an art movement, buttressed by just enough theoretical and political rantings to keep the professors happy. In the United States especially, this misconception seems to have the hardiness of crabgrass. While legend has preserved the daily café meetings, over which André Breton presided like the CEO of some avant-garde multinational, we tend to forget that the discussion only rarely concerned art per se.
The reality is that Surrealism began not as a visual movement but as a philosophical and, given its principal members, literary one—or rather, a movement that took the medium of words as its chief instrument. Although several visual artists were associated with the group from the outset, the plastic arts barely register in Breton’s inaugural Manifesto of Surrealism of 1924. Driven by an urgent sense of self-exploration and an absolute non-conformism (a term the Surrealists were using well before it became a Sixties cliché), Surrealism aimed at being a top-to-bottom refurbishing of human understanding, and at exposing the flashes of marvelous wonder hidden in the creases of everyday life. It was meant to engage—and to challenge—the way our minds structure the world through language, taking as its weapons automatic writing, verbal collage, sleep trances, and other fundamentally linguistic manifestations. As Breton cheekily put it in the Manifesto, “Language has been given to man so that he may make Surrealist use of it.”
The status of the visual arts vis-à-vis that language was never entirely clear-cut. The Surrealist writer Pierre Naville tried to brush aside the entire notion early on by asserting that there was “no such thing as Surrealist painting.” In rebuttal, Breton began examining the question more closely in his seminal essay Surrealism and Painting (1928), which sought to pinpoint the qualities that, in painting as in poetry, defined a work as Surrealist. The short answer—its ability to externalize a “purely internal model”—left the door open by extension to all forms of visual statement, including film and so-called “Surrealist objects” (Meret Oppenheims fur-lined teacup being no doubt the most recognizable). The ambiguity was exacerbated by the fact that many of the Surrealists frequently blurred the line between genres: Dali, Ernst, Magritte, and Carrington were also accomplished writers; Artaud, Desnos, and Breton created important plastic objects; and the poet Jacques Prévert became a well-known filmmaker.
On this continent, however, Surrealism has primarily gained a reputation as a visual school, with its writings accorded the secondary status of philosophical scaffolding or literary by-product. To some extent, this was predictable. For one thing, Surrealist paintings are easier to absorb than abstruse poems and tracts, and from the start pioneering museum and gallery curators such as Chick Austin, Julien Levy, and Alfred Barr brought them to our attention in ways that a would-be publisher of Surrealist verse could only have dreamed of. Furthermore, many Surrealists, regardless of their chosen medium, have been closely involved with the art world—as dealers, critics, promoters, and gallery managers, not to mention collectors. (Witness the extent of Bretons art holdings by the time of his death, and the furor when they were auctioned off in 2003.)
Another reason why the American view of Surrealism has been so skewed is that we tend to misunderstand or insufficiently appreciate the environment from which it arose. The movement emerged at a particular historical moment (the aftermath of World War I), from under a particular cultural weight (the long legacy of Greco-Latin rationalism), and in a particular place (Paris, crucible of the avant-garde). These circumstances were as central to its formation as the theories of Freud or the accidents that first brought together its principals, and it is as difficult to imagine Surrealism without them as it is to imagine Monty Python or the Beatles coming out of anywhere but 1960s England. But we Americans don’t see things in quite the same way. Our literature is fashioned from different spaces, both physical and psychological. Our own brand of expansive rebellion is quite distinct from Surrealism’s compressed revolt against layer upon layer of social, behavioral, and artistic conditioning. It is not so much that the boundaries we set between art and life (or, for that matter, between the arts themselves) are more rigid than the ones the Surrealists labored to demolish, but rather that art and life seem to exist in wholly separate spheres.
In this regard, Breton’s statement from 1922 remains emblematic: “Poetry,” he said, “which is all I’ve ever appreciated in literature, emanates more from the lives of human beings—whether writers or not—than from what they have written or from what we might imagine they could write.” To the American ear, such a declaration may sound like just another of those windy pronouncements with which the history of the avant-garde abounds. For the Surrealists, however, it was a key tenet that a person’s life was the most important “work,” and trumped anything he or she might produce. In other words, a scum with a beautiful prose style was still a scum, while someone like Breton’s friend and mentor Jacques Vaché, who barely wrote at all, could zoom to the top of the Surrealist pantheon on the strength of his actions and attitude alone. The intimate link between one’s moral and aesthetic worth was a cornerstone of Surrealist philosophy, and it has few real equivalents in the European or, still less, American artistic heritage.
Which is why, of the books under review here, it is Robert McNab’s, based on Eluard’s rambling voyage, that comes closest to conveying the thrill and openendedness of the Surrealist adventure. The fact that volumes as disparate as a collection of translated poetry, an overstuffed exhibition catalogue, and an academic tome of film criticism can also fit comfortably under the rubric of “Surrealism studies” gives some measure of the movement’s breadth. But these books treat, as it were, the symptoms of Surrealism rather than its root cause, the moral and spiritual restlessness that underlay its productions and its stances. It is to McNab’s credit that he has recognized and chosen to highlight an incident that, at the dawn of the movement proper, brings that primary malaise to the surface.
A documentary filmmaker and self-proclaimed travel buff, McNab approaches his “Surrealist love triangle” not as a literary or art historian but as an amateur explorer, one fascinated by the process of travel as much as by its symbolism. Thus the reader will find here a cogent, briskly written, frequently shrewd account of the Eluard extended-family drama, but also details of the ships boarded, anecdotes about their ports of call, asides on the growth of steamer travel and tourism, and—of particular interest—an engrossing discussion of how Eluard’s excursion to the Far East mirrored the itineraries of other cultural travelers before him, such as Pierre Loti and Victor Segalen (and, before them, Rimbaud and Gauguin).
Perhaps most evocatively, McNab sets Eluard’s journey, and its “reading” by his fellow Surrealists, within the broader context of the Surrealists’ voyages. Many of these voyages were purely imaginary, circumscribed by the squares of paper on which their writing, automatic and otherwise, appeared. Breton, in his 1922 essay “The Mediums Enter,” transcribed the remarkable flights of fancy taken by members of the group during a hypnotic stupor, what became known as the “sleeping fits.” These fits, akin to mediumistic trances, were prized by Breton and his friends as doorways to another level of perception and verbal expression. “We’re living simultaneously in the present, the past, and the future,” Simone Breton wrote to her cousin. “After each séance we’re so dazed and broken that we swear never to start up again, and the next day all we can think about is putting ourselves back in that catastrophic atmosphere.” The experiments came to an end after some participants started showing a dangerous addiction to the nightly sessions.
Not all the Surrealists’ travels were quite so virtual. Oftentimes Breton and Aragon would prowl around the Buttes-Chaumont park late at night (“their Mesopotamia for half an hour,” as Aragon wrote), or wander through the city streets in quest of what Breton called “petrifying coincidences.” Prompted by Eluard’s disappearance, they and two others also set off on a random excursion around the Sologne region of central France—a kind of automatic record composed with the feet—that ended, after ten days of minor revelations and increasingly frayed nerves, with Breton putting them all on a train home. Most of the time, however, these Marco Polos of the mind did not venture outside the city confines, nor did they feel the need to. Breton in particular drew his inspiration from Paris, deeming life anywhere else to be “artificial, like a stage set”; apart from a brief, enforced wartime interlude in New York, he occupied his famous address on Rue Fontaine, near Pigalle, continuously from 1922 until his death forty-four years later.
Eluard’s own, less provincial exploration, as McNab puts it, is “ripe for treatment as a novel or a film,” and the first several chapters of his book are packed with the stuff of old-fashioned adventure yarns: noble rivalries, beaux gestes, creaky steamers headed for exotic destinations, and gallons of local color. In keeping with the genre, there is even a dramatic reunion. In August, Gala and Max—who, unbeknownst to the others, had been in touch with Eluard for months—met up with the errant poet in Singapore, from where the trio moved on to Saigon. Several weeks later, Gala and Paul set sail for Marseilles, their wedding vows momentarily renewed, leaving Ernst to find his own way back. For both Eluard and Ernst, this last stop, in what was then French Indochina, proved the crux of the trip—in Eluard’s case, because it marked his (temporary) reconciliation with Gala, and in passing exposed the young middle-class scion to colonialism’s more flagrant abuses; in Ernst’s, because it provided a lexicon of imagery that would last him a lifetime.
The second half of Ghost Ships explores in detail how the Angkor temples and other monuments later resurfaced in many of Ernst’s paintings, frottages, and decalcomanias. While the narrative from here on becomes less enthralling, McNab’s discussion of the trip’s influence on Ernst does make an intriguing art-historical point, and the author ably backs it up with illustrations juxtaposing artworks with photographs of the various sites. (Though perhaps more surprising are the Gauguin-like sketches that Ernst produced while in Indochina—does foreign travel breed its own artistic style?) Even the painter’s totemic alter ego Loplop, “Superior of the Birds,” turns out to be based on a garuda figure seen at Angkor Thorn.
There is an emotional resonance to all this as well, which lifts these visual echoes above mere reminiscence. It was during the roughly two weeks he stayed behind after the Eluards’ departure that the abandoned Ernst visited the Cambodian and Vietnamese monuments that later figured in his art; perhaps because of this, in almost every case these images, when they appear in his work, give off a sense of desolation and despair. The reality, which McNab underscores with a neat parallel, is that both men were in the same sad boat: “The Goentoer [the liner taken by the Eluards was headed for the breaker’s yard, as was the Eluards’ marriage. There is an equally striking similarity between Max Ernst and the vessel on which he returned to Europe … a battered steamer, the SS Affon, that had weathered many storms. Perhaps he identified with her, for the Affon was also on her way to the scrapheap, to which Gala had effectively consigned him.”
Back in Paris by October 1924, Eluard faced up to his friends, who were shocked to see the myth so casually deflate into a man. “Eluard is back. No comments,” Simone Breton reported to her cousin. “I cannot forgive anyone for stealing my emotions. Still less Andres … What is a creature compared to a symbol? ‘Not dying from dying.’… Now it’s as if he never left.” Eluard blithely dismissed the entire episode as “piffling” and joined in the launching of the Surrealist movement proper that same month. Still, the journey wasn’t as inconsequential as he made out, for Eluard brought back a number of objects that helped focus the group’s attention on non-Western art, a study that over the years would bear diversely flavorsome fruits. He also helped infuse Surrealism with a renewed sense of anti-colonial fervor, which in the Twenties and Thirties (the movement’s “heroic period,” so-called) informed some of its most eloquent protests.
Gala, meanwhile, remained Mme. Eluard for the moment, having perhaps realized that her father-in-law’s land developments provided a better standard of living than did her German lover’s unsalable paintings. As for Ernst, while his relations with the “slithering, glittering creature” (as his abandoned wife had characterized Gala) were more or less at an end, and while he no longer enjoyed a bed under the Eluards’ roof, this did not mean he and the poet had fallen out—far from it. In the event, the two men’s friendship outlasted either one’s relationship with the Russian femme fatale.
Eluard’s own relations with Gala continued in marital form for another five years, and in a less codified, though not exactly platonic, fashion nearly until his death a quarter-century later. His missives to her (collected in the 1980s as Letters to Gala) provide a fascinating epistolary history of Surrealism, and amply display the fanaticism that characterized Eluard’s allegiances throughout his life. This kind of blinkered fealty—whether to Gala, Surrealism, or, later, Communism—is what fueled his flight to Saigon in the Twenties, his proselytizing as Breton’s lieutenant in the Thirties, and his treacly odes to Stalin in the late Forties. (That’s Eluard’s voice one hears feverishly intoning the words “mon amour, mon amour” on the soundtrack of the 1930 Dalí/Buñuel masterpiece L’Age d’or, and it speaks volumes.)
Such fanaticism also underlies the love poems in Eluard’s masterful 1926 collection Capital de la douleur, known in English, though not well enough, as Capital of Pain. One of France’s most notable poets, Eluard is also highly difficult to translate felicitously, and therefore has had little exposure in this country. This is unfortunate, since his verse often scales the heights of what Surrealist poetry in its early phase could achieve, and in this regard Capital of Pain is quite possibly the movement’s crowning jewel. When Godard needed a prototypical collection of Surrealist love verse for the heroine to read in his celluloid comic book Alphaville, it was a battered copy of Capital of Pain he placed in her hands.
Capital of Pain actually comprises several collections, beginning with Repetitions, published around the start of the Ernst-Gala affair in 1922, and ending with a suite of “new poems” written mainly in 1925—in other words, the period recounted in Ghost Ships, which makes these poems an intriguing counterpoint to McNab’s melodrama. Not surprisingly, the range of emotions is vast, veering in the course of several pages from ardent desire
She is standing on my eyelids
And her hair mingles with mine,
She has the shape of my hands,
She has the color of my eyes
(“A Woman in Love”)
to a barely suppressed bitterness that strips off the veneer of equanimity Eluard showed to the outside world. Poems like “The Big Uninhabitable House” and “To Be Caught in the Trap,” or lines such as
Tears in the eyes, the sorrows of the sorrowful,
Dull sorrows, dreary tears.
He asks for nothing, he isn’t unfeeling,
He’s sad in prison and sad if he’s free
(“No Hard Feelings”)
How can one enjoy everything?
Better to wipe it all out.
The man who moved in all directions,
Sacrificed everything, conquered everything
(“In the Heart of My Love”)
reveal the underbelly of Eluard’s proclaimed fraternal devotions. One remarkable poem, “In the Flame of the Lash,” is a startling piece of gleeful sadomasochism, almost obscene in its coupling of naked anger and self-abasement:
Oh sure—hello there, face! Where light more clearly sounds desire than landscape! Oh sure—hello to your harpoons, Your cries, your leaps, and what you hide below! I’ve lost, I’ve won, just look at what I’ve mounted.
These lines are strong drink, poured out by someone who was a lot more furious than he could afford to acknowledge, and their seething rage seems fiercer still by contrast with the forced bonhomie and resignation of so many other pieces in the collection (“douleur” being equal parts “pain” and “sorrow”).
Despite his Surrealist trappings, Eluard is in some ways a very classical poet. Less intellectually thrilling than Breton, less verbally dazzling than Aragon, he preferred the solidity of poetic truths expressed with blunt affirmation, though that affirmation often turns hermetic: This is the world, these poems declare, but it is accessible only through them. While Breton went pearl diving into automatic writing and sleep trances, Eluard much more deliberately honed his verses, using startling juxtapositions and dream narratives—those Surrealist staples—to invest them with their distinctive aura. His lines, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Capital of Pain, are models of what French prosody can do once it lets its hair down and tosses the Académie rulebook into the Seine.
One reason for Eluard’s notorious resistance to translation is, in fact, his rare command of the French language and all its resources. Regardless of the subject matter, exalted or despairing, there is a real pleasure of creation that shines through most of these poems, a wonder at their own invention. Eluard is such an economical writer, and the effectiveness of his poetry is so dependent on puns, rhythms, internal rhymes and repetitions, and marvelously ambiguous idiomatic expressions, that something crucial will inevitably be lost in transposition. With few exceptions, most notably Samuel Beckett (who essayed him in the Thirties), past translators of Eluard have run aground precisely on this aspect of his work, miring the poems in awkward formulations without sense or savor, or else planing them down past recognition. A new translation of Capital of Pain, from which the above snippets were culled, has just been published by Black Widow, an intrepid small press with a penchant for early Surrealism. (Black Widow has also published works by Breton and Tzara, in addition to two other Eluard collections, Last Love Poems and Love, Poetry.) These new versions, too, are not without problems: Some phrasings could have been ratcheted up a notch, and occasionally the translators shy away from the sex and violence of Eluard’s originals, or miss a golden opportunity to convey his crucial rhymes and rhythms without doing their own language wrong. By and large, however, this is a fine rendition of a volume that Americans have lagged sorrowfully behind the rest of the world in taking to heart.
In July 1925, less than a year after his return from Indochina, Max Ernst participated in an infamous banquet in honor of the poet Saint-Pol Roux, then had to absent himself from Paris after the evening erupted in a brawl: As an undocumented alien and one of the mêlée’s instigators, Ernst was ripe for deportation. While holing up in a hotel in Brittany, he developed—or chanced upon—the technique of frottage, in which the textures produced by rubbing paper over various surfaces such as floorboards or walls yielded elements of fabulous landscapes. Ernst was attuned to the transformative potential of a wide variety of media, and the patterns he derived from the rough flooring of his hotel room—a modernist take on Leonardo’s advice to his students to find their subjects by staring at an old façade—became a consistently fertile generator of his art.
More than for his painting, in fact, Ernst is known for the breadth and inventiveness of his experiments with numerous techniques, including frottage, grattage (frottages flip side, in which pigment is removed from a sheet placed atop an object), decalcomania (pulling two painted surfaces apart to create organic, drip-like patterns, such as in the masterful Europe after the Rain of 1940-42), photomontage, and especially collage, a lifelong pursuit and one that, for Ernst, was much more about mental interconnection than visual cut-and-paste: As he put it, “It’s not the colle [glue] that makes the collage.” The renowned Ernst specialist Werner Spies has stated that collage epitomizes Ernst’s aesthetic. It certainly accounts for many of the oddly disquieting, disquietingly hilarious, or hilariously puzzling images and juxtapositions that run through Ernst’s work, and that make him one of the most provocative and least dated of the Surrealist artists. In attitude alone, Ernst could still teach whippersnappers like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst a thing or two.
It is primarily this Ernst, the artistic visionary rather than the hapless Romeo, whom we meet in Max Ernst: A Retrospective, the catalogue to the Metropolitans major exhibition in 2005. Compared with the Ernst portrayed in Ghost Ships, the one that emerges from the catalogue comes across as another artist altogether. Robert McNab’s Ernst is all sorts of things: a flagrant opportunist, a feckless husband, a handsome charmer, a sexual swashbuckler hoisted on his own petard, and, of course, a brilliant and innovative artist; nowhere is he anything less than passionate, even if the steely crags of his intelligence and hawklike countenance could make him seem positively glacial.
The Ernst presented by the contributors to the Met catalogue, on the other hand, is a much more focused, directed, but in some ways two-dimensional creature. I’m tempted to ascribe this mainly to the conventions of the traditional exhibition catalogue and leave it at that. But before letting the editors entirely off the hook, it might be worth pausing for a moment over what this means. Max Ernst: A Retrospective offers many of the pluses and minuses of museum-produced books: On the plus side, there is a wealth of in-depth discussion by numerous learned authorities (six, in this case), each mining some vein of the work for whatever new interpretations can be teased out of it; pages of well-printed reproductions (the ones here look especially bright and sharp); a cursory but useful chronology that provides easy reference to the artist’s milestones; and some valuable insights into the antecedents of Ernst’s creations. On the minus side, there is a tendency to compartmentalize the work into digestible essay topics, and to view it through the borrowed lens of secondary and tertiary sources; to delve ever more deeply into Ernst’s career as a producer of art while practically ignoring his activities as a Dadaist and Surrealist; and to couch it all—with a few exceptions, but only a few—in language that reeks of the lecture-hall.
I don’t mean to single out the Met’s Ernst, nor to criticize it too harshly: The catalogue more than meets its requirements. But, for better or worse, it is typical of the kind of “scholarly publication”—a very prevalent kind—that apparently equates intellectual probity with obscurity, and that seems bent on squaring off the messy, palpitating edges of the subjects life and work. The result is a smart, attractive, but somehow bloodless compendium of words and pictures, as little representative of the acerbic, iconoclastic, mischievous Ernst as would be the Marx Brothers revisited by the likes of Krzysztof Kieslowski.
To take one example: An essay called “Max Ernst and the Great Masters,” by the German scholar Thomas Gaehtgens (now director of the Getty Research Institute), begins with the programmatic assertion that “Viewers can certainly explore the bizarre world of his pictures without knowing his models, but if they do, they will fail to appreciate the exciting creative process behind his inventions.” This is reasonable enough as far as it goes, though it rests on the dubious assumption that only learned elucidation of an artist’s approach and source materials can lead to a true understanding of his or her creative genius. Prof. Gaehtgens provides many interesting examples of how Ernst borrowed and distorted motifs, from a statue by Carpeaux that turns up in his 1929 collage novel La Femme 100 têtes (The Hundred-Headless Woman) to a photograph by the Spanish muralist José Maria Sert that probably inspired the iconic (and still highly amusing) Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: A.B., P.E., and the Artist. He also, to his credit, notes that Ernst’s relation to the Old Masters was determined by a “strong emotional response” rather than purely intellectual affinities. The problem—which the author seems to take as a benefit—is that “Surrealist art has long since been integrated into the history of intellectual and cultural innovation in the twentieth century.” In other words, Ernst, Dalí, Duchamp, Miró, Masson, and their fellows are now artifacts of history, to be (as Breton put it in 1927, protesting a similar treatment of Lautréamont) “assigned a place between So-and-So and Such-and-Such.”
Now these painters have to some extent become artifacts of history, no use denying it. But to take them only as such, to reduce them—or any artist—to mere points on a curatorial timeline, is to sidestep the fundamental qualities that make them worth studying (or viewing) in the first place. Prof. Gaehtgens can tell me where Ernst found certain motifs for the collages of La Femme 100 têtes. What he can’t tell me is why those collages still elicit a thrill every time I leaf through them; nor—and here’s the real pity—does he ever evoke a sense of that thrill. (It is instructive in this regard to compare McNab’s discussion of Indonesian visual elements in Ernst’s work, which brings into play biographical and sociopolitical details alongside the artistic and architectural ones, and which paints a much more vibrant picture.)
I would be remiss not to mention one more essay in Max Ernst, by the historian Robert Storr, which takes as its focus Ernst’s three collage novels, the other two being Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel (1930; translated by Dorothea Tanning as Dream of a Little Girl Who Wanted to Take the Veil) and Une semaine de bonté (1934). Unlike the other pieces, Storr’s essay is unabashedly personal, nearly as much about his own love of rare books as it is about Ernst’s contributions to his library. Along the way, he nonetheless manages to lay bare many of the psychological, as well as artistic, underpinnings of Ernst’s collages, including the artist’s deep-seated ambivalence toward the “sexually assertive women”—avatars of Gala?—who populate many of these creations. He also zeroes in on their “alienating effect, which feeds on ambiguity,” correctly identifying it as “Surrealism’s basic, still intoxicating ingredient.” As he notes, many of Ernst’s collages convey a sense of the uncanny precisely because the disparate elements are stitched together so seamlessly, the fissures they conceal opening “not on the page but in the mind’s eye.” It is this mental vista that is too often given short shrift in critical studies, in favor of the kind of seeing—reassuringly coherent, yet so inadequate to the task—that Marcel Duchamp dismissed as “retinal.”
By 1929, Ernst had married his second wife, a pure product of French Catholicism named Marie-Berthe Aurenche (no doubt his “little girl who wanted to take the veil”), and was stepping down his involvement in Surrealism’s daily operations. That same year, the young Catalan painter Salvador Dalí, seeking to exploit the fame and fortune he’d already been garnering at home, arrived in the French capital, blundering into a Surrealist movement in full crisis: A number of its original members had stalked off or been thrown out, the wellsprings of automatic writing had seemingly run dry, and the group’s overtures to the French Communist Party were threatening to mire it in sectarian squabbles. Dalí, with his flagrantly idiosyncratic paintings and deliriously inventive critical fabulations, was a blast of fresh air. Although Breton would later make sport of him, with more than a tinge of bitterness, there is no question that for nearly a decade he saw Dalí as the source of a badly needed renewal.
Dalí’s introduction to the Surrealist group came via the art dealer Camille Goemans, who in the spring of 1929 bundled his young client off to a well-frequented soirée and thrust him at Paul Eluard. In the five years since his Asian adventure, Eluard had emerged as an influential poet and important art collector. He was now thirty-four; Dalí was nine years his junior, and, as Ernst had been before him, in awe. “Eluard struck me as a legendary being,” Dalí later wrote. “He drank calmly, and appeared completely absorbed in looking at the beautiful women. Before we took leave of each other, he promised to come to see me the next summer at Cadaqués,” where Dalí had a beach house.
In August, the Eluards did just that. To greet them properly, the Spaniard had togged himself out in a tattered shirt, a dubiously soiled Speedo, pearls, a jasmine flower, and laundry bluing, with a smear of goat dung for good measure. But a first glimpse of Gala’s bare back from his bedroom window (as he later recounted) sent a shock through his system that neutralized his interest in all such artifices. Over the following days, Dalí and his “sister soul” established a relationship that has been a staple of art-world tittle-tattle ever since. This time, when Eluard returned to Paris, it was by himself. Gala showed up a month later with Dalí in tow, never to let the exuberant genius and gilt-edged meal ticket out of her sight.
In short order, Dalí figured out how to make the most of his eccentricities, first in France and then in America. He was the first major Surrealist to arrive on these shores, washing up shortly before World War II, and his uproarious presence only reinforced the American notion of Surrealism as a moveable bedlam. The public was shocked, shocked, by the Spaniard’s antics—such as crashing through the display window of Bonwit Teller in a bathtub, or dressing his wife up as the Lindbergh baby for a society ball at the height of the Bruno Hauptmann kidnapping trial—but it gamely came back for more. Although Dalí had already become persona non grata within the movement by that time, for many Americans, even to this day, his cantilevered mustache and goggly eyes are the face of Surrealism.
Like many episodes in the Dalí saga, the above-noted faits divers have been hugely inflated by the painter’s superlative gift for showmanship. Dalí freely revised and embellished his best stories over numerous interviews and autobiographies—a habit that spread the news even as it perversely assisted in its devaluation. For while Dalí’s ability to self-mythologize helped make him one of the world’s richest and most famous artists—second only, perhaps, to his compatriot and contemporary Picasso—it has also left his legacy somewhat in doubt, as the outrageous public persona threatens to eclipse his genuine accomplishments.
It is with such considerations in mind that the organizers of the recent Dalí retrospective at the Palazzo Grassi and the Philadelphia Museum have set out to rescue their man from the ravages of neglect. “No other major 20th-century artist combines such widespread popular appeal with so much critical disdain from official institutions and historians of modern art,” asserts Dawn Ades, the retrospective’s co-curator and the primary author of its catalogue. “The current exhibition … intends to ask in what sense there is a ‘real’ Dalí behind the ‘public masks’ of the showman and the mythical identities he created for himself. One of our aims is to dispel generalizations and assumptions about Dalí’s post-1939 work, long viewed as kitsch by artists, critics and curators.”
A major reason for this disdain, Ades argues, is that Dalí “seemed deliberately to ignore the twin impulses of modernism: to express an individual self, on the one hand, or to pursue the medium for its own sake (which leads to abstraction) on the other.” Instead, Dalí used his meticulously classical hyperrealism to stage “mental processes, psychical drives and other invisible forces that govern life,” narrating a kind of collective psychopathology. Ably abetted by his impresario-wife (he and Gala married in 1934), Dalí repeatedly staged his inner demons front and center, turning them through sheer persistence into the ubiquitous Greek chorus of Western cultural weltschmerz.
He also gained a popularity that, by its very nature, helped alienate him from Surrealist orthodoxy and rendered him suspect in the eyes of posterity. In an age when artists made a badge of honor out of obfuscation and hermeticism, Dalí confounded expectations by creating images accessible to the highbrow, the society matron, and the average Joe alike—images that, as time went on, pandered unashamedly to the Church, Franquist Spain, and any other underwriter of his exorbitant lifestyle. The nickname Breton coined in 1939 for his former star, “Avida Dollars,” was not just a clever anagram.
In keeping with its outsized subject, Dalí clocks in at more than six hundred pages and over seven pounds (but then how many Dalí catalogues don’t take up the entire coffee table?), presenting extensive discussions of some 250 works spanning his career, along with an encyclopedia of key people, places, and concepts in the Daliverse; a remarkably detailed and illustrated chronology (nearly one hundred pages’ worth); and a selection of the painter’s writings, from early critical articles to important theoretical statements such as “The Rotting Donkey” and “Conquest of the Irrational.” The aim is clearly to provide as comprehensive a view as possible of Dalí as painter, draftsman, filmmaker, visionary, writer, and tastemaker, and in this the catalogue succeeds: One comes away flabbergasted at the wide reach of Dalí’s magpie mind, the many influences he passed through and subsequently rejected, the media with which he experimented, and the fashions he indulged in (and sometimes launched).
Still, for all its merits, the book does not entirely add up to a satisfying reading experience. In part, as with the Ernst catalogue, this has to do with the academic writing style of the contributors (though a few, such as the underrepresented Paul Hammond and, in the main, Ades herself, produce refreshingly vivid prose). But it also has to do with the design of the volume—not only its heft, but also the fact that text and image are generally crammed onto the page (except when they leave room for excess white space), or that some of the major reproductions are garishly printed from apparently substandard digital scans. (I’ll leave aside the surprisingly large number of typos, danglers, inconsistencies, and factual errors.) Perhaps more than anything, by adopting an arch-traditional entry-picture format, the catalogue undermines its own crusade to get us to recognize Dalí as “one of the most original [voices] of the 20th century.” Yes, the paintings are remarkable, particularly—and this despite the curators’ stated aims—those of the 1930s. But here, duly surrounded by their comparative figures, alternate versions, and documentary photographs, not to mention the requisite two columns of sober commentary, they appear somewhat flattened, placeholders of an experience that happened elsewhere.
To be sure, no book, however fine its reproductions, can replace the impact of seeing an artwork in the flesh. (I’m reminded of an anecdote about the writer Norman Douglas, who, upon seeing Dalí’s William Tell with its neon pink penis and rotting ass’s head, ran out of the room blurting, “That picture will spoil my dinner. See you later. I must get some fresh air at once”—a wonderfully visceral bit of criticism that no facsimile could elicit.) But it can give us certain things that simple viewing cannot—by which I mean, in the best of cases, new insights into what makes a given artwork worthy of our attention in the first place. It can treat art as a story of living, breathing people, rather than of isolated objects. It can also use that artwork as part of an innovative design package that makes the book itself a thing of beauty.
Dalí, though it tries mightily, and with occasional success, to bring to life the dynamic inventions of its protagonist, all too often muffles them under a straitjacketed layout and standard-issue curatorial source-hunting, leaving one of the century’s most flamboyantly articulate painters strangely mute. In the discussion of Suburbs of the Paranoiac-Critical Town: Afternoon on the Outskirts of European History (1936)—as the title suggests, one of the most absorbingly enigmatic of Dalí’s works—we read, for instance:
The central image of the artist’s wife, Gala, invitingly holding forth a bunch of grapes, is framed on either side by a confusing array of incongruous objects, fragmented vistas, and eerie townscapes that reverberate with Dalí’s personal history and his sense of place … The girl skipping rope that we see through the central archway is also a direct descendant of the child spinning the hoop in de Chirico’s Mystery and Melancholy of a Street of 1914, while the swaying bell in the belfry behind the girl that functions as her “anthropomorphic echo” can be traced to an etching from the Bizzarie di varie figure cycle by the 17th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Bracelli.
All this is no doubt true, but what does it tell us that our eyes haven’t already? Even if I hadn’t spotted the rope-jumping girl’s family resemblance to de Chirico, how much have I truly gained by having it pointed out to me (especially when that point is developed no further)? Not to put too fine a point on it myself, I learned far more from Dalí’s pencil-and-ink study for the painting (reproduced on the following page), which shows how he conceived various details—Gala’s cluster of grapes, the equine statue—as “paranoiac” transformations of the same object, than I did from this repertoire of curatorial associations.
Part of my dissatisfaction, I recognize, stems from the fact that many of the paintings under study don’t seem to warrant the attentions being lavished on them. One of the unfortunate characteristics of Dalí’s talent is that it is diluted by its own expansiveness, the moments of true genius crowded out by endless works of lesser quality. (My sense is that it was this squandering of talent, as much as the artist’s unsavory allegiance to the political right and his naked opportunism, that made Breton finally despair of Dalí, as he had earlier despaired of de Chirico for similar reasons.) Somehow, behind the dazzling glibness and provocative concepts thrown off like fireworks, the obsessive explorations and startling images—some of which are now part of the cultural lingua franca—I can’t escape the feeling that there isn’t nearly so much “there” there as we’re being asked to believe. Some of these paintings are incontestably brilliant and stand the test of time, but too many others are facile or repetitious, ill served by the curators’ insistence on treating each creation (especially the later ones) as a masterpiece.
In truth, there is something ironic or paradoxical about the wealth of commentary Dalí has inspired, because he is perhaps the Surrealist painter least in need of exegesis. Unlike Ernst, who concealed his emotions under layers of collage, frottage, and allegorical decalcomania, Dalí let it all hang out. Puzzling as they appear, his canvases make no bones about their psychic mainsprings, and are filled with images of paranoid delusion, fellatio, sodomy, and putrefaction, all latent content made manifest (a fact that bothered not only Breton but Freud himself)- It is interesting in this regard to compare the two artists’ visions of their mutual lover: Whereas Gala in Ernst’s murals from the early 1920s is blown up, transformed, unattainable, the Gala who appears in Dalí’s many renderings is much more direct and present—mysteriously gesturing or with her back turned, perhaps, but always concrete. His portraits of her are both a celebration of his “sister soul” and an ongoing record of his neuroses, with little held in reserve. If we are to credit Ian Gibson’s thesis in The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí that shame was the primary motor of Dalí’s life and art, it is nonetheless the most outspoken and exhibitionistic version of shame we are likely ever to see. Even later in life, when the Dalí’s were pursuing independent, and rather sordid, sex lives, Dalí publicly acknowledged his wife’s infatuation with the much younger Jeff Fenholt (Jesus Christ Superstar’s superstar) by casting her paramour du jour as his model for a canvas aptly titled Gala’s Christ (1978). Ultimately, Dalí doesn’t need anyone to tell us how to view his canvases or to provide the keys to his obsessions: He’d rather do it himself.
2. My Aperitif with André
One of the factors that helped distort the American vision of Surrealism from the start was the relative paucity of its writings in English translation. What few texts were available during the Surrealists’ wartime tenure here, in magazines like Charles Henri Ford’s View and the Surrealist-dominated VVV, or in Bretons 1946 selected volume Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, tended to be for initiates only. (It wasn’t until the Sixties that substantial quantities of Surrealist writing saw the light of day in America, and only in the last two decades has there been a truly serious excavation of the back-catalogue.) The fact that the renderings were often poor didn’t improve matters, though this was not always the fault of the translator. The poet Edouard Roditi, who made a more than valiant effort to translate Young Cherry Trees while Breton was in New York, admitted feeling hobbled by having the author almost literally at his back: “Since he didn’t know English, he’d show the translations to friends who didn’t know much English either, and who would make suggestions I didn’t agree with, but that Breton trusted.” The results, not surprisingly, were to no one’s liking.
It is a truism that the English and French languages simply don’t work the same way, and Surrealist writing in particular derives many of its effects from the way it cannily flouts French linguistic bylaws. Its brand of surprise or humor is often based on setting up our expectations and then pulling out the proverbial rug. In translation, the difficulty, the challenge, the sometimes hair-rending impossibility lies in preserving the freshness, spontaneity, experimentation, humor, and excitement that characterize the best Surrealist poetry. Even when written directly in English, much Surrealist verse sounds stilted or phony, like an American with a mid-Atlantic accent or one who peppers his speech with Gallicisms. Too often our poets try too hard, producing the kind of “Surrealist poetry” the very mention of which makes any sensible person shudder.
Which brings us to the translation of culture, the most recalcitrant text of all. The fact that Surrealism was given a less than cordial welcome by the American mainstream is neither here nor there (after all, how welcome was it at home?); the real problem is that, even when it was welcomed on these shores, Surrealism remained a very precarious transplant. Generally speaking, Americans appreciate the humor of Surrealism, the puns, the melting watches and other startling imagery, but less so the dark underpinnings of despair, let alone the political and cultural agenda. Dreams and the unconscious might be an exploratory tool for Breton and Co.; for us, they’re more liable to be taken as a diverting parlor game. The American terrain—lacking both the cafés in which to celebrate the daily rite and most of the preferred libations—simply didn’t prove very suitable, and even those well disposed to the movement found it hard to accept in this new setting. Julien Levy in his memoirs describes one of Bretons attempts to conduct a Surrealist meeting soon after his arrival in New York: The more he tried to impose the kind of order that had naturally obtained at the Paris sessions, the more those present (including some who had previously attended the Paris meetings) broke into guffaws. In the context of this vast and confusing new world, the old rules of conduct seemed ludicrous.
As it happens, even in Paris the café culture of Surrealism was something of a translation, adapted from the decades-long practice of artistic cliques pursuing their debates over shots of absinthe, and most directly transmitted to Breton by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. It was in fact Apollinaire who catalyzed the Surrealist revolution—not only through the linguistic happenstance of having coined the word in 1917 (though in a very different sense from Breton’s later use of it), and not only through his stature as café magus, which provided Breton (among others) with a ready model, but more than anything for his having introduced Breton to another fledgling poet named Philippe Soupault. In 1919, Soupault, who would become one of Surrealism’s founding members, collaborated with Breton on the movement’s seminal text, the suite of automatic prose poems called The Magnetic Fields. That book later inspired Surrealism’s more sustained experiments with automatism, and can fairly be considered the spark that lit the fuse.
Like Surrealism itself, Apollinaire was both a product of his surroundings and defiantly sui generis. Born Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky in Rome in 1880, he migrated to Paris at around the turn of the century and began engaging in the activities that have made his name virtually synonymous with the city’s modernist explosion in the years before World War I. Apollinaire was a poet, essayist, novelist, art critic, chronicler, and man about town, a cultural omnivore and tireless promoter who championed Futurism, helped establish Cubism and Picasso, and seemed to have his finger in every fresh pie to come flying out of the French cultural ovens. His 1913 collection Alcools remains one of the founding texts of modern poetry. Two years later, this elder statesman of the avant-garde met and befriended the teenaged Breton, sixteen years his junior, and encouraged his early attempts at verse. In his Manifesto of 1924, Breton, seeking to establish a pedigree for his newly formed band, drafted a now-famous list of forerunners, each one singled out as having been “Surrealist in” something or other (“Swift is Surrealist in malice. Sade is Surrealist in sadism,” etc.). Apollinaire’s conspicuous absence from this list—though he is granted somewhat backhanded homage in the preceding paragraphs—is not a mark of irrelevance, but rather a sign that he was too much of a father not to be discarded.
In 1911, Apollinaire had been implicated in the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, which left him with a brief experience of La Santé prison (the charges were eventually dropped) and an abiding terror of deportation. When the war broke out, he enlisted in the French artillery, joined an officers’ training program, and filed for naturalization. The poems he wrote from that point until his death on Armistice Day 1918, collected posthumously in Calligrammes, attempt to salvage from the war experience a new poetic language, much as his earlier verse had celebrated such recent additions to the Paris skyline as the Eiffel Tower and biplanes. Apollinaire was the poet of perpetual wonder, finding his inspiration in the plethora of novelties that furnished the early twentieth century, from iron bridges to colloquial speech patterns to mortar shells bursting colorfully in air. His habit of infusing contemporary surroundings with a sense of classical harmony found its way into the modernist aesthetic and informs the poetry of Surrealism on down to the New York School: Lines such as “31st August 1914 / I left Deauville a little before midnight / in Rouveyre’s little car” (“The Little Car”) would not be terribly out of place in the chatty verse monologues of Frank O’Hara.
In The Self-Dismembered Man: Selected Later Poems, his second volume of Apollinaire translations, Donald Revell is alert to the poet’s drive toward novelty, and consequently chooses his English words with an eye to the entire nimbus of meanings surrounding them. This is one of the more laudable things about Revell’s versions; the other is that he has selected from Apollinaire’s expansive oeuvre only his favorite pieces—would that every translator should be so wise—and for the most part avoided the calligrammes proper (a form that, as Revell points out, translates with only moderate success).
A noted poet in his own right, Revell seems to approach these pieces less in a spirit of translation than of recreation from within (shades of Lowell’s “imitations”)- At times this leads to some felicitous phrasings, but it also entails some rather odd readings of the original, usually involving inserts of the translator’s own devising. A case in point is the following passage from “The Hills,” from which Revell draws the title of his book:
I am the self-dismembered man
Capable of death incapable of sin
This is a striking image. The problem is, the accents of self-mutilation and mutation are, if not quite absent from the French, at least far less overt:
Je me suis enfin détaché
De toutes choses naturelles
[At last I’ve removed myself
From all things natural]
There are other instances, from the small to the not so small: Street performers have “almost vanished” instead of migrating “to the provinces.” A man “au visage couvert d’ancêtres” (“his face burdened with ancestors”) becomes a “crematorium-faced organ grinder,” and fresh-cheeked girls near death are described in the translation, but not the original, as “tubercular” (“Cloud Phantom”). And then there’s the poet’s prescription for an aesthetic of “new sounds”:
On veut des consonnes sans voyelles
Des consonnes qui pètent sourdement
Imitez le son de la toupie
Laissez pétiller un son nasal et continu
[We want consonants with no vowels
Consonants that quietly pop
Mimic the noise of the spinning top
A sustained nasal effervescent sound]
In Revell’s version, this becomes:
I want only consonants no vowels
Consonants that fart insensibly
Mimicking a small boy’s spinning top
Sparkling nose-farts (“Victory”)
With all due respect to Mr. Revell’s intestinal functions, I suspect Apollinaire had in mind not so much a Bronx cheer as an aesthetic of sound that would capture the explosiveness of the fireworks constantly going off above his head: The verb “péter” just as commonly applies to detonations as it does to post-prandial gas.
But where Revell seems more often to come up short is in capturing Apollinaire’s tone. These later poems in particular contain lines that became talismanic for the young Surrealists, and that Breton cited throughout his life. To take two examples:
Rivalise donc poète avec les étiquettes des parfumeurs
Mais perdre vraiment
Pour laisser place à la trouvaille
These are rendered here as:
The poets compete with perfume labels
(“The Musician of Saint-Merry”)
Really to lose
To make room for the windfall
In both cases, there is a flattened, expository tone substituted for the almost oracular coloration that Apollinaire gives these lines (“Compete then poet with the labels of perfume bottles”), which, to my ear at least, robs them of much of their magic.
At what point does a translation begin to slide so far from its source that it becomes something other? There is, of course, no clear-cut answer. Often the proof is in the reading: One senses the poet inhabiting the translation or one doesn’t. In The Self-Dismembered Man, Apollinaire’s voice seems most often to crackle through a fog of static, as if we were trying to pick up his signal on a battered wireless, with the interjections of his American translator breaking in and superimposing themselves like interference. There is more personality to these versions than, for instance, to the blandly faithful ones by Anne Hyde Greet. I’m just not convinced that the personality always belongs to Apollinaire.
A rather different sort of enterprise is Clayton Eshleman’s anthology Conductors of the Pit, originally published in 1988 but recently reissued in an expanded edition by Soft Skull Press While only three of the thirteen poets represented—Artaud, Breton, Césaire—can properly be labeled Surrealist, all of them, as Eshleman states in his introduction, “have assimilated Surrealism and arguably have written as fulgurating and enduring poems as any of the Surrealist founders.” The book’s title refers to those who, rather than leading “the orchestra of the living,” have chosen to “induct and order materials from the subconscious as well as from those untoward regions of human experience that defy rational explanation.”
Accordingly, the works here mainly demonstrate Surrealism’s subsequent influence throughout the world—or rather, a particular aspect of its influence, as Eshleman’s choices tend to lean toward poems “written in extremis.” This is not surprising from the translator of Artaud and Vallejo, and it does no disservice to Surrealism so long as we remember that the “cry from the depths” was only one aspect of the movement—an aspect, moreover, with which Breton had a rather fitful relationship. Then again, any philosophy that proposes to lay bare the “actual functioning of thought” can only expect some of its disciples to evince, as Eshleman puts it, a “constant refusal to let their psychic wounds heal over.” The pieces in this anthology lay the accent on such open wounds, the exposed sinew and bone, and on the pain and abjectness that precede them. One travels through these poems as through an especially black and forbidding night.
Alongside those we might expect, including Holan, Neruda, and Vallejo (all beautifully rendered), Conductors of the Pit offers work by several poets less familiar to American readers, such as the Hungarians Miklós Radnóti, Ferenc Juhász, Sándor Csoóri, and Géza Szöcs. A particular revelation, for me, were several works by Radnóti, written during his internment in a labor camp in 1944 and disturbingly reminiscent of Robert Desnos’s last writings, composed shortly before his own death at a Czech camp the following year.
Desnos is Surrealism’s litmus test. One of the group’s earliest adherents, he soon pulled to the head of the class with his star turns during the 1922 sleeping fits. Breton, in “The Mediums Enter,” singled out Desnos’s remarkable utterances under hypnosis, and in a speech later that year called him “the knight who has ridden farthest of us all.” Photos of the period show him, heavy-lidded and with vaguely clownish face, reclining in a stupor, or else reeling off the fabulous spoonerisms that he claimed to receive telepathically from Marcel Duchamp, then in New York. His early poems read like a compendium of favorite Surrealist tropes, their distinctiveness lying less in their originality than in the poet’s ability to push these tropes beyond what any of the others was doing.
But Desnos had too fluent a talent for words and too great a taste for independence not to venture into areas Breton proscribed, such as journalism, music criticism, and even hosting a radio show in which he analyzed listeners’ dreams. The ostenible last straw was his involvement in a bar named for Lautréamont’s Maldoror (one of Surrealisms ur-texts, far too elevated to associate with something as common as a watering hole), which earned the former knight an especially vicious lancing in Breton’s Second Manifesto and his expulsion from the group in 1929. Arrested during the Occupation for resistance activities, Desnos was deported to Buchenwald and died of typhus at Terezin, just as the camp was being liberated.
The Voice of Robert Desnos: Selected Poems shows what a talented chameleon Desnos could be. Indeed, it perhaps should have been called The Voices of Robert Desnos, for he channels everyone, from his fellow Surrealists and Duchamp to Apollinaire and popular songwriters (in the Thirties, Desnos partly made his living from composing commercial jingles). Over the course of William Kulik’s selection, we see the histrionic automatism of the early Twenties give way to exalted love lyrics inspired by Desnos’s unrequited passion for the nightclub singer Yvonne George, then to the only slightly more settled stanzas for his wife Youki, in which desperation yields to the sadness of getting what you’ve longed for and finding it’s not quite what you’d imagined. As for Kulik’s translations, while more or less reliable, they can be somewhat awkward, and certainly lack the fire of Bill Zavatsky’s passionate yet masterfully controlled renderings from a few decades back.
Many of these poems suggest a violent internal struggle between hope and resignation. These lines to Yvonne George, for example, no doubt the most famous Desnos ever wrote, wrest a sad triumph from the woman’s very elusiveness:
I’ve dreamed of you so much you’re losing your reality
Is there still time to reach that living body and kiss
onto that mouth the birth of the voice so dear to me?
I’ve dreamed of you so much that my arms, accustomed to
being crossed on my breast while hugging your shadow would perhaps not bend to the shape of your body
(“I’ve Dreamed of You So Much”)
At times, the poet is able to muster a faith in his own gift that lifts him above all the crosses he sets out for our commiseration:
Your smell the smell of your hair and many other things
will live on inside me.
In me and I’m not Ronsard or Baudelaire
I’m Robert Desnos who, because I knew and loved you
Is as good as they are
(“No, Love Is Not Dead”)
At others, however, he displays a vengefulness and paranoia that verge on the homicidal. Desnos was a devotee of Louis Feuillade’s noir sériais, such as Fantomas and Judex, and his passions ran toward the dark and criminal. Breton once recounted how Desnos, during a sleeping séance, began chasing Eluard around his own house with a knife and had to be restrained. One gets the impression that if he hadn’t had poetry for an outlet, Desnos might have ended up a serial killer.
Desnos wasn’t the only Surrealist wild about the movies, of course. Many in the group, particularly during the silent era but also afterward, exalted such celluloid marvels as Nosferatu, Chaplin’s and Keaton’s anarchic romps, and anything starring Musidora, the body-stockinged femme fatale who haunted several of Feuillade’s feuilletons and a million adolescent wet dreams. But more than this, the Surrealists looked to cinema, particularly in its early, silent, unsophisticated days, as an emotional conduit more convincing and immediate than anything in literature or the plastic arts.
Robert Shorts The Age of Gold: Surrealist Cinema provides an engaging and insightful, if sometimes flawed, discussion of just what the Surrealists were seeking when they sat opposite a movie screen. “The Surrealists,” says Short, “always thought of the cinema as a threat to the eye,” by which he means both “eye” and “I” (clever fellow). Unlike the film critic Ado Kyrou, whose landmark thesis Le Surréalisme au cinéma claimed several dozen films as Surrealist in nature if not in allegiance, from Fantomas to The Exterminating Angel, Short and co-author Stephen Barber work from a much more restricted roster, narrowing the field to the Big Three: Un Chien andalou and L’Age d’or by Dalí and Buñuel, and Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le clergyman, based on a script by Artaud. However limiting one might find this choice (though the book does make a reasonable case for it), The Age of Gold provides a valuable recap of the movement’s involvement with the Seventh Art, and the ways in which the two Dalí/Buñuel films in particular mirror its philosophical and political concerns of the moment. Short also draws a crucial distinction between the qualities that the Surrealists were looking for when they watched movies and the difficulties they faced when trying to export those qualities into movies of their own. As he notes, “The Surrealist mindset was inimical to the highly un-spontaneous and disciplined craft habits that are required actually to get films made.”
“Eschewing analysis,” Short goes on, “[the Surrealists’] response to films initially took the form of verbal equivalents to the visual impressions a film had made on them or the emotions it had evoked.” Breton once described this kind of emotional charge as “the feeling of a feathery wind brushing across my temples to produce a real shiver,” which in the case of cinema might be triggered by as little as a few isolated frames or a single intertitle. He recounted how he and Jacques Vaché used to hop from theater to theater, stitching together a composite film far more potent than any individual one—a kind of synthetic criticism that no doubt said more about the Surrealist nature of cinema than any reasoned study. Short, unfortunately, prefers to stitch together quotes from academic sources, all too often relying on them to make his point rather than basing his critiques on direct readings of the films themselves. The result is an impoverishment of his otherwise rich discussion, which at times the author seems almost intentionally to tamp down; I can’t help wishing that he’d brought to it some of the filmic excitement with which a book like Ghost Ships pursues its thesis. But such is the nature of scholarly discourse that, even when expecting a night at the movies, one can easily find oneself in a lecture hall, the screen’s bright and magical rectangle reduced to a dim wedge of light at the podium.
3. In the Dark
Asked by an interviewer about his early years as a medical student, Breton hastened to point out that his “physical presence on the lecture-hall benches or at the laboratory tables should not imply a similar presence of mind.” This remark drummed insistently on my brain some ten years ago, as I sat in a dusky amphitheater of the Sorbonne on a sweltering June day in 1996, spectator at and participant in a three-day colloquium marking the centennial of Breton’s birth. As I listened to the umpteenth close textual reading of one of his poems or yet another exposition of his “hermeneutic devices,” it occurred to me just how prescient René Daumal’s warning had turned out to be. In 1930, Daumal, resisting Breton’s attempt to co-opt his fledgling group Le Grand Jeu, had half-snidely, half-seriously cautioned the Grand High Surrealist against “one day figuring in literary textbooks.” (“If we aspire to an honor,” Daumal continued, “it is to be inscribed for posterity in the history of cataclysms.”). Six decades later, the textbook industry had absorbed Surrealism to a point I doubt even Daumal could have predicted, and today the trend continues unabated.
There are better ways to pass one’s time in the dark. In his autobiographical narrative Nadja, for instance, Breton (who would have been horrified by the Sorbonne proceedings, or maybe just bored to distraction) wrote of afternoons spent in the Théâtre Moderne, where the actors “paid only the faintest attention to their parts, scarcely listening to each other and busy making dates with members of the audience,” and where “during the performance rats crept about, running over your feet” as you perched uncomfortably on a “staved-in chair.” Sound awful? The benches of the Sorbonne might have been sturdier (if not more comfortable), but the flimsy, implausible spectacles onstage at the Moderne also left plenty of room for fantasy. Breton, inspired by one of the singers, dreamt of meeting a “beautiful naked woman” in the woods, and once saw an actual naked woman wandering among the aisles of the rickety theater. How refreshing to view an auditorium in such black light! I can guarantee that nothing emitted by the succession of gray heads at the Sorbonne lectern was nearly so stimulating.
Events such as the 1996 Bretonfest are hardly new, of course. As far back as 1942, Breton himself delivered one of his major statements, “The Situation of Surrealism between the Two Wars,” in no less ivy-coated a venue than Yale University. A decade later, the term “Surrealism” appeared in the Petit Larousse, the dictionary of record for mainstream French education. Two months before Breton’s death in 1966, the conference center in Cérisy, Normandy, hosted the first major colloquium on Surrealism—an event that Breton viewed with great skepticism.
He was right to be suspicious. By the 1950s, and despite protests to the contrary, Surrealism was widely considered a thing of the past. Breton’s word for those who tried to bury the movement in the annals of history was “gravediggers,” and it cropped up more and more frequently in his talk during those years. Even as he continued to involve Surrealism in numerous political and aesthetic causes, maintaining that “the principle of its energy remained intact,” overviews such as Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism (1945) only dug the hole deeper—and at least Nadeau’s history has the benefit of telling the story with some brio. Its successors, in particular Gérard Durozoi’s weightier-than-thou History of the Surrealist Movement (1997), stifle that story under so many minutiae that it’s a wonder it has any wind left. “It is absolutely essential,” Breton was already acknowledging in 1929, “to keep the public from entering if one wishes to avoid confusion … I ASK FOR THE PROFOUND, THE VERITABLE OCCULTATION OF SURREALISM.” Is the well-meaning Durozoi the sort of “profane” interloper Breton had in mind when he wrote these words? No doubt he wouldn’t recognize himself as such, and that might be a large part of the problem.
By now, college courses on Surrealism, theses and academic studies on Surrealist writing and art, lectures and conferences rummaging through its every aspect, are so commonplace that they barely register. Surrealist art exhibits, once a source of scandal, or at least intense novelty interest, have long since become an expected feature of the museum season. The gravediggers have entered the sanctum, and at this point no one even thinks to bar the gate.
Which is not to say that Surrealism must be excluded from the university or the museum. My first true experience of it occurred in those same Yale amphitheaters that Breton had visited thirty-five years earlier, and I’m glad for it. But I was fortunate enough to hear of it from a teacher who could convey the brilliantly colorful human story behind the work, who brought it all to life with tales of Surrealists swinging from chandeliers at banquets or inducing hypnotic trances—the kind of juvenile, absurd, but nonetheless vital shenanigans that give such movements their salt, and their staying power. Catalogues such as the ones reviewed earlier in this essay have their place, to be sure. My fear, however, is that many of the people who read them (or even, increasingly, who write them) are insufficiently familiar with the key texts of the movement, and that they will know of Surrealism only what previous critics or art historians have said of it; I fear that, more and more, our experience of Surrealism will be mediated by an ever-thickening corpus of scholarly commentary, which further obscures its spirit and removes us from direct confrontation with the challenges the movement continues to pose. And if that sounds like an exaggeration, consider that the footnotes to some essays in Max Ernst: A Retrospective refer exclusively to other catalogues, with nary a primary source in sight.
Naturally, we couldn’t expect Surrealism to last forever. The centennial of its own birth is not far off, occasioning who knows what future hoopla at the Sorbonne. The movement had an excellent run, lasting a good half-century and, in some regards, getting itself inscribed in the “history of cataclysms,” to use Daumal’s phrase. It was also inevitable that it should wind up in the history textbooks. But to carve it up, dissect it, embalm it like any other artistic or literary artifact, is fundamentally to misrepresent what Surrealism was, yielding impressions as false as when we apply the term “surreal” to some humdrum coincidence or employ it as a synonym for “kooky.”
In an early letter, anticipating the famous conclusion of Nadja, Breton voiced the credo that “criticism will be love or will not be at all.” Ultimately, Surrealism’s most significant contribution to cultural history might well lie not so much in its imagery (visual or verbal), iconic as some of this has become, as in its resolutely marvelous take on the critical faculties. This approach to criticism imbues the analytical discourse with a heady mix of personal reminiscence, flight of fancy, scattershot association, shrewd analogy, delirium, and intuition that demands to be experienced rather than described. It also underlies numerous Surrealist expressions, among them Dali’s “paranoia-critical” exegeses (used to most brilliant effect in his book The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus); Bretons famous pronouncement, “Everything leads us to believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions”; and group studies like the “irrational knowledge of the object” or the “irrational embellishment of the city.” As forms of criticism go, such renegade attitudes and experiments are less static, less heavily reasoned than what we typically find in the kind of thickly annotated enterprise of which Surrealism is today so often the subject. However elusive and perpetually uncertain they might be, however resistant to definition and sober analysis, however dependent on a line of thinking that is (to use Breton’s term) serpentine—or rather, because of all this—I believe they will lead us closer to a true understanding of what Surrealism had, and might still have, to tell us.
Robert Storr, in his essay for Max Ernst: A Retrospective, includes a deceptively subversive caveat that should be heeded by any art historian about to embark on a critical article:
We cannot go back. Academics cannot recapture or reconstitute the mysteries of Surrealist practice by art historical means. Nor can ardent evocations of the original mystique and the credulity upon which they depend revive its spirit. Not everything about Surrealism has aged well. Aspects of its method and rhetoric strike the contemporary reader or viewer as embarrassingly out-of-date, if not preposterous. Acknowledging this fact rather than evading or explaining it away is the necessary first step toward relocating and reconnecting with Surrealism’s critical and imaginative essence.
To make such a statement in an exhibition catalogue is admirable, even if Storr’s challenge is left largely unanswered in the writings surrounding it. The fact nonetheless remains, and bears repeating: Any artistic or intellectual movement born of a vital impulse, whether Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, or the Situationist International, draws its energy from a specific, unique amalgam of personalities, interests, talents, accidents, contexts, and historical realities. Any attempt to revisit and explicate that impulse after the fact can do no better than to “relocate and reconnect,” or else risk draining the subject of its substance and its interest. There is no formula for this. It is much easier to recognize how it doesn’t happen—by assimilating the movement and its participants into a smoothly contoured chronological flow, for instance, or by hacking it up into neatly delineated chunks (Artist X as painter, as etcher, as sculptor)—than how it does. In the current state of art historical discourse, ever tighter specialization becomes a stand-in for depth, and blockbuster exhibitions require big, fat, blockbuster catalogues. Meanwhile, our connection with the essence grows all the more tenuous.
As I noted earlier, Surrealism above all aimed, through a broad spectrum of means, to liberate and build upon the potential for marvels in everyday life. Heaven knows we could use a shot of the marvelous in these sad times, and a greater familiarity with Surrealism should be a positive thing. But with each new academic study or scholarly presentation, the principle of its energy fades further from our sight. The movement had its explosive phase, and its shrapnel has since been picked clean by legions of scholars; what we need now is to understand and appreciate it in a way that stems not from the head but from the heart and groin. If discussion persists, then let it be not only intelligent and informative, but also passionate, instinctive, and creative. Let it be based on a knowledge of the primary sources that is visceral as well as cerebral, and that can transmit the emotive and kinetic charge of the movements best works. Or, failing that, let it not be at all.
Portions of this essay began as a talk given at the National Academy Museum, New York, in March 2005.