Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 22 December 2008

Painting the air

If poems could be created in a trance without the conscious participation of the poet, the writing of poetry would be so boring or even unpleasant an operation that only a substantial reward in money or social prestige could induce a man to be a poet. – WH Auden

Sur - re - al – ism (n.) -(often l.c.) a style of art and literature developed principally in the 20th century, stressing the subconscious or nonrational significance of imagery arrived at by automatism or the exploitation of chance effects, unexpected juxtapositions, etc.

I like surrealist art. I say I like surrealist art. I know what I mean by that, at least I know what I like. But I'm not sure what that is. I know when I see it. I've stared at that definition for a while now. It's seems straightforward enough. But it's a bit one-sided. It says where the work comes from but not a) what the intention of the author might be or b) what we're expected to do with it.

I like the painting in the corner. It's a Magritte. I like it a lot. It's called 'The Empire of Light'. He actually painted a few pictures called 'The Empire of Light' but this is the one I like best, the one he did in 1954. I have a print of it which I bought in Edinburgh in a little arts and craft shop near where that wee dog is commemorated, Grayfriars Bobby. That was probably thirty years ago. And I kept it with me through nearly a dozen house moves, so it must mean something to me especially considering that all my own art, bar two oils, ended up in a skip. I remember the tinkers raking through the skip as I drove away. I wonder if they appreciated any of it?

So what does this painting mean to me? Nothing. Not a soddin' thing. I look at it. I enjoy it in exactly the same was as I might enjoy a sunset. It pleases me. But it doesn't mean anything. When I look at it I remember buying the print. It wasn't a spur of the moment thing. No. I scoured the shops with the express intention of locating a copy of that print. But I can't remember why. What was it about that painting that moved me enough to go out of my way to own a replica of it? It elicited an emotional response. It made me feel good. That was it. And I can live with that.

So, why do I have such a problem with surrealist poetry?

How does a surrealist write? Here is what André Breton had to say:

Written Surrealist Composition or First and Last Draft.

Having settled down in some spot most conducive to the mind's concentration upon itself, order writing material to be brought to you. Let your state of mind be as passive and receptive as possible. Forget your genius, talents, as well as the genius and talents of others. Repeat to yourself that literature is pretty well the sorriest road that leads to everywhere. Write quickly without any previously chosen subject, quickly enough not to dwell on, and not to be tempted to read over, what you have written.

The first sentence will come of itself; and this is self-evidently true, because there is never a moment but some sentence alien to our conscious thought clamours for outward expression. It is rather difficult to speak of the sentence to follow, since it doubtless comes in for a share of our conscious activity and so the other sentences, if it is conceded that the writing of the first sentence must have involved even a minimum of consciousness. But that should in the long run matter little, because therein precisely lies the greatest interest in the surrealist exercise.

Punctuation of course necessarily hinders the stream of absolute continuity which preoccupies us. But you should particularly distrust the prompting whisper. If through a fault ever so trifling there is a forewarning of silence to come, a fault let us say, of inattention, break off unhesitatingly the line that has become too lucid. After the word whose origin seems suspect you should place a letter, any letter, l for example, always the letter l, and restore the arbitrary flux by making that letter the initial of the word to follow. – André Breton, What is Surrealism? (paragraph breaks mine)

This is how it all began. He's talking about automatic writing as we would know it, writing without letting all that nasty thinking getting in the way.

I'm not so sure that what we see presented as surrealism nowadays is faithful to the spirit of surrealism. I suspect it imitates it. Is this Jackson Browne album cover surrealist? It looks as if it might be and, if no one had seen the original, it could probably pass as surrealist, not that that was the intention of the cover artist; they simply wanted to flog an LP.

"Centuries from now, any art that takes new paths toward a greater emancipation of the mind will be Surrealist." So wrote André Breton. Okay, it's not quite a century since Surrealism with a capital S was defined and then redefined a few years later – the Surrealists did love their manifestoes – but I think his point is well taken.

By 1945, the artists and writers that had given this new art form its impetus had become separated and retrospectives were even being promoted, beginning with Max Ernst. And yet the term (albeit more often these days with a lower-case s) persists. It is not the same as it was before and I would suggest that much of this is to do with one man, Salvador Dalí, who, although he moved away from the original Surrealists in method he did an enormous amount to spread their spirit. I would suggest that if everyone was asked to name one Surrealist artist then Dalí would make everyone's top three and probably be most people's first choice. And yet, ironically, the Surrealists purportedly sacked him in 1930s. Not that this stopped Dalí. As far as he was concerned though, and he said so in so many words, he was surrealism and I doubt the man in the street would argue with him. I certainly wouldn't, certainly not in a dark alley.

So much art that I see calling itself surrealist I find derivative, it looks like a poor man's Dalí or a Magritte but I wonder how many writers there are today using the kind of methods that the Surrealists started out with? One of the techniques which I would have assumed the Surrealists would have given their blessing to was that of cut-ups. A precedent of the technique occurred during a Surrealist rally in the 1920s: Tristan Tzara offered to create a poem on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat. A riot ensued and André Breton expelled Tzara from the movement.

So, no cut-ups then.

Dalí was quite clear when he spoke about his art. He admitted that he didn't know what it meant but refuted any assertions that that made it meaningless. Since I've long argued that meaning lies under the control of the reader/viewer this doesn't trouble me, not in principle at least.

Let's have a look at a surrealist poem by Paul Éluard:

The Nakedness of Truth (I know it well)

Despair has no wings,
Nor has love,
No countenance:
They do not speak.
I do not stir,
I do not behold them,
I do not speak to them,
But I am as real as my love and my despair.

It's not very surreal is it? I could have written that. Maybe it's not a surrealist poem just because a surrealist wrote it. How do I know if he's being surreal or not? I'm being facetious. But I'm also being serious. A book of poems doesn't come with a set of instructions. Well, perhaps the occasional one does but I've never come across one. No, all I have are a few words on a page like this. Do I need to know what the author's intentions were before he sat down? Well, if I knew it was a surrealist poem then I could comfort myself with the fact that the poet didn't know either before he set out. He's not being clever. This is not a 'decoder ring' poem; this is not an 'emperor's new clothes' poem; this is merely a random convergence of words on a page and the meaning is entirely at my discretion. I don't feel I can do that with the poem above. It looks thought out. Perhaps Éluard gave up Surrealism in his old age and got a proper job because I have no idea when this was written. It may even have been written before he took his vow of surreality. I could do some research but I'm not going to. I'm going to find another poem.

I didn't find a poem that looked surreal enough for me. I found this. Well, it might be a prose poem. I don't know. I've yet to investigate that twilight zone. Anyway, Benjamin Péret wrote it and Guy Bennett translated it.


Air, in its normal state secretes a steady cloud of pepper that makes the earth sneeze. On the ground, the pepper condenses until it gives the knick-knack in summer and the newspaper in winter. By simply placing the latter in a cool place it turns into a railway station or a sponge, depending on the number of pages. The pepper also condenses at a height of two thousand meters, then falls back to earth in a powder so fine that no one notices it, but the testament to such flagrant uselessness eventually appears as, unbeknownst to them, passers-by inevitably trample it. At greater heights, the pepper nourishes the stars, giving them their lustre.

Painted blue, air makes undergrowth in dry weather; in rainy weather it makes bleach, but is then harmful to man who absorbs large doses of it for it causes ulcers, boils, and damages tooth enamel. Painted yellow, air is used to dress furs and, mixed with powder of cockchafer, cures lockjaw. When sucked on, air is used to repair inner tubes, when salted, it becomes a bed. Warmed between the hands, it dilates to the point of changing into a whip. Torn to shreds and sprinkled with red wine, it gives the maestro, so useful to peasants at harvest time. Dried in the sun and preserved all winter in a dry place, in spring air will give the engagement ring which, due to its extreme sensitivity to variations in temperature, is very fragile and rarely reaches maturity.

Shut up in a closet, air tends to escape so as to blow out the door at the first possibility, taking the shape of a mushroom generally used today to fight wrinkles.

Pickled in vinegar, air gives the porter which, in windy weather, is as runny as overripe cheese. The runny porter is then collected, dried, carefully ground and then sown in a shady spot. Within a month the moon sprouts, emerges from the earth and blooms, for the moon is not a heavenly body as is generally believed, but the pollen of innumerable female runny porter-flowers that rises every evening, whereas the male flowers fall to the ground leaving their seed to sprout again. Every morning the moon plunges into the sea and, as it hits the waves, produces the tides. As it dissolves, the moon gives the sea its salty taste. – extract from 'The Four Elements'

Now that is what I think of when I think of surrealist writing. It's fun enough to read and I quite enjoyed its silliness and some of its imagery especially the idea of painting the air. Now that is surreal. But is it any good? What criteria do I use to judge it?

Anyone can string together disparate images, stream-of-consciousness narratives, idiosyncrasies, or non-sequiturs, but not anyone can do this in a truly evocative way. Or can they? There is method behind the Surrealist's madness, techniques first of all but probably more importantly a state of mind. One would imagine that not everyone is capable of relaxing themselves enough to … let's be poetic about it … free the spirit. I doubt I could. I'm not very good at letting go or going with the flow. Writing is something that I take control of and structure.

But, how to read? Surrealism, as César Aira noted, promoted a new kind of reading, based on a succession of novel images that force the reader into the present, denying the usual mental recompositions that logical sequences allow. Each line or image abolishes the previous one in its straining for the now, the ‘ahora’. (Ahora is Mexican for 'now'.) You, reader, do the work, the free-associating.

Doesn't this all feel like a word-association test? Or trying to make sense out of a dream? Of course the Surrealists were big on dreams and placed a great deal of emphasis on their interpretation. Freud came along and gave what they were doing the rubber stamp of scientific respectability and yet there are those who still maintain that dreams are just random collections of thoughts and that attributing meaning to them is going that one step too far.

The fact is that we humans try and extract meaning from everything and anything. It's a bit of an obsession. And so, when faced with a collection of words like Péret's 'Air' it's impossible for us to admit that it is meaningless. Even if I jumbled up the words our eyes would still flick about them looking for connections. Ultimately the answers we come up with say more about us than the author. Isn't that the end result of reading normal, i.e. not surrealist, writing? Well, yes, up to a point but there is still a significant contribution by the writer, thoughts, opinions etc which we have to gauge against our own thoughts and opinions to see if they remain unchanged after the reading exercise. I don't see that with a surrealist text. The writer has simply saved me the chore of having to collect a pile of words myself to free associate over. Or am I being too harsh? I don't know. I haven't done enough research.

Like most of the stuff I write this has simply been me having a think out loud. I have next to no experience of this kind of poetry although I did used to own a collection of Surrealist Poetry – I think it was a Penguin edition. I'm really just emphasising the fact that I really am shackled to meaning as the end result of the process of reading. Why I look at art differently is a subject for another day perhaps.

I thought I'd finished this article when, by chance, I ran across an interview with Marjorie Perloff, a poetry critic and professor emerita of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University, in The Argotist Online in which she is asked why abstract art is more accepted that abstract poetry. Considering where I began this investigation I think her response provides a nice coda.

MP: I think there are two answers to this question. (1) visual art, abstract or otherwise, is much more accepted by the public than is poetry. Ours is increasingly a visual culture: a few years ago, I went to a Magritte exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum here in Los Angeles. It was packed; one couldn't get near the paintings. But if one asked the same people to read surrealist poetry, comparable to Magritte's painting, they would be at a total loss and say the poetry was much too difficult, too obscure. Thus Max Ernst's paintings and frottages are Big Business whereas André Breton's poems are barely known in the U.S. And the same would be true of Dada or Italian Futurism. Kurt Schwitters, for that matter, is well known as a painter, but his poems remain almost unknown!

But (2) "abstraction" in language is a very different thing from abstract painting. I take it by abstract poetry you mean nonsensical? Like Clark Coolidge or Bruce Andrews? I think the hostility to such poetry has to do with the simple fact that words (unlike paint strokes or dabs of colour) inevitably have meanings, and so the reader inevitably wants to "make sense" of a poem and is frustrated when he/she can't. I don't think it's the aura of the museum versus the university classroom. Then, too, poetry is taught especially badly: in even the best high schools the only modern poets read are Robert Frost or Langston Hughes or maybe Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. There is no training in HOW TO READ whereas art history classrooms do better by paintings and sculpture


Dave King said...

I obviously have not had much exposure to surrealist poetry, for as I read your post I was beginning towonder whether such a beast could exist in any genuine sense. For example, would the poet not have to emancipate his mind from such matters as syntax? And would there then be sufficient reality for it even to be surreal? Then I got to the passage on air and was won over. I think you must call that surreal. I am still a bit worried by the syntax enigma, though. Even surrealism must have a unifying rule or rules, I think. It cannot be totally random and still be art or poetry.

Jim Murdoch said...

My assumption here, Dave, is that rules of grammar are so ingrained that we think in them even at speed.

Art Durkee said...

Surrealism was the culmination of Romanticism, not a rejection of it. What was new was the inclusion of unconscious processes and chance. The classic being automatic writing and the game of exquisite corpses.

There's a small book published by Shambhala called "A Little Book of Surrealist Games," that is a compendium of Surrealist methods and writings. There are similar compendiums online, of course.

Perloff's summation is accurate, I think. Abstraction in language is indeed inherently different than in the other arts, because of the persistence of vision, of habit, of rules. (The Chomskyian idea of inherent deep structure in language has been largely discredited, but there is a tendency in us, it seems, to reinforce habits until they become unconscious grooves, like grooves in a record that the needle must follow under most circumstances.)

Dave, I think because the Surrealists were the end of Romanticism, rather than the beginning of Modernism, most of the habits of Romanticism adhere in their work, including pre-Modern use of grammar and syntax regardless of the strangeness of the contents. Perloff makes this point in her second answer, which I think is right on target. I think the Surrealists retained the viewpoint of muc Romanticism, too, in their attitudes that they were hero-artists in opposition to the stultifying and conformist effects of the Industrial Revolution. Hence the stream of multiple manifestoes. But they were also clearly men-of-arts, in the heroic sense, and several of them were interested n the politics of domination rather than absorption; another reason for so many manifestoes, and all the arguments about was a true Surrealists and who wasn't. The cult of personality around the artist was a flowering of Romanticism, and it reached a culmination of sorts in Dali, who was never "off stage." His whole life was a performance. You're right to single him out as the chief influence on popular culture as what to Surrealism is thought of by non-artists; he was a gifted promoter and marketer.

Magritte stopped calling himself a Surrealist rather early on. He also didn't call himself a painter, but an explorer of questions about consciousness. In some ways he was a quiet experimentalist with no fixed ideological agenda, who used the lessons of Surrealism and took them much further.

Frankly, even though Surrealism began largely with the French (it's been argued it grew out of Mallarmé et al.) and had some wonderful poets come out of the movement in France (René Char being one of the best), I would argue that Surrealism as a method and style reached its greatest flowering in Spain and in Latin America (Xavier Villaruttia, Neruda, Machado, et al.), and with some of the modern Greek poets such as Elytis, Seferis, and others. I've been working on an essay along these lines for some while, but it's not been on the front burner lately because of more urgent matters.

tashabud said...

I'll come back to read the rest of your post later. However, I buy paintings because they talk to me somehow, in ways that touches me emotionally. Buying an artwork that I like represents what I like in nature or in my surroundings.

I'm here mainly to wish you and your family a merry Christmas and a prosperous, happy New Year.


Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for all that background, Art, it's hard to know where to draw a line writing an article like this especially when it's pretty much all new to me too.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Tasha, and I hope you have a nice Xmas too.

Carrie Berry said...

I would argue that Jackson Browne's Late for the Sky album cover is more art than you may have allowed, Jim. The album (an 'autobiography of his young manhood' according to his website) contains the credit, "cover concept Jackson Browne if it's all reet with Magritte." The perfectly stacked collection of tunes is made complete by the album. It means quite a bit to me.

Jim Murdoch said...

Carrie, so, if it's art, what does it mean?

brad4d said...

"How to Draw a Bunny" documents Ray Johnson who postponed product for the process. My favorite critique from the movie was how. ."he lived on the revelatory level of life". .

meaning is manure ~
In Art the heART is
ahead of the head
~ bloomin' culture

Jim Murdoch said...

Ray Johnson sounds like an interesting guy, Brad.

Jena Isle said...

It's a very educational post Jim, written by a pro. Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Breton got very persnickety about what was allowed to be "Surrealism" and was all about exiling from the movement writers who didn't adhere to the right politics. But I still enjoyed the collection of Breton poems that I found translated into English.

One of the problems with truly automatic writing is that it's filled with cliches and trite sentiments -- cuz that's what comes up when your mind is idle. You have to work your way around the detritus to find fun stuff.

Jim Murdoch said...

Good point about automatic writing, Glenn. I actually think that's a wall we all have to break through no matter what kind of writing we're doing, not taking the easy option.

McGuire said...

Where to begin?

As I see it, surrealism and more particularly Dada, are concerned (at least in the written form) with the irrational aspects of human nature,

Which would generally be listed as: lacking in rationality, intentional incoherence, undermining of logic itself but means of creative nonsense/play and idiocy.

Mad with its own creativity. Dare I say or creative with its own madness. I think the surrealists, approach life as absurd, as the most bizzare and insane thing that ever happened. And they work from there own out.

The dadaist was a kind of reaction to world war one. The proponents were simply against the world that 'rationalised' such madness, indeed, a world that continues in a more furious fashion to, rationalise the evil world we live in. As such, dada has failed, it could not and did not, reveal the horrible basis of our world, in which would should accept our own irrational, perverse and selfish natures, out in the public domain, so that we could then move on, to a world were people govern themselves. And not a world governed by a human set of social structures, much like the mouse on the spinning wheel.

The profundity of realising the need never have been a spinning wheel. Or mice.

Ok, I've gone off on a tangent, and have left more question unanswered. But, I hope this splurge of ideas has given you insight into some of the intentions of 'dadaists' but also insight into how I understand it.

As for meaning being none existent, I agree. You're observations are entirely accurate. We 'create' meaning, the text is impervious to what it 'means'. At the most simplist level, surrealist writing and dada, are making 'meaning' were we least expect it, in the unusual, the odd, the irrational and the idiotic.

Spontaneous nonsense actually has meaning if we embue it with such, if it is our intention to have it 'be made sense of', after the fact.

'Does anyone think that, by a minute refinement of logic, he has demonstrated the truth and established the correctness of these opinions?' - Tristan Tzara.

It's all about subversion in the artistic domain which demonstrates, in a rather pretentiou manner, that such subversion is lacking in practical reality (i.e. political horror, war, corruption).

I do believe that made little sense.

Jim Murdoch said...

I get what you're saying, McGuire, and I've talked about it before when I wrote about micropoetry. The bottom line is that we are hard-wired to make sense of things.

Carrie and I have a cockatiel. I've made mention of him before. As I'm writing this he's singing his night-night song because its bedtime and he knows he gets sung a song right before the cover gets pulled down. I'll come back to that.

What I've learned about him over the years is that he is hard-wired to see the world in certain ways: he sees something to eat, flee from if he can (fight in he can't), mate with or flock with. And that's about it. We got a new cover for our duvet at Xmas and it is covered in white shapes on a black background. When he first saw it the first thing he did was 'wings' assuming that what he saw was a threat and he made himself big to try and scare it off. As that didn't work he flew round the bedroom screaming his head off.

When we see letters on a page our gut response is to try and make sense out of them. Our brain tries to organise them into words, the words into sentences which we try and make sense out of. It doesn't make sense to us when words don't make sense.

Now back to the bird. In the wild he doesn't get tucked in at night but we've trained him; he responds to routine. Something that initially made no sense to him at all now makes perfect sense. The bird has hard wiring and so do we but there's also learned behaviour. My problem with the surrealist poetry I've come across is that I don't know how to body swerve my hardwiring.

McGuire said...

Haha!Love the parrot story/analogy. A fine analogy for meaning and mistaken meaning.

My handwriting is quite poor but I don't see it as a problem when I want to write in a 'ridiculous' fashion. I'm still known to write with the pen and diascribe like mad till the cows come page.

Re-reading my reponse, I realise it was rather muddy and unclear. Sorry for that. I always like to make things harder for myself.


McGuire said...

I replied to your reply JIm but so far I don't see it up, don't tell me it got snatched by the ether?

If so, I'll make a shoter reply, I love your parrot story (a great analogy of meaning and irrational meaning). It almost read as a critique of my poetic self, if I can be selfishly self referencial.

The main body of my reponse is rather long winded, littere with error, and making wild claims about politics and surrealist subversion and general 'dada mock cunning', perhaps it is all simply pretentious in the long run (dada and surrealist play), my central interesting in these types of 'art expression' is their imaginative undermining of were we can find, even conjure, meaning.

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry, McGuire, I thought I'd okayed it. Now up.

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