From special surrealism to general surrealism / By : Vincent BOUNOURE
[ Excerpt from La Civilisation Surréaliste – Traces Payot 1976 – Pages 251 à 258 ]
Denouncing in 1939 “the blatant complacency with which almost all the most prominent artists show themselves today,” Breton observed (1): “Very few indeed are those who are not content to exploit a single vein, those whose ambition is not to flatter the laziness of criticism and of the public, which only enjoy what they previously encountered. It is high time to react against the conception of the inexhaustible ribbon work of art, to be sold by the meter (I think of these merry-go-rounds of paintings that tirelessly turn around the same objects, the same effects, to these poems mills that year by year, are used to export more and more bags of the same flour) to replace that with the event work of art (which reflects sensitive bifurcations in time, even breaks, and which no longer draws its justification from a derisory formal improvement, but by the only revealing power). The taste for risk is undeniably the main driver that is likely to bring man forward in the path of the unknown. “
Coming back to the same subject in 1942 (4), Breton declared: “At the end of twenty years I see myself obliged, as in the time of my youth, to pronounce against all conformism, and, by saying that, to aim for an only too obvious surrealist conformism, just as well. Specifically, today too many paintings in the world, adorn themselves with what did not cost anything to the countless followers of Chirico, Picasso, Ernst, Masson, Miro, Tanguy – and tomorrow Matta – to those who are unaware that there is no great expedition, in art, which does not engage with the risk of life, that the road to follow is obviously not the one that is lined with guardrails and that each artist must set himself alone the pursuit of the Golden Fleece.”
Finally recalling in 1946 the two fragments just quoted above (3), Breton proceeded to update them in two different directions. One is the industrial and commercial use of a number of surrealist finds: “In terms of the” applications “of surrealism to advertising or fashion, he said, I have very little interest for that, as you may think”. On the other hand, circumstances, in his opinion, called for a much more general judgment than the one that he had previously made on the evolution of painting alone. Quoting his remarks of 1942, he added: ” As soon as I returned in Paris, I could convince myself that this observation was to be extended to most of today’s poetic production. Nothing surpasses it in monotony, and the so-called surrealist tendency that it reveals, is purely formal. It is more than time to recall that according to Apollinaire’s testimony, in his last essay, “the New Spirit and the poets“, surprise is the great new spring” and surrealism, not only agreed with this opinion but has made it an imprescriptible law. “
As relatively well-known as these directives are, their chronological reminding is essential to anyone who, in the 1975 situation, wants to get an overview of the current state of things. An overview that would be informed by the considerable changes that have taken place in the public geology during the thirty years that separate us from the last of these findings.
Unceasingly since then, academic criticism, plastic or poetic aesthetics, advertising exploitation have combined their effects to provide surrealism with an extension and an audience, which are accompanied by a proportional dilution of its characteristic features, and to which public opinion is invited to substitute some picturesque shots as instruments of a mnemonic of rationing.
The deception that is installed in the armchairs of so many thuriferous or of more vulgar cynics, is that surrealism is easily dismemberable, that one can “do surrealist” without being surrealist, and that so many “surrealist compositions”, or “surrealist poems ” that are put up for auction, may abuse the customers based on a forgery that is characterized by a contradiction in terms, of which it seems that no one is aware, that a gross formal similarity manages to hide the diametric disparity of creation methods or modes of life. As everyone knows, from now on, based on some specific aspect, thanks to some specific bias, everything is surrealist. It is yet not too late to try to put some order in the shops, and even to slam the door when getting out of the forge where the spark is extinguished.
In this sense, there is no doubt that surrealism has, as a whole, been the victim of a reductive operation that has developed with the desire to get known as a method accessible to all. An immemorial method, but brought to a new coherence and that surrealism was declaring as suitable for universal use. As surrealism was wishing for a generalization of this method in every use of the mind, as well as in the universality of minds, it could not avoid showing the fruits of it. It could not avoid producing, in full daylight, the irrefutable signs of the inner movement, irrefutable testimonies because they were obtained, not by transcription of an autonomous psychological activity, but by the direct action of this individual demiurge hence marking the raw material.
The demonstration of surrealism as a method, had to pass by the exposure of its proofs: these signs of an activity, which it called to extend by multiplied invention, were the occasion of a misunderstanding that was probably inevitable in a civilization where the tree may still be judged based on its fruits, which it is, therefore, sufficient to imitate. As a result, one ceased to produce apples per kilogram in order to rather copy the advertised commodities of the art market. The products of surrealism, surrealism himself came to expiate them in the center of a gigantic subornation of the mind. The rigorous subjugation of thought to the instance of the sign, renders less accessible and almost indifferent, the matrices from which it proceeds, and which alone gives it its meaning. The coherence between the process and the product, their entanglement, and the thought providing the tipping ticket, cease to be perceptible when the exchange value of the sign or the validity of the ticket become independent of their authenticity. An authenticity which may be entire, null or partial, according to whether the sign is the immediate product of the activity in question, or its multipliable infinite copy, or its mediate and uncontrollable transcription (4).
Through the mercy of these bitches that are called the Muses, surrealism has seen the documentary recordings of its experiences put in competition with their fabricated reproduction. With empty signs, but in every way similar to those that surrealism had put in circulation, except that they testify of the moral inertia of copying and of a severe fever of perseverance in repetition.
Surrealism, in these circumstances, happened to be one of the opportunities offered to a process of widespread deception that originates in the alleged uniqueness of the expression signs, in this formidable mythology that grants a unique and universal content to the formal elements of any language.
It is then the deep foundations of the expression that disintegrate and threaten the doors and windows of communication of an imminent collapse, by gradual termitiation of all the openings. From this universal adulteration of the postal mail, love letter or open letter, it would have been surprising that the surrealists remain in return absolutely unscathed, while they work on signs that are now formally abusive since they are deemed immediately significant of just any possible thing, and that the language of the surrealists, as an expression and, so to speak, as a concretion of their mental regime, is made of the same signs which in the constant social practice collapse between their empty form and their non-localisable content. Of these signs that the social pressure isolates externally to man, in a world where the debate about the water and the carafe indefinitely goes on, to the prejudice of the only effective operation, the operation of man who transforms the world by building and inhabiting his castle of words.
Strictly speaking, surrealism has no common language with its surroundings. Surrealism is an essential segregation because of the nature of public language, as flattened by the belief in the univocity of the signs, and because of its own nature, in other terms, because of its unique reality as a method of expression. The record of the surrealist experience, which is nothing else than what is called the surrealist work of art, while failing to provoke new experiences to infinity, remains the private language of an oppositional group.
It is as such, a suffered and unwanted confinement. Literally defined by the rigor of laboratory operations and by the obligation to exclude anything doubtful or non-conclusive, this relegation is nonetheless broken by incessant exits where surrealism, when it tends to dissipate the ambient mythologies of language by putting into the public his own methods, exposes its products to the judgment of the enemy and is inevitably reached in return by the results of an externalization on trestles, where the operation that he proposes and suggests, remains indistinct under the ignoble pretext that “only the result counts”.
Hence, the circulation in full daylight of so many counterfeit coins, made in increasingly numerous and productive forgery workshops (as Breton had not seen anything yet), is partly responsible for this “conformism” which, within its own borders, constantly threatens surrealism of only giving voice to the repeated echo of its first cries, of inciting itself to play its own old records, that would ultimately be led, as would any new surrealist songs, to melt in the indistinct clamor of “culture and commerce”, that is dominated by the recitation of fables learned in primary schools and by the trumpets of their glorious and to the least, “revolutionary” variants.
As regards the copying involved in its necessary diffusion, it is true that surrealism has occasionally fought on the worst ground when it has responded to it by a “too certain” self-copying as well, and which remains of an equivalent nullity as regards its options. Let’s go so far: in terms of volume, its voice when inclined to quantitative competitions shall always be largely covered; hence would political cynicism now be of no help to surrealism. Just as it could only vainly recall itself to vigilance, so true is it, that such a reminder would remain inaudible if its animators had put their faith in the lamentable miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. But while the suburban music societies are struggling to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, it is elementary to observe that the space offered to surrealist expression has changed in two respects: it has undeniably spread, and this thanks to a characteristic misunderstanding of the linguistic space where surrealism is circumstantially called to resound. The product devours the process.
As Effenberger (5) points out, “the substantial influence that surrealism has had on contemporary art has no more significance from the point of view of its fundamental ambitions than the personal evolution, or the lurching of its supporters, as to the continuity of the movement that they happened to animate for a while. The vitality of surrealism, the magnetism it exerts on the younger generations in all parts of the world, as well as the distance that individuals put with it, who happen to be sensitive to the seductions of an assured existence or who are led to resignation, these are things that come from much further.
Surrealism is not only the product of the contemporary crisis, it still is the critical consciousness of this crisis, it is the instrument that is currently available to the mind, not only as to note the crisis, its forms, its consequences, but to build day after day the provisional solution to this crisis. How could this critical thinking reach such a goal in the absence of an organized nucleus, while despair or lethargy caused by the current social systems or their products, extend their sinister empire? We must not read the expression of a fatality in the disappearance of many of these nuclei as it is caused by the increasing weight of the conditions of existence. On the contrary, what is decisive and symptomatic, is the fact that they are constantly reconstituted “.
What constitutes surrealism as a differentiated milieu, as a fact of irreconcilable opposition to the present conditions made to the mind, is its own language, it is the certainty that every language is indicative of individual structures, even though it is made of words from the street. The language of surrealism contradicts the terrorist language that tends to impose itself by pretending to be the expression of universal structures, a language, that therefore, surrealism is founded to consider as totalitarian.
As we have just seen, surrealism is a good observatory to appreciate in detail by which paths, through which alterations, formal similarity leads to conclude to the identity of contents and processes. This trick, which makes it possible to cancel the latent behind the manifest, is also made of their connection.
The operation of investment of the form, the construction of the content by a reciprocal play between what has to be said and what can be said, the entirety of the symbolic thought or, more accurately, of thought itself, are the object of an active repression which, behind the signs of common use, erases the true disparities, hence revealing the great deception. We know well that no one is without sometimes experiencing the furious temptation to break the Adriane thread of his own identity. The power has intelligences in the place. The privilege of the sign when it makes an alignment of masks out of a society, is of a double benefit: it makes a useful instrument for the repression of difference; and it founds the power in an artificial universality, by superimposing on the individual structures, then more or less definitively deprived of any sort of voice, the mandatory structure — mandatory as the school is — of the economic and supposedly logical Esperanto, of the discourse of flat shapes, arbitrarily detached from the dense mass of black jet that once produced them.
This is why the numerical extension of surrealism can only be evaluated as fruitful, in view of its general objectives and according to the chances, increased or not, that it offers to reach them. Its objectives can be summed up in one, which is to undermine the power structures with which public language currently coincides, to return it to its proper function. Such is the condition of the surrealist revolution.
(1) Prestige of André Masson. Minotaure, No. 12-13, May 1939. Reproduced in Surrealism and Painting, New York, Brentano’s, 1945.
(2) Prolegomena to a third manifest or not. VVV No. 1, June 1942. Reprinted in Les Manifestes du surréalisme, Paris, Sagittarius, 1946.
(3) Interview of Jean Duché published in Le Littéraire of October 5, 1946, reproduced in Entretiens. Paris, Gallimard, 1952. Jean Duché’s question is thus formulated: “Our modes of thinking, of seeing, are more imbued with surrealism than the average man thinks: posters, shop windows, a certain young poetry, a certain painting … Is not there real inflation? “
(4) The place of dreams does not have to be bargained in surrealism; and Sarane ALEXANDRIAN (The surrealism and the dream, Paris, Gallimard, 1974) is well advised to recall it with brilliance in a book which is recommended not only due to the abundance of unpublished documentation, but especially because of a rather rare personal commitment. In which way would some questionable statements matter if the cardinal question that dreams posed to the Surrealists from the beginning was discussed and resolved?
This question is that of its expression. Hypnagogic hallucination or the waking phrase are likely to be noted; the dream, is not. Its transcription is adulterated on the one hand by memorization, with interventions of the psychological system of the day before, and on the other hand by the heterogeneity of the dream (which is a milk of words, but also a milk of spectacles, of sounds, of affects) and of the discourse which provides the narrative, that is to say, we see it, a false version.
When Dali proposed the trompe-l’oeil representation of dream images, so did he eliminate what was not an image, so did he also resort to a transcription of nocturnal perceptions in the diurnal language . We did not fail, in surrealism to blame him.
In connection with that, may the question of the validity of the psychoanalytic method be posed simultaneously, when it proceeds to the analysis, not of the dreams themselves, but of their narrative.
But psychoanalysis puts the literalness of this narrative into brackets. It renounces to go back to psychological time and to unravel the fundamental beam in its origin. It does not act on what has been, but on the present image of what has been, that is, an integral part of the night life and of the diurnal life in their historical sequence, an image in which the features of the present illness are revealed, which is the only object of the cure.
Such is the ambiguity of the surrealist dream narrative and it seems to me, by which the misunderstanding that surrounds it still has to be lifted.
There is no suitable technique for dream transcription. The dream is not a form of surrealist expression because its translation leaves room for the unverifiable. But it is a nourishing land. It never stops feeding another life, the life that reaches the consciousness or that is susceptible of experimentation and of direct expression.
(5) Unpublished note.