La Civilisation Surréaliste
– Robert Lebel – pages 13 à 19
It would be unfair to suggest that the dadaists and the surrealists of the first generation had the beautiful part, but the world against which they rebelled appears from a distance more naïve, less devious, more vulnerable than ours. Every provocation, every scandal inevitably aroused the offended cries of self-righteousness and gave rise to countless alarming comments in the mainstream press. Towards 1930, the surrealists disturbed so many people and so ostensibly appeared as public agitators that I was astonished to discover, when I could finally know them, that they only were a handful.
Nevertheless it is with apparent ease that most of them managed to diffuse their books or to show their paintings. In 1920, in a climate of frenzied chauvinism, the Magnetic Fields were published by the “Sans Pareil”, where were exposed shortly after collages Max Ernst, an unknown, a foreigner, an “enemy citizen” moreover. The publishing of the first Manifesto by “Sagittarius” in 1924 coincided with that of Les Pas Perdus by the sacrosanct NRF, where Aragon had also preceded Breton in 1921 with his Anicet and where Eluard, Artaud and Crevel were soon to penetrate too. In 1925, Pierre Loeb welcomed a considerable group of surrealist painters, many of whom had just begun. It is unthinkable today that publishers or galleries of a comparable renown place so much confidence in marginal and so uncompromising people.
However, the present society in the West proclaims itself more liberal, more “permissive” than the previous ones, which, in certain respects, is true. How did this happen and why does it lead to a much more stifling situation for dissidents? Already in the Second Manifesto, calculating the risks of a too rapid notoriety for a revolutionary movement, André Breton asked for “the deep, real occultation of surrealism”, adding: “No concession to the world and no grace. The terrible deal in hand. “
We now know that this desire for intransigence would finally come up against the imperative of events. When it became clear that totalitarianism was the most immediate danger, liberalism, despite its flagrant bad faith, was nevertheless considered as a state of “lesser evil” and, soon, as a possible “salvation” for the persecuted, refugees, exiled and refractories of all kinds. Feeling this ambiguity to the point of anxiety, Breton undertook to overcome it in his Prolegomena to a third manifesto of surrealism or not, published in New York in 1942 in VVV, a text moving of lucidity, where the malaise filtered through some laconic formulas , such as: “What in a certain sense is done is rather unlike what was wanted,” or “All ideas that triumph run to ruin. “
My daily contacts with Breton at that time allow me to testify that, not for a single moment, he felt himself defeated. On the contrary, he maintained a foolish hope in the powers of a “constantly renewing and leveraging minority”, but it was already only a permanent and “fortified in principle” opposition to which surrealism now seemed to him dedicate its action. It was still necessary that this opposition could have the possibility of expressing itself without constraint and of being heard. But Breton’s stay in the United States and the knowledge he had acquired, with his own body, of the most insidious propaganda methods, as well as the American aptitude, already noted by Karl Korsch, for “the the immediate integration of any counter-tendency “, allowed him to foresee the advent of a society so liberal in its gluttony that it would itself provide for its own contradiction.
By opening its borders to the threatened intellectuals and artists, America was, as may be suspected, less thinking of its mission of humanitarian safeguarding than of the prestige that could be obtained by showing itself as a protector of freedom of expression. So there was never a limit to our right to say everything and to publish everything, except that our very limited means forbade us to go beyond a confidential communication. The removal of legal prohibitions gave way to economic censorship.The dilemma of post-war surrealism lies mainly in the fact that it has not been able to free itself from this hindrance or to live with it. Yet there was no alternative but scuttling or gagging but the reminder of the “terrible deal in hand” gave a taste of guilt to this forced recourse to a bias that was not the most abrupt compromise and Breton, aware of this cantilevered situation, was irretrievably affected by it.
This period was characterized by an ever increasing effort of occultation and a passionate search for divergent paths. Surrealism then seemed to have become absent from its time and to immerse itself in esotericism and utopia. L’Ecart Absolu was the significant title of the last exhibition organized during Breton’s lifetime. He affirmed there with a dark violence his need to stand out at all costs from a society that made him more and more horrified, but towards which he was rejected in spite of himself, by the equivocal tolerance with which he knew he was surrounded. Aggravating circumstance, the “scholarly research” of the “big and small savers of the spirit”, as formerly denounced in the Second Manifesto, realizing that surrealism had entered history, pronounced his death certificate, while covering it with flowers.
It was very quickly concluded that surrealism had been “co-opted” but is that really what happened ? Any co-optation supposes an appropriation, a use, even an assimilation of the subtracted substance and one looks in vain for the system, the doctrine, the “vulgate” or the way of being that the surrealism has really impregnated or inflected and which would borrow from surrealism more than junk verbalism or the most jaded tics.
If the pitifully freed couples of the boulevard theater play the game of truth, if the miserable manufacturers of pictorial or poetic clichés put at the fingertips of all the foolishness of their pseudo-surrealistic lucubrations, if the newspaper “Le Monde” which, until the death of Breton, treated him condescendingly, now quotes him in all occasions and has included him in their very opportunistic list of well-known writers, is it necessary to infer from that that surrealism has entered, as they say, “in the hearts”? It would be to be a dupe of the liberal cheating than to believe in such a slogan.
The only example of a real mass surrealist awakening was that of May 68, although it was mostly at the level of the collective unconscious and only exceptionally passed the stage of a diffuse and not satisfied claim. There were unforgettable impulses of intuitive exaltation but surrealism cannot not be satisfied with an emotional release. It can not be confined to conquering political positions, and losing them. Otherwise, why not hold for an essential victory the authorization finally obtained by the guardians of museums, and the employees of post offices or railway stations, to wear a long hair under their caps?
The process that tends to encompass surrealism in the cultural magma is rather a brain drain. Capitalist or socialist economies have an identical need to exploit the “talents” necessary for the development of their technology, but if totalitarianism persists in being choosy and afraid of contamination, liberalism shamelessly attempts to attract all supposed holders of any knowledge, even if such a knowledge had been judged hitherto useless or harmful. This knowledge, seized independently of the ideas it expresses, according to Mc Luhan’s “media” theory, is a basic stimulant, and is expected to improve the quality of the information store into which it will be dumped.
Liberal innovation, which is not exempt from a dose of masochism, is also tantamount to luring the stimulant all the more because it emanates from the most intractable oppositional milieus. Hence the special favors enjoyed by the defectors, the recently converted, or the tired irreducible who aspire to a cozy old age. One will even be satisfied with their tacit acquiescence, and the cynical renouncements will be spared to them. It will be enough for them to add their effigy to the collections of stuffed beasts, of which every regime, should it be the most criminal or the most stupid, is proud to clutter its antechambers.
One may be surprised or indignant that artists may be so numerous in this situation, but it is part of their very nature, to seek approval, desire or echo. They can not indefinitely bear to be frustrated and their behavior is sooner or later similar to that of those despised women who slowly fade away in their desperate search for a smile. Power, whether totalitarian or liberal, excels at systematically practicing this torture, the modern aspect of which is economic servitude. So the artist is most often only a producer of goods without customers or, in the recent conjuncture, a clown without spectators, and he will hence be an easier prey for the trapper who deigns to distinguish him.
The writers position in a liberal regime is comparatively more convenient because the relative latitude they have creates an alibi for them when they surrender to the temptation to participate in the ambient logomachy. Are not they officially invited to speak frankly and to indulge in the game of massacring taboos, without restraint? With a little bit of a naive tartuferie, they will have the illusion of living another Age of Enlightenment”, as the emulation of explaining everything is raging. The virtuoso of the pen in the service of this neo-super-rationalism can even afford the luxury of questioning without risk the writing he uses and the regime that uses him. Thus is established the myth of utterly free speech whose sole prerequisite is to eliminate any shadows in its formuĪation. Its artificial clarity, its peremptory tone, must convince anyone of both its veracity and objectivity. It is conceivable that the last “difficult” authors, tired of being rejected by the publishers and harassed by their itching to write, end up joining almost all the literary men in the factories of the industrial language, to profitably collaborate in the new “anti-obscurantist” crusade.
The efficient and discreet picking-up of this good willing labor force is provided by the charity offices of the unemployed intelligentsia, while the resurrection of the dead is the responsibility of scholars, teachers, historians, compilers and biographers. They are allocated the task of bringing to the credit of the most infamous states or epochs the lives devoted to vomiting them.
As for surrealism, a may be excessive tension – but whose fault? – also makes us insupportable the meticulous justifications of the archives scavengers and the pious rehashings of the best wills. At the point we have now reached, is occultation still the most desirable issue? First of all, it is necessary to define the conditions of a personal prophylaxis which at least would keep us from contributing to such an incontinence, since not being able to put an end to it.
Of course we do not give a shit about the lessons of history, about ancient wisdom, about the miracles of science or art, we have distanced ourselves from idealism, from historical materialism, but would it not be now suitable for us to do the same with hermetism, psychoanalysis and their substitutes? Has not the moment come to liquidate as quickly as possible the unhappy conscience and the nostalgia that loomed over the surrealism of the 50s and 60s? It is not even certain that poetry, as it is cooked, can still deceive us or amuse us. Out of curiosity, indulgence or derision, we lingered over some aspects of the mechanism of human societies of old or from elsewhere, but it was like slowing down the pace to look at puppets moving or to glean wrecks.
The functionaries of the mind were quick to recognize, not so long ago, that the signifier rarely corresponded to the signified. The unconscious of language, which the surrealists tried to uncover by means of automatic writing, in a time when neither Freud nor Saussure had surfaced in France, is accessible today to the least of pedants, the least of policemen.
Despite our reluctance to share our aspirations with the new Rich of the cultural revolution, we must agree that the public domain has expanded enormously. A kind of equivalence is now established between the political regimes, sometimes exclusive as the totalitarians who grind all that disturbs them, sometimes inclusive such as the liberals who gibble pell-mell of all that falls within their reach. On both sides, castes of mandarins pose as owners of language and, under the pretext of modern facade, restore scholasticism in its prerogatives, as an instrument of thought. The reign of linguistics favors the confusion of vocabulary and words such as revolution or despotism, repression, order or liberation have also become suspect.
Incorporated into liberalism quite in the manner of those army conscripts who can not avoid it, there is no need for us to apologize for having escaped by chance from other much more ferocious prisons, nor is it necessary for us to be grateful to our occasional masters for letting us exist, under the only strain of pretending to read their press and their books, to listen to their radio, to watch their television and their cinema.
Freedom as we understand it is taken where it is found, without false shame or superfluous scruples. Our fundamental refusal of any obedience whatsoever would rather encourage us to parasitize and infiltrate without hindrance a society founded on falsification.
A surreal civilization, we have not ceased to believe in it, but let us take once and for all our party that it remains clandestine and magnificently alone with its dreams, its enigmas, its disrespect, its insubordination, its demands and its contempt. Proselytism less than ever and, more than ever, the reclaim of the unknown, of the unspeakable, of what lies beyond codes and systems, without excepting ours. Also be sure to mobilize our enthusiasm for what is truly new and truly liberating. It is at this level that the occultation can be operative and that the warning of Breton: “All the ideas that triumph run to their loss”, may acquire its full prescient value.