Radical media, politics and culture.

<I>Edinburgh Review</i> on <i>Surrealist Subversions</i>

Surrealist Subversions:

Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States

Edited by Ron Sakolsky; Autonomedia 2002; USA; ISBN 1-57027-122-4; pbk. 742pp

Reviewed by Doug Campbell, Edinburgh Review #111, pp.113-15

Each new retrospective exhibition brings a flood of articles which seek to pigeonhole Surrealism as a Parisian Art movement of the twenties and thirties, damn it by association with Guinness ads and Dali’s careerist antics, and bury it with Breton, if not the outbreak of the second world war. Over and above the fact that Surrealism was, for Surrealists, always about far more than art, this ignores the existence of the other Surrealist groups that sprang up across the globe and of their distinct traditions.

The story of the Chicago Surrealist group, and the wider U.S. Surrealist movement that grew out of it, is a colourful one, likely to be unfamiliar to those who know Surrealism only through art historical accounts.Ron Sakolsy introduces this volume with a lengthy account of the group, founded in 1966 by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, a couple of SDS militants who encountered Breton himself in the radical ferment of mid-60s Paris. The confluence of Surrealism with resurgent American radicalism whipped up a veritable tornado, bound for places stranger than Oz. The resultant vortex has sustained itself across the intervening years and made its way across the United States, sweeping up an incredible variety of thinkers, dreamers and troublemakers along the way. The two hundred odd texts assembled here are just a sample of those scattered in its wake.

Beyond the conventional dismissal of Surrealism as a defunct school of painting, there is a more sophisticated critique that asserts that, despite subversive pretensions, it remained a movement that was white, male and distinctly misogynist. The early movement was certainly seen as such by white male dealers and publishers looking to pick key proteges and safe investments. However, the people they didn’t invest in make up a substantial party, and the diversity of contributors here gives the lie to this critique. Distinctive African American and Afro-Caribbean Surrealist voices are strongly represented. The question of Euro-centricity is taken up with ‘The Lie of Whiteness’, containing substantial extracts from the two Surrealist issues of the American journal Race Traitor. This is a remarkable publication, dedicated to the abolition of whiteness as a historically arbitrary category, one that later waves of European Americans apparently struggled to attain. There is a willingness to engage in hard thinking here, considerably beyond conventional anti-racist platitudes. Elsewhere there are pieces on C.L.R. James, Aimée Césaire, and the relationship between Surrealism and the Negritude movement. In a rather more relaxed mode, the subsection on ‘Black Music’ includes extracts from the 1976 ‘Surrealist supplement’ of Living Blues magazine, which finds Surrealism in the rich dream imagery of classic blues and the spontaneity of jazz. Surrealist women have gained a higher profile over recent years; from within the movement, Penelope Rosemont has documented the hidden female history of Surrealism in the massive anthology Surrealist Women. Numerous contributors to that volume are to be found here, notably to the fore in sections on ‘Patriarchy & Sexual Oppression’ and ‘Religion as Repression’. The insistence on tracing misogyny and sexism to patriarchy through religion, and Judeo-Christian religion in particular, may be uncomfortable in terms of conventional multiculturalism. It remains an argument to be reckoned with, as fundamentalists collide in Palestine, the Gulf and elsewhere.

The anthology represents more than fifty different contributors. Around ten percent of the articles are new to this volume, the remainder drawn from individual tracts, catalogues, sympathetic magazines and the Chicago group’s own occasional publication Arsenal. Much of this material is out of print, and little of it was distributed beyond those directly engaged in the Surrealist movement, even in the US. The pieces are mostly short, and are organised into loosely thematic subheadings. This layout, spiced with numerous illustrations, tends to promote browsing and, despite its weight, you may find yourself carrying the book around for a while. The presence of contemporary texts scattered among the older articles tends to point up how well much of it has aged. The Chicago group have attained a certain notoriety for their polemical approach. As applied to the complementary tendencies of post-modernism and new age culture over the last twenty years, this hard line now seems remarkably prescient. Having read many of the original publications, I can attest that there has been no selective application of hindsight, and that they have always displayed a formidable ability to detect bullshit. These are the people who organised a custard pie attack on ‘men’s group’ advocate Robert Bly some years before he became ‘Iron John’. As this action suggests, it would be wrong to present the contributors as severe ideologues. A consistent thread of humour and playfulness runs alongside serious political theorising, and there is ample documentation of the games that make up a good part of Surrealist practise. Here you will find correspondence with Marcuse, but also extravagant tributes to Bugs Bunny and articles on horror movies; a generous and absolutely non-ironic appreciation of popular culture. And, in a stylish finale, no less than eleven pages of gleefully reproduced hostile notices.

Not long after Breton’s death, French youth took to the streets in the uprisings of 1968 and the Paris Surrealist group were thrown into confusion and temporary dissolution by seeing their own slogans appearing on the walls of Paris. Leaving the twentieth century, Franklin Rosemont notes the widespread and ongoing anti-capitalism protests with approval. As the impossible solutions of global capitalism become ever more absurd, the reasonable impossibilism of Surrealism seems ever more timely. If it is a truism to say that history is written by the winners, the history of Surrealism has largely been written by dealers and curators. But, contrary to recent reports, history is not yet over and the present volume provides evidence of Surrealism in the rudest of health. Even if you remain unconvinced of Surrealism’s continuing relevance, this book is sure to provide hours of provocation and surprise.