Radical media, politics and culture.

Oliver Katz, "Surrealist Phone Book"

O.K. writes

"A Surrealist Phone Book"

Oliver Katz

Reviewing Franklin Rosemont's

An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers

Chicago: Black Swan Press, 2003. Illustrated with drawings by Artur do Cruzeiro Seixas. Available through Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1740 West Greenleaf Avenue, Chicago, IL 60626.

In the seldom-seen late-Cold War thriller "Miracle Mile," (1989), a young man in Los Angeles answers a ringing telephone in a booth out of pure serendipity on an empty street at 3 AM. The call turns out to be from a frantic USAF technician employed at some remote Midwestern missile silo. The caller announces that he’s just launched his thermonuclear payload at an enemy state, and that an apocalyptic retaliatory missile strike directed at the US will come with full force in about an hour. If I remember correctly, the young man who answered the phone responds to this awful news by taking his girlfriend on a late-night date to the La Brea tar pits.I have been thinking a lot about such random episodes involving odd phone calls since finishing Chicago Surrealist poet and radical publisher Franklin Rosemont’s An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers. At its most literal, this brief book is a provocative and playful compendium of essays on the phenomenology of those phone calls that you make and receive by mistake. These days, such occurrences happen less frequently thanks to the proliferation of e-mail communication and our use of answering-machines and caller ID technology to screen incoming calls (has our defense against capitalist telemarketing ushered wrong numbers into extinction?), but Rosemont’s stories come from twenty-five years’ worth of informal journal entries cataloguing such encounters. These loosely-connected articles—part memoir, part philosophical treatise, part imaginary exercise—cover episodes ranging from funny to melancholy to delightfully bizarre. Rosemont approaches wrong numbers from the usually-held opinion that they are irrational problems, indescribable difficulties, and pointless nuisances, and from this vantage point, he cheerfully unravels skeins of ideas for all sorts of poetic solutions for a wide variety of situations. As a result, the reader becomes awakened to the myraid potentials for change and adventure that surround us at all times at the grassiest of roots, prospects that exist even in that most mundane and often tiresome of interactions, like the telephone call.

What this book is really about is the cracking open of one small front in the revolution of everyday life. Like fortune cookies, or snatches of a conversation overhead from passers-by, or the meditative insights offered up by a late-night cab driver in a strange city, wrong numbers are part of the unruly, bristling network of random ideas and encounters that insist on poking out of even the most manicured of mental landscapes. “This book is an inquiry into the poetic, critical, and subversive implications of electronic voice-to-voice chance encounters,” Rosemont writes. “Just as misspelling is the least appreciated genre of creative writing, the Wrong Number is the most despised form of oral poetry and storytelling.” Rosemont reconfigures the phenomenon of the wrong number as a “crisis point” where modern technology has broken down to the point where, without warning, the telephone call is magically converted from its official, instrumental function (“May I speak to Mr. Peterson, please?” or “I’d like to order a large mushroom and spinach pizza,” or “Operator! Get me the police!”) into an absolutely haphazard disruption of routine. Rosemont uses these moments of breakdown as a springboard for delving into one of the most exhilirating and revolutionary of surrealism’s guerrilla tactics for radical social transformation, namely the recognition, preservation and exploitation of that wonderful moment of unanticipated chaos called “the Marvelous.” This is made most apparent in Rosemont’s accounts of those times when he manages to convince an unseen stranger to take advantage of this sudden opportunity by engaging in a conversation rather than simply doing what the rest of us always do, which is mumble “You’ve got the wrong number” and hang up the telephone.

As investigated by surrealists, the Marvelous is that which has been provokes a sensation that threatens the existing order and definition of reality. Over the last century, this very common human sensation has been obscured or otherwise co-opted by religious authoritarianism, patriotic mysticism, mass-media mirages, and compulsory commodity consumption. But the wild nature of the Marvelous persists, often grabbing our attention through startling dream images, lucky coincidences, and sudden manifestations of our secret, deep-seated desires. In those moments, the Marvelous strike us with a double-edged frisson of delight and fright that disorients us and provides a perceptual foothold for destabilizing the daily drudgeries of life in a capitalist State. Surrealists assert that the accumulated intensities of Marvelous experiences can help us to overcome the alienation and fragmentation so typical of contemporary existence -- by developing an appreciation for the Marvelous, we are more capable of dissolving the repressive, culturally-constructed tissue that divides perception from knowledge, imagination from physical life, inner worlds from outer worlds, and poetic contemplation from lived experience.

The brilliance of An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers lies in its simple explorations of the Marvelous emanating from something as ordinary as making and receiving wrong numbers. In this respect, Rosemont’s book can be compared with surrealist André Breton’s research projects of the mid-thrities into “convulsive beauty” (such as the 1937 un-novel Mad Love), except that Rosemont’s examination, though packed full of Big Ideas and peppered with the occasional recondite reference, is far more accessible and fun for general readers. In his quest to show how accidental technological encounters can be mobilized as eruptions of the Marvelous, Rosemont looks at nitrous oxide, Black revolutionary thinkers, medieval alchemy, Wobbly soapbox agitation, bebop jazz, gnostic heresy, and Bugs Bunny cartoons. In fact, you can set your imagination afire just by reading the book’s index and trying to form conceptual connections between personalities like Chester Himes, G.W.F. Hegel, Barbara Stanwyck, Flora Tristan and Godzilla. The book encourages readers to consider the likelihood that the most anarchic liberty can be set loose by the same mental muscles used for hallucinating, channel-surfing, daydreaming doodling, and free-stylin’ free-association. Will you accept the charges?

Rosemont’s last book, the massive and revelatory Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture (reviewed here), was a scrupulous excavation of a lost cultural history, but this time around, he has tackled a more ephemeral (but no less intriguing) set of concerns about totally free thought and expression. In An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers, Rosemont foregoes the rigors of investigative and conjectural synthesis so readily apparent in Joe Hill and instead positively revels in a mood of distraction, inattentiveness, and creative loafing. A half dozen starkly evocative black-and-white drawings by the exemplary Portuguese surrealist poet and graphic artist Artur do Cruzeiro Seixas are shuffled throughout the text and aptly illustrate its expansive climate of untamed possibility. Taken as a whole, this strangely endearing and exciting little book is a creative manual for utopian speculation best read aloud as snippets in bed by lovers, or in a train-hopped railroad car on hot, drowsy Nebraskan afternoon, or between cubicled office co-workers who have finally decided to quit their jobs.