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| Toward the Poetics of Surrealism
- Book by J. H. Matthews; Syracuse University Press, 1976
THE CHAPTERS that follow represent an inquiry into the nature of surrealism, carried out over a period of a dozen years, without a concerted plan and with what may be termed more accurately instinctive persistence than orderly purpose, sometimes in fact with less than full realization of where curiosity was leading.
Instead of aiming, at this point, to attain the impossible ideal of comprehensiveness, I have chosen to reconsider a few previously published articles next to other essays not printed before, in an attempt to confront a little more systematically the fascination that led me to write them. My present purpose is to illustrate some of the ways in which the term "poetics," undergoing expansion beyond conventional literary and artistic usage, can lend itself to defining the ambitions of surrealism and the ways in which these ambitions have been pursued on the broadest scale. In so doing, I hope to contribute to dissipating some of the confusion that, half a century and more since Andr Breton published his Manifesto of Surrealism, still impedes recognition and full acknowledgment of the significance and scope of a movement that has had an unparalleled impact upon creative expression and upon cultural history in our time.
The following articles, noted below in chronological order according to date of publication, have found their way into this book, revised, expanded, or otherwise modified. My grateful thanks go to the editors of the journals and magazines cited for permission to reprint material that originally appeared in the periodicals mentioned.
IN 1937, a new surrealist gallery called Gradiva opened in Paris. The occasion was marked by the appearance of a tract signed by the gallery's director, Andr Breton, affirming the "non-value" of certain concrete elements mentioned in a description taken from a story by the Hungarian novelist Alexandre Marai. Without categorically asserting as much, Breton's text gives us to understand that he prized the latent value of things far more than their manifest content. For this reason, evidently, he named his gallery after the heroine of a tale by W. Jensen, brought to the attention of surrealists in France by Freud's analysis of the story in his The Interpretation of Dreams.
In surrealist parlance, the distinction between latent and manifest content is all-important. The former is associated with imaginative freedom. On the other hand, the latter betokens the depressing consequences of a utilitarian principle diametrically opposed to the pleasure principle governing imaginative activity. Looking back to our own childhood we readily appreciate what is involved here.
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| Any child can testify, in a way that Breton surely would have appreciated, to the inexplicable attraction, the latent appeal, of objects which, to an adult, appear mani- festly intended for some purpose that escapes children entirely. I recall that, as long as parental patience would allow, I used to stand in front of shop windows displaying trusses, surgical belts, artificial limbs, and so on. . . But with time, as surrealists have noted with deep regret, a child's glance loses its freshness, its capacity for stimulating wonder. Little by little, the ugly, sadly shameful aspect of things that had held my attention before now began to impress itself upon me. I would stop no longer in front of certain windows that at one time held so much fascination. Henceforth I would be able to see in the items they showed only the vulgarly utilitarian aspect of things. It took a quarter of a century or so for Luis Buuel to reawaken with his film Tristana memories that had remained confused or more or less deliberately put out of mind since childhood.
Thrown carelessly on a sofa, the artificial leg Tristana refuses to wear is a disturbing sight. The stocking and shoe, put on to grant it a more natural appearance, serve now to give it a disconcerting air, make it look aggressively unassimilable. Designed for a purpose from which detachment has separated it, Tristana's artificial limb appears to exist for itself, not as a substitute for something else, and quite apart from the function in which, while it is in use, so far as we notice it at all, we see the reason for its presence.
Breton shared with his fellow surrealists the firm belief that a sense of the utilitarian is one of the crippling weaknesses of the reasoning mind. He taught that by divesting ourselves of this sense, we arrive more easily at establishing fruitful relationships with everyday objects and, naturally, with less-than-familiar objects that common sense presses us to assign a functional role in a world forever ruled by habit and routine. Stripped of the label identifying their use, even the most commonplace of things can signal to us, sometimes with remarkable precision. Visitors to Breton's Gradiva Gallery could not enter without becoming aware of the two larger-than-life human figures Marcel Duchamp had cut in the glass door. 1 Just as those visitors were made conscious of Duchamp's silhouette by the necessity to pass through it, so we find ourselves more keenly responsive than before to the outline of this or that object when we see it in unwonted perspective. This is because affective response brings us into contact with daily routine in a manner that renders it necessary to us in an entirely new way.
Cut off from the body to which it belongs -- amputation brutally creating abnormal conditions -- a woman's leg, some might think, is in danger of losing its erotic significance. But if this were not simplifying matters, then there would be nothing to say of the physical transformations to which Hans Bellmer submits his doll, or of the luminous canvases painted by Pierre Molinier. 2 Anyone who has imagined the lighthouse modeled on the leg of the king's favorite -- a noteworthy allumeuse indeed 3 -- which provides Andr Pieyre de Mandiargues with the subject of some verses in his Incongruits monumentales, will be ready to admit that, upon occasion anyway, meaning comes to us from unsuspected and even rationally inconceivable sources. 4 Whether or not we incline to Freudian interpretation like Breton and other surrealists, admitting as Breton does that we are dealing with "a most obscure necessity" means acknowledging at the same time being confronted with something emerging dramatically from darkness into light to prove that an exchange of inestimable value can take place between man and the world about him.
As Breton reminds us of it when, for his own purposes, he limits the meaning Jensen gives Gradiva Rediviva Zo Bertgang, the significance of Gradiva -- SHE WHO MOVES FORWARD -- involves advancement beyond conventional utilitarianism and customary limitations in favor of poetic liberation. Essentially, the latter reflects the movement from latent to manifest, replacement of "non-value" by values subjectively grasped. To the extent that certain found objects prompt us to look at them from this angle rather than another, it is thanks to chance, apparently, that poetic liberation is effected in its purest form. But if we are content to accept the restrictive limits imposed by the accidental, without ever offering material things the assistance...