RECOMMENDED FOR READING
| Abyss of Reason: Cultural Movements, Revelations, and Betrayals -- Book by Daniel Cottom; Oxford University Press, 1991
A century after Emanuel Swedenborg's colloquies with angels, on the last day of March in 1848 -- a year distinguished by a westering plague of cholera, the California gold rush, the failure of the Chartists' "Great Petition" to the English Parliament, and the spectacle of revolutions and counterrevolutions among the anciens rdgimes of Europe -- a few residents of the small town of Hydesville, New York witnessed what many would later describe as the dawn of a new age of miracles. The experiences that began in the presence of Margaret and Kate Fox came to be called "the Rochester knockings," after the nearby city, and these knockings opened the door onto modern spiritualism. This was a cultural movement devoted to communications between living persons and those who had passed beyond the veil, to the Other Side, or (in the name made famous by Andrew Jackson Davis, the Poughkeepsie Seer) to the "Summerland".
Three-quarters of a century later, in Paris, on the 15th of October in the year 1924 -- a year that saw Benito Mussolini consolidating his power over Italy, Adolf Hitler killing time in prison by dictating Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Woodrow Wilson going to their graves, and a jazzy mood lighting up certain social circles in the United States and abroad-a former medical officer in the First World War, Andr Breton, published a manifesto proclaiming a new revolution. He told of a reign of dreams, unfettered imagination, willing unconsciousness, insanely pure spirit. "Columbus had to set out with madmen in order to discover America," 2 he wrote, repeating an image used by the spiritualists of bygone years to defend their seeming eccentricity. Thus was surrealism, a cultural movement devoted to communication between the human spirit and the world beyond the faade of reality, officially given a name and local habitation.
The differences between the two movements were many, but perhaps the most obvious were in the kind of crowd they attracted. Modern spiritualism cast its net wide: while generally a middle-class and plebeian affair, it was patronized by an emperor and empress, various noblemen, a number of well-known literary figures, and others among the elite classes of Europe, America, and other parts of the world. "Quietly stealing on from fireside to fireside," wrote William Howitt, "without pretence, without parade, it has gone up from the middle ranks of life to the highest aristocratic regions, and down to the humblest abodes of working men." 3 By contrast, while those who called themselves surrealists came from various backgrounds, almost all were young artists and intellectuals, many of whom had already participated in the avant-garde shenanigans of dada.
This difference in social background is magnified by the disparities in scope of the two movements. Spiritualism was a popular affair, attracting many adherents in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Spainy, Russia, and other countries. Moreover, all of these people actually participated in the movement. This was not a case, as with the experiences of Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in 1858, of a vision being granted to one and taken on faith by those who followed. The spiritualist press liked to claim three million persons sharing in the new dispensation; and even if this number was exaggerated, the influence of the movement was sufficiently widespread to inspire comments such as the following editorial reflection in the May 1853 issue of Harper's:
Please read the rest of the book at Questia online library
| What are we coming to, in this enlightened era? Are we gradually turning into a nation of Spiritual Rappers, or believers in Spiritual Rappings? One would think so, to hear of the hundreds of "spiritual circles" that are forming, or have been formed, in different places, north, south, east, and west; of the distinguished men and "strong-minded women" who are announcing their adhesion to all the alleged "mysteries" of the delusion, and particularly the marvelous matters involved in this wonderful and supernatural " Ism. "
The twenties and thirties and find scarcely a passing allusion to surrealism, while writers in the second half of the nineteenth century -- Fanny Trollope, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, and William Dean Howells, among others -- showed much more awareness of spiritualism as a cultural phenomenon that had to be addressed. The possible relation between spiritualism and the revolutions of 1848 was noticed not only by S. B. Brittan proselytizing newspaper, The Spiritual Telegraph, but also by Karl Marx in the opening pages of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which are replete with references to revenants, miracles, and the awakening of the dead.
Because of attitudes encouraging wide participation while frustrating domination by any one individual or organized body, spiritualism tended to be democratic in orientation; despite their professed sympathies with the masses, the surrealists defined themselves as a superior and authoritarian few. As Victor Crastre has written of their movement, all "attempts at vulgarization went against its singular genius." 7 Moreover, most spiritualist mediums were said to be female, many women were among its believers, and women's rights were often among its goals, as when Victoria Woodhull ran for president of the United States on the Cosmo-Political Party ticket. In contrast, while allowing for the participation of women such as Meret Oppenheim, Gisle Prassinos, Leonora Carrington, and, more peripherally, Frida Kahlo, surrealism as a cultural movement was both male and patriarchal.
Modern spiritualism sought to be an open movement, one that welcomed anyone who sought the truth. In fact, its participants were happy to claim kinship even with many of those who most vigorously opposed them. The surrealist style of approaching the world was very different, with the members of this group often showing themselves to be jealous of its identity and determined to maintain its exclusivity against all pretenders and arrivistes. Surrealism was censorious where spiritualism was celebratory, aggressive where spiritualism was placating, and angry where spiritualism was sentimental. Spiritualism was founded on pathos, surrealism on pathology. If spiritualism sat in shadowed rooms and dreamed of light, surrealism, pregnant with darkness, walked the noonday streets of the city, hoping to inspire alarms and diversions. "To the exterior world," wrote Roger Callois, "already woven of signs of recognition, is added the secret language of the personal abyss that diurnal controls serve to stifle and travesty."...