Saturday, 27 November 2010
Surrealism in literature - my take on it.
Many literary historians would define "surrealism" as "a Twentieth Century movement in...literature purporting to express the subconscious mind by phenomena of dreams etc", but I would like to present an alternative history of surrealism in Literature and demonstrate that it was more than a short-lived pre-War movement, but adapted and changed to become an intrinsic part of many contemporary novels by merging with many realist techniques, and indeed, is now more widely-read than any of the original movement's founders could have hoped. While the similarity of some of the works to which I will refer with the works of Breton and Bataille is minimal, few would argue that the contemporary novel isn't fundamentally realist in form even though they have little in common with the likes of say, Fielding or Stevenson.
While the surrealist impulse has been present in Literature from Hesiod (who claimed to be instructed by the Muses), and the poet-priestess of the oracle at Delphi, through England's first poet Caedmon (who wrote when possessed by the spirit of God), to the dream literature of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan", Byron's "Fatal Man", and the descriptions of madness and irrationality in Shakespeare and Milton , the word was first coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917, and the first truly surrealist work was Andre Breton and Phillipe Soupalt's automatic text The Magnetic Fields, published in 1919.
These early surrealists thought that automatism was the way to express the subconscious, expressing in Breton's words, "properties and facts no less objective" than those in the external world. Breton described how to write automatically in his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), and thought its seemingly nonsensical phrases used the "grammar of dreams", a process very similar to what Freud called "condensation". In the Manifesto Breton said "Is it not possible that my dream of last night follows the one before, that dreams give every sign of being continuous?", a questioning of "objective" reality similar to that of two writers I will later discuss - Philip.K. Dick and William Burroughs (who once responded to the question of whether he believed in life after death by asking, "How do you know you're not dead already?")
However, by 1947 The Surrealist Groups in both Paris and London had dissolved, and in America literary surrealism, with the exceptions of Samuel Greenberg, William Carlos Williams and Charles Henri Ford, had remained disorganised and unfocussed, driven primarily by those European intellectuals and artists that had fled to America to escape the Second World War. Thus, the surrealist "movement", and surrealism itself, as accepted by many literary historians, fizzled out, and passed into history as an interesting experiment (although small numbers of surrealist writers continue to work today).
However, I would argue that surrealism did not disappear thus, but changed and moved into other literary sub-genres. The literary historian can see little evidence of it simply because he is looking in the wrong place.
Its history can be traced from the likes of Breton and Bataille in the Thirties and Forties, to the Beat writers of the Fifties especially Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and their work marked a significant move of the surrealist impulse and technique from a small, intellectual "avant-garde", into the mainstream.
Much of Kerouac's work was a "hip" stream of consciousness, and he believed in a form of literary Truth, which meant that, like Breton before him, he refused to change a single word once it had been set on paper. Burroughs (a former student of English Literature at Harvard), on the other hand, was probably the most overtly surreal of the three "big" Beat writers (Allen Ginsberg being the other). His focus on drugs and drug-induced altered states paralleled Breton and Dali's focus on dream-consciousness and paranoia, as well as mirroring those poets that the Surrealists admired, such as Coleridge and his opium-induced hallucinatory verse of "Kubla Khan".
While writing his most famous novel The Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs was experimenting with mescaline and paregoric (an elixir of opium), and was reading psychiatric research on the effects of mescaline on schizophrenics. It was during this time that there was also a physical link with the early Surrealists, in that he met Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, and was friends with Jacques Stern, (a friend of Dali and Jean Cocteau).
Much of the novel is set in "Interzone" of which Burroughs said in 1955, "the meaning of Interzone, its space-time location is at a point where three-dimensional fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into the real world. In Interzone dreams can kill....and solid objects and persons can be as unreal as dreams." Similarly, he explains his method as:
"There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is
in front of his senses at the moment of writing....I am
a recording instrument....I do not pretend to impose
"story", "plot", "continuity".
Much of the book was a mish-mash of what interested him at the time - drugs, homosexuality, detective and science fiction, Kafka's Metamorphosis, and so on; a narcotics agent absorbs junkies like amoeba; a homosexual's rectum stretches from his body searching the town for young men; and telepathic creatures called Mugwumps sodomise young men before killing them.
However, it is his later work which is even more overtly surreal. In his three books, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964), he made extensive use of "cut-up" and "fold-in" techniques which he claimed "placed at the disposal of a writer the collage (technique) used in painting for fifty years" , and described the concept behind it as being that "....any narrative passage or any passage, say, of poetic images is subject to any number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in their own right. A page of Rimbaud cut up and rearranged will give you quite new images - real Rimbaud images - but new ones....cut-ups establish new connections between images, and one's range of vision consequently expands."
These techniques while not expressing the subconscious mind, pushes the concept of automatism one stage further, the re-arranged words and phrases falling in a truly random order (that is if one can accept the idea that the author's subconscious can be truly removed from the process, which is open to debate).
There are many similarities between the kinds of sentences and phrases produced using the cut-up technique and those produced by automatism. For example, compare "Sad young image dripping stagnant flower smell of sickness to a dusty window... I'll tell you story called the Street of Chance" and "from his mouth floated coal gas and violets...on the boy's breath a flesh" with the phrases written by some members of the Surrealist group - "The face of the precipice is black with lovers; the sun above them is a bag of nails" and "In a glass filled with a garnet-red liquid, an intense boiling created white rockets that fell in hazy curtains."
However, the pushing of surrealism more into the mainstream by the Beat writers, was undoubtedly helped by the explosion of marijuana use amongst their readership - the "Beatnik" youth of the Fifties, their freedom-loving attitude to life (or aspirations towards it), and their drug use no doubt going some way towards creating a greater interest in altered states of consciousness and a greater questioning of "dream vs reality".
Of course, when considering the use of "consciousness-expanding" drugs by the general public, one must discuss the 1960's. For several years Allen Ginsberg had been investing a great deal of time and energy in helping to found the "Flower-power" hippy movement, and it was amongst the turmoil of this decade, (the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, radical feminism, and the hippy movement), that the literary style known as "The New Wave of Science Fiction" flowered.
Prior to this development science fiction (henceforth called SF), whilst being used by the likes of Burroughs as a representation of popular culture, had been rather dull and overwhelmingly realist in approach. (Although the heavy use of symbolism and allegory was remarkable in such pulp hack-work. The number of stories which used the "invading aliens/Martians/robots" theme as an allegory for Communism, or McCarthyism (depending on the writer's point of view), or the terror of the Atomic Age is impressive, and its popularity amongst Servicemen traumatised by the effects of mechanical war is understandable). However, these stories and novels are of little interest in the current discussion.
Christopher Priest gave a definition of New Wave" style writing as:
"...obscure to one degree or another. There would be experiments with
the actual prose: with grammar, with viewpoint, with typography.
There would be reference to all sorts of eclectic sources: philosophy,
rock music, newspaper articles, medicine, politics, automobile
specifications, etc. There would frequently be explicit descriptions of
sexual activity, and obscenities were freely used."
The surrealistic elements in such work is clear. Indeed, Donald.A. Wollheim wrote in his introduction to The 1974 Annual World's Best SF, that it "...amounted to little more than a dreary rechauffe of surrealist work of the 1920's and 1930's which had largely petered out in the mainstream."
Wollheim meant this to be a criticism of the New Wave, but for my purposes it is extremely useful, for that is the whole point! Surrealism, despite what many critics and literary historians believe, didn't "peter out" in the mainstream, but evolved, changed, and became more popularly accepted (and certainly more commercially successful) within the literary sub-genre of SF. Surrealism hadn't disappeared, one just needed where to know where to look for it.
The British magazine New Worlds, edited by Michael Moorcock promoted many of the New Wave writers including Brian Aldiss, and J.G. Ballard. Indeed, the first Moorcock issue contained a story by Aldiss, the first part of a Ballard serial (later published as The Crystal World), and interestingly an article by Ballard on William Burroughs.
As the New Wave, rich in surrealistic elements, grew in popularity, magazines like Amazing Stories, edited by Cele Goldsmith, began publishing more New Wave material, including work by Aldiss and Ballard (again), and Ursula Le Guin, Thomas Disch, and Philip.K. Dick (whose work I will come back to later).
By 1968 Judith Merrill had assembled the anthology called England Swings SF, which was littered with experimental typography, quotes and jottings of the time, and lyrics from Sergeant Pepper (echoing Burroughs' cut-up technique), and Brian Aldiss had managed to get an Arts Council grant for the financially-troubled New Worlds on the basis of its literary merits. It was at this time that New Worlds was publishing such work as Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration (1968)(a symbolic novel about the enhancement of human intelligence by use of the syphilis virus (more shades of Burroughs' work)), and much of J.G. Ballard's more overtly surreal work. He was writing books such as Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974),(a take on the Robinson Crusoe story about a motorist who crashes on a traffic island in the centre of a huge highway network and is unable to escape). New Worlds also published many of his "condensed novels" that were later to be assembled in The Atrocity Exhibition (1969).
Using tight compressed prose, and lists produced by free-association, Ballard openly referred to Surrealist writers and artists, and their works (for example, Oscar Dominguez, Roberto Matta, Paul Eluard, Ernst's "The Eye of Silence", "The Robing of the Bride", and "Europe After The Rain", and Dali's The Persistence of Memory" are all referred to).
The Atrocity Exhibition, contains such passages as "Undisturbed, the universe would continue on its round, the unrequited ghosts of Malcolm X, Lee Harvey Oswald and Claude Eatherly raised on the shoulders of the galaxy" , and "At the conclusion of the film he would go out into the crowded streets. The noisy traffic mediated an exquisite and undying eroticism" , and some of its chapters included The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race, (which did indeed consider Kennedy's assassination as a motor-race, with Oswald's shot acting as the starter pistol), The Generations of America, (a list of names taken from various magazines - "Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert.F. Kennedy. And Ethel.M. Kennedy shot Judith Birnbaum. And Judith Birnbaum shot Elizabeth Bochnak. And Elizabeth Bochnak shot....." for six pages), and Princess Margaret's Facelift, and Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty, in which he replaced the word "patient" in a medical text with the aforementioned celebrities, with the intention of highlighting the closeness of such texts to pornography by adding the element of fame.
However, the writer who was most obsessed with the nature of reality, unreality, and surreality was Philip.K. Dick. While much of his work in the Fifties was interesting but conventional allegory, his work in the Sixties and Seventies became notably more surreal, more than likely the result of an incredibly high intake of drugs, and bouts of mental illness. He experimented with cut-ups for fun, but his published work is notable for its obsessive reworking of the theme, "What is real?"
In Ubik (1969), an accident causes five people to waken in a reality other than our own, a reality that is the construct of one of the protagonists, the rest of the text describing their search as to whose reality it is, and their attempts to regain access to true reality.
In A Scanner Darkly (1977), the main character, an undercover drugs officer who has to take identity splitting drugs to fit in with those he observes, loses touch with who he is, and doesn't realise that the latest drug-user he has to track and observe is actually himself.
Some could argue that while such works are surreal in the everyday use of the term, they do not conform to Breton's aim of expressing subconscious thoughts and drives. However, the narrative viewpoint of these novels (indeed Dick's personal view of the world in his everyday life) is very similar to the paranoiac-critical method espoused by Dali, although utilised in a traditionally realist narrative form.
Similarly, Breton himself said in What is Surrealism? (1934), "Surrealism must cease being content with....automatic texts, the recital of dreams, improvising speech, spontaneous poems, drawing and actions", and I would argue that this is precisely what these writers were doing - utilising the surrealist impulse in new ways.
In Dick's novel Valis (1981), (written after he believed he had been personally contacted by God in 1974), two of the main characters are Horselover Fat who we are immediately told is insane, ("Philip" in Greek means "lover of horses", and "Dick" is German for "Fat"), and Philip.K. Dick himself, who also narrates the story. These two characters search for God (called Valis) in all manner of everyday items such as records and books, before meeting Sophia (the Fifth Saviour) who dispels Dick's need to project a "Fat" personality, before being accidentally killed. This results in the reappearance of the Horselover Fat personality who decides to scan T.V. channels and search the world for further signs of Valis.
The strange narrative viewpoints (who is the narrator, indeed, who exactly is the author?), and the continued questioning of objective reality, makes this a highly surrealist work. The conventional prose style may have little in common with The Magnetic Fields, but I would remind readers of Breton's urging writers to "move away from automatism", and to consider the differences between "realist" writers such as Ben Okri, and Emil Zola.
Finally, in Time Out Of Joint (1959), Dick writes a novel based on a similar premise to that of Magritte's "La Trahison des Images", in which Magritte reminds the viewer that his work is indeed not a pipe but an oil painting representing a pipe. In the same way Dick writes a novel in which a man sees objects disappear only to be replaced by pieces of paper bearing their names, the most notable being when he tries to buy a drink, and the vendor disappears leaving only a small note with the words "SOFT DRINK STAND" written on it.
Dick, like the Surrealists before him, saw his work as dealing "with hallucinated worlds, intoxicating and deluding drugs and psychosis....It's like Eye in the Sky" (a novel similar to Ubik in theme) "when actual rescue is right at hand but they can't wake up. Yes, we are asleep like they are in "Eye" and we must wake up and see past (through) the dream - the spurious world with its own time."
The work of many of the New Wave writers can thus be seen to be highly surrealist - explorations and expressions of the subconscious and altered states of consciousness. However, by the mid-1970's, the New Wave had become too obscure for many, and SF again became less experimental. So, we must therefore look elsewhere for the existence of surrealism into the Nineties, and with this in mind I would guide the reader towards many of the so-called "Post-modernist" writers.
For example, in Time's Arrow (1991), Martin Amis writes a novel in which time flows backwards from the nineties to the twenties, a classic New Wave device, used by Aldiss (Cryptozoic!), Ballard ("Time of Passage"(1967) in The Venus Hunters(1980)), and Dick (Counter-Clock World (1967)) before him. The purpose of this novel is essentially to redeem War (drug-addled psychotics "return" from Vietnam as clean-cut, fresh-faced teenagers), but especially the Holocaust (smoke and ashes flow into the incinerators from which the Jews are reborn), but the concept is notably surreal. Even conversations run in reverse, requiring careful reading.
Similarly, in his novellas Cock and Bull,(1992), Will Self tells the story, using a traditional realist narrative, of a woman who grows a penis and then rapes her alcoholic husband (Cock), and a young rugby player who discovers a vagina behind his knee, has sex (using his knee-vagina bizarrely enough) with his Doctor, and then gives birth to a son (Bull).
These stories, primarily intended as a humourous comment on sexual and gender relations are however, noticeably non-realist in their subject matter, if not their approach.
Thus, I would hope that my arguments for the continued existence of surrealism as a powerful literary force have been amply demonstrated, but, a linear direct influence can also be demonstrated by the various relations between the writers themselves. Martin Amis is an admirer of Ballard's work, even citing him as an influence for one of the stories in his collection Einstein's Monsters. Will Self has written articles for "The Guardian" on Burroughs, and "The Sunday Times" described Cock and Bull as like "a film of Kafka's Metamorphosis, scripted by William Burroughs, and shot by David Cronenberg" (who has himself filmed adaptations of Burrough's "Naked Lunch" and Ballard's "Crash"). Ballard has referred to Breton, Ernst, Dali, Bataille and other Surrealists in his works, as well as writing the introduction to the 1993 edition of Burrough's Naked Lunch, a favour returned by Burroughs in writing the introduction to Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition.
Thus, it can be seen how the Surrealist impulse has been an important element in literary output since before the time of Hesiod, and it is this impulse, this need to question external reality and explore the internal reality through which it is mediated, which marks a work as Surreal, rather than the narrative style that the work adopts. Thus, while the works of the Surrealist group in the first half of this century can indeed be seen to "run out of steam", repeatedly ploughing the same automatic furrow, the impulse, by its very nature refusing to conform to rigid rules of "what Surrealism was", changed and adapted, surfacing in different literary genres and utilising different narrative techniques. Indeed, when one considers the growing popularity of these works as the century has progressed, from the largely obscure works of Breton and Bataille, through the countercultural cultishness of Burroughs and Dick, to the bestseller, Booker-prize-winning success of Amis and Ballard, one can only wonder if the Surrealist impulse is evolving over time to a point where it is pure enough to be relevant to the masses, or if Society itself, overloaded with information from dozens of sources, has somehow gotten close enough to its own hidden paranoias and anxieties to be able to feel an importance in this work.
Ballard, J.G. (1993) The Atrocity Exhibition, London, HarperCollins.
Breton, A, and Soupalt,P. (1985) The Magnetic Fields, London, Atlas.
Burroughs, W.S.(1995), The Soft Machine, London, HarperCollins.
Carter, P.A. (1977) The Creation Of Tomorrow, U.S.A, Columbia University Press.
Gascoyne, D. "Salvador Dali" in Germain, E.B.(ed) Surrealist Poetry in English, (1978), London, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics.
Germain, E.B. (1978) "Introduction" in Germain, E.B.(ed) Surrealist Poetry in English, London, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, p27.
Miles, B. (1992), El Hombre Invisible: William Burroughs, London, Virgin Books,
Priest, C. (1978), "The New Wave" in Holdstock, R,(ed) Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, London, Cathay.
Sutin, L. (1994), Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip.K. Dick, London, HarperCollins, p153.