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The Surrealist Situation of the Object / The Situation of the Surrealist Object (Part 2/4)

*Lecture presented on 29 March 1935, at the Mánes Gallery in Prague and, later on, at the end of April in Zurich. This translation departs from the Czech translation of the original version delivered in Prague. In the French original, the lecture was published in André Breton, Position politique du surrealisme (Paris: Éditions du Sagittaire, 1935). Translated by David Vichnar.

It is never superfluous to return to a reminder that already Hegel in his Aesthetics dealt with all the issues that can be now considered the most difficult in the realms of poetry and art, and that he managed to solve most of these troubles with exemplary clairvoyance. Given that in many countries Hegel’s brilliant work is not known in its entirety, it is possible that various hack obscurantists still find in such problems reasons for concern or pretexts for continuous strife. Moreover, given that too many Marxists are too blind in submitting to the letter and not the spirit of what they generally interpret as Marx’s or Engels’ thought makes it possible for the Soviet art politics and the educational organisations under its supervision in other countries to join their plaintive voices with those of the former times and renew, or what is worse, stir up debates that have, I repeat, since Hegel’s time been utterly impertinent. You quote Hegel and see immediately how the revolutionary circles knit their brows. What, Hegel, whose dialectics walked on its head?! You fall under suspicion and – since Marxist theses on poetry and art, actually quite scarce and unconvincing, were all drafted long after Marx – the first smart-aleck can win the day by throwing at you catchphrases regarding “militant literature and painting”, “class content”, etc.

Still, Hegel came and, I would fain say like the defendant in that famous dispute could remark about the Earth “And yet it moves”, settled in advance those vain conflicts waged against us now. His views on poetry and art, the only ones so far to result from an encyclopaedic culture, are first of all the views of a miraculous historian; no prejudice departing from the system can distort them a priori, and even if so this prejudice can after all be detected during the process and thus cannot, in the eyes of the surrealist reader, lead to more than a few easily redressed errors. What is essential is that this truly unique collection of knowledge was set into motion and subjected to the workings of a machine then utterly novel—for indeed Hegel was its inventor—whose power turned out unique, i.e. the machine of dialectics. I emphasise again that the question of whether or not the surrealist activity is well or poorly grounded needs to be addressed to Hegel. Only Hegel can say if this activity had been predestined in time, only Hegel can let us know if it has any hopes for the future, and whether its duration will be counted in days or in centuries.

First of all, it is needful to recall that Hegel puts poetry above all other arts; according to him, arts form a hierarchy from the poorest to the richest in the following order: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry. Hegel, who regarded poetry as “the real art of the spirit”, the only “universal art” capable of producing in its own realm all modes of expression belonging to other arts, divined very precisely today’s fate of poetry. Hegel undertook a monumental elucidation of how poetry, in its effort over time to gradually surpass other arts, evinces an increasingly contradictory need 1) by its own means 2) by new means to achieve the precision of material shapes. Perfectly devoid of touch with the burdensome matter, enjoying the privilege of depicting materially and spiritually consequent states of life, and realising thanks to imagination the perfect synthesis of sound and thought, poetry has never, since its romantic liberation, renounced its supremacy over other arts; it keeps permeating them and delineating within them an area larger by the day. It seems it is indeed in the realm of fine arts that poetry has found the broadest field of activity for itself: it has settled in so firmly there that fine arts can nowadays make the high claim of sharing poetry’s widest goal, which according to Hegel lies in revealing to our consciousness the potencies of spiritual life. In the present moment there is no fundamental difference between a Paul Éluard or Benjamin Péret poem and a Max Ernst, Juan Miró or Yves Tanguy picture. Painting, freed from its duty to represent substances and shapes derived from the outside world, profits from the only exterior element no art can fully do without, i.e. interior representation (la représentation intérieure), from an image residing in spirit. It confronts this interior representation with the representation of concrete forms of the real world, striving—just as Picasso’s painting has done—to capture the object in its generality. Once that has been attained, it attempts the sublime procedure which lies at the heart of poetics: it seeks to exclude the (relatively) exterior object as such and to view nature solely in its relation to the inner world of consciousness. Both art forms, poetry and painting, endeavour a fusion so close that it matters little to a Hans Arp or a Salvador Dalí whether their form of expression is the poetic or the painterly one, and if in Arp, both these expressive forms can be considered as essentially complementary, in Dalí, they can be layered one on top of the other, so that reading certain excerpts from his poetry can only enliven the visual imagery of his paintings that dazzles the eye. As long as painting was the first to traverse most of the steps that separated it as expressive mode from poetry, it is important to notice that it was immediately followed by sculpture, as has been attested by the experience of Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp. It is remarkable that architecture, the most elementary of all art forms, was the first to set out on this journey. It cannot be forgotten how in 1900, architecture and sculpture known as “Modern-style”—despite the exceptionally fierce reaction they met with—overthrew thoroughly our accustomed idea of human buildings in space, expressing with unique, sudden, and utterly unexpected force “the desire for ideal things”, which according to the still valid received notions of the civilised world, should be beyond their scope. The first to express this was Salvador Dalí in 1930:

 

No other collective effort has managed to create a world of dreams as pure and confusing as those “modern-style” (art-nouveau) buildings which stand beyond the framework of architecture, themselves the true realisations of compressed desires, where the most fierce and cruel automatism painfully betrays the hatred of reality and the need for a haven in an ideal world, just as in the case of infantile neurosis.

 

It is worth noting that toward the end of the 19th century, an utterly uneducated Frenchman, whose social task was to deliver letters around a few villages of the Drôme department, completely unaided, governed by a faith lasting for over forty years and guided solely by inspiration derived from his dreams, Cheval the postman built a miraculous structure that cannot be attributed any purpose, a structure whose only inhabitable nook was designed only for the wheelbarrow on which he carried his building material, a structure he gave the shiny name of “Ideal Palace.” We can see how concrete irrationality was already in those days striving to break through all the frameworks (the case of Cheval the postman is far from unique), and the stern retort in this field we have hence been given as command is doubtlessly not irrevocable, as it has recently been brought to my attention that in the dorm building of Swiss students at the Parisian Cité universitaire—and it is a building externally complying with all the demands of rationality and dryness required recently, as it is the work of La Corbusier—a hall has been construed whose walls are “irrationally undulated” (!) and designed as backdrop for blown-up photographs of microscopic organisms and details of miniscule animals. It therefore seems to me that the art-form developed in the construction of the magnificent church in Barcelona, made of vegetables and crustaceans, has ever since been plotting its revenge, and that the insurmountable human need, expressed in our time more strongly than ever, the need to spread into other arts what has long been thought the privilege of poetry, will soon overcome the certain routine resistance hidden behind mock utility requirements. Salvador Dalí and I have numerously emphasised the ties connecting “Modern style” and media art, so little known and still so richly educative.

Just as poetry increasingly endeavours to govern according to its own procedure the processes of other arts and be reflected in them, it needs to be assumed it attempts to rid itself of what it suffers from as a relative shortcoming compared to every other art form. Compared to painting and sculpture poetry is at a disadvantage regarding the expression of material reality and the precision of external shapes; compared to music, it finds itself at a disadvantage regarding immediate, captivating communication of emotion. We know what means awareness of this shortcoming forced upon certain poets of the last century, who thought they could subject sense to sound under the pretext of verbal instrumentation, daring merely to compose empty shells of words. The chief error of this position lies I think in underestimating the primary expressive force of poetic speech: this speech needs first of all to be universal. I have never ceased to claim, together with Lautréamont, that “poetry is to be made by all,” and this tenet I would most prefer to be engraved on the gable of the surrealist building, for it clearly contains its necessary counterpart, that is, that poetry is to be heard by all. We do not intend to heighten the barrage separating languages. “After all,” wrote Hegel, “for poetry in the truest sense of the word it is irrelevant whether the poetic work is read in silence or out loud. The poem can also without substantial disturbance be translated into another language or even transferred from verse into prose. Its sound properties can thus be utterly altered.” The error of Stéphane Mallarmé and some symbolist poets had nevertheless the beneficial consequence of evoking a general mistrust of what had hitherto been a subservient and haphazard element, but nonetheless unjustly considered a rudder or brake indispensible for the art of poetry, i.e. of completely external systems such as metre, rhythm, rhyme etc. The poetry that consciously abandoned the hackneyed systems that had become arbitrary, had to replace them with something else; it is known that this necessity, even before Mallarmé, had given us the most beautiful parts of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror, as well as almost everything deserving of the name poetry ever since. Here, verbal harmony receives immediately its rights, and what is more, I repeat, the matter of universal speech, to which poets are drawn by their revolutionary resistance, is no longer betrayed. And yet this predilection, expressed by poetry in how at a certain point of its evolution it became dependent on music, is no less distinctive. Equally distinctive is the desire later felt by Apollinaire in his Calligrammes, the desire for an expressive form at once poetic and visual, and for publishing poems of this kind under the title I Too Am a Painter. It is worth emphasising that the seduction experienced by poets in this respect was far more lasting – this seduction was also attractive to Mallarmé, as attested by his last poem, A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance, and is still I think very much alive among us. Therefore I for my part believe in the possibility and immense significance of experiments consisting in incorporating within the poem ordinary utilities and other objects, or more precisely, in composing poems where visual elements are placed among words, without however images repeating words. The interplay of words and objects, whose name may or may not be expressed, could give rise to an utterly new, exceptionally exciting feeling in the reader/viewer. In order to contribute to the continuous disturbance of all the senses, a disturbance recommended by Rimbaud and incessantly pursued by surrealism, I think we must not hesitate – for this undertaking can have precisely this effect – to displace the sensation (dépayser la sensation).

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