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The Surrealist Situation of the Object / The Situation of the Surrealist Object (Part 3/4)

*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.

I have said that poetry strives at the same time: 1) by its own means, and 2) by new means to achieve the precision of material shapes. The new means of the kind I have just exemplified, however interesting for my considerations here, cannot be utilised unless one has achieved a clear idea of the means peculiar to poetry, and unless one has attempted to exhaust the best these means provide. However, which means are these, which are—and were already in Hegel’s time—essential to poetry? It was necessary 1) that the subject be conceived neither as a rational or speculative idea, nor by way of emotion that cripples speech, nor with the precision of material objects; 2) that the subject be freed, while entering imagination, from strangeness and randomness, which cancels its unity, and from its relative dependency of those parts; 3) that imagination stay free and process everything it envisages as an independent shape. These orders, as you will see, were back then already of such unignorable character that during the last century a whole poetic battle was waged around them.

I have pointed out in my 1932 pamphlet The Poverty of Poetry that the poetic subject, complying with the necessity of increasingly avoiding the form of the real or speculative idea, had to be considered already a century ago a merely indolent matter, and cannot ever since be posited a priori. The subject could not be posited a priori after at least 1869, once Lautréamont uttered in Maldoror the unforgettable sentence: “It is a man or a stone or a tree about to begin the fourth canto. ” The mutual dependence of parts of the poetic discourse has also been continuously attacked and undermined: already in 1875 Rimbaud describes his last poem “The Dream”, a sheer triumph of pantheistic delirium, where the miraculous combines with the everyday, a poem that seems a quintessence of the most secret Elizabethan dramas or the second part of Faust:

DREAM

Someone is hungry in the barracks-room—

That is true…

Emanations, explosions,

A genius: I am Gruyère!

Lefebvre: Keller!

The genius: I am Brie!

The soldiers carve on their bread:

Such is life!

The genius: I am Roquefort!

—That’ll be the death of us…

—I am Gruyère

And Brie… Etc…

Waltz

They’ve put me and Lefebvre together… etc…

 

Later, Apollinaire blends time and space with pleasure and strives to present the placement and details of the poem in a fashion as ambiguous as possible, to put the poem in relation to a whole series of peculiar signs, in order to erase increasingly the real events conditioning the poem. For instance, in the ultramodern framework of “The Murdered Poet,” that apparition from “another time,” we have monks cultivating the Malvern forest; or take this highly characteristic passage from one of his most beautiful poems:

 

THE MUSICIAN FROM SAINT-MERRY

I finally have the right to greet beings I do not know

——————————————————————

On the twenty-first of the month of May, 1913

The ferryman of the dead and the death dealers

of Saint-Merry Millions of flies bared a splendor

When a man without eyes without a nose and without ears

Leaving Sebasto entered the rue Aubry-Ie-Boucher […]

Then elsewhere

What time will a train leave for Paris

At this moment

The pigeons of the Spice Islands were fertilising nutmegs

At the same time

Catholic mission of Boma what have you done with the sculptor

In another quarter

Compete then, poet, with the labels of perfume manufacturers

In short 0 laughers you haven’t got much out of men

And you have barely extracted a little grease from their misery […]

The connecting link between Rimbaud and Apollinaire, as in so many other similar cases, is impersonated by Alfred Jarry, the first poet thoroughly permeated with the lesson presented by Lautréamont; in Jarry’s work, flaring up and reaching abruptly its decisive point is a struggle between two forces vying, in the Romantic era, for dominance over the arts: on the one hand, the force focussing attention on the events of the outside world; on the other, the force investing interest in the whims of personality. Intimate mutual interpenetration of both these tendencies, which in Lautréamont preserve their relative alternation, climaxes in Jarry’s triumphant objective humour (l’humour objectif), which presents their dialectical solution. Poetry must then willy-nilly pass in its entirety through this new category, which in turn shall blend with another category, in order to be overcome yet again. As an example of pure objective humour, let me adduce this Jarry poem:

FABLE

A can of corned-beef, on a chain like a lorgnette

Saw a lobster pass by which resembled it like a brother.

It was protected by a thick shell

On which it was written that inside, like the can of corned-beef, it was boneless,

(Boneless and economical);

And underneath its curled-up tail

It apparently was hiding a key to open it.

Smitten with love, the sedentary corned-beef

Declared to the little live self-propelling can

That if it were willing to acclimate itself

Next to it in earthly shop windows,

It would be decorated with a number of gold medals.

I have already mentioned that objective humour has preserved to the present day almost all of its communicative value, and it is possible to ascertain that every remarkable work of the past couple of years bears, to a larger or lesser extent, its imprint: suffice it to give you the names of Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Roussel, and later Jacques Vaché and Jacques Rigaud, who even went so far as to propose that this kind of humour should be turned into law. The entire Futurist and Dadaist movements can claim this kind of humour as their essential component. It would be a forgery of history to deny that this humour is a constant ingredient of poetry. It seems to me far more beneficial to search for that new category with which objective humour must blend in order to cease within the arts to be itself. Examining the poetry of the last few years, one can easily observe that nowadays this humour has become eclipsed.

I have already talked about the desire that overcame Apollinaire many times, making him give growth to poetic action out of the matrix of chance and haphazard circumstances: this desire is particularly felt in those of his poems called poems-conversations:

MONDAY ON THE RUE CHRISTINE

The mother of the concierge and the concierge will overlook everything

If you’re a man, you’ll come with me tonight

One guy would have to hold the door open, that’s all

While the other one went upstairs

 

Three lighted gaslights

The owner of the place is a consumptive

When you’ve finished we’ll play a game of jaquet

An orchestra leader who has a sore throat

When you come to Tunis I’ll give you some kif to smoke

 

That seems to rhyme just fine.

Piles of saucers flowers a calendar

Bim bam boom

I owe 300 damned francs to my landlady

I would rather cut off my-that’s exacty right

than give them to her

*

This desire seems to correspond to the return of one of the basic elements of objective humour, i.e. the observation of nature in its haphazard shapes, at the expense of subjective humour, which forms its other ingredient, also the result of the need for the person to reach its highest degree of independence. It is this desire, still quite obscure in Apollinaire, became increasingly powerful and omnipotent, especially by virtue of our reference to automatism which, as you know, has become the fundamental procedure of surrealism. The introduction of psychic automatism into all areas has broadened the field of the immediate arbitrary. After all—and this is crucial—this arbitrariness, once examined, aimed rapidly at denying itself as arbitrary. The attention I have under all circumstances tried to call to certain confusing happenings and exciting coincidences (in books like Nadja and Vases communicants and various later articles) led later on to the positing of the question of objective hazard, through which we very obscurely express the necessity that escapes us, even though we feel it as necessary. This hitherto almost unmapped territory of objective hazard is today, and in my opinion more so than any other, worth continuing in our investigations. It can be found on the very borderline of that area which Dalí consecrated with the effects of paranoiac-critical activity. This field is, after all, is the place of expression that can ignite our spirit, awash with light that can hardly be considered the glare of revelation, and so we find objective humour breaking against its steep walls. Today’s poetry faces this fundamental contradiction, and hence it needs to solve the incongruity in which resides the secret of all movement of progress.

It is necessary, I repeat, for poetic imagination to remain free. The poet keen on expressing himself in a social, constantly developing environment, is to recapture with all the means at his disposal that concrete vitality buried underneath the logical proposals of thought. He is therefore also to deepen the trench separating poetry from prose: the poet has within their power the one and only instrument with which to bore into increasing depths, i.e. the image, and of all the kinds of image, first and foremost the metaphor. The poetic nothingness of the centuries dubbed classical is consequence of the sporadic and timid use of this miraculous instrument. Let me quote Hegel one last time: “These images borrowed from nature, albeit inappropriate for representing thought, can be created with deep feeling, with a particular richness of intuition, or with a brilliant play of humor; and this tendency may develop to the point of endlessly inciting poetry on to ever new inventions.” It is necessary, now more than ever, to recall that poetic imagination, the merciless enemy of prosaic thought, has two other foes: historical narrative and eloquence. As long as imagination is to remain free, it is unconditionally necessary to rid it of the bond of faithfulness to circumstances, and especially to certain intoxicating circumstances of history; furthermore it is necessary for it not bother with whether it is pleasing or convincing, and for it to differentiate itself from eloquence by appearing free of any practical purpose or aim.

Read the following three hitherto unpublished poems, in which deep feeling, richness of intuition and combinatory verve are brought, in my opinion, to unprecedented heights:

 

THE MASTERS

by Paul Éluard

At the height of the spasms of laughter

In a lead washtub

How comfortable to have

The wings of a dog

Which has a live bird in its mouth

 

Are you going to make darkness fall

So as to keep that sober look on your face

Or are you going to give in to us

There is grease on the ceiling

Saliva on the window panes

The light is horrible

 

O night lost pearl

Blind point of fall where sorrow slaves away

 

SPEAK TO ME

by Benjamin Péret

Black of smoke animal black black black

agreed to meet each other between two monuments to the dead

that can pass for my ears

where the echo of your ghost voice of sea-mica

repeats your name indefinitely

that on the contrary so resembles an eclipse of the sun

that when you look at me I believe myself to be

a lark’s foot in a glacier whose door you would open

In the hope of seeing a swallow of burning petrol escape from it

but from the lark’s foot a stream of flaming petrol will gush out

if you wish it

as a swallow

wishes for the hour of summer so as to play the music of storms

and manufactures it like a fly

who dreams of a spider web of sugar

in an eye glass

sometimes as blue as a falling star reflected by an eye

sometimes as green as a spring oozing from a clock

 

DANDLED BROCHURE

by Salvador Dali

Brochure perditure

while unjustly refusing

a cup

an ordinary Portuguese cup

that today is manufactured

in a tableware factory

for the form of a cup

resembles

a soft municipal Arab antinomy

mounted on the tip of the surrounding countryside

like the look of my beautiful Gala

the look of my beautiful Gala

the smell of a liter

like the epithelial tissue of my beautiful Gala

her farcical lamplighter tissue

 

yes I’ll repeat it a thousand times

 

Brochure perditure

while unjustly refusing

a cup

an ordinary Portuguese cup

that today is manufactured

in a tableware factory

for the form of a cup

resembles

a soft municipal Arab antinomy

mounted on the tip of the surrounding countryside

like the look of my beautiful Gala

the look of my beautiful Gala

the smell of a liter

like the epithelial tissue of my beautiful Gala

her farcical lamplighter tissue

 

yes I’ll repeat it a thousand times

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EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
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