Much to Say About Silence

There is much to think about when it comes to Kenneth MacPherson's Borderline, a silent film about an affair and interracial relationships. The most informal and delineated of these thoughts is the obvious: what was even happening? Perhaps it was the nature of movies and film today; I've never seen a silent film, and this was a weird silent film to start with. It took nearly an hour of me puzzling my thoughts together until I came to something of a conclusion--and even then, I'm still not entirely sure. However, this brings me to my next point: surrealism. Since we're still talking about surrealism this week, I thought about how surrealism worked within the movie to make it several things that perhaps did not belong in conjunction but worked to make some kind of whole. The flashing scenes between body parts--as Lily's post points out, the hands particularly, though also shots that focused on more intimate body parts as well--and people in different rooms was particularly off-putting. Almost so much so that the story of an interracial couple in a 1930 silent film is almost forgotten--at least until characters make racial slurs that remind the audience what the focus of the film is. In fact, the film's use of the body and use of racial tension really isn't all the disconnected as it might seem. The threat of violence seems to underline several scenes, followed by a clenched fist or actual violence between characters (such as with the White married couple, who are violent with each other throughout the film). Interestingly enough, the murder of the white woman is the clearest moment the movie has, if only because the woman's husband is not as unwelcomed in the hotel as Pete, the Black husband who has been cheated on. In this scene, it becomes clear how skewed the movie views society, that a White murderer seems less threatening than a Black man. 

Other than that, I'm curious as to how surrealists viewed women in context with their movement. The sources we had read for surrealism mentioned little of the women artists of that time period, and in the two surrealist films we have watched, women seem to be the "causation" behind psychological breaks from reality. And if my own thoughts seem a little scattered tonight, then perhaps it is only in reaction to surrealism itself: the things that probably shouldn't go together making some sort of cohesive whole.

Feast your eyes on clenched fists: 'Borderline' and the characterization of the hands (6/8)

In Borderline (1930), the camera often lingers on certain resounding images, but prolonged eye contact and hand gestures/motions seem to be doing the most work. While it was necessary sometimes to hold onto these images longer than usual, since audiences could not hear characters express themselves, there is something overtly violent, emotional, and even sensual about the utilization of hands in Borderline

I asked myself, and am still asking myself, why hands? Is it because they could be seen as a separate member acting on their own accord before the conscious mind can take control? Is it because hands create and erase? Give and take away life? Perhaps it boils down to simple anatomical expressiveness and the multitudes contained therein. Hands pull, press, shove, punch, pinch, slap, feel. Life flows through them, evident in the veins that swell to the surface.

The vast capabilities of hands are unsettling, to tell the truth. What can caress at one moment can kill the next, and Borderline puts this duality on display. At 21:23, the old woman is pointing her lanky finger while expressing a troubling sentiment: "If I had my way, not one ***** would be allowed in the country!" Seconds later, the barmaid outstretches her hand and firmly tells the old woman to cut it out. Things get awkward, and the barmaid bites her forefinger, almost as if it was her feeble attempt to hold her tongue.

Another example of the characterization of hands comes not long after the bar scene when Pete comes home to Adah and lights the furnace for her with a smile on his face. When Adah presumably tells him about her affair (and I say presumably because this scene and the following confrontation scene were a bit ambiguous and hard to discern to me in terms of the sequence of events), we see his hands change before we see it on his face (25:17). For a moment, Pete's hand goes from relaxed to slightly clenched, from helpful to hurt. Mere seconds later, Pete's hands ball into a fist. Anger accompanies hurt. Or perhaps, it was a sign of garnering strength to oversee Adah's adultery. 

Another example occurs roughly around 38:00 when Thorne adoringly pets a cat. Exactly 10 minutes later, Thorne wields the knife that takes Astrid's life, and in between, there's so much being portrayed by the use and placement of hands.

There's more before, after, and in between the few examples I listed above, but that's all I got in me for now. I thought it was a cool technique, and I wondered how often and whether or not this dichotomy was implemented in other silent surrealist films. 

Bryher: What shall you do in the war?

What a scary time to be alive! The writer/journalist of this article was a very brave woman. Bryher was warning people of the turmoil in Germany long before it started invading other countries. The beginnings of the Nazis and the Brown Shirts were under way, with any political dissention being met with beatings or murder. The imagery she invokes is chilling, from oblivious tourists unaware of a bloody end from a dissident a few streets away, to the rising tension in the cities. While there were those who took advantage of Jews during this time and stole their property or sold them out to Nazis, I will always give thanks for those who tried to save them at the cost of their own lives. I have heard of the term ‘Jew lover’ before, and at that time it stained the reputation of any who tried to help or have sympathy for their plight. Hitler did his best to fan the flames of hatred and jealousy of Jews, other minorities, and the disabled.

Thankfully, there were people like Bryher who saw through this and tried to fight back in their own way by denouncing fascism. To appreciate and preserve all cultures, rather than burning and destroying books and other facets of religions, beliefs, etc. would be the exact opposite of what the Nazis wanted. Any ideology that must destroy others to prop themselves up is fundamentally flawed and needs to be shunned. Bryher was one of the people at ground zero of the beginning of the tragedy and bloody mess that would herald World War II. While massacres of Jews had taken place before, no one could have guessed where it would lead to even when concentration camps were being built. I found that Bryher helped over a hundred Jews escape from Nazi occupied Germany, and hope she will always be remembered for her contributions in the fight against this horrible ideology. 

Co-Dreamed

“In Company (Surrealist text)” is like some dreamed hero’s journey. It begins from deep despair for which mourning is insufficient, and it ends after the beheading (but not killing?) of all of “this” that lives: “this patient insect body, this loving bird body, this loyal mammiferous body, and this lean and vain body of the beast of my childhood” (113). Then again, it is unclear to me whether “all this [that] lives” has to have its head die, or if Eluard intends to refer only to who I assume, thanks to Freud, to be the head of his father. The list-like organization of these different animal kingdoms acts as a vehicle to survey various natural virtues/morals—patience, love, loyalty—ultimately to culminate in the vanity and beastliness of childhood, the father figure. The shift from moral wording to immoral wording in this passage comes when human concepts like childhood are introduced. The speaker travels from the despair and the pangs of individuality to the isolating yet communicatory aspects of language and thought, up toward the hope of virtue in nature.

That said, nature gets a good rap in these few lines, while the individual, identity, and culture are disillusioned: “My face understands me no longer. And there are no others.” I wonder how (if at all) Eluard’s indication that nature is patient, loving, loyal connects to the art that was in vogue with the Prussian aristocracy—the residual romanticism of the German establishment that more avant-garde movements antagonized. By contrast to propagandized, national romanticism, Eluard’s romantic undertones in 1927 appear to address individuals regardless of nationality. It feels like Eluard wants to suggest that we each dream up illusions that set us up to disillusion ourselves. This a-nationality also mirrors the pluralistic aims of dada.

Surrealistic Surrealism

While surrealism is one of my favorite art movements due to the bold techniques used and expressions/meanings conveyed, I cannot say the same about the surrealist literary movement though I do concede that it was an important movement within literature. I think the main reason that I enjoy the art movement more is due to the fact that I can see what the artist has done and draw semi-accurate interpretations of the meaning from looking at it, whereas I find surrealist literature to be difficult to follow or find meaning in and perhaps that is the entire purpose of surrealist literature. Moffat, Cramer, and Grant all three discuss Freud’s impact on surrealism but seem to focus more on the art that came of the period rather than the literature. It is only in Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism” that a clearer idea of how this translates into literature is presented with his definition of surrealism:

               Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. … Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principle problems of life.

This definition/encyclopedia entry tells the readers of the manifesto that surrealism, in any form of communication, is the expression of thought without reason and is exempt from aesthetic and moral concerns. The lack of aesthetic purpose is noticeable in “Continuation of a Work in Progress” by James Joyce (later titled Finnigan’s Wake). The chapter of the work within “transition” no. 2 shows what Joyce was doing throughout the entire piece – playing with the spelling, grammar, and meanings of words to see if his work would then have discernable meaning behind it without those guidelines. I have not read the full work, so I am unable to say if that is the case, however I can appreciate that he what he was trying to do even if I personally do not enjoy the piece.

The sky is not the limit (5/8)

Similar to Jamie’s post on surrealist eyes, I noticed the recurring imagery of the sky in surrealist poetry and art. In In Transition no. 2, the sky takes up space both physically in the paintings and metaphysically in the mind. The sky is hard (142), pink (129), and water-like (126). The sky is predictable, but also autonomous: “Across the world the clouds go riding, / green through the forests / flows their light” (9-11.145)  vs. “All the bridges are hewn down, the sky will pass there no more” (15.114). It’s mystifying, it grants “physical liberty” to its subjects. It is expansive, and for all we know, it contains limitless possibilities, and while we cannot reach it, we can draw it, paint it, capture it in a moment, and use it to describe the vastness of something we do not fully understand (“the sky of love”)(11.116). 

The treatment of the sky in surrealist poetry is reminiscent of the treatment of nature in pastoral poetry. Pastoral poems, plays, and literature all resisted the constraints of modern life and work and reached beyond for a more tranquil mode of existence. These types of poems could deal with all kinds of issues ranging from love to mourning, to politics, to longing, and critique society through a green world lens. I think that the surrealist poems do something similar. Beyond the fixation on the sky, the poets are fixated on constellations, seasons, the sea, trees, wind, meadows, and gardens. 

The poems are very introspective at times, like the way “From Phantasus” contemplates a past life from long ago or “Evening Song” takes its subject through the subconscious of falling asleep. All this to say is I wonder how influenced, if at all, by the pastoral movement surrealist poets were. Perhaps it has less to do with pastoralism in Renaissance or Victorian England and more to do with the grim effects of industrialism and post-war rebuilding. In surrealist poetry, the sky is a portal, the meadows are an escape, but the brokenness and the staggering juxtaposition of reality still loom large.

 

Lewis, transition, and the idea of the child

For this week, I’m trying to piece together the argument between Lewis in "The Diabolical Principle" and the writers featured in transition (mainly Paul and Jolas). As first, I thought I was seeing infighting between two different, yet very related art movements: Surrealism and Vorticism. The more I read Lewis, though, the more I realized how diametrically opposed Lewis was to the concepts of Surrealism.

In many ways, his opposition was an argument about origins. The first way this appears in when Lewis challenges the assumption Paul makes about a humanistic lineage of thought/art. Paul cites several Russian writers who exhibit humanist tendencies; Lewis responds by suggesting that nihilism was the overriding idea for those writers (or, at least, that it was central to their work) (63). Since Darwin, Lewis argues, “men have doubted the Christian premises and tended to regard themselves as animals rather than ‘humanists,’ and ever since the French Revolution they have dreamed spasmodically of universal armed proletarian revolt to put back a bit of the jungle where it was badly needed in the centre of the artifices of very imperfectly humane life” (63). The nihilistic, aggressive, contradictory posture Lewis assumes is, by his logic, more in line with those thinkers, more natural perhaps and thus closer to our origins as humans which is as animals (?). Paul, Eluard, and Breton desire the lost humanism that modern life has corrupted or repressed—captured by Breton’s assertion: “Childhood that comes closest to one’s ‘real life’… childhood where everything nevertheless conspires to bring about the effective, risk-free possession of oneself.” Lewis, on the other hand, embraces a more cynical understanding of man’s natural state.

According to Lewis, what modern life has done is make people into child, infants, dulled and “idiotic” products of modernity. The disagreement between Lewis and the authors in transition can be captured in the valuing of childhood and child-like states of being. The surrealists want to return to a child-like state of understanding the world (this is the super-reality blending of dream and the real world [I think]). Lewis takes issue with this for two reasons: 1. Such a mindset reduces the status of art to the mundane, profane, since everyone can produce art because everyone has an automated state of thought, everyone can free associate and 2. There isn’t a clear distinction between Surrealist, child-like art and art that is complex and worthy of serious consideration. In this slippery space, art can be coopted by corporate and political interests (and is currently being coopted by Communists, according to Lewis). And as art is coopted, it loses its meaning and its ability to inspire revolutionary thought. It becomes an opiate that reduces the masses to an infantile, child-like state. Or, perhaps more accurately, it deigns to the level of the masses to be comprehensible, accessible. It is thus sullied, “rendered ineffective” in its potential. The image of the child is the image of the masses for Lewis, something that is a dangerous threat to the art world.

Nihilism: "The desouling of the human being" Wk. 11: Surrealism (5 of 8)

Oswald Spengler's definition of Nihilism as "the desouling of the human being" (31, The Enemy no. 3 1929), caused me to see new and possibly abstract connections to the imagery of Surrealism. "Before reading The Enemy for this week, I had associated Surrealism only with dream-like psychoanalytic associations of the mind that are made legible through art. These are major aspects and inspiration for the Surrealism art movement, (Moffat and MacNevin, "The Origins of Surrealism)", but I was not aware that violence was an underlying component of Surrealism. From my reading of Wyndham Lewis's article "The New Romanticism'= New Nihilism'' (30), there seems to be a connection between Nihilism to the creation of Surrealist art that connects to violence that is based on the state of the world at the time of Surrealism's creation in the 1920s in Europe with its nucleus in Paris ("The Origins of Surrealism"), to the justified creation of an artistic violence. Charles Moffat and Suzanne MacNevin define Surrealism as "Psychic automatism in its pure state by which we propose to express- verbally, in writing, or in any other manner- the real process of thought" ("The Origins of Surrealism"). The violence the world was experiencing seemed to justify the creation of artistic violence that spurred the proliferation of an uber-violent spirit according to Lewis's take on Spengler. Surrealist art created the mood of the world at the time, one that was plunging towards "the strictly inhuman or rather anti-human vindictiveness that makes possible the massacres the various contemporary Revolutions, is a "nihilism": it has to credit a holocaust. But substantially it is the same as the demented doctrine of universal destruction which Dostoieffski despairingly observed, and put on record with such clairvoyance" (The Enemy (2) Paul's own account of his "new nihilism", 32).  I still don't see the violence within Surrealism in its traditional forms as I did in Vorticism, Futurism, and Dadaism. But, I do notice elements of violence in the dreamscape nature of the art itself. There is something violent about the way that fish heads replace human heads and the placing of animal heads on human bodies; the contradiction of the two objects produces a disturbing incongruence of objects that is violent to me. Also, the space left in the surrealist images in relation to the objects/ people in the images seemed violent to me. The overall disorder and dis conjunction of opposing objects, and the placement of objects, created a feeling of uneasiness. 

Dada: "art imitates life" (4 out of 8)

Dada both as a word and as an art movement consists of building blocks of fragmented parts (elements specifically speaking to art) to create a new, and different reality. This process of building is similar to the process of learning language that at its elemental stage, involves putting sounds and words together that don't necessarily make sense, but somehow they fit together. This linguistic process is the overarching metaphor surrounding the creation of Dada. Dada emerged amid the brutality of World War 1 (1914-1918). The war confirmed the degradation of social structures that led to the horrific violence that the war produced. Dada essentially represents the chaos of the post-World War 1 world, and the breakdown of human nature. This movement, like many of the art movements we have studied this semester, imitate the conditions of life they are created in. The past notions of a universal rationality or truth had been blown away by the mechanization of the war. As a result, a new, different, ambiguous, and fragmented world had emerged, and it had to be approached differently. Dada challenged its followers to think about art in a different way. In the same way that the world was forced by dire circumstances, to think not only about the world but, also their lives in a different way. Dada is is the channeling of all the nonsensical, unexplainable, existences, situations, etc. that make up our everyday lives into a movement that instead of trying to change (to clean up) this chaos, embraces it, even celebrates it as the only normal. If any kind of normal exists. 

Surreal Eyes-wk 11

Modernist writing, by design or by subconscious impulse, includes the body as a frequent feature. In previous journals, there was a focus on hands, usually referred to by their color and size (here in this issue, actually, one instance refers to “broad hands, palms black with pitch and hairy backs” (24)). In transition 1927, the surrealist literary journal, it is not hands as much (although they are mentioned 31 times) but eyes that feature—or rather doesn’t feature. In this one issue, eyes are brought up 57 times. Eyes reveal interiority. For instance, eyes “round and black…they had realized the true character of this mild demagogue” (37); eyes that “filled with tears and highlights, and waves of strange emotion had rocked her and transported her from one to another” (40); “their eyes pierce the night, greedily and restlessly” (46); “eyes lie at a distance, and the pupil is misty, immovably grey” (70). In these examples, eyes themselves drive the perception of character, which, in turn, drives the action out of reaction. Art, too, betrays itself of the subconscious anxiety about eyes in avoiding them. Take, for example, the pieces on page 111 and 112. On 111, Jeunes Filles en des Belles Poses, or young girls in beautiful poses, what we see are the backs of two young girls, their legs, butts, and backs, but we do not see their faces. One of them doesn’t even have a head. The man, who appears either to be praising them or soon to slap an ass with an upraised hand, is drawn in a different form—a skeleton sketch rather than a true likeness—has a jawline, a left arm upright like the girls, and a mouth, but his eyes fade into nothingness. In “Painting,” on page 112, the woman in the painting, other than a somewhat oddly-shaped hand, could almost be described as normal, other than the giant fish covering her face. The animals on the triangle beside her are also eyeless, except for one lion who faces away and has one black void for an eye. Although surrealism is an attempt at the subconscious mind, the sides of the brain still function within their roles. Language and writing process through the left side of the brain, whereas painting would process through the creative right side of the brain. What this suggests is that the left side of the brain that can write about eyes and describe them carefully enough to communicate, while the right side of the mind may be avoidant of eyes and, in that avoidance, communicate similar ideas that the left does with words. Does not a woman with a fish over her suggest a woman whose “eyes lie at a distance” (112; 46).  

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