Digits and Anomaly Reading

“Digital” by Benjamin Peters revolutionized my understanding of the digital, as was his intent. Peters also instilled the value of the index and put the verb back into the word computer. I mean, he indicated the fact that computers compute—count, index, manipulate. Very obvious stuff on the surface, but many of those obvious facts about computers were disguised by the user interface of the computers I had as a kid (~1999-2009). I never thought I needed to learn the fundamentals, or moreover, I thought I already knew the fundamentals. And in a way, I did. Hover the mouse over what you want, click. Refer to that thing. Point at that thing, etc. But Peters brings in the historical context of those fundamentals, which really (for me) emphasizes the initial function of computers. He states, “digital media do what fingers do” (2). Peters’s style is playful, provocative, and sharp—if a bit compact at times—and he balances the history of computation well with the contemporary user experience of a digital device.

In conjunction with Peters’s piece, Moretti’s essay drives home the indexical ("pointing-to") quality of computer-generated graphs. A dip in an otherwise upward-moving data set points to a time of political strife, in the case of the rise of the novel in Japan (9-10). That said, the readings give me a new way to read and compose questions from visualized data. I can now look at a changing trend on a graph and identify it as a point of interest, according, oftentimes, to low-level data.

And it’s this concept of low-level data that stands out to me in Manovich’s piece. In one of the videos linked to the article, a Mark Rothko painting stands out, for low-level data reasons. But Manovich’s colleague, Jeremy Douglass, suggests that, while this painting does not seem to stand out for any highly-important data reasons, these DH strategies can seed a researcher’s attention to something they would otherwise overlook. Just like dips in chronological line graphs, the anomalies, due to their very existence, index (and have the potential to unravel) important historical and political contexts that other interpretive methodologies run the risk of glossing. 


An Ideas Guy

I had a friend from New York visit me last month. He works on Wall Street doing corporate finance. We were talking about our fields over a beer. He was describing the millions of dollars he’s in charge of, and I was talking about my papers. We laughed about that. “Cooper, he said, “If you worked in finance, you would introduce yourself as an ideas guy.

The implication is that no one likes the ideas guy. It’s surprisingly accurate. I’m usually really good at writing little make-believe projects in my head—ideas that will never make it to a word document.  

I cannot for the life of me think of an idea for this paper. It’s strange. Modernism is my primary field. I’ve read the canonical novels and poems. I’ve read the scholarship. I have an RR out with The Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies. I’m presenting a paper at the Joyce conference this summer. I’m not an expert. I’m not even close, but I know my way around to a point.

Still, I’ve had the hardest time. First, I was thinking about Camera Work, the photo secessionist movement, and a Marxian read of photography. Then I was thinking of a paper on Stirner and Stephen Dedalus. I even had a name: “The Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man.”

Most recently, I’ve been thinking about the aesthetics of the modernist manifesto—manifesto writers are also ideas guys. But that sounded too broad.

I was reading Mikala’s post earlier, and I started thinking about Margaret Anderson’s infamous blank 1916 issue of The Little Review. What better manifesto than a blank page? It’s a negation the Dadaists and the surrealists could never reach. Anderson’s issue doesn’t write about nothing. It is nothing itself. So that’s where I’m at: “Bully!”: The Invisible Manifesto of the Little Magazines.

Thoughts (7/8)

Like Lily, I thought I would take this week to write out thoughts and ideas I have collected over the semester. Again and again, I am struck by the roles women played in developing modernist periodicals. Dora Marsden, Harriet Weaver Shaw, HD--all women at the forefront, all contributing to ideas of modernity and progression. Yet despite their time, money, and effort, modernism is still very much a discussion about men. Wyndham Lewis did something unexpected with Blast; Man Ray provoked conversation about what a movie can do to remind its audience that film is a part of art in The Starfish; and Ezra Pound is the man who cannot be forgotten. But what about the women?

The Freewoman, The New Freewoman, and The Egoist were not my most favorite reads--but was Dora Marsden not a pioneer in opening discussion about the new social taboos? If this is to be ignored, then what about Marsden's own contributions to a growing sense of nationalist thought in modernism? Certainly The Egoist--influenced by the all-present Ezra Pound--had a similar desire for or at least relation to British culture that made Blast (published one month after The Egoist) known for its harder stance on modernism.

Should the movies be discounted? By MacPherson and Man Ray's definitions, certainly not. Yet H.D.'s role--like the role of the woman in The Starfish--in Borderline is to be a pale reminder of sexual interest. H.D. plays a woman who is scorned because her husband or partner has lost interest in her; not even her knife choreography is seductively dangerous because she has lost that power. Instead, H.D.'s character is a woman who is emotional--and this characterization of emotional is easily read as having caused her death and having incited something in the townspeople that is then directed at Pete and Adah. Perhaps H.D. had only intended to enjoy the artistic aspect of this role--or perhaps there was something subversive in Adah I cannot see. In any case, the movie left me again wondering what else there was?

In case anyone else feels the same, there are women directors of films. Alice Guy-Blanche was actually the first female director that is known; her work dates to the late nineteenth and early twenthieth centuries. I cannot promise her work is good or worthy because I have not watched it, but it is at least something to watch or consider if, like me, anyone else has found an interest in seeing how women artists both presented themselves and their art in the twentieth century.

Workin' on some things... (7/8)

I thought I'd use this homework-free week to catch up on blog posts and air out some ideas/things that I've found in my search for sources. 

For the past couple of weeks, I've been desperately trying to understand the Western/Southwestern themes that we see periodically in our studies. From the dusty and sepia-toned collages of Dadaism to Dali's barren landscapes, the Wild West "wasteland" aesthetic seems not deeply but freshly embedded in the minds of poets and artists of the 1920s and 30s. There are regional magazines, like Sunset and Laughing Horse, that focus primarily on local art and talent, but what I am eager to discover is the idea of possible ethnographic tourism on the part of self-proclaimed surrealists or modernists, and hopefully, this can be found within transition magazine. 

Before I speak on transition magazine, I first wanted to lay out something intriguing I learned while researching this area of interest. First, Andre Breton himself was an ethnographic tourist. Second, he was the owner of a travel notebook coined "The Hopi Notebook." There really isn't much information on this, other than the scans which are hard to read, and that it was something he kept with him during a trip to the Southwest in 1945, during which he and his wife (I think) observed Hopi and Zuni pueblos. Perhaps the dates are too late, but it tells me that a key surrealist figure was extremely interested in the cultural goings-on in the Southwest United States (source). 

Further, the editors of transition had this to say in the first volume ever of the magazine: 

"Perhaps, because America is young, from the white man's standpoint, and has constantly been adapting itself to changing conditions, without a single tranquil decade, it has been less affected by literature, music, or painting than any other land. Surely, it is the only country, in recent centuries, which has accepted ready-made cultures from other peoples before having developed one characteristically its own. The earlier settlers, if their architecture is indicative, were not insensitive to beauty, but they destroyed or ignored the wealth of art which the Indians offered them and let the amazing monuments and relics of the Moundbuilders be broken with plowshares. 

Lately, Americans have shown unmistakable signs of artistic awakening. Poets and novelists have come forward with work of unquestionable genuineness and originality."

They go on to state that transition aims "to offer American writers an opportunity to express themselves freely, to experiment if they are so minded, and to avail themselves of a ready, alert and critical audience." (1st issue, pg 136-37). 

There's also a term in the 15th issue used by editor Eugene Jolas: "Super-Occident," he calls it, and it seems to represent something different than what was at first desired in the introduction? But also it doesn't? Jolas states, 

Continental man who may well become the universal man. I should like to imagine a super-America which might be the idealistic intensification and sublimation of the Occident. But a long struggle must face us, before a super-occident can be realized. We must continue to oppose the present plutocratic materialism, fight for a new orientation of life based on the need for a universal humanity on the idea of the American mythos. In relation to the dynamic century, defend at all costs, man's inalienable right to dream and rebel and create in himself the possibilities of the organic cosmos. We must strive for the duality of the infinite and the material, the primitive arid the mechanical, the hallucinatory and the concrete. The art of the future must be conceived as a universal art, with regional autonomy. We want the most completed decentralization in life and expression, while, at the same time, working for the new humanity, which will, as always, be biologically monistic, but evolutionary in manifestation, totalistic and autochthonous.

This idea of the "Super-Occident" is so fascinating and, to me, alienated. I don't know think that I've personally come across something so keen on universality and bringing together opposing forces like mechanics and nature, dreams and reality, and so on. Everything always seems so distinct, like this is European, this is American, and so on. But maybe that isn't even the point! This perspective is new, and it's something I'm still trying to wrap my head around.

Apologies for the block quotes, but I think they're quite crucial in my searching for the golden thread. I haven't found it yet, but I think I'm getting closer and pulling loose threads together. Also, I apologize if it is messy. I'm most definitely in the beginning phase. 

Close Up and the Surrealist mind wk. 12 (6 of 8)

Actually, post (7 of 8).

This week's post is a combination of last week's discussion on Surrealism and this week's discussion on Surrealism in film. I find it ironic that Close Up is the title of the magazine we are reading this week considering Surrealism's occupation with the unconscious mind. I consider the unconscious mind a closer look at the mind that focuses on its hidden inner workings. Close Up magazine seems to function in the same way by taking its readers on a journey of the inner workings of the literary world and its relation to the artistic medium of cinema. The articles in Close Up don't review films on a surface level, but they dive deep into the psychoanalytic elements of the film and what the film does to the mind: How do the mechanics of lighting, staging, movement, setting, etc. affect the mind of the viewer. As was discussed in our last class discussion of the 1930 silent film Borderline, by Eisenstein on the role of the film. "The film takes its viewers onto a psychoanalytic journey into the character almost creating a mental condition" (233). The phrase mental condition really struck me as I was reading because Eisenstein's connection of mental condition to film seems to be as a temporary condition that takes over the viewer while they are under the influence of a specific film. When I think of mental condition, I think of something static that is not contingent on one's current state, but that persists after the film has ended. I had also never heard the phrase mental condition used in the context of the film, but watching Borderline does create a kind of psychoanalytic mental condition on behalf of the viewer with its specific focus on the mental processes of the characters; a focus that is made even more noticeable by the lack of sound. Because the film is silent, viewers are forced to pay extreme attention to the movements of the characters; as Lily mentioned the extreme attention that is given to the hands, and what that means in terms of Surrealism. The movements of the character's bodies did seem to connect to their mental processes. Is this the psychoanalytic element of the silent film that Eisenstein was referring to? 

This is not my first time watching the film, I had watched it before with Drouin in one of his undergraduate classes. At the time I connected the actions of the characters in the film to the pervasive nervousness of a post WW1 society that was constantly on edge. Now, with what I have learned about Surrealism, I connect that nervousness to the mental condition that is described by Eisenstein. 

A Look Into Reality

While reading I found it interesting that Byher put it to the readers of "Close Up" that they decided then, in June 1933, what they would do in a war that had not yet started and might not. In talking about what he had and was seeing in Germany, he also talks about how society cannot expect a man who does not believe in a war to fight it, but that they should not ignore what was going on. Making sure to drive this home to his readers, he explicitly states what is happening - the book burnings, the censorship and banning of authors and scientists, men and women being sent to concentration camps, Jewish doctors being banned from practice, and deaths occuring just a street over from the main tourist area of the Kurfurstendamm are just a few that he mentions. What caught my attention the most though was:

For the last fifteen years people have used the words peace and war so much that the sound of them means nothing at all. They have read war books, said 'how terrible' and gone on to read accounts of life in the south seas or on a farm or stories of a feudal castle, as if all were equally real or perhaps better, unreal. They have signed resolutions and exchanged armistice memories and sighed (if they are old enough) for 'the good old days before the war'. But very few have ever made a constructive attempt to prevent the months of 1914 from being repeated on a larger and worse scale. (308)

He goes on to say that men and women read books about the war (WWI), mention how bad it was, and move on driving home the fact that what was happening in Germany was not being looked at as a similar start to World War I, just on a larger scale. It is especially interesting to me to see the wars being mentioned within a magazine so openly. Magazines from before the true start of WWI did not touch on the war that much, only mentioning that it was still occuring and that is why their publication was slow or something similar. However, with "Close Up" both World War I and the upcoming World War II is mentioned - even if he did not know at the time. The magazines are paying closer attention to the international politics around them now, and that shift from national to international is really interesting. As I have not read earlier issues of "Close Up" I cannot say for sure that this shift occured with this magazine specifically, or if other magazines that were more national began to take a international tone after World War I, however just seeing a couple magazines from both periods of time shows that there is a tonal shift in some capacity. 

Imagining Blackness

One point of overlap between the texts for this week is the image of the black body presented on screen. On pg. 32 in Close Up two screen stills are presented from Samba der Held des Utwalds: one picture of two African lovers and the other a fight scene between rivals (fighting over a woman?). Borderline (1930) features Paul Robeson as Pete, a regular guy who frequents a brothel and is in love with Adah. There is a similar focus in this film on black intimacy and competition between rivals (I would use the word double for Borderline.

The shots from Samba offer primitivist stereotypes for what blackness is—from the African attire (or lack of attire) to the aggressive, violent black male. The captions for the photos want us to understand this movie as “realism”: by using “native actors” the film illustrates “Pudowkin’s theory that realism is best achieved with persons who have never played before.” There is a claim to authenticity made for this film, whether through the race of the actors (“native”) or through their inexperience. The suggestion is that this film gets to the heart of something—the life of Africans and black people? In the context of primitivism, the unmitigated, pre-modern nature of humanity?

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if I should contrast or compare this page in Close Up to Borderline. Both imagine black intimacy, but the contest/conflict in Borderline is interracial. Both, as well, display imagines of the black body and violence in the struggle for power. Samba seems to lean into the violence. The film still shows Samba with his hands around the throat of his rival, both awkwardly positioned to be open and visible to the camera. Borderline, on the other hand, is more subtle with images of violence and the black body—Adah is first pictured on the floor, suggesting that she is the victim of domestic/sexual violence at the hands of Thorne. The audience doesn’t see the preceding violence, however, only its aftermath. There is also the scene where Pete physical protects/stakes claim over Adah’s body in a confrontation with Thorne. This suggests that Pete is capable and willing to resort to violence, but it doesn’t come to that. Pete, however, is shown in one violent scene as he punches the Joyce-looking guy after he insults Adah (?) (this is happening after the fallout from Thorne killing his wife and it’s not entirely clear how the narratives are connected). Two things fuel the conflict of the film: Paul’s physical and emotional intimacy with Adah and his violence toward the Joyce-looking guy.

Considering the whole of Borderline, Pete’s character is controlled and even-keel throughout. Boring almost, though he is given quite a bit of interiority and emotional depth (the love between him and Adah is convincing, I’d say). This contrasts with the excessive, chaotic violence between Thorne and his wife. And the emotional swings of the white characters, often fueled by racism or sexism. The movie is sympathetic toward Pete, and I think it accurately captures the racial injustice at the time: a white man could be acquitted for murder while a black banished from a town for punching another (the letter from the mayor, as well, speaks to the attitude of the town’s people, suggesting racial violence if he doesn’t comply).  I suppose that Paul Robeson’s image in Borderline counters more typically racist, stereotypical, and primitive images of blackness (such as those in Close Up). But there are lingering questions about a lack of emotional depth and interiority, and agency. Pete contrasts with other characters (Thorne and his wife, for instance) in this way.


I’m struck by how assertive Macpherson is that Borderline, and by extension, the technology of its medium is life (237). He says it in “As Is,” and H.D. in her paean to Macpherson says something similar as well (218). I’m compelled to associate the idea that “Borderline is life” with a platitude like “art imitates life imitates art” and gloss over this clearly-emphasized and highly particular claim. But he’s not saying that art in general is life. And narrative surely isn’t life, considering how he describes Borderline here.  I read the literary materials first, and although I saw Borderline a few years ago in Dr. Drouin’s Modernism & Fascism class, it has more of a traditional plot than I remember it having. A big part of that is due to me reading the text first and then watching the film, but I also want to emphasize how Borderline is constructed by audience members as they do the work of associating sometimes disparate frames. Macpherson describes the film as chaotic, which is a term and concept often juxtaposed with order. If I had some more time I’d want to read about some of Eisenstein’s concepts of the intellectual montage in detail (218) because he seems like the Stirner of videography and photography. Macpherson writes, “I was going to take my film into the minds of the people in it, making it not so much a film of 'mental processes' as to insist on a mental condition” (236). Watching the film, then, is a condition that the audience member creates or is thrown into. In saying his film is life, I feel like Macpherson is speaking just as much to the mechanics and technologies of film production as to the associative patterns of thought that make up human life. It’s in the relation of—the splicing together of—images, events, people, experiences where MacPherson suggests life takes place. But the above quote that antagonizes “processes” in favor of “condition” seems to resist my gut reaction that the relation between frames matters much to Macpherson here.


Throughout the semester, my understanding of editorship has been influenced by how I understand the role of a film director, so this week’s texts—with MacPherson as both the editor of Close Up and director of Borderline (among other films)—prove especially captivating. In orchestrating a bunch of different national, racial, philosophical, sexual, critical, etc., viewpoints, whether through film strips or through the organization of print materials in a magazine, the director/editor has to be especially attuned to—an expert at—the ways in which (sometimes vastly) different points of view, images, concepts, etc. affect an individual when placed in a particular order on a page or screen. People in both roles have to intuit how an audience member might narrate the associations between (whether in editorial print matter or film shots) a starfish, followed by a daisy, followed by the night sky. They have to pre-narrate, almost. It's a preface/hypothesis of the way that the "live" narrative will take place in the psyches of audience members.

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. 


“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.