Generally speaking Victorian era critics regarded Francophile artists and aesthetes (e.g. Swinburne, Wilde, Beardsley) as very dubious influences: ‘cuckoos in the nest’ or, even, a dire threat to the moral order. This stance was exemplified by Robert Buchanan in his polemical pamphlet The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day (1872) where, while making a vitriolic attack on the influence of Baudelaire, the author refers to Paris as 'the most debauched city of the world'. Like Baudelaire and the Can-Can, Surrealism was always going to be seen as just such another unwelcome, ‘un-British’ import, reluctantly tolerated as an aberration, or deported back to the Sin Cities of Continental Europe, where such louche, ‘decadent’ japes belong. One thinks of the 'mad Frenchmen' gently parodied by Arthur Machen through the character of the worried father in his semi-autobiographical novel The Hill of Dreams (1907): 'The parson began to fear that his son was like some of those mad Frenchmen of whom he had read, young fellows who had a sort of fury of literature, and gave their whole lives to it, spending days over a page, and years over a book, pursuing art as Englishmen pursue money...'. This regressive Victorianism is still the dominant attitude in most respectable circles which, in the twenty-first century, remain resolutely insular and Europhobic in a supercilious fog-in-the-Channel kind of way.
In an essay on ‘The Visual Poetics of British Surrealism’ (1996), Michel Remy (‘that most unlikely creature, a French enthusiast for English Surrealism’ to quote George Melly) probed this terrain and explained how the initial progress of the movement was impeded by an existing well-established counter-movement exemplified by the theories of Roger Fry and Clive Bell, here defined as the ‘Bloomsbury Spirit’. The dominant character of ‘Bloomsburyism’ (and its subsequent ramifications in the work of Ben Nicholson and Duncan Grant among others), privileged a mode of ‘visual centrality’ dependent upon clearly delineated conceptions of order, structure, integration and unification. This quickly developed into a doctrine of ‘pure art’ characterised by a militant ‘exclusion of representation’, the pursuit of a metaphysical, almost ‘spiritual’, ideal of hyper-abstraction, a kind of ethereal, visual music.
As recently as 1978, in a magazine article ‘Alchemy of the Word’ for Harpers and Queen, novelist Angela Carter, who studied the gender politics of French Surrealism at Bristol University, bluntly stated ‘the movement never travelled across the Channel, not even in the Thirties…’ The Dadas are more fashionable now, said Carter, and claimed explicitly that:
‘Surrealist romanticism is at the opposite pole from classical modernism, but then, the Surrealists would never have given Pound or Eliot house room on strictly moral grounds. A Mussolini fan? A high Tory? They’d have moved noisily, but with dignity, to another café’
Consolidated just after the First World War, the stranglehold of this all-pervasive moralistic Victorianism (‘The Bloomsbury Spirit’ in the visual arts, Anglo-American Classical Modernism, in the literary sphere) was/is almost total. Surrealists will always be Outsiders, relegated to the cultural margins – perhaps no bad thing, it might be said.
A Surrealist Declaration of 1947 offered an insightful diagnosis of the English anti-Surrealist ‘paradox’. Aside from immediate factional issues the Declaration identified wider concerns. These included the need to combat reactionary, jingoistic conformist attitudes and ‘diehard militarism’, which may be typical of other (apparently) democratic European societies. Scorning the notion that Surrealist revolt may be passed off as a ‘sin of youth’ the authors identified the ‘decentralised structure of English society’ as a major problem and, further, highlighted an all-pervasive ‘moral pressure’ from Protestant Christianity as the real enemy. ‘An enemy which attacks Man from the inside… an enemy which is itself infinitely divided and superficially liberal.’
Here, Remy’s analysis of mainstream English abstractionists as advancing a ‘teleological’ agenda, inherently reactionary and anti-Surreal in its concern with the moral-spiritual function to the work of art, is telling. He sees a specifically English tendency at work here. A ‘disembodied functioning of the spirit’, the legacy of Plato and Aristotle, an exclusive formalism, an ‘optical totalitarianism’, the ‘subordination of the emotion’, a puritan mode of ‘aesthetic Quakerism’.
This arises from the innate tendency of the English (in particular) to regard themselves as ‘more radical than the radicals’. The Anglo-Saxons suffer from a deep conviction that ‘true’ radicalism is embodied in a home-grown tradition of Low Church religious non-conformity and anti-establishment reformist dissent dating back to the Civil War era, or even earlier, to the Peasant’s Revolt. George Orwell, in his essay 'The Prevention of Literature' (1946) is among those who have defined the basis of English radicalism as the tradition of Milton's Areopagitica and Protestant Nonconformism, quoting a Revivalist hymn ('Dare to be Daniel...') to sum up his notion of the 'heretic' or dissenter who 'refused to outrage his own conscience'. This 'heretic heritage' is a widely recognised tendency in biographical writing, as when Charlotte Bronte refers to the character of her sister Emily (perhaps the ultimate literary heretic in the eyes of many) by reference to her 'upright, heretic and English spirit'. That this semi-Calvinist tendency, derived from a Biblical 'we-are-all-sinners' egalitarianism, is central to a dominant, indigenous, iconoclastic cultural formation (owing allegiance to Geneva rather than to Rome) hostile to Surrealism in its pure form is undeniable, notwithstanding the exceptional proto-surrealist character of Wuthering Heights. It is still the case that, even in these wacky, Post-PoMo times, self-styled ‘innovative’ poets from these damp and misty isles are obsessed by language in a completely useless manner; they flirt with fake notions of ‘radical’ modernism and, furthermore, are crippled by a form of ‘ethical’ neo-Puritanism known as ‘political correctness’. They affect a ‘progressive’ worldview, incorporating derivative, tokenistic, anti-establishment attitudes mixed up with pacifism and anti-capitalism into what is, in effect, a reactionary, scholastic, conservative sweetness-and-light agenda justified by notions of ‘respect’, distorted by the Cultural Cringe, by multiculturalism and the worship of Family Values: a classic example of ‘unlimited tolerance’ to use a phrase borrowed from K.R.Popper, or 'trahsion des clercs' , as our French friends would say.
In his pivotal text An Essay On Liberation (1969) Herbert Marcuse provided an incisive outline of the radical 'new sensibility' of the Sixties: which, in pursuit of a primal form of freedom as biological necessity, must pass 'from Marx to Fourier... from realism to Surrealism'. In the aesthetic realm, he hailed the emergence of 'desublimated "lower" and destructive forms... mixing the barricade and the dance floor.' This 'new sensibility', he claimed, was not only opposed to the traditional 'establishment' but also attacked the deadly esprit de serieux of the socialist camp: 'miniskirts against the apparatchiks, rock 'n' roll against Soviet Realism'. However, the force of the political argument must be diminished in the light of the social facts underlying the so-called Permissive Society of the Sixties. To quote rock critic Robert Christgau: 'There was a sense of rebelliousness...but one of the ways it was rebellious was it wanted to enjoy having more pleasure than it was told it could have. This was much more important than the political element, numerically speaking.' These remarks apply to the US but the same principle applies to Britain, where hedonistic impulses were boosted by the increasing affluence of Supermac's 'You've Never Had It So Good' consumer boom, greater social mobility, the availability of The Pill and the liberating effect of the abolition of National Service - which finally ended in 1960. By 1967 this new hedonism had become fully fledged jet-set, high-life conspicuous consumption as exemplified by the popular slogan 'When you got it - flaunt it!'. As Diana Vreeland wrote in Vogue magazine: 'The dreams, still there, break into action'. Alan Parker later remarked: 'Images of Ursula Andress coming out of the water in Dr No were more appealing than a monk self-immolating in Saigon'. Or as Andrew Loog Oldham succinctly put it : 'I didn't have any goals, it was all just a lark'. Obviously this 'surprise-wave' Youthquake form of New Sensibility, in fact a by-product of the Golden Age of Capitalism (Post-War Economic Boom) had little in common with any indigenous British notion of alleged 'radicalism'; a tendency which cannot escape either its primeval ascetic origin or the historical legacy of assorted puritanical Lollards, Diggers, Ranters, Levellers and troublesome, lefty clerics in the tradition of John Ball, 'the mad priest of Kent'.
The later history of Surrealism in the UK, as outlined by Remy, is limited to the vestigial activities of major figures from the early period and the Melmoth Group of 1979, which disbanded in 1981. Remy does make reference to the magazine Manticore/Surrealist Communication (1997-2006) published by the Leeds Surrealist Group founded with international links in 1994. He refers to various modalities of ‘occultation’ maintaining a Surrealist presence in the UK at a subterranean cultural level, sharing a new spirit of gamesmanship infused with a quasi-Situationist, semi-occult psycho-geography. This latter theme is also explored by the poet and novelist Iain Sinclair (1943- ) including his more recent work such as London Orbital: A Walk Round the M25 (2003).
However, he fails to account for a wider resurgence of interest that surfaced in the mid-Sixties and early seventies. In 1969, the University of Michigan published the Seaver & Lane first full length English translations of Andre Breton's Surrealist Manifestoes, (based on the definitive French edition of 1962) followed by the key anthology, Surrealists on Art (1970) from Prentice Hall, edited by activist and critic Lucy R. Lippard. In Britain at that time one might note a Surrealist influence (via Artaud) on experimental theatre, in, for example, the work of Lindsay Kemp, Jane Arden and Peter Brook. Also a general diffusion of Surrealism into the wider ethos of popular culture; into the ‘underground scene’, New Left politics and the Mass Media; into the spheres of advertising and fashion (the 'creative revolution') viewed through the lens of Pop Art - or 'cult' TV shows such as The Avengers, masterminded with inimitable panache for ABC Television between 1961 and 1969 by producer/story editor Brian Clemens (1931-2015).
Although a purist approach may regard such tendencies as symptomatic of a general dilution and commodification not to be welcomed. It may, on the other hand, seem that the Surrealist spirit, the New Sensibility of cultural desublimation (symbolised for many in post-imperial Britain by the Profumo scandal), did indeed have the last laugh; gleefully cocking a snook at the strictures of aesthetic Quakerism; giving Mrs Grundy, malcontents of post-imperial humiliation like Preregrine Worsthorne, The Festival of Light, whingeing Hoggartists and high-minded Leavisite critics from the ‘grammar school ethos’ a run for their money, at least for a short while – before the Sixties spirit of ‘anarcho-libertarianism’ (Durgnat), with its ‘swinging’ lifestyle, subversive art schools, jet-age flight attendants in shocking miniskirts and 'kinky' PVC boots, softly and suddenly vanished away during the wasted years of the Thatcher era.
The Turin exhibition, Le Muse Inquietanti (The Disquieting Muses, 1967-1968), organised by Luigi Carluccio, was covered by English mainstream art magazines such as Studio International and Art & Artists and there was considerable interest in the work of Max Ernst, the subject of a large illustrated book by John Russell published in 1968 (The spirit of Ernst haunts Annabel, the central character in Angela Carter's surrealist 'collage novel' Love, 1971). That same year the BBC Third Programme broadcast a feature length tribute to Andre Breton, A Link Between The Worlds (20 March 1968), compiled by Barbara Bray and produced by Douglas Cleverdon (1903-1987). This programme included recorded contributions from David Gascoyne, Jacques B Brunius, Philippe Soupault, S W Hayter and Eugene Ionesco among others, as well as a bizarre radiophonic-dramatic piece by Fernando Arrabal. Also in 1968, Methuen published the Ubu Plays of Alfred Jarry, jointly translated by Cyril Connolly and Simon Watson Taylor (who had previously translated Marcel Jean’s The History of Surrealist Painting, 1960), while Jonathan Cape published The Selected Works of Alfred Jarry (edited and translated by Simon Watson Taylor with Roger Shattuck) in 1969. In 1970 Lykiard's acclaimed translation of Les Chants de Maldoror was published, while in the following year, 1971, Simon Watson Taylor’s translation of Aragon’s Paris Peasant, a key surrealist text, also appeared.
Wider interest in Surrealism in Britain in the Sixties was further stimulated by independent literary operators such as Calder & Boyars, publisher of Simon Watson Taylor’s translation of Antonin Artaud’s The Cenci in 1968, the same year they launched an edition of Artaud’s complete writings translated by Victor Corti. Simon Watson Taylor thus emerged as a ‘significant player’ in the later promotion of Surrealism in Britain, away from the echelons of the literati, albeit on a parallel highway leading in the direction of ‘pataphysics and the Theatre of the Absurd. Calder’s ‘French Surrealism’ series included works by Breton (Nadja and Arcane 17), Picasso (Desire Caught by The Tail), Aragon (The Libertine), Arp (Collected French Writings) and Tristan Tzara’s Seven Dada Manifestos (translated by Barbara Wright) and in the eighties the Selected Poems of Paul Eluard. The Calder imprint remained for many years a catalytic force, publishing related authors like Burroughs, Beckett (veteran translator of Surrealist poets), Borges, Raymond Roussel, Fernando Arrabal, Georges Bataille (Eroticism, 1962, Literature And Evil, 1973) and Roger Vitrac. The diffusion of these texts in English translation – often for the first time – contributed to a climate in which Surrealism extended its appeal well beyond the sphere of literary and artistic cliques. That Calder regarded his publishing activities as conflicting with endemic anti-Surreal tendencies is evident from his criticism of British, indifference to art history, hostility to both intellectual analysis and to any ‘investigation of the creative process’. As explained in his ‘Introduction’ to A William Burroughs Reader (1982), he lays the blame squarely on British ‘insularity’ and the ‘pioneer Puritanism of the American psyche’, a stance basically the same as that of the Declaration of 1947 – and of Michel Remy in his 1996 essay.
Speaking for 'serious minded readers' in his Introduction (1979) to The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse 1945-1980, D J Enright exemplified such mainstream attitudes when he parenthetically dismissed any interest in Surrealism as a 'regressive' mode of 'internationalism', one of those modes 'which reached their modest apex several decades ago'. However, 'internationalism' was, for Enright, just one of the fads and fancies of contemporary poetry, among which he includes 'free' fantasy, aesthetic narcissism, 'difficult' verse, formalism, Noble Savagery, Concrete Poetry, 'Doing-Your-Own-Thing', Violent Verse, Protest Poetry, the 'Struggle With Words' (language) schools and Confessionalism, which he described as 'one of the saddest epidemics of recent years'. For Enright all of these poetic fads were consolatory activities arising from either the de-materialization of faith or from trendy education, and represent the antithesis of his anti-surreal ideal; 'the poetry of civility, passion and order'. This sort of 'no-nonsense' talk passes for pithy, hard-nosed, trenchant criticism in certain circles, even today. But here we approach that unfortunate phenomenon known as ‘the poetry wars’ or the BPR (British Poetry Revival). So rather than digress we must move on in haste, for, in this matter, discretion is the better part of valour.
As for the generation growing up in the 1960s and interested in film, a key semi-Surrealist influence was the prolific and contrarian critic, at one point chairman of the London Film-maker’s Co-op and advocate of ‘underground cinema’, Raymond Durgnat (1932-2002). ‘…fiercely anti-puritan and anti-censorship… (Rayns), Durgnat was a regular contributor to Films & Filming, and also to the no-frills Motion magazine which emerged from the radical LSE student culture of 1961.
Durgnat contributed to Motion from 1962 and was responsible for the scandalous ‘Companion to Violence and Sadism in the Cinema’ and the anti-establishment polemic ‘Standing Up For Jesus’ (Motion No 6 Autumn 1963) which attacked both the highbrow literary sweetness-and-light critics of Oxbridge conservative consensus (i.e. Sight & Sound) but also the chic poseurs of what was known as the Free Cinema movement. In April 1963, the ‘watershed year’ of the Summer of Scandal, Durgnat presided over an ICA event on violent cinema called ‘The Art of Scaring You to Death’ based on his Motion ‘Companion’, itself partly inspired by The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz, a key source of transgressive, proto-Surrealist ideas.
Approaching film from a basically Surrealist-Freudian viewpoint (‘images of the mind’), Durgnat held that ‘photography was not essentially realistic, and film not essentially photographic’ (Miller). He watched movies for their ‘poetic’ qualities, a poetry with ‘no intellectual protocol’, a poetry derived from ‘obvious’ symbols, a poetic pervading both the mass media and the commercial cinema as an erotic force, energising popular entertainment at a subliminal level. This poetry of obvious symbols (carnivals, derelict houses, fairgrounds, mechanical music, mirrors, railway stations, shop windows, statues, tape-recorders, underwater spaces…) maintained atavistic links to primal myths and fables, links that highbrow critics tend to ignore. In ‘The Angel of Poetry Hovering’ section of his book Films and Feelings (1967), Durgnat wrote how the ‘mute poetry’ of the mainstream blends ‘fact, drama, the ‘Surreal’, dream, magic, and the supernatural powers at their play.’ This ‘oneiric’ definition of popular entertainment and middle-of-the-road cinema is a classic Surrealist position, exemplified by directors like Franju, Bunuel and Jean Rollin, presided over by sexy screen goddesses like Barbarella, Mrs Emma Peel, Modesty Blaise or British Scream Queen Barbara Steele as Lavinia The Black Witch of Greymarsh in Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968).
Later, in the 1970s, under the influence of feminism and popular genres such as Science Fiction, some perceptions of Surrealism changed, mutating into what one might call a ‘post-Surrealist’ phase. It was a time when the counter-culture had already recognised the ‘psychedelic’ implications of Ernstian decalcomania-induced landscapes and the contemporary relevance of ideas such as Mad Love with its undertone of anarchic ‘permissiveness’. A typical example might be the ‘reality war’ novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann (1972) by Angela Carter (1940-1992) which certainly contains exemplary passages of post-Surreal delirium, ‘ferocious images of desire’ and ‘phantasmagoric redefinition’. Ambivalent, Carter explicitly acknowledged her own Surrealist connection, citing the Bretonian principles of Convulsive Beauty, and The Marvellous, observing, in a review of Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, that it was at the time of Michael Moorcock’s editorship of the magazine New Worlds (1964) that ‘science fiction… joined hands with Surrealism’.
Ballard himself published an article on Surrealist Art in New Worlds (July 1966), under the title The Coming of the Unconscious where he stated: ‘the images of Surrealism are the iconography of inner space.’ Elsewhere, in an article on Salvador Dali, he derided the relevance of the Modern Movement in literature as being anachronistic: ‘In no way’, he wrote, ‘does the Modern Movement have any bearing on the facts of the twentieth century, the first flight of the Wright brothers, the invention of the Pill, the social and sexual philosophy of the ejector seat.’
That ‘druggy’ phrase Inner Space resurfaced as the title of a 1977 solo exhibition by Chelsea College of Art graduate Penelope ‘Penny’ Slinger (1947- ), whose thesis (1969) was on the collage-novels of Max Ernst. Slinger’s photo-montages and 3-D assemblages exemplified the new post-Surreal ultra-feminist spirit of the late Sixties and early Seventies, a mythopoeic visual lexicon of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures in urban settings ‘where the forces of nature disrupted the status quo’ and the ‘tools of Surrealism are used to penetrate the female psyche’ depicting the drama of death and rebirth. A prominent member of Jane Arden’s Holocaust Theatre group, her first published collage collection was entitled 50% –The Visible Woman (1971).
‘We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought’ says Captain Beatty to Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Like Enright’s advocacy of a poetry of ‘civility, passion and order’, the insular anti-Surreal ethos of ‘British’ establishment (and anti-establishment) culture may exemplify Beatty’s ‘stand’ to perfection; yet cultural life is never quite as comfortable as conformists or radicals of left, right and centre assume. Perhaps one is indeed faced with the reduction of art and poetry to the status of a spectator sport that has sunk to ‘the level of marbles or yo-yo’ (Enright). But finally, if, as disciples of ‘pure art’ would have us believe, art and poetry are ‘uplifting’, expressions of a civilizing spirit above and beyond reality, no art so defined can encompass Surreality as an ontological principle, or the enduring, disconcerting aesthetic 'flipside'; the 'disorderly, uncivil, farcical artistic desublimation of culture' that foundational factor of The New Sensibility, its Late Sixties post-pop Underground Scene offshoot (Marcuse). Similarly, no moral order can ever survive the complete negation of teleological purpose, the prime element of a genuinely subversive Surrealist revolution; an absolutely nonconformist revolution that is, in truth, nothing less than a demand for an unacceptable freedom.
But you know the answer... Move to another cafe!
Adapted from: 'No More Whores In Babylon', a Stride Magazine review of On The Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight: Surrealist Poetry in Britain. Edited with an Introduction by Michel Remy, Carcanet Press 2013.
Illustration: Fear of Mirrors, 1975
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