Neither here nor there, but elsewhere;
Even further far away,
Dark Tower – silhouette of Desolation,
Guardian of the Ultimate Horizon,
And of the Nothingness beyond.
Illus: Nothing Is Known About This, 2017
illus: Chaos Is Now, 1992
Regardless of the style or mode of a poem, regardless even of the stated intentions of the poet, who may vociferously deny his or her own voice, a ‘voiceless poem’ is an impossibility; the phrase “a voiceless poem” is simply a flat contradiction in terms. To be clear, there is no such thing as a voiceless poem.
Notwithstanding the inherent difficulties of defining the ‘voice’, you cannot surgically remove the individual (‘voice’) from the creative process without destroying the mechanism of the creative process itself. Beyond all the textual analysis and critical theory that can be directed towards a specific poem, the ultimate defining characteristic of the work is the unique ‘signature’ (strong or weak) of the author; it is always the product of unique sensibility. The essential criterion of difference between a poem by one writer and another is ultimately a difference of personality; it is matter of psychology, irrespective of literary theory. This is self-evident. It is also true of poems written by poets who tell us they deny the voice – all you hear is their voice.
The existence of an authorial voice does not imply interpretative exclusivity. In principle, the potential for plural meanings in a text and the creative involvement of the reader remains unaffected by the presence of an authorial voice. The ideal poem will always resist, or subvert, clear-cut interpretations or didactic messages; it is unlikely to conform to expectations derived from the received wisdom of either traditional dogma, or fashionable orthodoxy. Of course any given poem may be less than ideal.
In the Sixties, British poetry was divided into two symbiotic warring camps: conservatives and radicals. The conservative anti-modernist counter-revolutionaries can be epitomised by publications such as Encounter magazine (1953-1967), and by poetic ‘schools’ such as The Movement and the Confessional Poets. The ‘radicals’ comprise what is now known as the BPR (British Poetry Revival), but was recognized in the Sixties as the Underground, or the Children of Albion. We can refer to the latter as the Albion Underground.
The abuse of the word ‘radical’ to mean ‘progressive’ is endemic when looking back at this era and its immediate aftermath. There is an assumption that experimentalism must be ‘radical’ by definition but that is not necessarily the case. Poetic movements of the Left tend to monopolise this terminology, conflating the meaning of ‘progressive’ and ‘radical’, terms sometimes used as a synonym for ‘militant’. Radicals like to think of themselves as working to a ‘progressive’ political agenda, often involving ideas such as social justice and even ‘revolution’, hence the somewhat spurious notion of The Underground (in The West no poetry movement was really Underground in the strict sense). Most ‘radical’ poets fall into this category along with, for example, ‘protest poets’ who often are neither innovative nor experimental in the avant-garde sense (‘avant-garde’ here being another vague synonym for ‘radical’).
Surely the term ‘progressive’ must be related to freedom and – in a literary context – to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression depends upon the concept of ‘the authorial voice’; consequently, if you deny the voice, you deny the agent of expression. To deny the voice is, thus, a reactionary and not a ‘progressive’ position; essentially it as an anti-Romantic backlash, or often poses as such.
The cultural climate of the later half of the twentieth century was very different from that of the Second World War or the period of Late Modernism. The Beat Generation of 1945-1960, haunted by the ghost of Rimbaud was among the last of the ‘Romantic’ groupings defined by the image of the artist-poet as mystical prophet, seer, wandering visionary and popular shaman. Ann Charters has observed that the Beat Poets ‘relied on autobiography’ because their marginal identity leads them to insist ‘on the validity of their own experience instead of accepting conventional opinions and the country’s common myths’. Jack Kerouac who sometimes claimed Beat was Existentialist, defined himself as ‘actually not ‘beat’ but a strange, solitary, crazy Catholic mystic’.
From the 1970s onwards, in the UK, in Continental Europe and in North America, we see, with local variations in chronology, the continuing and ever-expanding influence of academia. ‘Literature’ became an almost exclusive domain of the universities, resulting in most ‘innovative’ poets becoming functionaries in the Academy while most ‘radical’ poets outside the academy still maintained an affinity with the Academic Left, regarding the scholastic as the guarantee of the credible. Consequently, the traditional metaphor of the poet as wandering troubadour, alienated ‘genius’, or tortured outsider was replaced by the ‘academic expert in loco parentis’ drawn from the post-Structuralist intelligentsia. A new fashionable orthodoxy was born – Postmodernism.
Postmodern Theory (a diffuse and ambiguous phenomenon full of internal self-contradictions) was a consequence of the French universities general strike of May 1968 (‘the May Events’) in which academics became disillusioned with the traditional Left after the Unions and the Communists sided with the Gaullist Establishment. Displeased by this turn of events they decided that all the Grand Narratives of the Modern or Proto-Modern past (the Enlightenment, Marxism) were worn-out or invalid – the ‘condition’ was Post-Modern, the ‘situation’ was new. At the same time, Roland Barthes proclaimed The Death of the Author, one of the first assaults on the idea of the integral authorial voice; in fact a Marxist attack on capitalist bourgeois individualism.
By the 1970s there were, roughly, two strands or varieties of ‘difficult’ poetry trying to maintain the status of the avant-garde in a post-avant-garde cultural landscape. There was the Euro-centric strand, inspired by Neo-Dada movements such as Fluxus, and there was the American academic (Black Mountain) variety inspired by Charles Olson’s Projective Verse and the Objectivism of Louis Zukofsky.
Fluxus was an early Sixties Action Art movement initiated in 1961 by George Maciunas. It was concerned with the integration of art with life and the negation of social hierarchies. Allen Fisher, a poet once associated with Cobbing’s Writers Forum, is the most noted exponent of Fluxus-inspired poetics in the UK, as can be seen in his publications Place (1974-1981) and Scram (1971-1982). Objectivism was an offshoot of Imagism promoted by Ezra Pound. British Objectivism imported by Basil Bunting, came to be identified with the Northumbrian School centred on Barry MacSweeney, and the Cambridge School whose most famous exponent is J. H. Prynne. Prynne is also an enthusiast for the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (as you might expect Heidegger’s philosophy is both notoriously ‘difficult’ and prone to ultra right-wing interpretations). One aspect of Black Mountain doctrine was the eradication of the ego. Ironically, and despite this, the Post-Albion Underground experimentalists were addicted to huge, grandiose, self-important projects emulating the Cantos, Patterson, Zukofsky’s A and Olson’s Maximus.
Academic poetry differs from the writing of the pre-Albion Underground era in that it substituted theory for personality in the creative process. This was, above all, a Poetics of Process. As a Poetics of Process it paved the way for the next style of American poetry to arrive: the Language Poets.
Like Olson (who, in Proprioception (1964), demanded ‘Wash the ego out.’) the Language Poets were explicit in their denial of the individual ‘voice’ and by their concern to exclude all ‘autobiography’ and ‘ego psychology’ from writing. This stance, which coincided with contemporary debates in the academic sphere about the role of science, identity politics and knowledge epistemology, assumed the illusory nature of the ‘Lyric I’, and the non-existence of facts beyond language as unchallenged givens. These debates were in fact symptomatic of a wider crisis in higher education and the sphere of philosophy. It was Wittgenstein who said that ‘the sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language’. Cynics have argued that this state of affairs had risen out of the widespread view that ‘philosophers’ were out of their depth when it came to confronting the scientific picture of the world (or even the universe). As Stephen Hawing said, science had become too technical and mathematical, so philosophers were impelled to reduce the scope of their enquiries. Language was the last bastion of knowledge, the final frontier for the professional thinker who was not a scientist.
In many respects these ideas have now become entrenched as key doctrines of ‘radical’ experimentalist poetry in both the US and the UK. In reality it was another generational revolt: they used the denial of the ‘voice’ and the principle of linguistic determinism as tactics to challenge the established status quo and assert their own ‘radicalism’ – just as all ‘new’ movements seek to do. In their 1988 group manifesto the Language Poets said: ‘Our work denies the centrality of the individual artist’. This statement suggests an authoritarian tendency in operation. Nothing is more authoritarian than the denial of, or marginalization of, individual ‘expression’. As an aesthetic or poetic this is entirely retrograde and reveals a mistaken view of the creative process. Furthermore the negation of the individual (Olson’s ‘Wash the ego out’) is an act of piety, the very reverse of ‘radical’, if by the use of the term ‘radical’ one means a form of anti-establishment non-conformism. The principle of the ‘unegoistic’ is the basis of our orthodox, culturally dominant morality; an ascetic morality for which the selfless ‘unegoistic’ virtues of renunciation, self-loathing, self-denial and self-sacrifice are foundational. These are virtues which, for thousands of years, have been deified and transcendentalised; glorified as articles of faith whereas, in fact they are nothing but altruistic social conventions; conventions that have evolved by chance to enhance group survival among many animal species, including Homo sapiens.
These various innovations had a major influence on non-mainstream British poetry which, prior to this, had shared, to some extent, a Beat poetry aesthetic, founded on an authorial voice. In Britain the Academic Left consolidated a position based on Post-Structuralism and similar tendencies (e.g. Social Construction Epistemology, Reader Response Theory) influenced by the later writings of Wittgenstein, flawed interpretations of Nietzsche, and an enthusiasm for Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). This latter in particular, together with a wilful misreading of Nietzschean Perspectivism, had a tremendous impact and precipitated what is known as the ‘science wars’. A key idea was the denial of objectivity and the view that the individual is a ‘cultural construction’. There can be no established facts, only incommensurable ‘paradigms’ afloat in a sea of relativistic viewpoints where no given viewpoint is any better or more useful than any other. However, significant transformative action in the real world requires the participation of an integrated unified, human individual/subject. By extension, the same is true of artistic creativity in all forms. Postmodern Theory usually denies this possibility; a convenient doctrine for those zealots of identity politics for whom all tradition and cultural baggage – however inimical – is sacrosanct.
The continuing rise of the mass media since 1945 has consolidated an already incipient post-cultural state. This is a state in which former cultural values have evaporated and ‘high culture’ has lost its historic dominance. It does not follow that the evaporation of ‘high culture’ vindicates the historical claims of Postmodernism – that would require an agreement on the nature of Modernism and a clear distinction (perhaps) between Modernism and ‘modernity’ in order to define ‘post-modernity’ as a viable chronological category. Postmodernism is a worldview or a doctrinal outlook: a limited (but diverse) quasi-philosophical tendency intrinsic to the late Cold War period. The era 1968-1989 saw the rise and fall of ‘Postmodernism’ in this narrow, doctrinal sense. The emergence of post-culture on the other hand can be dated back to the mid-to-late nineteenth century (for Barthes the historical turning point was 1848), a period that saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the rise of mass circulation newspapers, department stores, celebrity and popular mass entertainments such as Cabaret and Music Hall; the period that saw the first use of plate glass, the Singer sewing machine, the emergence of photography and the first moving pictures.
In the twenty-first century the state of post-culture continues to evolve at an ever-increasing rate of acceleration, rendering the old, nineteenth century ‘vanguard’ model of literary and artistic self-definition superfluous. A crisis of self-definition on this level has created an alienated intelligentsia still clinging to notions of high cultural value. These values have no viable place in a ‘new world order’ of globalised mass ‘infotainment’. We now inhabit a world where hitherto ‘profound’ masterpieces stand revealed as propaganda; a world where a tabloid headline or a refrain from a pop song may well possess more aesthetic value than a poem by J H Prynne or Basil Bunting.
It is ironic that the position we are describing has lead an alienated literary class to deny the value of the authorial voice, not only the voices of others – but their own as well.
Barry, Peter. Poetry Wars: British Poetry in the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court. Salt Publishing, 2007.
Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. Hill and Wang, 2012.
Charters, Ann (ed.). The Penguin Book of the Beats, Penguin Books, 1993.
Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. Bantam Press, 1988
Kerouac, Jack. Lonesome Traveller. Penguin Books, 2000.
Leiter, Brian. Nietzsche on Morality. Routledge. 2002.
Silliman, Ron et al. Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto. Social Text, 1988.
Sokal, Alan/Bricmont, Jean. Intellectual Impostures Postmodern Philosopher's Abuse of Science. Profile Books, 1998
Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology. Belknap Press, 1980.
Illus: Fear of Mirrors, 1975
the standards of virtue now prevalent are incompatible with the production of good poetry
– Bertrand Russell
Britain has spawned several sacred monsters: acknowledged precursors of Surrealism – from the mysterious, disputed author of The Revenger’s Tragedy to the dream-works of Lewis Carroll (by way of Swift, Sterne, Blake, Coleridge, the Gothic novel, Emily Bronte, and the 'mirth and marvels' of Tom Ingoldsby) – but – paradoxically, Britain has engendered very few self-defined Surrealists, in the contemporary sense.
Notwithstanding an indigenous ‘tendency to irrationality’ and a trend of anarchic fantasy in English art, literature and popular culture (Lottie ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!’ Collins, Fred Karno's Army, The Crazy Gang, The Whitehall Follies, Take it From Here, The Goons, Carry On films, St Trinian’s, Screaming Lord Sutch, Basil Brush, Gurney Slade, farcical sex scandals, Union Jack knickers, Madam Cyn) it is clearly the case that, if transposed to these shores, a movement such as Surrealism is quickly regarded as ‘foreign’ or out-of-place.
‘You know, it's just not cricket', says your true-born Englishman in his 'modern rustic' kitchen, his chintzy drawing room or eco-friendly conservatory somewhere in Middle England.
Victorian critics regarded artists or poets who found inspiration in Continental trends – like Swinburne, Wilde, Whistler or Beardsley, for example – as very dubious influences indeed: ‘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, in the course of a vitriolic attack on Baudelaire, he refers to Paris as 'the most debauched city of the world'.
Like Baudelaire and the Cancan, Surrealism was always going to be seen as just another ‘un-British’ import perhaps reluctantly tolerated but actually seen as a sinister aberration. Most would prefer to deport it back to the sin cities of Europe, where such louche, ‘decadent’ or subversive japes rightfully belong – although all classes often displayed an ambivalent, even prurient, attraction to Le Cancan, ‘Gay Paree’ and bawdy European ‘naughtiness’ in general. Hence the popularity of Variety Show or Music Hall acts like the Tiller Girls (originally named Les Jolies Petites), or the Colonna Troupe of Amelia Newham from St John’s Wood (aka Mlle Colonna) whose high-kicking performances at The Alhambra, Leicester Square, could be relied upon to attract the attention of militant campaigners from the National Vigilance Association.
Likewise, when exhibited at the Grafton Gallery in London in 1893, Degas’ painting In the Café (L’Absinthe) (1875) was found to be a morally repulsive example of the flippant and vulgar artistic ideals of ‘new painters’, sparking a lengthy controversy in the Westminster Gazette; the same picture was loudly hissed by disgusted bidders when put up for auction at Christie’s. Numerous other examples could be mentioned. All of which tends to corroborate the opinion of Bertrand Russell when he said moral indignation ‘is one of the most harmful forces in the modern world’.
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...'. Indeed, a regressive and venal Victorianism is still the dominant attitude today in most respectable circles which, even in the twenty-first century, remain resolutely insular in a supercilious, fog-in-the-Channel kind of way. One thinks of that moment in Through the Looking-Glass (1871) when passengers in a railway carriage utter a telepathic chorus of thoughts for Alice’s benefit. “Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!”
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 Surrealism in England was impeded by an existing, well-established counter-movement defined as the ‘Bloomsbury Spirit’ and exemplified by the theories of Roger Fry and Clive Bell. The dominant character of ‘Bloomsburyism’ (and its subsequent ramifications in the work of Ben Nicholson and Duncan Grant, among others), emphasised the ‘visual centrality’ of clearly delineated conceptions of order, structure, integration and unification. This aesthetic was developed into a doctrine of ‘pure art’ characterised by a militant ‘exclusion of representation’, the pursuit of a metaphysical, ‘spiritual’, ideal of hyper-abstraction; a kind of ethereal, visual music. This viewpoint was later reinforced by other writers, such as critic Clement Greenberg, who – promoting Abstract Expressionism as the epitome of ‘superior culture’ and a counterforce against both Socialist Realism and commercial (capitalist) Kitsch – took a similar approach in the late 1930s. And, of course, the toleration of art only if it has a ‘spiritual purpose’ (i.e. devotional parables, theological propaganda or cautionary tales and righteous fables of renunciation and self-denial) is a typical Puritan strategy. Ideally – like Plato, the Church Fathers and the Iconoclasts– the out-and-out Puritan would banish idolatrous ‘graven images’ (art is idolatry) altogether, but social-cultural pressures are such that a ‘spiritual’ aesthetic of ‘pure art’ provides an expedient, opportunistic alternative to outright abolition. However, to cite Russell again, this ‘generally means that it is bad art.’
As recently as 1978, in ‘Alchemy of the Word’, an article on Surrealism for Harpers and Queen, novelist Angela Carter stated bluntly ‘the movement never travelled across the Channel, not even in the Thirties…’ The Dadas are more fashionable now she said, 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 moralistic Victorianism (‘The Bloomsbury Spirit’ in the visual arts, Anglo-American Classical Modernism, in the literary sphere) was/is almost total. Despite the limited success of the famous 1936 London exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, where Sheila Legge performed in an event entitled The Phantom of Sex Appeal, Surrealists will always be Outsiders, relegated to the cultural margins – perhaps no bad thing, it might be said.
A Surrealist Declaration of 1947 offered a 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 dismissed 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 advancing a ‘teleological’ agenda, inherently reactionary and anti-Surreal in its concern with the moral-spiritual function of art, is telling. He detects a specifically English tendency at work. A ‘disembodied functioning of the spirit’, the legacy of Plato and Aristotle, an exclusive formalism, an ‘optical totalitarianism’, the ‘subordination of the emotion’, a puritanical mode of ‘aesthetic Quakerism’.
This arises from the innate tendency of the English (in particular) to regard themselves as ‘more radical than the radicals’. Our Anglo-Saxons suffer from a deep conviction that ‘true’ radicalism is embodied in a home-grown tradition of religious non-conformity. This tendency is a political ethos; a pervasive subculture of anti-establishment, reformist dissent that dates 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 Dissenter Protestantism, 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'.
It is undeniable that this heroic-dissident, semi-Calvinist tendency – derived from a Biblical 'we-are-all-sinners' mode of ersatz egalitarianism, is central to an indigenous, iconoclastic cultural formation, closer to Methodism than to Marx, owing allegiance to Geneva rather than to Rome. It is obviously hostile to pure or absolute Surrealism.
For, while the objectives of Surrealism may include, ‘the total liberation of the mind and of all that it resembles’ (Declaration of 27 January, 1925), or ‘the infinite expansion of reality’ (Balakian), or a return to ‘the sources of poetic imagination’ (Breton), it is also necessary to bear in mind that, as a doctrine of ‘absolute non-conformism’ (notre non-conformisme absolu), ‘total revolt’ or ‘complete insubordination’, Surrealism maintained an implacable stance of opposition to the ideology of family-country-religion, a complex seen as an ‘apparatus of social conservation’, or as a ‘mechanism of oppression’; in fact the Three Fs of ‘traditional’ or ‘cornerstone’ conservatism: Faith, Flag and Family.
Furthermore, it is necessary to recognise that Surrealism was not some form of mysticism, or spiritual ‘heresy’ but, as Maurice Nadeau has said, is a state of mind understood as a tendency ‘not to transcend but to penetrate reality’.
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 (academic-philosophical cult of Wittgenstein); they flirt with fake notions of ‘radical’ avant garde modernism and, furthermore, are crippled by a form of ‘ethical’ neo-Puritanism known as ‘political correctness’, or, more rarely, its mirror image; a cult of inverted virtue signalling, known nowadays as Anti-Woke. They may often affect a ‘progressive’ worldview, incorporating derivative, tokenistic, anti-establishment attitudes mixed up with pacifism and anti-capitalism into what is, in effect, a reactionary, conformist sweetness-and-light agenda that consciously or not works in collusion with fundamentalists and reactionaries everywhere. Just as the hippie was an inverted bourgeois, so todays ‘radical’ is an inverted conservative – an inverted conservative camouflaged by inverted snobbery. This posture is justified by notions of ‘respect’, distorted by the Cultural Cringe, filtered through State Multiculturalism and energised by lip-service to no-nonsense Working Class Heroes, the North-South Divide and Family Values: a classic example of ‘repressive tolerance’ to use a phrase borrowed from Herbert Marcuse, 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' 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, Marcuse 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'. Perhaps this new, hedonistic, ‘permissive’ idolatrous, unholy zeitgeist, from Desmond Morris’s ICA exhibition Paintings by Chimpanzees (1957) to Kenneth Tynan’s ‘nudest show on Earth’, Oh! Calcutta! (Off Broadway, 1969, The Roundhouse, 1970) marked the final end of Victorianism and of the Bloomsbury Spirit. For a brief moment it looked as though Surrealism had finally found a home or some acceptance at least.
Yet the force of this argument is somewhat diminished in the light of social facts underlying the so-called Permissive Society of the ‘Sixties, the ‘rebellious’ cultural backdrop to Marcuse’s text (which was as popular in the UK as it was in the USA).
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 affluence of 'You've Never Had It So Good' consumer boom affluence, greater social mobility, the availability of The Pill and the abolition of National Service. By 1967 this new hedonism had become a fully-fledged, jet-set, high-life of conspicuous consumption, as exemplified by the popular advertising slogan 'When you got it – flaunt it!'
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' New Sensibility ‘Youthquake’ had little in common with any native British notion of alleged 'radicalism'; a tendency which cannot escape either its 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'. Although much diluted, this is a tradition still with us as exemplified by the ‘Anglican Priest and polemicist’ Giles ‘Loose Canon’ Fraser, whose radicalism means little more than attacking the superior attitudes of ‘metropolitan liberals in the media’.
The New Sensibility was a cultural shift that helps to account for a wider resurgence of interest in Surrealism that surfaced in the ‘Sixties and early ‘Seventies.
In 1969, the University of Michigan published the Seaver & Lane first full length English translation 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. Earlier translations from US sources included Breton’s 1924 semi-autobiographical quasi-novel Nadja (1960) and Maurice Nadeau’s 1964 overview The History of Surrealism (1965) both translated by Richard Howard.
In Britain at that time one might note a Surrealist influence (via Antonin Artaud) on experimental theatre, in, for example, the work of Lindsay Kemp with productions such as Flowers (1966), Salome (1974) and Cruel Garden (1977) that exemplified his unique dramatic style based on myth, ritual and trance states (‘we balance on a knife edge between the serious and the ridiculous’), radical feminist director and poet Jane Arden, Peter Brook and Charles Marowitz. It was Brook and Marowitz who staged a Theatre of Cruelty Season with the RSC Experimental Theatre Group at LAMDA in Jan-Feb 1964 while Brook directed the Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss at the Aldwych Theatre in August of the same year. Marowitz was the author the play Artaud at Rodez, and founded the Open Space Theatre (with Thelma Holt) in 1968.
It was J. G. Ballard who, in the ‘New Wave’ SF magazine New Worlds observed that ‘the images of Surrealism are the iconography of inner space’ (‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, New Worlds, July 1966) pointing to a general diffusion of Surrealism into wider popular culture. The term ‘surreal’ in various interpretations could be applied to social phenomena such as: the ‘underground scene’; to New Left politics and the Mass Media; to the ‘creative revolution’ of advertising and fashion, viewed through the lens of Pop Art, or to ‘cult’ TV shows like The Avengers (1961-1969) masterminded with inimitable panache for ABC Television by producer/story editor Brian Clemens. Discussing the Visual Pop design of record sleeves George Melly in his Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts 1966-1970 noted that ‘Surrealism has remained the most pervasive influence’.
Indeed it is tempting to see in the 1966 appointment of zoologist, socio-biologist and Surrealist , Desmond Morris, author of The Biology of Art (‘the picture-making behaviour of the Great Apes’) (1962) and controversial best-seller The Naked Ape (1967) , as director of the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), a telling sign of the times. Significantly the ICA had been founded by English surrealists Roland Penrose and Herbert Read (among others) in an Oxford Street cinema basement in 1947. Then, the City of Exeter hosted an influential exhibition The Enchanted Domain at the Exeter City Gallery in 1967 organised by John Lyle with the participation of various significant personalities including Penrose, ELT Mesens, George Melly, Conroy Maddox and Robert Benayoun among others.
Here one might also mention novels by Angela Carter such as Heroes and Villains (1969), The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) or The Passion of New Eve (1977). Doctor Hoffman was known in the US as The War of Dreams a title that evokes Carter’s particular style of scary surreality – a psychic locale from where we embark on ‘a desperate expedition to a destination at the heart of the dark in a nameless zone, where we would find the key to an unimaginable secret.’
Although a purist approach may regard many such tendencies especially those in the advertising and the mass media, as symptomatic of a general dilution and commodification not to be welcomed. It may, on the other hand, seem that the Surrealist spirit, in tune with the New Sensibility of counter-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 (Peregrine Worsthorne), The Festival of Light and high-minded Leavisite critics from the ‘grammar school ethos’, a run for their money. At least it looked that way for a short while – before the Sixties spirit of ‘anarcho-libertarianism’ (Durgnat, see below), with its ‘swinging’ lifestyle, its subversive art schools and electroluminescent dresses, its 'kinky' PVC boots and jet-age flight attendants in shocking miniskirts, 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, who was 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, produced by Douglas Cleverdon .This programme included 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 Absurdist, proto-Surrealist 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. The then head of BBC Radio Drama, Martin Esslin, had published The Theatre of The Absurd in 1962. This landmark study assimilated Surrealism into a broader panorama of Absurdist heritage (‘an inscape of the mind’) stretching back over a thousand years or more. The BBC had also broadcast Esslin’s adaptation of the Ubu Plays between 1965 and 1968. Along with Beardsley and Mucha, Jarry was subject to something of a revival, in fact George Melly said about The Goons ‘They are our effective surrealists, our democratic Pere Ubus, our sacred monsters’.
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. This was followed by the Harper & Row edition of Surrealism and Painting, a compilation of Andre Breton’s writing on visual art which included not only the titular essay but numerous uncollected pieces culled from pamphlets and catalogues. Covering the period 1928 to 1965 this extensive survey (translation by Watson Taylor, again) amounted to ‘not so much a reissue as an original event’ according to an introductory note.
For the generation growing up in the 1960s and interested in film, a key semi-Surrealist influence was the prolific and contrarian critic Raymond Durgnat, chairman of the London Film-maker’s Co-op and advocate of ‘underground cinema’. ‘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 the 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. He advocated a poetry with ‘no intellectual protocol’; a poetry derived from ‘obvious’ symbols. It was a poetic dimension of the mass media and the commercial cinema; an erotic force, energising popular entertainment at a subliminal level. This obvious symbolism (of carnivals, derelict houses, fairgrounds, mechanical music and mirrors, extended to include railway stations, shop windows, statues, tape-recorders and 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 Lavinia the Black Witch of Greymarsh – as played in Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) by ‘Scream Queen’ Barbara Steele, resplendent in green make-up.
Wider interest in Surrealism in Britain in the Sixties was further stimulated by independent publishers such as Calder & Boyars.
The Calder & Boyars ‘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.
The later history of Surrealism in the UK is limited to the vestigial activities of major figures from the early period and the Melmoth Group of 1979, which disbanded in 1981. One might 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 forms of ‘occultation’ maintaining a Surrealist presence at a subterranean cultural level, sharing a new spirit of gamesmanship infused with a semi-Situationist, semi-occult psycho-geography. This latter theme is also explored by the poet and novelist Iain Sinclair including his more recent work such as London Orbital: A Walk Round the M25 (2002).
In truth, the so-called ‘Permissive Society’, both here and elsewhere, was a minor skirmish in a wider culture war, a skirmish which has since passed into nostalgic obscurity. It was destined to become a faded, but hideous memory of ‘mass national debauch, the breakdown of all known moral standards, the collapse of Western civilization’, a sentiment attributed to Beverley Nichols when reporting on The Twist craze of 1962.
Looking back a decade or so later Christopher Booker echoed these sentiments, describing the ‘Swinging Sixties’ as a case of ‘general world-wide hysteria’.
Booker, a Christian convert and Thatcherite, saw the decade as an egregious example of the Golden Calf Syndrome; a nightmare time when ‘the rebellion of the early Romantics reached its peak’; when ‘the children of the Sixties sought to shake, deafen, blind and drug themselves into the ‘ultimate experience’ on a scale never before seen – until there was almost nowhere further to go.’ Of course, Mrs Whitehouse, Mrs Grundy and the mainstream moralists were victorious in this struggle for moral rectitude. Stigmatised by Tory politicians and their disciples in the media as ‘a time when it all went wrong’, the Sixties and the national debauch of the permissive New Hedonism, soon dwindled into the distance, fast fading in the rear-view mirror or mythologised as a cautionary tale, while Surrealism was seen as just another irresponsible fad.
Speaking for 'serious minded readers' in his Introduction (1979) to The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse 1945-1980, D J Enright exemplified mainstream attitudes when he parenthetically dismissed any interest in Surrealism as a 'regressive' mode of 'internationalism', one of those tendencies 'which reached their modest apex several decades ago'. Enright held the view that ‘internationalism’ was 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. He described the latter as 'one of the saddest epidemics of recent years'.
For Enright all of these sad poetic fads were consolatory activities arising from either the eclipse of faith or from trendy education. They represented the antithesis of his anti-surreal ideal; 'the poetry of civility, passion and order'. This sort of 'no-nonsense' talk passes for hard-nosed, trenchant criticism in certain circles, even today. But then – deep down – the English hate Surrealism.
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