Henry Miller: An Open Letter to Surrealists Everywhere
Copyright 1939 New directions Publishing Corporation.
Below the belt all men are brothers. Man has never known solitude except in the upper regions where one is either a poet or a madman—or a criminal. “To-day,’ writes Paul Eluard, “the solitude of poets is breaking down. They are now men among men, they have brothers.’ It is unfortunately too true, and that is why the poet is becoming more and more rare. I still prefer the anarchic life; unlike Paul Eluard I cannot say that the word “fraternization” exalts me. Nor does it seem to me that this idea of brotherhood arises from a poetic conception of life. It is not at all what Lautreamont meant when he said that poetry must be made by all. The brotherhood of man is a permanent delusion common to idealists everywhere in all epochs: it is the reduction of the principle of individuation to the least common denominator of intelligibility. It is what leads the masses to identify themselves with movie stars and megalomaniacs like Hitler and Mussolini. It is what prevents them from reading and appreciating and being influenced by and creating in turn such poetry as Paul Eluard gives us. That Paul Eluard is desperately lonely, that he strives with might and main to establish communication with his fellow-man, I understand and subscribe to with all my heart. But when Paul Eluard goes down into the street and becomes a man he is not making himself understood and liked for what he is—for the poet that he is, I mean. On the contrary, he is establishing communication with his fellow-men by capitulation, by renunciation of his individuality, his high role. If he is accepted it is only because he is willing to surrender those qualities which differentiate him from his fellow-men and make him unsympathetic and unintelligible to them. It is not at all strange that madmen are put under lock and key and saviours crucified and prophets stoned. At any rate, one thing is certain: it is not in this way that poetry will be made by all.
(Query: And why should poetry be made by all? Why?)
In every age, just as in every life worthy of the name, there is the effort to re-establish that equilibrium which is disturbed by the power and tyranny which a few great individuals exercise over us. This struggle is fundamentally personal and religious. It has nothing to do with liberty and justice, which are idle words signifying nobody knows precisely what. It has to do with making poetry, or, if you will, with making life a poem. It has to do with the adoption of a creative attitude towards life. One of the most effective ways in which it expresses itself is in killing off the tyrannical influences wielded over us by those who are already dead. It consists not in denying these examplars, but in absorbing them, assimilating them, and eventually surpassing them. Each man has to do this for himself. There is no feasible scheme for universal liberation. The tragedy which surrounds the life of almost every great figure is forgotten in the admiration which we bestow on the man’s work. It is forgotten that the glorious Greeks, whom we never cease admiring, treated their men of genius more shamefully, more cruelly perhaps than any other people we know of. It is forgotten that the mystery which attaches itself to Shakespeare’s life is a mystery only because the English do not wish to admit that Shakespeare was driven mad by the stupidity, non-understanding and intolerance of his countrymen, that he finished his days in a mad-house.
Life is either a feast or a famine, as the old Chinese proverb goes. Right now it is pretty much of a famine. Without having recourse to the wisdom of such a sage as Freud, it is obvious that in times of famine men behave differently than when there is abundance. In times of famine one prowls the streets with a rapacious eye. One looks at his brother, sees in him a succulent morsel, and straightaway he waylays and devours him. This is done in the name of the revolution. The fact is that it doesn’t matter much in what name it is done. When men get brotherly they also get slightly cannibalistic. In China, where famines are more frequent and more devastating, the people have become so hysterical (beneath the renowned Oriental mask) that when they see a man being executed they quite often forget themselves and laugh.
The famine which we are living through is a peculiar one in that it occurs in the midst of plenty. It is more of a spiritual famine, we might say, than a physical one. People are not fighting for bread this time, but for a right to their piece of bread, which is a distinction of some importance. Bread, figuratively speaking, is everywhere, but most of us are hungry. Shall I say—especially the poets? I ask because it is in the tradition of poets to starve. It is a little strange therefore to find them identifying their habitual physical hunger with the spiritual hunger of the masses. Or is it vice versa? Anyway, now we are all starving, except the rich, to be sure, and the smug bourgeoisie who have never known what it is to starve, either spiritually or physically.
Originally men killed one another in the direct pursuit of booty —food, weapons, implements, women, and so on. There was sense to it, even though there was no charity or sympathy. Now we have become sympathetic and charitable and brotherly, but we go on killing just the same, and we kill without the least hope of attaining our ends. We kill one another for the benefit of those to come, that they may enjoy a life more abundant. (The hell we do!)
There has been mention throughout this book on Surrealism *[ * Surrealism, by Herbert Read (Faber and Faber Ltd.)] of our great indebtedness to Freud et alia. But there is one thing which Freud and all his tribe have made painfully clear and which is singularly missing in this account of our supposed indebtedness. It is something like this . . . Every time we fail to strike or to kill the person who threatens to humiliate or degrade or enslave or enchain us we pay the penalty for it in collective suicide, which is war, or in fratricidal slaughter, which is revolution. Every day that we fail to live out the maximum of our potentialities we kill the Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Christ which is in us. Every day that we live in harness with the woman whom we no longer love we destroy our power to love and to have the woman whom we merit. The age we live in is the age which suits us: it is we who make it, not God, not Capitalism, not this or that, call it by any name you like. The evil is in us—and the good too! But as the old bard said—”the good is oft interred with our bones.’ The basic effectiveness of the psycho-analytic doctrine lies in the recognition of the creative aspect of responsibility. Neurosis is not a new phenomenon in the history of human maladies, nor is its most wonderful bloom, schizophrenia. This is not the first time that the cultural soil, and even the sub-soil, has become exhausted. This is a famine which goes to the roots, and it is not at all paradoxical, on the contrary, it is absolutely logical, that it should occur in the midst of plenty. In the midst of this rotting plenty it is altogether fitting and natural that we the living dead should sit like lepers with outstretched arms and beg a little charity. Or, get up and kill one another, which is a little more diverting, but which comes to the same tiling in the end. That is, nullity.
When at last each man realizes that nothing is to be expected from God, or society, or friends, or benevolent tyrants, or democratic governments, or saints, or saviours, or even from the holiest of holies, education, when each man realizes that he must work with his own hands to save himself, and that he need expect no mercy, perhaps then . . . Perhaps! Even then, seeing what manner of men we are, I doubt. The point is that we are doomed. Maybe we are going to die to-morrow, maybe in the next five minutes. Let us take stock of ourselves. We can make the last five minutes worth while, entertaining, even gay, if you will, or dissipate them as we have the hours and the days and months and years and centuries. No god is coming to save us. No system of government, no belief will provide us with that liberty and justice which men whistle for with the death-rattle.
The renascence of wonder, which Mr. Read writes about, will be brought about, if it is brought about, by a few individuals for whom this phrase has vital significance, by those, in short, who are unable not to act in accordance with a truth perceived. What distinguishes the majority of men from the few is their inability to act according to their beliefs. The hero is he who raises himself
above the crowd. He is not a hero because he lays down his life for his country, or for a cause or principle. Indeed, in making such a sacrifice he is often cowardly rather than heroic* To run with the herd, and die with the herd, is the natural animal instinct which man shares with other beasts. To be a pacifist is not necessarily heroic either. ‘For if a man,’ to quote from the devil himself, “is unprepared or unable to fight for his life, just Providence has already decreed his end.” To fight for one’s life, though Herr Hitler did not mean it this way, usually means to lose one’s life. To get men to rally round a cause, a belief, an idea, is always easier than to persuade them to lead their own lives. We live in the swarm and our fine principles, our glorious ideas, are but blinders which we put over our eyes in order to make death palatable. We have not advanced a peg beyond the primitive man’s idea of the fertility of death. Since the dawn of civilization we have been killing one another off—on principle. The fact is—I must repeat it again because the Surrealists are guilty of the same mistake as all other warring idealists—that human beings have an imperative need to kill. The distinguishing trait of the civilized man is that he kills en masse. Sadder than that, however, is the fact that he lives the life of the masses. His life is lived according to totem and taboo, as much now as in the past, even more, perhaps.
The role which the artist plays in society is to revive the primitive, anarchic instincts which have been sacrificed for the illusion of living in comfort. If the artist fails we will not necessarily have a return to an imaginary Eden filled with wonder and cruelty. I am afraid, on the contrary, that we are much more apt to have a condition of perpetual work, such as we see in the insect world. Myself I do not believe that the artist will fail. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter a damn to me whether he fails or not. It is a problem beyond my scope. If I choose to remain an artist rather than go down in the street and shoulder a musket or sling a stick of dynamite it is because my life as an artist suits me down to the ground. It is not the most comfortable life in the world but I know that it is life, and I am not going to trade it for an anonymous life in the brotherhood of man—which is either sure death, or quasi-death, or at the very best cruel deception. I am fatuous enough to believe that in living my own life in my own way I am more apt to give life to others (though even that is not my chief concern) than I would if I simply followed somebody else’s idea of how to live my life and thus become a man among men. It seems to me that this struggle for liberty and justice is a confession or admission on the part of all those engaging in such a struggle that they have failed to live their own lives. Let us not deceive ourselves about “humanitarian impulses” on the part of the great brotherhood. The fight is for life, to have it more abundantly, and the fact that millions are now ready to fight for something they have ignominiously surrendered for the greater part of their lives does not make it more humanitarian.
“I came not to bring peace, but a sword!” said the great humanitarian. That is not the utterance of a militarist, nor is it the utterance of a pacifist: it is the utterance of one of the greatest artists that ever lived. If his words mean anything they mean that the struggle for life, for more life, must be carried on day by day. It means that life itself is struggle, perpetual struggle. This sounds almost banal, and in fact it has become banal, thanks to the frog-like perspective of Darwin and such like. Banal because our struggle has become banal, because our struggle is for food and shelter—not even that, by God, but for work. Men are struggling for the right to work! It sounds almost incredible but that is precisely what it amounts to, die great goal of the civilized man. What an heroic struggle! Well, for my part, I will say that whatever else I may want, I know I don’t want work.
To live as an artist I stopped work some ten or twelve years ago. I made it extremely uncomfortable for myself. I cannot even say that it was a matter of choice, my decision. I had to do it, or die of boredom. Naturally I was not paid to stop work and live as an artist. The time came quickly enough when I had to beg for a crust of bread. They said strange things to me, those whom I asked for food or shelter. Brother, said one man, why didn’t you save your money for a rainy day? Said another: brother, open your heart to God that you may be saved. And another: join the union and we will find you a job so that you may eat and have a place to sleep. None of them gave me money, which is all I had asked for. I realized that I was ostracized and I understood quickly enough that this was just, because if one chooses to live his own life in his own way he must pay the penalty.
I cannot help seeing in men what I know them to be from my own experience of life. Their illusions and delusions are poignantly touching to me, but they do not convince me that I should offer my life for them. It seems to me that the men who would create a Fascist world are the same at heart as those who would create a Communist world. They are all looking for leaders who will provide them with enough work to give them food and shelter. I am looking for something more than that, something which no leader can give me. I am not against leaders per se. On the contrary, I know how necessary they are. They will be necessary so long as men are insufficient unto themselves. As for myself, I need no leader and no god. I am my own leader and my own god. I make my own bibles. I believe in myself—that is my whole credo.
An age such as ours is the most difficult one of all for an artist. There is no place for him. At least, that is what one hears on all sides. Nevertheless, some few artists of our time have made a place for themselves. Picasso made a place for himself. Joyce made a place for himself. Matisse made a place for himself. Celine made a place for himself. Should I rattle off the whole list? Perhaps the greatest of them all has not yet made a place for himself. But who is he? Where is he? If he is the greatest of all he will make himself heard. He will not be able to conceal himself.
Those who are perpetually talking about the inability to communicate with the world—have they made every effort? Have they learned what it is to “compromise”? Have they learned how to be as wise and cunning as the serpent, as well as strong and obstinate as a bull? Or are they braying like donkeys, whining about some ideal condition in the ever-receding future when every man will be recognized and rewarded for his labors? Do they really expect such a day to dawn, these simple souls?
I feel that I have some right to speak about the difficulty of establishing communication with the world since my books are banned in the only countries where I can be read in my own tongue. I have enough faith in myself however to know that I eventually will make myself heard, if not understood. Everything I write is loaded with the dynamite which will one day destroy the barriers erected about me. If I fail it will be because I did not put enough dynamite into my words. And so, while I have the strength and the gusto I will load my words with dynamite. I know that the timid, crawling ones who are my real enemies are not going to meet me face to face in fair combat. I know these birds! I know that the only way to get at them is to reach up in* side them, through the scrotum; one has to get up inside and twist their sacred entrails for them. That’s what Rimbaud did. That’s what Lautreamont did. Unfortunately, those who call themselves their successors have never learned this technique. They give us a lot of piffle about the revolution—first the revolution of the word, now the revolution in the street. How are they going to make themselves heard and understood if they are going to use a language which is emasculated? Are they writing their beautiful poems for the angels above? Is it communication with the dead which they are trying to establish?
You want to communicate. All right, communicate! Use any and every means. If you expect the world to fall for your lingo because it is the right lingo, or even the left lingo, you are going to be cruelly deceived. It’s like the “pug” who goes into the ring expecting to get it over with quickly. Generally he gets flattened stiff as a board. He drinks hell deliver an uppercut or a swift one to the solar plexus. He forgets to defend himself. He lays himself wide open. Everybody who’s gone out to fight has had to first learn something about the strategy of die ring. The man who refuses to leam how to box becomes what is called, in the language of the ring, “a glutton for punishment.” Speaking for myself, I’ll say that I’ve taken all the punishment I could assimilate. From now on I use my head, my bean, as they say. I watch for an opening. I do a little fancy stepping. I duck. I feint. I spar a bit, I bide my time. When the moment comes I let go with all my might.
I am against revolutions because they always involve a return to status quo. I am against the status quo both before and after revolutions. I don’t want to wear a black shirt or a red shirt. I want to wear the shirt that suits my taste. And I don’t want to salute like an automaton either. I prefer to shake hands when I meet someone I like. The fact is, to put it simply, I am positively against all this crap which is carried on first in the name of this thing, then in the name of that. I believe only in what is active, immediate and personal.
I was writing Surrealistically in America before I had ever heard the word. Of course I got a good kick in the pants for it. I wrote for ten years in America without once having a manuscript accepted. I had to beg, borrow and steal in order to get by. Finally I got out of the country. As a foreigner in Paris, without friends, I went through an even worse ordeal, though in another sense it was a thousand times better than the American experience. I grew so desperate that finally I decided to explode—and I did explode. The naive English critics, in their polite, asinine way, talk about the “hero” of my book (Tropic of Cancer) as though he were a character I had invented. I made it as plain as could be that I was talking in that book about myself. I used my own name throughout. I didn’t write a piece of fiction: I wrote an autobiographical document, a human book.
I mention this only because this book marks a turning point in my literary career~I should say, in my life. At a certain point in my life I decided that henceforth I would write about myself, my friends, my experiences, what I knew and what I had seen with my own eyes. Anything else, in my opinion, is literature, and I am not interested in literature. I realized also that I should have to learn to content myself with what was within my grasp, my scope, my personal ken. I learned not to be ashamed of myself, to talk freely about myself, to advertise myself, to elbow my way in here and there when necessary. The greatest man America ever produced was not ashamed to peddle his own book from door to door. He had faith in himself and he has given tremendous faith to others. Goethe too was not ashamed to beg a friend to put in a good word for him with the critics. Gide and Proust were not ashamed to publish their first books at their own expense. Joyce had the courage to search for years for the person who would publish his Ulysses. Was the world better then? Were people more kind, more intelligent, more sympathetic, more understanding? Did Milton get a reasonable price for his Paradise Lost? I could go on multiplying instance after instance. What’s the use?
Justice you ask for! Well, every day life metes out an inexorable justice. It’s not ideal, it may not even be intelligent—-from the viewpoint of a Marxian dialectician. But it’s justice. The English are particularly noted for shouting about liberty and justice. They make a great point always about “fair play”, even in war. As though war were a game played according to rules. But in crucial matters the English have never indulged in “fair play”. If they had they would not own the vast empire on which the sun never sets, as they so fatuously boast. No, the English may talk about fair play, but in practice they have always employed the most dastardly tactics.
I know little about history, politics, literature, art, science, philosophy, religion, etc. I know only what I have seized through experience. I put no trust in the men who explain life to us in terms of history, economics, art, etc. They are the fellows who bugger us up, juggling their abstract ideas. I think it is a piece of the most cruel deception to urge men to place their hopes of justice in some external order, some form of government, some social order, some system of ideal rights. I read every day somewhere or other about the Marxian dialectic, as though not to understand this lingo were a blot on the intelligence of man. Well, I must confess, and very willingly, that I have never read a line of Karl Marx. I have never felt compelled to read him- And the more I listen to his disciples the more I realize that I have lost nothing. Karl Marx, so they say, explains the structure of our capitalistic society. I don’t need an explanation of our capitalistic society. Fuck your capitalistic society! Fuck your Communistic society and your Fascist society and all your other societies! Society is made up of individuals. It is the individual who interests me—not the society.
What strikes one as pathetic, lamentable, deplorable and ridiculous, in riffling the pages of this English book on Surrealism, is the effort “to get together”. It’s like a courtship between the serpent and the eagle, this momentary truce between the English and the French. Andre Breton, the great fish out of water, solemnly pontificates as usual. Reviving the language of Dr. Johnson, distorting it through his Freudian French, he seems to be giving tine English elementary instruction in the art of tapping the Unconscious. In Hugh Sykes Davies he has an able disciple; this lad, blown up out of all proportion by his learning, is on the point of bursting. He needs only another breathful from Andre Breton.
No, the Dadaists were more entertaining. They had humor, at least. The Surrealists are too conscious of what they are doing. It’s fascinating to read about their intentions—but when are they going to pull it off? On the other hand, take this from the Dada Manifesto 1918:
“I am neither for nor against and I do not explain for I hate good sense.”
“Dialectic is an amusing machine which carries us—in a stupid manner—to opinions which we would have had in any case.”
“God can afford not to be successful: Dada also.”
And now to quote again from the devil: “The greatness of any active organization which is the embodiment of an idea lies in the spirit of religious fanaticism and intolerance with which it attacks all others, being fanatically convinced that it alone is tight U an idea is light in itself, and, being aimed with such weapons, wages warfare on this earth, it is invincible and persecution only increases its internal strength.”
One would like to ask where Hitler got this sound and crazy notion. From Jerome? From Augustine? From Luther? Anyway, humanity is always marching in the van triumphant. To get the right ideal What a beautiful, senseless dream of a clean solution!
But don’t lose sight of the “religious fanaticism and intolerance!” That’s important…
Last night I was glancing over that essay in indirect criticism called The Laic Mystery. It’s a step in a direction which the English have never taken and never will, even though the whole nation becomes Surrealist. Here’s a bit at random …
“Nothing is more touching than an animal trying to regain the secret of human speech which it has discovered and then lost.”
“Without puns and puzzles there is no serious art. That is to say there is nothing but serious art.”
This may be irrelevant, but it’s Surrealistically true: Diamond Jim Brady was a capitalist who was on the level. He had a good heart. He was magnanimous. So-and-So, on the other hand, was a rapacious idiot even before he had grown senile. He would be a disgrace to arty society in any time. If you follow the logic you get a free ride.
We are always talking about society as though it were made up of two classes, those who have and those who have not. In addition to class lines the men of civilized society are divided by intelligence (the lowest going far below the intelligence of the savage), temperament, race, language, occupation, belief, principles, a thousand and one things. Cut a slice anywhere any time and you have a history of the evolution of the human race from start to finish.
Coming back to Freud . . . From a letter I once wrote to a painter who had just been analyzed and wondered why he couldn’t paint any more:
“As far as we know, man has never been free of disease. Health and disease have always co-existed. The interest of the medical man has been and still is in disease, not in health. No physician has ever proposed to give man health—only to eradicate disease. His whole attention centers upon disease. Health is kept in the background, like an ideal, but one moves realistically in a curve towards this ideal. One does not move towards the ideal of health directly, drastically, fanatically. Part of the great fear of disease which is in us has its origin in the unconscious desire of the physician to exploit disease.
“This much is indisputable, that disease is a constant and vital factor of life, that in stressing health we are stressing an untenable ideal, a delusion. Moreover, despite all our warfare against disease we have made no real progress; we have merely set up new configurations of health-disease. Also falsely, casuistically, we have minimized the importance, the benefits, of disease. In short, we have interpreted the history of the warfare between health and disease as we have interpreted all other histories—according to our intuitions, our prejudices. (I trust it is not necessary to specify the very genuine contributions to civilization made by the great plagues, or by such admittedly tainted individuals as Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis, Joan of Arc, Nietzsche, Dostoievski, Napoleon, Genghis Khan et alii.)
“Coming to the more immediate problem, the all-important conflict between the artist and the collectivity . . . the growing attitude among the public that the artist is a leper, the attitude of the analysts that art is merely the expression of a neurotic conflict, the intensification and objectification of a condition found in other strata of society, the confused attitude among artists themselves as to the nature and purpose of art, together with the very definite belief on the part of many artists that ‘art is a cure’ . . . The question, it seems to me, which each one must pose for himself is this: which reality is more vital, more life-giving, more valid, more durable—the reality of science or the reality of art? (I realize that the question itself is open to criticism. We enter immediately into the realm of metaphysics, from which there is no escape, except into life.) But, assuming a divergence between the scientific and the poetic attitudes towards life, is it not clear enough that to-day the schism has grown impassable? To-day with the mass of mankind completely under the hypnotic sway of the scientific-minded, art is fighting for its life, for its very right to exist.
“I want to discover if you consider the work of the analyst to be an effort to adjust man to reality, and if so, whether you consider such an adjustment more important than the recreation of reality, through art. Do you prefer a smooth leveling down, a smooth functioning on the part of the individual in society to a state of tension, eruption, fertility? Naturally you will say NO. The implication is, however, that the artist sows discord, strife. To try to eradicate the disturbing elements of life by ‘adjustment’ is tantamount to expropriating the artist. Fear, love, hate, all the varying, contradictory expressions or reactions of the personality, are what compose the very warp and woof of life. You can’t pull one of them out without the whole edifice crumbling.
“Here, no doubt, you will answer me by saying—This is precisely what the analyst is trying to do, to get people to accept life as a struggle, a conflict, a game. But, immediately the analyst enters the field in the role of medicine man, the question why our life presents such a pattern interests him exceedingly less than how to combat it. I say that with the increasing sway of the analyst there will occur an increasing prevalence of neurosis. Neurosis will become universal. It will take its legitimate place in the hierarchy of our diseases, just as tuberculosis, cancer, etc., took their place in the pattern of our ancestor’ diseases. A niche will be made for it, and the more we pretend to fight it the more strongly will it become entrenched.
“Why do we not rid ourselves of tuberculosis, syphilis, cancer, etc., when we know so well how to combat them? Why do we not prevent instead of cure? Because cancer, syphilis, tuberculosis, neurosis, are as definite and fixed a part of our life as the machine, the aeroplane, the skyscraper, etc. This is the psychic and substantial configuration that we want. The moment we want another one we shall have it—just by wanting/ And the aim of the artist, as I see it, is to make people want another, a different picture. The sane, the wise, the adjusted souls are always ready to reply—But this is the way life is … you can’t alter it . . . you’re mad! And the artist always answers: ‘You are right. I want only the impossible, only the marvelous. To-morrow you will see that what I proclaimed was not impossible. But then it will be too late, for to-morrow we will see again with different eyes and again you will cry Impossible! You live to-morrow and yesterday; I live only today. Therefore, I live eternally. I am timeless. And since this is obviously untrue, you are right and I continue to be wrong. It is out of my wrongness that your right is created. To be right is to be either late or ahead of time. The only span between us is time!’
“Art, as I see it, is the expression of this chasm, this desynchronization: it is the projection of the universal picture of individuation. Man against the universe. Against, please notice. The work of art, the poem, is the symbol of his latitude and longitude, of his temporal position in time and space.
“Will analysis, or revolution, or anything else dissolve this picture? Is understanding a goal in itself, or is understanding a byproduct? Do we want a closer rapport between artist and collectivity, or do we want an increasing tension? Do we want art to become more communicative, or do we want it to be more fecundating? Do we want every man to become an artist and thus eliminate art? Unconsciously I think that every great artist is trying with might and main to destroy art. By that I mean that he is desperately striving to break down this wall between himself and the rest of humanity. Not for the sake of the brotherhood of man, because at bottom he is tyrant (like Mohammed, Buddha, Christ, Tamerlane), but in the hope of debouching into some more quick and vivid realm of human experience. He is not struggling to isolate himself from his fellow-men, since it is his very isolation which drives him to create, but rather to emancipate himself from false relations with his fellow-men, from false relations with nature and with all the objects which surround him. Art is only one of the manifestations of the creative spirit. What every great artist is manifesting in his work is a desire to lead a richer life; his work itself is only a description, an intimation, as it were, of those possibilities. The worst sin that can be committed against the artist is to take him at his word, to see in his work a fulfillment instead of an horizon. Da Vinci, who troubles us more than any other artist, who left so much unfinished . . . fortunately! . . . has left us the symbol of this desire in that upraised index finger which speaks to us more laconically than the famous Mona Lisa smile. Da Vinci was the forerunner of those anatomists of the soul who are now moving into the foreground with megaphones and amplifiers.
“Freud’s contribution to the cause of human enlightenment (as the stupid saying goes) is creative and anarchic, in keeping with his race and temperament; there is the same uncompromising spirit in him as in his forerunners, the same arid, monotonous, luminous quality of the desert, the geometric line, the theorem, the axiom—and naturally, the golden hypothesis. The Absolute is in his blood. An anal rectitude, a frigid punctilio, a gray sprightliness in which there is neither joy nor sensuality. Unable to reconcile himself to the world (to the philosophy of the day, that is), he turned the world upside down. He created a fiction which helped to pass the time away. Which helped, if you please, not to adjust him to the world but to adjust the world to his own imaginings. His theory of psycho-analysis is a piece of art, like any other piece of art; and it will lead a pure isolated existence. The truth of it is incommunicable. What will happen tomorrow in the name of the holy cause may have little or nothing to do with his creation. Even Hitler, so rumor has it, was willing to use it for his own ends, as he does with astrology. The significance of Freud’s creation is purely aesthetic. As he draws quietly nearer to the grave he is not only honestly dubious about the future, but downright pessimistic. There is a sort of wistful questioning, a doubting, one might say, as to the efficacy of his penetrative researches into the mysteries of the human psyche. (Is there not something slightly humorous about this, as if perhaps the old bird had never given himself a chance to think it all out?) However, no panaceas! That much is clear. And if at the end the great Sigmund Freud happens to find himself enmeshed in his own creative lie is there any denying the fact that thousands of individuals, believing implicitly in the efficacy of his therapy, have found greater enjoyment of life? In turning the world upside down I sometimes think that Freud more than anyone else must have been astonished to find that it tended to remain upside down. The disciples of Freud, as is the way with disciples, are struggling to put the world back on its feet again. The role of the disciple is always to betray the master. The moral is that no matter how great the master the world will not remain permanently upside down.
“There have always been and always will be men in the world who are healers, just as there will always be an order of priests, an order of prophets, an order of warriors, an order of kings, an order of poets. In our day the interest in physical maladies is on the wane. (The importance of surgery is only one of the many proofs of the fact.) Our world is suffering from mental disorders—from the insanities and neuroses of one form and another. Just as literature swings at times from the poetic to the prosodic, so nowadays we have the swing from the physical disorders to the mental, with the inevitable emergence of new types of genius cropping out among the mental healers. All that the creative personality demands is a new field for the exercise of its powers; out of the dark, inchoate forces, these personalities will, by the exercise of their creative faculties, impose upon the world a new ideology, a new and vital set of symbols. What the collective mass desires is the concrete, visible, tangible substance . .. which the theories of Freud, Jung, Rank, Stekel, et alii provide. This they can pore over, chew, masticate, tear to pieces or prostrate themselves before. Tyranny always works best under the guise of liberating ideas. The tyranny of ideas is merely another way of saying the tyranny of a few great personalities.
“There is a vast parallelism between the religious figures of the past and the psychologists of to-day. The underlying theme is salvation, whether it be called ‘finding God’ or ‘adapting oneself to reality’. (‘May not one succeed in systematizing confusion and so assist the total discrediting of the world of reality?’ asks Dali.) When the symbols by which man relates himself to the universe are exhausted he must perforce find new ones, vital ones, which will reintegrate him to the universe. This process which is one of oscillation, is known as a macro-microcosmizing of the universe. According to whichever way the pendulum happens to swing, man tends either to become himself, God, or to become mere dreck. To-day the world has become so inflated that God has been completely squeezed out. The exploration of the Unconscious, which is now under way, is a confession of the bankruptcy of the spirit. When we almost reach the Absolute, when we can no longer work in it, or with it, we let in the air .. . and establish a relative balance again.
“Recently at a Surindependent showing I had a terrific feeling of this desire on the part of modem man to explore this uncharted world of the Unconscious. I am speaking more particularly of the Surrealist section of the exhibit. It was a strange afternoon, dark, foggy, ominous, like one of those days in the early Middle Ages when signs and portents were so frequently observed in the heavens, the ominous ones always occurring in mid-day. I arrive at the big hall towards four o’clock. No lights have been lit to illuminate these marvels. They swim around me in a sort of oceanic twilight. Looking about me I can discover only three people in this vast hall. I wander from zone to zone, as if under the ocean, and gradually I discover that I am the only spectator left. The darkness gets more intense. I have to approach within a foot of the pictures in order to make them out. It seems suddenly very strange to me that there should be hundreds of pictures in this vast gallery and no audience. And then jokingly, also a little desperately, I add, haif-aloud; ‘You’re the whole audience; the show is for youl’ Immediately the thought formulates itself—it seems to me singularly right that it should be thus, that only I am there to voice an unheard appreciation. After a bit I observe that the guardians are prowling about in my wake, also examining the pictures … and with more than usual interest, it would seem. I observe them more attentively, and would you believe it, I notice that it is to the Surrealist paintings that they instinctively turn. Maybe then these robots, whose appreciation nobody gives a fuck about, maybe then these half-wits and myself are the only valid audience for a Surrealist show! Excellent! Anyway, I see it as strangely significant, symbolic if you like. Not only the absence of the crowd, but the frost and the fog . . . and the utter lack of illumination. One might very well imagine that a plague had swept the country and that only a few monkish souls, the guardians and myself included, were left to enjoy the benefits of a vanished civilization. A strange question then presented itself to my mind. Were these Surrealist specimens part of our vanished civilization and thus forgotten without ever being known, or were they already existing in a time which had not yet commenced and therefore invisible to the ordinary eye? I wondered how and if Dali would recover his remarkable etherized horse and whether, through handling or neglect, it would undergo a metamorphosis which would so astonish everybody as to produce something in the nature of a miracle. If, for example, the horse suddenly got detached from the frame and managed to hide away in the chandelier swinging high above. If they had discovered that it was a real horse, only somewhat abnormal, which the painter Dali had drugged in order to plaster him over his canvas. How would the damp and the mould affect him—-the horse, I mean? All sorts of enigmas presented themselves to my mind in quick fashion.
“And what was it I witnessed in this festival of the Unconscious? What were the masters of this unexplored realm bringing up from the depths? For one thing, the organs of the human body, the parts we look at without shuddering only in the butcher’s shop. I saw the insides coming out and smearing themselves in extrovert fashion over the feeble mass of skin and bones. I saw the hungry, gnawing innards of man so long hidden away, despised, ignored, denigrated, blasphemed, I saw them issuing forth in bold assertiveness, weaving a bloody and hysterical, but marvelously bloody and hysterical, legend on the frost-sweated walls of Versailles. Amongst these hysterical phantoms of the deep I feel absolutely at home. A thousand times more at home than in the butcher’s shop or the funeral parlor. I float among them in the deepening twilight in a genuine ecstasy. Dali’s horse with the motorized sex organs is far more real than reality, which of course is in the nature of an oxymoron, if you happen to be the victim of pedantry. This horse with the female head, its motored sex borrowed from Darwin, Edison, Freud & Co., Inc., its mythological and atavistic remnants and fragments, the baited hook like a spur driven through the rectum, the color and odor of it, the nostalgia it evokes (Troy, Bucephalus, Man of War, The Dime Museum, Laotse, Meissonier, Heliogabolus, Montezuma, Infanticide, Lady of the Lake, to mention a few), the incongruous and anomalous parts, the absurd which is devastating, together with the sense of space which is absent and yet devours you, all of it, sex, nonsense, poison, nostalgia, Darwinian hypothesis, and electric light bulbs, not overlooking the penny arcades and the statues forgotten to be pulled down, make up a totality of reality so enticing that one feels like walking into the canvas, folding up and dying there. And if, cher ami, as you once remarked walking down the Rue de la Gaiet6, it is impossible or futile to paint the Unconscious, then please accept in my name this replica of the Unconscious which will have to serve until detachments are brought up and the trenches consolidated. This perhaps is not even a representation of the Unconscious, but a necessity of the Unconscious. And, let me add, that whenever between Idea and Representation there occurs such an inviolable marriage we may without let or fear take one for the other or vice versa.
“As in olden times, when the Christian myth had man by the balls so that he was powerless to paint anything but madonnas, angels, demons and their like, so now it seems to me that in the paintings of the Surrealists we have the embryonic spawn of the coming angels, demons and madonnas, etc. I see some dim relationship between the bankruptcy of the conscious intellectual forces (the insanity of our present world) and the emergence of this great new empire of darkness (the insanity of the future) which, in its demand to be explored and charted, will revive the sensory powers of man so that he may look upon the world about him with renewed exaltation and more vivid consciousness. I see it as a desire to deflate the abstract, materialistic universe of the scientific-minded man, a desire to fill in the chinks of his hole-and-theory conception of Nature so that we may live, if necessary, even in a space no bigger than a padded cell and feel at one with the universe. The artist is now giving a first coat of paint to that tautly stretched canvas which the scientist has been so busy stretching that he has forgotten the use he intended to put it to. The whole world has almost forgotten what the canvas was meant for. The artists too had almost forgotten, most of them at any rate. A few of them, however, have started in to lay down a nice thick coat of unconscious; they have covered up a few of the gaping holes already.
“I come back again to the path-finders, the great pioneers, such as Father Freud, Jung the Mystic, et alii, and I say that what they are striving for is not to create a technique of psychoanalysis, nor even a philosophic-scientific theory. Nothing of the kind. What they are doing is to offer themselves to us as examples of the potentialities which reside in each and all of us. They are trying to eliminate themselves as doctors, scientists, philosophers, theoreticians, trying to reveal to us the miraculous nature of man, the vast possibilities which stretch before him. They do not want disciples and expounders, they do not want to be imitated—they want merely to point the way. We ought, I say, to turn our backs on their theories, we ought to smash their theories. We ought to make all these theories unnecessary. Let each one turn his gaze inward and regard himself with awe and wonder, with mystery and reverence; let each one promulgate his own laws, his own theories; let each one work his own influence, his own havoc, his own miracles. Let each one as an individual; assume the roles of artist, healer, prophet, priest, king, warrior, saint. No division of labor. Let us recombine the dispersed elements of our individuality. Let us reintegrate.
‘The religious leader, like the analyst, awakens men to a consciousness of the Id, the great unknown reservoir and fundament of humanity. In making men conscious of this identity of substratum, this brotherhood below the belt, this lurking humanity, so to speak, he sets in motion an oppositional force, divinity. If you make a psychological graph of the human mind you have something like an iceberg, with one-third visible and two-thirds invisible, below the surface of the sea, below the threshold of consciousness. What distinguishes the great icebergs from the little ones is height and profundity—the measure of the one is the measure of the other. The same force which thrusts one iceberg higher up also thrusts it deeper down than the others. Isolation is the index of profundity. Of what use then for the analysts to stress adaptation to reality? What reality? Whose reality? The reality of iceberg Prime or icebergs X, Y, Z? We are all swimming in the ocean depths and flying in the stratosphere. Some dive a little lower, some climb a little higher—but it’s always air and water, always reality, even if it’s a completely crazy reality. The analyst stresses the lower depths reality, the religious leader the stratospheric spiritual reality. Neither of them is adequate. Both are distorting the picture of reality in the passionate pursuit of truth. The artist is not interested in truth or beauty per se. The artist puts the picture into whack because he is thoroughly disinterested. His vision goes round the obstacle; it refuses to exhaust itself in straight line attacks. His work, which is simply the expression of his struggle to adapt himself to a reality of his own making, sums up all other approaches to reality and gives them significance.
“Experience alone is valueless, and idea alone is valueless. To give either validity one must employ them together plastically. In short, we are never going to be cured of our diseases (physical or mental), we are never going to reach a heaven (either real or imaginary) and we are never going to eliminate our evil, thwarting instincts (whatever these may be). In the realm of ideas the best we shall ever have will be a philosophy of life (not a science of life, which is a contradiction in terms); in the realm of experience we shall never have a better expression than the living out of our animal nature (not our cultural patterns). The highest aim of man, as thinker, is to achieve a pattern, a synthesis, to grasp life poetically; the chief and highest aim of man as animal is to live out his instincts, obey his instincts, take him where they will. So long as he cannot operate as a savage or less than savage, and think as a god, or better than a god, he will suffer, he will propose to himself remedies, governments, religions, therapies. Back of all his behaviour is fear—fear of death. Could he overcome this he might live as god and beast. The fear of death has created a whole cosmogony of lesser fears which plague us in a thousand different ways. We are forever tinkering with the little fears, the minor aches. That is what gives life its melodic minors, as we know. The bigger die personality the greater the simplification, the greater the diapason, the tension, the polarity, the juice, the vitality. One can take fear, isolate it, and against it counterpoint a grand symphony of life. Or one can refuse to acknowledge it, fight a million trivial battles every day of his life, and achieve that stale hash which the majority of men serve up to themselves in lieu of solid nutriment.”
Perhaps we are only charged with the liquidation of some spiritual inheritance which it k in every one’s interest to repudiate, and that is all. (Andre Breton)
Surrealism starts out innocently enough as a revolt against the insanity of cvery-day life. It is expressed marvelously in one of Breton’s early pronunciamentoes: “I am resolved to render powerless that hatred of the marvelous which is so rampant among certain people.’ Naturally he is not referring to concierges alone. He means everybody (who is not living as a poet), from the President of France on down to the chimney-sweep. It is a big order. It is a defi to the whole world practically.,But there is no confusion behind the idea. It is clear as a bell.
“The marvellous is always beautiful. Anything that is marvellous is beautiful. indeed nothing but the marvellous is beautiful.”
If one takes a sweeping glance at the paraphernalia which distinguishes our civilization from those of the past—I mean our battleships, factories, railways, torpedoes, gas-masks, etc.—one realizes that this is our civilization and not something else which we imagine civilization to be. Civilization is drugs, alcohol, engines of war, prostitution, machines and machine slaves, low wages, bad food, bad taste, prisons, reformatories, lunatic asylums, divorce, perversion, brutal sports, suicides, infanticide, cinema, quackery, demagogy, strikes, lockouts, revolutions, putsches, colonization, electric chairs, guillotines, sabotage, floods, famine, disease, gangsters, money barons, horse racing, fashion shows, poodle dogs, chow dogs, Siamese cats, condoms, pessaries, syphilis, gonorrhea, insanity, neuroses, etc., etc.
When Dali talks of systematizing confusion does he mean this, this confusion which is truly marvelous, though perhaps not so beautiful? All this marvelous confusion is systematized. If one added another drop of confusion to it the bubble would burst. Surrealism is an expression of this universal confusion. Christianity was also the expression of a universal confusion.
But the point is that the early Christians were not mad. No more than the Surrealists are to-day. They were simply unhappy, unfit for the struggle which life demanded of them. The Christians invented a life hereafter where they would have pie in the sky, as we say. The Surrealists are almost as other worldly. “Is a man ready to risk everything so that at the very bottom of the crucible into which we propose throwing our poor abilities … he may have the joy of getting a glimpse of the light which will cease to flicker?”
There is no doubt about it, Surrealism is the secret language of our time, the only spiritual counterpart to the materialistic activities of the socialist forces which are now driving us to the wall. The seeming discrepancies between the language of Breton and Lenin, or Marx, are only superficial. Surrealism will give a new, deeper, truer, more immediate spiritual doctrine to the economic, social and political revolutionists. The Church has not been defeated after all. Christianity is not dead. It is about to triumph… after 2,000 years of futile struggle. The world is going to be turned upside down—and this time it may stay upside down. Unless “doubt’s duck with the vermouth lips” comes along and upsets all calculations . . .
Before me, as I write this, lies the latest issue of the Minotaure, that most valuable index of the times. The cover design is by Dali, and as best I make out, represents a modem conception of the Minotaur. In the margin is a series of pen points all of different design. The most striking feature of Dali’s Minotaur is the hollow thorax in which he has lodged a vicious looking lobster. Striking because the vitals have been entirely hollowed out! In the cusp of each thigh is an object, the right leg containing a glass cup and spoon, the left one a dark bottle with a cork in it. The left leg seems also to button and unbutton. The right one holds a key and just above the ankle a manacle bites through the tendons and flesh. But the chief feature, as I said, is the missing vitals— with the lobster still muscling in.
Riffling the pages of this magazine, I see that it deals entirely with disintegration—with nerve ends, necrophilism, sadism, escha-tology, fetichism, embryology. Ici on charcute I’embryon. It is a perfect picture of our time, a pretty little fireside picture which corroborates the impression I had upon reading Celine’s speech in honor of Emile Zola. This speech of Celine’s is entirely about the death instincts in man, about his hallucinating desire for self-destruction. There are no young men to-day, he says. They are born old. We are in the grip of a sadist-masochist obsession and there will be no liberation until we are all wiped out. Hitler is nothing to the monsters who are to come. He adds that the worst ones will probably be bred here in France. With all of which I thoroughly agree.
By the year 2000 a.d. we will be completely under the sway of Uranus and Pluto. The word Communism will be an obsolete expression known only to philologists and etymologists. We shall be breaking ground for the new anarchy which will come in with the advent of the new zodiacal sign, Aquarius. Circa 2160 ad. There won’t be any a.d. any more, as the symbol will cease to mean anything. We shall have a wholly new calendar before we definitely enter the sign of Aquarius. I predict it now.
A man lives with dead suns inside him or he goes out like a flame and lives the life of the moon. Or he disintegrates entirely and throws a flaming comet across the horizon. But all the while, everywhere in the world, the lobster is muscling in and gnawing out the vitals. The Minotaur is we ourselves standing on the threshold of a new era. We must be devoured whilst devouring. The bottle, the key, the little coffee cup and spoon, these are the last relics hidden in the flesh. When they unbutton the leg of our once sacred body in the years to come, they will find these little treasures and prize them. The ethnologists, what I mean. These birds, ditto the archaeologists, we shall have with us always. Things will go on this way, ruins and relics, new battleships, new skyscrapers, peace treaties, holy wars, repartitions, alignments, discoveries, inventions, more rains, more relics, progress everywhere all the time amidst famine, floods, pestilence, on and on like that for thousands of years until we have passed through every sign of the zodiac. Then one fine day we shall burst the belt and be out in the wide world of space in a bright new realm, the a-historical realm in which art will have disappeared completely—because life itself will have become an art. All things point steadily towards this miracle, believe it or not. The miracle is MAN, man full blown and travelling with his mother die earth in a new field of constellations. Now he is busy weighing the stars and measuring die distance between them; then he will be of the stars and there will be no need to record, neither with instruments, nor with paper and ink, nor with signs and symbols. The meaning of destiny is to throw away the truss which the zodiacal belt represents and to live it out ad hoc and post rem. That is what Breton means when he says with apocalyptic precision: “We should carry ourselves as though we were really in the world!”
Madness is tonic and invigorating. It makes the sane more sane. The only ones who are unable to profit by it are the insane. Very often the Surrealists give us the impression that they are insane in a very sane way~that it is “ice-box madness”, as my friend Lawrence Durrell puts it, and not real madness.
When we look at the Surrealistic products of such men as Hieronymus Bosch or Grunewald or Giotto we notice two elements which are lacking in the works of die Surrealists to-day; guts and significance. Without vital guts there can be no true madness; without a healthy skepticism there can be no real significance in a work of art, or in life, for that matter. Breton says somewhere that “it had to be with lunatics that Columbus set out to discover America.” That is a sad joke. Columbus set out with a bunch of desperate, hopeless men. Far from being dreamers, far from being fanatical believers, his men were ignorant, superstitious and filled with greed. The voyage may have been risky, but the idea was not. It wasn’t even a gamble. And in the last analysis, Columbus never set out to discover America: he set out to discover a short route to India.
And another thing … it is a mistake to speak about Surrealism. There is no such thing: there are only Surrealists. They have existed in the past and they will exist in the future. The desire to posit an ism, to isolate the germ and cultivate it, is a bad sign. It means impotency. It is on a par with that impotency which makes of a man a Christian, a Buddhist, or a Mohammedan. A man who is full of God is outside the faith.
It seems to me that it is a very simple error which the Surrealists are guilty of; they are trying to establish an Absolute. They are trying with all the powers of consciousness to usher in the glory of the Unconscious. They believe in the Devil but not in God. They worship the night but refuse to acknowledge the day. They talk of magic, but they practise voodooism. They await the miracle, but they do nothing to assist it, to bring about an accouchement. They talk of ushering in a general confusion, but they live like the bourgeoisie. A few of them have committed suicide, but not one of them has as yet assassinated a tyrant. They believe in the revolution but there is no real revolt in them.
It is true, they have dug up some interesting old post-cards; it is true they have pulled off some interesting séances; it is true they have staged some amusing riots; it is true they have managed to edit one of the most deluxe reviews to be found anywhere in the world; it is true that from time to time there have been included in their group some of the best artists in the world. But, as Surrealists have they given us the greatest masterpieces, either in music, literature, or painting? Have they been able to retain among their numbers one great figure in the world of art?
They say they are against the current order, but have their lives been endangered by their actions … as was the case with Villon, Rabelais, Sade, Voltaire, to mention but a few? Why are they allowed to shoot their mouths off without fear of arrest? Because the authorities know they are harmless, and they are harmless because they lack guts, and lacking guts they are unable to convince those to whom they address their appeals. The failure to “communicate” is entirely their own. Jesus managed to communicate; so did Gautama the Buddha; so did Mohammed; so did St. Francis; so did a host of lesser men. There is no great mystery behind die lives of these men. In each case the simple fact is that the man acted upon his belief, regardless of the consequences. Each one had a revelation to make and he made it. Society was no more favorable then to the ideas which they brought forward than society is to-day to the Surrealist doctrine. Paul Eluard says somewhere: “Mind can only triumph in its most perilous activities. No daring is fatal.” In his poetry Paul Eluard proves the truth of this. But there is something beyond mind, and that is the whole being of man, which he expresses in action. What is disastrous is the divorce between mind and action. The ultimate can only be expressed in conduct. Example moves the world more than doctrine. The great exemplars are the poets of action, and it makes little difference whether they be forces for good or forces for evil. There is one thing which the surrealists stress repeatedly, and that is the necessity for poetry in life. Despite what anybody says, poetry is communicable—because it is of the nature of the marvelous and man is precisely the one creature on earth which can be moved by the marvelous. His religions prove it; his art proves it; history proves it. Everything of value that has been accomplished by man has been accomplished in spite of reason, in spite of logic, in spite of honor, justice and all other shibboleths. The marvelous, and only the marvelous, is what hypnotizes man. That is what makes him a gullible fool, an idiot, a criminal, a martyr, a saint, a hero, a death-eater. In his moments of genius he is mad; if he is not mad enough he goes insane, and then he is unable to distinguish between what is marvelous and what is not marvelous. The Surrealists are the last of all people to go insane. They have too great a need, too great a thirst, for the marvelous. When Lautreamont, in a moment of high lucidity, said, “Nothing is incomprehensible”, he was saying something marvelous. But only a poet has a right to say this. The ignorance of the poet is not a negative thing; it is a crucible in which all knowledge is refunded. In this state of true and humble ignorance everything is clear and knowledge is therefore superfluous. Knowledge is a sifting, a categorizing, a comparing, an analyzing. Knowledge was never essential to the poet. The poet comprehends because he feels; his passion is to embrace the world, not with his mind, but with his heart. The world is always in a wrong condition for the man who knows too much; as one becomes more ignorant one accepts more graciously. Knowledge makes everything finally incomprehensible. One only begins to comprehend when one begins to stop trying to know.
The Surrealists are trying to open a magic chamber of man’s being through knowledge. That is where the fatal mistake lies. They are looking backwards instead of forwards. To discredit the world of reality, as they suggest, is an act of will, not of fate. What is really discredited is done silently, unostentatiously, and alone. People band together to proclaim an ideal, or a principle, to establish a movement, to organize a cult. But if they believed, each and every one wholeheartedly, they would have no need of numbers, nor of creeds, nor of principles, etc. The fear of standing alone is the evidence that the faith is weak. Man is happier when he is in a crowd; he feels safe and justified in what he is doing. But crowds have never accomplished anything, except destruction. The man who wants to organize a movement is invoking aid to help tear down something which he is powerless to combat single-handed. When a man is truly creative he works single-handed and he wants no help. A man acting alone, on faith, can accomplish what trained armies are incapable of accomplishing. To believe in one’s self, in one’s own powers, is apparently the most difficult thing in the world. Unfortunately there is nothing, absolutely nothing, more efficacious than believing in one’s self. When a movement dies there is left only the memory of the man who originated the movement, the man who believed in what he was saying, what he was doing. The others are without name; they contributed only their faith in an idea. And that is never enough.
And just as I get this off my chest, someone walks in and hands me another book edited by Herbert Read, called Unit 1. Unit 1 is the name of a group of eleven English artists who have banded together to stand by each other and defend their beliefs. “Unit One”, says Paul Nash, “may be said to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that which is recognized as peculiarly of to-day in painting, sculpture and architecture.’
Mr. Read, who writes the Introduction, goes on to say that “the modern artist is essentially an individualist; his general desire is not to conform to any pattern, to follow any lead, to take any instructions’—but to be as original as possible, to be himself and to express himself in his art.” If what Mr. Read says is so then this group is not composed of modem artists nor of individuals, but of rank imitators, men without originality who have banded together in self-defense. Looking at the reproductions one sees the ghosts of Brancusi, Picasso, Braque, Chirico, Max Ernst et alii. Unit One is not a group of “New” artists, we are informed. No, they are British artists of established reputation. Which is tantamount to saying there is no British art!
The most revelatory feature of this little book is the statements of the artists themselves, made in answer to a questionnaire submitted to them. There is something about the British mentality which baffles me. You ask a pertinent question and the man begins to talk about the wax in his ear, or about the rainfall in Uganda last summer. In the main questionnaires are idiotic, and this one is no exception to the rule. Nevertheless the questionnaire gives the artist an opportunity to talk about art, not about apple sauce. The British artist, like tire British general, is muddle-headed. Perhaps it’s the perpetual fog in which he is obliged to work. Perhaps it’s the British diet. God knows what is responsible, but the fact remains that these eleven individuals talk like grammar-school students. It is difficult to get a clear idea of what they are driving at because none of them has a clear idea in his head.
Take this, for example, from John Armstrong, a painter: “It began to seem clear that my painting could not stand on its own legs, much less climb on them, that perhaps no painting ever had, that art had always to have a shove from behind from religion or politics, and a lift by the scruff of the neck from architecture in order to achieve anything.”
Or this from Douglas Cooper who answers for Edward Buna: “Hieronymus Bosch was a moralist; he was trying to educate the people of his time: he was not merely dreaming, he was giving plastic expression to what were in his era undeniable truths: so, too, is Burra. Both are phantasists, but whereas Bosch throughout his whole life was concerned with educating his public (for Flemish art in the fifteenth century was primarily literary) Burra freed by ‘the march of progress’ from any such necessity, relied entirely on his imagination, and has been earned into the realms of the surreal.” (The feet that both names begin with B seems to serve as the liaison. Why no mention was made of Burra’s obvious master, Chirico, is a mystery to me. Perhaps Mr. Cooper was being “delicate”.)
Or the profundity of Edward Wadsworth: “We change with age, but without change we are dead.” . . . “Art evolves with the human race.” . . . “The artists of this country have added—from time to time—their contribution to the ideography of Occidental painting, and they will continue to do so if they combine their craftsmanship with a more universal point of view of what they want to say.”
It seems to me that there is a sort of cultivated feeble-mindedness here. To any one who has had the privilege of conversing with British people this comes as no shock. As my friend Lawrence Durrell says: “They have confused the inner struggle with the outer one. They want to bread poultice a primary chancre.” As a matter of fact, they don’t even have to go that far: they want to pretend there is no chancre. The reason why there is no British painter, poet, musician or sculptor worthy of the name is because ever since the Elizabethan Age the British have been walking around with blinders over their eyes. They have created an unreality which is the exact opposite of the “surreal”, as one of these artists puts it. It may be too that the effort expended in producing a Shakespeare—which seems to be the crowning achievement of British genius—was so tremendous that not a crumb of originality was left for the men who came after. And even Shakespeare, greatest of the lot, was not exactly a model of originality.
The suave, self-patronizing way in which Paul Nash takes cognizance of this lack of originality also seems typically British to me. “The kind of art practiced by the individuals of Unit One”, says he blithely, “is no doubt traceable to origins; its counterpart is to be found in many countries to-day; that, however, is no reason for underestimating its value”. If that is not a reason, the only reason, for underestimating its value, then I should like to know what is the reason. A statement like this might have been made by a British diplomat who, as we all know, has a genius for saying nothing. I find the same sort of wool-gathering in Herbert Read’s Introduction to the book Surrealism. Obliged to make some mention of Wyndham Lewis, here is how he drags him in: “English plastic arts had to wait for the inspiration of Picasso to show any real revival. In the last twenty years we have produced potentially great artists—Wyndham Lewis is the typical example— but they have suffered from a disastrous form of individualism. The English sin has always been eccentricity (sicf); by which I do not mean a lack of social coherence.” What the last phrase means I haven’t the slightest idea. But I do know what he means by “potentially great artists”: artists who were nipped in the budl On the other hand, why the English plastic arts had to wait for the inspiration of Picasso is not at all clear to me. Why? Because they did? At any rate, by means of this scurrilous and wishy-washy sort of legerdemain Wyndham Lewis, who is the only English artist of importance, outside of D. H. Lawrence, whom the English produced in the last couple of generations, is flippantly pushed into the background. It is obvious that Wyndham Lewis is not in the swing, that he chooses to remain, as always, the Enemy. That alone speaks well of him, in my opinion. For whenever an English artist of any value has arisen he has been marked as Public Enemy No. 1. Including the great Shakespeare! It may be comforting for the pygmies who are banding together to day to believe that a proper understanding of the Marxian dialectic, together with a dash of Freud, may solve this time old difficulty, but I am afraid they are doomed to bitter disappointment. In order for England to have art, the English will have to undergo a radical transformation. They may even have to change the climate! Or else wait another five hundred years or so for a real inspiration. The question is, where did Picasso get his inspiration from?
Scarcely anything has been as stimulating to me as the theories and the products of the Surrealists. I say scarcely anything because I feel impelled to make mention of a few other things equally stimulating: China, for instance, everything associated with the name; the work of Otto Rank and Minkowski, the poet of schizophrenia; Keyserling, yes Count Herman Keyserling; the language and the ideas of Elie Faure; and, of course, D. H. Lawrence, and Nietzsche, and Dostoievski. Even Emerson and Rimbaud; even Goethe. And not least of all, Lewis Carroll.
If, as Goethe says somewhere—”only that which is fecund is true”—then in all these men whom I have cited, and in the whole idea of China, there must be truth. But truth is everywhere, in everything. It is useless to search for truth, as it is useless to search for beauty or for power. As it is useless also to search for God. Beauty, truth, power, God, all these come without searching, without effort The struggle is not for these; the struggle is deeper than that. The struggle is to synchronize the potential being with the actual being, to make a fruitful liaison between the man of yesterday and the man of to-morrow. It is the process of growth which is painful, but unavoidable. We either grow or we die, and to die while alive is a thousand times worse than to “shuffle off this mortal coil”. In a thousand different languages, in a thousand different ways, men everywhere are trying to express the same idea: that one must fight to keep vitally alive. Fight in order to realize one’s potential self. Guilt, sin, conscience—there is no eradicating these factors of human consciousness. They are part and parcel of consciousness itself. The stress on the Unconscious forces of man does not necessarily imply the elimination of consciousness. On the contrary it implies the expansion of consciousness. There can be no return to an instinctive life, and in feet, even among primitive men I see no evidence of a purely instinctive life. The strict taboos, which belong to the order of consciousness, permit a greater release of the instinctive life. Civilized man has his taboos also, but the penalty, instead of being quick death, is a slow and poisonous one. By contrast with primitive people, civilized people seem dead, quite dead. They are not really more dead, to be sure, but they give the semblance of death because the tension, the polarity, is breaking down. Through this breakdown the stress shifts from the collective life to the individual life. The life of the primitive man is a collective life par excellence; but the life of the civilized man is not wholly individualistic. The goal is unmistakable, but the powers arc lacking. Paradoxically enough, the more man approaches self-mastery the more fear he develops. As his sphere of influence widens his sense of isolation, of aloneness, increases. For thousands of years man has run with the herd; for thousands of years he has been—and still is—a predatory animal, killing with the pack. Civilization has not eliminated the instinct to kill, nor will it ever. But civilization has done another thing, almost unwittingly: it has encouraged the development of man’s ego, of his individuality. I say civilization, but in reality I mean a few men, a few great, extraordinary individuals whose spiritual development has so far outstripped that of the ordinary man that they remain unique and exert over the great majority of men a tyranny which is to all intents and purposes obsessive. The cold, sterile crystallization of the truths which they perceived and acted upon forms the framework of what is called civilization. Just as with primitive man, so with the civilized man it is fear again which operates most powerfully, which dominates his consciousness. In the neurotic individual this fear comes to supreme expression; the paralyzed neurotic is the symbol of the thwarting power of civilization. He it is who is the victim of so-called “progress”. He stands out in our midst as a warning, a sort of flesh-and-blood totem representing the powers of evil.
It is just here that a phrase of Andre Breton’s—”the crisis of consciousness”—comes to my mind with significant force. Neurosis, is, in a way, precisely this—the crisis of consciousness. The neurotic is the victim of a new way of life which we must take or perish. For the neurotic is the victim of a soul struggle which fakes place in the amphitheatre of the mind. It is a Narcissistic struggle with the self, and whichever way the issue turns it is he himself who is the victim. It is a sacrificial struggle waged by our highest types, and we the spectators are either going to eliminate these sufferers from our midst, in creating a more equilibrated individual, or we are going to imitate them and perish as they are perishing.
Analysis is not going to bring about a cure of neurosis. Analysis is merely a technique, a metaphysic, if you wish, to illustrate and explain to us the nature of a malady which is universal among civilized beings. Analysis brings no curative powers in its train; it merely makes us conscious of the existence of an evil, which, oddly enough, is consciousness.
This may sound confusing, but actually it is very clear and very simple. Everything that lives, that has being, whether it be a star, a plant, an animal, or a human being—even God Almighty—has direction. This idea might be explained equally well mathematically or by physics or psychologically. Or finally, religiously. Along the road which each of us is travelling* there is no turning back. It is forward or dead stop, which is living death. This forward movement, or direction, is nothing but consciousness. It is movement along a gamut which makes itself known to us in the form of opposites, by duality, in other words. Everything is a question of degree, as we say. It is all one, and yet it is not one. It is two. The mystic, who is more dual than other men, arrives momentarily at a solution of the enigma by achieving a state of ecstasy in which he is at one with the universe. Needless to say, in such moments he has no need of God, or anything beyond him. He is beyond himself, so to speak, in the sense that his consciousness has so far expanded as to embrace the two opposite poles of his being. Struggle is unthinkable. He knows the meaning, in this trance-like state, of the ineffable. Everything is clear and acceptable; he is one with destiny. He is, in such moments, direction itself. That is, consciousness.
The condition of ecstasy is, as we know, not a permanent state of being. It is an experience which permits us to undergo a radical transformation, a fruitful metamorphosis, a renewal. The man who is with God, who sees God and talks to him, returns to the world of reality profoundly altered. By means of his experience he in turn alters reality itself. He puts a little more of Cod into it, so to speak. So that the vital problems which yesterday plagued us no longer exist. More difficult problems now confront us. Always problems, however. Every Utopia confers upon us a new hell. The chasm widens and deepens. The isolation becomes more intense.
The example which the lives of the mystics afford us is that progress and direction are two totally different things. Back of the idea of progress, which is the false idea underlying all civilizations —and the reason why they perish—is the notion of conquering over Nature. Neither offers a way out. There is no way out, as a matter of fact. We must accept the dilemma, if we are to accept life itself.
Herbert Read, in the closing paragraph of his Introduction to Surrealism speaks of “the renascence of wonder”. It is a phrase which I should like to put beside that of Paul Eluard—”no daring is fatal”. Wonder and daring! Dionysian concepts which are restored to us as we journey towards the night of the Unconscious. The day face of the world is unbearable, it is perhaps true. But this mask which we wear, through which we look at die world of reality, who has clapped it on us? Have we not grown it ourselves? The mask is inevitable: we cannot meet the world with naked skins. We move within grooves, formerly taboos, now conventions. Are we to throw away the mask, die lying day face of the world? Could we, even if we chose?
It seems to me that only the lunatic is capable of making such a gesture—and at what a price! Instead of the conventional but flexible groove, which irks more or less, he adopts the obsessional mould which clamps and imprisons. He has completely lost contact with reality, we say of the insane man. But has he liberated himself? Which is the prison—reality or anarchy? Who is the gaoler?
“We make for ourselves”, writes Amiel, “in truth, our own spiritual world monsters, chimeras, angels; we make objective what ferments in us. All is marvelous for the poet, all is divine for the saint; all is great for the hero; all is wretched, miserable, ugly and bad for the base and sordid soul. The bad man creates around him a pandemonium, die artist an Olympus, the elect soul a paradise, which each of them sees for himself alone. We are all visionaries, and what we see is our soul in things .. . “
All is marvelous for the poet! Yes, the more one is a poet the more marvelous everything becomes. Everything! That is to say, not just the life to come, not merely what is unknown and dimly apprehended, not the ideal, not truth, beauty, madness, but what is here and now, the flux of life, the dead as well as the alive, die common, the sordid, the worthless, the ugly, the boring, all, all, because the transforming vision alters the aspect of the world. The Surrealists themselves have demonstrated the possibilities of the marvelous which lie concealed in the commonplace. They have done it by juxtaposition. But the effect of these strange transpositions and juxtapositions of the most unlike things has been to freshen the vision. Nothing more. For the roan who is vitally alive it would be unnecessary to rearrange the objects and conditions of this world. The vision precedes the arrangement, or rearrangement. The world doesn’t grow stale. Every great artist by his work reaffirms this fact. The artist is the opposite of the politically-minded individual, the opposite of die reformer, the opposite of the ideal-fat. The artist does not tinker with the universe: he recreates it out of his own experience and understanding of life. He knows that the transformation must proceed from within outward, not vice Versa. The world problem becomes the problem of the Self. The World problem is the projection of die inner problem. It is a process of expropriating the world, of becoming God. The striving toward this limit, the expansion of the Self, in other words, is what truly brings about the condition of the marvelous. Knowledge is not involved, nor power. But vision.
It is but natural that the tremendous emphasis on the marvelous which the Surrealists have given to the movement should be the reaction against the crippling, dwarfing harmony imposed by French culture. In the fake Hellenism of French culture the sense of the marvelous, the sense of magic, of wonder, awe, mystery, was doomed to perish. In France “the lying cultural mask” which Nietzsche speaks of has become real; it is no longer a mask. Employing a ritual and ceremonial less rigid, less elaborate than the Chinese, the French nevertheless have come to resemble them in spirit more closely than any European nation. French life has become stylized. It is not a life rhythm but a death rhythm. The culture is no longer vital … it is decayed. And the French, securely imprisoned within this cultural wall, are rotting away. That is why, so it seems to me, the individual Frenchman appears to possess more vitality than his surrounding neighbors. In each and every Frenchman it is the cultural mould which manifests itself. Before you can kill off the individual Frenchman you have to kill off the culture which produced him. Nowhere else in Europe is this true. With the others the mould has already broken and what we smell in them is an amorphous, anonymous culture which is extinct. To be a good European now means to become a polyglot and nomadic cultural nobody. (Goethe was the last good European.)
If it serves to destroy this death grip Surrealism will serve a valuable function. But it rather seems to me that Surrealism is merely the reflection of the death process. It is one of the manifestations of a life becoming extinct, a virus which quickens the inevitable end. Even so it is a movement in the right direction. Europe must die, and France with it. Sooner or later a new life must begin, a life from the roots.
“As yet”, writes Keyserling, “only the few are conscious of the extent to which the course of the historic process is a phenomenon resembling that of counterpoint in music. Just because the masses have triumphed to an unheard of degree for the time being, we are approaching a decidedly aristocratic epoch. Just because quantity alone is the decisive factor to-day, the qualitative will soon mean more than ever before. Just because the mass appears to be everything, all great decisions will soon be taken within the smallest circle. They, and they alone, as the Ark during the Flood, are the safeguards of the future.
“For this reason we who are spiritual should consciously assume the counterpoint attitude to everything which is going on to-day. Let die culture of making-all-things-easy overspread the earth like a flood. An age whose day is past is being drowned in the deluge. We will not even try to stem the tide. Let us recognize the fact that for a long time to come everything within view, and in the first instance the state, will have to serve the process of liquidation. But at the same time let lis remain proudly conscious of this other fact: that to-day everything depends on those who keep aloof, who are officially inconspicuous and not in view of the many. All the future is theirs.”
There remain the death-eaters, those who are coming more and more into control as the bright future opens up. Destined to hasten the collapse of a world already defunct they are galvanizing the dead youth of the world into a temporary enthusiasm. Everywhere youth is being called to the colors; as in every epoch the young are being groomed for the ritual slaughter. The cause! The sacred cause! For the sake of “the cause” the demons will soon be unleashed and we shall all be commanded to fly at each other’s throats. It is as clear as can be. Under the sign of DEATH all sides, all forces, are secretly making common cause. Death; that is the real motive, the real urge. Whoever doubts that we are going to escape this death-feast is an imbecile. In this stupid infatuation for death the Surrealists are no different from the others. We are all going down together—red shirts, black shirts, pacifists, militarists, dadaists, Surrealists, nonconformists, all kinds of ists and isms together. Down into the bottomless pit.
Now, my dear fellows, my dear Belgian, Swedish, Japanese, Dutch, British, French, American, Rhodesian, Arthurian, Cro-Magnon, Neanderthalian Surrealists, now is the time to grab hold of that most wonderful prehensile tail which has been dragging in the mud for countless centuries. Get hold of it, if you can, and swing for your lives! It’s one chance out of a million, and I wish you luck, you poor bleeding bastards.