Dissident Surrealism

By Michael Eaton

‘Even within capitalism’s increasing tendency to render all human contacts impossible, isn’t it within his own civilisation that a Westerner can find opportunities for self-realisation at the emotional level?’ – Michel Leiris, flyer for L’Afrique Fantome (1934)

Anglophone culture has always had a problem with surrealism. It grants it an existence as an artistic movement, a movement in the genealogy of graphic design, a place in the Museum of Modern Art, the saleroom. It has become at best an artistic trope, at worst a bizarre aberration. Hard enough to extend the definition to recognise surrealism as a literary movement, let alone as a philosophical system which consistently (perhaps even coherently?) stood against the materialist mechanics of rationalism as well as profoundly influencing the development of 20th-century French thought.

Of course, much of this ignorance may be ascribed to the Academy’s wilful bad faith in the face of a developed and sophisticated attack upon the cherished principles of scientific fundamentalism – the authority of Western rationalism would surely crumble if it were to admit its alchemical forebears and its hidden messianic purpose. But our narrow perception of surrealism’s boundaries is also undoubtedly the result of Breton’s own Stalinist project to police the movement. Unfortunately he was largely successful in his attempts to stuff back into Pandora’s Box the demons he had helped to release.

Our ignorance of the scope and influence of surrealism in modern thought is also a product of the devastating rupture caused by the rise of fascism and World War II. If the surrealists could be characterised as championing the irrational, then surely they had to retreat from that position when the irrational became to dominant mode of political expression in 30s Europe. After the war no expression of the intellect could be seen outside of the clear, stultifying polarities of Cold War rhetoric and reality. An age of surrealist experimentation gave way to an age of existentialist commitment.

So it is only in recent years that an Anglophone audience has been introduced to the work of the ‘dissident’ surrealists – Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, Roger Caillois – who challenged the movement’s totalitarian demands to remain always on the level of the unconscious or the preconscious. It is only now that a conference could be organised which addressed the connections between surrealism, anthropology and ethnographic film.

L’Autre et le Sacré’ (‘The Other and the Sacred’) was, significantly, organised not by a department of anthropology but by L’Institut Français and the European Humanities Research Centre at the University of Warwick. It brought together anthropologists, such as Germaine Dieterlen, who has worked for nearly 60 years among the Dogon of Mali, and Mary Douglas, the fascinatingly idiosyncratic interpreter of French thought in a British social scientific context; intellectual theorists, such as Michèle Richman, author of the first English-language study of Bataille, and Christopher Thompson, who co-ordinated the event; and the world’s pre-eminent ethnographic film-maker, Jean Rouch, whose work is still largely unknown and frequently misunderstood in this country.

Such a conjunction might have been unthinkable not too long ago, but in the last few years the discipline of anthropology has been through a period of productive self-criticism in which its credentials as a ‘social science’ have been deconstructed. The processes of both fieldwork and ethnography – the writing-up of fieldwork notes – have been subjected to postmodernist introspection. The structure of fieldwork experience can now be perceived as a species of rite de passage necessary for the student to change status and emerge as a fully accredited member of an academic community; the work of ethnography can now no longer be simply perceived as the objective basis for a ‘science of man’ but as a species of writing, both generically conventional and a product of a subjective encounter between observer and observed.

Suddenly the work of the surrealists no longer seems quite so bizarre, irrational and unscientific. Bataille’s obsession with the transgressive possibilities of excess in sacrifice, in the potlatch, in sexuality, can be seen as an honourable continuation of Marcel Mauss’ work on the gift; Leiris’ painful attempt to document not just the rituals of the African tribes he encountered on the Mission Dakar-Djibouti of the early 30s but also his own conscious and unconscious responses to the act of witnessing them seems no longer self-indulgent; Caillos’ work on those moments when the profane is transformed into the sacred through ritual and festival no longer seems like an interest in the bizarre and the exotic for its own sake, detached from a functionalist totality.

As rationalism collapses, as the pretensions of social scientificity are exposed; as we approach the next millennium, the message is plain: the time for surrealism is now. Bataille, Leiris and Caillois were never interested in the Other for reasons of butterfly collection. The societies anthropologists study were of significance to them to the extent that they made our own society seem strange. They were not interested in exotic rites of sacrifice and possession as an expression of the ‘primitive’ or the ‘pre-modern’, but as part of a programme to re-sacralise modern urban life.

My own attempts to explore this terrain and to try and sneak this work in through customs have been partial, foolhardy and largely unsuccessful. In 1979 I was asked by the BFI to edit a short volume on Rouch to accompany a selection of his films which were to go into British distribution. So my editorial efforts look sparse and untenable to the cognoscenti whilst seeming recherché and academic to those who have never had a chance to assess Rouch’s contribution for themselves. (It is to be hoped that Paul Stoller’s recent book on Rouch, The Cinematic Griot, will redress that imbalance.)

In 1984 I directed for the first and only time on these shores an adaptation of Bataille’s novel My Mother for the London stage as part of the ‘Violent Silence – Celebrating Georges Bataille’ festival organized by Paul Buck. It was an edgy piece, minimalist in tone more because of the nature of the financing than of the incestuous subject matter. The first night remains a source of legendary embarrassment. I chose to set the second act on the largest brass bed I could find. His mother is to leave our young hero in the company of a sadomasochistic virago who might detach his thoughts away from her as an object of sexual desire. As the lovers leaped upon the bed it collapsed, bringing down the backdrop. The audience collapsed in laughter. At last this was something they could understand: ‘Carry on Georges Bataille’. The performers, to their undying credit, played up to the giggles in order to get through the act. The critics had their suspicions confirmed: French writing is a load of pretentious toss.

My Anglo-Saxon heritage has conspired against my modest attempts to import a way of thought which is in many ways anathema to our intellectual traditions. But now, thanks not a little to the work of James Clifford at the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz and to the organisers of ‘L’Autre et le Sacré’, maybe the transgressive and transformative ritual power of dissident surrealism will at last invade our pragmatic ramparts.

In Memoriam Busby Berkeley

George Szirtes

Military straddle the pool.
A gasp of music. Everyone is here.
Thousands cross the street unseeing.
Two hearts
Grow breasts. Swirling like a dream
with a top hat
and cane come eternal softnesses.

Wind them up and let them go. Spin
Little dancer. The rain is gold, and as
The eyes light up it’s Keeler! Powell!
The audience, to a man, cry down
their trousers.
The lights come on too bright, like

from Poetry Introduction 4 (Faber, 1978)