(translated by Joseph Mulligan,
courtesy of Wesleyan University Press)
THE WORK OF ART AND THE SOCIAL SPHERE
Let’s look at a few examples. Nietzsche was a physically weak, sickly man. Is one to deduce from this that The Birth of Tragedy is the wincing of a wasted loser? Tolstoy never had financial burdens. He didn’t know what it means to put bread on the table by working. He lived the life of a petite bourgeois man or, rather, a feudal lord. Is one to deduce from this that Resurrection is a feudalizing work? Mallarmé lived in perpetual political abstention, neural to the ebb and flow of parliaments, absent at elections, assemblies, and political party gatherings. Is one to deduce from this that The Afternoon of the Faun is devoid of political spirit and social meaning? Of course not. Such conclusions are reached only by run-of-the-mill, empirical critics. Akin to a poor photographer who seeks in photography the formal reproduction and external imitation of the original, the poor critic scours the work of art to find the literal reproduction and reflection of repetition in the artist’s life. When he does not find that reflection—which, let us add, occurs precisely with the great artists—he concludes by saying that there is no synchronism in the life of the author and his work. This is how people proceed who believe that concordance exists in some but not all artistic objects.
To find truly profound aesthetic synchronism, one must bear in mind that the phenomenon of artistic production, as Millet says, is an authentic operation of alchemy, in the scientific sense of the word—a transmutation. The artist absorbs and concatenates the social unrest of the environment as well as his own individual unrest, not to return it exactly as he absorbed it (which is what the poor critic would want and what occurs with inferior artists), but rather to transform it within his spirit into other essences, distinct in form and identical at the core, into the raw materials as absorbed. At first sight, as we said, one might not recognize the vital raw material as absorbed in the structure and emotional movement of the work, just as at a glance one might not recognize in a tree the nutritional chemical bodies extracted from the soil. However, if one analyzes the work in depth, one will necessarily discover—in its innermost viscera and through the personal peripeteia of the artist’s life—not only the circulating currents of socioeconomic character, but the mental and religious currents of its epoch. An alchemical analysis of a vegetal substance would likewise establish a similar biological phenomenon in the tree.
The correlation between the individual and social life of the artist and his work is therefore constant. It operates consciously or subconsciously, whether the artist wants it to or not, no matter if he accepts or denies it, and even if he tries to escape it. The challenge for the critic—we repeat—is knowing how to discover it.
Grammar, as a collective norm in poetry, lacks a raison d’être. Every poet forges his personal and nontransferable grammar, his syntax, spelling, analogy, prosody, his meanings. He is sufficed by not leaving language’s jurisdiction. The poet can even change, in a certain way, the lexical and phonetic structure of a word itself, depending on the case. And this, rather than restraining the socialist and universal scope of poetry, as one might suspect, expands it unto infinity. For it’s well known that the more personal (again, I don’t say individual) an artist’s sensibility, the more universal and collective his work.
THE PASSION OF CHARLES CHAPLIN
More on artists facing politics – Lessons of objects with examples – Secret laws and trajectories in art and artists – The political spirit of Chaplin’s work – A great frieze of the modern economic tragedy – What the United States does not know – A new Philistine incarnation: Lita Grey – The chronicler can admire but not be enslaved – Chaplin’s dog facing the Tramp.
Paris, January 1928
The Ninth Symphony was humanly born key by key from the law of Mariotee, which the Estachian tube couldn’t disprove to Beethoven’s auditory nerve. In turn, the five luxury automobiles of Charles Chaplin, multimillionaire and gentleman, lead the most dispossessed and absurd of men into the future, wearing fifteen bowler hats, five other people’s suites, six pairs of godillots, and twirling four magical canes . . . Thus, Chaplin engenders the Tramp, in the splendid film The Gold Rush. Beautiful are the lost letters, and secretly humble are the facades of the giant skyscrapers.
Here, in this film, is Charles Chaplin, gentleman and multimillionaire, scratching the crotch of the Tramp, that beggar eaten away by giant honorable lice. For the length of the film, Chaplin, high poet of human misery, turns his back to his dollars. An avatar of art has made him poor in them, great in them. The actor here, as in no other film of his, is completely absorbed by the character. Good night, Mr. Pirandello . . . There you have Bill, Chaplin’s white dog, howling outside the gate of the dressing room waiting for his owner. The Tramp has just come out with a bag over his shoulder, and he heads off to the gold rush in Alaska. Bill, who hasn’t recognized the Tramp as Chaplin, will wait for him at the gate for an entire year, where- upon the pilgrim returns to the dressing room, puts on the millionaire’s clothes, and leaves reincarnated as the mastiff’s owner. Bill licks his substitute gloves, joyfully recognizing him . . . That is the storyline of The Gold Rush, Chaplin’s aesthetically broadest work. Good morning, Mr. Unamuno!
This film formulates the best interrogation of social justice of which all art d’après-guerre has been capable. The Gold Rush is a sublime explosion of political unrest, a great economic complaint of life, a heartrending argument against social injustice. The fin de siècle Europeans, who could find no salvation in literary skepticism and scientific materialism, sit through this film fomenting a torturous frieze of misery, avarice, desperation. They’re the heralds of the Russian Revolution. The economic desolation of one of them, the most pain-stricken of all and the least adapted to the conventional fickle logic of humans, lets out hair-raising roars.
In this work Chaplin is depicted as a red or hardline communist. But there’s more to it. He proves to be a pure and supreme creator of new and more human, political, and social instincts. If he has not yet been understood as such, history will tell. “In Russia,” Chaplin himself has stated, “one walks out of these showings, eyes glistening with tears, because over there I’m considered an interpreter of real life. In Germany, I’m seen from an intellectual point of view. In England, from the point of view of a clown. In France, as a comedian. I don’t think I’m any of this. I am, rather, a tragic man.” A tragic man in our day and age must necessarily address economic and social pain.
For its part, the United States hasn’t perceived, even at a distance, the profound and tacitly revolutionary spirit of The Gold Rush. I’m lying. In a subconscious way, perhaps, the gringos have teamed up with Lita Grey to stone Chaplin, just like the other Philistines stoned Our Lord, equally un- conscious of the historical meaning of their hatred.
So it is, without a cheap protest against subprefects or ministers; with- out even uttering the words “bourgeois” or “exploitation”; without political adages or maxims; without childish messianics, Charles Chaplin, millionaire and gentleman, has created a marvelous work of revolution. This is the role of the creator.
Over time, unsuspected political platforms and economic doctrines will be yanked out of The Gold Rush. That will be the work of second-rate artists and imitators, propagandists, university professors, and candidates for the government of the people.
[Mundial (Lima), no. 404, March 9, 1928]
AUTOPSY OF SURREALISM
Among other symptoms of its agony, the capitalist intelligentsia offers the vice of the cenacle. It’s curious to observe how the most recent devastating crises of economic imperialism—war, industrial rationalization, misery of the masses, financial and stock market crashes, development of the workers’ revolution, colonial insurrections, etc.—synchronously correspond to the furious manipulation of literary schools, as improvised as they are short-lived. Around 1914, expressionism was born (Dvorack, Fretzer). Around 1915, cubism was born (Apollinaire, Reverdy). In 1917, dadaism was born (Tzara, Picabia). In 1924, surrealism (Breton, Ribemont- Dessaignes). Not to mention the preexisting schools: symbolism, futurism, neosymbolism, unanimism, etc. Finally, since the advent of surrealism, a new literary school bursts forth on a nearly monthly basis. Never before has social thought been sectioned off into so many and such fleeting formulas. Never before did it experience such a frenetic pleasure and such a need to be stereotyped into prescriptions and clichés, as though it were afraid of its freedom or unable to emerge in all its organic unity. Such anarchy and disintegration hadn’t been seen except among the decadent philosophers and poets at the dawn of Greco-Latin civilization. Those of today, in turn, reveal a new decadence of the spirit: the dawn of capitalist civilization.
The last school of the main cartel, surrealism, has just officially died.
The truth is that surrealism, as a literary school, didn’t represent any constructive contribution. Instead, it was a prescription for making poems about restraint, as are and will be all literary schools of any period. And yet. It wasn’t even an original prescription at that. The entire pompous theory and abracadabrant method of surrealism was condemned by and, in a few thoughts on the topic, sketched out at the hand of Apollinaire. Based on these ideas of the author of Calligrams, the surrealist manifestos limit themselves to creating intelligent parlor games of automatic writing, morality, religion, and politics.
Parlor games, I say, and intelligent ones at that—cerebral games, rather. When surrealism arrived through the ineluctable dialectic of things to confront the living problems of reality, which don’t exactly depend on the abstract metaphysical lucubrations of any literary school, it seemed to be in a hurry. To stay consistent with what the surrealists themselves used to call the “critical and revolutionary spirit” of this movement, it had to jump into the middle of the street and take charge of, among other things, the political and economic problems of our time. Surrealism then turned to anarchism, this being the most abstract, mystical, and cerebral form of politics that best reconciled the ontological and even occultist character of the cenacle par excellence. As anarchists, the surrealists were able to keep gaining recognition, given that, as such, they managed to cohabit and even cosubstantiate with the organic nihilism of the school.
But over the course of time, the surrealists came to see that, outside the surrealist catechism, there was another revolutionary method as “interesting” as what they were proposing: I’m referring to Marxism. They read, thought about it, and, out of a very bourgeois miracle of eclecticism or out of an inextricable “combination,” Breton proposed to his friends the alignment and synthesis of both methods. The surrealists immediately became communists.
It’s only in this moment—not before or after—that surrealism acquires certain social importance. From the simple fabric of poems in series, it transforms into a militant political movement and into live, revolutionary, intellectual pragmatism. Surrealism then deserved to be acknowledged and qualified as one of the most vibrant constructive literary trends of the age.
However, this concept wasn’t devoid of inventive benefit. One had to follow the ulterior surrealist methods and disciplines in order to know the extent to which certain contents and actions were truly and sincerely revolutionary. Even when it was known that aligning the surrealist method with Marxism was nothing more than juvenile nonsense or provisional mystification, there remained the hope that they’d gradually continue to radicalize the brand new, unforeseen, militant Bolsheviki.
Unfortunately, while agitating and refuting in shrieking claims of Marxist faith, Breton and his friends subconsciously and unavoidably kept being incurable intellectual anarchists. The pessimism and desperation from surrealism’s first moments, which were able to effectively set the conscience of the cenacle in motion, became a permanent static system—an academic lesson plan. Those moral and intellectual crises, which surrealism claimed to promote but (yet another lack of originality in the school) shied away from, had debuted most expressively in dadaism, ankylosed in psychopathic legalese and literary cliché, despite the dialectical injections from Marx and the restless youngsters’ formal and unofficial dedication to communism. Pessimism and desperation must always be stages, not goals. To stir and ignite the spirit, they must develop until transforming into consecutive affirmations. Otherwise, they don’t amount to more than pathological germs, condemned to devouring themselves. While mocking the law of vital transformation, the surrealists became academics, I repeat, for their own sake and intellectual crises and didn’t have the strength to go above or beyond them with truly revolutionary destructive-constructive forms. Each surrealist did as he pleased. They broke off with numerous members of the party and its publishing organizations and took up everything, in constant divorce with the great Marxist directives. From a literary viewpoint, their productions continued to be characterized by evident bourgeois refinement. The commitment to communism wasn’t at all a reflection of the essential meaning and forms of their works. For all these reasons, surrealism declared itself incapable of comprehending and practicing the true, unique, revolutionary spirit of our age: Marxism. Surrealism rapidly lost the social prestige that had been its only raison d’être and began its irremediable agony.
At present, surrealism—as a Marxist movement—is a corpse. (As a merely literary cenacle—I repeat—it always was, like all schools, the imposture of life, a regular scarecrow.) The certification of its bereavement has recently transformed into two documents of interest: The Second Manifesto of Surrealism by Breton and another, with the title of A Corpse, which numerous surrealists, headed by Ribemont-Dessaignes, have signed against Breton. Along with the death and ideological decomposition of surrealism, both manifestos establish its dissolution as a physical group or aggregate. It’s a split or complete collapse of the chapel. Now the most serious and last of the series emerges from the rubble.
In his Second Manifesto Breton revises surrealist doctrine, showing that he’s satisfied with its performance and result. Breton continues to be, until his final moments, a professional intellectual, a scholastic ideologue, a rebellious lawyer, a recalcitrant dominus, a Maurrasian polemicist, and, finally, just another anarchist on the block. Once again he declares that surrealism has triumphed, because it has obtained what it proposed: “to provoke a crisis of conscience, from the intellectual and moral point of view.” Breton is wrong: If he really has read and subscribed to Marxism, this doesn’t explain how he forgets that the role of the writer in that doctrine isn’t to provoke moral and intellectual crises, serious or general as they may be, that is, by creating the revolution “up above,” but rather on the contrary, by creating it “down below.” Breton forgets that there’s only one revolution—the proletarian—and that this revolution will be created by workers in action and not by intellectuals in their “crises of conscience.” The only crisis is the economic crisis, and for centuries now this has been put forth as fact and not simply as a concept or as “dilettantism.” As for the rest of the Second Manifesto, Breton wields attacks with the vitriol and personal insults of a literary cop aimed at his old brotherhood—insults and vitriol that evince the bourgeois character of his “crisis of conscience” as bourgeois to the bone.
The other manifesto, A Corpse, offers lapidary and necrological passages about Breton. “For an instant,” says Ribemont-Dessaignes, “we were smitten by surrealism: youthful loves, the loves, if you will, of manservants. Youngsters are authorized to love even a guard’s woman (this woman is incarnated in the aesthetic of Breton). A false companion, a false communist, a false revolutionary, but a true and authentic farce, Breton must beware of the guillotine. What am I saying!? One does not behead a corpse.” “Breton scribbled,” Roger Vitrac says. “He scribbled in revolutionary and holier-than-thou style about subversive ideas and obtained a curious result, which continued to astonish the petite bourgeoisie, the petite merchants and industrialists, the minions of the seminary and the cardias of the first schools.”
“Breton,” says Jacques Prevert, “was a deaf-mute who confused everything: desperation and liver pain, the Bible and Les Chants de Maldoror, God and God, the ink and the table, the barricades and the divan of Madame Sabatier, the Marques de Sade and Jean Lorrain, the Russian Revolution and the surrealist revolution . . . This lyrical foreman handed out diplomas to lovers who wrote poems and, in the days of indulgence, to newcomers, out of desperation.”
“The corpse of Breton,” Michel Leiris says, “disgusts me because, among other reasons, he is a man who always lived among corpses.”
“Naturally,” says Jacques Rigaud, “Breton spoke quite well about love, but in life he was one of Courteline’s characters.”
Etc., etc., etc.
These evaluations about Breton can be applied without exception to all surrealists and to the defunct school itself. It will be said that this is their circumstantial prankster side and not the historical foundation of the movement. Quite right. Assuming that this historical foundation really exists, which in this case is not so. The historical foundation of surrealism is almost null, from whichever perspective it’s examined.
But this is how literary schools come to pass. Such is the fate of all unrest that, instead of becoming an austere creative laboratory, merely amounts to a formula. Useless then are the booming complaints, the calls for the vulgate, the color advertisements, in the end, the sleights of hand and professional tricks. Alongside the aborted tree, dead leaves asphyxiate.