Apparently it takes a lot of boobs to distract the Surrealist from thoughts of his own genius

by on Jun.20, 2011

This is a follow-up post to Johannes’ evaluation of Marjorie Perloff’s newest book, Unoriginal Genius. While I largely agree with Johannes on the big picture, I’d like to bring up a point where we may differ, namely Perloff’s take on Surrealism.

Perloff’s denunciation of Surrealism as a conservative distraction from the avant-garde movement comes via members of the Noigandres group, the Brazilian concrete poets of the 1950s and onward, who apparently don’t mince words when it comes to Surrealism. Perloff and the Concretists have a point: if Surrealism’s method is automatic writing, how come the language comes out in complete and grammatically coherent sentences? Another point we might add: by the late 1920s, the Surrealist Group’s favorite theme seems to be female nudity, treated rather conventionally, except with everything in the plural. (The Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval, an ardent follower of Breton for a period of time around 1930, actually wrote a book titled Woman in the Plural [Žena v množném čísle].) And finally, Surrealism’s proclaimed ties to Marxism, unlike its ties to Freud, seem completely arbitrary.

A few years back, I got a good laugh out of Breton’s description of automatic writing in his “Manifesto of Surrealism”: “After you have settled yourself in a place as favorable as possible to the concentration of your mind upon itself, have writing materials brought to you. Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of everyone else.”

Have writing materials brought to you by whom? Your domestic worker? Wife? The Surrealist Group intern? Oh, and whatever you do, try not to think about your genius. Think of boobs instead. Dada was having a successful run in Paris in the early 1920s until Breton and his followers co-opted it and turned it into a petit-bourgeois pastime – an upbeat and politically impotent leisure activity. Coincidentally, Surrealism is considered the last movement of the historical avant-garde.

A few disclaimers are necessary. What about defectors like Artaud? What about Aimé Césaire? These writers obviously don’t fully fit my description. I’d argue that without Surrealism as a label, Artaud might be called a Dadaist today. After all, automatic writing pre-dated Surrealism. Hans Arp was doing it. Tzara was doing it.

Secondly, I think Johannes may be right that Perloff conveniently casts out Surrealism, because it doesn’t fit her anti-kitsch aesthetic. This, though, doesn’t necessarily invalidate the critique that the Noigandres launched against it and that I have extended here.

46 comments for this entry:
  1. Clayton Eshleman

    dear Josef: you were right to bring up Cesaire as an exception to conventional Surrealistics. But what have you to say about him? My admiration for his work increased a great deal while cotranslating the unexpurgated 1948 Soleil cou coupe with Jim Arnold.
    Artaud as a Dadaist? Are you joking? His post 1945 writings in both poetry and prose (I have in mind here Artaud le momo, Ci-git, Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, and the Van Gogh essay) are certainly some of the most potent and fulgurating displays of 20th European imagination.
    Both Cesaire and Artaud used Surrealism as a fulcrum to move off into domains that they made their own. Both are beholden to Surrealism for giving them the permission to engage their own appetites and irrationalities. –CE

  2. Johannes

    I think Clayton is pretty much right on about Cesaire and Artaud. It’s really hard not to notice the Surrealism of Artaud, especially in his early worth, though obviously he became a more interesting writer than the other original crew. Sure Dada influenced Surrealism, but Artaud’s vision is much more grandiose (plague etc) and his poetry is full of anguish, where as the Dadaists tended to be ironic (I’m using that term in a very vague sense).

    I’m not sure what argument you’re making about Perloff and Surrealism. I don’t have her book here now, but I think her main problem with Surrealism is not its gender politics, but it’s aesthetics, its diction, its use of imagery – which is indeed very much engaged in the nature of “kitsch” and mass culture, topics that are anathema to Perloff’s high modernist, high taste sensibilities. Benjamin called it “dream kitsch”, though not to dismiss it (Daniel Tiffany’s new book is about kitsch and he sent me hsi first chapter in response to the Perloff post, and I will post about it in the near future).

    About Surrealism and Gender: People seem really stuck on this topic. I’m not sure why. Sure there’s a ridiculous depiction of woman as muse in early Surrealism – but that’s true of a lot of western art! (Hannah Höch was pretty much marginalized by the Dadaists so lets not idealize them either.) Also, as the movement progressed it became much more open to women artists, the result of which you can see in the incredible proliferation of Surrealist women artists and poets, as documented by Penelope Rosemont in that anthology from a few years ago.

    However, I think the most interesting point here is the way surrealism is based in a certain sense on gender transgression. I think one could make the argument that Perloff rejects it not because of its sexist image of women, but because it’s too “feminine.” Kitschy, sentimental, expressionistic.

    There is a direct connection between Surrealism’s “automatism” and the “automata,” the female robots that became popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. And throughout Surrealism, there is a connection between women and creativity. To write means to become female in some sense. This doesn’t make up for the sexism, but it does complicate the too-one-sided picture of Surrealism as plain old sexist, and to me it suggests why Perloff – who loves “rigor” and formalism, hates kitsch and sentimentality – would dislike surrealism, or why Silliman would refer to surrealism as “soft surrealism.”

    I would also say that Surrealism begins with Magnetic Fields, a collaboration, and despite the much-maligned, supposed megalomania of Breton, it was a movement profoundly engaged with collaboration over “Genius.”


  3. Josef Horáček

    Clayton, I think we’re in agreement. I certainly didn’t imply that Artaud is a Dadaist as we understand that term today. Instead, I was suggesting that without Breton’s intervention, much of the avant-garde activity from the mid-1920s onward, especially in Paris but also elsewhere, would not be known as Surrealism but possibly be understood as a new wave of Dada (admittedly quite different from the first wave, but also with certain important continuities that the new name distracts from). This may just be a silly exercise in alternative history, but what I tried to convey is that when Breton wrote his manifesto and formed his group circa 1924, Surrealism/Paris Dada – whatever you want to call it – was already happening all around him, and the group poetic that he so ambitiously promoted was rather conservative compared to what others were doing. “Conventional Surrealistics” is an apt description here. I completely agree with your assessment of both Cesaire and Artaud, but is it Surrealism that allowed them the freedom to pursue their own paths? I suppose “Which Surrealism?” would be the question to ask.

  4. Josef Horáček

    Johannes, that was a very nuanced and substantive comment. It should be clear by now (to me as well as others) that my gripe is not against Surrealism as such but against Breton’s group and their followers. Unfortunately, due to Breton’s ambition, they became the face of Surrealism (and continue to be today to a large degree). Now of course I may be misreading what the Noigandres have said, since I’m only getting it from Perloff. It may well be that they’re against Surrealism tout court, with the inclusion of Artaud.

    About anguish: I think if you look at Artaud’s early writing, it becomes immediately apparent why he was kicked out of the group. Breton had no use for anguish. It was Surrealism, to be sure, just the wrong kind. The Dadaists, on the other hand… Hugo Ball was a product of German Expressionist theater, and when you read the account he gives of his experience reading his sound poems at Cabaret Voltaire, it’s all about anguish. I think Dada is a much more multi-faceted movement than we give it credit for.

    Perloff doesn’t make the gender argument – that’s just me (and a host of others, from what you indicate). Yes, the Dadaists were also sexist (not to mention the Italian Futurists!), but I’m hard-pressed to find anything that might redeem that sexism in Breton and his group. Sure, it was a cheap shot, though you may notice that I also make a class argument, which may be much more significant, especially given the group’s stated affiliation with Marxism.

  5. Kent Johnson

    There’s a very rich vein of Latin American Surrealism that emerges almost contemporaneous to the French. Some of it is very good and little known. A lot of it is pretty weak. Some poets, including very famous ones like Neruda (though he and Breton were on opposite sides of the Left–Neruda actually participated in a plot to murder Breton’s friend and supporter Trotsky in Mexico!), adapted certain Surrealist effects in programmatic and soft ways. Not to mention the crowds of lesser Latin American poets writing under Neruda’s spell. I am pretty sure that the Noigandres poets are reacting in part to this.

  6. Johannes


    The point becomes: why the need to expel Surrealism from the term “avant-garde,” why the need so many decades afterward to say it’s not “true” avant-gardism? Why does Perloff need to create this homogenized, linear, purified idea of “avant-garde” that somehow runs through 20th century (all inside her own taste, one might add)? Why are we still trying to get rid of Surrealism? The answer can be found in one word: “Kitsch.” Surrealism troubles the high/low distinction in ways that few art movements do.


  7. Kent Johnson

    Like Johannes, I admire a good many things in Perloff’s work, how could one not? Nothing in our field is the same without her… And without disagreeing with what Johannes says about kitsch, I wonder if there might be another “reason” (not that it would be conscious on her part) for her relegation of Surrealism to second status?

    In Burger (the classic, most influential theorization of the avant-garde) and a good deal of work in his wake, Surrealism is posited as the last true a-g expression, the 60s neo-a-g and later expressions argued as derivative, compromised, institution-driven appropriations. But if Surrealism’s avant centrality is dispensed with, then Dada becomes the last “Real,” and the kind of work championed by Perloff (Conceptualism, in particular, most recently) is easier to frame as gesture of unbroken *continuity*, an extension of hardcore, original spirit interrupted by a weak, belated Romantic Surrealism (which infects and debilitates the authentic avant-garde corpus). Rejecting the last term in the sequence (Surrealism), one can blame the lesser and derivative Neo expressions on Breton, et. al. etc. ?

  8. Johannes

    Yes, Kent, your reading is similar to mine.


  9. Lara Glenum

    Johannes, while I agree with a lot of what you say about Perloff’s resistance to kitsch, sentimentality, and expressionism, saying that “there’s a connection between women and creativity” because the Surrealists were drawing on the profusion of vixen-lady demon dolls in 19th C. art doesn’t exactly complicate their gender politics.

    And your assertion that Surrealists’ are somehow gender-transgressive because they suggest that “to write means to become female in some sense” is only intriguing/revolutionary if you’re not already a woman (i.e. if you’re a man). In this schema, the boys (once again) get lauded for the heroic, transgressive move—likening themselves to a woman. Penetrable, messy, leaky, etc.

    Meanwhile, those of us born into a biologically female body are still sidelined. Still doing the minor work, the minor moves. Getting “stuck” on insignificant shit.

    I’m not interested in making claims for a “pure” avant-garde, but I’m not interested in overlooking the way the Breton Surrealist circle perform the usual trifecta of collapsing art/beauty/female body. It’s not only damaging, it’s boring and tiresome. Totally played out. Or it should be. But it’s not. That’s the problem.

    If you open any Hi-Fructose or Juxtapoz, you better freaking duck so you don’t get hit by a stray boob. Ditto for like 95% of “art house” and “indie” cinema. Hello hetero male soft porn!

    Johannes, that’s why people get “stuck.” It’s a privilege *not* to choke on this shit.

    It happens not to be my privilege. I’m going to keep choking. I’m going to keep being a colossally dissatisfied, hungry, bored, restless, offended brat.

  10. Johannes


    You write surrealist-influenced poetry. You read a lot of surrealist/surrealist-influenced poetry. In what way do you think that Surrealism has marginalized you? Or made you feel “minor”? It seems if anything, it has empowered/inspired you!

    Why do you think there were/are so many women involved in Surrealism?

    Also: Who are all these men praised for being leaky? I think that’s very unusual. Usually men are praised for their rigor, discipline, masculine hardness and briliance. Or for being accessible/true/authentic/folksy/indie rock etc. Who are you thinking about? Mostly it seems Surrealism is used as a (feminizing) put down (“soft surrealism,” “surrealistic excess,” anything by Perloff etc). This is why I’m thinking about kitsch and surrealism (which is most definitely another way of thinking about gender).


  11. Lara Glenum

    I should clarify that I’m talking specifically about the Breton Surrealist circle above. Not Artaud and Cesaire.

  12. Lara Glenum

    Yes, Johannka, as you well know, specific Surrealist writers have influenced me hugely. Artaud, Cesaire and Vallejo, in particular–those leaky, orifice-laden men! I like it when men perform leakiness, permeability, penetrability, etc. Very much! But like I said, men get a particular kind of props for this kind of performance (they’re transgressive! expansive! vast!). O Duchamp camps as Rrose! Extra bonus points! Women have not historically gotten extra points for acting/being leaky, faulty, disrupted, sloppy, sentimental, penetrable, gassy, and counterfeit unless they also sported a cock (or two). Or sucked a cock or two.

    I agree that Surrealism is often used as a feminizing put-down. And I think your tracing out the gender dynamics inherent to the (anti-)Surrealism debates is right on. I’m just not sure it’s a worthwhile project to try to redeem Breton’s gender politics. And I also love Rosemont’s anthology, but the very need for that particular anthology speaks loads about the way in which women avant-gardists have been historically sidelined (the famous “double margin”). Same ol’ donkey jizz.

    I have more to say on all this but I have to go help my son button up his pink rosebud dress. More soon.

  13. Johannes

    But Lara, Duchamp is hardly the rule! What is a contemporary writer who has been praised for being leaky?

    I’m not looking to “redeem” anything. What I’m saying is that his gender politics are not as simple as Josef makes them out to be, and that these gender dynamics may in fact have something to do with why so many women artists have been involved in surrealism.


  14. Josef Horáček


    I never actually said that Surrealism isn’t or shouldn’t be an avant-garde, and neither does Perloff, for that matter. Sure, it’s easy to read it that way, but it’s just as possible to see all this as an episode in the long and venerable tradition of avant-garde infighting. (The part about “venerable tradition” is meant with a bit of irony.)

    Okay, I just looked up the page I photocopied from Perloff. The de Campos brothers are quoted directly, calling Surrealism things like “a kind of avant-garde of consummation” and “a kind of conservative avant-garde,” i.e., objectionable but an avant-garde nevertheless.

    About the high/low divide: it’s not always about kitsch. Not all low or popular forms of art and culture are kitschy. And again, the Dadaists troubled the divide plenty – they ran a cabaret, for goodness’ sake!

    And in response to your suggestion that Surrealism may have inspired or empowered Lara and other female artists, I’ll repeat what I said earlier in the comment stream when Clayton made a similar assertion on behalf of Artaud and Cesaire: was it really Surrealism that inspired them? And if so, which Surrealism? Again, this goes back to my claim from the original post that Breton co-opted a lot of what was already happening at the time, gave it a new name, and turned it into something akin to a men’s smoking club board game.


    Your hypothesis is definitely worth considering. I have a post in the works about Perloff and the avant-garde as a continuing practice. Hopefully soon.

  15. Johannes

    I think the problem with Surrealism is about kitsch. That’s what my original post is about. And it’s there in the very beginning, Benjamin picking up on it immediately by calling it “dream kitsch.” But sure, Dada was involved in mucking up this divide too. I’ll write more about kitsch when I have some time, including responding to the many comments this post has gotten. Seems like people are still not sure what I mean by kitsch rhetoric.

    You’re simply not correct about Breton: initially, yes, the women were in the background, but the fact of the matter is that tons of women wrote/made art as part of Surrealism.


  16. Johannes

    I guess I’m not sure of what you are arguing, Josef. Are you saying that Perloff’s critical framework is not anti-kitsch? That she’s actually objecting to surrealism because it’s sexist? If that’s your argument you should provide some evidence because looking back on my original post, I made my case pretty thoroughly. (And today reading the first chapter of Daniel Tiffany’s new book on kitsch, he makes a similar case about her book). If her rejection f Surrealism is based on sexism, what is her rejection of Eliot based on? Again, I gave a lot of examples from the book.
    A “conservative avant-garde”: this is exactly my argument. An attempt to establish a linear/progressive idea of the avant-garde, which Surrealism somehow objects to. This is exactly in line with my argument.
    About Breton as an usurper: This argument is in fact very much in line with the kind of anti-kitsch arguments I discuss in my original post. Kitsch is the imposter. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if she stole, plagiarized whatever. There is this thing called Surrealism (and I appreciate it in all of its “watered-down,” popularized versions). And whether Breton stole the ideas or whatever, he still had a huge influence on the way we think about the nexus of ideas we call “Surrealism,” so it’s worthwhile to see how he framed things. This doesn’t mean I’m excusing whatever sexism (or any number of other character flaws).


  17. Lara Glenum

    Josef, I love this: “Breton co-opted a lot of what was already happening at the time, gave it a new name, and turned it into something akin to a men’s smoking club board game.”

    Johannka, are you really so shocked that I might have been made to feel “minor”/marginalized as a woman writer? I’m intrigued by your questions. Several men men I’m close to seem somehow perpetually shocked that anyone/anything in literary history or contemporary culture might have made me to feel anything less than super-ultra-major 100% of the time. Why is this, my lil honeysuckle?

    Yes, there were a proliferation of women Surrealists, but women were active and productive in all the avant-gardes. Doesn’t mean their work was/is valued as much as their male counterparts. Unica Zurn, Hannah Hoch, Mina Loy, Sophie Tauber etc. ad nauseum. Just because they were active doesn’t mean they got/get props.

    And there’s a real case to be made for Stein’s Tender Buttons being the first Surrealist or proto-Surrealist text (though this can, of course, also be read as a Cubist text).

  18. Johannes

    No, Lara, I’m not shocked that you feel marginalized etc, but my point was that it’s hardly Breton or Surrealism that does that.

    I kind of feel we’re all having different arguments here.


  19. James Pate

    Hi Josef,

    Interesting post, but I disagree with the argument you seem to have (and I might be misreading it) that Breton=Surrealism. That seems very reductive: in fact, when I hear the word “surrealism” I’m more likely to think of de Chirico or Joseph Cornell than Breton. Yes, Breton had tyrannical tendencies, and he wanted to control the notion of “Surrealism,” but the vocabulary of surrealism is so much more diverse than him.

    In fact, as both Kent and Johannes have suggested, “surrealism” has an incredibly mercurial quality…and I find that fascinating…

    Plus, I see no point in seeing Breton as the enemy. Lots of artists are assholes: he’s hardly alone in that regard. And while he’s nowhere near as brilliant as Artaud or Vallejo, his novel Nadja is breathtaking (it was one of Bolano’s favorite books), and some of his poems are very good too.

    And hi Lara,
    You make some interesting and highly valid points, but I disagree with your characterization of “art house” cinema as a kind of soft male porn. That was certainly the case ten years ago, but starting roughly with Ozon’s Sitcom there has been a real move to make nudity and the representations of sexuality more nuanced (an example: erect male members have become more and more commonplace since the late 90s).

    And what of Catherine Breillat, a major “art house” film director who has made a career of exploring female desire (and whose films frequently contain male nudity)? Not that she’s not controversial in this regard, but she’s exploring sexuality in a manner that goes way beyond soft porn…

    In fact, just in the past month I’ve seen two films (Dogtooth and Antares) that show erections…it has become so common in art house films that a critic for The Village Voice has said erect cocks are the way certain director’s attempt to ensure the critics think the film is “edgy”…

    The wonderful film scholar Linda Williams has written on this very topic, examining films such as Romance, Fat Girl, 9 Songs, etc…


  20. James Pate

    Just to add quickly: I don’t mean to suggest male nudity of itself makes certain films more sexually nuanced/complicated–I only mean to suggest it indicates film is a changing medium, that the representations of sexuality in “art house” films have altered since the 80s and 90s.

    Dogtooth might be the best recent example of this change…

  21. Josef Horáček

    Yes, Johannes, we’re clearly having different arguments here. If you read what I’ve written, you’d see that I’m neither making an anti-kitsch argument nor am I saying that Perloff dismisses Surrealism on the grounds of gender. And I’m not accusing Breton of stealing ideas – such a concept doesn’t exist in my vocabulary when it comes to writing about the creative process. Regardless, I’ve found the discussion productive, if a bit overwhelming. A lot of good questions were raised. I appreciate everyone’s comments.


    I’m not so much saying that Breton=Surrealism as I’m saying that Breton wished it were the case and that the version of Surrealism he imposed on his group is indeed reductive and I find it objectionable (not just on the grounds of gender, though that was my main example; why is nobody picking up on my class commentary?). My impression has been that Breton is still seen as the figurehead in a lot of art and literary history, but I’m glad this blog has so many astute readers who have a broader view of the movement.

  22. Danielle Pafunda

    Hello everyone, I just wanted to say I’m following along appreciatively–this is a great, nuanced history lesson for me, who hasn’t made a solid study of the Surrealists (or any of the Surrealisms on deck here!).

    I wanted to say something tho’ about the appearance of empowerment in contemporary women poets (or others whose identity might keep ’em out of the obvious center). I think a lot of us are empowered by not the straightforward influence of masculine poets/poetics, but the slightly twisted co-option of those masculine techniques/tropes/aesthetics we admire that may have shut out or shut down women in the past. Casual examples: I *loved* Breton in college, but of course had to go through a lot of acrobatics to make Nadja or My Heart Through Which Her Heart Has Passed a jumping off point for my own work. Same could be said of the Beat Poets I loved as a baby poet, or Berryman who’s still a huge influence on me. I also consider the epic/classics revisions by Carson or Notley or, hey Lara–myth of Pasiphae, or Acker’s Eurydice in the Underworld. Or the ways that Susan Wheeler uses Frost, Catullus, etc. They’re homage and perversion, and that’s perhaps where one gets the gumption to take her powerful stance. For women writers drawing on masculine influences, the anxiety of influence becomes more like the gravedigging influence. You’re already a desecration, you’re never going to be a pale imitation because you’d be in drag, you’d be sticking out like a sore, ahem, thumb.

    Okay, rambling on a bit ’cause it’s late and I’ve been yakking on the other thread all day. Thanks again, y’all, for the many insights!


  23. Johannes

    I agree, i dont believe in simplistic models of influence, i wrote that bc its the opposite. Interestingly joyelle just gave a talk in england on influence, ill ask her to post it.


  24. Lara Glenum

    James, I very much hope you’re right about the turn in indie/art house cinema.

    I want you to be right.

    I just need a little more than a decade and a couple of erections to feel at ease.

    But I’m hopeful.

    Johannka, I was quibbling with your assessment that Breton et al were gender-transgressive because they implied/asserted that “to write means to become female in some sense.” This is only a rad posture/performance if one is not already biologically female.

    And all of Romanticism is about leaky, penetrable, swooning men! Shelley: “I fall upon the thorns of life! / I bleed! / I die!”

  25. Johannes


    Yes, Shelley, but as I just wrote in my post, Romanticism is kitsch.

    No, I think the “becoming woman” is a radical gesture whether one is female or male. I think Danielle’s Vida discussion suggests something about that.


  26. Lara Glenum

    Danielle, I love this:

    “…the anxiety of influence becomes more like the gravedigging influence. You’re already a desecration, you’re never going to be a pale imitation because you’d be in drag, you’d be sticking out like a sore, ahem, thumb.”

    I love that right from the start we are counterfeits, desecrators, bad copies. Kitsch. Zombie clowns. That seems exactly right.

    Pussies sticking out like sore cocks. Yes, that’s us.

  27. Johannes

    Yes, I agree: My argument is that Surrealism is already on the side of counterfeits, bad copies and zombies. And women. And people in drag.


  28. Lara Glenum

    On the side of? Hmm. I think it’s a little more complex than that.

    The legacy of the avant-garde *is* multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-sexed. Scores of folks have appropriated Surrealist tactics.

    But queer and female avant-garde luminaries (Hannah Hoch, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Baroness Elsa, etc.) decidedly did not feel the straight men of the historical avant-garde were on their side. They often felt excluded, ignored, used by their male counterparts. Their letters, diaries, etc. reflect this quite keenly.

    Langston Hughes made a similar complaint in “The Broken Cubes of Picasso.”

    I don’t want someone “on my side” who doesn’t actually value my artistic production.

  29. Johannes

    I’m not talking about the historical person of Breton.


  30. James Pate


    I think your class commentary is intriguing, and one reason why I do favor Artaud and Vallejo over Breton does have to do with how they are revolutionary writers in the most basic ontological sense: and it relates them more, in some ways, to the 60s sensibility of Foucault and Deleuze, and less to many of the leftists of their own time.

    Have you ever read Derrida on Artaud? He makes the case that Artaud is very much a political figure, and that the theater of cruelty is more revolutionary than the theater of alienation (which sticks, according to Derrida, to conventional Western notions of art as allegory, as representation).


  31. Kent Johnson

    Josef wrote:

    >I’m not so much saying that Breton=Surrealism as I’m saying that Breton wished it were the case and that the version of Surrealism he imposed on his group is indeed reductive and I find it objectionable (not just on the grounds of gender, though that was my main example; why is nobody picking up on my class commentary?).

    Josef deserves props for sparking a great discussion. It’s great to see tough exchanges like the one between Lara Glenum and Johannes, too: no beating around the gazebo, yet comradely, still. Actually, these are the kinds of exchanges the old a-g folks used to have; now, in our more professional, gentle poesy climate, one doesn’t see it too often at all.

    And good that Perloff has written Johannes back-channel and is following along. It would be great to hear what she has to say, maybe here? One thing I think would be important to consider, and it hasn’t been entered into the discussion: Breton’s harsh, factional approach (which has been amply mentioned above) has much to do with the broader revolutionary politics of the time. Breaks and expulsions, polemics and alliances in the Surrealist movement (in France and elsewhere), were deeply shaped by Left battles of the period, namely the visceral struggle between Stalinism and Trotskyism. Breton, of course, pitched his allegiance with Trotsky and the Left Opposition (and the relationship between Breton and Trotsky, a very personal one, is absolutely fascinating, not least for Trotsky’s thinking on Surrealism and freedom and his reappraisal of some of his own prior positions); a number of other leading Surrealists stuck with the Third International. There is an old book from Pathfinder Press that gathers many of these in-house Surrealist factional documents and the correspondence betwixt Breton and Trotsky (I recall it from my time in the Socialist Workers Party, many years ago), but can’t remember the title or editor now. Must find that again.

    I mention this, partly, because it might be interesting to speculate on the extent to which Breton’s revolutionary socialism may still, in sublimated ways, impact Surrealism’s reception by critics who are hostile to Marxism? Or impact their reception of the least discussed and appreciated wing of the historical a-g, Russian Constructivism, and its various, and very political offshoots? I mean the extent to which Surrealism and Constructivism might be felt by some to be a “less pure” form of avant-gardism because of its “infection” by Marxist ideology? For example, just to throw this out, Conceptual poetry today, which a number of prominent critics have been promoting as the continuation of the Authentic thing, is thoroughly *apolitical* and thus perhaps, for some, seen as a more “pure” form of avant-garde aesthetics… I am *not* saying that this would necessarily be a conscious thing, but ideology is complicated, and who could deny that it doesn’t get refracted in many prismatic ways through our present critical regard? Thinking off the cuff here, but just to throw that into the mix…

    One more thing: Clayton Eshleman sent in a fascinating comment above. I’ve put out my own critiques here and there of CE, but the indisputable fact is that he is one of the major figures in the transmission of Surrealist poetics into English, and I doubt (melodramatic as it may sound) that this blog and its poetics (the strangest and most interesting blog in poetry, by far!) would even exist if it hadn’t been for the long and rather heroic labor he’s conducted in poetry. I’m sort of stunned that no one would even acknowledge his comment and attempt to integrate him more into the conversation!

  32. Josef Horáček

    James, Kent – I appreciate all your remarks on Surrealism and leftist thought. A lot of food for my left brain to digest.

    I’m not sure about anti-Marxist critics, but it certainly does seem that Marxist critics (and there seem to quite a few, especially considering that Marxism is all but dead outside the academy) consistently ignore the avant-garde. Is because they trace their lineage of Marxist literary criticism to Adorno, who was vigorously opposed to the avant-garde?

    Also, the relation between an artist’s stated political program and how that program manifests in their work is often quite complicated. You don’t become a utopian artist just by joining the Party. And vice versa. You’re bound to hear more about this in my future posts.

    Kent, I responded to Clayton’s comment early on. I very much appreciate his work as a translator (of Vallejo, Cesaire, Artaud – coincidentally all the people we’ve mentioned in a positive light) and know that Johannes and Lara do, too.

    And yes, I hope that Marjorie Perloff feels encouraged to respond to Johannes publicly, whether on this blog or elsewhere. She has also been a tremendous influence on many of the participants here.

  33. Danielle Pafunda

    Vectors. I’m picturing a series of concentric circles. In the center are the folks with the most privilege, the least marked individuals. As you cross into circles further from the center you find the folks more marked, less embraced by those in the center, marginalized as we say…

    So there’s an issue of vectors. *To reside in an outer circle and co-opt from an inner circle* and *to reside in an inner circle co-opting from an outer circle* are necessarily different (tho’ not necessarily inverse) moves, along different vectors. Both stylistically, politically interesting moves. Both risk offending the co-opted and those who cling to the false stability of these circles.

    I wish I had a blackboard and some stick figures for this.

    & I wanted to touch back on a point from Josef’s original post that I find very compelling–if it’s “automatic writing” why’s it coming out so grammatically correct (with such stable relationships between subject & object!)? I’ve had the same difficulty with l’ecriture feminine. There’s an argument for the prelingual or extralingual or special-lingual state/brain/gender/etc., but then the language comes out rather flawlessly… Ultimately, right?, we’re made out of language and meat and never the two shall part–I mean, a human cannot depart language, and a mind can’t fully decamp the body via language. But there are some Langpo experiments that push it, or someone like Cathy Park Hong who busts it up in interesting ways; her post-globalized post-colonial (capitalist colony?) speak… This is a bigger idea than I am able to cover right now, but fun to think about!

  34. Josef Horáček

    The Zukofskys’ translation of Catullus is a good example. I’m writing an essay on it right now. It’s not so much an effort to “decamp the body via language” but rather to make language proper to the body. Language as body, a material poetics. Somehow this involves rigorous syllable counts, tons of dictionaries, and eight years of work. It’s like a medical residency. (Let’s hope my dissertation won’t take that long.)

    Coincidentally, I’m looking at the project through the lens of parody and casting the rarefied langpo practice of homophonic translation in the context of some “debased” popular genres like macaronic poetry and homophonized Bollywood videos on youtube. This whole kitsch framework we’ve been rehearsing here might be just what I need to push the thing over the edge.

  35. Josef Horáček

    I came across this by accident.

    The Vancouver Art Gallery is apparently showing Surrealism right now. This particular reviewer, Jen Graves, aside from commenting on gender politics, also brings a postcolonial perspective into the mix. I think the avant-garde’s contact with “primitive” art was a bit more complicated than the way she presents it, but there it is.

    Notice Breton’s centrality in the account.

  36. Johannes


    Marjorie pointed out some ways that I misconstrued her argument, that I for example didn’t pay attention to the first chapter, which is about Eliot as a key figure in the “sampling”-tradition. She made some good points too so I am thinking about her work more and will write more about it later.

    I think you’re wrong about the Marxist angle. Afterall, Silliman is a Marxist. Many young US poets are marxist and very politically correct. I think the opposite is true. The reason Surrealism is “soft surrealism” for Silliman is precisely its decadence, its seduction in images and its “dream kitsch.”


  37. Kent Johnson

    Hi Johannes, we could argue about the Marxism thing a bit, I suppose. I understand your point, and don’t disagree on the decadence angle (I was suggesting Marxism may be *one* factor in the troubled reception, not the only or main one), but there is no sense, really, that the older Langpos could be considered Marxist. They threw some Marxist verbiage and concepts around in the seventies and eighties, but none of it amounted to any kind of serious Marxist analysis or application. In any case, there is really nothing left of that. Silliman, for example, is most certainly NOT a Marxist in his politics: He is an avid supporter, fundamentally, of the Democratic Party, and argues consistently for their support as a “lesser evil” choice. I can assure you that alignment with one of the two parties of the U.S. ruling class has nothing at all to do with class-independent, revolutionary Marxist politics in the Trotskyist tradition. So it’s important, I think, to draw distinctions in this political regard. Some Marxisms are more acceptable than others! Open Bolshevism would be of the less acceptable kind…

  38. Johannes

    I do think that Surrealism’s initial troubles in the US had to do with anti-marxism, certainly.


  39. Nate Hoks

    I’m three days late to the party and now the discussion seems almost over, but I was really irked by the original post and have to chime in. As I see it, the problem with Josef’s post is that he’s only talking about one strand of surrealism, that of the 1924 manifesto (where Breton defines the movement primarily as psychic automatism). Not only do Breton’s definitions of surrealism mutate with each of his polemics, but the practice itself mutates with each offshoot group that wiggles away from Parisian surrealism. Surrealism is this every evolving freak show that’s hardly limited to automatic writing—by the 1930s Breton even admitted automatic writing was a failure (see his essay “The Automatic Message”). Then, to condemn surrealism as a sexist cult of feminine beauty is simplistic—there is certainly a pervasive hetro-normatively glorification of the female body, but this is only a fraction of the surrealist pursuit (probably the most well known because, well, boobs get publicity). But what about these touch points: collage, juxtapositional imagery, the absurd, black humor, paranoiac critical / frottage imagery, dream narrative, objective chance, convulsive beauty, etc.? All of these practices, along with automatism and the simultaneous valorization and interrogation of love & desire, flow in and out of the ever-mutating nexus of activity called “surrealism.” You’re condemning one rivulet of an unwieldy river.

    Or consider this passage from Arcane 17, which, in 1945, seems utterly prophetic: “The time has come to valorize woman’s ideas at the expense of those of man, whose failure has come to a rather stormy consummation in our time. In particular, it is the artist’s task… to give the greatest priority to everything that comes from the feminine system of the world, as opposed to the masculine, and, even better, to appropriate to his own jealousy defended use everything which distinguishes woman from man with respect to appreciation and volition.” Okay, we can condemn Breton for operating on a simple masculine-feminine duality, but at least he’s tipping the scale in another direction.

    Joseph also calls Surrealism’s relationship to Marxism arbitrary. I’d say it was ambivalent, but Breton was attracted to Marxism because the dialectic. One of the most consistent aims of Breton’s notion of surrealism was to overcome the constraints of binary thinking. “Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.” (2nd manifesto) It’s Marx through the Hegelian dialectic that interested Breton – not to mention an utter scorn for the social order of his day (thus the flirtation with communism & anarchy). This “opposition to opposites” fits very well with Johannes emphasis on the kitsch problem—surrealism constantly and emphatically overwhelms the tidy distinctions between high and low art (not to mention genres, etc).

    As for Perloff’s new book, I haven’t read it yet. But I think that if she really does expel surrealism from venerable canon of the historical avant-garde, a surrealist would say “splendid–get us out of here, away from these stinking artists!”– the last thing surrealism wanted (and this is sad in the end) was to be academically historicized and locked up in museums and libraries along with all the other literary and art movements. Art was only a means to an end for surrealism.

    Sorry to be all long-winded and quote-happy, but I think there’s been too much thoughtless (or at least groundless) bashing here.

  40. Johannes

    Great comment. Better late than never.


  41. James Pate


    Very interesting…and I agree with pretty much everything you say…

    The whole Surrealism-as-parlor-game argument tries to “center” Surrealism on Breton, and greatly simplifies, as you point out, a hugely diverse body of work.

    I respect the spirit of Josef’s post, but I would argue it gives us too macro, too general, of a view. I prefer the micro view, the breaking down of big conceptual blocks such as “dadaism” and “surrealism.”

    As Deleuze was always pointing out, the general too often resembles the figure of the General…keeping things orderly, regimented, etc.


  42. Lara Glenum

    Josef was quite specific in restricting his remarks to 1920’s Breton surrealism. He has a problem with Breton’s gender politics. And that’s ok. He’s not the first, and he certainly won’t be the last. He didn’t actually suggest that Breton was the only face of Surrealism. His critique was, in fact, “micro,” which is why so many of the comments here accuse him of being “reductive.”

  43. James Pate


    I have to disagree…he mentions how by the 20s there was a great deal of female nudity as evidence for a larger case against surrealism. He never says he’s only dealing with a specific moment in French Surrealism.

    His only qualification in the post (though he might well have others) seems to be figures like Artaud, who he sees as really being a dadaist anyway.

    I should mention, as in my previous comment, that I like the contrarian spirit in Josef’s post. As Kent Johnson has suggested, there’s not enough of this in the poetry scene today. It has led to a great discussion…

    I just happen to disagree with many of his arguments…


  44. Josef Horáček

    This has all been useful. It’s interesting to see so many people misread the post, which admittedly is in part my fault. I should have spent more time explaining some of the details, especially toward the end. I’m in no way willing to moderate my take on Breton (it’s not all about gender, mind you; I also commented on class and on Breton’s effort to restrict what Surrealism can be), but I need to clarify one of my major claims that seems to continually get lost: I’m not speaking out against automatic writing per se, or any of the other things people have mentioned in a positive light (Nate above mentions “collage, juxtapositional imagery, the absurd, black humor, paranoiac critical / frottage imagery, dream narrative, objective chance, convulsive beauty”) – what I’ve said was that much of this was already around when Breton took over circa 1924. I didn’t say that Artaud was a Dadaist but that without Breton’s intervention (writing manifestos and organizing a tightly controlled movement – granted, with mixed success), much of what was out there might not be called Surrealism today. It would have been something like Dada 2.0. I also admitted the silliness of engaging in alternative histories of this sort, but you get my point (at least I hope you do – you should by now).

    But again, given the amazing richness of artistic practices that were out there despite the intervention of the Great War, I can’t help but see Breton and his close followers as a rather conservative group, not in the sense of slowing down linear progress, but in terms of their class and gender politics and their relatively narrow aesthetic.

  45. yesisaidyes

    I agree with the blogger’s comment, immediately above, that more time should have been taken here “explaining some of the details.”

    Among many other things, I was surprised the post had no discussion of the import of Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist women: an international anthology. The observations and assertions of the introduction to that book are interesting to think about — some might say undercut entirely — in regards to the suggestion in the post here that surrealism was conservative in its time. The particulars of Rosemont’s essay also would provide more than a little nuance to the discussion of women and surrealism.

    In addition and more generally, and as the back-pedaling here in response to Clayton Eshleman’s pointed comment indicates, it ain’t helpful to lump the surrealists together. Even as Breton’s dominant position makes that easy to do, the poets have their own ways. See, please, Benjamin Peret.

  46. Derrick Ishman

    What a great story! Intriguing, extremely well-written and just convoluted enough to satisfy. Please don’t let this pair come to the U.S., where they would be immediately elected to congress then given a reality(ha!)TV show.