by Johannes Goransson on Oct.27, 2011
(This is a sequel of sorts to this entry about Blake Butler etc from a couple of weeks ago. It’s also a sequel of sorts to my &Now discussion, where I criticized the model of “innovative writing” for its obsession on “futurity” and the way it has of “redeeming” art (it’s a critique, it’s a subversion, it will make us better), making it good and palatable, removing the offensive pageantry of art (as exemplified by “Scar” in The Lion King).)
I’m obviously interested in the word “surrealism” – not just the word, or the historical movement, but the way it’s deployed in and out of poetry discussions: “soft surrealism,” fake surrealism, candy surrealism, wow man that’s so surreal, surrealistic pillow, pillow book surrealism, shitty surrealism, hysterical surrealism, pop surrealism, surrealism on stilts, “excessive surrealism” etc. For a movement that supposedly ended a long time ago (1930? 1968?) it certainly pervades contemporary discussions about contemporary poetry.
I’m interested in how this term fits into a pervasive discussion of modernism – luxury vs necessity. Ever since Ezra Pound decided to chop off the excessive “corpse language” of his decadent youth, American poetry has been caught up in an attempt to handle this binary. As we live in a culture where beauty is itself decadent, is itself considered a luxury and a counterfeit (see Jared’s “Fake Protest” post), this causes some weird rhetorical contortions.
In contemporary culture and poetry discussions, “Surrealism” tends to stand in for luxury. Just look at the insults – “candy surrealism,” “soft surrealism,” “excessive surrealism” – and you can see that Surrealism has become that which is not properly autonomous, not properly worked out, not good for you, not of the future. Definitely “backwards.” Definitely suspect.
I’m interested how in the poetry world “Surrealism” mostly used as a criticism, an insult: usually it’s meant to represent a nameless mass of poets, a zeitgeist that true poetry must be protected against. It is characterized by its pervasiveness and it’s seduction, offering something that will lead poets astray – from writing true poetry. It’s morally problematic.
When you google “surreal” one of the first hits is this piece:
It’s obviously not “modern” at all, but has more to do with pre-modernistic paintings like this one by Gustave Moreau:
Or I think of a recent review of PJ Harvey’s performance at some Scandinavian music festival where the writer said she evoked the idea of a “19th century surrealism.” There is something sickly 19th century about Surrealism, something anachronistic, something kitsch, something unwell and pale, gothic plague stage:
That is to say, surrealism is not just Surrealism proper but something about the un-progressive, un-hygienic, gothic deathglamor that survives from the 19th century with its dead women in creeks and symbolists and opiumistes, Edgar Allen Poe, HP Lovecraft, groteesquerie and what I elsewhere nick-named “paramodernism,” a counterfeit modernism that never becomes the heroic, elevated, good-for-you, high modernism of progress, of futurity and good taste.