The Luxury of "Surrealism" (pt 1): Paramodernism, Kitsch and Counterfeit Innovations

by 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.

It’s kitsch.

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.

20 comments for this entry:
  1. J. Karl Bogartte

    In light of this, and your other recent “gothic threat of art” writing, I feel compelled to suggest, and I think it’s relevant in this context: That Rimbaud become significant… to himself… when he gave up writing poetry.

    The word “surrealism,” yes, is certainly an anomaly. It’s been dumbed down, misused, rendered superfluous, and essentially, in every instance you mention, is just a useless word. It could be said that surrealism does not exist. And especially in contemporary poetry. There is no surrealist poetry.

  2. adam strauss

    My personal primary association with surealism is R Magritte, who strikes me as very Modernist, very good for one, not suspect and definitely not kitsch–perhaps like a Wittgenstein via canvas and oil-paints! I’ve never read scholarly work on RM so I have no idea if this is solely a kind of personal mythology. I actually don’t think of surrealism as decadent at-all–once again because of RM. As I guess I’ve implied–I honestly don’t really get the idea of writing as surealism: I think because the famous gun in the crowd randomly example is obviously not an act of writing unless writing is expanded to mean kineticism period and because of my middle-school exposure to the concept referencing painting.

    For me Art Nouveau wld be textbook decadence/textbook luxury (well not textbook, but apter) and man-o-man-o-everyone I adore Art Nouveau; yay for V Horta! Expensive hard-wood carved into utter intricacy–whooohoooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It’s the spitting image of expensive!

    note: I don’t mean the above as critique to your statements, just some babbling about my likely idosyncratic take.

  3. Johannes

    Im talking about the way its discussed in contemporary discussions. And karl thats the wrong conclusion! Fake surrealism is interesting! Johannes

  4. adam strauss

    One more thing: I’m glad you constellate luxury and kitsch; yes-yes-yes, it’s so obvious that I’ve never had the worded thought: first and foremost kitsch strikes me (in its less expansive, non Montevidean manifestation) as the aesthetics of cheapness–literal cheapness not cheapness as moral category: inexpensive fabrics and other materials, recycling, hand-me-downs, and lack of elaborate technique–so byebye Art Nouveau. Factory Americana etc.

  5. adam strauss

    I totally get this: “Im talking about the way its discussed in contemporary discussions.” I still don’t remotely get what surrealism is other than the use of marked juxtaposition; and that doesn’t seem like enough of a criterion: huge chunks of world lit wld thus qualify.

    Logical question: if surrealism don’t exist, as per first blog-box-comment, then how cld there be a fake surrealism?

    Is Magritte like Dali–you’re “allowed” to like him in middleschool but then once one gets sophisticated it’s a no-no?

  6. adam strauss

    Was it first a visual arts term? It’s hard not to notice that the images/examples in the post are all visual.

    Wld a basic definition be–surrealism equals weird? When I hear students use the term that seems to be thecase; actually that seems to be the main case in my experience at-all.

  7. J. Karl Bogartte

    Fake surrealism, soft surrealism and all of the others, is twaddle. Thus, it should really be called something else.

  8. Kent Johnson

    Of course Surrealism exists. There was a manifesto proclaiming its existence. And then other ones. And expulsions. And then a lot of stuff happened to complicate things. Including Stalinism. And other stuff. But it’s *historical*, in that sense, Surrealism. Does Futurism not exist? Suprematism? Constructivism? Abstract Expressionism? It is what “it is” and you go from there.

  9. Johannes

    As my post notes surrealism is incredibly pervasie in verycontemporary discussipns – usually as a negative. But the way its used negatively is very much in line with greenbergs dismissal of it as postcard kitsch back in the thirties! And its not just negative. Thus my pj harvey inclusion. Ill develop this further in sequels to this post. /johannes

  10. Shelley

    “Corpse language”!

  11. adam strauss

    I’d vote for the term being shifted to corpse sign, or corpse expression: for me language implies a sentient agent. Corpses don’t speak; they can, though, be played by the breeze etc and thus the rattlings of teeth about to fall out do make for an expression.

    I realize I’m getting literal on a very un-literal figuration. That or the dead and corpses are being treated as synonyms; and this strikes me as off. Idiomatically “we” do have a language of the dead, as in works by people who have bit the dust (hopefully that dust is delicious!); but corpss are distinctly corporal in a way that printed language is not. Or rather it is a body, but it is not the human body. I find fascinating how although writing can be really sensual, can make meaning from bodily existence, it’s actually the incredible absence of the body unless one is working with handwritten text or using blood or puke or semen or shit etc as the “ink.”

    Grinding up corpses into powder and then turning them into ink or gushy paste wld be amazing.

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  13. J. Karl Bogartte

    “Luxury” is a poet writing Surrealist poetry. On the other hand, a person who understands and grasps the significance of at least the main principles behind that primary movement which sought (and still seeks) total liberation of the human mind and likewise a complete transformation of life and reality, often writes in a poetic fashion out of “necessity.” Ie., a surrealist writing poetry.

  14. Johannes

    Karl what I’m looking at in this post is the way “surrealism” is seen as luxury, as a way of dismissing various types of poetry./Johannes

  15. adam strauss

    Luxury, connotatively, strikes me as maybe not the best word choice: as isn’t another po-biz charge against s’lsm that it’s “too easy,” a word which may not be in the same valence shell as luxury, which cld imply lots of labor; an old-school canzone, for example, seems to me to be a better example of luxurious; and this is rather delicious as E Pound is tres linked to the canzone and also to a rhetoric of tautness, of lean muscle-mass. Mmm, except nix that luxury and leanness may go together like–supposedly–asparagus and sauvignon blanc do.

  16. Johannes

    No, I think I’m definitely right here. I’m drawing on a long tradition of the very word “luxury” – which is associated very explicitly with figurative language as far back as Milton. Luxury is in fact associated with non-essential. Where as form tends to connote hard rigour, thus not luxury but necessity – ie free verse is playing tennis without a net. ie it’s luxury, not necessity. More about this later.


  17. adam strauss

    In the domaine of writing this makes some sense; but it seems hard to sustain for interior design etc. Too, I don’t understand why verse without a net is luxury–that cld be called, lol, deprivation. I think for me more primary connotations would be sumptuous, decadent, ornate, gorgeous; whereas any number of dynamics cld be deemed un-necessary. I guess I am working out of a capitalist, circa 1987 notion of luxury.

    Why is rigour outside the sphere of luxury; don’t these elements often coalesce?

  18. Johannes

    Because it’s not necessity.

    Also, you seem to not consider that I’m talking about the way people talk about these things; I’m not saying it’s true.


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