Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Brilliant Obsession

Neo-Surrealism Or The Sun At Night: Transformations Of Surrealism In American Poetry 1966-1999, prose by Andrew Joron.
Kolourmeim Press, 2010

Has surrealism vanished? So asked Maurice Blanchot in 1949, in his essay “Reflections On Surrealism.” “It is no longer here or there: it is everywhere,” he remarked further. “It is a ghost, a brilliant obsession. In its turn, as an earned metamorphosis, it has become surreal.”

The brilliant obsession that is surrealism burned brightly in the mid to late sixties, both in Europe, and the United States. It was there in the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, not to mention the Beatle's Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, marking its entry into pop culture, and it was there in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Jack Spicer and Jack Kerouac. And it was most assuredly there in the work of its greatest practitioner on the North American continent, Philip Lamantia.

It was there in the riots, the revolutionary fervor and anti-war movements, the psychedelic music of groups such as The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and most certainly evident in the utopian attitude toward experiments with hallucinogenic drugs. The conviction that society could made better, more compassionate, more balanced and enlightened through the use of hallucinogenic substances, was very real, and very sincere. Then, by 968, it had begun to unravel. The sixties ended for me on a fall afternoon in 1968 when the friend of one of my roommates in San Jose, California, dropped off a large box of books on Buddhism and eastern philosophy. He had taken a job in a sheet metal factory and decided to settle down, as they say, and raise a family. Buddhism, apparently, was not compatible with the kind of normalcy and consumption he saw ahead of him. By 1980, Ronald Reagan was president, cocaine was everybody’s favorite drug, and John Lennon lie bleeding to death in the lobby of the Dakota apartments in Manhattan.

So what has happened since? Is the spirit of surrealism dead?

Not at all. Andrew Joron’s lucid and eloquent prose chronicles the evolution of surrealism through the mid-twentieth century to the current millennium in his monograph on the subject, Neo-Surrealism, Or The Sun At Night. It is subtitled Transformations Of Surrealism In American Poetry 1966-1999, but he includes an Afterword that brings his subject matter into the current era. And while it is a given that literature has long lost any viable connection with mainstream culture, and the idea of a writer or literary movement having even the slightest influence on the culture at large is laughable, not to mention surreal, Joron presents his subject with a level of seriousness that makes one wonder why literature has ceased to be of any influence. What could be of greater consequence to a culture that prides itself on freedom than a means to obtain that freedom? Real freedom. Not its shabby counterparts in the marketplace. The impotent defiance of tattoos, flexible work hours, and cyberlibertarianism. The fact that only a tiny minority of the American public continue to read anything at all of merit is certainly a contributing factor.

But that is a separate topic. Joron’s focus is on the lingering effects of surrealism in the fractious domain of contemporary poetry.

The story of surrealism is the story of desire. “Surrealism is the practice,” observes Joron, “of conjuring otherness, of realizing the infinite negativity of desire in order to address, and to redress, the poverty of the positive fact. In Marxian terms, it demands a sensorium, a social body, capable of making the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.” The reference to Marx underscores the political dimension of surrealism. It was more than a literary movement. It was utopian. It moved to shake up society. Liberate it from its deceits and repressions. That core impetus to remake a society in which one’s truest inclinations and impulses could be expressed remains; but literature, as I mentioned earlier, is so far marginalized at this point that its capacity for cultural or political influence is as about as lethal as a snowcone.

“The poverty of the positive fact” is the toxic residue of scientific rationalism. Ironic, considering Joron’s strong affiliation with science fiction. But then science fiction is a creative reordering of scientific rationalism. Enlightenment epistemology spun around like a top.

The search for otherness, for the marvelous, for bizarre, exotic luxuries, for the revelations entwined in convulsive and irresolvable paradox, for the intensities of a sacred fever embedded in the flesh of a living medium called language, are core surrealist values. They are not static. They do not exist outside of history. “They shift,” says Joron, “according to the contours of the surrounding landscape.” “Both the darkness of the ‘uncanny’ and the brightness of the ‘marvelous’ are not absolute but relative qualities. Only at midnight does the apparition of the Sun become strange.”

Joron traces the origins of surrealism to Romanticism, “and even earlier, alchemical and Hermetic, doctrines.” This would be an interesting point of departure for another work, but Joron leaps to the present: “In the dominant culture of the United States, otherness has been systematically denied a presence, so that the surreal must be perceived only as a representation of the unreal.” Advertising and MTV rock videos come to mind, or the puerile and trivializing fantasies surrounding hippie culture that occasionally bubble up in the mainstream media with all the profundity of a diet soda. “Here in the society of the spectacle,” observes Joron, “the empowering twist of estrangement tends to reverse direction and spiral toward the passive doom of alienation.”

“As Philip Lamantia, the most prominent North American surrealist, has asked: ‘What is not strange?’” The extraordinary is most apt to be found in the ordinary.

The United States was most directly impacted by the surrealist endeavor when André Breton sought refuge here during World War II. It is after “orthodox surrealism receded,” says Joron, that “it began to glow” on our shores. We see it emerge in the work of Ashbery, O’Hara, and Spicer, “whose After Lorca stands as one of the finest exemplars of American neo-surrealism,” and the Beats. Joron meticulously identifies all the instances in which surrealism evolved and left traces of its strange geology in the moraine of American culture, including, even, ephemera from the 70s such as Radical America, “the organ of the revolutionary Students for a Democratic Society,” who devoted an issue to surrealism, under the guest editorship of Franklin Rosemont.

Other journals which were prominent in the 60s but have since fallen into obscurity include George Hitchcock’s Kayak, “staple-bound, with ‘distressed’ typography, colored inks and paper, and Ernst-like collages,” which published poets such as Robert Bly and Charles Simic, whose deep-imagist aesthetic was influenced by surrealism, and Hitchcock’s own poetry, which possesses “the charm and perhaps quaintness of a handworked artifact” and whose images “seem deliberately drawn from a sepia-toned inventory of obsolescent objects.”

Joron devotes a great deal of attention to the poet Ivan Argüelles, “an important surrealist innovator with a Mexican-American background.” “From Lamantia, he inherited such stylistic trademarks as the frequent use of exclamation points and capitalization,” and whose “multilingual talent” encompassed everything from Sanskrit to Old Icelandic. “Citations of world-historical places, texts, and personages proliferate throughout Argüelles’s poems -- their kaleidoscopic facets always reflecting the central fact of the poet’s anguish.”

Adam Cornford, “another poet who rose to prominence in the pages of Kayak and has since become an important representative of West Coast neo-surrealism,” is a British expatriate who arrived in the U.S. in 1969 and enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His language “produces the marvelous by means of a highly structured machinery of visual metaphor.”

Other poets which Joron identifies as being in the North American surrealist mold include Edouard Roditi, Nanos Valaoritis, John Nòto, Garrett Caples, Charles Borkhuis, John Yau, Philip Foss, Michael Palmer, Jayne Cortez, Clayton Eshleman, Barbara Guest, George Kalamaras, Noah Eli Gordon, Eric Baus, Christine Hume, Karen Volkman, Brian Lucas, Kristin Prevallet, Andrew Zawacki, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Brian Strang, Roberto Harrison, James Heller Levinson, André Spears, W.B. Keckler, Ted Joans, and myself.

Joans, who for a time stayed in a house not a quarter mile distant from where I live, also had powerful affinities with jazz. I would often encounter Ted and his partner Laura on walks. Our last conversation, which occurred in our little Subaru on the way to the local post office, was about how much we loved the titles to Thelonius Monk’s compositions: “Epistrophy,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Rhythm-n-ing,” “Ruby, My Dear.”

Lamantia is a key figure. He is the grand patriarch of the North American surrealist pantheon. “In Lamantia’s mature work, language often functions in the manner of esoteric texts, by using words as hermetic seals to simultaneously conceal and mark the location of power sources. Such allusive, elusive strategies were developed by medieval and Renaissance mages to insure that the fruits of the Great Work would not fall into hands of the uninitiated.” “In this language of correspondences (which provides the infrastructure for magical efficacy), nothing occupies the place of the referent but another sign. The meaning of the mystery always recedes and ‘vanishes into the night hot with luminations.’ This revelation has no content but conjuration: it is the mage’s own movement within an infinity of facing mirrors that makes the poem.”

Another key figure is Bob Kaufman, “a black surrealist and Beat-associated poet who for many years lived in San Francisco,” but was “never acknowledged by Breton or the members of the Chicago Surrealist Group.” Kaufman comes closest to the surrealist as outlaw. “Kaufman was in fact a virtuoso practitioner of the Rimbaldian precept of ‘disordering the senses’; he was jailed more than once for his subversive disorderliness.” Which is not to suggest he was an indulgent, out-of-control anarchist. He was passionate. He felt things deeply. In response to Kennedy’s assassination, “Kaufman fell into a state of quasi-silence (speaking rarely, and then only in monosyllables) that last for ten years -- an indication not only of Kaufman’s sensitivity, but also of the overwhelming significance with which he endowed the act of speech.”

The mysterious Pete Winslow emerges. “Winslow died suddenly in 1972, aged 37.” Winslow’s style “had been moving toward a space of grace and clarity comparable to that of Eluard’s Capital of Pain.” “Winslow’s only widely distributed book, A Daisy in the Memory of a Shark (City Lights, 1973), was posthumously published.”

Will Alexander, observes Joron, has produced some of the “most unprecedented and fiery” surrealist work. Alexander has “positioned himself within the contingent order of the lexicon, refashioning (and thus reclaiming) language word by word. As a result, Alexander’s writing liberates the imagination from the restricted economy of the image.”

Besides poetry, Alexander has written novels, short stories, and plays. In all of these forms, Alexander allows the autonomous Word to come into being in its own way: either to drop vertiginously into a semiotic space of unexpected correspondences or to become a merely localized fillip of sonic or graphic texture. Under the terms of this allowance, the Word, prior to its emergence, is recognized to exist in a state akin to nothingness, yet charged with potential. Thus, there are frequent invocations to the awaited Word’s vertical, vortical, tornado-like suspension.

As I write this, millions of gallons of oil continue to be spewed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico emanating from a hole drilled some 30,000 feet deep into the earth’s mantle by British Petroleum. Mike Malloy, a progressive radio host, has used the term ELE (Extinction Level Event) in relation to this environmental catastrophe, and not, I believe, at all irresponsibly. The Obama administration has done nothing. They have reacted to this catastrophe with the same perplexing negligence as the Bush administration’s disturbing non-response to the Katrina disaster, other then to disarm the local population and protect private property with Blackwater’s mercenary thugs. A few well-rehearsed, critical words is all to have emerged from Obama’s mouth. A free market, predatory capitalism has run unchecked the last thirty years, at least, and now humanity is facing the actuality of extinction. In view of this, it seems silly to discuss the future of surrealism. Of anything literary. Of any art.

Joron seems to have anticipated this, yet remains cautiously optimistic.

Amid signs -- which have increased exponentially in the past ten years --- that capitalist civilization is arriving at its endgame, there is no need to argue for the ongoing relevance of the surrealist project. Postmodernism’s ironic deconstruction of the commodity is at best a critical moment (one that was already anticipated and sublated by surrealism at its inception), which, if another world is possible, must be augmented by a creative moment driven not by commodity-logic but by the free association of the producers.

Of course, a surrealist poem can’t change the world. But a cry of protest, in such confluence that revolutionary action becomes inevitable, will change the world. The genius of surrealism has been to discover that the cry of protest is also an act of imagination, and to insist that precisely that imagination is more powerful than reality. The cry is a crack in the world, revealing what lies beyond.


David Grove said...

This is delightful, John--as much for the lacerating denunciation of our air-conditioned nightmare as for the analysis of Joron's book.

How could surrealism vanish? Haven't we always had it? I remember reading some Rabelais that was as wacko as Max Jacob. And some lines by Ben Jonson about bathing in panther's breath. (On second thought, I may have seen those two passages in a piece by Huidobro. His point may have been that surrealism goes way back.)

I discovered surrealism at 19--some euphonious Welsh trippiness in Dylan Thomas's Quite Early One Morning, wild Leonard Cohen, lines by Bill Knott like "only a maze can remember your hair of buttered blowguns." It's always been my favorite kind of poetry, though I love almost all kinds of poetry. (The only kind I dislike is that cozily accessible prosaic MFA McPoetry they sell at Barnes & Noble.) No doubt I'd find Joron informative and stimulating.

And your reminiscences of--and observations about--the 60s fascinate me. I only remember flashes of the 60s (being scolded for smearing chocolate cake all over my shirt, The Mamas & The Papas singing "Words of Love," falling down the basement stairs and screaming...), but I've always identified with that mythological era. (A double--or triple--exposure just impasto'd my imagination momentarily: acoustic guitar strings of rain on a sepia-tinted Sunday morning... a girl's long straight hair... a Michael McClure poem about "old Warhols." They're "gentle and classic," he says, "compared to present brutalities." That may not be verbatim.)I would I had been there.

John Olson said...

Yes, Rabelais, absolutely an early surrealist. Though there are plenty of myths and sagas, such as Gilgamesh, the Eddas, Mahabharata, and the Bible, that are chock full of surrealism.

I feel very lucky to have been able to come of age during the 60s. It was a magnificent era, a powerful and exciting energy such as I have not seen since. The specter of Vietnam hung over much of it, but it was still an extraordinary time. The photograph of Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure in front of City Lights bookstore circa 1965 really captures how seamlessly fused the poetry and rock of that era happened to be.

I love that phrase "MFA McPoetry." That's great.

David Grove said...

Yes, that's a good photo, and it looks natural, like a photo of Burroughs with Bowie. Or Ginsberg with Sonic Youth. A photo of Robert Pinsky with Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand--or Rae Armantrout with Lady Gaga?--would look risibly incongruous, probably.

I believe Donald Hall coined McPoetry. Seems to me I've heard others use it without attribution, however, so I'm not sure.

Steven Fama said...

Well, you may castigate me today, or prove me a fool as events unfold over time, but as to the gushing oil, I firmly believe there really is nothing that anyone can do.

What the hell can be done. There's a big hole FIVE THOUSAND FEET UNDER THE SURFACE OF THE OCEAN. Think about how deep that is. Nobody's EVER had to stop anything like it before. The government has no expertise. The oil folks may have ideas and equipment, but nothing certain, and no experience. It's a Class A cluster-f*ck.

There's similarly no way to protect the coasts, or wherever (wherever all) the oil ends up. Louisiana authorities (elected officials) want the feds (you and me) to pay for an 80-mile long sand berm to be built across and in front of their barrier islands. It'd take more than a year to construct, cost millions upon millions, and I knowing nothing can say it won't work.

There's nothing that's going to stop the leak, and nothing that can do much to ameliorate whatever it is that the oil is going to do. IT'S 5,000 FEET DOWN AT THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN! That's it. Period.

Maybe somebody in Big Oil will get lucky and find and pull off something that actually works, to stop the oil. Otherwise, we'll just have to see about the consequences, and keep our fingers crossed. That's about it, and I'd guess Obama is doing that.

John Olson said...

The virtual impossibility of plugging that hole or diverting the other 60% (happily assuming that diverted 40% is a reliable figure) of that oil is precisely what has me and thousands of other people completely freaked out. Add to that the equally impossible task of putting any real reins on the unbridled greed of Wall Street, and you've got a population of people looking frantically for something diverting on TV or the Internet or God knows, maybe even a book. As Baudelaire's soul once cried out, after being offered a number of places to go, to get away, to escape: "No matter where! No matter where! As long as it's out of the world!"

There is a reason everything from the awaited rapture of the fundamentalists, to the unfocused rage of the tea partiers, to the deep sighs of undisguised futility punctuating the jeremiads of progressive radio host Mike Malloy, to the unspeakable but believable horrors of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, is tinged with the black toxic gooey substance of human despair. Malloy frequently alludes to a psychological manifestation called "learned helplessness." On the other hand, Chris Hedges, at Truthdig, looks somewhat wistfully at the riots in Athens, perplexed, as I am, that they are not happening here.

.... so I don't know.... All we can do is keep on keeping on until we can't keep on keeping on.

I would not look to Obama for any kind of help. He is a puppet, and his strings are attached to BP. If his fingers cross, it is because a BP puppet master is crossing them. Obama received millions from BP during his campaign.

If there are any engineers out there with a viable solution to that hemorrhaging hole in the Gulf, please offer your comment. I am all ears.

Steven Fama said...

The government can't help with the oil NO MATTER what. Even if Obama were mortal enemies with the Big Oil people, and wanted to hammer 'em, there's no way he or others could do anything to stop the leak, unless somebody gets very very lucky.

Planet earth will be fine. It friggin' survived a huge blast from a comet and from what I've read a few other "extinction events" too. I highly doubt a little hole in the ocean will do much lasting damage, in the grand scheme of things. Oil leaks up into the ocean all the time, this happens to be a lot, and may have more severe consequences. We shall see, and "we shall see" is about all we can do -- as there is nothing that can be done about it! Those people on the radio are entertainers who make money insisting that there is something to be done!

All elected officials are beholden to the ruling class, the monied interests. On the margins and even on central issues -- look to Supreme Court appointments, if nothing else -- the differences between the current administration and its predecessor are huge, and still worth celebrating.

People are rioting in Greece because they might not be able to retire at AGE 50 with a FULL pension any more, might not be able to cheat hugely on their taxes anymore, might not be able to continue with their corrupt government bureaucracy any more, and might not be able to receive health insurance that (among other things) pays for vacations every year. I ain't exaggerating a bit on these things, and I say Greece is getting exactly what it deserves.

John Olson said...

"Planet earth will be fine."

I sure hope you're right. But one consequence of the Deepshit Horizon fuck-up is the Florida water supply. In Florida, fresh water comes from subsurface aquifers that are composed of multiple layers of water-bearing limestone. Groundwater released from the aquifers sustains thousands of ecosystems. Can you imagine the result if oil gets into that? Not to mention those highly toxic chemical dispersants BP has been using so cavalierly?

"All elected officials are beholden to the ruling class, the monied interests."

I totally agree with you there. But I find little difference between Obama and Bush. Obama is simply Bush 2.0, the updated version with enhanced language abilities. Obama's appointment of Elena Kagan is less than sanguine. According to Marjorie Kohn, Kagan kept utterly silent about the invasion of Iraq and torture abuses at a time when she had the opportunity to do so and most of her colleagues were being pretty vocal about it. This suggests someone of high ambition more interested in advancing her career than weighing in on some pretty critical issues. There is absolutely nothing about her to suggest that she may counterbalance a heavily right wing supreme court. Obama could have done much, much better, assuming he has the interests of a fair judicial system at heart, or offering a strong corrective to the Bush administration.

I also disagree pretty strongly about Greece. Greece's problems far exceed that of a corrupt bureaucracy and compromised pensions. Greece has been subject to a long history of free market abuses, including the fires that were set by speculators trying to get land on the cheap. International bankers colluded with their power elite to falsify economic data and then make billions betting that the Greek economy would collapse. Pensions, benefits, and jobs were cut to pay corporate banks whose malfeasance created economic mayhem. Karamalis and his right wing government looted taxpayer funds to enrich their corporate masters and bankrupt the country. Hundreds of millions of dollars were stolen from the individual retirement accounts by people who had been honest and industrious. In other words, pretty much a reflection of what has happened in the U.S. and elsewhere, with the notable exception of making a wily philosopher drink hemlock. But then, philosophy counts for very little in the U.S. But who needs philosophy will our coveted Yankee ingenuity? Speaking of which, where is it? We could definitely use some about now.

Greg said...

What I find challenging about the surrealist project is that freedom is the supposed goal. I'm not sure I understand this "freedom" as anything other than "not what we have now, but something better". Surrealism as a project of Platonists with "freedom" as its goal seems no less suspect to me than Christianity as the project of the Pope with "salvation" as its goal. Enlightenment. What if people are enlightened at birth, and there's no further enlightenment to be gained? I've looked at Breton's manifestos and essays with interest, often laughing, which is excellent. But for all that, his "faith" seems a bit, well, sad. He seems to believe in a state of purity and "truth" that can be accessed via the surrealist techniques, and that these states, when achieved, will somehow be transformative. We've already been transformed, through birth, and this is what happened. Why Breton, or anyone else might believe that there's some "better" transformational process available, that will somehow accomplish something more profound than watching an MTV video will, I find curious. I hope he's right, and that the alchemical process of surrealism will lead to something better. However, my world view is more in line with the protagonist of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.

As for the oil spill, and the earth ultimately being fine, well, the earth will be fine, right up until it's not, but that doesn't mean we'll be fine. I think people shield themselves with the notion that somehow the human race can't be annihilated. That "something" will prevent this. Ha ha.

Greg Grummer

Steven Fama said...

I find resonance in Robinson Jeffers' views regarding people, and the views comedically expressed by George Carlin on the hubris of humanity believing that what we do actually effects the planet.

"Yankee ingenuity" is being tapped, so to say, to try to stop the leak. However, there is a reason we've put people on the moon, done "walks" in space, and have teenagers atop the earth's highest peaks, but never had people walking around on the bottom of the deep ocean, or developed machines capable of doing complex work for lengthy periods down there. I say again: it's 5,000 feet down! I'm hoping we get lucky and the leak can be stopped.

The biggest thing that victimizes Greece is it's own tendencies and norms. Any country would have the same mess if tra-la-la-ed like that nation does regarding its ridiculous state-paid entitlements coupled with massive tax cheating and full-on corruption. This has all been reported, and nobody denies it. Check out again the mess they made of their world when they hosted the Olympics a few years back. I'll be blunt: too many there want to live like royalty (not work) and massively under-pay taxes while engaging full-on in a sub rosa economy where they get paid off under the table, and do the same to others. No problem?

John Olson said...

>> Surrealism as a project of Platonists with "freedom" as its goal seems no less suspect to me than Christianity as the project of the Pope with "salvation" as its goal. <<

True! Good point, Greg. Though Christianity requires its adherents to follow, unquestioning, a line of dogma. It is doctrinaire and authoritarian. Surrealism opens to the doors to paradox, nuance, a continual questioning. Freedom has its agonies as well as its euphorias. Surrealism is a state of self-induced mutiny. Self-subversion. Everything is a question. I'm not sure I'd call it Platonic. Surrealism was grounded in the day-to-day, a form of radical empiricism. The Russian constructivist principle of ostranenie, defamiliarization, is a part of surrealist practice. Finding the marvelous in the familiar. The sacred among the profane.

I had heard somewhere that we are all enlightened, but just don't know it.

Transformation is, of course, a key word. A key principle. As long as there is potential for change, anything can happen, and often does.

The poem, as Lamantia once observed, is "a miracle in words."

John Olson said...

>> The biggest thing that victimizes Greece is it's own tendencies and norms. <<

Well, I haven't lived there, so its more subterranean customs elude me. I can't comment responsibly on that.

I must, alas, also confess a lot of ignorance when it comes to Robinson Jeffers. What I remember from reading his poetry years ago is the brutishness of nature, as well as its beauty. It is a savage beauty. I believe, too, if memory serves, that Jeffers garnered a lot ill will for his bitter antihumanism, which I also find in abundance in Carlin's later work. And, I must confess, myself. I see humanity as a failed evolutionary adaptation. A biological experiment gone awry.

If, by planet in peril, we mean earth and its current ecology, yes, it is definitely in peril. But if, by earth, or planet, we mean simply that, a planet, a ball of rock and magma circling the sun, well yes, it will be going on for a few more billion years, or at least until the sun expands and engulfs it in its heat and gases.

Steven Fama said...

Allow me to add: Elena Kagan probably is not be William O. Douglas, etc (although she's probably purposefully kept the depth of core views masked for years so she would not be tainted if or when she received a judicial nomination). However, I am damn sure is not Scalia, Thomas, Alito, or Roberts. I insist the differences are profound.

John Olson said...

She presents a very muddled picture. She did serve as a law clerk to Thurgood Marshall. There is some occasion for hope in that. And she was overheard to say at a closed door meeting that she was opposed to corporate personhood as a legal concept, which she did argue against as solicitor general. But before I give full rein to any hopes that she might counterbalance a right wing supreme court, I tend to heed the words of Jonathan Turley: “For many liberals and civil libertarians, the Kagan nomination is a terrible act of betrayal after the President campaigned so heavily on the issue of the Supreme Court during his campaign. He is now replacing a liberal icon with someone who has testified that she does not believe in core protections for accused individuals in the war on terror. During her confirmation hearing Kagan testified that she believed that anyone suspected of helping finance Al Qaeda should be stripped of protections and held under indefinite detention without a trial — agreeing with the Bush Administration.”

Heller Levinson said...

Mediational Posit: John/Steve: -- You are both right/wrong: i.e. Yes, (Steve, right) there is nothing Obama or anyone else can do about it; this may be the perpetual leak, a fitting symbol of mankind's abuse of its habitat, a slow, prolonged erosion of our life sources, ... the end of life as we know it.
But, (John, right), Obama is not forthcoming; he has Not acknowledged our Impotence, the tragic inability of our nation to Ever Recover;the "revovery" he proclaims is on the horizon; he is a falehood prostelytizing "change" when the only thing that will be effective is a thoroughgoing Revolution, a RediRection of our efforts; no, don't dish out monies to GM when you could be converting factores to manufacturing bicycles; no, NO monies to the automobile industry when the railroads could pick up that employment slack and offer energy-saving benefits besides. And how are we any more "worthy" than greece? Are we not spending monies we don't have? We are already bankrupt and if China pulled its debt obligations we would be would be throwing ouzu glasses with the best of 'em.
Make no mistake: It's deeper then 5,000 feet!

Greg said...

China has a team of Scandinavian economists trying to figure out how it can call in our debt without being destroyed itself. If it ever gets that figured out, we're finished.

John, perhaps this isn't the proper forum, but I'd like to know your thoughts on what makes a surrealist a surrealist. I liked what you said about self-subversion and the marvelous. And I also liked what you said about surrealism being anti-authoritarian. But in reading Franklin Rosemonts book "What Is Surrealism", he seemed to have a bit of " church tone" in matters of who is and who isn't leading a proper surrealist existence, and with Breton's tendency to defrock folk from time to time, well...

Obviously, no individual gets to determine what surrealism is, so I guess I'm interested in what you're thinking. Does the surrealist work need to be produced via some mechanism like automatic writing, or using some technique to allow for synchronicity? I guess the reason I introduced the notion of Plato is that Breton's privleging of the unconscious and dislike for the quotidian "consciousness" seemed reminiscent of Plato. They both advocate breaking through reality to something higher and more pure. But perhaps I've read to much into what I've read. Breton's method of discussing these matters is a bit cryptic. Plus I can't read French, so there's the problem inherent in translation. At any rate, Breton seems to always attach surrealism to a notion of ongoing process. Surrealism, if practiced properly, was meant to lead to the achievement of a goal...perhaps the transformation of humanity, or something equally doable. Is that you're thinking as well, that surrealism is a transformational process, a goal-oriented way of life as opposed to a simple category in literature? I'm a bit torn. I don't believe in "truth" as such, or the forms as static and unchanging. Although I do run with a group of Jungians, I'm not sure I totally believe in self actualization's abitily to dramatically affect social consciousness, and I suppose that's how I would view the surrealist project as Breton frames it...that it's an attempt to effect social consciousness through individual transformation. So, on the one hand I'm sceptical. On the other hand, Cesar Vallejo is my favorite poet. I became intranced with an anthology of French surrealists I came across in the 80's.

Any thoughts you might have on this would be helpful. My apologies if this isn't the proper place to address these matters. I was pointed towards your work by a friend who linked me to an interview you did with Noah Eli Gordon. I guess I could think of myself as an embassy in pine for an/some ambassador(s) of fjords, as you wrote. Well, may not an ambassador of fjords, but in pine for some type of atypical ambassador, certainly.

Although these issues seem important to me, I can't think of anything really riding on their resolution. So...

Adam Cornford said...

Well, I wrote a whole long response to this--then Wordpress made me sign in and when I tried to navigate back to my comment, it was deleted. In brief, John, thanks for mentioning Andy's acknowledgment of my work in The Sun at Night. And for anyone who might wishfully or otherwise conclude that surrealism is dead, Andy's magnificent reading at Moe's Books last night, alongside the always hard-bopping Ivan Arguelles and the digressive yet hermetic polyglot Sotere Torregian, would have disabused them.

John Olson said...

Thank you, Adam, for your comment here. I do wish I could have seen your "whole long response," but I know how maddening it can be to sign in and navigate and such in cyberworld. I picture teams of software engineers sitting around big tables snickering about all the ridiculous hoops they make us jump through.

And Greg, wow, your comment about the Scandinavian economists in China is scary. I am so attached to running water, electricity, and food on the shelves at the grocery store that if our society does eventually fall apart and turn into some kind of Somalia, or worse, something more similar to McCarthy's The Road, well, it will be rough indeed. I have a .22, inherited from my grandparents, but it's corroded. And frankly, we're great friends with the local squirrel community. I can't see myself eating a squirrel.

About surrealism. It is easiest for me to come at it from personal experience. I've never read Rosemont's appraisal. It is, essentially, a search for the marvelous. Expanded consciousness. Unbridled imagination. Take Poe's story "The Fall Of The House Of Usher," for instance. Here the marvelous has assumed the garb of the macabre. But the ultra-heightened sensitivity of Roderick Usher, "an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison," strong suggests the kind of divine madness Plato talks about in relation to poetry. Surrealism does initially suggest a neo-Platonic agenda. And its impulses are directed toward elsewhere, realms of enchantment. But once you immerse yourself in, say, Breton's Poisson soluble, his "bracelets of glass" and "necklaces of insects" and singing springs, one begins to see how they are imbued with a certain earthy luxury and undeniable eroticism that puts his creations at odds with the geometric austerities of Plato's ideal realm where everything is driven by reason and order. And where reality, in its truest, purest form, is unchanging. According to Plato's vision, there is a strict division between the mathematical purity of the heavens and the chaos of earth. Surrealism breaks this down and revels in paradox. It celebrates flux. It celebrates the eternality of change itself. Surrealism has much more commonality with Heraclitus. A world of perpetual change, driven by fire: "The transformations of Fire are, first of all, sea; and half of the sea is earth, half whirlwind." He also championed the mingling of opposites. Everything, he said, "is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and lyre." Considering, then, that flux and chaos and volatility are key elements driving the surrealist aesthetic, it's easy to see how it would lend itself to quixotic feeling. Dogma of any sort is especially repellent to the surrealist agenda. I hope this helps.

Greg said...

Well, now I've just lost my comment to the void as well.

To reappraise, let me just say, John, that your characterization of surrealism is very appealing and quite acceptable. Breton turned surrealism into a club with rules. You seem to ignore this approach. Your take seems personal, and therefore not something to be argued for or against. You're approach has a calming effect, which I'm trying to fight...this is no time for calm!

Heraclitus. I have to say I didn't see that coming. I don't know much about Heraclitus. Perhaps I can catch him on youtube. Ovid seems equally appropriate. How our actions invest us with transformative energy that can suddenly erupt within us, sending us into marvelous and horrible permutations of growth. Well, perhaps it's time to let Breton go...onto to Heideggar.

As for Obama, I think the key to understanding him lies in examining the effects of unintended's easy for us, who have no power to enact our will, to say, well, this is what one ought to do in this circumstance. However, the circumstances Obama finds himself in are complex. It's IMPOSSIBLE to accurately ascertain the effects of action in these circumstances. Normally we attempt to enact our will, trusting that even if there are unintended consequences, the effects of those consequences will be bearable. Obama is in the unenviable position of knowing, for a fact, that the effects of any unintended conseuqeunces, which, inevitably, there will be, of his actions could be fatal, on a wide scale. He knows, even under these circumstances, that he must act. And yet to act could have devastating consequences. What to do? Well, he does as he has done for quite some time. He doens't enact his will, but rather he mediates between the various wills that are out there. He doens't create, he orchestrates. This seems to have been his approach for quite some time. Why anyone thought he would suddenly start acting differently when president is due more to who they are than who he is. He is much like the Hillary and Bill, in this regard. I can't say I blame him. Of course as myself I would act this or that way. But if my actions could actually have extreme consequences, and if I could never, reasonably, be sure what the effects of my actions would be, I think I might take cautious steps as well. The only problem may's too late for this approach. If that's the case, well, then we're done here. When I'm at the grocery store, I often find myself at the deli, looking at all the preserved turkeys and hams, and thinking, well, when the lights go out, this is the place I should come, and I should grab a bunch of these. But then I think...why, so I can outlive my neighbors by a couple of months? We're in this together. I have no wish to be the lone survivor, sitting alone in my apartment, munching on turkey and watching trees growing out of the entrance to the subway.

John Olson said...

>> He doens't enact his will, but rather he mediates between the various wills that are out there. He doens't create, he orchestrates. This seems to have been his approach for quite some time. <<

I would agree with that. It's an accurate portrayal. But these are the qualities of a mid-level manager or floor supervisor. What is desperately needed is leadership. He just ain't got the cajones for that. And that's my less cynical view: that he is a well-meaning man of very high intelligence encumbered with a perplexingly naive idea that harmonizing fractious personalities is the best way to get things done. My less charitable view is that he is corrupted by power, like anyone else, and doesn't want to push back too hard on the people holding the moneybags. There is a tendency, after Bush and his in-your-face barbarity, to feel that intelligence and eloquence automatically translate into sound, rational policy and the health of the body politic. It does not. Which is not to say, god forbid, an idiot like Sarah Palin would be any kind of antidote.

Chris Hedges has an insightful chapter in his book Empire of Illusion, "The Illusion of Wisdom," on how highly educated men like Obama who attend our most prestigious schools emerge with such myopic views and disdain for honest intellectual inquiry, and harbor a blind deference for authority, and why they go on perpetuating the class divisions that are decimating our country. Elite universities such as Yale and Harvard thwart universal understanding and the search for the common good. Obama's public "naughty naughty" speeches aimed at Wall Street, and now BP, are hollow. He may be, deep down, either a coward, naive, or venal. But he is certainly a product of that system. As are the BP executives. They are birds of feather, but you won't find them covered in oil. They do too good a job covering their ass.