In the way that the Surrealist fascination with the fixed explosive comes from its arresting of motion in time, Surrealist art and poetry’s contradictions is in some ways what creates its allure.
"Much surrealist poetry instantly brings to mind the art of film, since both are above
all concerned with the changing moment, with the metamorphosis of the instant."
The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism - Mary Ann Caws
Discuss and analyse the ways in which Surrealist poetry and Surrealist film correspond
Both film and poetry played an integral role in the beginnings of the surrealist movement and the development of surrealist practice. As Fotiade (9) and countless other critics such as Knopf mention, ‘During World War I – a decade before founding surrealism – André Breton and Jacques Vaché would hop from cinema to cinema, watching random segment of one film before switching to a new one’ (16). Breton stated to ‘have never known anything more magnetizing’ [his emphasis] (73) than this experience, (the use of an adjective relating to the semantic field of electricity and therefore ‘shock’ is noteworthy for it’s connotations of the Surrealist subject’s experience of the objet trouvé or the Marvellous). He argues that their activities would leave him ‘charged for a few days’ (73) and that what they found and valued most in the cinema was, ‘its power to distort… uniting waking and sleeping’ (73-4).
Surrealism was ‘born in poetry… poetry being the aim and rationale that united all art forms’ (Tate 252). The fact that Breton included a poem comprised of random newspaper headlines in the first Surrealist manifesto to demonstrate a prototypical method of surrealist expression is exemplary of the surrealists’ revere for the medium. Breton and Éluard later suggested that it ‘reigns over idols of all sorts and realist illusions: it enthusiastically embraces the ambiguity between the language of “truth” and that of “creation”’ (258). Film also embraces the empirical communication of visual fact whilst simultaneously undermining this; Breton and Éluard’s reference to the language of religious texts I take to mean the filmic world’s non-conformance to the laws of physics and nature, such as Méliès’ optical tricks used as early as 1896 in The Vanishing Lady. As Barthes succinctly notes, the photograph (as well as the cinema, I would argue), is ‘a temporal hallucination: so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “it is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”): a mad image, chafed by reality’ (‘Camera Lucida’ 115). This ambiguity and the collapsing of binaries such as presence and absence is something I shall return to due to their relevance to Surrealist theory and practice.
The similarities of Surrealist film and poetry can easily be analysed on a structural or formal level. Artists working in both media looked to subvert conventions of form in order to highlight their arbitrariness. Some of the shape poems in proto-surrealist Apollinaire’s Calligrammes were revolutionary in their break from the formulaic structures that typically governed 19th century Western poetry, namely that of lyrical style and the Romantic sonnet. Whilst such a generalisation must be approached with caution, as there were obviously poets in that era that subverted traditional poetic forms, when we consider 19th century poetry as a whole, it appears far more structurally homogenous relative to 20th century poetry considered en masse.
Apollinaire’s conviction in the need to suspend literary conventions in order to differentiate his work from previous movements can be seen in his statement that ‘surprise is the greatest new resort of poetry. It is by surprise, and by the importance that it accords to surprise, that the new spirit distinguishes itself from all the artistic and literaty movements that have preceded it’ (‘L'Esprit’ 387).
Il Pleut is a good example of experimentation with form that dialectically produces meaning greater than the sum of the poem’s component parts through the play of the text’s structure and words. On a structural level, the poem is oppressive with it’s resemblances to the iron bars of a prison; much like a rainy day is restrictive of ones freedom to do certain activities. This allusion to imprisonment is furthered in the last line, where he describes rain as ‘fetters falling that bind you’ (‘Calligrammes’ 101).
|‘Il Pleut’ Calligrammes (1918)|
Despite his omission of punctuation, the poem’s metre is stilted through the alienating experience of reading vertically. Apollinaire’s organisation of the poem means that we follow the lines like we follow a drop of rain as it hits a pane of glass and slowly meanders down it. This slowing of tempo allows the reader to reflect on the poet’s highly resonant lines; ‘listen to it rain where regret and distain weep an ancient music’ (101). I would argue that the melancholic experience of reading this poem is heightened by the poet’s structural organisation. The poem’s ambiguity and form means that a more active role is required of the reader. Balakian argues that in Calligrammes, the ‘role of the interpreter will be transferred to the reader or spectator, who loses his passive task of absorbing and feeling the message of the artists’ (93); the latter being characteristic of the position of the reader of 19th century lyrical poetry.
Experimentation with cinematic form was a main focus for many Surrealist filmmakers. Conventional narrative cinematic form, Metz argues, was solidified predominantly by Griffith’s works between 1910-5, his ‘role to define and to stabilize—we would say, to codify—the function of these different procedures in relation to the filmic narrative, and thereby unify them up to a certain point in a coherent “syntax”’ (‘Semiotics of Cinema’ 67). Much like Apollinaire’s willful deconstruction of the poetic syntax the reader has come accustomed to through past experience, Duchamp's Anémic Cinéma (1926) surprises the viewer, according to Apollinaire, distinguishing itself from previous cinematic endeavours through it’s lack ‘Il Pleut’ Calligrammes (1918) and illusion of depth of field. It breaks from the prevalence of medium-focus shots at head height characteristic of early cinema, which Comolli argues, ‘restored the spatial relationships which corresponded to “normal vision”… They therefore played their role in the production of the impression of reality’ (433).
When we consider that ‘depth of field’s debt to perspective serves to “center” the viewer, fixing him in a point of illusory coherence’ (Bordwell 160), Anémic Cinéma’s effect on the viewer can be understood as its antithesis. Early filmic “coherence” consisted of the expectation of the alternation of images with extreme depth (the footage) and depthlessness (intertitles). Duchamp’s inverts this by showing discs containing embossed lettering casting shadows as they move (creating an intertitle with a sense of depth). He juxtaposes these shots with discs containing spirals whose patterns give the illusion of depth whilst the discs’ surface is flatter than the ones with lettering, (a “depthless” image). Much like Apollinaire’s calligrammes, Anémic Cinéma’s message can only fully be understood when considering the dialectic of form (ie Duchamp’s illusionary depth) and meaning (the nonsensical sentences and the title). Both require a far more active viewer than that needed to comprehend previous works of their respective media. Only with this active comprehension can Duchamp’s work be fully understood as a critique of the medium itself; ‘cinema is anaemic because it all takes place in the mind of the viewer through automatic responses, as that viewer is duped into believing that the successive still images move, that their flatness is really depth, that they bear a relationship to their titles’ (Sitney 24).
Foucault also notes something about calligrammes which is shared in Duchamp’s film; ‘The calligram aspires playfully to efface the oldest oppositions of our alphabetical civilisation: to show and to name; to shape and to say; to reproduce and to articulate; to imitate and to signify; to look and to read’ (21). Similarly, Anémic Cinéma is at the same time visual and literary, forcing the reader to both look and read simultaneously. Its images are not privileged over its titles or even distinguishable ontologically, as Sitney (23) notes. Surrealist art and theory often attempts to create a world devoid of opposition. Breton demands, in his introduction to Contes Bizarres by Achim von Aarnim, that ‘The Self be treated in the same way as the object, that a formal restriction be invoked against the “I am”’ (qtd. in Cawes 78) and speaks of a future union of the states of dream and reality, ‘into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality’ [his emphasis] (‘Manifestos’ 14).
As well as their structural relation, Surrealist poetry and cinema share similarities on the semantic level. Surrealist poetry, Breton’s in particular, is highly imaginative and not particularly descriptive. He argues that metaphor has ‘the ability to dazzle the mind’ (‘Ascendant Sign’ 106) and employs this technique to create fantastical imagery. In Full Margin, metaphors like, ‘the breathless dawn engraves its reindeer on the windowpane’ (93) or ‘the chimneys erupt calling for a resolution nearer to tenderness’ (97), stretches the use of language to disorienting heights. Breton, speaking of the freedom of language, ascertained that it allows for ‘extraordinary lucidity… I have had occasion to use surreally words whose meaning I have forgotten’ [his emphasis] (‘Manifestoes’ 34). These metaphors create ambiguity, allowing for the liberation of the reader’s imagination; failure to do so ‘is to betray all sense of absolute justice within oneself’ (‘Manifestoes’ 4-5).
Breton’s deployment of metaphors, sometimes on top of each other, is exemplified in Knot of Mirrors;
‘The beautiful windows in shirts
The beautiful windows their fire hair in the black night
The beautiful windows cries of alarm and of kisses’
The fluidity of the poet’s image seems to be descriptive of almost nothing experienced in reality but infinitely suggestive and imaginative, much like the images we find whilst dreaming, ‘a mode which is anterior to the mirror stage, to the formation of the self, and therefore founded on a permeability, a fusion of the interior with the exterior’ (Baudry 182). Cawes’ describes the of the physical laws governing the dream-like, pre-Oedipal world of Breton’s poetry, a place where ‘for the poet, as for the child, distance has no meaning. All perception becomes presence’ (81).
Breton’s imagery and automatic methods attempted to uncover latent meaning from the Lacanian Real of early childhood, ‘that which resists representation, what is premirror, pre-imaginary, pre-symbolic – what cannot be symbolized – what loses it’s "reality" once it is symbolized (made conscious) through language’ (Loos). His ambiguous and suggestive language closely resembles some techniques used in Man Ray’s early films. The shots filmed with a gelatine filter in L'Étoile de Mer (1928) limit the actors’ expressivity and invite the spectator to actively create meaning under the Law of Closure, (to borrow a term from Gestalt psychology). It could be argued that they semiotically represent a signifier divorced from its initial signified. Barthes’ designation of a third element of signification, the sign, in Myth Today is useful for explaining this visual effect’s similarities to Breton’s disorienting use of metaphor and ambiguousness. Barthes argues that in perceiving, ‘what we grasp is not at all one term after the other, but the correlation which unites them’ (113). He suggests that an ‘empty signifier’ like a black pebble can be given meaning, ‘If I weigh it with a definite signified, (a death sentence, for instance, in an anonymous vote), it will become a sign’ (113).
The opposite, reductive process, where the signified is severed and leaves only the signifier, can be seen in Breton’s interest in automatism and his occasional stretching of a word’s semantic meaning beyond rationality, ‘considered in the theoretical infinity of its representations’ (Caillois 269). It is similarly represented in elements of L'Étoile de Mer previously mentioned as well as in the blurred footage of objects in motion interspersed throughout Emak Bakia (1926). A good example occurs in the film’s penultimate sequence which has no established depth of field. A rotating shirt collar is shown, distorted by a camera lens. This almost mesmerising object subtly transforms into a reflection of itself and then seems to expand to assume the shape of a window reflected in the filmed surface. The images echo Baudry’s description of the enjoyment shared by watching a film and dreaming, a ‘kind of satisfaction which we knew at the beginning of our psychical life when perception and representation could not be differentiated, when the different systems were confused, that is, when the system of Consciousness-Perception had not differentiated itself’ (Baudry 180).
The shots mentioned, as well as Man Ray’s Rayographs in Emak Bakia and Le Retour à la Raison (1928), seem to negate meaning of the Symbolic or Imaginary order and are conveyed through a ‘cinematographic apparatus (that) brings about a state of artificial regression’ (Baudry 184). As well as Breton’s imagery owing
something to a child-like state, Barthes finds his medium, (specifically contemporary and not classical poetry), to be a ‘regressive semiolgical state… It tries to transform the sign back into meaning: its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things themselves’ (‘Myth Today’ 133). Seemingly, the progressive structures of Surrealist cinema and poetry are in opposition to, and yet concurrently experienced alongside, the regressive nature of their meaning and media.
Nonsensical imagery is another element common to Surrealist approaches to both art forms. Riffaterre references the first line of Text 27 in Breton’s Poisson Soluble, ‘Once upon a time there was a turkey on a dike’ (139). The subject and the object’s relation is either oblique or non-existent, requiring the reader to re-interrogate the line and reflect on the poem, much like Magritte’s jarring statement written on his artworks, La Trahison des Images and Les Deux Mystères, invite introspection through the statement’s perceived incongruence with its corresponding image. ‘The poem’s significance lies in its very semantic emptiness, in the lessons surrealists meant to teach by their automatic writing – that beneath the words there is nothing but more words’ (Riffaterre 141).
Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, ‘a statement of faith in irrational imagery as more promising than rational imagery’ (‘Surrealism and Film,’ Matthews 90), actively embraces nonsensical cinematic perspective and images. The image of the sexually driven male in the film dragging grand pianos, donkey corpses and clergymen has been analysed critically along countless ideological, religious and psychoanalytic lines of argument, (the same statement could be said more generally of the film itself). That the critical discourse around this particular scene has offered up such disparate explanations for its meaning further suggests that Surrealist images can be classified as empty signifiers, where the creation of the sign, (meaning in its entirety), can only be achieved through the utilization of the spectator’s imagination. In this way, Breton argues, the Surrealist subject, spectator or creator, ‘relives with glowing excitement the best part of its childhood’ (‘Manifestoes’ 41).
Un Chien Andalou is exemplary of a Surrealist text that serves to highlight and undermine binaries found in nature, culture and the self. In the opening sequence, the formalistic match of the shots of the cloud and the moon and the eye and the knife is both aesthetically pleasing and physically revulsive at the same time; ‘everything conspires to disorient the audience and undermine confidence in their ability to handle the material this movie assembles’ (‘Surrealism and Film,’ Matthews 89). Even more elementary oppositions, such as inside and outside, are collapsed by Buñuel’s distortion of cinematic continuity, (ie the door that leads the woman out from her bedroom and directly onto the beach or the man’s double being shot in the bedroom but falling to the ground in a forest).
The scene with the stand-off with the double represents the most interesting overcoming of a binary contradiction in Surrealist art, that of the subject and the object, the perceiver and the viewer. The smartly dressed man’s face is obscured through blocking which delays this reveal considerably, (though if the intertitle is to be believed, we have known this six years before). The first man’s reaction to his smartly dressed counterpart is unstable and not really reactionary to the actions of his double. His reaction is reminiscient to that experienced when viewing or reading some Surrealist works, through the unnerving suggestion of the marvellous or the viewers simultaneous passivity and activity. Barthes notes that the photographic image ‘represents that very subtle moment where, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death’ (‘Camera Lucida 14).
Surrealist poetry distorts pronouns to create a similar effect, highlighting the fluidity between subject and object. In Soupault’s Le Nageur, he writes that; ‘…and without regret I continue into sleep in the eyes of mirrors and the laughter of the wind I recognize an unknown man who is I I no longer move.’ (qtd. in ‘Towards the Poetics…’ Matthews 184)
Whilst it is plausible that the unknown man is his reflection, Surrealist interpretation caters for all manners of plausibility such as the speaker seeing his double. The poem refuses to fix the reader in a tangible space, disorienting the reader much like the effect of the eradication of shot-counter-shot in Man Ray’s early work or Anémic Cinéma’s play with cinematic representation. It is possible that the speaker is in two places at once and literally looks at himself, defying the empirical opposition of presence and absence. Teige’s argument corroborates with this reading, ‘Surrealism goes beyond this duality. Without refusing either the reality or the primacy of the external world, it equally recognises a reality and an efficacy in the mental representations which result from them. It destroys the wall separating dream and reality, subject and object, representation from the real and imaginary representation from real perception.’ (279) Surrealist film and poetry share more traits than most parallel movements in both media. Their subversion of forms conventional at the time, coupled with their extreme ambiguity and aversion to symbolism flatter the audience with the assumption of a more active position. This active spectatorship, coupled with the cinema’s regressive apparatus or existence of pre-Oedipal imagery in both media creates the unease that many feel when viewing Surrealist texts. In the way that the Surrealist fascination with the fixed explosive comes from its arresting of motion in time, Surrealist art and poetry’s contradictions is in some ways what creates its allure.
Word Count: 2025
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