On Surrealism Considered as a Parallel World

06Apr07

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At first glance science fiction might appear an unlikely candidate for The Popular Accomplices of Surrealism. As Jodorowsky stated, André Breton “didn’t like rock music, he didn’t like science fiction, he didn’t like pornography.” When asked to respond to an inquiry concerning the first manned spaceflight of Juri Gagarin in 1961, Breton wasn’t very impressed. In light of the arms race between the USA and the Soviet Union he regarded the event as a “considerable regress”. Gagarin’s choice of Molière as reading matter for his sojourn didn’t help either.
But Breton didn’t disapprove per se of all scientific accomplishments. For him Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was of similar importance as Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Don’t believe it? Well, in 1921 the dadaist magazine Littérature issued the Liquidation – a ranking of prominent persons and fellow dadaists using the French grading system ranging from -25 (meaning highest aversion) up to 20. Freud received 16 points from Breton and Einstein 15 points (the same as Hegel for instance).

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The grades in the second column are from Breton.

In An Experiment with Time (1927) aeronautical engeneer J.W. Dunne tried to find a scientific basis for precognitive or prophetic dreams. He built his concepts of the serial universe and multidimensional time on Einstein’s theories of the spacetime continuum. Among the fervent admirers of the book were Aldous Huxley, J.B. Priestley, Arno Schmidt and William S. Burroughs. It was also of interest to Breton and other surrealists as it offered a possible explanation for phenomena as Giorgio de Chirico’s Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire in 1914 …

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… or Victor Brauner’s premonition of the loss of his eye in 1938.

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 Self-portrait with a plucked eye 1931

Marcel Duchamp’s preparatory studies for The Large Glass show that he seriously studied the writings of French mathematicians Poincaré and Pascal Esprit Jouffret in order to grasp the concept of a fourth spatial dimension. Gaston de Pawlowski’s very popular novel from 1912 Voyage au pays de la quatrième dimension certainly initiated this interest as many of Duchamp’s notes come directly out of it.

Was he looking for a mathematical formula through which he could actually evoke the presence of a fourth dimension? (Calvin Tomkins)

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Duchamp’s The Large Glass and 3-D rendering by Stefan Zöllner

To get a picture of the fourth dimension I found dimensional analogy – derived from Edwin A. Abbott’s novel Flatland (incidentally the basis for Pawlowski’s book) – to be useful. It’s protagonist A. Square is a two dimensional being.

A. Square can only see what lies in his plane of existence, which means if a 3 dimensional sphere were to pass through Flatland, A. Square would not see the sphere, but just 2 dimensional “slices”. Taking this further, imagine if a sphere passed halfway through Flatland but stopped in the middle. the sphere would interesect Flatland as just one circle and A. Square could see it! Furthermore, imagine if as the sphere approaches Flatland, A. Square watches as the sphere slowly moves through his plane. What would A. Square see? Recall that A. Square can only see 2-d slices of the sphere (or circles) so what A. Square would percieve is a circle suddenly appearing, then growing… then reaching a maximum size as the sphere was halfway through and as it exited, the circle would grow smaller until it disappeared. This means that 3d objects could be explained to a 2d being as a bunch of “slices stacked” on top of each other. Try to imagine taking a bunch of circles and stacking them. They would begin to form a skeleton framework of the actual 3d image. Similarly if a 4d hypersphere would intersect our plane of existence, we would see a 3d sphere appear out of no where. It would grow until the hypersphere was halfway through, then it would shrink back to nothing…
More in-depth discussion of 4D on Hypercube’s Homepage

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Apart from their inspiration to artists, Dunne’s and de Pawlowski’s concepts are also considered as antedecents to the hypothesis of Parallel Worlds in science fiction. Add the themes of Parasitism and Paranoia as to be found in Eric Frank Russell’s  Sinister Barrier, Colin Wilson’s  The Mind Parasites and almost all of Lovecraft’s fiction and you get something akin to the following passage of André Breton’s Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not (1942).

Man is perhaps not the center, the cynosure of the universe. One can go so far as to believe that there exist above him, on the animal scale, beings whose behavior is as strange to him as his may be to the mayfly or the whale. Nothing necessarily stands in the way of these creatures’ being able to completely escape man’s sensory system of references through a camouflage of whatever sort one cares to imagine, though the possibility of such a camouflage is posited only by the theory of forms and the study of mimetic animals. There is no doubt that there is ample room for speculation here, even though this idea tends to place man in the same modest conditions of interpretation of his own universe as the child who is pleased to form his conception of an ant from its underside just after he has kicked over an anthill. In considering disturbances such as cyclones, in face of which man is powerless to be anything but a victim or a witness, or those such as war, notoriously inadequate versions of which are set forth, it would not be impossible, in the course of a vast work over which the most daring sort of induction should never cease to preside, to approximate the structure and the constitution of such hypothetical beings (which mysteriously reveal themselves to us when we are afraid and when we are conscious of the workings of chance) to the point where they become credible.
I think it necessary to point out that I am not departing appreciably from Novalis’ testimony: “In reality we live in an animal whose parasites we are. The constitution of this animal determines ours and vice versa,” and that I am only agreeing with a thought of William James’s: “Who knows whether, in nature, we do not occupy just as small a place alongside beings whose existence we do not suspect as our cats and dogs that live with us in our homes?” Even learned men do not all contradict this view of things: “Perhaps there circle round about us beings built on the same plan as we are, but different, men for example whose albumins are straight,” said Emile Duclaux, a former director of the Pasteur Institute (1840-1904).
A new myth? Must these beings be convinced that they result from a mirage or must they be given a chance to show themselves?

This speculation about the Grands Transparents – as these “hypothetical beings” are referred to in Breton’s text – had its provenance  in discussions with Chilean Painter Roberto Matta Echaurren who illustrated it for the surrealist magazine VVV. But later he found himself dissatisfied with Breton’s interpretation. Matta thought that Breton “limited the Grands Transparents by making them anthropomorphous”, Matta’s own vision was more along the lines of Hertzian and thermic waves or the forms which cyclones might assume.

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Roberto Sebastián Matta Echaurren Science, conscience et patience du Vitreur

Breton’s motives to immerse himself in these ideas resided from his interest in the foundation of a new myth as a possible way out of the irrational rationalism that consistently led to WWII.
On the survival of certain myths and on some other myths in growth or formation was a juxtaposition of images and quotes directed  – as he put it himself – by Breton for the catalogue of the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in 1942. In this way he illustrated and commented – sometimes ironically – the above mentioned myths, some of which were well-known like the original sin, Icarus and the philosopher’s stone or topical like interplanetary communication, artificial beings and Supermen. The last one, designed as the myth of the future was that of the Grands Transparents. The notion that they “reveal themselves to us when we are afraid” was demonstrated with the following passage from Guy de Maupassants The Horla.

He has come, the – the – what does He call himself – the – I fancy that he is shouting out his name to me and I do not hear him – the – yes – He is shouting it out – I am listening – I cannot – repeat – it – Horla – I have heard – the Horla – it is He – the Horla – He has come!

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 This image from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens also served as illustration for the Grands Transparents in First Papers of Surrealism

Weird fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft had a special liking for Maupassant’s Horla which influenced his own The Call of Cthulhu and which he describes in these words.

Relating the advent to France of an invisible being who lives on water and milk, sways the minds of others, and seems to be the vanguard of a horde of extra-terrestrial organisms arrived on earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind, this tense narrative is perhaps without a peer in its particular department.

One might wonder if the Grands Transparents aren’t to the same extent direct descendants of H. P. Lovecrafts Great Old Ones. It is at least certain that VVV – the same magazine that had published Breton’s Prolegomena – also ran a study on Lovecraft written by Robert Allerton Parker. Franklin Rosemont a surrealist from Chicago who also wrote several articles on Lovecraft states that “a Lovecraftian sense of evil permeates several of the surrealist painter Matta’s late ’40s, such as Atyarth Insolent and Rghuin Monstrous Triumphs”.
Another surrealist magazine Médium ran articles by surrealist writers Robert Benayoun and Gérard Legrand (co-author of Breton’s L’art magique) who euphorically welcomed the first French translations of Lovecraft in 1953.

Scattered through the pages of popular magazines until his death this (Lovecraft’s) mythology reflects an authentic occult knowledge treated with entire freedom. From unknown planets there descended to earth, long before man, the founders of religion of which something still surrounds us.
– Gérard Legrand –

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Charles Fort – collector and commentator of data that was rejected by traditional science and a great source of inspiration for many science fiction authors – made a remark which also strangely chimes in with Breton’s hypothesis.

The Earth is a farm. We are someone else’s property.

And Robert Benayoun indeed claimed Fort for surrealism from French author’s Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier who were the first French publishers of Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned and whose Le Matin des Magiciens was allegedly based on his ideas.
Benayoun reproached Pauwels and Bergier  for distorting Fort’s intentions to serve their I-want-to-believe attitude and also for using quotes from Fort and his own writings without characterizing them as such.

Fort accumulates brilliant findings, ingenious surveys and unfathomable formulations… he passes from the ordinary to the surreal where he feels naturally at home.
(…) Pauwels-Bergier see real mutants and flying saucers everywhere… they make a mystery out of everything: pregnancy, robots, yoga, maths, woman, Bretonians, youth, apes, the human corpse… flabbergasted and mystified by the banal (they) assign it to a conspiracy and feel desperate to be excluded from it. (Foreword to Le livre des damnés, Paris 1967)

Fort himself wrote: “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.”
It is interesting that Fort before devoting himself to the anomalous tried out the same approach for scientifically accepted phenomena (the book was never published) and turns out to be something as a forefather to systemics.

I collected notes upon principles and phenomena of astronomy, sociology, psychology, deep sea diving, navigation, surveying, volcanoes, religion, sexes, earthworms – that is, always seeking similarities in widest seeming differences such as astronomic and chemic and sociologic perturbations, morphologic phenomena of magnetism, chemistry and sexual attractions.

But this method proved to be insufficient to express Fort’s monistic worldview or respectively “The oneness of allness”. Fort thought …

… that these two orders of extremes that have no existence in our state of seeming, that we and all of the appearances of phantasms in a superdream are expressions of one cosmic flow or graduation between them; one called disorder, unreality, inequilibrium, ugliness, discord, inconsistency, the other called order, realness, equilibrium, beauty, harmony, justice, truth.

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“I offer the data. Suit yourself.” Charles Fort

To be continued
Further topics will include:

  • Alfred Korzybsky and fringe cults in science fiction
  • Surrealist Utopia, Charles Fourier
  • Pataphysics and science fiction
  • Raymond Roussel
  • J. G. Ballard on surrealism
  • The expression parallel world in todays parlance

Literature:

Beaumelle, Monod-Fontaine, La Beauté Convulsive, Paris 1991

Breton, André, Oeuvres Complètes  III, Paris 1999
Perspective Cavalière, Paris 1970

Cabanne, Pierre, Gespräche mit Marcel Duchamp, Köln 1971

Clute, John, Grolier Science Fiction Encyclopedia,  CD-ROM

Fort, Charles, The Book of the Damned, London 1974

Losfeld, Eric, Arcanes 2 bulletin d’informations des éditions “le terrain vague”, Paris 1967

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips, Supernatural Horror in Literature, New York 1973

Richardson, Michael, Surrealism and Cinema, Oxford 2006

Rosemont, Franklin, Lovecraft, Surrealism & Revolution in Cultural Correspondence, Providence 1979

Tomkins, Calvin, Duchamp A Biography, New York 1996

The uncaptioned illustrations are from Richard Powers and Virgil Finlay. The still is from the movie 4D Man.

 

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