Surrealism in the United States

(posted to on October 27, 2002)

A few months ago I posted an article about "Surrealism, Freud and Trotsky" ( that relied heavily on Franklin Rosemont's collection of Andre Breton's writings titled "What is Surrealism."

This Pathfinder book belongs on the shelf of anybody who is interested in the intersection between revolutionary politics and avant-garde art and literature. Now thanks to Autonomedia Press (and especially editor Jim Fleming--a Marxmail subscriber who sent me a review copy), we have a volume that belongs on the same shelf. I refer to "Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings and Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States." Edited and introduced by Ron Sakolsky, this volume contains articles that originally appeared in the journal of Rosemont's Chicago Surrealist Group titled "Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion," and kindred publications.

In my first article, I mentioned that surrealism had taken root in the USA in the 1940s largely through the auspices of a magazine titled VVV. Among the editors was Martinique poet and playwright Aimé Césaire who articulated a surrealist version of Black Nationalism that influenced many black intellectuals, including esteemed contemporary African-American historian Robin D.G. Kelley whose articles can be found in "Surrealist Subversions."

Another editorial board member at VVV was Philip Lamantia, who was to become best known as a leading figure of the new poetry of the 1940s and 50s that included the beats and the San Francisco Renaissance writers. It would not be much of a stretch to argue that Lamantia represents a link in the chain between the counter-culture of the 1930s and that of the 1960s. He eventually hooked up with Arsenal, along with fellow beat poet and African-American Ted Joans.

It is also not too far of a stretch to see Rosemont's journal as constituting a link between the an important sector of the contemporary radicalization that began in the 1960s with earlier strands going back to the 1930s and earlier, with the left wing of the beat generation constituting an important bridge between the two epochs.

Ron Sakolsky's introduction does a fine job of identifying both the importance of Franklin Rosemont in keeping the surrealist tradition alive and the particular circumstances of his conversion to this radical cultural movement that will be instantly recognizable to anybody from the generation of baby boomers who rejected everything that American consumerism stood for.

Born in 1944, Franklin Rosemont had two parents who would obviously be a counterforce against any tendency to drift into the kind of narcissistic estheticism that characterized the worst of European surrealism. His father Henry was an activist in the Chicago area with the Typographical Union and who played a leading role in the 22-month newspaper strike of 1947-1949. Not only did he edit the strike newspaper, he wrote scripts for the strikers' daily WCFL radio show "Meet the Union Printers." His mother Sally was a jazz musician who played at local speakeasies in the 1920s. Decades later she became president of a trade union local for female musicians.

Rosemont first ran into surrealism in 1959 as a bored fifteen-year-old high school student in Maywood, a Chicago suburb. While browsing through a literature anthology, he ran into Paul Eluard's surrealist proverb, "Elephants are contagious," which he found irresistible. He said, "The sudden appearance of that wild image had an extraordinary impact on me. For me, those three words opened the door to the wonders and possibilities of language." I would only add that similar experiences were happening for many other high-school students at this time, who were looking for an alternative to the conformity and materialism of the period. In most cases, this took the form of avant-garde poetry of one sort or another rather than radical politics. For me, the short stories of James Joyce served more or less the same purpose until I ran into beat literature. For many beginning to adopt the stance of cultural rebel, the transition to political rebellion would be seamless.

Soon Rosemont dropped out of high school and began hanging out at Chicago's Art Institute Library, trying to absorb as much of surrealism as he could. In addition to these influences, he paid close attention to the civil rights movement in the South and the Cuban revolution. Jazz--especially the crypto-surrealist expressions of Thelonious Monk--also helped to shape his perception of the world. In the late 1950s and early 60s, bebop was still going strong. Strolling around Greenwich Village, one could find the graffiti "Bird Lives" all over the place.

Eventually Rosemont would discover Jack Kerouac, just as I had in 1960. Taking Kerouac's "On the Road" as an inspiration, the teenager hitchhiked 20,000 miles around the USA and Mexico. In 1960, he landed up in San Francisco's North Beach, where the beat generation's poetry renaissance was in full swing. He received mail at anarchist/beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights and contributed to Bob Kaufman's Beatitude magazine. (Despite the name, Kaufman was most likely the tenth of thirteen children of an African American and part Jewish father and a schoolteacher mother from an old New Orleans African American Catholic family.)

Rosemont went to Roosevelt University from 1962 to 1964, which like my alma mater Bard College and institutions like Antioch or Goddard tended to attract dissident youth at the time. (In Sakolsky's words, the dissidence could be either radical, Beat or just plain malcontent. I would describe myself as plainly malcontented at the time.) That is where he met his future wife Penelope, who would become an important figure in the Chicago Surrealist Group as well. She is a painter in the radical automatist tradition and has made significant contributions to surrealist theory, including the collection "Surrealist Women: an International Anthology" (U. of Texas Press, 1998). She is also the secretary-treasurer of Charles H. Kerr Publishers, a house that was founded in Chicago in 1886 by the son of abolitionists. Since it specializes in anarchist and other forms of libertarian socialist literature, it is not surprising that she would become associated with such an outlet. The affinities between anarchism and the Chicago surrealist group were quite strong, about which I will have more to say in this essay.

Among the most intriguing articles in Rosemont's collection is Robin D.G. Kelley's "Freedom Now Sweet: Surrealism and the Black World." His recently published "Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination" expands on many of the themes first found in this 1998 lecture delivered at the U. of North Carolina. Kelley says:

Surrealism may have originated in the West, but it is rooted in a conspiracy against Western Civilization. Surrealists frequently looked outside of Europe for ideas and inspiration, turning most notably to the "primitives" under the heel of European colonialism. Indeed, what later became known as the Third World turned out to be the source of the surrealists' politicization during the mid-1920s. The Paris Surrealist Group and the extreme left of the French Communist Party were drawn together in 1925 by their support of Abd-el-Krim, leader of the Rif uprising against French colonialism in Morocco. In tracts like "Revolution Now and Forever!" the surrealists actively called for the overthrow of French colonial rule. That same year, in an "Open Letter" to writer and French ambassador to Japan, Paul Claudel, the Paris group announced: "We profoundly hope that revolutions, wars, colonial insurrections, will annihilate this Western civilization whose vermin you defend even in the Orient." Seven years later, the Paris group produced its most militant statement on the colonial question to date. Titled "Murderous Humanitarianism" (1932) and drafted mainly by Rene Crevel and signed by (among others) André Breton, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Péret, Yves Tanguy, and the Martinican surrealists Pierre Yoyotte and J. M. Monnerot, it was first published in Nancy Cunard's massive anthology, Negro (1934), and recently reprinted in the "Surrealism: Revolution Against Whiteness" issue of the journal Race Traitor. The document is a relentless attack on colonialism, capitalism, the clergy, the Black bourgeoisie, and hypocritical liberals. Arguing that the very humanism upon which the modern West was built also justified slavery, colonialism and genocide, they called for action: "we surrealists pronounced ourselves in favor of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution, of the proletariat and its struggles, and defined our attitude towards the colonial problem, and hence towards the color question."

Obviously, the surrealists and the leftwing of the French CP were onto something when they drew attention to "Murderous Humanitarianism," especially in the context of a brutal campaign against an earlier revolt of Islamic peoples. With impressive scholarship, Kelley proceeds to establish a wealth of evidence that surrealism and many aspects of black culture draw from each other.

For example, many European surrealists (including Claude Tarnaud who wrote a poem imagining Monk in a combo with Rimbaud, and surrealist painters Victor Brauner and De Chirico) also admired Thelonious Monk, an icon for the young Franklin Rosemont. We discover that this was a two-way street since contemporary jazz pianist Cecil Taylor professes admiration for surrealism.

Although Richard Wright's "Native Son" has most often been associated with the proletarian novel of the 1930s, Kelley makes a convincing case that surrealism was also a strong influence on the African-American author and CP'er. He notes that Wright discusses the importance of surrealism in his unpublished "Memories of My Grandmother," especially as an aid to understanding African American folk culture. He found the blues structure to be analogous to the surrealist's use of the "exquisite corpse," a term that captures the mystery of the chance encounter or what Breton called "objective chance."

(Trotsky was never comfortable with this aspect of surrealist thought and told Breton, "Comrade Breton, your interest in phenomena of objective chance does not appear clear to me. Yes, I know well that Engels referred to this notion, but I ask myself if, in your case, it isn't something else. I am not sure you aren't interested in keeping open [his hands described a little space in the air] a little window on the beyond."

For Kelley, the connections between surrealism and black culture revolve essentially around the imperative to reject Western Civilization, especially those aspects which lead to the annihilation of precapitalist society and beliefs either through forced cultural assimilation or through the open use of weapons of mass destruction, like the poison gas the Spanish government used against the Rif rebels in Morocco in the 1920s. Kelley writes:

Wright's engagement with surrealism seems to parallel that of many other Black intellectuals. They have found in surrealism confirmation of what they already know--for them it is more an act of recognition rather than a revolutionary discovery. Ted Joans wrote Breton that he "chose" surrealism because he recognized its fundamental ideas and camaraderie in jazz. Wifredo Lam said he was drawn to surrealism because he already knew the power of the unconscious having grown up in the Africanized spirit world of Santeria. Aime Cesaire insists it was surrealism that brought him back to African culture. In a 1967 interview he explained, "Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation." Surrealism, he explained, helped him to summon up powerful unconscious forces. "This, for me, was a call to Africa. I said to myself: it's true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally Black."

Since the Chicago Surrealist Group had such a strong orientation to black culture, helped no doubt by the Black Nationalist explosion of the 1960s, it should come as no surprise that their work overlapped to a considerable degree with the work of scholars associated with "Race Traitor," especially David Roediger who not only writes important scholarly examinations of the problem of racism in the working class like "The Wages of Whiteness" but who has contributed frequently to various journals in his capacity as a committed surrealist.

His 1998 Race Traitor article titled "Plotting Against Eurocentrism: the 1929 Surrealist Map of the World" incorporates many of the themes found in the late Jim Blaut's "Colonizer's Model of the World." He notes that this map puzzled many people when it first appeared, since England was missing. This was a typically cryptic attempt by the surrealists to make a political statement in a fresh way. Years later in the radical geographers' journal Antipode, where many of Jim Blaut's articles first appeared, the same types of points were made in a less cryptic manner.

Another important thread that runs through the collection is the need to incorporate a sense of play in revolutionary politics, especially the kind found in popular culture. This runs the gamut from Rosemont's "Surrealism and Its Popular Accomplices--Buster Keaton, George Herriman, Tex Avery, Mel Blanc, Milt Gross, Carl Barks" to Philip Lamantia's "Radio Voices--A Child's Bed of Sirens." Rosemont argues that Warner Brothers cartoonist Tex Avery was consistently and relentlessly surrealist, based on the evidence of images such as a kangaroo disappearing into his own pouch or countless Bugs Bunny cartoons which defy all laws of physics and causality. For Lamantia, the golden age of radio was a time when children could be masters of their own imaginations. With nothing but the voices of the Shadow or Boston Blackie, an entire world could be created. Of course, Lamantia is right on the money. With every advance in communications technology, from color television to the newly emerging video on demand, our imagination grows increasingly impoverished.

Although I agree with many of the insights found in this collection, I tend to differ on one important question. For Rosemont and his comrades, anarchism is attractive because it lacks the stodginess of the Leninist tradition. Since Lenin conceived of the revolutionary party as the political equivalent of the division of labor being introduced into the modern factory system, it is no wonder that a young radical like Rosemont might find this type of activism off-putting.

For traditions such as anarchism, Toni Negri-style autonomism and Guy DeBord's Situationism, there is a strong tendency to see the organizational forms of today prior to the revolution as anticipating somehow the future classless society. For example, in the section titled "Dreaming Revolution," we find an article by Martha Sonnenberg titled "New Desires, New Revolutionary Potentials."

The development of movements of Black people, of women, of prisoners ms important to the potential of surrealism....They are living illustrations of how concepts which, at one point in time, exist only as ideal thoughts, can become real and materialized in people's lives. The destruction of old concepts of beauty, of reason and logic, of emotion, of sexuality, of age and time, and the creation of new ones in their places, is being accomplished by mass numbers of people. New definitions of human relationships and of human capacity, which surrealists in the 1920s and 30s were struggling for on a theoretical and artistic level, are being lived by people today. These movements are the realization of the potentials of the past, just as they create new potentials to be fulfilled in the future.

Alas, I am afraid that this is far too much to expect from revolutionary politics. I tend to think of the revolutionary movement as the equivalent for our class of the vast array of institutions that govern and enforce the bourgeoisie's class rule, from the army to the CIA to the various think tanks that promote the inevitability of capitalism. One does not get involved with such outfits in order to have fun, but in order to advance the interests of the class you are loyal to. This is the function of the revolutionary party we need so desperately. To achieve this goal, sacrifice and discipline are required. These are characteristics that are not necessarily useful to those who pioneering new forms of the imagination, but essential to those going into battle for the future of humanity.


The Surrealist Movement in the USA:
Race Traitor:
Robin Kelley essay on Aimé Césaire:
Autonomedia Press: