The Situationist International in Britain
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The Situationist International in Britain

Modernism, Surrealism, and the Avant-Garde

Sam Cooper

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eBook - ePub

The Situationist International in Britain

Modernism, Surrealism, and the Avant-Garde

Sam Cooper

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This book tells, for the first time, the story of the Situationist International's influence and afterlives in Britain, where its radical ideas have been rapturously welcomed and fiercely resisted. The Situationist International presented itself as the culmination of the twentieth century avant-garde tradition — as the true successor of Dada and Surrealism. Its grand ambition was not unfounded. Though it dissolved in 1972, generations of artists and writers, theorists and provocateurs, punks and psychogeographers have continued its effort to confront and contest the 'society of the spectacle.' This book constructs a long cultural history, beginning in the interwar period with the arrival of Surrealism to Britain, moving through the countercultures of the 1950s and 1960s, and finally surveying the directions in which Situationist theory and practice are being taken today. It combines agile historicism with close readings of a vast range of archival and newly excavated materials, including newspaper reports, underground pamphlets, Psychogeographical films, and experimental novels. It brings to light an overlooked but ferociously productive period of British avant-garde practice, and demonstrates how this subterranean activity helps us to understand postwar culture, late modernism, and the complex internationalization of the avant-garde. As popular and academic interest in the Situationists grows, this book offers an important contribution to the international history of the avant-garde and Surrealism. It will prove a valuable resource for researchers and students of English and Comparative Literature, Modernism and the Avant-Gardes, Twentieth Century and Contemporary History, Cultural Studies, Art History, and Political Aesthetics.

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1 Surrealism in England, or English Surrealism

DOI: 10.4324/9781315563855-1
‘A starting point is a point that one leaves behind.’
—Edouard Roditi, ‘A New Reality’ (1929) 1
In 1924, AndrĂ© Breton published his first manifesto of Surrealism. Alongside the opening of the Bureau for Surrealist Research in Paris in the same year, Breton’s manifesto served to inaugurate the principle manifestation of the French Surrealist movement. Breton neither coined the term SurrĂ©alisme (Guillaume Apollinaire, 1917) nor wrote the first text titled ‘Manifeste du SurrĂ©alisme’ (Yvan Goll, earlier in 1924), but he soon emerged as the movement’s spokesperson. Groups following Breton’s model rapidly appeared across Europe, but it was over a decade before Surrealism made its first public appearance in England. In that lag, fierce debates arose in literary and artistic publications about how, if at all, Surrealism could be anglicised. English supporters of the movement needed to establish how they could balance Breton’s ostentatious and world-historical rhetoric with a more vernacular idiom. Such an adaptation was felt necessary to assuage the many critics who dismissed Surrealism as incommensurable with English culture: in the 1920s and early 1930s, SurrĂ©alisme was deemed, variously, too absurdist, too silly, too anti-clerical (the problem wasn’t the danger of offence, but rather the lack of Catholic fervour in England), too cosmopolitan, too foreign, or simply too French. 2 We will encounter the latter complaint many times as this book progresses.
This chapter will trace the contours of these debates over Surrealism’s Anglicisation, and will put forward a narrative that will act as a prolepsis or model for subsequent instances of Franco-Anglo avant-garde influence. The chapter will focus on the historical and political character of first-wave English Surrealism, and on the different ways that its participants undertook its historiography. In the broadest sense, this chapter documents efforts to reconcile modernist internationalism with varying articulations of Englishness.

The Vexed Question of the Proper Englishing of the Movement

The effort to bring Surrealism to England began across a range of journals that included Experiment, transition, New Verse, and Left Review, as well as the writings of Paul Nash’s Unit One group. 3 The editorials, opinion, and correspondence pieces in these little magazines were the discursive spaces in which a handful of acquaintances engaged in a brief war of position. The earliest questions that Surrealism’s English supporters discussed were as follows. First, why had Surrealism had not become manifest in England already? Second, could—or, more precisely, how could—Surrealism be introduced to ‘the English’?
By the mid-1930s, the modicum of coverage of Surrealism in the English press had expressed confusion about this neologism. There was even doubt about whether to use ‘SurrĂ©alisme’, ‘Surrealism’, or a translation like ‘Superrealism’—the debate was described as ‘the vexed question of the proper Englishing’ of the movement. 4 Because English Surrealism did not arrive with its own manifesto, we must turn to Breton’s for provisional definitions. His first manifesto offers a parodic encyclopaedia entry:
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. 5
The catalysis of English Surrealism as such is usually located at the meeting in Paris in July 1935 of the painter Roland Penrose and the poet David Gascoyne, when they decided that ‘Something’s got to be done.’ 6 In 1933, the seventeen-year-old Gascoyne had published what is generally considered the first Surrealist poem in English, ‘And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis’, in the fifth issue of New Verse. In Paris, Gascoyne was researching the book that would become A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935, published with cover artwork by Max Ernst), which offered a crash course in Surrealism for an English audience underexposed to the movement. The book offers an uncritical history of the movement, and mostly repeats Breton’s various accounts.
In his first manifesto, Breton emphasises that Surrealism’s genesis is dialectical, a synthesis of Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxian historical materialism_
I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. 7
Twelve years later, Gascoyne also asserted Surrealism’s dialectical constitution, though his account is more historical, and roots Surrealism in the earlier Dada movement. The French Surrealists, he writes,
were perhaps the least Dada elements of the movement (which wasn’t a movement), the non-conforming Dadaists, who became Surrealists. So I think we can say that the development from Dadaism to Surrealism was dialectical. Dada: negation. Surrealism_ negation of negation; a new affirmation, that is. 8
Other critics in England had recognised that Surrealism was borne from Dada, though they had not considered that the relationship between the two might be anything other than a linear continuation. In essays in The Criterion in the 1920s, for example, F. S. Flint had treated Surrealism as a straightforward extension of Dada—and because he had lost patience with Dadaist nihilism, he was unwilling to engage with Surrealism. Wyndham Lewis, too, thought of Surrealism as ‘post-Dada’, and therefore as a form of pseudo-radicalism not worth much attention. 9 Contrary to the more recent assumption that ‘the English’ were unaware of the cultural and intellectual sources from which French Surrealism sprang, these examples suggest that established modernists in England felt that Surrealism was passĂ© even before it began. We might remember that the Bloomsbury group had introduced Freud to literary circles in England a decade prior to Breton’s claims on him in the first manifesto.
Nonetheless, English supporters of Surrealism were keen to establish its singularity. They agreed that it was a dialectical response to something, but that something varied. The dialectical method was important to French and English Surrealists as a means of historicising their practice and of justifying their authenticity to Marxist-Leninist authorities. English Surrealism had emerged with a heightened awareness of its political character because Breton’s French movement by the mid-1930s had experienced a long-running yet fraught relationship with the Third International and the French Communist Party. 10 By 1935, SurrĂ©alisme had moved—or had been pushed—away from orthodox Marxism after the Third International had proven unreceptive towards an aesthetic practice so distanced from its own conception of proletarian art.
While English Surrealism never engaged political affiliations so directly, not least because the British Communist Party was never as prominent as its French comrades, it still negotiated the French movement’s difficult relationship with doctrinaire Socialist Realism, which had become Soviet state policy in 1932. 11 Because of their geopolitical distance from actually existing socialism, the English Surrealists generally paid more attention to Marxist philosophy, particularly its philosophy of history, than to the type of tactical manoeuvring that came to preoccupy Breton. Abstract dialectical materialism was more of a driving force to Surrealist activity in England than was the development of proletarian art or the maintenance of Party allegiances.
A review of Gascoyne’s A Short Survey of Surrealism by Cyril Connolly, titled ‘It’s got here at last!’ and published on 14 December 1935, recognises a more immediate reason for bringing Surrealism to England. Connolly declares himself uninterested in the movement’s literary productions, ‘for much of Surrealist literature is fatuous and pretentious nonsense.’ 12 Instead, he celebrates,
the pugnacious side of the movement. You sign manifestos and send indecent postcards to people you don’t like, tease writers, frighten parents, attend meetings, expel heretics (and there are always plenty), play practical jokes, table-turn, and generally tweak the tail of that old circus lion, the British Bourgeoisie. 13
Connolly recognises the ludic ethos of Surrealism, its wilfully juvenile desire to provoke and be mischievous, which preserves what he identifies as an instinctive but easily forgotten ‘hatred of stupidity, injustice, and stagnation.’ 14 These were accurate observations, and might be applied to many of the figures who will be addressed in this book. At the very least, in Connolly’s analysis, Surrealism promised moments of resistance to what Breton called the ‘lusterless fate’ of bourgeois life. 15
The negative identity of English Surrealism—the social conditions that it opposed—is easier to discern than any unified, coherent programme. Most would-be English Surrealists agreed that their movement needed to oppose the prevailing images of conservative English nationalism. A selection of examples will demonstrate this consensus (I shall discuss the contexts of these sources shortly). Edouard Roditi, one of the earliest commentators on Surrealism in England, complains that ‘the Surrealist Muse’
does not often descend upon English soil; for she is terrified of the poet laureate, the censor, the conservative association, buy British goods, empire day, do your Christmas shopping early, the Queen’s doll’s house, sales on now, why not wear the Boston garter. 16
Gascoyne also voiced his distaste for nationalism, which found a concentrated image in King George V’s Silver Jubilee. ‘When a country is invited by its government to such a parody of rejoicing in the name of patriotism and imperialism,’ wrote Gascoyne, ‘despair is the first reaction of the poet.’ 17 English conservatism, as represented by its enduring monarchy in contrast to republican France, was evidence of England’s tardiness in revolutionary matters, and of the need fo...