Surrealism And Secret Shit

A suggestive article in the March issue of Fortean Times (FT) explores the “hidden links” between Surrealism and Forteanism. It makes some intriguing connections, but ultimately its argument doesn’t come off.

Surrealists and Forteans can’t help but be excited by some of the same phenomena, although they may not always know or care very much about each other’s methods or worldviews. Robert Guffey, the author of this FT article, is certainly not the first to have noticed the overlaps between Surrealism and Forteanism: in 1968 Pauwels and Bergier  argued that Fort anticipated both Dada and Surrealism in his “defiant refusal to play at a game where everybody cheats, a furious insistence that there is ‘something else’.” For Guffey that “something else” revolves around chance and coincidences. The argument of the article is that in their respective explorations of apparently extraordinary coincidences, Breton and Fort effectively made the same discovery: meaningful coincidences, a phenomenon which Jung later conceptualised as synchronicity.

The article contains some of the usual journalistic howlers about Surrealism, but it’s by no means unsympathetic in tone or intent, and draws a number of parallels that Surrealists would and in some cases do draw themselves, notably between collage and alchemy.

Guffey recognises that the object of Surrealism is to transform the world, and he argues that the “pattern recognition” involved in Surrealist experiences of objective chance are one way in which to achieve that transformation – “to find connections where there are none, to reconstruct reality to our own satisfaction”. Fort’s work, he argues, was another example of exactly this kind of grand-scale pattern recognition, and Guffey cites Fort’s own understanding of the importance of coincidences:

By a coincidence is meant a false appearance, or suggestion, of relations among circumstances. But anybody who accepts that there is an underlying oneness of all things, accepts that there are no utter absences of relations among circumstances – Or that there are no coincidences.

It’s in the gap between these two formulations that Guffey’s argument collapses. He connects Surrealism to pattern recognition in the sense of a transformative quest for “connections where there are none”. Yet almost in the same breath he quotes a passage in which Fort insists that there are connections (“the underlying oneness of all things”). Guffey thinks he’s demonstrating the extent to which Forteanism and Surrealism are the same here, but in fact he’s accidentally put his finger on precisely the point where the two differ in their views of coincidences.

Surrealism insists that the connections revealed in flashes of objective chance are newly forged: circumstantial-magical convulsions in which previously separate causal chains of events become fused. Objective chance does indeed make connections where there are none, transmuting external reality through the alchemical power of desire. It’s about the dialectical creation of a wholly new and unknown reality; creating patterns rather than merely recognising them. Forteanism, on the other hand, looks for connections that already exist and are merely hidden (and having found them is just as likely to reject them again, refusing to settle on a single explanatory framework, although Guffey does not mention this core aspect of Fort’s practice).

It’s at this point that Guffey draws the parallel between collage and alchemy, as if to glue a piece of shiny paper over the crack in the argument. He writes:

Like an alchemist, [Fort] was able to take base materials – turgid volumes of recent and not-so-recent history – and reshape them into pure strangeness, or gold by any other name. Max Ernst exhibited the same talent in his surrealist collages, in which he connected unrelated elements into what were often familiar landscapes, populating them with unexpected hybrids and alien creatures. If Ernst did this consciously and Fort unconsciously, in the end it doesn’t matter. Any self-respecting alchemist would be proud of either result.

Perhaps it’s a meaningful coincidence that the March issue of Icecrawler/Heelwalker makes some rather pointed remarks about the supposed parallel between alchemy and collage, particularly the reduction of alchemy to the juxtaposition or combination of unrelated elements and/or the creation of hybrids. The point about alchemy is that it is not “the same as collage, combining two elements to produce a new third [… but instead] is about metamorphosis, the transmutation of matter (and, by manifest analogy, man and the world) through hard work which is primarily artisanal and mystic, and then perhaps in some sense artistic and/or scientific”. It’s the metamorphosis and transmutation that are the essential thing for Surrealism, not simply the combination of apparently unrelated elements into new patterns. What Fort was doing with his compendia of damned data may have been akin to collage, but it was nothing like alchemy. His epistemological experiments with scientific paradigms were decades ahead of their time, but he was not attempting to transmute matter, or to transform the world.

Guffey’s article is an extract from his forthcoming book, which has the painfully marketable title Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy as Art Form. He defines cryptoscatalogy as “the study of secret shit”, a quest through apparent detritus in search of “something else” beyond consensus reality, and claims that it was practised by both Breton and Fort – which it clearly was, up to a point. Presumably the focus on pattern recognition will form part of a wider argument in the book about conspiracy thinking. To judge from this article, the book itself is likely to mirror both the strengths and weaknesses of such thinking, which has the power to bring together hitherto separate causal chains, but which – except in rare and beautiful cases of great paranoiac frenzy – does so by reducing everything in those chains to the status of interchangeable tokens of a pre-existing hidden reality, whether that be the Babylonian Brotherhood, Opus Dei, or simply the underlying oneness of all things. There are certainly points of contact and overlap between Fortean and Surrealist interests, but that does not mean that the two practices amount to the same thing (or that either of them is the same as Jungianism, another thread in Guffey’s article, which I will not unravel here).

Guffey approvingly cites Fort’s complaint at the laziness with which conventional thinking tends to greet extraordinary coincidences, but his presentation of damned data, objective chance, synchronicity and Tibetan tulpas as essentially all the same phenomenon demonstrates that so-called unconventional thinking can be just as lazy. An intriguing collage of information, but nothing that need detain the alchemists.

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