Are You Really Syrious?

Surrealism, Occultism and Politics: In Search of the Marvellous
Edited by Tessel M. Bauduin, Victoria Ferentinou & Daniel Zamani
273 pages + 16 colour plates
Published by Routledge

Image in the public domain

Honestly, you have to wonder what goes through their heads sometimes. “Look at those funny people over there, they say they want to ‘change life’ and ‘transform the world’! I wonder what it all means? I’d better go read some <Deleuze/Irigaray/Foucault/Derrida/insert modish theorist here> to find out…”

Yes, folks, it’s another one of those books on Surrealism, just in time for your Christmas stocking, if you have £110 to spare. (It is possible to find free and probably illegal pdf versions on dodgy download sites, allegedly.) Most Surrealists looking at this blog post probably don’t need to read on: a quick perusal of the book’s table of contents will tell you what to expect, for good or ill. I’m writing this review more for the benefit of my magic-minded friends who are sympathetically interested in Surrealism but perhaps not very familiar with the contemporary Surrealist movement, and for whom books like this might at first glance seem tempting.

First things first. A fair wedge of the material in this book is about people who were not in fact Surrealists. This is perfectly normal for academic or art-historical publications that get marketed with the word “Surrealism” on the cover. In this case, the Grand Jeu group and Maya Deren, for example, both get whole chapters to themselves. Some of the essays’ authors do have the gumption to acknowledge that their subjects were not Surrealists, but others seem oblivious of the difference, and an uninformed reader might be forgiven for concluding that Bataille in particular was a Surrealist innovator on a par with Breton. (For the record: Georges Bataille was not a Surrealist.) Perhaps the worst culprit is the final chapter, which follows a pattern familiar from recent gallery exhibitions as well as edited collections by discussing Surrealism’s supposed “legacy” in the work of artists who have fuck-all to do with it. That this chapter is part of a section of the book specifically devoted to women merely adds insult to injury.

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Because if you want to find out what Surrealists today are saying or doing with occultist or magical themes, this book will not tell you. Look elsewhere: start with David Nadeau, Gina Litherland, Peter Dubé, Niklas Nenzén (not only his paintings and drawings, but also his important essay on Gnosticism in Hydrolith Vol. 1) or S.Higgins. Neither these nor any other living Surrealists whatsoever are discussed in this book, and this too is normal for academic or art-historical publications. My surprise at seeing that the introduction’s literature review actually acknowledged Patrick Lepetit’s The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism was considerable, since I had expected it to get as thoroughly ignored as anything else that’s arisen from the contemporary movement. My surprise turned to perplexity when I realised that although Lepetit was acknowledged, there was no mention anywhere of Leon Marvell, a Surrealist sympathiser who works in academia and writes in that idiom. Why no nods to Marvell’s essay on Surrealism and alchemy, at the very least? Perhaps Lepetit’s compendium of names and themes, rollicking romp though it is, is more easily containable as a “secondary source” about Surrealism than Marvell’s methodical argument for Surrealism. For the editors of Surrealism, Occultism and Politics, Surrealism is something to be described from the outside, not advocated or experienced from within.

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And descriptions from the outside are what the essays in this volume duly deliver, ranging from the decent to the drivelling. The standout is Kristoffer Noheden on Wilhelm Freddie, which has the twin virtues of (a) being about a Surrealist and (b) understanding what Surrealism is. Noheden’s essay shares the same basic formula as most of the other, often distinctly inferior, contributions: a bit of introductory background and/or a dissection of “artistic influences”, followed by lengthy descriptions of the texts or visual works in question, and then a summary conclusion. Some of these conclusions are startlingly pedestrian. A 17-page discussion of Kurt Seligmann ends with the announcement that “it is therefore the magical undercurrents of Seligmann’s works that are unmistakably evident” (p.167). We can also note in passing that this author has so little respect for those (under)currents that she dismisses Seligmann’s quarrel with Breton about the occult as “trivial”.

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That’s what bothers me most about this book: not that the authors so often don’t know, but that they so often seem not to care. For them, this Surrealism and occultism stuff all happened long ago and far away. Not only is it dead now, but it was never really alive in the first place: even the most interesting contributions talk about Surrealism in terms of “discourses”, “ideologies”, “socially useful myths”, as if Surrealism were just about producing signifiers, representations and use-values. If Surrealism and occultism are certainly not the same, then it is equally certain that one of the things they have in common is that both are living practices of transformation, not utilitarian generators of discourse.

At their best, the contributions to this volume are interesting footnotes to a body of material that is absent from its pages: the material body of Surrealism, pulsing with desire, aflame with fury, wet with magic. At their worst they will make you want to gouge out your own eyes with a spoon. Of course, at this price it’s not a dilemma that many of the readers of this blog are likely to face, although the political economy of the book trade is a whole nother story. If you’re interested in Surrealism and occultism – or even the mysterious entity known as politics – don’t start here.

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