The perfume of the abyss
Reviewed by Clara B. Jones
“[Surrealism is] psychic automatism in its pure state…dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” André Breton
Graduate student: Hi, professor.
Professor: Welcome back! Is anything wrong? You sounded breathless over the phone.
GS: I imagine so—i am excited but, also, concerned. I think I have found a thesis topic but am not sure that you will approve.
P: Ah! You’ve been struggling with this since last semester—what have you come up with?
GS: Well, my partner and I went to Berlin on holiday and stayed in the boutique hotel, Hommage à Magritte…
P: …interesting, sounds like fun!
GS: It was! And, I came across a book in the hotel bookstore that I think might allow me to explore the French Symbolist movement! The author is an Australian, Mark Young, a poet and editor, and his collection, The perfume of the abyss, gave me a lot of ideas for research. The book’s title is the title of one of Magritte’s paintings.
P: Oh! I read his brilliant vispo volume, les échiquiers effrontés, last year. I believe he is a student of Surrealism, not, Symbolism, though the two movements are related. “…effrontés” was inspired by Marcel Duchamp. What about “…abyss?”
GS: Magritte, of course, though, the book is heavily coded and there are direct or indirect references to many other artists—writers and painters, mostly, and their works.
P: What topic have you considered? Surrealism began in the 1920s, after World War I, and was influential until the mid 1960s. That is a lot to cover in a Master’s thesis, don’t you think?
GS: Well, yes, and no. I want to use Young’s symbolism to explore its contribution to the themes of the unconscious, dreams, and reality throughout the history of contemporary art.
P: Ummm, that is very ambitious. You will need to condense your ideas to something manageable for a 1-year project. How about limiting yourself to the relationship between Surrealism’s view of the unconscious and reality as Young interprets it in his new book?
GS: Yes, that sounds like a good plan. Where should I start?
P: I would suggest that you begin with the French writer, Guillaume Apollinaire, who influenced the poet, André Breton, the primary developer of Surrealism. A Belgian Marxist, Breton was closely associated with Magritte and others, several of whom combined a commitment to radical politics with dedication to their creative work.
GS: Do you consider Young to be a Surrealist—what would that mean, anyway?
P: You will be the expert on those questions when you receive your degree. However, based upon my reading, you will want to explore several “devices” used by Surrealists. Perhaps, the most important is “automatic writing” produced by the unconscious rather than the conscious. Breton admonished his associates to, “Just write!” Also…
GS: …Young practices “automatic writing!” Listen to this! “This piece is / a note on this piece. / She found it unicorned inside the / hiding-place of those animals / that did not make it onto the Ark.” or, “…every guitarist, / at some point, has / their sound modified / by a distortion gen- / erated by an area / of machine learning.”
P: Yes! You’ve got the idea! Another characteristic of the Surrealists is “juxtaposition”—the unexpected grouping of opposing or unrelated things creating the absurd. Young employed juxtaposition frequently in “…effrontés.” Surrealists, also…
GS: …Young relies on juxtaposition quite a bit in “…abyss.” For example, “’real maple syrup / shows promise in protecting brain / health,’ when combined with the / original concepts of kindergartens, / reflect a truth in human development.” or, “In no particular / order, raindrops keep / falling from the ceil- / ing, a candle halos / but provides no light.” The poet, also, includes several vispo poems in “…abyss,” juxtaposing words and images.
P: Good! Depending upon how heavily you want to rely on critics, Marjorie Perloff has much to say about “collage poetry” and juxtaposition. I am very fond of her comment, “Each element in the collage has a kind of double function: it refers to an external reality even as its compositional thrust is to undercut the very referentiality it seems to assert.” Here, Perloff seems in sync with the Surrealists, suggesting an inherent contradiction in the practice of certain avant garde compositions. You will, also, want to keep in mind that the Surrealists saw their project as a transformational one, not only to change what we think of as Art, but, also, to change society. Thus, the group around Breton created a revolutionary, collective imagination that he termed, “exquisite corpse.”
GS: In “…abyss,” Young does not speak of a revolutionary community per se, though some of his poems are political and bring to mind psychosocial transformations, especially, as they may relate to the ideas of Sigmund Freud. One of Magritte’s paintings is titled, “The Pleasure Principle,” after Freud’s famous text, and the apple is symbolic throughout Magritte’s work, as well as, Young’s poems.
P: Ummm, Young employed repetition in “…effrontés,” also, though the Surrealists did not emphasize this device. You will want to identify Young’s own “voice” as it is similar to but, also, different from, the ideas set forth in Breton’s 1924 manifesto. We will have an opportunity to discuss your project as it unfolds. Your research will reveal other characteristics of Surrealist works, such, as the tendency to draw upon other cultures, the use of uncanny images, and “doubling” whereby an artist’s rendering is not the “thing itself.” The most important concept to keep in mind as you proceed is that the Surrealists were reimagining Art, artists, and society as a whole. You might want to begin writing with the question: What is the relationship between individual and social liberation and freedom? And, of course, you will consider all of Surrealism’s features as they relate directly to “…abyss” and to Young’s style.
GS: Thank you; this has been a productive session for me; I am relieved and can’t wait to get started! See you at our next meeting!
Clara B. Jones, a woman of color, is a Knowledge Worker practicing in Silver Spring, MD, USA. Among other writings, she is author of Poems for Rachel Dolezal (Gauss PDF, 2019).