Sunday, 2 January 2022

Josef Janda (1950-2021)


Josef Janda (1950-2021)

I first met Josef Janda at Prague airport in August 1991, with his friend and fellow surrealist Jakub Effenberger. I knew Josef’s name from a poem in an anthology of translations in Dunganon. It soon became apparent that Josef took the business of foreign surrealists visiting Prague very seriously and he organised several lengthy walks around the city that, however long, and however picturesque, would always end in the cheapest pubs imaginable. Towards the end of our stay, Josef offered me an exhibition in Prague which led to my returning to Prague the following April.

My exhibition took place in the Junior Club, an important hangout for the dissidents under the old regime. Josef not only set up the exhibition, but got a poem of mine translated and wrote an article in a Czech daily newspaper that, rather amazingly, gave me equal space with Chagall and David Bowie. I started to realise that Josef was a more of a force in the Czech cultural scene than I had supposed, he was an unassuming man whose limited English led to long silences when he thought out what he was going to say.

I was not the only foreign surrealist to benefit from his kind efforts, a few years later he was asked to give poetry readings in Wales and he stayed with us in London, both on the way to and on his return from, Swansea. I later found out that his poetry readings had been a great success, with him speaking the poems in Czech and somebody then reading the translation. He left many friends and admirers in Swansea.

This led to an important exhibition at the Glyn Vivian Gallery in Swansea by the Czech and Slovak Surrealist Group in 1998, “Invention Imagination Interpretation”. The majority of British surrealists travelled to Swansea in order to meet the Czech surrealists and see their work at first hand. This was the first of a number of collaborative exhibitions that Josef helped to organise. One fruit of this was a volume of his poems translated into English and published by Dark Windows Press, Free Style. It was fascinating to at last see Josef’s poetic vision set out in English. The poems are usually humorous, curious fantasies of golems and werewolves populate a wasteland, sometimes with a deceptive air of solemnity and a genuine melancholy. The humour is dark and often concerned, at least partly with death. There is an anarchic a touch of Peret in his poetic voice and in his quietly savage irony such as here:


When a leg falls off a man

He can still hop on the other

And when the other falls off

He can easily roll down a hill.

It’s good to be an optimist

Even after death it’s best to stay close-lipped

And rot in bed silently.


I had been unable to travel much for several years and when my circumstances improved, I looked forward to returning to Prague and re-establishing contact and meeting with him again. Now that can never happen. Josef was a true poet, a true surrealist and a true friend. Many people will miss him, I am just one of that many.


Josef Janda (1950-2021)

Somebody has cut out an anti-collage from reality

It is in the shape of Josef Janda

And there is an absence in the world

In the shape of Josef Janda

The shadows of leaves

In the shape of birds

Will fall endlessly

In the cellars of Prague

And the shadows of birds

Will make nests

In the shape of Josef Janda’s beard

And all the werewolves in the world

Will call to each other

Throughout the night

Friday, 12 March 2021


The following is still a rough draft, but I thought I would publish it on my blog and see if it gets any comments. I intend to revise it over the next few days, possibly quite a lot. Agamben's work informed my choice of name for this blog. If the powers that be have their way, the space that remains shall be greatly diminished forever. I consider it worth thinking through some of these issues.

Giorgio Agamben's latest work, "Where Are We Now?" is subtitled "The Epidemic As Politics." This tells the reader quite a lot of what to expect. It is rather different to most of his works as it is a response to a current situation, like State of Exception, but unlike that previous volume, it is a series of very short articles, often written for newspapers, and brief interviews. The chapters are in chronological order, so we can see the development and gradual focusing of Agamben's thoughts on the subject.

It starts a little unpromisingly as he doubts the seriousness of the epidemic, and more than once he seems peevish at being misrepresented by a journalist or complaining that newspapers refuse to publish an article, also, one might be a little startled at the claim on the first page of the Foreword where he says "it's irrelevant whether it (the pandemic) is real or simulated" however, Agamben has definitely not joined the tin foil hat brigade and, as he starts to articulate his thoughts on the crisis more clearly, we can see a lot of things that have happened in Italy that apply to most countries, and are certainly familiar to anybody living in the UK.

The sense in which it doesn't matter whether the pandemic is real or not is the way it is being used by the rulers of this world. If, instead of fantasising about reptilian overlords or Illuminati or fiendishly clever criminal conspiracies, we see the shifty, somewhat inept, but power-hungry actual rulers tempted by opportunities to extend their power.little by little, in the long term, while getting our agreement to go along with a "state of exception" in which most of our rights and freedoms are abrogated. We have to ask, just how much of our accustomed freedom will be returned to us?

But who, in the short term, is not willing to set aside freedoms and intimacy, for the common good, when it is genuinely an exception? The point is, as Agamben puts it, the state of exception has become the rule.

As I write, many are increasingly worried about Priti Patel's plans to limit the right to protest. (See here: This is not the only example, and I'm sure anybody who bothers to read this can think of other examples on an international scale.

Where Are We Now? can be seen as a codicil to Agamben's Homo Sacer project which in turn founds itself on the basis of Foucault's considerations of biopolitics and 'bare life'. In the current work, bare life is the insistence on continuing to live, no matter what,  despite the loss of the public sphere, social intercourse, intimacy. This loss renders us helpless, fed by supermarket deliveries and Amazon. Everybody is now unfamiliar, masked and distanced, and an alienated society becomes more, even more, alienated thane we might ever have imagined.

For Agamben, and I absolutely agree with him here, we simply can not just return to normal, the normality of borgeois democracy is broken and we must not accept tyranny by stealth, the breaking of the intimate bonds of society, all real intersubjective communication, living out endlessly miserable and afraid, alienated, socially distanced lives. We shall have to reclaim the public realm for ourselves and find new ways to live. That is the most essential message of this fascinating, but imperfect book, and a demand on us to reclaim our freedom.

We know that the pandemic is real enough, I know people who have been very seriously affected by it, and it is clear that the government, like many governments, has mishandled it disasterously. But all this is more than the pandemic itself, it is a symptom of a world dying before our eyes. It is always up to us, collectively, to determine what sort of world we shall live in.

Agamben, Giorgio (2021) Where Are We Now? The Epidemic As Politics. Translated by Valeria Dani. London. Eris.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Zones of Freedom?

Vigilant readers of this blog (if they exist) will have noted a recurring theme around the question "what is surrealist time?" and consequently the meshing of time and space. I suggested that a model of discontinuous time might serve us better than say, the flow and duration of Bergson, that discontinuity, building upon Bachelard's Instant allowed a breach in the flow of capitalist time and this might in turn allow 'free time' to come into play.
Free time seems to require a consciousness of freedom, so not just that no demands are being made of our time by our bosses, external or internal (isn't the superego the ultimate boss?) but a break from the cycle of production and consumption - useless time, as it were. I didn't think that in saying this, I had reached some extraordinary originality, even in the way I stitched together pieces of a discourse, but I did feel it had some merit and was something that surrealists were not discussing enough, or in sufficient depth. (I may be wrong, but then I'd like to see a better dialogue about these matters in order to improve my own awareness.)
This 'free time' is, in itself, clearly inadequate. It suggests a moment of eruption of freedom and then a return to the life of work and effective servitude to capitalism, even in one's officially sanctified leisure. Nevertheless, it is also, I think, necessary. Not one eruption, but many, together or not, slowly weakening the fabric of oppression, allowing the idea of real freedom to permeate. When I had thought this through to some level of coherence, I saw that it had obvious parallels with Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone. (See: but then I had not considered that I was saying anything astoundingly original, only articulating it in a different way and context.
Most spaces are, in various ways, alienated. They are owned and privatised, fenced off. We are allowed runways from space to space in order to go to and return for work, we can enter spaces as employees, or as consumers, the spaces we are allowed to roam freely are very limited, even in the countryside, most space is owned and fenced off. This has all become more evident over the last year, as many restrictions during the Covid 19 pandemic have made many spaces less available than ever before, and at various times we have not even been able to loiter, but have to move on, exercise, spend our money and return home.
Regarding the last, I am not complaining so much, as I am not a conspiracy theorist who believes the pandemic to be fake. I do, however, note that our freedom was already limited and is far more curtailed, and we will have to be sure that this curtailment is not installed as a regular feature of our lives post-Covid. people can have terribly short memories, and the memory of greater freedom can pass into legend in a disturbingly short time.
Fortunately for me, a modest blog post like this is not expected to set everything right or provide the perfect theory. (PHEW!) However, I think it is worth reminding people of the importance of reclaiming our spaces, take wandering to the limits, even now, and as Covid 19 becomes a memory, reclaim our freedom of public spaces and start to enlarge them, discover new zones of freedom, make the world at large a playground.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021




Every now and then I do get comments to my blog posts and I’m grateful for that, as it shows somebody, somewhere, reads them. However, some people like to unleash what the obviously believe to be pretty damning insults, possibly intended to get me really riled up, presumably. You know, like five-year olds: “You’re stinky!” “No! You’re stinky!” Maybe at a less sophisticated level though. Here are two recent ones:

Comment on post UNDERGROUND (Tuesday, 26 November 2019)

From what I see here, Stuart, you are a rather pretentious pseudo-intellectual with no real grasp of what surrealism is. You espouse a myriad of dogmatic notions in order to elevate yourself as some kind of self appointed authority on matters. You remind me of a person who not only is in love with the smell of their own farts, but, a person who enjoys quaffing them from a wine glass. I see no real understanding of surrealism or of anything else here either.

Comment on post THE SURREALIST COMMUNITY (Wednesday, 6 November 2019)

Its funny you mentioned narcissism because I noticed this in another of your posts. I can't see how you are a surrealist at all. Your writing isn't surrealist and doesn't show a trace of understanding what surrealism is. Thats Breton's ideas of surrealism and those outside of Breton as well. You seem to me to be an unhappy bitter windy old fellow with narcissim problems.


I have always thoroughly despised people who post insults anonymously, as you have here. There’s no substance to anything you say, just empty insults. At no point do you argue with anything I have said, attempted to put a different point of view. If I am all you say, at least I have the courage to put my name to my opinions. Whereas you are a gutless piece of shit, lacking the courage even to put your name to an online comment. What else would I have to say to such cowardly stupidity? Maybe try again when you have grown up or grown a spine?

Friday, 8 January 2021



A Mirror to the Debutante


While I enjoyed both issues of the new journal The Debutante[1], I do also have several problems with it, one of which is its declared nature as a journal of “feminist-surrealism”. The first issue contains a very brief “Feminist-Surrealist Manifesto” which does nothing much to clarify the editors’ relationship to Surrealism as the journal and its contributors seem to be ignorant of contemporary Surrealism.

As a man writing about a publication, almost entirely by women, and avowedly feminist, I would not wish to be disparaging about either, however, a magazine that calls itself surrealist and yet seems to have so little awareness of much of surrealism seems to me to be asking for trouble. The most obvious problem with the term ‘feminist-surrealist’ is not that it foregrounds feminism, but that it implies that other surrealists are not feminist. This is not only simply wrong, but seems to me rather insulting to the many women who have been involved in the surrealist movement over the course of a century.

What knowledge of surrealism they demonstrate is mostly historical and that mostly art-historical. They seem to want to claim a lot of very disparate women artists and some art historians as ‘feminist-surrealists’ who challenge “the patriarchal structures of canonical surrealism” [2]

At this point I have to ask “What patriarchal structures?” I see nothing in surrealism as such that is inherently male, masculinist or patriarchal. Perhaps I’m being blind here, but if so I need accurate analyses of these factors, not only to be aware of them, but in order to help dismantle them. What we do have to acknowledge is that surrealism was almost entirely founded by men, they were mostly disaffected and traumatised young men who, in the wake of the Great War wished to find, not new ways of making art, but new ways of living and understanding life, an effort that required a revolution. It is impossible to doubt that, despite their youth and their intent, they carried a great deal of cultural baggage with them. They were born at the end of the 19th century and many of the early works show, at best, a lack of clarity on gender issues. The volume Investigating Sex[3] does André Breton few favours, for instance, but many commentators have reacted as if comments made in a discussion in the late 20s were definitive of the status of women in surrealism, and the last word on the subject. This view needs to be challenged.

What is especially disconcerting about The Debutante is that they seem oblivious to Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist Women[4] which, over 20 years ago addressed many of their concerns and, I think I am right in saying this, in presenting the work of over 100 women surrealists, was a corrective to the biased and inaccurate account of Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. However, even Rosemont had to admit to little evidence of surrealist activity by women a hundred years ago, though there were contributors to surrealist journals such as Nancy Cunard, and we should always mention Simone Breton, who was at the centre of the original group, not merely an appendage of  André.

Successive decades of surrealist activity have shown an ever-growing proportion of women involved, and to the point where, in some groups, there is not only equity, but women can even outnumber men, and not just as artists or poets, but as theoreticians and political activists. Just as a very random sample, I might mention Emila Medkova, Suzanne Cesaire[5], Nora Mitrani, Eva Svankmajerova, Joyce Mansour, Jayne Cortez, Sarah Metcalf, Merl Fluin,  Casi Cline and , Annie Le Brun.

The last named has actually been described as an ‘anti-feminist’, which I think is a considerable misunderstanding. Le Brun wrote a number of texts, mostly published in a volume Lachez Tout[6] which lambasts the popular feminism of the time. For Le Brun, much of what passed for feminism was a sell-out and an inverted image of patriarchy, substituting an equally oppressive Matriarchy for Big Daddy. Establishment feminism could be said to point to the ‘glass ceiling’ and demand that women join the boardrooms of great corporations in much greater numbers, and while there are boardrooms, it is hard to argue against female representation there, but the point, surely, is for men and women alike to abolish boardrooms?

Put differently, for me, the point is not to dismiss identity politics as irrelevant, but not to regard identity issues as separate from the central political and social issues either. A genuinely radical movement will always be in favour of the liberation of women, ethnic minorities, gays and other sexualities, the disabled…everybody, in fact. It only works if those various groups, rather than focus entirely on their own particular concerns as black, gay, female, whatever, consider liberation as a whole, how it applies to each and every group, and to each other. Anything else fragments and fails.

There’s another problem, the often fraught question of who is a surrealist. This is sometimes framed as a seemingly narrow question of identity and I know that Merl Fluin, for instance, has pointed out a number of times that Georges Bataille was not a surrealist. In the most literal sense, this is certainly true, and I think that Merl’s concern here is less with establishing an overly dogmatic judgement on the issue as much as defending surrealism against misconceptions such as those revealed in Hal Foster’s Compulsive Beauty[7] which posits a “Bretonian Surrealism” and a “Bataillean Surrealism” going head to head in a sort of battle for supremacy. This ignores the facts that Bataille didn’t call himself a surrealist and many of his colleagues were far from being surrealist in any way whatsoever. I have known people to attack surrealism on the basis of Bataille’s and his friends, actions and ideas rather than those of Breton and the people who actually identified as surrealists, and when one of those people associated with Bataille proposes a ‘sur-fascism’ – I hope you see my point. However, we also have to remember that not only did Breton and Bataille collaborate on Contre-Attaque, but later became friends and Breton invited Bataille to collaborate in both the 1947 and 1959 International Surrealist Exhibitions. Bataille referred to himself as surrealism’s ‘old enemy from within’, not in order to simply destroy it, but to undermine what he saw as it’s too idealistic  elements and to remake its more revolutionary and experiential components over its artistic ones. Many surrealists have considered Bataille as an expression of the surrealist spirit and even as an opposite pole to Breton in that spirit, which at the very least suggests that we should consider being surrealist in terms other than simple identity.

Another aspect of the same problem that I have often encountered is when somebody contacts me, ostensibly about surrealism, and promptly enthuses about an artist with few, if any, links to surrealism. If we include that artist’s own comments on the matter, the conversation might go like this.

Fan: “I love X, X is my favourite surrealist!”

X: “I am not a surrealist, I don’t much like surrealism.”

Me: “X is not a surrealist”

Fan: “You are SOOO narrow-minded!”

You see the problem. The easiest solution would seem to be to ask, when the person did not themselves identify as a surrealist, or participate in surrealist activities, whether they are of surrealist interest. As an example, consider Malcolm De Chazal. His religious ideas kept him separate from the surrealists, but his ideas were crucial to thinking about poetic analogy in the post-war period. He is, in many ways, alongside surrealism, there were real points of contact and influence. Like Bataille, but in a very different way, he can’t be considered wholly apart from surrealism, and surrealism would be poorer without him, but he can’t be wholly subsumed within surrealism either. It would be disrespectful to the person as well as detrimental to the truth.

The artists included in The Debutante are often asked about the ways in which they are ‘feminist-surrealists’. This presupposes that they do identify as such and I am afraid that too often their responses are not very enlightening, show little knowledge of contemporary surrealism – and usually not much of it historically either – and usually are not questioned in any depth as to what this might mean.

This might all be seen as a hostile critique of The Debutante, I don’t feel it is, however. I remember, with some embarrassment, things I said and wrote in my earliest days identifying as a surrealist. My naiveté was considerable, my heart was in the right place, and, fortunately, few saw my more stupid statements. Armed with more knowledge and slightly more intellectual sophistication, I am not sure I avoided saying anything stupid either. The question here is whether the editors of The Debutante are willing to undergo a thorough revision of their initial attitudes, or stick with what, in expression at any rate, is a fundamental misconception of surrealism.  I think that if they choose the former, a dialogue might be fruitful, not in selling a feminist surrealism, but in articulating a surrealist feminism and making that more explicit and developed could be interesting indeed.

[1] The Debutante: The Feminist-Surrealist arts journal. (2020) Issues 1 and 2. Edinburgh. (

[2] Interview with Penny Slinger. In: The Debutante (2020) Issue 1. Edinburgh. P.21-24.

[3] Investigating Sex (1992) Ed. Jose Pierre, Dawn Ades. London Verso Books.

[4] Rosemont, P. (1998) Surrealist Women: An international anthology. Austin. University of Texas Press.

[5] A pleasant surprise to see a short piece on Suzanne Cesaire on their blog:

[6] Le Brun, Annie. (1978)  Lachez Tout. Paris. Le Sagittaire.

[7] Foster, Hal (1995) Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge MA. October Books. MIT Press.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

When Autumn Is Spring

I am growing old. Despite my best attempts, I am ageing and now, at the age of 66 I am about to retire. And when I retire I shall move house, leave London, where I have lived all my life and move to Wiltshire with Jane.
This is the most significant change in my life since I left work to go to art school, back in 1979. Like then, I intend to focus on painting, an activity I ceased to enjoy many years ago and now feel I have a good basis for resuming with curiosity and with relish, not to mention a certain amount of anxiety. I might make a mess of it and find that my urge to paint is a kind of dying spasm of what was once a passion. I don't know, but I must find out.
I will no longer be earning my living, except for a small amount of teaching for the Open University, which will provide me with some extra income. We shall be living in a cottage in the countryside a short distance from Fonthill Abbey, the home of William Beckford, the author of 'Vathek', possibly a suitable neighbourhood for a surrealist?
We shall have a studio as big as the little flat I currently live in, and a large garden that ends in a winterbourne that, when it flows, flows into Fonthill Lake. Some of our nearest neighbours will be sheep.
I am growing old, and yet I also feel as if I am undergoing a kind of rebirth. I remember when we asked Toni del Renzio, shortly after his 90th birthday, to join the London Surrealist Group and he said "I feel as if I am entering a whole new period of my life". sadly, at that age, it was not to be, and he died about a year later, but as somebody from a long-lived family, I can hop to last, maybe as long as Toni del Renzio, and this can indeed be a kind of spring, a renewal of life and of my vital forces, my creativity. I don't know, maybe it is just my overly optimistic dream? But then don't I owe it to myself to at least try to live that dream to the utmost? Who can stand in my way but myself?

Thursday, 28 May 2020