Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Toni del Renzio

I'm posting here a link to an essay by Toni del Renzio, prefaced by a short memoir by me. This was in the 3rd and final issue of Arcturus. With the growing interest in Ithell Colquhoun, there are increasing mentions of Toni, but little context. The preface gives links in turn to, among other things, an essay by Silvano Levy.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

From Fragments of a Unified Field: Text for the 16th International Surrealist Exhibition 'Sacrilege'

The following text was written, I think, in early 1999. It was written in response to an enquiry sent out by the Czech and Slovak surrealists in preparation for the 16th International Surrealist Exhibition SVATOKRADEZ (Sacrilege: The Magical Against The Sacred) held in Prague later that year and travelling to Plzen. I didn't get to the Prague opening, although just about every surrealist I knew did seem to manage it, and have a fine old time of it, but I did manage to attend the Plzen opening, which I think was held at the town hall, and much of the exhibition, including my drawings, was shown in the cellars - surrealism in the catacombs!

I was once told that my text was rather 'Bataillean' and I was not sure if I should be pleased or not at that, I certainly wasn't seeking to be Bataillean in the least, but I was trying to articulate what a surrealist/magical philosophy might be for me, really for the first time. The title was one I gave to a number of fragmentary, maybe failed, but still interesting - at least to me - texts that tried, maybe too hard, to tie things together in some kind of unity, or find a version of non-duality that fitted my perception of surrealism and of reality. I first published some of these fragments in EXTRANCE, if I can find my copies I'll copy them here. They were written when I was barely computer literate and I have no computer file of them.

I have included the original questionnaire and exhibition proposal at the foot of this text.


It is a question of whether we can accept the splitting of being, its fraying and freezing, the petrifaction of the mind and the body as separate entities.

I have developed a growing dislike for static views of being, supposing us to be ontologically stable, even eternal entities. Describe what it is that makes you what you are. Are you the person you were when you were born? Or the person you were yesterday? Sometimes it seems that we spend our lives in a hall of mirrors, admiring our image, oblivious that the mirrors are unsilvered and we gaze through empty glass, layer upon layer - at what?

Every phoney ideology, religious, political or cultural, either freezes the experience of being or obscures it. Religion either denies the body or relegates it to second place in relation to the soul. Consumerism, vampire of materialism, drags us in directions that deny the inner life. Body and soul, false oppositions. I say that we are not two!

I am not too concerned with other people's personal beliefs, this is their business. It would be too much of a contradiction to accept a radical notion of freedom and then dictate what form that freedom should take. I do not belong to the thought police. However, I am concerned with the social form their beliefs may take; churches, sects, political parties, all alike attempt to consolidate within themselves power both over their members and over society. That is my business.

There is the problem of language. Words like "miraculous" or "sacred" have meanings generally accepted within our culture that do not retain their validity in another context. We can claim that there is a surrealist sacred or a surrealist miraculous, but are we not being deliberately contentious, opposing our sacred to that of religion? That which we find marvellous, that which retains what Walter Benjamin called "aura", is indeed both miraculous and sacred, but this notion is contingent, not on otherworldly power, but immanently, on the power of human subjectivity and its interaction with the world from which it is inseparable.

This sacred - and what makes it miraculous - is twinned with a notion of sacrilege which completes it. I mean that the aura generated by a place, object or experience is simply not to be venerated, but is the subject of a process of enquiry that inevitably violates the temenos, the sacred space. One tears aside the veil of the temple to reach the holy of holies, as it were, not content to worship outside.

Our "profane illumination" is a deeply irreligious experience of the sacred, a sacred within this world and that seeks no other. I reject specifically notions of heaven and hell, higher and lower planes of existence, other worlds, except in as much as the can be understood as representations of subjectivity. Otherworld becomes other (hidden face of this) world.

This privileges subjectivity, the realm of imagination, which needs to be understood as an inseparable component of the totality of reality, and without which there is no reality. Thus imagination is not a flight from reality, but a half of reality and what makes reality real.

But the subjectivity of the individual is not enough. It should not divide us, even if it does not precisely unite us. Between your subjectivity and mine, and that old man in the corner and that woman walking down the street, is a system of accords and discords, attractions and repulsions, that constitute the intersubjective dimension. It is possible to find here, not, certainly, that we are reduced to the mystic fluff of "we are all one", but rather a point at which our individuality is reconciled with the collective without the loss that individuality, which is, however, transformed in the light of intersubjective experience.

To recapitulate, I am asking for a mode of exploration, of ourselves and the world, where our grail is an immanent mundane-miraculous in which self and world are understood, neither as endlessly separate, nor as a reductive unity, but as the poles of a unified field in which the particular and individual are not lost in the context of the general and the collective.

From this perspective, I will readily admit that various occult, hermetic and mystical ideas and practices offer an inspiration to me, not towards belief, but for a different register of critical thought and of experience. They offer a route into the world of analogy which in turn allows access to an "open totality". (By this term I mean something quite opposed to other notions of totality which seems to lend themselves too readily to the word "totalitarian".)

This attitude exists in direct refutation of the new-agers, Stepford wives of the spiritual supermarket, with their "shamanic tai-chi tarot" or "Celtic Voodoo crystal and aromatherapy made easy kit". So much of new-ageism appropriates from different cultures without consideration of the specific context of that practice or belief. Is there not a certain absurdity in British people living in tipis in Wales, preparing to do a Sioux Sundance?

Not belief then, no bowing to gods and self-proclaimed gurus, but what one occultist (Robert Cochrane) called the "driving thirst for knowledge, the forerunner of wisdom". The quest is for poetry as lived experience, in whatever form that it should present itself. If, at times, it should lead to the alchemist's laboratory, we should not be surprised, but we should not be too eager to assume that what we are presented with is always gold.

Prague, December 1998

Dear friends,

in 1998 we have put together an enquiry as part of the propositions for a new exhibition we are preparing now. We hope that the exhibition (Prague – Pilsen, July/September 1999) acquires an international character with the help of your participation. Below is the enquiry (you can answer it briefly individually as well as collectively) and the résumé of our own responses.

An enquiry on sacrilege

1. How would you define "the sacred"? Is there something what you consider sacred? What is, in your opinion, the relation between the sacred and the miraculous?

2. In what sense is (or is not) the word sacrilege pertinent for you?

3. Can you define the contemporary possibilities of subversion - in comparison with the hitherto existing forms of this phenomenon?

Variants of the collective thematic activity (exhibition):

From the enquiry and the previous discussion it emerged that we are still interested in
1. aspects of surrealist interpretation of the miraculous
2. the subversive nature of surrealist activity

In between these two poles - the positive (1) and the negative (2) – an essential, conceptual and also mental tension develops to become the carrier and catalyst of a common activity. At first sight it seems as if we have only copied the basic range of surrealist dialectics and resigned to the concretization and specification of the theme. But that is arguable. Surely the surrealist miraculous has been changing in time: Effenberger´s criticism of Nezval-esque enchantment - that "surrealism with a beardband" has for a long time required further revision. What does "the surrealist miraculous" look like nowadays? Let’s try to find or rediscover it. And what about the second, negative pole? Martin Stejskal describes it in a general yet concrete enough way: "Subversion... is a liberating doubting (of orders and disorders) of the world..., of certainties of which we are often full...,  but always with a humorous subtext." Whoever wants, let him put his sacred cows out to graze or let someone else put them to the slaughter. Anyhow: "without  revolt there is no poetry, without poetry there is no revolt."

Let a title which has to be of course concrete be the outcome of further development. (“Sacrilege”? “Spitting on Stars”? Etc.)

A. Sacrilege and Desecration of sacrilege

Next resistance as a desire for the impossible. Worthless/worshipped. Surrealist targets. Spitting on stars. (Does a poet hold stars in contempt or is he so close to them?). While men of law are composing poetry the poet is on the beat instead of them "to hit the stars with a truncheon" (Karel Šebek). To get hold of fire under the post-modern cauldron... Between taboo and objective chance. Promethean theft... Autovivisection: iconoclasm of surrealism.

B. Surrealist millennium

The “New Old Testament”. Modern chiliasm: computer end of the world = the predicted disaster of computer systems. Imaginary definitions. Analogy: to the Parisian Surrealist almanac from the middle of the century Surrealist civilisation (the shift and  contemporary reflections). As if beyond vision? One thousand years a vision.

C. Symbols of monstrosity II.
Surrealist found objects, confrontation of the development of civilisation’s monstrosity: "How have the monsters grown up so far". From advertising to motoring, music etc. Base - and fundamental - displays of society. Displays of an objective imbecility. Ready-mades. Language like a monster.

The range is undoubtedly heterogeneous in concept (A + C evaluate and project meaning, B more or less defines itself by genre and at first sight is indifferent in value). At the same time, for instance, the group C can contain "sacrilegious" points, the millennium can be "monstrous" etc. This, in our opinion, can hardly be an obstacle, because the outlined proposal is more or less  preliminary and hopefully also a tentative one. Is it also initiatory?

František Dryje, Bruno Solařík

An old game of Latent News

Breaking news, broken news

A man has been jailed for a year after rolling back the Reformation when his mum went to this meeting. Die, you bitch screamed architect my husband and I run a business blasting out easy listening music. A flying dagger saw some drawings that looked like a bag of sweets. There was a strange circus atmosphere, always excruciating, with the Pied Piper near Borough Market. A delightfully perky Mr Griffin smeared homosexuals with roasted beetroot and raspberry, probably the weirdest and most creepy experience of my life.

(Evening Standard Friday 23 October 2009)

The game works best with a physical newspaper and a few players. Phrases are chosen at random from a news story (or more than one in order to get some interesting dissonance.) The resulting text is the latent content of the news story. It may reveal logical, political or psychological oddities. Using newspapers tends to ensure that the most grotesque hidden underside of public life is revealed. I may post more once I have played some new games.

Monday, 2 September 2019

The second annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Surrealism, Exeter.

You may not be surprised to learn that, over the years, I have been more than a little wary of conferences on surrealism. This has not been the result of simple prejudice against academic events, I am, in any case, an academic among other things (albeit one near the bottom of the academic food chain) but my own experience has led to the conclusion that, while conferences of papers by scholars of surrealism are usually poles apart from surrealism itself, far worse in some cases is both an ignorance of current surrealism and an irrelevance contained in the papers to any meaningful relation to surrealism, current or historical. Sometimes even a strange hostility towards the supposed subject of study can manifest.
I had not given a paper at  a major academic conference for many years. I think the last one was Prague Platform, dedicated to the Czech surrealists, in 2004, although I had done postgrad conferences at my main employer, University of Greenwich, since then, but even so, not for a decade. So my decision to give a paper at the 2nd conference of the ISSS (International Society for the Study of Surrealism) held at University of Exeter 29th August to 1st September, surprised even me. I had no financial support for this, and financed myself, so not a scholarly jolly, I really wanted to get my subject properly on the map with a paper titled "The Accursed Science: Surrealism's Analogical Turn". I was greatly encouraged, initially by the knowledge that Penelope Rosemont would be attending, as she had the previous year at the inaugural conference of the Society, but also, when I approached the conference's organisers, a very enthusiastic reception from Felicity Gee.
In short, I registered for the conference and set to writing the paper. Initially it involved a bit of cutting and pasting from existing drafts and also a bit of help from Google Translate for passages in French (you try translating a discussion of Hegel in French - you try translating an English translation of Hegel into English!) but I laboured at it, cut a page or two, rewrote the translated bits the best I could and arrived at a twentyish minutes of material that had at least some flow and quite a lot of substance.
As I arrived in Exeter I foolishly decided to brave the slight drizzle (what they'd call a 'dinge' in parts of East Anglia) and just when it was too late, it turned into a downpour. I saw a woman coming the opposite way down the hill, equally ill-prepared for the Englsh Summer, and she turned out to be Karla Huebner, who has written on Toyen, who, if she's not my favourite surrealist painter is cerrtainly in my top three. (the exact hierarchy changes according to mood, but Toyen is always there). So we had a good conversation while standing under a tree, waiting for the rain to subside a little.
Cutting to the next day, a happily warmer, drier day and registration, followed by lunch, getting to meet people. It was a very, very large conference. Great to meet many people, some old friends along the way, but new people too, some known by reputation, others really quite new. It was really interesting to see how many of these scholars were women, and often young women, a new generation of scholars was quite evident.
What struck me throughout was, despite the endless bustle of rushing from one paper to another, and many conversations were consequently of extreme brevity, there was a warmth to the whole conference, a sense of community rather than of large egos on parade. People were genuinely interested in each other and happily making new friends while reconnecting with old ones. More remarkable in some ways was the willingness to connect with the actual surrealists, whether, active in academia or not, and without the condescension that I have sometimes noticed. (Oh...a surrealist, how quaint...especially as the movement ended in 19...fill in the blank...) It seems that this was always a part of the programme of the ISSS, both to examine more recent expressions of surrealism (and not merely supposed 'legacies') and to seek to involve actual surrealists in discussions of their history and ideas. The only weird thing about this openness is that it seems to be a radical move!
It's fair to say that many surrealists have treated overtures from the academic community with varying degrees of suspicion, not only because of the sort of attitudes I have mentioned, but for fear of co-opting surrealism to the academy. My own feeling on this has always been that it is better to engage, find allies and collaborators, but simultaneously to emphasise the distance between actual surrealist activity and the study of it, however scholarly, responsible and engaged. I'd say of conferences like this one that this necessary distance is respected, while unnecessary distance can then dissolve.
I don't want to paint the conference as some kind of well-informed surrealist paradise, there were papers that seemed less well informed or less relevant to the central matter, and some that were not delivered effectively, at least one where I may or may not have slept briefly...but a good number that were interesting, well informed and relevant to my own interests - unfortunately many seemed to be running at the same time and I missed many that I'd have loved to have seen. But highlights for me were papers on Czech surrealism by Kristen Watterott, speaking on the samizdat albums of the 80s and David Vichnar who had a lot of interest to say on among other things Skupina RA. I missed Karla Huebner's paper, regretfully, but she was a delightful person to meet and I was also very taken with her purse, which was a whole toad. Why don't I have one of those? My life is incomplete!!!
In no particular order then, some of the encounters with friends old and new included: Karla Huebner, Darren Thomas, Catherine Hansen, Donna Roberts, Vittoria Lion, Silvano Levy, Stephen Harris, Abigail Susik, David Greenslade, David Vichnar, Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Dawn Ades, Kristen Watterott, Laurent Douce, Robert and Aisha Shehu-Ansell. There were others, but that will do for now.
I haven't mentioned Penelope Rosemont there, but I did meet her during the conference, but had too little chance to speak until the last day. Penelope was running a bookstall with Irene Plazewska, on the final day they were joined by Sarah Metcalf and Kenneth Cox of the Leeds Surrealist Group, also running a stall for their publications, including their journal Phosphor. I hadn't seen them in ages and it was an especial joy to meet up and spend some time talking (missing a couple of papers along the way). The chance to just be with fellow-surrealists and catching up and getting to know both Penelope and Irene a little better was valuable, and even better, the poetry reading afterwards. We took turns to read our, or another's poems. The undoubted star of the session for me, and I think for others, was Claire Dean, with her House-book which generated poems, tiny books of perverse recipes and other wonders, very much in the spirit of Leonora Carrington. After that, I had to catch a train, made hasty goodbyes and dashed off.
So, setting aside my warm, fluffy feelings and enthusiasm for the event, was it all worthwhile from a surrealist point of view? Yes, I think it was. I realise all my previous comments point in that direction, but weighing it up, it does give us a forum that can be used for surrealist purposes in good faith, not quite a way out of the echo chamber I wrote of another time, but at least a step in the right direction. It is worth reiterating the necessary distance between actual surrealist activity on its many levels and scholarly debate of the same, but in observing that, we simply maintain good faith on both sides and sometimes find welcome crossings from the two realms.

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