unica zürn’s dark spring: a portrait of the artist as a young corpse

Dark Spring is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel that reads more like an exorcism than a memoir. In it author Unica Zürn (1916-1970) traces the roots of her obsessions: The exotic father she idealized, the impure mother she detested, the masochistic fantasies and onanistic rituals which she said described “the erotic life of a little girl based on my own childhood.” Dark Spring is the story of a young girl’s simultaneous introduction to sexuality and mental illness, revealing a different aspect of the mad love so romanticized by the (predominantly male) Surrealists. Zürn emigrated in 1953 from her native Berlin to Paris in order to live with the artist Hans Bellmer. There she exhibited drawings as a member of the Surrealist group and collaborated with Bellmer on a series of notorious photographs of her nude torso bound with string. In 1957, a fateful encounter with the poet and painter Henri Michaux led to the first of what would become a series of mental crises, some of which she documented in her writings. She committed suicide in 1970—an act foretold in this, her last completed work. (Cribbed from the Web site of the great, great publisher of experimental literature, Exact Change).  


From Dark Spring:
 

Each time, she finds herself tormented by her terrible fear of the rattling skeleton of a huge gorilla, which she believes inhabits the house at night. The sole purpose of his existence is to strangle her to death. In passing, she looks, as she does every night, at the large Rubens painting depicting “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” These two naked, rotund women remind her of her mother and fill her with loathing. But she adores the two dark, handsome robbers, who lift the women onto their rearing horses. She implores them to protect her from the gorilla. She idolizes a whole series of fictional heroes who return her gaze from the old, dark paintings that hang throughout the house. One of them reminds her of Douglas Fairbanks, whom she adored as a pirate and as the “Thief of Baghdad” in the movie theater at school. She is sorry she must be a girl. She wants to be a man, in his prime, with a black beard and flaming black eyes. But she is only a little girl whose body is bathed in sweat from fear of discovering the terrible gorilla in her room, under her bed. She is tortured by fears of the invisible.

Who knows whether or not the skeleton will crawl up the twines of ivy that grow on the wall below her window, and then slip into her room. His mass of hard and pointed bones will simply crush her inside her bed. Her fear turns into a catastrophe when she accidentally bumps into the sabers, which fall off the wall with a clatter in the dark. She runs to her room as fast as she can and slams the door shut behind her. She turns the key and bolts the door. One again, she has come out of this alive. Who knows what will happen tomorrow night? . . .

Sometimes, when Franz visits, he makes her laugh so hard that she ends up wetting her panties. The smell of it attracts the dog, who puts his head between her legs. This gives her an idea. She goes down to the basement and over to the dog pen, where she lies down on the cold cement floor with her legs spread apart. The dog starts to lick in between her legs. The cold only increases her sense of pleasure. Feeling the ecstasy, she arches her belly towards this patient tongue. Her back hurts from the hard stone. She loves to be in pain while enduring her pleasure. She is greatly aroused, even more so because of the possibility that, at any given moment, someone might come to watch her. Through the door she can hear the sound of her father’s secretary typing. While she yields to the dog’s tongue for hours, her brother discovers something new upstairs. Sitting at his mother’s dressing table, he busies himself with the electric vibrator their mother uses for her beauty care. This vibrator stimulates whichever part of the body it is applied to. The mother massages her face with it; the son puts it into his open pants. When she comes upstairs from the basement, weakened and dizzy, she sees her brother lose his semen, his head thrust back and his eyes closed. The sky has darkened. There is the threat of a thunderstorm and the atmosphere is tense. The adults pay no attention to the two children, who have nothing better to do than to keep experiencing, over and over again, this indescribably powerful feeling.

(pp 50-52; 57-59)

on dada & the web: “so anyone in his armchair would be able to contemplate the whole of creation”

from Andrei Codrescu’s The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess

 

internet(s): The electronic communication and information networks that call themselves, grandly, the World Wide Web (WWW) are the current winners of a long battle of webs. At a time when there were fewer humans and they were of necessity more aware of their environment, especially the things that they could eat or that might eat them, there was a well-functioning web of interhuman, interspecies, and interregnum communication maintained by shamans (holy men). The shamans were the servers of the prehistoric world, capable of understanding animals and reading landscape. Human thoughts were communicated long-distance by means of shaman-boosting stations (some of the shamans lived, literally, in trees or on mountaintops for better reception), and the faith of all humans in the interconnectedness of mind and habitat was unshakable. This ancient web was destroyed by greedy shamans and charlatans who began charging for the connection when people began to take their services for granted, that is to say, when their faith became so unshakable it became unconscious. This psychic web that connected all living things functioned well to the end of the neolithic, when questions about the servers arose. Why was the evident interconnectedness metered by a class of crazed bums who didn’t do anything more than pass on messages through the atmosphere? Did they not get freely fed from the community stores? The first “revolution” must have been the establishment of a set of rules for shamans, the first of which was “purity.” The shamans had to stay incorruptible, ascetic if possible, before they could be overcome by greed. Tough gig. Not long after, there arose a priestly class that not only metered intercommunication, which must have seemed to most Stone Age people like charging for breathing the air, but put actual impediments in place, making it impossible for your average hunter to have a quick conversation with his guardian-spirit without offering some absurdly expensive sacrifice. The advent of private property, and the desirability of hilltops and the consequent development of an army to guard them, made it imperative for the priestly class of web-servers to make the three-tiered alliance that held through several millennia, namely, royalty, the military, and the shamans. These last actually grew in importance since they arrogated to themselves not only planetary and cosmic intercommunication, but also the disposition of matter into the afterlife. Neolithic man would have laughed like an animal, which herm was, if the shamans of herm day had attempted such a power grab. Various webs functioned after the free, original version, in forms that were restricted mostly to the social networks of the three-tiered power structure, though the technology of access became more and more complex: gods, oracles, prayers, expensive pilgrimages, rituals, and, eventually, religions and religious wars. Numerous cultures with a good knowledge of interconnectivity survived outside the empires and held on to their knowledge through the use of plant-teachers, but they had to keep their servers hidden and couch their technology in language that obscured it. The imperial civilizations that wrote history were shaken up byintermittent revolutions that demanded the instant return of planetary and interplanetary communication to the people. The European Renaissance produced a shift in perspective that led to the creation of a new internet based on memory. Giordano Bruno’s “Theater of Memory” was an attempt to classify and hold all the world’s knowledge in one’s own head by means of an architectural image, a theater. A single person would be able to know everything possible by placing the memories of everything one had learned within various levels, loges, and areas of a grand imaginary theater that could be visualized in detail with a little practice. The placement of so much knowledge in a single image did not exactly solve the problem of how to connect all those discrete bundles in their allotted places, without creating a lot of confusion. Bruno’s Memory Theater (based on older Greek and Roman models of the same idea, and on countless treatises on Ars Memoria since) does not answer another obvious question: what play is going on onstage while all these memories sit in their seats? Or is the stage the place where they come to interconnect, which is the performance? After Giordano Bruno, who was also an alchemist, who intuited the changeability of elements and the existence of as-yet-undescribed energies, the question of interconnectivity and networking became more and more concerned with the disposition and classification of knowledge. It occurred to a few people that the vast and quickly accumulating quantity of what is still called “knowledge” in some circles was only a mountain (or sea) of storage devices for the description of the world by people: tablets, books, mathematical and chemical formulas.

 

 

Means of organizing this “knowledge,” such as taxonomies and grammars, were greeted with howls of delight by the custodians of institutions charged with storing all the information. Interconnectivity, which used to be a matter of cosmic understanding and telepathic transmission, applied for at least three centuries only to connecting recorded information. The sentimental and social life of people still asking about God, nature, and the cosmos went unaddressed by the new priests ofscience. Mystics and philosophers stumbled occasionally on some part of the old Web and inferred from that the existence of a much vaster and older network. Teillhard de Chardin, a Christian philosopher, posited the existence of the “noosphere” (from the Greek for mind, nous), a thought sphere that connected all people for the purposes of helping divinity evolve, giving shape to Le Christ-Evoluteur. Others, like Madame Blavatsky, a theosophist, simply traveled back and forth between virtual worlds, like a hot-air balloon without a navigation system. Still, neither mystics nor philosophers could correct the great misunderstanding beginning to take root in Europe after the Enlightenment: scientists were beginning to, literally, mistake their mountains of description for the world, to substitute descriptive virtuality for reality. This was the hubris at the start of the “communication” revolution. In 1934, a Belgian eccentric named Paul Otlet “sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or ‘electric telescopes,’ as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a ‘réseau,’ which might be translated as ‘network’—or arguably, ‘web.’”59 Paul Otlet’s project, called “the Mundaneum,” collected an extraordinary number of documents and images, but was forgotten after the nazis occupied Belgium and destroyed most of his work. Ahead of the discoverers of the present-day internet by Americans like Ted Nelson and Tim Berners-Lee, who released the first Web browser in 1991, Otlet envisioned not only the information highway, but also the hyperlink, by means of which, he wrote, “anyone in his armchair would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.” Otlet, like the creators of the World Wide Web, solved the problem of what to do with the accumulated records of humanity. In a very short time, the advent of the modern internet made it possible for individuals to communicate with one another in a pretty fair simulacrum of the original interconnectivity of the Neolithic. The modern internet is, however, only a simulacrum, no matter how fast or efficient it gets, and no matter how quickly we  internalize it (which is only a matter of seconds). So what’s the problem? The problem, said Tristan Tzara in his essay “Francis Picabia, pensées sans langage,” is that “The philosophical myriapoda have broken some wooden or metal legs, and even some wings, between the stations Truth-Reality. There was always something that could not be grasped: life.”60 Indeed. The question is: can anyone enclosed in and in debt to a network still experience life? Or is our new interconnectivity the actual parenthesis or quotes around life, a.k.a. nature? Has the time come to stop communicating and start looking? Someone born before the internet, like myself, is experiencing as excess of communication, but this is surely just a result of fatigue and the big learning curve. Or is it? My students, to whom the internet is second nature, feel liberated by their ability to go anywhere for a description. The problem, exactly. Even if total immersion becomes possible, virtuality will only lead its resident to another virtuality. Let’s say a flesh-and-blood networker meets another virtually-conditioned real human over the network and, let’s say, they have sex, they make a baby, they live in an automated house and society, they have a seamless web of a life . . . until. Until Catastrophe. Storms, marauding dadas, bored speed freaks . . . something unvirtual breaks upon them. Then what? What happens then is that their social network cuts them off. Real victims do not exist in the virtual world. In the virtual world there are only happy endings: there is no room for either Catastrophe or Miracle. The internet will be (if it isn’t already) just another (re)distribution of power among social networks that have the fatal weakness of being virtual. Happily. Happily, virtuality is the fatal weakness of virtual communities and their members. Why happily? Because we are artists, that’s why. We have no taste, but a stubborn desire to make you taste something else. We will not perform virtual theater because it’s redundant. We like contradictory warm-blooded people who have a thing for rocks and animals. Not a thing about knowing things about rocks and animals, but a thing for the actual real rocks and animals. Do we have an epistemological problem? Yes, we do. Take a dada to bed and see me in the morning. We are in a very strange place in the new euphoric world of interactivity in which, as I said before, everyone is an artist. That means the following: any signal articulated by anyone into the World Wide Web becomes instantly linked to everyone else’s, making it not only possible, but mandatory, to be other people. If theater in the past involved the rather time-consuming arts of costuming, from inventing and playing the character to making herm clothes, the Web assembles the dramatis persona on the spot, returns herm to the sender and to herm’s potential audience without delay; the audience feedback is instant; from conception to feedback and back and then back and back again through an infinite hall of (re)invention and feedback, any original intention can be turned into a surprising objet. In effect, the objet hardly matters, except to people who like to collect things (i.e., stop the process at some more-or-less solid stage), because the conceptual machine set in motion by anyone’s desire, or any desire at all, will run on forever. The Dada job now would consist of the disruption of networks, an incredible effort of the imagination at a time when social networks are proliferating at the speed of light, literally abolishing time. My Face, My Space, My Body, My Soul, My Idea, etc., are really everybody’s face, body, soul, ideas, and will eventually pixelate and automate its members, unless the virgin microbe confuses them. Why should it? Because an actor in the past could step out of herm costume and get drunk in the demimonde, while the morphing hyperlinked entity can no longer disengage. Networking now is like superglue: look at all the flies trying to get their feet out of the screen! Try to remember what your name was before you signed on. Can’t? Try “No One.” We are now art whether we like it or not, making the revolt against art more urgent than ever, which is exactly what Tzara meant when he said, speaking of Tristan Corbière: “Words no longer seemed to him anything more than derisory or criminal instruments. But Corbière himself, who everywhere discovered signs which remained pure in primitive cultures and in folklore, would obviously never have thought about it if he hadn’t first loved these people for themselves, people who in their popular expressions have nothing but themselves to give.”61 Lucky Corbière! There were still primitives about, filled with the freshness of expression that still carried something of the ancient web about it. Are they still about? One could make a case for religious fundamentalists as the exponents of the last romantic revolt against the promiscuity of information, but this is hardly the case. Religious guerrillas today are fighting for control of state power, like the bolsheviks; the texts that legitimize their leaders for the ignorant are read no more literally than Lenin read Marx. The Dada (missionary) position on this is that the genuine work now would be to return individuals to themselves with time to germinate in the dark, without being part of everyone else in the world. Is this even possible? It certainly isn’t desirable from any reasonable point of view, except the absolutely negative opinion that a vast extortion of human energies is at work, for purposes not clearly understood. Today’s internet is an impersonator of the ancient web and is still in the hands of techno-shamans who still charge for the air. I am Dada-bound to suspect the enterprise of demonism. A dada must battle the obvious, especially if it’s inevitable. Futility tastes like (insert innocence-metaphor here) mother’s milk, first taste of peach, an unusually long and salty word spoken late in the night outside a shady bar. To love singular people with primitive connections to the divine, and expressions that are still unmediated (or only humanly mediated) in an intensely e-mediated world, involves, first of all, stripping yourself down, getting rid of all your screen-names and personae, and then finding other people unmediating themselves while living in trees they won’t allow to be cut, like my hero, Julia Butterfly.62 This is the opposite of seeing your reflections in My Space. Making yourself up for fun, which was the old Dada, has now come up against the new Dada, which is the necessity to strip down to whatever self you once had, and become a tree.

 

NOTES

 

59. Alex Wright, “The Mundaneum in Mons, Belgium,” New York Times, June 17, 2008. 231

 

60. Tristan Tzara, “Francis Picabia, pensées sans langage,” translated by Barbara Wright in Seven Dada Manifestoes and Lampisteries.

 

61. Preface by Tristan Tzara to Les Amours Jaunes by Tristan Corbière (Paris: Le Club Français du Livre, 1950).

 

62. “For 738 days Julia Butterfly Hill lived in the canopy of an ancient redwood tree, called Luna, to help make the world aware of the plight of ancient forests. Julia, with the great help of steelworkers and environmentalists, successfully negotiated to permanently protect the 1,000 year-old tree and a nearly three-acre buffer zone. Her two-year vigil informed the public that only 3% of the ancient redwood forests remain and that the Headwaters Forest Agreement, brokered by state and federal agencies and Pacific Lumber/Maxxam Corporation, will not adequately protect forests and species.” http://www.circleoflifefoundation.org/inspiration/julia/.

 

a dada life: “pranks, buffoonery, masking, deranged senses, intoxication, sabotage, taboo breaking”


the introduction to Andrei Codrescu’s 

The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess  

 

This is a guide for instructing posthumans in living a Dada life. It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life. It is and it was always foolish and self-destructive to lead a Dada life because a Dada life will include by definition pranks, buffoonery, masking, deranged senses, intoxication, sabotage, taboo breaking, playing childish and/or dangerous games, waking up dead gods, andnot taking education seriously. On the other hand, the accidental production of novel objects results occasionally from the practice of Dada. During times of crisis like wars and plagues, some of these objects can be truly novel because they sabotage prevailing sentiments. At other times, Dada objects are merely interesting, by virtue of an added layer of irony, an extra punch line, or a new twist to an already-consecrated object. In such times Dada objects amuse everybody, and since these objects are (mostly) made collectively, they are a strong community bond. Amusement (of oneself and others) and the making of art communities are the goals of Dada. Dada is a priori against everything, including goals and itself, but this creative negation is very amusing and is meant to be shared. For one whole century, Dada has delighted in uncovering and using contradictions, paradoxes, and negations, the most important of which are: 1. most people read signs, Dadas make signs, and 2. most people are scared of scary faces, Dada makes scary faces. No one should go Dada before  1. considering whether one would rather be  a. amused or b. grim; one must weigh in the balance childishness and seriousness; both a and b have a history; both affect everyone in the world; both are possible at any moment, but the difference is that being childlike (a) is pleasing to creatures lighter than air (with or without wings), angels, St. Francis, and Candide, while being serious (b) is a weight, like the cross, and heavy as a lead ball (see hugo, ball) and iron chains;  and 2. understanding that art is life and vice-versa and Dadais against both, except on the road to ecstasy when it stops for exceptions. It is the thesis of this book that posthumans lining the road to the future (which looks as if it exists, after all, even though Dada is against it) need the solace offered by the primal raw energy of Dada and its inhuman sources. 

If you have any doubt as to whether you are posthuman or merely human, take a look at the following parts of your body: the city, the house, the car, the iPhone, the laptop, the iPod, the pillbox, the nonflesh surround. If sixty percent of your body is now electronic or bioelectronic, living in space designed for efficiency, you will need Dada as a corrective to what will certainly be the loss of the modicum of liberty you still possess. The first Dadas lived in cities that contained the means for a thorough critique of the world: Zurich, Paris, New York, Vienna, Berlin, Bucharest, Prague, Zagreb, Budapest, Petersburg. They had virtual summations (libraries), evolution-planning centers (cafés), body-centering (or -decentering) loci (bordellos), hungry provincial student clusters (universities), geniuses (random selection), mass-media (printing presses, newspapers, the telegraph), the option of moving the body through space faster than the body could move on its own (trains, cars, carriages), models for imaginary worlds (cinema), the tools of propaganda (advertising, manifestos, podiums), memory (museums, statues, history books), sentiment (cabarets, songs, theater, carnivals), weapons (cobblestones), hope (money, God), social flexibility (learnable codes of manners, uniforms), ubiquity (the feeling that you know, or think that you know, everybody) and, most importantly, a sense that time was relative (some people had a lot of it and dreaded its immensity; others had only a little and dreaded its passing). The revelation of the substance of time preoccupied Freud, who saw it as a repository for repressed history, Carl Jung, who discovered (or thought he did) a space inhabited by prehistoric souffleurs who dictated their nature to ongoing generations of human actors, Albert Einstein, who added time to the three known dimensions, Heisenberg, who denied time altogether, and a variety of artists who adopted one or another dimension of time (futurists, the future; simultaneists, simultaneity; Dada, all or no directions). These cities were concentrations of virtualities that offered the possibilities of creative reinvention of the world. Within these rapidly morphing intensities, the fixities of societal conventions that led inevitably to war became painfully apparent. The bright energies remaking human beings drew their force from everything and anything, but mostly from laughter. Nothing fixed by convention could withstand the Gordian-knot-cutting laughter of Dada, though resistance was not futile (see lenin).

Today, a century later, the merger of software and wetwear is ongoing and speeding up. Dada has nothing, or maybe everything, against doing well and doing good. Buy biotechs. The fondest wish of all well-wishers, and that includes many dadas, is that we will say hello to a green organism that is born by natural birth, will lead a carbon-footprint-conscious life, and will biodegrade without toxic waste. Planetary thinking in its most digestible form makes sense, and the future seems open to every individual initiative that is aware of the collective predicament. Living aware is the current desideratum, and if we destroy non-renewable resources, we’ll at least downsize or vanish with our eyes open. Dada is for all of that, but within (non)reason. For the majorities, profligacy is no longer desirable. In effect, desire is no longer desirable. If previous dada-minded people with nothing to lose (or so they thought!) could afford to be profligate, seminal, and ecstatic, this is no longer the case. Substitute “wishing” for “desire.” Wishing accommodates acting, while desire is unpredictable. Posthuman life is based on the alleged awareness of all living connections, unlike the irrepressible and murderous peaks and valleys of human life in the past. The rational description of our posthumanity would have it that the societal mechanisms that were of such great concern to thinkers have been automated. Political structures larger than the family are projections of automatic economic systems. Borders are largely imaginary and will become wholly imaginary, soon to be replaced by aesthetic differences.1 In other words, there will be privately constructed borders created by everyone everywhere, enforced by pocket nukes capable of eliminating entire cities or regions. Arbitrary moral systems will back up private aesthetic borders, making it imperative for everyone to receive the correct medication. Unmedicated people will not be allowed pocket nukes, which makes it necessary that they be naked and searched often by local militias of art students. In this environment, which is almost completely current, the simulations of pleasure within zones of medicated liberty can be literally life-saving. These simulations will be a new medium (using all the media) for plotting escape routes and egress points that may or may not lead out of Eden. These potentially liberating simulations promise anescape into reality, but, reader beware, all realities adjoining present tightrope Eden may be virtual and not real at all. With that proviso, an alternative escape project called Dada is being made available here. Dada is the viral option to the virtual certainty. What the Dada life is will be explained in the following pages with a minimum of tedious reference, i.e., we will record only what can’t be googled. In other words, only what hasn’t yet been captured. Dada is the Western Now, a Zen that employs fullness instead of emptiness, so much fullness, in fact, that there isn’t enough matter to fill its fullness, so it resorts to imagination in order to create ever more paradisiacal objets, better iPods made from shredded dreams.2 Each imagination unit (IU) expanded here will be spent for your instruction, reader, but you will notice that each entry is constructed to self-erase as soon as it is understood, and to generate its own IU as soon as it disappears. The claim to the nongooglable is pretty huge and I’m making it lightly. The good available information googled either from Google or out of books written by Dada chiefs will be used here to its utmost, that is to say, used in order to extract or prolong the vital fluids, which are as yet ungooglified. (At least until this is e-published). I know that Google, a mortal company, could go the way of Xerox, which used to be synonymous with copying, but in the grand collage that is Dada, past and future are equally usable. Look at the fragment from a newspaper inserted by Kurt Schwitters in his 1920 Collage:3 the actual newspaper, with its oh-so-urgent events of the day, is long forgotten, but the section preserved in Schwitters’s collage is immortal. I am not saying that this guide, a simple book, will outlast both Xerox and Google, but it is possible. If the 20th century has taught us anything, it is that we will forget everything except the box it came in. The substance of what it was, what it felt like, what could be usefully gleaned from it, was buried with the persons who felt andgleaned. Memoirs and history further dismember the past by articulating it: every articulated experience is as good as forgotten. Forgetting is a human specialty that was greatly refined by the recently deposed century. We’ve kept the wrappings, though: the styles, the anecdotes, the narratives (the sexy ones, not the academic), and we are using them to deposit new contents inside. The end of the 19th century put an engine in a horse, and, even though there was no more horse, literally speaking, the form of the mechanically-powered horse was marvelous to behold. Today, of course, there is hardly any need to remember why a mechanical horse needs to look like a living horse because most of us don’t know what a horse is: even the horse-form is being forgotten. As oblivion speeds up and facts store themselves in a memory stick, we are free to splash around in the funhouse of forms. Thank God for Dada, the engine of empty forms! This (or the next this) is a time to be human without the weight of history, beliefs, feelings, vendettas, or school grades. We are in a Dada state of grace. For the Dada Guide-users, you and me, there isn’t even a point in the dated distinctions between “human” and “nonhuman,” “remembered” or “forgotten,” because the literature of those distinctions is ubiquitous and serves no purpose other than mutual accusation: those who think of themselves as “human” will claim that they have a “soul” and an indelible “history,” while posthumans will claim to be part of everything and that everything has a soul, including the web they are presently setting to vibrating with their indignant thumping. This is a useless argument and if anyone feels uncomfortable about being called “posthuman,” please call yourself whatever you want. My distinction is this: a posthuman is a human who has put nature (including herm own)4 between parentheses. (Or convinced hermself that everything nonhuman is human and, therefore, human = nature. This used to be called “anthropomorphism,” but lately it is known as a “user-friendly interface.” In current popular discourse, nature has come to mean “nature,” or “the nature channel,” and thus is wilderness removed from it and its destructive and creative force neutralized. Putting the world between either parentheses or quotes is an effective way to erase it, indifferent of how warmly we feel about it. We are replacing wilderness by self- reflection and are making huge (virtual) efforts to make the self-reflective sensorium look demiurgic and various like nature. If early in the 20th century only poets had the gall to conceive of themselves as “pequeños dios” in César Vallejo’s phrase, now everyone feels entitled to a god-degree because the tools for faking it are part of every body (see e-body). Dada intends to open the doors at night to let the wilderness back in. Dada is a tool for removing parentheses and removing the world from between quotes with the forceps of inspiration. Sometimes this will call for disruptive spontaneous action, creating and holding TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zones), actualizing dreams, running with gangs, living with animals, and making  peace with weather. Sometimes it will mean going after parts of speech, like “like,” or other rhetorical devices, but we will never discourage direct address, on the off chance that someone is listening. Historical Dada was a metaphor factory, but we will try to abstain and be as dry as a properly made Cabernet. Dada, like every living thing, has a problematic relationship with language, which is why it has employed it collectively, nonsensically, mystically, and in combination with other media, such as paint, pixels, bodies, couture, sex, sound, newspapers, advertising, and necromancy. Language has been slipping like a coarse blanket from humanity’s nightmare-racked body for centuries, but 20th-century dadas like Ludwig Wittgenstein and George Steiner (who were not officially Dada) and Tzara (who was, see tristan, tzara) revealed that it had been yanked off by Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao (big yankers) and by myriads of smaller yankers who use language to poke holes in reality and to put nature between parentheses. Big and small yankers (language-users) have been fueling their enterprise with portions of liberty, mine and yours. The motor for creating posthumans runs on stolen freedom.5 Now there are two entities: language, lying at the foot of the bed, as freezing thieves with a yen for power crawl toward it, and a flesh body that is quickly becoming a metaphor for all that used to be called “human.” The Dada project is to make the body warm by covering it with the blanket again and demetaphorizing it. This project requires abandoning all the humanities’ approximate definitions of “human,” because “the approximate man” (see, again, tristan, tzara) turns out not to be a man at all. Or a woman. Those lovely forms have vanished and can now be found only as skeuromorphs in media, including writing. The vague yearning for the “not human” is now no longer vague, it is pure efficiency. We look nostalgically at waste: there isn’t any. All is now open for Dada (as Nietzsche suspected) but not everyone knows how to live the Dada life, to press the “restore” button. In other words, nobody knows how to act when all knowledge seems available, and claims to difference look like either reinventing the wheel or retrofitting the posthuman lump (“body without organs,” Antonin Artaud) with dated forms. Mysticism and metaphysics are the popular forms of Dada now in vogue, particularly in science fiction, the New Age, Oprah, churches, mosques, and pagan-trancing moonlit groves. There is a lot wrong with those practices, namely, that they are all about the consciousness of humans on their way to perfecting posthumanity. Most of them pretend to worship or at least acknowledge the nonhuman, but it’s only a cover, superstitious salt thrown into the eyes of whatever looks back at us, amused or annoyed, Nietzsche’s abyss with eyes. Dada, too, is a form of mystical currency, but it likes to think of itself as too radical for narrative and parable, and too agnostic to take itself seriously. We will see. We need a guide that is at once historical and liberating. Or just hysterical and tonic.

Nothing illustrates better the difference between the human and the posthuman than a chess game that took place in October 1916 at the Café de La Terrasse in Zurich, Switzerland, between Tristan “all thought is formed in the mouth” Tzara, the daddy of Dada, and V. I. (“communism = socialism + electricity”) Lenin, the daddy of communism. These two daddies battled each other over the chessboard of history, proposing two different paths for human development. Dada played for chaos, libido, the creative, and the absurd. Communism deployed its energy for reason, order, an understandable social taxonomy, predictable structures, and the creation of “new man.” The Dada man was an actor and a peformer, a clown, and a drunken fool, a mystic. The “new man” was a well-behaved worker who would eventually be so well served materially that he would become posthuman, a being to whom all nature, refined and motorized, would pay homage. Dada was born onstage from satire, disgust, angst, disgust, terror, improvised materials, and channeled snippets of verse, while Communism came out of books of philosophy and economy, terrorism (with its technologies of disguise, conspiracy, and homemade explosives), and church-inspired forms for synthesizing dogma. Who won the game? After the collapse of Soviet-style communism in 1991, it looked as though Dada had. But if it had, why do the non- Soviet posthumans of late capitalism feel such despair? Could it be that late-capitalism posthumans have arrived in the leninist future without communism? And if they have, is the game still going on, and does Dada still have work to do? Are languages (including programming e-languages), print, reason, the fear of nature, and the impulse to vegetate still in charge? Is performance today mainly palliative, validated by reviews? Was that game of chess a win for Tzara or Lenin or a draw? Why did the two men sit down to play in the first place? Obviously, it was cold and there were snow flurries, and the café was full of people of intelligence and feeling, and some shady drunks and thieves, but beyond that, did either of them sense a metaphorical gravity? I doubt it. Chess is the game of choice for people who must think in a crowd: chess is the quintessential “meditation in an emergency” (Frank O’Hara) for people forced by circumstances (overcrowding, prison, a chattering roommate) to seek solitude in a crowd. The laws of chess (they are not called “rules”) have been designed over a millennial history to provide a maximum of thinking space within a small square, and a sense of movement and change by means of a number of symbolic figures. Even if Tzara and Lenin, alone or together, sensed the making of a metaphor, they would not have been interested because 1. it was other people’s metaphor, and 2. they were both animated by passion about injustice. Tzara: “But suppleness, enthusiasm and even the joy of injustice, that little truth that we practice as innocents and that makes us beautiful: we are cunning, and our fingers are malleable and glide like branches of that insidious and almost liquid plant: this injustice is the indication of our soul, say the cynics. That is also a point of view; but all flowers aren’t saints, luckily, and what is divine in us is the awakening of anti-human action.”6 Lenin: “. . . the development of capitalism has arrived at a stage when, although commodity production still ‘reigns’ and continues to be regarded as the basis of economic life, it has in reality been undermined and the big profits go to the ‘genius’ of financial manipulation.”7 Tzara is talking about flowers, soul, the divine, and fingers, while Lenin explains how easily people are distracted and robbed while being handed “commodities.” Both passages proceed from the basic acknowledgment of the existence of injustice, but Tzara welcomes its cruelty and pushes its contradictions to where it will cease to function within language and, it is hoped, life, because it’s been sabotaged by poetry. Lenin has found the villain: sneaky, insidious capitalism robbing the workers while amusing them. There is also another difference: boredom. Tzara is fresh, Lenin is boring. Lenin is not boring just in retrospect, he was boring at the time he wrote that. As we know from Baudelaire, Boredom is the worst evil of all: “Among the vermin, jackals, panthers, lice / gorillas and tarantulas that suck / and snatch and scratch and  defecate and fuck / in the disorderly circus of our vice, // there’s one more ugly and abortive birth. / It makes no gestures, never beats its breast, / yet it would murder for a moment’s rest, / and willingly annihilate the earth. / It’s boredom. Tears have glued its eyes together. / You know it well, my Reader. This obscene / beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine— / you—hypocrite Reader—my double—my brother.”8 Yes, but, pace Baudelaire, was Lenin wrong? Not really. Atthe start of the 21st century we are in an even better position to appreciate Lenin’s insight into the nature of capitalism. He goes on to explain, by means of tedious citations from German economists, exactly how prices rise as a result of the formation of  monopolies, and the subsequent impoverishment of the proletariat. Lenin is setting up his chessboard minutiously, preparing for what will be his real intention: plotting in detail the coming revolution. In addition to setting up the board, he needs to cleanse the socialist movement, which agrees with him on the analysis of capitalism, which only reiterates, after all, what Marx explained in equally tedious prose decades previous. Lenin does not even bother with Marx’s preoccupation with the alienation of worker from product. For Marx, this alienation brought about by automation must be combatted in order for communism to be built. Lenin couldn’t care less about how workers feel. Let’s make the Revolution, then automate everything, and, in the end, everyone will feel better.9 Tzara would rather be the object of violent ridicule than the cause of a yawn. “Every act is a cerebral revolver shot—both the insignificant gesture and the decisive movement are attacks.”10 That’s invigorating, but is it true? The man he’s playing chess with will make sure that it isn’t, for a century at least. He’ll leave a trail of corpses from Russia to Japan to Europe and beyond, to prove Tzara wrong. Not every act is cerebral: some acts, like a real pistol shot, are repetitious, monotonous, mindless, set in motion by a barked order. Tzara, the revolutionary poet, is playing chess with Lenin, a mass-murdering ideologue. The winner will win the world, a prize neither is thinking about in 1916.

Their projects were as different as their game, but the feeling that the world was unjust was in both of them like a root. We will go back and forth in time to check various moves and consider some possibilities. Although our sympathies are with Dada, we are not all that sure about the outcome of the game. You will notice that we have retained the alphabet and ordered the Guide alphabetically. This is also a book, so pages are conventionally numbered. This may very well be the last (necessary or unnecessary) book, so we scrupulously observed all the conventions we could remember, typographical, grammatical, anal, oral, and chronological. With a tip of the hat to the kabbalah, we are working against (and for) time and amnesia. The waters of oblivion are rising, memory is as fragile and thin as matter in a black-hole universe, but as Tristan Tzara said, “Dada is against the high cost of living.” Lenin was against that too, but since he thought he’d found the villain, he was going to do something about it. We can’t do anything about it, so we will make this cheap and painless.

NOTES

 

1. A longer discussion on borders and aesthetics may be in order here: I refer the reader to my two earlier texts The Disappearance of the Outside (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1999) and “before the storm: geographers in new orleans,” a discussion of anarchist geography published in the book Jealous Witness (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2008). For now, suffice it to say that the notion of “privately constructed borders” is an extension of the Republican impulse to privatize everything, from health care to prisons. Borders today are largely imaginary: the Mexican-American border, for instance, runs through every major American city, wherever illegal immigrants go for work. The “border” is a metaphor that separates the so-called legal entity from the “paperless” one. In this sense, constructing borders will eventually be a full-time occupation for anyone involved in proving herm (see n. 4 below) legality, while the aesthetics will be simply the manner in which the entity constructs the argument. Anyone who wants to be “legal” will eventually want to be “legally elegant,” that is, as aesthetically concise as the law itself. As for “pocket nukes,” these will most certainly be available to the public under the Second Amendment, because they are already in the U.S. arsenal. In the matter of “art student” squads searching people for illegal nukes, the author hopes that he’s being ironic, but not really sure. He is most definitely not ironic about the zones of “medicated liberty” or about medications of any sort. In fact, he is going to swallow a pill right now in order to continue the utopian enterprise of typing.

 

2. Hippies were often misconstrued as being antimaterialistic and Zen inclined, a misconception aided by poets Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima, and Philip Whalen, who were Zen trained. In fact, the baroque imagination of LSD led most young counterculturists away from emptiness and toward fulsome teeming matters like instant communication, better bodies, cosmetics, immortality, and youth potions, all of which translated two decades later into the internet and biotech.

 

3. The Dada Painters and Poets, an anthology edited by Robert Motherwell (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951). From the introduction by Jack Flamm, p. 56.

 

4. Pronoun problem solved in favor of “herm” as opposed to s/he or he/her, because the word is the first part of “hermaphrodite,” which, as will be seen, is both a Dada desideratum and an affirmation of totality.

 

5. This text discusses two answers to the question What is that motor?

 

6. “Dada Manifesto of 1918,” from Seven Dada Manifestoes and Lampisteries, with llustrations by Francis Picabia, trans. Barbara Wright (London: John Calder; New York: Riverrun Press, 1981).

 

7. Essential Works of Lenin, What Is to Be Done? and Other Writings, ed. Henry M. Christman (New York: Bantam Books, 1966). Lenin wrote the essay we quoted from in Zurich, early in 1916; it appeared in St. Petersburg in September 1917 as “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.”

 

8. “To My Reader” by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Robert Lowell, in The Flowers of Evil, ed. Jackson Mathews (New York: New Directions, 1955).

 

9. It has been noted that “Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which do present this utterly brilliant analysis of the alienation (Entfremdung in the original) of workers under capitalism . . . were completely unknown until they were first published in 1932 by the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. The first English  translation only appeared in 1959. They have been absolutely central to the emergence of a critical (i.e., non-Stalinist, non-SPD-like) Marxism from the 1960s onward, but were completely unknown to Lenin. I’m not even sure Entfremdung appears in any of Marx’s later writings, as he himself turned more to the economic analysis of capitalism and away from the more philosophical (and Hegel-influenced) critique of his early years.” This may be so, but here we take the Dada approach of assuming that even if Lenin had read those notes by Marx, he would have had neither the time nor the inclination to follow the implications that seduced neomarxists in the 1960s.

 

the opening of platonov’s surrealist masterpiece the foundation pit

Bookseller Photo  

 


On the day when he reached the thirtieth year of his personal life Voshchev was discharged from the small machine factory where he had earned the means of his existence. The dismissal notice stated that he was being separated from his job because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work . . .

The tavernkeeper was readying his establishment, winds and grasses swayed around Voshchev in the sun when he reluctantly opened his eyes, filled with renewed moist strength. He had to live and eat again; therefore he went to see the trade union committee, to defend his unneeded labor.

The management says that you were standing and thinking in the middle of production," they told him at the trade union committee. "What were you thinking about, Comrade Voshchev?”

 

"About the plan of life."

 

"The factory works according to the plan laid down by the Trust. As for your private life, you could plan it out at the club or in the Red Reading Room."

 

"I was thinking about the general plan of life. I’m not worried about my own life, that’s no secret to me."

 

"And what could you accomplish?"

 

"I could have thought up something like happiness, and spiritual meaning would improve productivity."

 

"Happiness will come from materialism, Comrade Voshchev, and not from meaning. We cannot defend you, you are a politically ignorant man, and we don’t wish to find ourselves at the tail end of the masses.”

 

Voshchev wanted to ask for some other work, even the feeblest, just so that he would earn enough to eat; and he would do his thinking on his own time. But how can one ask for anything if there’s no respect for a man, and Voshchev saw that those people had no feeling for him.

 

"You’re scared of being at the tail end of the masses; naturally, a tail’s the hind extremity. So you’ve climbed up on their necks.”

 

"The government gave you an extra hour for your thinking, Voshchev. You used to work eight hours, and now it’s only seven. You should have lived and kept quiet! If everybody starts thinking all at once, who’ll do the acting?”

 

"Without thought, there won’t be any sense in the action,” Voshchev said reflectively.

 

He left the trade union committee without getting help. The path before him lay in the heat of summer. On either side people were building technical improvements and houses where the masses, homeless until now, would live in silence . . .

Andrey Platonovich Platonov (1899-1951) was the son of a railway worker. The eldest of eleven children, he began work at the age of thirteen, first in an office, then in a factory, and finally as an engine driver’s assistant. He began publishing poems and articles in 1918, while studying engineering. Throughout much of the 1920s he worked as a land reclamation expert. Between 1927 and 1932 he wrote his most politically controversial works, some of them first published in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s. Other stories were published but subjected to vicious criticism. Stalin is reputed to have written "scum" in the margin of the story "For Future Use," and to have said to Aleksandr Fadeev (later secretary of the Writers’ Union), "Give him a good belting—for future use." During the 1930s Platonov made several public confessions of error, but went on writing stories only marginally more acceptable to the authorities. His son was sent to the Gulag in 1938, aged fifteen; he was released three years later, only to die of the tuberculosis he had contracted there. During the war Platonov worked as a war correspondent and published several volumes of stories; after the war, however, he was again almost unable to publish. He died in 1951, of tuberculosis caught from his son . . .

 

—from http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?usca_p=t&product_id=8831

james graham ballard,15 november 1930 – 19 april 2009, RIP

the audacity of j.g. ballard

he took cues and inspiration from william s. burroughs, 1950s sci-fi pulps, joseph conrad, sigmund freud (and his grandson lucien freud), the surrealist painters and poets, medical journals… and created a body of fiction that once seemed outlandish and now seems uncannily—and unfortunately—prophetic.

Bookseller Photo   

WHY I WANT TO FUCK RONALD REAGAN

RONALD REAGAN AND THE CONCEPTUAL AUTO DISASTER. Numerous studies have been conducted upon patients in terminal paresis (GPI), placing Reagan in a series of simulated auto crashes, e.g. multiple pileups, head-on collisions, motorcade attacks (fantasies of Presidential assassinations remained a continuing preoccupation, subject showing a marked polymorphicfixation on windshields and rear trunk assemblies). Powerful erotic fantasies of an anal-sadistic surrounded the image of the Presidential contender.

Subjects were required to construct the optimum auto disaster victim by placing a replica of Reagan’s head on the unretouched photographs of crash fatalities.

In 82% of cases massive rear-end collisions were selected with a preference for expressed fecal matter and rectal hemorrhages. Further tests were conducted to define the optimum model-year. These indicate that a three year model lapse with child victims provide the maximum audience excitation (confirmed by manufacturers’ studies of the optimum auto disaster). It is hoped to construct a rectal modulous of Reagan and the auto disaster of maximized audience arousal.

Motion picture studies of Ronald Reagan reveal characteristic patterns of facial tones and musculature associated with homoerotic behavior. The continuing tension of buccal sphincters and the recessive tongue role tally with earlier studies of facial rigidity (cf., Adolf Hitler, Nixon). Slow-motion cine films of campaign speeches exercised a marked erotic effect upon an audience of spastic children. Even with mature adults the verbal material was found to have a minimal effect, as demonstrated by substitution of an edited tape giving diametrically opposed opinions…

INCIDENCE OF ORGASMS IN FANTASIES OF SEXUAL INTERCOURSE WITH RONALD REAGAN. Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan’s face was super imposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with "Reagan" proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2% of subjects.

Axillary, buccal, navel, aural, and orbital modes produced proximal erections. The preferred mode of entry overwhelmingly proved to be the rectal. After a preliminary course in anatomy it was found that the caecum and transverse colon also provided excellent sites for excitation. In an extreme 12% of cases, the simulated anus of post-costolomy surgery generated spontaneous orgasm in 98% of penetrations. Multiple-track cine-films were constructed of "Reagan" in intercourse during (a) campaign speeches, (b) rear-end auto collisions with one and three year model changes, (c) with rear exhaust assemblies…

SEXUAL FANTASIES IN CONNECTION WITH RONALD REAGAN. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac, (c) the assembly kid prepuce of President Johnson…In 89% of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self-induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.

REAGAN’S HAIRSTYLE. Studies were conducted on the marked fascination exercised by the Presidential contender’s hairstyle. 65% of male subjects made positive connections between the hairstyle and their own pubic hair. A series of optimum hairstyles were constructed.

THE CONCEPTUAL ROLE OF REAGAN. Fragments of Reagan’s cinetized postures were used in the construction of model psychodramas in which the Reagan-figure played the role of husband, doctor, insurance salesman, marriage counselor, etc.

The failure of these roles to express any meaning reveals the nonfunctional character of Reagan. Reagan’s success therefore indicates society’s periodic need to re-conceptualize its political leaders. Reagan thus appears as a series of posture concepts, basic equations which reformulate the roles of aggression and anality. Reagan’s personality. The profound anality of the Presidential contender may be expected to dominate the United States in the coming years. By contrast the late JFK remained the prototype of the oral subject, usually conceived in pre-pubertal terms. In further studies sadistic psychopaths were given the task of devising sex fantasies involving Reagan. Results confirm the probability of Presidential figures being perceived primarily in genital terms; the face of LB Johnson is clearly genital in significant appearance–the nasal prepuce, scrotal jaw, etc. Faces were seen as either circumcised (JFK, Khrushchev) or uncircumcised (LBJ, Adenauer). In assembly-kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.

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 WHY I WANT TO FUCK RONALD REAGAN” [1967] by JG Ballard [excerpt from The Atrocity Exhibition]

[At the 1980 Republican Convention in San Francisco a copy of the Reagan text, minus its title and the running sideheads, and furnished with the seal of the Republican Party, was distributed by some puckish pro-situationists to the RNC delegates. It was accepted for what it resembled: a psychological position paper on the candidate’s subliminal appeal, commissioned by some maverick think-tank.]

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Annotation & Commentary by the author, J.G. Ballard, to "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan", published in The Atrocity Exhibition, 1990:

"Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan " prompted Doubleday in 1970 to pulp its first American edition of The Atrocity Exhibition. Ronald Reagan’s presidency remained a complete mystery to most Europeans, though I noticed that Americans took him far more easily in their stride. But the amiable old duffer who occupied the White House was a very different person from the often sinister figure I described in 1967, when the present piece was first published. The then-novelty of a Hollywood film star entering politics and becoming governor of California gave Reagan considerable air time on British TV. Watching his right-wing speeches, in which he castigated in sneering tones the profligate, welfare-spending, bureaucrat-infested state government, I saw a more crude and ambitious figure, far closer to the brutal crime boss he played in the 1964 movie, The Killers, his last Hollywood role. In his commercials Reagan used the smooth, teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was absolutely the reverse of bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan’s manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other. Above all, it struck me that Reagan was the first politician to exploit the fact that his TV audience would not be listening too closely, if at all, to what he was saying, and indeed might well assume from his manner and presentation that he was saying the exact opposite of the words actually emerging from his mouth. Though the man himself mellowed, his later presidency seems to have run the same formula."

 

le clézio on lautréamont and co.: “man’s freedom to seek & reveal himself through visions & dreams”

J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to Dream”

 

We could begin the story this time around 1867, when the young Isidore Ducasse—not yet Comte de Lautréamont—decides to move into a furnished room on the Right Bank of Paris, and when, in 1868, he gives "Le Premier Chant" of Les Chants de Maldoror to the publisher Balitout. This act, perhaps one of the most important of modern literature and thought, begins an epic tale of dreams that ends in death and oblivion. Indeed, between 1868 and 24 November 1870, when the young poet dies at the age of twenty-four, in the solitude and abandonment of the Parisian winter, the story unfolds of one of the most burning and disturbing dreams that poetry has ever known—a dream that throws off flame and consumes the dreamer, in the silence and indifference of those around him, and whose waves will not touch his fellow man until long after, like one of those stars whose fixed and silent explosion seems to outrace time.

Freedom of dreams: this seems paradoxical, since dreams are clearly the freest expression of life. But it is this very freedom that is frightening, because it is a threat to reason and the moral order, which is why society’s prohibitions, censorship, and propriety have sought for so long to obscure or stifle it. Dreams are free, but locked up in the prison of silence, thrown into the dungeon of memory. Dreams are the hidden fire that man must steal off with in order to reveal the other side of himself, in order to attain real freedom.

In the chilly aloofness and hypocrisy of Europe’s nineteenth century, Lautréamont’s sacrifice has something truly cruel and despairing about it, but it allows us to see the error that corrupts the mind of civilized societies at the outset of the Industrial Age. Through its indifference and forgetting, nineteenth-century bourgeois society in its entirety casts Lautréamont out into another world, in both senses of the term: it sends him back to the world in which he was born, to Montevideo, the overseas territories, tomb of the banished; but it also throws him back to a world from before civilization, a primitive, violent, magical world, one to which the rationalism and bankers’ reign of the Second Empire could not give credence. It casts him back toward dreams—that is to say, toward the deepest past of mankind.

It is indeed a question of a return toward our origins. The freedom to dream, and to live one’s dreams, takes us back toward another world, that of prehistorical societies (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense of the term). In the Indian societies of the New World, for example, the social structure in most cases is that of a "loose democracy,"1 founded on equality and the self-sufficiency of the family, where each person can be at once warrior, preacher (or shaman), doctor, artist, or orator. The Indian societies of North America (the Iroquois, Sioux, Comanches, Apaches), of the subtropical forests (the Carib, Tupinamba, and Amazonian tribes), and of South America (the Araucan Indians of the pampas) all testify to this full expression of man, which seems to precede the specializations of the hierarchized and sedentary societies (Mexicas, Mayas, Quechuas). But the importance of this full expression of man is apparent even in the most urbane and organized of societies. The Amerindian religious rites all express these influences—magic, concepts of recurrent and cyclical time, the possibility of man’s identification with the gods—which in a sense form the foundation of "savage" philosophy and which the conquering Europeans will try (successfully) to extinguish.

It is in dreams that the original civilizations of the Americas found their explanations for existence. For the ancient Mexicans, as for the Tupi-Guaranis or the Quechuas, dreams were a soul’s journey outside the body, which enabled contact with the beyond and knowledge of the future. The Mexicas, Purepecha, Carib, and Quechua nations were troubled by dreams (or auguries) to such an extent that they couldn’t find the force to resist the conquering peoples from the East whose coming had been announced by the auguries. Upon the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico, the omens multiplied: visions of death and of peoples in chains, lakes of blood, comets, and swarms of insects. As in the books of the Yucatec Mayas’ Chilam Bilam or in the apparition of the gods meeting on the mountain of Xanoata Hucatzio in the Relación de Michoacán, the most ancient dreams associated with the prophecies thus meet up with reality, but only to bring about the destruction of the dreaming peoples.

The first Spanish writers captured this final moment of the dreamers’ society, manifested in its strange rites, dances, and sacrifices. The Relación de Michoacán, chronicle of the Purepecha Indians, shows us a people wholly given over to their omens and dreams. The kings’ power and their destiny depend upon their dreams, during which the supreme gods (Curicaueri, god of fire, or the moon goddess Xaratanga) appear before them and strike up alliances. Father Bernardino de Sahagún recounts that the cruel and bloody festivals of the Aztecs took place in this mytical incarnation of gods dancing among men, as in the ixnextiua festival: "It was their belief that on this festival all the gods were dancing, and therefore all the natives who danced were dressed in diverse fancy costumes, some impersonated birds, others different animals; some represented the bird called ‘tzinitzcan’ [hummingbird], others butterflies; some dressed like drones, others like flies, still others like beetles; some carried on their backs a sleeping man who, they said, represented sleep."2

This magical society, this society of dreams and auguries, will be destroyed by Western civilization in the name of rationalism. For the conquering Spaniards, Portuguese, and, later, Anglo-Saxons or French, these magical societies are antiquated. They must be transformed, confined to reality, in order to integrate them into the rationales of productivity and causality on which the modern world rests. This will also be the Christian church’s role, shared among its millennial illusions and its will to destroy religious and philosophical concepts in contradiction with those of the conquerors.

As has been said, for the Renaissance mind, belief in magic and dreams is absurd and illogical. Founded on the sciences, on observation, nascent humanism can only condemn these obscure aspects of the human soul, since the new ideas come about precisely as a response to the beliefs and superstitions of the Middle Ages. In order to affirm this new "man," it is necessary to kill the old one, the one who lives off dreams and chimeras.

The new era is also that of absolute powers: Charles V, Francis I, and Henry VIII each demonstrate the supremacy of true power, armed force, and merchant empires. Curiously, however, it is in these periods when political powers are most extreme—the immense power of gold and silver, the Spanish flotilla, the Holy Roman Empire, the world divided between Spain and Portugal, the birth of the English Empire, the slave trade, the colonization of the Americas—that the place of doubt, dreams, and magic seems the largest, the most troubling. In France, the biggest witchcraft trials, in Louvain and Pau, take place first under first Louis XIII, then under Louis XIV. The peak of Spain’s rise corresponds in fact to the Baroque Age, which is the age of doubt and questioning.

The dreams of the Baroque Age are a questioning of reality, power, and money and mark the appearance of a certain relativity (as one would say today in this other baroque age which is our own). Time, value, love, goods, and the pleasures of our lives are ephemeral. Who is not familiar with these magical lines from Francisco de Quevedo? "Yesterday has gone; tomorrow hasn’t arrived; / Today is going away without stopping for one one moment; / I am a ‘was’ and a ‘will be’ and an ‘is’ tired."3

Or these mysterious and moving lines from Luis de Góngora:

 

While, to compete with your hair, gold burnished in the sun gleams in vain; while, with scorn, in the midst of the plain, your white brow regards the lily fair; while each lip is pursued by more eyes than follow the early carnation; and while with proud disdain your neck triumphs over bright crystal: enjoy neck, hair, lips, and brow, before what was in your golden youth gold, lily, carnation, crystal bright, not only turns into silver or a crushed violet, but you and all of it together into earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothingness.4

 

The Baroque is not merely a literary mode or school. It is a philosophy, a natural tendency of man, the expression of his nocturnal side, of his dreams and worries. Approximately one hundred years before Góngora’s verses, Quevedo, and La vida es sueño, in the Aztec world on the verge of disappearing, the great Netzahuacoyotl, Lord of the Acolhua people from Tetzcoco, sang the same elegies and laments that would make up the poetry of the English Romantics and of Novalis. One finds here as well the themes of the fragility of happiness, time, the beauty of youth, death and destruction, the final void.

 

Dress yourself in flowers
In flowers the color of the ara of the lakes,
Brilliant as the sun,
The flowers of the raven,
Adorn yourself here on earth,
Only here.
It is thus
Only for a brief moment,
The flowers, for a moment,
We have readied them.
Already, we carry them to the god’s home,
To the home of the Fleshless.5

 

The Baroque asserts nothing other than the right to dream, and it speaks of nothing other than man’s former ties to the supernatural, which is why that right is the dominant force of civilization.

It is in the very era of rationalism, the Age of Classicism, that dreams reveal their power. Cartesian philosophy also has its part of shadow, as Descartes’ dream and the Pascalian illumination bear witness. Writings on the irrational flourish during the years of the Encyclopédie. One can cite not only the writings of Saint-Martin and Swedenborg but also the fantastic tales of this period: Jacques Cazotte with his Diable amoureux, the translations of A Thousand and One Nights, the English Gothic novels by Beckford and Lewis, the German ones by Tieck, and the sometimes absurd, often disturbing tales of the famous Cabinet des Fées, published in Amsterdam at the end of the eighteenth century.

Born of the European wars and the Napoleonic adventure, the Age of Romanticism also dreams of a different society. The second wave of Romanticism (the one which will nourish the young Isidore Ducasse) is at the once the era of the birth of the great industrial empires, colonization, and banks, as well as an era of dreams, of a return to origins, of the resurrection of magic and mysticism. If, as Vladimir Propp notes in his essay on the origins of Russian folktales, most dreams are tied to the tribal or theocratic organization of human societies—the dragon, for instance, as an expression of tyranny and despotism—then the imagination of fantastic literature expresses a demand, a struggle for the freedom to dream.

Romanticism is also the age of messianisms, in the Americas, Oceania, and Africa. The same "wave of dream," as Paul Eluard would later call it, runs throughout the world, pitting conquered peoples against the new industrialized masters. In North America, the Indian "dreamers"—Sioux, Arapaho, Apache—guide the last barbarous nations in total war against the conquering Europeans, who for their part draw on the most effective weapon of all, that of money. Dream dances, ghost dances,6 visions, dreams set the primitive peoples against the modern world and send them on toward the only outcome possible: death. It is a case of a total confrontation between the ideas of the modern world—utilitarianism, logic, determinism—and the prior beliefs in magic and the beyond. Dreams are an insurrection aimed at a new freedom, the freedom of the individual against the prohibitions of classical morality, against logical order; they are a means of access to a new perception of being—i.e., this totality which was the primary value of primitive societies. The deep meaning of Lautréamont’s quest lies in this insurrection of dreams.

After Lautréamont and Nerval, the Surrealists also defend the right to dream, this freedom to dream that can hardly be considered a gentle one. For the Surrealists, dreams are far more than just a poetic theme or means of inspiration. It is a question of a total experience, both physical and metaphysical, from which man will emerge different, changed. It is for this reason that they spoke of a "Surrealist Revolution."

At issue therefore is a complete reversal of values (born, moreover, of nihilism and of the absurdity of the deadliest wars man has ever known). As Breton states in the first Surrealist Manifesto from 1924:

 

To reduce the imagination to a state of slavery—even though it would mean the elimination of what is commonly called happiness—is to betray all sense of absolute justice within oneself. Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be, and this is enough to remove to some slight degree the terrible injunction; enough, too, to allow me to devote myself to it without fear of making a mistake (as though it were possible to make a bigger mistake). Where does it begin to turn bad, and where does the mind’s stability cease? For the mind, is the possibility of erring not rather the contingency of good?7

 

Man’s freedom to seek and reveal himself through visions and dreams implicates the dangers of limits, which is why the rationalist and progressivist society of the modern world, spawned by the Reformation, cannot allow it to exist. Man—this "definitive dreamer" as Breton puts it, or Lautréamont’s "pubescent dreamer" victimized by the cruelty of his own creator—ust choose for himself the path of his revelation, the means to his freedom. In undertaking this extreme experience, a man sometimes risks his own life, like the poet Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, creator of the movement "Le Grand Jeu"; like Nerval; or like Antonin Artaud, who, in the tradition of his hero Van Gogh, was "suicided by society."

Doubtless one of the last seers of the modern world, Artaud le Momo, poet-magus par excellence, takes his introspective quest to the very edge of madness: "Where others present their works, I claim to do no more than show my mind. / Life consists of burning up questions. / I cannot conceive of work that is detached from life. / I do not like detached creation. Neither can I conceive of the mind as detached from itself. Each of my works, each diagram of myself, each glacial flowering of my inmost soul dribble over me."8 Artaud renders the totality of this experience of being, in which man is the receptor of magical and unreal forces, in the following terms: "Delights and furies, the entire sky / Launches upon us like a cloud / A whirlwind of wild wings / Torrential with obscenities."9 This burning, harassing freedom leads Artaud all the way to Mexico, to the lands of the Tarahumara Indians, where he seeks the Mountain of Signs, the Race Principle, and a complete, ecstatic communion with creation. Later, in the solitude of madness, it leads still further, to the asylum in Rodez.

Acquired through so much suffering, anguish, and pain, this freedom to dream has something mythlike to it. The myth of katabasis comes to mind: out of curiosity, love, or a fascination with the unknown that is the destiny of some, the human hero descends into the underworld, defying danger and taboo, crossing through the portals of death. Most of the heroes of ancient civilizations have made this journey: the giant Gilgamesh, seeking the flower of immortality; Orpheus, for the love of Eurydice; or Quetzalcóatl, the god of Tula, sacrificed by his celestial enemy Tezcatlipoca and reborn at the end of each century in the form of a morning star. The ecstasy of the shamans and the visions of the prophets had no other goal than to undertake, one more time, this initiatory voyage beyond death. The poets and the seers after them sought out this encounter, this meeting with the two truths of man: that of his life and that of his death. Primitive man, or, in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, "man without history" (since, by way of this other reality, man abolishes time and death, the very things which make up histories), experienced this meeting in its entirety, in each one of the acts of his daily life. In hiding this truth, the determinist, rationalist, Western society has mutilated the nocturnal side of man, the side of his magical and creative origins. Thanks to the poets’ dreams; thanks to Baudelaire, Nerval, and Lautréamont; thanks to Jorge Carrera Andrade and Octavio Paz; thanks to the writers since Joyce and Proust, up to those of today—Borges, Rulfo, Onetti, Mercè Rodoreda—we know now that this imaginative freedom is one of our most precious assets. Like the ancient Mayas, like the Egyptians and Greeks, we have learned that time is cyclical and that visible reality is only a reflection. As Borges, perhaps one of the last visionaries of our world, so admirably puts it, we have learned that "the whole of time has already happened and that our life is a vague memory or dim reflection, doubtless false and fragmented, of an irrevocable process."10 Is this not the rejoinder to the ancient Aztec proverb that expresses the notions of time and creation through the myth of eternal return? "Another time, it shall be thus, another time things shall be thus, in another time, in another place. What happened long ago and which now is no longer done, another time it shall be done, another time it shall be thus, as it was in very distant times. Those who live today shall live another time, they shall live once again."11

—J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Seminar On Lautréamont And ‘Freedom To Dream,’” University of Oklahoma, 18 February 1997.

 

Published as J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to dream.” World Literature Today v. 71 (Autumn 1997) p. 671-4. Translated by Ralph Schoolcraft III

 

Footnotes

1 The phrase appears in English in the original.
2 Sahagún, A History of Ancient Mexico, vol. 1, tr. Fanny R. Bandelier, Nashville, Fisk University Press, 1932, p. 146.
3 Quevedo, "Metaphysical Poems, #2," in Elias L. Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, tr. Elias L. Rivers, Prospect Heights (Il.), Waveland, 1966, pp. 260-61.
4 Góngora, "Sonnet CLXVI," in Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, p. 163.
5 The translation used here is that found in J.M.G. Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations, tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 113.
6 These two phrases appear in English in the original.
7 André Breton, "Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)," in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trs. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1972, pp. 4-5.
8 Artaud, The “Umbilicus of Limbo,” in Selected Writings, tr. Helen Weaver, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976, p. 59.
9 Artaud, "Windowpane of Sound" ["Vitre de son"]; my translation.
10 Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," tr. Alastair Reid, in Ficciones, New York, Grove, 1962, p. 25.
11 Codex Florentinus, facsimile edition, Mexico City, AGN, 1969, tr. Alfredo Lopez Austin, book VI, p. 196. This English translation is also from Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream, p. 208.