On Anger and Surrealism
a conversation with Bob Schofield
“Bob,I read your review of Open City. I’m three quarters through that book but have to shelve it for now—I was reading it as consideration for the finale novel to a class I’m teaching this fall: ‘International Cultures in American Literature.’ You’re the second person to tell me the ending twist ripples back through the book—I still don’t know what that ending is, but I’ve sadly concluded that the adult-inner-city students in this course just aren’t going to make it through the abstract, distant, plotless style—which I love. But the wildcard is the ending—so maybe I’ll kick myself later.
At any rate, I was struck by your review, particularly your connection with anger and surrealism. I’d love to explore these ideas with you further, in light of my conversation with viperslang.
It strikes me that surrealism’s success since WWII has been in its international underground murmuring—especially in third world and communist/ post-communist countries. I think it would be interesting to articulate whether and how surrealism arises in places where there is “anger”—the racial, political kind that you allude to.
Have you ever heard of Black Dog of Fate? It’s the memoir of Peter Balakian, English prof and Armenian American, and interestingly the nephew of Anne Balakian, the scholar of surrealism. In that book he wrestles with how his aunt can “elevate” the suffering of her Armenian experience into the symbolic-aesthetic realm of surrealist poetry.
Perhaps the dislocating, incongruous, and forceful disruption of surrealist juxtaposition gets at the cultural experience of displaced, colonized, and marginalized peoples. Perhaps the need to turn the anger into something beautiful is at the root of the alchemical transformation of incongruity into the “marvelous.”
Or(and) perhaps we’re all delusional.
My question for you is, is “intent” also a construct exclusive to an experience of cultural coherence, continuity and power? Is there a facetious exclusivity and blindness in the “mainstream” or “quietist” school’s penchant for intentional and craft-based writing?
Or, what if any thought along these lines have come up in your discussions with viperslang or reflections on Cole?”
“I’m excited for you to pick Open City back up one day. I could see how it might be a little difficult to teach. Very abstract, yeah. I’d really love to hear what you think whenever you do finish it though.
I read your conversation with viperslang. I thought it was very cool, very enlightening. Thanks for bringing me into it. I’m going to check out this Balakian book, which sounds interesting. I’m not too familiar with much third world surrealism (Haha now I expect a reading list! The trap is sprung!!) But I’ve read some Bulgakov, also Daniil Kharms, who both fit the profile, I think.
I agree that the surreal offers a strong avenue of expression for marginalized and displaced people, and in all sorts of different ways. Like you say, I do think it recreates those experiences. The effects of chance and non sequitir within the language can be made to roughly parallel an irrational, or at least highly unjust, distribution of power/agency in a person’s day-to-day life.
But I think it goes beyond that. I think it also gives them a chance to RECLAIM that agency. It opens a space for them to create an object as fractured and complex as the world around them, something truly of their own hand, their own making, and they are given the freedom to sink into it. Finally OWN it in a real way.
I think there’s power in that. It’s the ugly sort of beauty that comes with being the underdog, which I think is what you’re saying about ‘anger being the root of alchemical transformation of incongruity into the marvelous.’ It’s precious because there’s so much futility. But you do it anyway.
Some might call that escapism. I think that’s only the case if you stay in it forever. If you never step back outside it, then yes, it’s a shell. It’s a crutch. But if you take it out and face the world, then it’s more of a cocoon. Or a vessel. Alchemical transformation indeed.
I also think the surreal can be used as an act of defiance, and a damn useful one at that. In any oppressor/oppressed or maginalizing/marginalized type situation, the big danger is always the powers that be coopting the little guy’s mode of discourse. It’s an arms race of words. Just look at how absolutely toothless satire/irony has become in late capitalism. It’s ineffectual because it’s too easy to translate. What you have is basically a one-move reversal of meaning, the simplest thing in the world to reverse engineer, and once that happens the powers that be are playing along like it was their idea. I think of like Mitt Romney or somebody going on SNL and slapping everybody’s back with a big shit eating grin on his face like he’s been in on it the whole time, yucking it up because, as we all know, he’s such a FUN GUY!
But back to surrealism, which I think is a far more versatile tool in this kind of social dogfight. It works so well because it’s the slipperiest of fish. When done with skill, you are saying everything, and yet nothing. No one can lay a finger on you, because it’s all nonsense, and so it becomes hard for the other person to counterattack. Too much weirdness.
Like imagine a guy puts a gun to your head and shouts ‘Give me your wallet!’ and you do, but it’s full of spaghetti. It’s like that.
In my opinion this kind of surrealism is simultaneously the most passive and most aggressive of passive aggressions, the alpha and the omega, because there’s always still meaning in there. It’s not just noise. Intent has always been slipped in underneath. And since that meaning flows from intuitive leaps, it’s exponentially more meaning than the author could ever have foreseen/intended. A bit like how an H-bomb starts with tiniest subatomic reaction, then half a second later it’s ‘Helllllllo, mushroom cloud!’
As you and viperslang discussed in your exchange, I think there’s always some kind of ‘intent,’ so I wouldn’t say it’s solely a construct of cultural coherence. But I’d be willing to bet big money that the amount of faith a writer actually places in their own intent roughly corresponds to how secure that place is within a hierarchical social power structure. Like it’s easy to think you’ve got it all figured out when you’re king of the world, and no one’s going to tell you ‘NO!’ But as for the rest of us, we’re just cobbling shit together, trying to see what sticks.”(via uutpoetry)
"Lay your heart down and call it a day, it’s so hard to see you when fear is consuming you. When will you see yourself? Try to forgive yourself! You just can’t help yourself."