Friday, February 19, 2010

Surrealist Painters and Poets
Mary Ann Caws, editor
The MIT Press, 2001

An anthology so rich and diverse I'm going to go ahead and call it "heroic". So much of this wouldn't be available anywhere, if not for this book. Mary Ann Caws has done dozens of fresh translations. It seemed incredible to sit at my table with my coffee and say, "Ah, now I'll read Andre Breton's letter to his daughter. . . now I'll look at facsimiles of Joseph Cornell's letters to Mina Loy and Marianne Moore. . . here is a picture of an elderly Picasso wearing a fireman's helmet. . . here are the poems of Robert Desnos and Paul Eluard and Malcolm de Chazal." The book is beautiful and fascinating and simply a lot of fun. I'm not a scholar or a historian -- this is a book to read for pleasure.

Somewhat at random, here are 7 Things I Loved:

Giorgio de Chirico, an excerpt from his memoirs: "Although the Surrealists professed unadulterated communist and anti-bourgeois feelings they always tried to live as comfortably as possible, dress very well and eat excellent meals washed down with excellent wine; they never gave so much as a centime to a poor man, never lifted a finger in favor of someone who needed material or moral support and above all they worked as little as possible, or not at all." (p.29)

Louis Aragon, an excerpt from Paris Peasant: "Fearsome, charming whores, let others take to generalizing in their arms." "No museum could ever reconstruct you on the basis of your little dimpled hand." (p.75)

Antonin Artaud, an excerpt from "Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society": "He who does not smell of a smouldering bomb and of compressed vertigo is not worthy to be alive." "Only perpetual struggle explains a peace that is only transitory just as milk that is ready to be poured explains the kettle in which it has boiled." (p.106)

Leonora Carrington, the story "House of Fear": "But I'd forgotten that I could only count to ten, and even then I made mistakes. In a very short time, I'd counted to ten several times, and I'd gone completely astray. Trees surrounded me on all sides. 'I'm in a forest,' I said, and I was right." (p.149)

Arthur Cravan, from his Notes: "I am perhaps the king of failures because I'm certainly the king of something." (p.171)

Julien Gracq, "Ross' Barrier": "At such times we hugged each other so long and close that in the melted snow, a single gully was hollowed out, narrower than a baby's cradle, and, when we got up, the cover between the two teat-like mounds suggested Asiatic asses, saddled with snow and descending the mountain slopes." (p.231)

Marcel Marien, his stunning essay "Psychological Aspects of the Fourth Dimension": "For if one break, pierce, breach, split, or otherwise penetrate an object, it is not its interior that is thereby reached; in the new void created, new images are created, hitherto unknown surfaces are touched." (p.289)

And I haven't mentioned the poems of Mina Loy, or the portfolio of Dorothea Tanning paintings, or Joseph Cornell's dream journal or Breton's collaborations with Eluard, or the entirely incredible Meret Oppenheim.

There is so much here -- and so many writers I would never have found if not for this book. An anthology, it seems to me, is a mission of rescue and in this case the survivors are dazzling.

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