You are here

Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields

By: 
R. Burke

2019 was the 100th year anniversary of the publication of the first surrealist text, The Magnetic Fields by Andre Breton and Phillipe Soupault. As we approach the centennial anniversary of the publication of Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924 it is fitting that we have a statement by a long-time participant of the surrealist movement. Penelope Rosemont provides this for us in her newest work Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields.

Along with her husband Franklin, Ms. Rosemont was one of the founders of the Chicago Surrealist Group, arguably the most influential such group since the death of Breton in 1966. Over the decades the Chicago Surrealist Group has managed to keep the flame burning brightly, faithful to the spirit of surrealism in maintaining the goal of the liberation of the mind, while engaging in an uncompromising political activism inspired by Anarchism, Left Marxism, and Utopian Socialism. Ms. Rosemont’s previous book Surrealist Women: An International Anthologyfocused on the lives and work of the female participants of the movement, often ignored by conventional artistic and literary historians who focused primarily on its male superstars.

Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields is a collection of essays chronicling Ms. Rosemont’s involvement in surrealism through the decades, as well as investigating figures that were influential on her activity.  One such essay recounts the mimeographed magazine Rebel Worker. “Our proto-surrealist Rebel Worker group met each other first at Roosevelt University, then a hotbed of political ideas. Basically we were ‘anthropology students run amok.’ We decided, having read from Emma Goldman to Lenin, that we needed a journal and a place. So we got an old storefront at 713 Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park.” The group had connections with the Industrial Workers of the World, and access to their newspaper Industrial Worker. “But our youthful ideas, rock’ n’ roll, blues, surrealism, went far beyond what they would print and we knew that we needed our own means of expression.”

In December 1965 Franklin and Penelope Rosemont made a trip to England to visit Freedom Press. Refused entry to the country as undesirables they managed to get themselves deported to Paris. As ‘objective chance’ would have it, there was an International Surrealist Exhibition being staged by the Paris Surrealist Group that month. This led to an invitation to the Paris group’s New Years Eve party, followed by attendance of their meetings in a Paris café, and ultimately meeting Breton himself. “I was about to shake hands when, with a very elegant gesture, he lifted my hand and kissed it ‘Ah, anarchiste!’ he smiled at the political button I wore which read, ‘I Am An Enemy of the State’ and asked if we had been to the surrealist exhibition.”

According to Rosemont Paris in 1966 was already fermenting with the radical political activity that would erupt two years later with the May 1968 uprising. “During the entire time Franklin and I spent in Paris, the city itself was in turmoil. It was just about the end of the road for the Gaullists. Daily life was constantly disrupted by wildcat strikes by public workers, often one or two a week, and of course, you never could predict when or where.” The Parisians themselves were largely supportive, a situation that in many ways is being repeated in France at the time I am writing this. “Surrealism in daily life!” Ms. Rosemont comments.

Among other activities the Rosemont’s made contact with French Marxist groups, one of which had published a French translation of one of Franklin’s pamphlets. Eventually this culminated in a meeting with the Situationist International and its’ theoretician Guy Debord, author of Society of the Spectacle. In an essay humorously entitled Surrealism and Situationism: King Kong vs. Godzilla Ms. Rosemont reflects on the relationship between “two of the most significant radical movements of the 20th Century.” While the Situationist International had been profoundly influenced by Surrealism, relations between the two groups were not exactly fraternal. The meeting between the Situationists and the Rosemont’s went well on the personal level. Debord even “admitted a fondness for surrealism and said, ‘If this was the 1930’s, I’d be a surrealist.’ But considered that ‘surrealism was absorbed now, they teach it in the grade schools, now one must be a Situationist.’” Unfortunately when another Situationist, Mustapha Khayati, came to their hotel to deliver SI publications for them to bring back to the US to distribute in their bookstore, they were informed, “that we couldn’t dabble in surrealism too-dual memberships were not tolerated.” The attitude to the Situationists of the Paris Surrealist Group had been equally dismissive: “they are not our friends.”

Ms. Rosemont quotes a Chicago anarchist friend regarding the relationship between the two radical movements: “The SI and Surrealism are complimentary. Where the Surrealists lacked a political program in the narrow sense the SI supplied one, generalized self-management, not simply workers-councils though that was the core of the historic thrust for a world based on popular desire. But the SI lacked the wider vision that the Surrealists provided, encapsulated by the concept of the marvelous in everyday life. The two elements really need each other.”

A particularly interesting essay in Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields is entitled Unexpected Paths: Gustav Landauer, Munich 1919. This involves the anarchist thinker Gustav Landauer whose work, until recently, has been mostly unknown in the English-speaking world. “In his later years” Ms. Rosemont writes, “he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional ‘anarchist’ label, and began to call himself an anarcho-socialist. Regarding anarchism as “merely the negative side of what is positively called socialism,’ he went on to explain that ‘anarchy is the expression for the liberation of man from the idols of the state, the church and capital; socialism is the expression of the true and genuine community among men, genuine because it grows out of the individual spirit.” 

“During the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, he served as minister of education. Along with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknect, he was among those most hated, feared, and slandered by Germany’s ruling class. At the onset of the counter-revolution, May 2, 1919, he was assassinated by an aristocrat-led military squad acting under authority of the SPD.” 

Landauer, like the elder P.J. Proudhon, was committed to the ultimate goal of an anarchist society while willing to step outside the strict boundaries of anarchist activity. Proudhon, while being the first person to call himself an anarchist, is often considered by dogmatic anarchists to have stopped being one when he came to the conclusion that democratic socialist world federalism was a necessary intermediate step between capitalism and anarchism. This is a view not much different from the classic Marxian doctrine of “the withering away of the state.” Perhaps the future of a more democratic and egalitarian successor to the capitalist world system lies in a willingness to move beyond rigid ideological boundaries between Anarchism, and Marxism; Situationists, and Surrealism.

While much of Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields addresses purely political concerns, it continues in the vein of Ms. Rosemont’s earlier work Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, by showcasing the work of women participants of the movement.  There are essays devoted to he work of Toyen, Mimi Parent, Nancy Cunard and Leonora Carrington. One essay in particular Surrealist Encounters, Ted Joans, Jayne Cortez, Black Power focuses on the work of poet Ted Joans. An African American long involved in the surrealist movement, “Ted Joans has done more than anyone to bring the traditions of African American poetry and surrealist poetry together.” Rosemont calls attention to the fact that from its earliest days surrealism appealed to, and welcomed, Black writers and artists. This in itself is a topic requiring a whole other book, explored by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski in Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean.

Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields by Penelope Rosemont is a lively reminder that, despite the pronouncements of art historians and literary critics, surrealism is far from dead, and that its adventure continues into a new century.

Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields

By Penelope Rosemont

ISBN 97808728676680

City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2019

204 pages

$ 16.95

Richard Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and retired teacher living in St. Louis. He is also a member of the Surrealist Movement in the US.