Reading the new book of poetry by Valery Oisteanu, Anarchy for a Rainy Day, which is written in Surrealist style, the author himself an avowed member of this school, makes me think of an earlier, critically powerful critique of this literary and artistic movement.
In T.A.Z., Hakim Bey levels a ferocious attack, saying that for one thing — and I will get to his second complaint below — no matter how liberating Surrealism was in principle, the fact that its style lent itself so easily to appropriation by Madison Avenue and other capitalist-friendly users counts heavily against it. He writes, “Advertising, using Surrealism’s colonization of the unconscious to create desire, leads to the final implosion of Surrealism.” Bey argues that any purported avant garde must be judged not only by its productions but its ability to resist coopting.
It seems a bit harsh to blame inventive artists for what use is made of their innovations once they become known to a wider public. However, there is a further implication to Bey’s invective, one which has been heard and responded to in Anarchy. That idea is: while the first generation of Surrealists can be forgiven for not knowing the future, the current crop of Surrealists must acknowledge and confront how traduced and compromised their trademark style has been. To rephrase that, the only neo-Surrealists who deserve continuing respect are those who, like Oistenau, face up to and compose in full awareness of the dangers of dilution and compromise.
Oisteanu faces this problem by providing lyrical elegies for recently deceased male and female Surrealist masters in which he emphasizes that they stayed true to principles and, directly attributable to this, they were shunned or hunted out of existence by the mainstream, dying without recognition in the shadows. The concept is that no matter how much Surrealist styles have been denigrated by marketers, true uncompromising partisans of the movement have upheld its rebel heritage and suffered the consequences.
So, Oistenau hymns Harold Norse, saying he has been left out of
A virtual museum of the Beats
They who have forgotten you so soon
He writes of Peter Orlovsky, left to die in a mental hospital,
Insanity follows him to Creedmore’s mental ward
But on that fragile morning, the last day of May
A sunflower blossomed and began bleeding petals
lone in death, alone and still, alone and naked
Folded arms, closed lips, heart full of unwritten poems.
And he tells a poet, barely known in the U.S.,
Sarane Alexandrian, never forgotten
Forever remembered, even in total silence.
Thus, part of the book is a Surrealist obituary column, memorializing these unknown greats and refusing to participate in the culture of “
Celebs-made USA, everywhere
each product different, flavors of the day … Fame and Name-Game casualties.
By doing so, the author calls on all second generation Surrealists to remain faithful to their remarkable but all-too frequently forgotton Surrealist forbears.
However, let’s return to Bey and his even more savage complaint against this artistic movement. “Surrealism was made for advertising, for commodification. Surrealism is in fact a betrayal of desire.” Why? Because “all projects for the ‘liberation of desire’ (Surrealism) which remain enmeshed in the matrix of work can only lead to the commodification of desire.” To rephrase that, Surrealism, for all its radicalism, did not defend alienated labor. This, Bey argues, can be seen not only in the focus of the movement’s creative attacks but in its affinity for ‘the Communist Party and its Work-ist ideology.”
Certainly, Bey’s assertions are open to challenge, but let’s set aside the question of the validity of his attacks on the earlier figures and take this as a second challenge to the new generation. The demand is that the newer Surrealists once and for all break their ties to contemporary work culture. Has Oisteanu been able to do this? Speaking frankly, I would have to say that in some ways Oisteanu falls short here. As was the case with Breton, Aragon and others, his unrelenting, fiery attacks on the state’s war-mongering, imperialism and environmental degradation are not matched by equally passionate attacks on the slavery of work.
Yet, if one reads with a less literal-minded search for denunciations of the world of labor, one can see in Oisteanu an important transmutation of Surrealist forms that has a bearing on this issue. One characteristic of early French Surrealist poetry (though not of all their novels) was a tendency to abstraction. It was a curious abstraction, of course, that of common nouns doing odd, discontinuous things like the characters in Magnetic Fields, who appear only to be joined to other abstractions: “A man standing in front of a perfume shop was listening to the rolling of a distant drum. The night that was gliding over his head came to rest on his shoulders.”
This type of writing is one reason for Bey’s criticism, his feeling that Surrealism is delinked from the life of ordinary people.
It can be argued that Oisteanu moves against this tendency, not by casting off abstraction, which is central to Surrealism’s self presentation, but by linking these abstractions to daily life. Perhaps, he owes some of this shift to being influenced by the O’Hara wing of the New York School. This means, for instance, he can discuss a mundane affair like stumbling on the street and ending in the hospital. Calling himself, modestly enough, Mr. Zen-dada, he narrates:
Mr. Zen-dada, Bacchus of the East Village
Ready to take off, to fly vertically
Tripped by Peter Stuyvesant’s ghost
Nearly surreally unconscious
Suddenly something snaps, shrinks rapidly
Left humerus on a sidewalk …
Falling like an old tree into a cloud.
Mr. Zen ends up in a hospital to say he has “a metal plate in my arms” and contemplates whether he can still “compose jazzoetry – jazz-inflected poetry.” He asks, plaintively, “Will I ever play the violin-collage as I did before?”
There are still abstractions, “Bacchus,” “a tree falling into a cloud,” and so on, but they are tied into prosaic events, giving them grittiness and reality. The same could be said of poems in which Oisteanu writes of his love for his wife,
Woman and man strung on life’s path
The sound of pleasure and pain
Your breath on my lips
tongue on my nipples
and of the horrors of visiting over-touristed Sicily,
The highway is winding to the east
the scooters, the cars, the trucks
Nearly invisible in the long tunnels
Love Sicily, hate the mass tourism.
In all these poems, Oisteanu braids together the strands of documentary observation with Surrealist ebullience, making Surrealist verse more quotidian.
It’s as if Bey threw down a gauntlet to second generation Surrealists, asking them, “Can you show me a Surrealist who has not sold out?” Oisteanu points a finger at Harold Norse, Sarane Alexandrian and others. Then Bey asks, “Can you show me a Surrealist poem that will speak to every woman and man, dropping the over-reliance on abstractions?” Oisteanu sets about writing them.
Anarchy for a Rainy Day shows that, while literature does not progress, in the sense of each generation producing better writing, it is moved forward by those who, while remaining in one literary current, can dialectically redirect the stream so that it no longer carries all the old silt.
Valery Oisteanu, Anarchy for a Rainy Day (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2015)