the failure of surrealism

“Past the period of the revelation and enthusiasm of its beginnings, surrealism was ineluctably destined to blend in with preexisting ways of feeling, ways of living, and ways of writing, because its initial stakes were entirely placed on exceptionally rare conjunctions, almost as slow to reproduce themselves as the conjunctions of stars, and which it could not ultimately claim to read in the book of life in the faint glow of a flash of lightning (the singular merit of Nadja is to almost convince you, through the potent charm of the writing, that such conjunctions could be rather frequent and form the fabric of a life). But blending in was what Breton could not accept, could never accept. In wanting to establish surrealism as an autonomous and closed way of living, the problem was making a lifestyle work full time that in the last analysis relied only on miracles, intermittent by definition . . . .”

(Julien Gracq, “Surrealism”, pp. 301–302 in Reading Writing, trans. Jeanine Herman)

a true likeness without a resemblance

“The story an opera tells makes imaginative sense perhaps – odd people wait around and sing now and then to music played in a pit – even before it starts we know who Einstein was and what a beach is and the believability of opera – EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH is an opera – there are scene changes – a courtroom, a prison, a field, a train, a moon, a computer building, a space ship, a small boy on a tower throwing older-paper-airplanes, two very beautiful single heroines too, you can see a few times their lovely fingers counting eighth notes – and there is a wonderful solo dance – the cast doesn’t change clothes, it sings a lot and acts different parts and dances and sometimes someone freezes in a pose – the stage action is clear, unforeseen, and straight – even touching – it isn’t symbolism or telling a story – watching it happen, the spacious proportions for looking and seeing make it easy to breathe and stay open and very soon to realize the exalting strength of the music listening to it section by sectino, a continuous present moment of time for four hours, the energy and force of the score – driving, clear, new, straight – a structure or wall that opens on brick, like a half-step outward or further inward, and with that one step it builds or grows a whole unforeseeable further structure – no telling how the stage action keeps finding room to press through that wall effortlessly, sweetly, and so spaciously – a double structure for artists and audience together, ears and eyes – for all of us in the building together – what an elating evening! (I am speaking here of the preparatory New York rehearsals that I was at.) A Parisian lady exclaimed, “It’s the best opera since Pélléas!” everybody laughed happily – a true likeness without a resemblance.

(Edwin Denby, October 12, 1978, New York City. Text from the back of the CBS recording of Philip Glass & Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach.


“How many people, towns, pathways jealousy makes us desperate to know! It is a thirst for knowledge thanks to which we come to have, on a series of isolated points, all possible information except the information we really want. We never know when a suspicion will arise, for suddenly we remember a phrase that was unclear, an alibi which must have been given for a purpose. It is not that we have seen the person again, but there is a jealousy after the event, which arises only after we have left the person in question, a ‘staircase jealousy’ like staircase wit. Perhaps the habit I had developed of keeping certain desires secret within myself, the desire for a young girl of good society like the ones I saw passing under my window followed by their governesses, and particularly the one Saint-Loup, who frequented brothels, had told me about, the desire for pretty lady’s-maids, and particularly Mme Putbus’s, the desire to go to the country in spring and see the hawthornes again, the desire for storms, for Venice, to set to work, to live like other people, perhaps the habit of keeping all these desires alive in me without satisfying them, simply promising myself that I would not forget to realize them one day, perhaps this habit, formed over so many years, of perpetual postponement, of what M. de Charlus damned under the name of procrastination, had become so general in me that it had invaded even my jealous suspicions and led me, while making a mental note that one day I would certainly demand an explanation from Albertine about the young girl (or young girls, for this part of the story was confused, half erased, in other words unreadable in my memory) in whose company Aimé had met her, to delay this demand.”

(Proust, The Prisoner, trans. Carol Clark, p. 75)

contra melville

“The truth is that men have always hated this world and tried to get off it. The earliest myth is of man gluing wings to himself and trying to fly, and he’s trying to go to the bottom of the sea, and on land he’s trying to see how much speed he can make. Because, actually, they hate life and they hate themselves and they don’t like this earth and they’d like to leave it . . . [They] spend billions of dollars putting people on the moon where they have no business to be when we have not yet learned how to keep our water pure or have a decent system of garbage disposal or snow removal on earth.”

(Katherine Anne Porter, quoted in Alice Denham’s Sleeping with Bad Boys, p. 266. Unclear whether this is a quotation from Porter’s work or a personal communication . . .)

naming things

“Text and textus? Text, of course, comes from the Latin textus, which means ‘web.’ In modern printing, the “web” is that great ribbon of paper which, in many presses, takes upwards of an hour to thread from roller to roller throughout the huge machine that embeds ranked rows of inked graphemes upon the ‘web,’ rendering it a text. All the uses of the words ‘web,’ ‘weave,’ ‘net,’ ‘matrix’ and more, by this circular ‘etymology’ become entrance points into a textus, which is ordered from all language and language-functions, and upon which the text itself is embedded.

The technological innovations in printing at the beginning of the Sixties, which produced the present ‘paperback revolution,’ are probably the single most important factor contouring the modern science-fiction text. But the name ‘science fiction’ in its various avatars – s-f, speculative fiction, sci-fi, scientifiction – goes back to those earlier technological advances in printing that resulted in the proliferation of ‘pulp magazines’ during the Teens and Twenties.

Naming is always a metonymic process. Sometimes it is the pure metonymy of associating an abstract group of letters (or numbers) with a person (or thing), so that it can be recalled (or listed in a metonymic order with other entity names). Frequently, however, it is a more complicated metonymy: Old words are drawn from the cultural lexicon to name the new entity (or to rename an old one), as well as to render it (whether old or new) part of the present culture. The relations between entities so named are woven together in patterns far more complicated than any alphabetic or numeric listing can suggest: and the encounter between objects-that-are-words (e.g., the name ‘science fiction,’ a critical text on science fiction, a science-fiction text) and processes-made-manifest-by-words (another science-fiction text, another critical text, another name) is as complex as the constantly dissolving interface between culture and language itself. . . .”

(Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton: an ambiguous heterotopia, pp. 282–283)

and when we lose objects?

Every day I set less store on intellect. Every day I see more clearly that if the writer is to repossess himself of some part of his impressions, reach something personal, that is, and the only material of art, he must put it aside. What intellect restores to us under the name of the past, is not the past. In reality, as soon as each hour of one’s life has died, it embodies itself in some material object, as do the souls of the dead in certain folk-stories, and hides there. There it remains captive, captive forever, unless we should happen on the object, recognize what lies within, call it by its name, and so set it free. Very likely we may never happen on the object (or the sensation, since we apprehend every object as sensation) that it hides in; and thus there are hours of our life that will never be resuscitated: for this object is so tiny, so lost in the world, and there is so little likelihood that we shall come across it.”

(Proust, By Way of Sainte-Beuve, trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner, p. 17.)

clubs that would have you as members

“The detachment of M. de Charlus was total. And, seeing that he was merely a spectator, everything was bound to make him pro-German from the moment when, although not truly French, he started living in France. He was very intelligent, and in all countries most of the people are silly; no doubt if he had been living in Germany he would have been equally irritated by the way the German fools defend, passionately and foolishly, an unjust cause; but living in France, he was no less irritated by the passionate and foolish defence of a cause that that was just. The logic of passion, even if it is in the service of the right, is never irrefutable for somebody who is not passionately committed to it.”

(Proust, Finding Time Again, trans. Ian Patterson, pp. 82–83)