Dreams of Arson & the Arson of Dreams: Surrealism in ‘68

In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish that society. —Anonymous striker graffiti, Paris (May, 1968)

…and this ol’ world ain’t got no back door. —The Marvelettes, “Destination: Anywhere” (1968)

Emila Medkova Dvojnik denik clanek soloSo many studies of surrealism’s activities after the Second World War portray the events of 1968 as the movement’s apogee. Within the movement itself, those affiliated with groups in Czechoslovakia and France met for a conference that produced one of the most critical and definitive of surrealist programmatic texts, The Prague Platform; meanwhile, out in the streets, spontaneous uprisings by workers, students, and dissidents shattered daily routines (and more) in Paris, Prague, Chicago, Dakar, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Lahore, Mexico City, Rome, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Washington D.C., Belfast, Warsaw, and dozens of other cities. Heated by the incendiary and incandescent underground currents of counter-cultural unrest, some aspects of these uprisings at times seemed to resound with the desires and designs first articulated in the pages of La Révolution surréaliste in 1924—these were furious utopian festivals of imagination, expression, liberation, and the instincts of pleasure against coercion, conformity, militarism, racism, consumer capitalism, and all other stagnant doldrums of the mind. Surrealist poet André Breton had died in 1966, but there were those who spied his words unmistakably traced in the smoke and the graffiti paint of many street-corner barricades around the world that spring and summer.

But then in 1969, a series of internal conflicts ruptured the Paris group to the extent that many incorrectly surmised that the movement was dead everywhere. This was compounded by the culture industry’s tremendous efforts to petrify surrealism by mass manufacturing the notion that it was a historical (in other words, “extinct” and therefore “irrelevant”) phenomenon whose time had come and gone. Surrealists have always been dogged by bourgeois grave-diggers and stalinoid bureaucrats waving death certificates, but the museo-academic-art dealer complex embalmed surrealist creative activity in a series of blockbuster shows starting in 1968, including retrospectives on Yves Tanguy and Max Ernst, as well as the degrading and cretinizing “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage” exhibition in New York City. (Unintentionally, the self-important Oedipal petulance of Situationists like Raoul Vaneigem enabled the enterprises of these banal taxidermists.) In this sense, 1968 was not so much the year of surrealism’s apogee as it was its ignoble transfiguration into canonical modernism, when surrealism’s revolutionary verve was recuperated and estranged from real life by its most contemptuous enemies as a defunct artistic school and an exhausted literary style.

What follows is a brief examination into surrealist activities in 1968, which I have triangulated between Prague, Paris, and Chicago and anchored to two key surrealist texts, The Prague Platform and “Situation of Surrealism in the U.S.” My intention is show how surrealism responded to and participated in the electric events of ’68, and to suggest how an understanding of the movement’s past can help instigate the next tremors to run through the atmosphere. To paraphrase Lautréamont, it is only a matter of having the awareness and insolence to accept them.

Prague: Principles of pleasure

Pro-Moscow Czech Communists seized control of the country in a coup d’état in February 1948; anti-Stalinist communists and socialists were arrested, imprisoned, or sent to forced-labor camps. In the Stalinist purges that followed in Cold War Eastern Europe, it has been estimated that the number of Marxists viciously persecuted by their own in the 1950s far exceeded those victimized by anti-communist forces in the 1930s and early 1940s. Not surprisingly, this “hollowing out” helped the Soviet puppet-masters exert greater control over the day-to-day affairs of life in the satellite states, and Czechoslovakia was certainly no different in those respects, but when Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program was instigated in the mid-1950s, many Czech apparatchiks found themselves in increasingly untenable positions. By 1963, controls had relaxed enough to allow for surprisingly sharp criticisms of the Stalinist old guard that frantically scrabbled to hold onto Party power in Czechoslovakia, and these attacks became more vigorous as economic, educational, housing, and healthcare policies collapsed in the mid-1960s. Students and workers battled police and the military in the streets; as the Czech Stalinists wrestled to regain control over the growing voices of dissent that were coming to dominate cultural, artistic, and intellectual life, they were outflanked by reformist Slovak Communist Party members who resented forty years of Soviet-directed Czech Communist hegemony. By January 1968, the reformist Communists were in control.

As the political and cultural climate in Czechoslovakia thawed, surrealists emerged into the light and warmth of spring. Czech and Slovak surrealists had been active since the late 1930s, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the brilliant graphic artist and theorist Karel Teige but were forced into the shadows by the Nazi occupation of the early 1940s. After the war, Stalinist watchdogs reviled surrealism as “perverted” and “monstrous”—Teige was branded as a “Trotskyite degenerate” and died in 1951 before he could be arrested and tortured like his friend and surrealist fellow traveler Záviš Kalandra, a Marxist critic who had been hanged after confessing to a ludicrous litany of espionage charges forced into his mouth by Czech secret policemen earlier that same year. Obviously, the opportunity to interrogate and condemn twenty years of police-state Marxism had surrealists openly engaging in agitation to push the new “socialism with a human face” reforms towards more libertarian dimensions.

Vratislav Effenberger, Ivan Svitak and other Czechoslovak and French surrealists (including Vincent Bounoure, Claude Courtot, and José Pierre) organized s a major International Surrealist Exhibition called “The Pleasure Principle” in April 1968 that traveled from Brno to Bratislava and then to Prague. The exhibition orbited around four key themes: play, the truth of automatism, law-breaking, and the laws of the night. In conjunction with the show, a series of dialogues took place between the principal figures in both groups on the challenges of creativity in contemporary society and the histories and futures of surrealism. A forum series on these issues was even organized at the Socialist Academy of Prague where people from outside the inner workings of these groups could observe and participate. Special publications of these meetings were planned, but because of the Soviet crackdown, not all of them were ever fully materialized.

The title of the exposition derived from Freud’s writing but aspired to terms well beyond the rarified confines of psychoanalytic theory. As Freud explained, the Pleasure Principle was that set of psychic impulses that drives children to find happiness, entertainment, enjoyment, and satisfying indulgence at all times for all needs and wants. As children mature, Freud postulated, “the ego is educated to become reasonable”—to avoid the anxiety resulting from unfulfilled desires, the quest for pleasure must be tempered by a rational understanding that reality requires the individual work, suffer, sacrifice, put off, or otherwise deny gratification. In short, a person grows to understand that she or he must “obey the Reality Principle, which also at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but a pleasure that is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished,” Freud wrote.

But the surrealists were not inclined to resign themselves to the grim inevitability of Freud’s schema—borrowing from the works of renegade Freudo-Marxists like Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, the surrealists argued that the “rational understanding” of the Reality Principle was more likely a “rationalized understanding” that conditioned us all to accept repression in the name of what was realistic, practical, logical, responsible, and efficient. In other words, the smothering of the Pleasure Principle by the norms and forms of the Reality Principle was an attack on freedom at the most primal and intimate level; all institutions of domination and control manipulate the sly vocabulary of the Reality Principle in order to thwart desires of those being oppressed “for their own good.” Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) is crucial to understanding surrealist explorations of the Pleasure Principle: “The history of man is the history of his repression,” Marcuse says. “Our civilization is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts.” (The French surrealists first explored some of these ideas in their 1965 exhibition, “Absolute Deviation.”) Theories of the Pleasure Principle, surrealism, and Marcuse’s socialist blueprints for a “non-repressive civilization” built on “non-alienated libidinal work” are absolutely central to understanding surrealism in 1968, but more complete explanations are best left for a separate study. Suffice it to say that that the dialectical jiu-jitsu between the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle in the realm of the social were not without relevance for Czechoslovakians in 1968.

As Party bureaucrat Alexander Dubcek struggled to steer his reformist regime through a post-Stalinist minefield between April and August of that year, the energies of pleasure and possibility of long-repressed people delightfully destabilized the nation. But the renaissance of the Prague Spring was being sharply criticized by anxious Communist governments in other East European states that feared such a outbreak of liberty among their own serfs. Just after sunset on August 20, Czechoslovakia was invaded by 250,000 troops from the USSR, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Insurgents battled the invaders but to no avail—Soviet tanks reduced neighborhoods to ruins and an unknown number of resistance fighters were killed in the fighting. Dubcek was abducted by Soviet secret police commandos, tortured, and made to publicly renounce on Czech national television all the changes that had begun to take place since January. Within months, a savage crackdown on all cultural, intellectual, and social experimentation in Czechoslovakia was in full effect. When the Czechoslovakian surrealists’ periodical Analogon was denounced as “a Trojan horse of Western imperialism” on the state-run radio network, the surrealists disbanded and scattered, some fleeing into exile while others disappeared into the shadowy world of secret meetings and hand-circulated samizdat. The Reality Principle had returned to Czechoslovakia with a vengeance.

Paris: All power to the imagination

While some of the French surrealists were in Czechoslovakia to help with “The Pleasure Principle” exposition, a chain reaction of revolt crackled throughout Paris. In March 1968, following a string of bombings against the Paris offices Chase Manhattan Bank, the Bank of America, and Trans-World Airlines for their involvement in the Vietnam War, dissatisfied university students at the Nanterre branch of the University of Paris organized demonstrations against the De Gaulle regime, demanding changes in curriculum, employment regulations, and campus infrastructure. Throughout April, the protests increased in intensity and scope; parallel to this, unrest was growing among workers against the government as well over issues of minimum wages, a forty-hour work-week, and retirement benefits, but these, too, grew to accommodate much larger themes, such as Taylorist assembly lines, trade-union bureaucracies, capitalist exploitation, the artificial consumerist desires of commodities, and the rule of political elites.

By the beginning of May, the anger of Nanterre had spread to other Parisian campuses, notably the Sorbonne, where the university administration invited French police to forcibly break up the on-campus protests. Within a week, the student uprisings had braided together with the striking workers, creating a kind of revolutionary resistance to the government whose demands went well beyond reforms to schools and the workplace. It was the largest strike wave in the history of the industrialized West, fueled by a decade of simmering radical working-class discontent; in addition to walk-outs, ad-hoc workers’ councils occupied factories and workshops against the wishes of their union stewards and Communist Party parliamentary representatives. Barricades went up on the streets as students, workers, and others joined hands against French security forces. Widespread police brutality brought others out into the streets in protest, and by mid-May 1968 the nation’s capital (and some cities in outlying provinces) was paralyzed by wildcat general strikes. In a premonition of what would happen in Prague three months in the future, army tanks and armored troop carriers began appearing on the ring roads around the city. After securing the allegiance of the French Fifth Army for possible action against the French people, De Gaulle appealed on television for the patriotic silent majority to take to the streets in counter-protest of the rebels. Off-camera, he caved in to many of the workers’ and students’ demands and in effect defused the situation. By July, the revolts were over and a parliamentary coalition of conservative nationalists faithful to De Gaulle had control of the government.

The surrealists in Paris were tuned in to the situation and were prepared to assist in any way they could—they were aware of the troubles smoldering on the campuses and made mention of them in statements from early February and March, 1968. When the protests erupted in late April, they were quick to back them unequivocally. Their May 5 pamphlet “No Pastors for this Rage!” urged the streetfighters to reject any attempt to centralize their rebellious efforts under the direct control of any clique of leaders. The special June 1968 issue of their paper L’Archibras was little more than an urgently-compiled collection of short, seething declarations in support of the rebels. “Let’s systematically insult all lovers of flags, ribbons, crosses, and medals until they might finally be ashamed of being inscribed on the honor roll of a rotten society,” one essay howls. “Let’s defile all monuments to the war dead and turn them into monuments of ingratitude … We owe no one anything … Down with national heritage! Down with patriotic and patronal patrimony! … The only just war is a civil war because it is only then that one knows the enemy one is killing. Men and women of France, we appeal to your rage.” Another inspired and accurate text was “A Portrait of the Enemy,” which described the dangerously toxic precepts inherent in the terms “realism” and “realistic” and which, for the most part, continue to be accurate in 2008, such as “Realism is the occupation of all reality by just the reality of policemen”; “All political parties and all trade unions are realist institutions motivated by fear of consciousness that develops from the imagination and by the fear of the desire to changes reality”; and “Anything realist is senile. Everything senile is realist.”

Much has been said about the wild, utopian joy that sprouted unexpectedly among the insurgents that spring. As had been the case in Prague in April, the surrealists saw this as a historical moment when the forces of individual desire could be mobilized and dialectically advanced to the tipping point of all-out social revolt. And if the wall-posters and graffiti art is to be believed, then some of the insurrectionaries were very consciously invoking and evoking radical social theorists during their struggles. Quotes attributed to Breton and other surrealist slogans peppered the streets: “Imagination is not a gift—it must be conquered”; “To the great outrage of some, and under the watchful, less punishing eye of others, raising its wings’ weight, your freedom”; “Down with socialist realism! Long live surrealism!”; “Long Live the Surrealist Revolution!”; “Art Does Not Exist!” Surrealist tracts from before World War II were reprinted and re-contextualized in the flyers, pamphlets, and newspapers of the strikers, such as Artaud’s “Open Letter to the Rectors of European Universities” that was reprinted by the radicals of March 22nd Movement. Surrealists such as Mimi Parent, Jean Benoît, and Roberto Matta were conspicuous and contributed agitational-propaganda to many meetings and protest marches. In 1984, surrealist Claude Courtot—one of those most active in L’Archibras—recalled that the events of 1968 not only presented “surrealism in the streets” but also demonstrated how unexpectedly that surrealist theory and action had far exceeded what the group had imagined. “We were almost marginalized by it. We felt we had been surpassed,” Courtot explained gleefully. Small wonder, then, that the disillusionment that followed the failed May revolt contributed substantially to the sharp splintering of the French surrealist group that occurred in 1969.

Just as the Czechoslovakian surrealists’ magazine Anagalon was attacked by Soviet censors following the invasion in August 1968, L’Archibras was similarly outlawed by the State’s reactionary forces when the Paris revolts collapsed. The surrealists involved in producing the publication were charged with public incitement to crime, offenses against the office of the President of the Republic, and the slander of police officers. Nevertheless, the group managed to reprint documents from the Czechoslovakian surrealists starting just three weeks after the Soviet invasion and continued to distribute them throughout the fall and winter of 1968-69. One of these was the most significant surrealist declarations of the time, if not the entire history of the movement: The Prague Platform.

The Prague Platform: On the possible against the current

Led by Vratislav Effenberger—the most important surrealist theoretician since Karel Teige—The Prague Platform emerged from the discussions, disagreements, and collaborations among and between French and Czechoslovak surrealists during the process of “The Pleasure Principle” project and partly in commemoration of the 9 April 1935 publication in Prague of The International Surrealist Bulletin. The platform had been assembled between April 5 and April 18, 1968, and it had been originally signed by twenty-eight French, twenty-one Czechoslovakian, and eleven other surrealists (when police attacks against the surrealists began in late summer and the early fall in both Prague and Paris, many of the names were deliberately removed to confound law enforcement efforts). In unexpectedly straight-ahead (“anti-confusional”) language, The Prague Platform sketches out the a series of ambitions and possible goals for the international movement, but insisting all the while a commitment to preserving the spontaneity and non-dogmatic openness to any and all sensitive, critical, and independent theoretical readjustments.

Of particular interest are the ways in which the surrealists identified and characterized the enemies of human liberty in 1968, definitions that today’s freedom fighters have lamentably forgotten in the absurdly overheated ideological world of today. Rather than succumbing to the easy binary thinking of the Cold War years, the surrealists associated the common elements between the unfreedom of the “Free World” and the despotism of the “Popular Democratic Republics”; they astutely assessed the conventions used by all contemporary repressive systems, namely the technocratic mechanisms of social control that ultimately rely on the hypnotic dazzle of more consumer goods and the internalized fear of police violence. On both sides of the Iron Curtain (and everywhere else where the state dominates the lives of individuals), the surrealists pinpointed the systematic enervation of language and images by governments, bureaucrats, propagandists, advertising agencies, and entertainment industries. Bleached, tamed, utilitarianized, regulated, standardized, and homogenized, the symbolic building-blocks of expression and creativity are garbled to the extent that “people are deprived of the real powers of their own thought.” (As a recent example, consider how the word “freedom” has come to mean laser-guided missiles and protracted military occupation and “security” has become a euphemism for censorship and surveillance.) This disfigurement of words, images, and symbols forces people to rely upon a hierarchy of “cultural agents” whose job it is to compel them to “conform to the proper functioning of the system” and thereby reinforce its rule. In response, the surrealists pledged “to refuse to admit as definite the categories of psychic, social, and natural reality” as defined by these technocratic regimes. They also reaffirmed their efforts “to tear language from the repressive system and make it an instrument of desire” that could help restore it to its purpose “as indicators of subjective reality and the essential intersubjectivity of desire as it is reflected in the public mind.”

Six other positions were raised by The Prague Platform, including offering to align with any other non-surrealist individuals and movements anywhere in the world that sought to stymie and attack these same repressive systems. The third position demanded a complete reformulation of Marxist-Leninist anti-capitalism away from the authoritarian, statist interpretations and towards an infusion of more poetic thought in its theory and practice, and they pointed towards a number of struggles (including Black Power revolutionaries in the US and various student uprisings around the world) as possible first steps. This was followed by a renewed commitment to experimental dialectical thought (especially in the realms of dreams and sexual freedom) and a position on the relationship between art and revolution that dismisses both art-for-art’s-sake and expressly politically-engaged artistic creation in favor of explorations into “the most obscure zones of psychic reality” and the “emancipation of the powers and desires lying dormant in the unconscious.” Point Six declared unmistakably and without qualification the primacy of play, games, and experimental activities within the core of the surrealist project: “We place all of our intellectual hopes in them,” the text reads simply. “Surrealist games are a collective expression of the Pleasure Principle.” Such actions “animate the life of groups,” “exalt friendships,” and “integrate exchanges of the mind” in the spirit of a utopian intersubjective state. The final plank in The Prague Platform was an expression of recognition of and solidarity with other surrealists and surrealist groups around the world, including New York City, Buenos Aires, Havana, Brussels, and Chicago. The platform was distributed to these cities and more, where they were translated and published; in France, the Platform appeared in the special “Czechoslovakia” issue of L’Archibras in September 1968.

A 1969 collective statement by a dozen Czechoslovakian surrealists called “The Possible Against the Current” should be read today as a provocative addendum on The Prague Platform, which they viewed as “a broad outline of a program proposed to the surrealist movement the world over” that was not intended to be “constraining, constitutive, or institutional in character.” The document opens with the idea that “permanent and reciprocal revalorization of the subjective and the objective, the rational and the irrational, the individual and the collective” was the first step towards a surrealist “resolution of antimonies” that would clear the way for a profoundly revolutionary consciousness that can “allow for the establishment of a new kind of relations between people.” Keeping with the powerful influence of Freudo-Marxist readings, the Prague surrealists underlined sexual activity as one subset of these relations that needed to be overhauled to such an extent that the existing social structures would be demolished. “What is so mysterious and fascinating in these relations is that struggle between intellect and imagination takes place in a world where the so-called ‘laws of positive reality’ are thwarted.” While the dominant repressive system falsely emphasizes harmony, the surrealists countered that the secret of dynamic sexual congress and physical love came from a dialectically “intimate union of thought and instincts” that “somehow accomplishes the impossible” in welding together the fundamental existential contradictions between partners.

Alluding to the splintering of the Paris group earlier that year, the Prague surrealists went on to say that the emphasis on conflict rather than harmony should also be the engine for surrealism as well as lovemaking, both in terms of other international groups and in terms of the movement’s own history. Erecting “a sentimental cult” around the late André Breton’s surrealist theories would bitterly betray Breton’s own insistence on the creative power of dialectics. Rather than bowing before “legend, dogma, personality, or authoritarian dominance,” surrealists should stitch together a dynamic “community of opinion” formed of “permanent critical conflict” that is necessary for the movement’s perpetual evolution, all the while “welcoming various external tendencies and contributions” to the surrealist mix, particularly “certain manifestations of youth (psychedelia, the underground, etc.) which all more or less respond to Rimbaud’s appeal to ‘the derangement of the senses.’”

The tract ends with a five-item agenda for activities to which the Prague group was committed and it was hoped that others would adopt, including the liberation of the unconscious against civilization, continued analyses of the growing systems of repression, the pursuit of new forms of knowledge based on analogy and dialectic, the hijacking of “commercialized sexual cynicism” for use against the hypocritical “rationalist exploitation” of sexual relations, and finally the development of guerrilla tactics of “play activity” that will subvert “lives governed by utilitarian principles” for the purpose of deconstructing notions of identity through the free-play of analogical thought. As a summation of the history of surrealist concerns since 1919 and an invitation to the future, both The Prague Platform and “The Possible Against the Current” are outstanding and quite beneficial surrealist texts whose continued urgent relevance remains, unfortunately, obvious to this day.

Chicago: “Of course you realize that this means war!”—Bugs Bunny

“We salute our comrades, Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, who publish Surrealist Insurrection in Chicago,” proclaimed The Prague Platform of April 1968. At the time, the Rosemonts had been synthesizing Beat poetry and Industrial Workers of the World anarchism with surrealism in the Windy City for about five years; in the spring of 1966, they met with Breton and the rest of Paris surrealists and were encouraged to contribute to L’Archibras and to expand and extend their surrealist activities; in a series of collective letters with the Paris group, the Chicago surrealists shared their interests in the revolutionary potential of Marcuse, Malcolm X, Melville, and Thelonious Monk. They proceeded to plug into surrealist experiments happening in São Paulo, Athens, Brussels, Amsterdam, Prague, Tokyo, London, Lisbon, Copenhagen, and Buenos Aires. In addition to revisiting many of the central ideas and approaches of the international surrealist movement, the Chicago surrealists gathered a group that brought with them an entire arsenal of new weapons, tools, and tactics. The agit-prop wallposter/broadsheet Surrealist Insurrection was one of their endeavors, first appearing on the streets of Chicago in late January 1968 and asserting their allegiance to poetic thought “in our criticism, as well as our very lives, in the service of the total liberation of man.” In the issues of Surrealist Insurrection that followed, the Chicago group rallied for the support of Black Panther Huey Newton, American Indian militants, anarchists in New York City, Japanese student revolutionaries, and “surrealism in the service of the revolution in 1968!”

Just prior to the day when the first Soviet tanks rumbled into the streets of Prague to face angry stone-throwers, a wide spectrum of protest groups began to converge onto Chicago in anticipation of the Democratic Party’s National Convention for the nomination of a presidential candidate to run against Republican hopeful Richard Nixon (Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced that he would not run for re-election in March). Many of the protestors were first and foremost opponents of the US war in Vietnam and of other dissident movements included a number of more expressly revolutionary and counter-cultural organizations whose criticism stretched beyond the Johnson regime to the entire rotten system of institutionalized political, social, and economic power. The ghetto revolts following the April execution of Black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. haunted Chicago Mayor Richard Daley as his police reported on the convergence of movements planning to shut down the Chicago DNC. Perhaps inspired by the Red Army’s urban counter-insurgency operations in Poland and Czechoslovakia, Daley repeatedly boasted a guarantee of “law and order” and authorized the use excessive force by police and of paramilitary violence by the National Guard and Army (including an order to shoot to kill), first against dissidents camped out in Lincoln Park and then later against demonstrators marching from Grant Park to the convention arena. As liberal delegates within the convention hall brawled over the refusal of Democratic Party commissars to recognize the candidacy of a very popular anti-war politician from within their ranks, the crackdown on anti-war and pro-democracy demonstrators in front of the Hilton Hotel was savage, bloody, and televised around the globe. Nightly news footage of the convention delegates’ shenanigans and of the Chicago police’s riot against the unarmed youth of the USA was sandwiched between the latest images of carnage from Vietnam and Czechoslovakia, poignantly underscoring for many television viewers how the systems of repression and realism chose to run the world.

In the weeks leading up to the havoc of the Democratic National Convention, the Rosemonts and their surrealist fellow-workers allied themselves in the streets with a number of different organizations and basing much of their comings and goings around the Solidarity Bookshop, a scruffy hangout for the usual suspects, including Diggers, the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, ultra-left syndicalists active in Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers, assorted anti-war malcontents, and truant high school kids. Having had already a number of clashes with overzealous Chicago riot police, the Chicago surrealists offered practical advice to out-of-town visitors and plenty of other things to think about long afterward. Three thousand or so copies of the August edition of Surrealist Insurrection were circulated among the protestors. The publication sketched out some fundamental surrealist ideas for seditionists to consider, including a tract clamoring for “a vast, multi-level, interconnected program of cultural guerrilla warfare” and promises that “as the revolutionary movement grows in consciousness and confidence, its true history will become as familiar as its present actions, which in turn will increasingly reflect the limitless resources of dreams.”

In the weeks following the convention, the Chicago surrealists’ cultural revolution took aim at the imbecilic anti-surrealist museum exhibition “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage,” a show that was organized by and opened at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in March 1968 but then travelled to Chicago and Los Angeles. The MoMA exhibition teleologically locked surrealism into a formalist death-march of historical supersession whose climax was supposedly CIA-funded Abstract-Expressionism and some of the more lucrative works of sinister mystico-capitalist Pop Art. Surrealist Insurrection complained that the MoMA show sought “to immerse the entire movement in pseudo-critical formaldehyde” and neutralize its unruly, revolutionary essences: “Surrealism is today the most passionate and defiant articulation of the cause of human emancipation. Now as ever we join our brothers and sisters in the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society.” Meanwhile in NYC, surrealist stalwart Nicolas Calas helped to spearhead public demonstrations against the exhibition and found hundreds of allies among other elements of the city’s radical subcultures, including the Youth International Party yippies and the cantankerous Lower East Side ex-SDS street-theater grouplet known as “Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers” (a name derived from a line in a LeRoi Jones [a.k.a. Amiri Baraka] poem, “Black People”), who showed up at the MoMA pickets clad in comical pirate costumes. Nervous culture industry officials called upon the violent riot-geared NYPD Tactical Patrol Force goon squads to protect the museum’s sanctity.

When the “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage” moved to the Art Institute of Chicago, the surrealists there were equally obstreperous. In addition to staging protests and disrupting events held at the Institute, the Chicago group mounted a counter-exhibit (much in the same way that surrealists had in 1931 in response to the Paris International Colonial Exhibition) “as a minimal act of retaliation and correction testifying to the authentic living presence of surrealism today” at the Gallery Bugs Bunny storefront/radical meeting space in the pre-gentrified Lincoln Park neighborhood. This small exhibition represented the first group show of the Chicago surrealists; it opened (in the way that “a whooping crane opens its wings, or a guerrilla opens fire, or one opens one’s eyes,” announced the exhibition statement) just before Halloween 1968 and ran through December.

The surrealists’ objectives for the Art Institute protests and the Gallery Bugs Bunny counter-exhibit were meant to do more than solely mark their fury at conniving nullification of surrealism by mummifying museumificators—the “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage” art display was absolutely symptomatic and endemic of the State’s and Capital’s infection of the mind. To quote the notorious (and frequently FBI-harassed) Milwaukee Kaleidoscope’s review of the Gallery Bugs Bunny event: “The surrealists have set their sights on the decapitation of Western civilization”; the surrealists “were defending much more than an artistic movement from bourgeois confinement. They were setting free those powers within us which surrealism seeks to amplify in all ways possible.” The museum show, the pathetic spectacle of the Democratic Party’s convention, and the Vietnam War were related abominations. Franklin Rosemont’s chapbook The Morning of a Machine Gun—which appeared at the beginning of May 1968—was just one of the Chicago surrealist publications from that year to reiterate that point. “I write this preface while the government of the United States engages itself in a vicious imperialist war against the people of Vietnam,” Rosemont wrote in the introductory essay “Revolution By Night,” adding that the neo-colonialist butchery in Southeast Asia needed to be understood as “the no less inevitable result of stale Cartesian ideas, the hypocrisies of the Mosaic ethic, the chauvinistic impotence and cowardice of humanism, liberalism, positivism, and the entire edifice of stinking epistemological and theological lies.”

On the surface a book of twenty poems and drawings, The Morning of a Machine Gun also contained texts from a handful of surrealist leaflets: “The Forecast is Hot!” (a 1966 declaration that had been reprinted by radicals in London, Amsterdam, and elsewhere that summer); a critical response to the first Chicago production of Peter Weiss’s all-too-provocative play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade; a rhapsodic reflection on the mysterious fire that devastated the McCormick Place exhibition-convention center in Chicago in 1967; and “This Too Will Burn!,” a rollicking and uncompromising denunciation of Picasso’s untitled monumental municipal sculpture that was unveiled in the Loop in 1967. A fifth text was the founding manifesto of the Chicago group written by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont called “Situation of Surrealism in the U.S.”—in 1966, the Paris group had encouraged the Rosemonts to pen a statement to acquaint them with the context and intentions of a surrealist group in the United States. Upon completion, the declaration later appeared in translation in the second issue of L’Archibras in October 1967 just as events in France were starting to boil.

Like The Prague Platform, the “Situation of Surrealism in the U.S.” specifically mentions Marcuse’s formulations on “non-repressive civilization,” and does so in its opening paragraph. Interestingly, it does so in commending the possibilities that were opened up by the Los Angeles Watts insurrection of August 1965, and goes on to discuss the revolts of workers against their unions and the growing restlessness of students and a “new lumpenproletariat” of jobless refuseniks. The Rosemonts point out the extremely important point that “the parties of the traditional or even the ‘New Left’ play a very slight role in these developments, and can in no way claim the responsibility for the emergence of a new revolutionary movement.” The rebels of the future, the Rosemonts insist, need to ignore party leaders and look instead to “the most poignant proofs” of the “serious intentions, “violent sincerity,” and “impassioned humor” of the rambunctious Black ghetto renegades. As the Paris and Prague surrealists would do in the years that followed, the Chicago manifesto attacked the rule of miserabilist technocrats over modern life; the pernicious anesthesia of liberal welfare-statism and religion also come under fire. “Situation of Surrealism in the U.S.” concludes with the words: “Effortlessly, we place all our hope in love and all our despair in the obstacles to love. We swim in the water, in the air, across day and night, as dangerously as the eye sees. We declare our absolute accord with the principles and aims of surrealism, our solidarity with all those who compose the international surrealist movement, and our desire to pool our collective resources with our surrealist comrades throughout the world. The Vendôme Column must fall again; the White House must be smashed to dust! Elements of a new mythology are everywhere around us; it is up to us to give them a reality. More than ever we can say with certainty: surrealism is what will be.” The Morning of a Machine Gun booklet was distributed widely from San Francisco to London.

With the group around Chicago’s Solidarity bookshop, the Rosemonts also helped to produce the seventh (and most surrealist) issue of Rebel Worker which appeared later that year. It included a preface by Franklin Rosemont and Bernard Marszalek called “Wild Celery”; a translation of Breton’s militant “The Colors of Freedom”; and a tribute to Breton. Another sign of the times was the Chicago surrealists’ mimeographed pamphlet Surrealism and Revolution, published first in 1000 copies in 1966 and reprinted in a run of 1000 a year later, when it was also published in London. Londoner Charles Radcliffe, inspired by surrealism and anarchism, had published two issues of the scrappy paper Heatwave and was now active with the Situationists across the Channel.

It was also during this period that the Chicago surrealists escalated their collaboration with some of the more staunchly libertarian Marxist elements of the wide-ranging SDS movement, specifically the Wisconsin-based “journal of American radicalism,” Radical America, where excerpts from The Prague Platform appeared in the January 1970 “Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution” issue. Though the relationship was fractious and lasted only a few years, the Chicago surrealists brought with them a number of fresh perspectives that were often dismally lacking in the intellectual and cultural work of New Left in the US in those days, such as a wildly subversive appreciation for cartoons, comic books, African-American music, and vernacular folk-architecture. In the decades since, the Chicago surrealists have continued their exploration of these themes as they have adhered to a number of anarchist, anti-capitalist, and radical environmentalist causes.

Junctures and fractures

The British historian G.M. Trevelyan famously wrote just after World War II ended that “1848 was the turning-point at which modern history failed to turn.” Trevelyan was referring to the wave of unsuccessful “Spring Revolutions” that rocked a number of the Italian and German states, as well as some regions of the Habsburg Empire, France, Poland, and Romania. Obviously, the intensity and objectives of these uprisings differed from one territory to the next, but in general they all were ineffective and unorganized bourgeois liberal and nationalist revolts against aristocratic rule. But Trevelyan was what’s called a “Whig historiographer,” a scholar who represents change over time as stages of development inexorably marching up a staircase of Progress that culminates in white, patriarchal liberal-capitalist rule. (Tellingly, “whig” was also the acronym for the “White House Iraq Group,” the neoconservative cabal that masterminded the US invasion and occupation of Iraq five years ago.) By calling the 1848 revolutions a missed historical turning point from his vantage point of one hundred years later, Trevelyan claims that these uprisings were a blown opportunity that ended up strengthening the monarchies and by so doing slowed the supposedly inevitable ascendency of bourgeois rule in Europe.

These days, as I read some of the histories and historical revisions on the fortieth anniversary of some of the many important events that happened in 1968, I’m reminded again and again of Trevelyan’s oft-quoted line. In general, was 1968 a historical turning point? Did history take the turn, or did it veer off and get sidetracked somewhere along the way? For the Prague, Paris, and Chicago surrealists—and for numerous other surrealist individuals and collectives around the world—1968 was a moment when entangled political, social, and cultural crises precipitated an atmosphere that the surrealists were best-suited to exploit. “Situation of Surrealism in the U.S.” and The Prague Platform anticipated much of what was to come and possible surrealist responses quite accurately. And the next time the ruling order starts to come off of the tracks, surrealists will be there again to grease the wheels.

Historians will argue about the degree to which the global rebellions of 1968 can be linked together or what (if any) catalysts triggered the transnational movements. But there can be no mistaking the pronounced cross-pollination of surrealist ideas and activities in ’68 at the same time that the groups were carefully following events in their own cities and elsewhere. Whether or not the revolts of that year could have ever joined hands, the surrealists were working in concert—united, but diverse—doing anything and everything that could do to push local conditions towards a point of conjunction with the other struggles. When the moment passed and the systems of repression had re-entrenched, surrealists returned to work. 1968 was neither an apogee nor an apotheosis for surrealism; it was not a turning point, but rather a point of no return.

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  2 comments for “Dreams of Arson & the Arson of Dreams: Surrealism in ‘68

  1. Bill Howe
    12 February 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Sadly, Don LaCoss died on January 31 aged 46. He had been terribly sick for several months with a relentless respiratory illness that finally morphed into pneumonia.
    Before he became ill he was working on a history of Egyptian surrealism.

  2. Renay
    7 August 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Don LaCoss lived in LaCrosse, WI.
    RIP
    What a marvelous writer and human being! Thanks for posting this–it is an important essay.

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