18 June, 2007

Surrealissimo

On Salvador Dali, Hitler, and the limits of political ethics.
In a vacillating era people are shy of anything absolute and autonomous; for this very reason then, we no longer care to tolerate either genuine fun or genuine earnest, either genuine virtue or genuine malice. The character of the times is patched and pieced together like a fool's coat, and worst of all, the fool buttoned in it would like to appear serious.

The Night Watches of Bonaventura (c. 1805)
In 2002, to coincide with a major exhibition of surrealist art at the Tate Modern, BBC4 commissioned a one-hour film about Salvador Dali's engagement with the Surrealists during the early 1930s. Written by Matthew Broughton, the film is called Surrealissimo, and you can watch it in six parts on YouTube, starting here. It has no more than two real characters—Dali himself, played with camp panache by Ewen Bremner—and his nemesis André Breton, Surrealist ringleader, for whom Stephen Fry was an excellent choice. The other parts are mere clown-figures, an excuse for various cultish British comedians—Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, Mark Gatiss, Matt Lucas, Ben Miller, and even Vic Reeves in a brief turn as Paul Eluard—to play themselves playing Surrealists.



The film centres around a real event that occurred on the evening of February 5, 1934. André Breton, having accused Dali of untoward activities—supporting Hitler, making fun of the Surrealist hero Lenin (in this painting), and generally being a bit of a creep—summoned the Spaniard to a 'trial' in his apartment on the Rue Fontaine, Paris:
Order of the day: Dali having been guilty on several occasions of counter-revolutionary actions involving the glorification of Hitlerian fascism, the undersigned propose. . . that he be excluded from Surrealism as a fascist element and combated by all available means.
Most of the surrealists signed the bill: Ernst, Brauner, Jacques Herold, Georges Hugnet, Meret Oppenheim, Perét and Tanguy. Tristan Tzara, René Crevel and Eluard, who were off sunning themselves on the Riviera, had already refused to sign—Eluard, whose Russian wife Dali had just nabbed. Nice chap! The climax of the film runs as follows:
Breton. Adolf Hitler. Adolf. . . Hitler. The most detestable man on our planet. Would Dali agree with this statement?

Dali. All disaster are beautiful to the Surrealist. Earthquake, rail accident, fire. . .

Breton. Hitler is a mass murderer.

Dali. So was the Marquis de Sade. Both men push back the boundary of taste to a fantastical extreme.

Breton. Dali admires mass murder?

Dali. The Surrealist must create his own logic, then never be consistent with it.

Breton. Dali admires Hitler?

Dali. He is a magnificent icon.

Breton. Breton asked Dali a direct question.

Dali. Yes! Hitler is a Cecil B. DeMille of massacre and death. He is a Surrealist.
Hitler was not yet a mass murderer in 1934, but we won't be pedantic. In a moment of horror, the Spaniard begins to speak in a tone quiet and distant, half awake, his eyes unfocused, while Fry-Breton rests his head in his hands, almost forsaking the whole affair:
I often dream of Hitler. Sometime he's dressed as a woman; sometime he is a woman. Sometime he is a man with six foreskin, twelve balls. I see him as a guardian angel too, standing over a crevice, filled with the dying. I see Hitler is looking at these people, their bones already sticking out. He is a spectacular sight.
Breton is tired and horrified—'Salvador, please. . .'—but Dali is not interested; he plucks a pamphlet from his jacket, rapping Breton in contemptuous accolade
This is your first manifesto: "Surrealism is thought dictated in absence of all control by reason and outside all moral and aesthetic preoccupation", I know it by heart. Understand? I am the true embodiment of this faith, more than any of you.
Dali is quoting the definition of surrealism in Breton's First Manifesto (1924): 'Dictée de la pensée, en l'absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale'.

*

Quellenforschungen.

Broughton had done his homework; he evidently read at least three chief sources for the event. These sources are Georges Hugnet's 'Petite contribution à la vie secrète de Salvador Dali', from the 1954 Figaro littéraire; Marcel Jean's 1959 History of Surrealist Painting; and the account in Dali's own Unspeakable Confessions—this being his last book, fadged up from conversations with André Parinaud in 1973. The line about Cecil B. DeMille comes from Hugnet (the translation is my own):
Implacably logical, Dali advanced like a steamroller over a piece of meat, whose extra-soft superstructures and con-rods were his head and limbs, agitated by the shocks of absolute conviction. From deduction to deduction, he was drunk with delight in his own logic. He implored the surrealists to be reasonable with themselves, and presented to them a Hitler who became, in his apologia, sort of a genial director of abomination, a Cecil B. DeMille of massacre and killing.
By amusing contrast, Marcel Jean notes that Dali, 'to his eternal credit, succeeded in creating an atmosphere remarkably unconducive to any rational and logical argument'. Hitler's genitals are also from Jean's book:
At the point in his speech where he reached the phrase, 'But, in my view, Hitler has four balls and six foreskins. . .' Breton interrupted him brutally with: 'Do you intend to bore us much longer with this damn nonsense about Hitler?'
And female Hitler is from Dali himself:
Lenin and Hitler turned me on in the highest. In fact, Hitler even more than Lenin. His fat back, especially when I saw him appear in the uniform with Sam Browne belt and shoulder straps that tightly held in his flesh, aroused in me a delicious gustatory thrill originating in the mouth and affording me a Wagnerian ecstasy. I often dreamed of Hitler as a woman. His flesh, which I had imagined whiter than white, ravished me. . .
Hugnet, Jean and of course Dali were all eyewitnesses, and they agree on many details. All recall Breton in a green suit; green was apparently his favourite. All remember Dali's multiple sweaters, each stripped off in turn, and accumulating on the floor in a thick heap, upon which he knelt, bare-chested, to declare his allegiance to the Surrealist cause. And all note the presence in Breton's office of Dali's painting Gradiva:


But just as with the Wittgenstein's poker incident, the accounts of Dali's trial also differ. Dali insists that he had a fever, while Hugnet remembers a cold; Jean, the most cynical of the three, thinks Dali was faking the illness for disruptive effect. Moreover, Dali and Hugnet recall the event as a clear triumph for Dali, whereas Jean's Dali was a figure of general mockery. We note with interest a remark from Ian Gibson's impressive biography of the Spaniard:
No strictly contemporary account of the meeting on 5 February has come to light. Later ones, including Dali's, conflict, and in several cases seem to incorporate anecdotal material from previous gatherings.
With the incorporation of 'anecdotal material' we seem to be in the realm of Q and New Testament source-studies. One must ask, likewise, why Dali's account of the incident is found in the 1973 Confessions, but not in the autobiographical Secret Life of 1943. The three synoptic accounts may have been eyewitness, but in the course of decades the memories have been warped by common experience, by the talk and thought that comes to make human history human history, and not merely an enumeration of facts.

*

Breton vs. Dali.

Hugnet writes, 'We were suddenly witnessing the encounter of the two tendencies of Surrealism—of the confrontation of two men, Breton and Dali'. This captures, in a nutshell, our abiding interest in the scene. For the conflict is essentially a meeting of two intransigent ideologies—Breton the communist, bourgeois despite himself, flirting with the irrational and unconscious, even with the violent, but remaining humane and moderate in his beliefs—and Dali the faux-aristocratic jester, an embodiment of irony, full of scorn, his politics utterly subjugated to his aesthetics, and to his sense of humour. (In his Confessions he writes, 'Politics seemed to me a cancer on the body poetic', and 'The defense of my own intimate interests seemed as urgent, proper, and fundamental as that of the proletariat.' Thus also, Conrad versus the modern academy.)

For Hugnet, Breton was outmatched: 'For perhaps the first time, Breton had met a Surrealist who took the system to its limits'. Dali was 'implacably logical', while his adversary was left gasping and fumbling for words. We can understand this–Breton had defined Surrealism as thought in the absence of aesthetic and moral control, a doctrine incompatible with the engagé communism being urged on the group by Louis Aragon. Dali shocked Breton, and Breton liked neither the shock, nor the fact that he could be shocked. For he himself had admitted no boundaries of taste, and yet here were just such boundaries—religion, fascism, and shit. How bourgeois! Had Dali been betrayed by a failure of nerve?

Jean is more cynical—his Dali paints shit and Hitler not from faithfulness to his own unconscious, but merely for notoriety. His Dali is dogmatic in his adherence to the original code of Surrealism—to the 'absence of all control by reason'—a code which was obsolete, even in 1934. But was it obsolete? Breton does not disown the doctrine in his second manifesto of 1930. In that document are two principal notes: the bitter rejection of former companions—Soupault, Desnos, Masson, Artaud, Bataille—and a reiterance of the old revolutionary creed:
[Surrealism] was then, and still is today, a question of testing by any and all means, and of demonstrating at any price, the meretricious nature of the old antinomies hypocritically intended to prevent any unusual ferment on the part of man, were it only by giving him a vague idea of the means at his disposal, by challenging him to escape to some meaningful degree from his universal fetters. . .

One can understand why Surrealism was not afraid to make for itself a tenet of total revolt, complete insubordination, of sabotage according to rule, and why it still expects nothing save from violence.
Similar statements are made in Breton's semi-autobiographical novella, Nadja, published in 1928. As important as political (Communist) revolution was to Breton, it remained subservient to the holistic revolution of the individual spirit, which had always been the central motive of Surrealism. That Breton put Surrealism before Communism was demonstrated by his 1932 expulsion from the Party. So I cannot believe that 'pure psychic automatism' was in any way obsolete in 1934—and in consequence I must believe that Dali's adherence to the doctrine, as a true Surrealist, was impeccable. The genuity of his erotic Hitler fantasies—that is less important. Dali was undoubtedly an épateur; but he was not superficial, and his very real understanding of Breton's intellectual hypocrisy is well attested by this passage in the Confessions:
There was no reason for me to stop telling one and all that to me Hitler embodied the perfect image of the great masochist who would unleash a world war solely for the pleasure of losing and burying himself beneath the rubble of an empire: the gratuitous action par excellence that should indeed have warranted the admiration of the Surrealists, now that for once we had a truly modern hero!
Dali's erotic Hitler had been pure harmless outrage; these words, on the other hand, are actually dangerous, for they demonstrate the proximity of avant-garde ideals, still with us today, to the indiscutable but indisputable aesthetic appeal of totalitarianism. The key phrase in this passage is 'gratuitous action', translating 'acte gratuit'—André Gide's expression for the unmotivated and sublime action, extolled as a liberation from the constraints of engagé collective activity, and even from the prison of rationality itself—
The acte gratuit, which is detached from any ulterior or utilitarian motive, springs from a sense of intentional irresponsibility. . . Whatever its various aspects are, the acte gratuit is the contrary of engagement, in so far as it deliberately rejects responsibility—it is a caprice as Sartre calls it.
In his 1914 novel Les Caves du Vatican, Gide had explored murder as an acte gratuit: his hero Lafcadio pushes a stranger off a train, with no good reason—lacking even 'motiveless malignity'—and proceeds to listen with amusement as Gide himself, in the character of a novelist, Julius de Baraglioul, explains the idea in abstractu: 'I don't want a motive for the crime—all I want is an explanation of the criminal. Yes! I mean to lead him into committing a crime gratuitously—into wanting to commit a crime without any motive at all.' André Breton greatly admired Gide's idea, as witnessed by the most famous passage of the second Surrealist manifesto:
The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.
But Breton's heart isn't it; a few sentences later he admits that it is only an allegory for the universal rebellion against all strictures of family, religion and State—an expression of the 'element of human despair', which must be coupled with its contrary, an affirmation of the 'gleam of light that Surrealism seeks to detect deep within us'. Those who try to trap Breton in contradiction are thus dismissed as 'bourgeois'. It is easy to see how, for a Dali, Breton lacks the courage of his radical convictions. If casual murder and the pistol in the crowd, why not the Holocaust? Mussolini and Hitler, as charismatic fascists, posited themselves as men become divine, not bound by the prisons of reason and reasonableness, and thus resembling the ancient monarchs, or the popes—as men whose actions required no common motives. That was the glorious myth of their régimes. And the culmination of their magnetism was in warfare, as recognised by Benjamin at the conclusion of his essay on the Work of Art—fascism makes war and politics aesthetic, whereas communism makes art political (and polemical). Likewise, we can see that Dali makes art of politics, but Breton makes politics of art; the two impulses are irreconcilable.

By 1945, both Mussolini and Hitler seemed like grotesque failures—the former with his risible military aspirations, and the latter with his egomaniacal world-plans, come to nothing. It was left to Dali to imagine their failures as the result of a sublime masochism—how better to aestheticise the political? How better to turn such a catastrophe into a great marvel?

*

Breton was a revolutionary, bourgeois contra bourgeois. Dali, in turn, revolted against revolutionaries. He extolled Meissonier at a time that venerated Picasso and Cézanne; he praised the old Catholic monarchs at a time of socialism and anticlericalism. He claimed to find Hitler erotic, true—but it was Dali, alone among the artists of the early 30s, who understood the gravity of Hitler's threat—he wrote to Breton in 1929 that it was imperative for the Surrealists to take a stand on the matter, which would only become more serious. It was a threat that fascinated him.

Dali was a sell-out, the prototype of Warhol—later he would advertise cigarettes, appear on gameshows, design lollipop logos, collaborate with Disney, and sign blank canvases. But at the same time he exposed faddishness and hypocrisy with a brutal humour. Nietzsche had called for a morality beyond good and evil, the criteria of the resentful oppressed. By 1930 the criteria of resentful intellectuals had become rather authentic and fake. Breton continually calls for 'moral asepsis', for a commitment to ideals. He admits, 'What could those people who are still concerned about the position they occupy in the world expect from the Surrealist experiment?' Salvador Dali was beyond authentic and fake—such was the strength of his irony. 'The only difference between myself and a madman,' he famously wrote, 'is that I am not mad'.

We bourgeois have not transcended our criterion of authenticity, which is why Dali is still routinely castigated for his post-1940 work, as a fraud and a charlatan. But to me—the more he lied, the more he swaggered, the more he punctured those pieties of artistic pseudo-integrity—the more interesting, and the more hilarious, he became. Dali took Surrealism seriously, just as long as it took him to expose its pretentions and dishonesty, rendering it useless. In truth he refused to take anything seriously for long, himself least of all—and that is the mark of a man who understands the threat of anything taken seriously. It is a genuine and incomplacent response to the horror of the modern world—the horror, for instance, of Hitler. It is, as Lear's fool knew, a sign of wisdom.

[Update: Is Dali like Dick Cheney? Update 10/07/08: more arguments with Yusef on this subject in the comment-thread here.]

30 comments:

Gawain said...

"We bourgeois have not transcended our criterion of authenticity, which is why Dali is still routinely castigated for his post-1940 work, as a fraud and a charlatan. But to me—the more he lied, the more he swaggered, the more he punctured those pieties of artistic pseudo-integrity—the more interesting, and the more hilarious, he became. Dali took Surrealism seriously, just as long as it took him to expose its pretentions and dishonesty, rendering it useless. In truth he refused to take anything seriously for long, himself least of all—and that is the mark of a man who understands the threat of anything taken seriously. It is a genuine and incomplacent response to the horror of the modern world—the horror, for instance, of Hitler. It is, as Lear's fool knew, a sign of wisdom."

Conrad, my man, the essay is as axcellent as they all are. but here is my stab at the subject matter: its entertaining, great fun, i appreciate the sentiment, but it is just seems -- well -- adolescent, does it not? The point is not to argue whether or not bourgeois values -- or any established values -- say, the ones of ruling marxist leninism or the Aztec hieratic establishment, or whatever -- are to be overcome/ transcended, but how to put this transcendence into practice in our private individual lives. whether Hitler is an icon or not is irrelevant (it seems to me) the transcendence of established values has to happen in our private life, not in some ideological battle field. and a victory is not about changing the mainstream opinion (however one defines it, and therefore winning a trial or two of some sort) but not giving a hoot about one. Everything else -- including trials and manifestoes -- is just self promotion. Perhaps the reason why I admire Rimbaud more than Breton is that he put his rejection of Paris establishment into practice -- by quitting everything and becoming a gun runner in Ethiopia. And didnt bother to explain.

Herr Ziffer said...

A truly magnificent post, Conrad. Hats and moustachios off to you.

"Indiscutable but indisputable" was a particularly surreal touch.

I once knew a girl, back in the mid-90's, who expressed her secret and unconventional admiration for Tonya Harding over Nancy Carrigan in the Olympian-Dada scandal of the decade. Tonya was no more ambitious than any of the other figure skaters, she explained to me -- but she was the only one who would take her convictions to their logical conclusion. It was she, in this analysis, who truly embodied the Olympian dreams, while Nancy Carrigan was merely a sanitized and packaged presentation of the same.

I think there's some connection there with your discussion of Dali and Breton, but I'm not sure.

John Cowan said...

Conrad: Why systematically and correctly (I may say acutely) André everywhere, and yet systematically and incorrectly Dali everywhere for Dalí?

Herr Z.: If the true spirit of the Olympics is to annihilate one's enemies rather than to defeat them according to the rules, then the existing sports should be abolished and replaced by Mornington Crescent as the sole Olympic sport.

Steven Augustine said...

Nice addition to the anecdotal study of the age old agon between the Chosen and his/her moderately-gifted John the Baptist (please, no Tom Hulce/F.Murray Abraham refs). The purest work Breton ever produced was the "Avida Dollars" anagram.

For my part, I thank Mr. Dalí for introducing me to the words "atavistic" and "oneiric" at the tender age of puberty.

Conrad, I'm only disappointed that you had next to nothing to say about Gala, the hornet in the maestro's coffee!

Casey said...

Spectacularly good post!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Friends, thanks.

John: a true Cowanian question! Quite simply, almost everyone, including Breton himself, refers to Dalí as "Dali", whereas nobody would refer to André as "Andre". The reason is obvious: the accent matters much more in French (where it changes the whole sound) than in Spanish (where it merely denotes accent, which anyway is changed in English, from Da-LI to DA-li).

I would also agree with a formal institution of Mornington Crescent... and one might take the Tonya / Nancy debate further by suggesting that the greatest Olympicists are the Russian mafiosi who enjoy breaking gymnasts' knee-caps with crowbars.

Steven: yes, "Avida Dollars" was a masterstroke--Breton himself must have felt pretty smug about that one! I too recall 'atavistic', which felt terribly exciting at the time. And as for Gala, yes--but that's a whole 'nother story.

Gawain: I don't think it is adolescent. Adolescents are terribly po-faced and self-serious--more like Breton than Dali. Rimbaud did acquire saint-status among the 20c. avant garde, true--why? Because he was authentic, or perceived to be such. For Dali there's nothing at all wrong with 'self-promotion', which in fact was in and of itself an absolute 'putting into practice' of the rejection of certain inculcated ideals: not those of the marketplace, but those of the avant-garde cliques of the 20s and 30s. Dali's 'explanation' was half of the mystique...

phaneronoemikon said...

Dali will always be a bright star
in the pantheon of the grotesque,
if not the sun itself...

Bravo Vunex!

phaneronoemikon said...

I made this collage in homage
to your post..

chris miller said...

Since I'm doubting that Breton's "trial" could have ever had any consequence more serious than the same self-congratulatory and notoriety-seeking posturing of which the defendant stood accused -- O.K. -- let's all join in puncturing "those pieties of artistic pseudo-integrity"

But I'm also doubting that those who won't taking anything - ncluding themselves - seriously can be considered either genuine or incomplacent.

They aren't genuine -- because unless they're living on mushrooms, alone in the remote valleys of Mount Shang - they very much want and need others to take what they say and do quite seriously.

And with no reason to do anything other than what is unavoidably necessary (i.e. covering your own butt)-- how can the non-serious person be anything other than complacent towards the horror of the modern (or any other) world.

Mencius Moldbug said...

I have nothing much to add - I just wanted to register my belated endorsement on this excellent post.

Frankly, Dali's missing accent has always bugged me. Every time I hear the name in English I cringe. But to say "Dalí" in English sounds monumentally pretentious, as well.

Of course, I live in California, where Castilian place-names are routinely mutilated in just this fashion. But somehow it's different.

Mencius Moldbug said...

phano - that's a great collage!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Phaneronoemikon: I'm touched!

Mencius: thanks. Next time Dâlí will have all his accents, OK?

Chris: "how can the non-serious person be anything other than complacent towards the horror of the modern (or any other) world?"

Perhaps this is a semantic confusion. Dali 'took Hitler seriously' in that he recognised Hitler's threat and was not indifferent to it--he certainly craved more than 'covering his own butt'. Not taking things seriously is hardly the same as indifference or nihilism! Dali's jesting is rather an active attack, a continual use of the imagination to reinvent and challenge--it is the 'continual use' that is incomplacent. Of course Dali had to live--and he lived spectacularly, not worried by the traditional artistic constraints of being 'genuine' to a set of prescribed ideals.

Herr Ziffer said...

>>But I also doubt that those >>who won't take anything - >>including themselves - seriously >>can be considered either genuine >>or incomplacent.

Similar criticisms are made of Michel Foucault, who plays an analogous role as provacateur in philosophy and history.

The Thomist Thomas Flynn argued that the right way to understand Foucault was as a parrhesiast -- a truth-speaker whose particular role was to explode the falsehoods of the powerful -- in this way, he can be distinguished from a mere "nihilist".

I think the same concept can perhaps be applied to Dali. Like Foucault, Dali sets aside the notion of Truth, as such -- but this doesn't mean that falsehood and its associate, pretention, do not exist. As a parrhesiast, Dali uses aestheticism to undermine both falsehood and bombast -- especially of the sincere variety.

I'm not sure if he was "genuine" or not, but perhaps this is another of those concepts worth deflating. Is an authentic position aesthetically pleasing? I think not. I have doubts it is even true most of the time. And if we can't speak the truth, we should at least try to avoid speaking falsehoods or, worse, using "trials" and power relations, in the name of Truth, to enforce our falsehoods.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Parrhesiast--I like it. Someone, somewhere, derives 'Paris' from 'Parrhesia', liberty.

Yusef Asabiyah said...

"But to me—the more he lied, the more he swaggered, the more he punctured those pieties of artistic pseudo-integrity—the more interesting, and the more hilarious, he became."

Did he puncture impieties of artistic integrity; pieties of artistic pseudo-integrity;...or what? Does artistic pseudo-integrity even have piety? If so, why isn't it real integrity rather than pseudo-integrity? Is there or isn't there "artistic integrity"?

If I can identify artistic pseudo-integrity, I can puncture it, no sweat. Can I identify it? Did Dali puncture the pieties of artistic pseudo-integrity with artistic integrity, or with piety, or with artistic pseudo-integrity? If Dali punctured artistic pseudo-integrity with artistic pseudo-integrity, I can puncture it. I can't puncture it. I'm not a genius, though. Dali was. But I'm saying: Dali's genius had nothing to do with "puncturing." Or with pieties, impieties, integrities, or pseudo-integrities.

Ray Davis said...

If I was given only Breton or Dali to choose from, well, yes, the choice is clear, if disappointing. In the more richly disappointing real world, I have the freedom to choose Bunuel, who avoided either brand of solipsism and resigned rather than be forced into the role of judge or exile.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yusef, I'm sorry, I haven't a clue what you're trying to say.

Ray: It's a fair choice, granted. Plenty of the Surrealists resigned, though. How about Bataille or Aragon for you?

Ray Davis said...

Bataille, definitely, since he was too embarrassing for either the Communist Party or the Academie Goncourt despite never growing a silly mustache, and since at least one of his books managed to slug me hard in the gut before it fell asleep. Bunuel was responsible for more good art, though, perhaps because his was a collaborative art. It's too easy to start faking one's subconscious into a shtick if there's no one there to call you on it.

Yusef said...

I doubt you mean to be a Nazi apologist, but can you really be dead sure that you aren't when your thinking on this matter comes down to,

"But to me—the more he lied, the more he swaggered, the more he punctured those pieties of artistic pseudo-integrity—the more interesting, and the more hilarious, he became. Dali took Surrealism seriously, just as long as it took him to expose its pretentions and dishonesty, rendering it useless."

This is what's really incoherent, and I don't see how it can be responded to coherently.

"He refused to take anything seriously for long," which in the context of your post explicitly includes not taking the Nazis and Hitler seriously for long.

It probably is the case that most people resisting the Nazis grew weary of it. It wasn't entertaining. Probably most who resisted could see that it would be wearisome and difficult before they even began. Fantastic it would have been if those who wearied came up with the idea that once something no longer entertains, you've exposed its pretentions and dishonesty and rendered it useless.

In order to resist, one was required to take something seriously for long. Or is it really your belief that the resistance, in taking itself seriously, was just as fascist as the Nazis and Hitler, and posed just as big a threat - through the " threat of anything taken seriously," as you put it...

Dali resisted Hitler by not resisting Hitler?

Doesn't what you say really show that Dali was in the last analysis a mere entertainer,not an artist, not to be taken seriously... even in not being taken seriously? If humor isn't very serious about humor, humor ends up being pretty humorless. Humor has a seriousness to it.

Are you really comfortable not being dead sure you aren't a Nazi apologist? What if the most serious consequence you could imagine were to befall you now because you could be mistaken for one here? Would you laugh it off? Would you find it nevertheless delightfully surreal?

I honestly believe that the peculiar "metaphysical" edge found in the work of some Europeans of this period undercut political activism, and that this was disastrous. There is a consistent metaphysical edge in everything Dali ever did - you haven't taken account of that... This metaphysical edge is political and the way it is political can be held accountable.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Not only do I not mean to be a Nazi apologist; I am not in fact a Nazi apologist. To suggest I am is nothing short of absurd, and you're the first here to do so. If you do think I might be one, I really couldn't care less. (Does this count as 'laughing it off'?) I am not so insecure as you want me to be.

I just think you're quibbling on a series of definitions of 'taking x seriously'. I did clarify this in the post, and subsequently in the comments. Of course, in 1934 there was not the problem of 'resisting the Nazis' outside Germany. So you're talking at cross purposes. I'm not sure if what you're saying amounts to 'Some poor bastards suffered under Hitler, therefore nobody should laugh about it'.

As for 'mere entertainer', this is a false dichotomy. Dali had the virtue, not shared by his Surrealist confederates, of being highly entertaining. That is a virtue, right? It was, in fact, a measure of his terrific artistry--and I am not referring to his paintings, which don't interest me.

"I honestly believe that the peculiar "metaphysical" edge found in the work of some Europeans of this period undercut political activism, and that this was disastrous."

Well, I honestly believe that political activism is worthless, and I don't know what you mean by 'metaphysical'.

Yusef said...

You clarified nothing in the post or in the comments. Through your incredible conceit you merely assert you've done so. You've misunderstood the issues, and called misunderstanding a "clarification."

"Of course, in 1934 there was not the problem of 'resisting the Nazis' outside Germany. So you're talking at cross purposes. I'm not sure if what you're saying amounts to 'Some poor bastards suffered under Hitler, therefore nobody should laugh about it'."

It's really good to be informed by you that there was no problem of resisting the Nazis outside of Germany in 1934. What this really informs me is that you haven't got a clue. The beginnings of "resistance" and whether Dali was or was not a problem for it are at the very substance of what you try to write about.

Doesn't your post try to tell us that laughing about and ignoring (apolitical nonresponses to)Hitler were the most effective way to "resist" fascism ?

Conrad H. Roth said...

"merely assert"

You've gone no further than mere assertion yuself, only with considerably less style and articulacy, and considerably more rudeness. I sense some leftist moral anger on your part--just the sort of thing Dali despised.

"Doesn't your post try to tell us that laughing about and ignoring (apolitical nonresponses to) Hitler were the most effective way to "resist" fascism?"

It says nothing of the sort. Of course 'resistance' to fascism, in the broader sense of political (rather than military) opposition, is relevant--that's what I'm talking about. As I pointed out, Dali took the threat of Hitler much more seriously than his artistic friends, who thought fascism would fizzle out. Dali specifically prodded the Surrealists to take a stand on the matter, because of rumours that Breton's arch-rival Bataille was preparing a panegyric to Hitler. Dali laughed, but did not ignore. The Surrealists were complacent in that they misunderestimated their enemy and his appeal. Dali didn't--he directly felt it, and was able to respond to it, because the horror and the repulsiveness attracted him (and attraction to repulsiveness is a major theme of his writing).

The Surrealists did nothing to stop or effectively 'resist' Hitler; neither did Dali. But the latter was at least able to rescue something from the situation, beautify it--which, if you're not hamstrung by outrage, is always a worthy goal.

Yusef said...

I'm sorry for the rudeness, Conrad. I'm also sorry that there is absolutely no support given in the body of the post or in the comments section, for your newly-introduced notion suggesting Dali was more "steadfast" ( or more consistent in, or more dedicated to, or more insistent upon, or showed more integrity in pursuing -you are the "articulacy" man- you tell me how to express this,) resisting ( in the political sense,) fascism than the other surrealists who had challenged him.

Conrad H. Roth said...

From the post:

"it was Dali, alone among the artists of the early 30s, who understood the gravity of Hitler's threat—he wrote to Breton in 1929 that it was imperative for the Surrealists to take a stand on the matter, which would only become more serious."

From the comments:

"Dali 'took Hitler seriously' in that he recognised Hitler's threat and was not indifferent to it--he certainly craved more than 'covering his own butt'. Not taking things seriously is hardly the same as indifference or nihilism! Dali's jesting is rather an active attack, a continual use of the imagination to reinvent and challenge--it is the 'continual use' that is incomplacent."

A. Toussenel said...

Will all you pretentious hipsters who smirk at your betters, such as Breton, be dreadfully offended if anyone fails to take YOU seriously? You'd never be honest enough to admit it, of course, but my guess is that you will. Enjoy your oblivion!

A. Toussenel said...

P.S. Have you considered re-naming your blog more aptly, such as "The Onanarium"?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Wow, I never thought a critique of Breton would inspire such inarticulate outrage. Especially not from the sort of pretentious hipster who monikers himself after Toussenel.

sh4dow said...

wow, this article is a godsend!

i'm currently writing on a thesis in which i among other things question the authority of the surrealists and didn't have much in that area besides the fact that various people made contradicting statements, changed their minds, fought with each other and so on. now that i've found this... oh boy! i haven't time to read it completely yet but from what i've read it seems like it would be a good idea to include at least a paragraph in my thesis defending dali, since he often is put down for being a... well... "greedy bastard" seems to be accurate. of course that might still be true in spite of everything else but i think he deserves a lot of respect for wanting to stay true to the surrealistic ideals, no matter what.

Anonymous said...

After having viewed the BBC "Trial" I was looking for some commentary which deals, in depth with Dali's (and Breton's) real attitudes toward Hitler and fascism.
I do wonder why you did not incorporate his later
relationship with the Franco's regime as part of the piece. Although it occurred after the "trial", It has some bearing on this discussion i think.
I have not studied Dali's life in depth, as you obviously have, and I wonder if you have written, elsewhere perhaps about Dali's actions or thoughts vis a vis the Spanish dictatorship. thanks.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'm afraid I have not written about Franco, and no doubt I should have done here. If you are pursuing this, best of luck with it.