Surrealist Love at the Barbican

For a while now, I’ve been laughing out loud at a play about the end of the world. It seems a bit odd that I would laugh about something so serious, so seemingly dire. But then, sitting here, I started to wonder why I was laughing. I mean, really belly laughing. One reason might be that the play is genuinely funny—even if it’s not meant to be funny. Another reason is that these days it often does feel like we are living through the end of the world. What better thing to do, then, than to laugh, to laugh one’s head off, while we’ve still got a head on.

You laugh to stay sane. So goes the old adage. But it’s not really been like that recently. I haven’t felt that sane, nor much like laughing. Actually, like a lot of other people—and you hear about this all the time these days—I’ve been down in the dumps. Depression levels, we’re told, are soaring almost everywhere. Some of my own worst doldrums have been deep-down depressions, lasting months on end. These depressions have been cyclical, coming and going more regularly over past years, hitting me hard sometimes.

That’s probably why I’ve tried to laugh them off, laughing at a play called Endgame, a film of this play, in fact, made in 2000 by Conor McPherson. I’ve been watching it on YouTube, guffawing to my heart’s content. The play itself was written in 1957 by Samuel Beckett, a Nobel Laureate. Part of the amusement could be Michael Gambon, the English actor who plays Hamm, the lead character. Gambon’s Hamm is frighteningly brilliant, just as Beckett would have wanted it. Hamm is such a suffering soul he’s beyond pity. He knows it. What else is left but to laugh at him, and at yourself, to have a strange sympathy for the devil. Perhaps it’s a gallows humour all our own today? Perhaps I’m listening to a dialogue of what’s going on inside my own head, going on on the inside while I’m thinking about life on the outside?

The setting is bleak, dark walls of a dark mind on dark days. Bare interior. Grey light. Two small windows, curtains drawn. It might be an attic room somewhere, an attic room nowhere. Though it could be somebody’s living room, practically anywhere, even one full of objects of life. The wind whistles its haunting draught. Four characters. Hamm, blind, infirm, wheelchair-bound; Clov, younger, lame, Hamm’s helper, a sort of adopted son; Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s father and mother, old and legless, living in two ashbins. “Clov,” Hamm asks, in a question many might pose today, if only to oneself, “Have you had enough?” “Yes!” Clov answers—then, pausing, wonders, “Of what?” “Of this…this…thing,” says Hamm. “I always had,” says Clov.

Have you had enough? Of what? Of this…this…thing? At low times I’ve really had enough. I suspect I’m not alone. Daily on the news: I try to avoid looking, close my ears. Yet I hear it everywhere. Newspapers. People talking. On screens. In the air. This thing that depresses. Trump? Brexit? Environmental meltdown? Modern life?… Have I had enough? I always had. No, I always hadn’t. It seems to have worsened over recent years. That “It.”

“The whole thing is comical, I grant you that,” says Hamm. “What about having a good guffaw the two of us together?” Upon reflection, Clov says, “I couldn’t guffaw again today.” “Nor I,” Hamm laments. “Outside of here it’s death,” he says. “Beyond is the other hell.” Looking through his telescope, at this outside, Clov says “nothing stirs. All is—” “All is what?” demands Hamm. “What all is? in a word? Corpsed,” says Clov. It’s a killer line. Could he be talking about our outside?

***
Endgame is a peculiar deadlock in chess. Almost all the pieces have been lost or sacrificed. Little is left on the checkerboard save a few pawns and kings, a king playing off against another king, square by square. There’s nothing left to win nor any real possibility of either opponent winning. The game is up yet the match goes on. “Enough,” says Hamm, in his Endgame, “it’s time it ended. And yet I hesitate to…to end. Yes, there it is, it’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to—to end.” Marcel Duchamp once described Endgame as “a problem with no solution.” Duchamp was a chess maestro as well as an artist, a pal of Beckett’s. On the brink of Nazi occupation of Paris, they played chess together for a while, on the Atlantic coast, in Arcachon, at a mutual friend’s house. Beckett always lost. It may have been there where he first conceived his play.

Duchamp featured in an exhibition I saw this autumn at London’s Barbican. I was in a gloomy Endgame state of mind that day and couldn’t guffaw anymore. I went hoping it might cheer me up, perhaps inspire me to write something. It was one of those dreary London days, suitably Beckettian. Grey upon grey. Light black, from pole to pole. The wind whipped up between buildings. I felt cold and forlorn. I didn’t expect much, almost regretted coming, balked even at paying the entrance fee. Still, I went in, and am glad I did, because soon I realised I was experiencing the shock of recognition, something Duchamp and his fellow Surrealists might have called an ENCOUNTER.

An encounter with what? An encounter with art and literature, with beauty and intimacy, with love. Perhaps it was an encounter with hope, with a solution, an encounter with myself. It had been there all the time, this hope, somehow always there; but I didn’t feel it enough, hadn’t recognised it inside me. Yet, now, amid two-floors of paintings and sculptures, of rare manuscripts and objets d’arts, of old photos and romantic verse, I saw it all for what it was: Mad love. I’d entered a den of “modern couples,” a saga of forty-odd twentieth-century relationships between avant-garde artists and writers, between subversive people who fell in love with one another and changed the world. These modern couples were straight and gay—sometimes straight and gay at the same time—men and women whose love affairs infused their art, just as their art infused their love affairs. They mobilised something sacred, something time-served, still vital: imagination, the power to imagine themselves, to break out of convention, out of servility.

The roster of couplings is impressive: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (whose gender-bending exploits inspired Woolf’s Orlando), Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca, Paul Éluard and Gala Éluard, Paul and Gala Éluard and Max Ernst (in a ménage à trois), Paul Éluard and Maria Benz (aka Nusch), Salvador Dali and Gala Dali, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, Man Ray and Lee Miller, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, André Breton and Léona Delcourt (aka Nadja), André Breton and Jacqueline Lamba, Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp. The list is by no means exhaustive.

The most exhilarating collection was devoted to Surrealism, striking me with all the sublime sensual force that its leading light, André Breton, loved to describe in his books. In front of the Surrealist cabinet, my heart seemed to miss a beat, overcome with a trembling excitement. “Beautiful like the tremor of the hands in alcoholism,” wrote Lautréamont. I hadn’t had a drop to drink in years but was drunk before the convulsive beauty of Nadja’s pencil sketch, “The Lover’s Flower,” paired with a rare first edition of Paul Éluard’s 1935 love poem, Facile [Easy], whose refrains floated dreamily across Man Ray’s startling solarised images of the poet’s amorous confidante, Nusch. Meanwhile, like a giant eye looking out, keeping tabs, was Dorothea Tanning’s Rapture, her totemic sunflower, enrapturing anybody who happened to enter its gaze. She’d painted it in 1944, two years before she and lover Max Ernst had shacked up in Sedona, Arizona, in the middle of nowhere. Rapture’s dreamscape saw it all coming, prefiguring their desert hideaway, amid the red rocks and rattlesnakes. Breton’s poem “Tournesol” had already immortalised the heliotropic plant as the Surrealists’ love talisman; now, in full striking colour, here it was, like a homing pigeon sending emergency kisses from afar.

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I felt a marvellous rush. A feathery wind brushed across my temples, producing a real shiver. “Easy and beautiful under your eyelids,” wrote Éluard. “Like a meeting of pleasure/ Dance and its continuation/ I spoke the fever.” It was staggering—quite literally—this fever. A very special emotion had been aroused. Something deep inside me had stirred, quite unexpectedly, decidedly powerfully, a tottering disquiet—an anti-Endgame. Before me was something to live for, a flame to keep burning. I’d had my encounter.

***
The idea of ENCOUNTER was elemental to Surrealists and meant something much more than mere meeting, than mere rendezvous, than some kind of get together. It was, is, an event of seismic magnitude, a fortuitous event, a random event, a predestined event, an event that lasts, that strikes and sticks, that changes its participants forever, henceforth never the same again. It’s not that I hadn’t had my own Surrealist encounter before. Like plenty of people, plenty of fortunate people, I’d encountered mad love before. I’d even written something about it in my last book, What We Talk About When Talk About Cities (and Love) (O/R Books, New York, 2018), a sort of homage to the American writer Raymond Carver, as well as my little paean to city life, to its romance, to that haunting ideal that maybe, just maybe, we might find true love in the city. I was into love’s purity, still am, have to be.

I’d also encountered Surrealism itself long ago, in the 1980s, when I’d been a budding Liverpudlian Surrealist—or at least had delusions of being one. It was my Surrealist encounter during the dark reign of Margaret Thatcher, whose only dream-fantasy was the desire to have, to own, buying people off with her false material dreams. Surrealism kept my inner life alive during that dire decade. Since then, I’d alluded to Surrealism often in my books about cities, even penned a “Opinion” piece quite recently in British Guardian newspaper (June 11, 2018), about Surrealism and the British high (main) street.

I’d suggested there that identikit Britain needed a touch of Surrealism to keep its high street from dying off entirely. The Surrealists yearned for novelty and chance encounter, for mystery and adventure in the city—indeed, the meaning of city life, they said, is found in novelty. Alas, there isn’t too much novelty down our chain-dominated high streets. Little is there to inspire dreams. A paucity of romance, and zilch desire. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, because now that those dreary chain stores have monopolised our high-rent high streets, driving out smaller independents in process, they’ve decided to abandon places that can no longer pay up. The once predictable and boring high street is destined to become something worse: deserted and boarded-up. A Hobson’s choice between a sterile wilderness and a dead wilderness. Isn’t there another alternative?

My thinking hitherto had been preoccupied with Surrealism as an urban phenomenon. Yet the problem with our lifeless cities is really a deeper problem of our Endgame life. I’d been approaching Surrealism as something physical, as street-oriented, rather than something metaphysical, as people-oriented, along the lines of what I’d just seen and felt at the Barbican. So perhaps we need to explore that other feature of Surrealism, its frequently taboo-breaking, often erotic, occasionally perverse feature, its insatiably resilient feature: LOVE. Perhaps we need to move forwards from this primal point of departure. Love is celebrated by Surrealists as the supreme moment, as the ultimate fusion of the self with the other. It’s a dialectic that expresses contradictions, creative as well as destructive contradictions; but it also conveys a unity that inspires, that can lead to a mutual blossoming, to a creative coupling that, despite its tensions, endures, and goes on enduring, sometimes beyond death.

Listen to Breton speaking in Mad Love, from 1937, published one year after fascist bombs rained down on the Spanish town of Guernica and four years after Hitler came to power and his Third Reich jackboots were about to stomp across Europe: “I have never ceased to believe that, among all the states through which humans can pass, love is the greatest supplier of solutions, being at the same time in itself the ideal place for the joining and fusion of these solutions. People despair of love stupidly—I have despaired of it myself—they live in servitude to this idea that love is always behind them, never before them… And yet, for each of us, the promise of the coming hour contains life’s whole secret, perhaps about to be revealed one day, possibly in another being.” For a man sometimes accused of misogyny, and often as ruthless with his friends as with his foe, this is one of the nicest evocations of something that makes the world go around.

***
Surrealism built its dream house in the ashes of the dominant order, out of a disgust and distrust of this order, an order that had blasted and butchered in the Great War and would blast and butcher again, unabatedly, absentmindedly, two decades later. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Surrealism proclaimed its diabolical dialectic, an extraordinarily creative impulse of tragedy, on the one hand, epitomised by Max Ernst’s post-apocalyptic “Europe After the Rain II,” painted between 1940-2, a hellscape of hope smothered by petrified and calcified structures, by corpses and decayed vegetation, by deformed creatures in a prehistoric premonition of the future; and, on the other hand, an optimism, an art and literature celebrating the dawn of romantic love—aube, as in the French, as in André Breton’s love-child, mothered by Jacqueline Lamba, his Mad Love muse. Thus a new day was heralded, the beginning of new era, bidding adieu to yesterday’s fear and loathing.

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Breton closed Mad Love with a touching letter to Aube, born in 1935, addressing her as a sixteen year old, as a teenager perhaps tempted to open her father’s old book, whose title, he wrote, “will be wafted to you euphonically by the wind bending the hawthorns.” “Whatever will be your lot,” Papa said, “increasingly fortunate or entirely other, I cannot know, you will delight in living, expecting everything from love.” “Let me believe,” he added, “that these words, ‘mad love’, will one day correspond uniquely to your own delirium… You were thought of as possible, as certain, at the very moment when, in a love deeply sure of itself, a man and a woman wanted you to be.” “I WANT YOU TO BE MADLY LOVED.”

But there’s also something else about Surrealist love worth stressing and exploring: Surrealists were prepared to fight for it. Some fought life and limb as Résistants, publishing and politicking underground, as Maquisards, spilling blood as well as bottles of ink. Love and liberty somehow became synonymous, the love of liberty fused to the liberty of love. René Char and Paul Éluard were perhaps the greatest Surrealist poets engagés. Char’s famous logbook, Hypnos, composed of 237 “leaves,” ruminations and private musings, never initially intended for publication, stands as one the finest anti-war prose-poems.

Written “under strain, in anger, fear, rivalry, disgust, cunning, furtive reflection, the illusion of a future, friendship, love,” Char said the French people, as well as the nation’s body politic, had been lulled to sleep, hypnotised—hence Hypnos, the Greek God of Sleep. Everywhere a dreadful contagion raged, sounding oddly familiar today: sleepwalkers seduced by reactionary propaganda, by generalised lies, by hate-mongering demagogues. The poet was there, though, to arouse the people, to force them to remember, to wake them up. Char and his comrades went about their moonlit nocturnal business, collecting arms airdropped by Allied forces. “The plane flies low,” he wrote. “The invisible pilots jettison their night garden, then activate a brief light tucked in under the wing of the plane to notify us that it’s over. All that remains is to gather up the scattered treasure. So it is with the poet.”

Paul Éluard joined the Resistance movement the same year he joined the French Communist Party, 1942, and saw no discordance between a communist poet and a romantic poet, between a poet of militant democracy and a poet of inner emotional life. To fight against injustice was to fight on all fronts, to scribble a poem at the same time as to derail an enemy train. Éluard’s own great Resistance poem, “Liberty,” was a love letter to his wife and résistante Nusch. The poem quickly became a watchword for emancipation everywhere: “On my devastated shoulders/ … On the steps of death/… And by the strength of one word/ I begin my life again/ I was born to know you/ To name you/ Liberty.”

Its 21 quatrains were first published in June 1942, in an underground journal called Fontaine [Fountain], diffused from Marseille. In 1943, thousands of copies of Éluard’s poem were scattered across Maquis France, on printed sheets folded 32 times, parachute-dropped by the RAF. On March 25, 1945, the BBC premiered “Liberty,” broadcasting Roland Penrose’s English translation. “I thought of revealing at the end,” Éluard admitted, “the name of the woman I loved and for whom this poem was intended. But I quickly realised that the only word I had in mind was the word liberty. Thus the woman I loved embodied a desire even greater than her.”

And so it was that Surrealists proclaimed love as the liberation of dark times, as the antidote to a time of cholera, to an era of borders and hate, to mass death and national division. Is that era really behind us? Perhaps it’s too early to tell. Meantime, is it too late to reclaim the heady ideal of mad Surrealist love?

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