Mormyridean themes and games – an open letter…

A recent email from RW Spryszak allowed me to voice some thoughts on the question of Peculiar Mormyrid’s themes and games, their uses and abuses…

Hi RW,

This has nothing to do with your sub which we haven’t read yet, but I wanted to send a personal side-note from me on the “theme” question, something that has been percolating for a while and which your email just gave me an opportunity to send.

You say you simply cannot write on a theme. You’ve said it before. Indeed, it seems this particular word really sticks in your craw and I have noticed you made a few comments about it in the past, including in the editorial for SURREALISTS AND OUTSIDERS, where you refer to it as something other surrealist journals do which you simply cannot understand. But if I may, I think you might be approaching it from a rather narrow angle, dare I say even in danger of a commodity-based view: indeed, it might appear that way to somebody who is not familiar with the ludic aspect of the surrealist adventure; of the surrealist game.

You seem to treat it as if what we are asking is for participants to go and compose short stories or paintings or other art products based on a theme, so that we can collect a bunch of vaguely similar things together in an anthology with an overall aesthetic sense of cohesion. This is NOT the case. We are not interested in such superficial cataloguing.

Rather, from the angle of the surrealist game, what we are providing is an opportunity for participants to be “primed”; to be alerted to the possibilities inherent in some serendipitous or even prophetic utterances; to use the theme as an element for a game, or a mode of research, or to look for evidence in everyday life, on a walk, to test it with comrades in a collective exploration. As you know, surrealism is conceived as a collective adventure. We want the theme to be a jumping off point, not an end in itself, and certainly not as a criteria by which we judge things sent to us as if we had a checklist for finished works. I assure you we have no such list, either explicitly or implicitly. We want to be surprised.

The finished work is always a secondary byproduct—and like an experiment or an attempt—and perhaps we do not look too favourably on finished works at all. Aren’t they too suspicious? Too linked to a process of capture, package, submission, and consumption? Surrealism is not to be concerned with hurling out new artistic or written products in a variety of industrial colourways for market: we are above all interested in new modes of KNOWLEDGE, new experiences and ways of changing the world. Themes are temptations to a collective pursuit of knowledge.

So, in the paradigm of a loner or individual artist or writer concerned with the viability or quality of their product, or inordinately cautious about their preconceived “method of working”, the concept of a theme might seem restrictive or reductive. But for a collective participant and a researcher it is an invitation to the unknown. Moreover, it is an opportunity to step outside of individual concerns into a world of collective make-believe.

I also think there is some confusion regarding the notion of a theme as opposed to the well known “pure psychic automatism”, both in the core sense of the method of writing/creation and as a wider umbrella for the creation of works outside of all aesthetic or moral concerns. True, if our themes were meant to either lead to a preconceived aesthetic result or image, or likewise to a political moral or thinly veiled metaphor, yes, this use of a “theme” would be anti-surrealist and anti-automatist. Such a slippage is always a risk.

But that’s not what we are asking. Rather, we hope to generate new types of methods, new powers of explorations, and themes serve as an alchemical ingredient to begin the transmutation. So for example your “discovery” of an old text is a perfectly valid form of play here, perhaps even preferable to someone just naively writing a story or poem on a given theme with no experimental or daring or transformative intent. Maybe archaeology is better. It must be recognized that surrealism too has its cliches and its tropes, melting clocks etc. and that one of the best way to subvert these is through rigorous experimentation and the search for SOMETHING ELSE. The theme or game as a launchpad does this. It is not meant to delimit or circumscribe automatist play.

This means that following the game, playing along, putting on the masks, even breaking the rules…Above all else surrealist activity should never let itself lose that sense of play, don’t you think? Themes available to all in their own way, or maybe, to throw them off their way.

-Jason Abdelhadi, October 22 2018

By | 2018-10-22T22:31:12+00:00 October 22nd, 2018|Essay|0 Comments