It’s of note that today the monster is accruing yet more status in the shared mythos of rebellion. As before, it retains the honorable title of destroyer of men and cities, and also its long history as a collectible, destined for some hellish cabinet. Yet it has come to reveal another counterfactual power against the paucity of reality. The monster today is quantum; no longer simply of the past, nor solely the threatening the destinies of the future, the monster is today both virtual and optative. We will it to have been.
The present-yet-occulted-character of today’s monster allows it to serve as a cipher for revolt. It explodes narratives from the inside. History is now open for retroactive terror and haunting. Embedding itself like missing arche-fossils in the timelines of evolutionary biology, or posing as a digital goblin layered on top of the everyday, the monster lives by altering space and time, play and collectivity, strict chronology and what might have been. Though less realistic than ever, its role is not superfluous, but rather surfluous.
I refer to surfluity as opposed to superfluity in the same spirit of conciliation between opposing forces that has been a priority for Surrealism since the Second Manifesto. We are using or being used by monsters to alter the “unalterable” against the run of everyday business, that Mothra of the Stock Exchange.
Of the recent popularity of monstrous mobile games and their power for “mobilization”, we can only harrow the commodification of yet another source of fear wonder. Commodification and spectacularization are even grown repetitive in their scandal. Acting at the service of the monstrous, we can do much better than that.
For surrealism, still, the Kaīju have their uses. The world can be monsterized, which is just a sub-branch of surrealization as a whole. The Golem of Prague guards our ghetto from nationalist thugs and art dealers.
For one, it’s important to point out the project of the Surrealist Bestiary has been undertaken seriously in Stockholm. We also note certain essays on Icecrawler/Heelwalker that look favourably upon the surrealists as a kind of X-Men or Superhero group.
And now, from the outside, we’ve got something really peculiar… A documentary tale about Surrealism from China Miéville, The Last of the Days of New Paris, (and the appended Bestiary of Manifs).
We can recognize in this “novella” (a designation that always irks) something long thought extinct: a true popular friend of surrealism, and not our typical overeager gravedigger. Certainly, like his pulp forbears, a popular accomplice. Using the simple plot devices of weird/dystopian/alternative fiction, Miéville imposes on the traumatic wartime experiences of 1940s Surrealism a B-Movie magic device that turns surrealist art, objects, exquisite corpses into actual living monsters – better, weapons of class war. And yet at the same time, lovable objects that drive a real mania for collecting:
“I’m not leaving until I catch them all.”
But perhaps a little more. With this book we might feel like Don Talayesva must have when he discovered the secrets of the Kachinas on display at the Field Museum: the mysteries are all there on display! At any rate, we have in this text an external but certainly sympathetic and well-researched commentary on Surrealism in History. This is evidenced in good faith by his afterword. Using the gothic device of a secret informer (which is not to say this informer is not real), he lists at least some excellent sources, unusually well chosen, and nearly all by active surrealists or their sympathizers.
His monsters, the “manifs” are referred to as “living art”. As if surrealism sought anything different than to abolish the the gap between those two words. But they are more than they seem. These monsterized objects or objectified monsters are systematically drawn by Miéville from the gallery of surrealism’s all-too-rarefied past. If the catalogues of museums could be loaded with death-dealing power… A nice thought… At any rate, his manif index at the end is quite an interesting addendum to what Mattias Forshage is doing in his Surrealist Bestiary.
The alternative history depicts surrealists struggling with a mutant Second World War that for the population of the 20 arrondissements of Paris never ended. We meet a truly surrealist Resistance in the novelized Main à plume group, who practice a kind of automatist, pure psychic warfare. Automatic shooting! As Miéville hints with perfect umor, it was already inherent in the “simplest surrealist act” of the Second Manifesto. Although we find a moments of that goofy, Buñuel style surrealism that Icecrawler has called a “cul de sac”, and all too common a style in popular fantasy/sci-fi, perhaps it is put to a theoretical deployment. Guy Debord didn’t mind a potboiler about situationism and encouraged Michèle Berstein to write one. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much either. But Breton’s disdainful attitude towards fantasy should mostly hold good here – we always deal with fantasy and fiction from the side, as it were, and as exceptions, never as genre. What we are looking for is evidence of the marvellous anywhere, even, on occasion, in convention.
I am struck by the depiction of the artifact hunters who crawl the rubble to collect and sell surrealist objects as if they were loot. Aren’t these everywhere, still? Perhaps even more significantly, we see “surreal” imagery stolen from and turned against the surrealists themseves. Nazis summon a pack of Brauner’s wolf tables to attack the fighters of Main à plume. The world China invokes is surfluous. It has been since the 50s, and not metaphorically. The term “manifs” might equally serve as a synonym for banal creatures called advertisement, media, and now, meme, which feed upon the discarded husks of surrealism.
Still, it is admirable to see how well Miéville actualizes his material. He invigorates the propositions in the old ASDLR article On Certain Possibilities of the Irrational Embellishment of the City (ASDLR no. 6, 1933), for instance, with the complex dystopian overtones of a latter-day superhero movie. The Arc de Triomphe becomes a giant pissoir. Sacré Coeur is defaced in a way outlined by Breton and presaged again in by astrological text L’An 2016 from the Paris Group of the Surrealist Movment. For Miéville the surrealist mythology becomes rarified; a comic book of itself. It is refreshing that someone takes surrealism for once – instead of metaphorically, analogically, artistically, existentially, or therapeutically – literally.
Incidentally, I hope popular storytelling gets over its fetishization of the 20th century, that a trope among the new generation of tv serials, where speculation and historical cosplay go hand-in-hand with banalization. We might as well cite here, besides shows like Mad Men, the recent spate of Woody Allen films, beginning with Midnight in Paris and even his latest Café Society.
The historical Surrealists made (and still make) for very good pulp characters. There might even be something to be said for the value of a science fictionalized re-imagining of what a surrealist revolution could entail. And this work could not have been done by an actual Surrealist – although some of the storytelling in Pas Un Cadavre comes close. I might cite my own Kaiju-ization of the Breton/Ehrenburg spate, and Guy Girard’s Breton in China, which even explicitly cites Phillip K. Dick’s speculative sci-fi methodology.
But does this novelization obscure the living movement? Miéville’s Afterword, I think, merely hints at its existence, its occultation. Perhaps the most charming part of the novel is the slow realization of Parsons, occultist engineer, who meets Breton and the surrealists waiting at Marseille in 1941 before their great exile. He is initially convinced he is dealing with artists and fops. But soon…
“Jack listened to French night birds. Here he was in the moonlight with a battery full of distillate, of this overlapping thing, this Surrealism. That was a freedom right there.
Parsons knew how to take a substance, render it, burn it and use it.
What can I power with this? he thought.”
Why, must you…