- Littérature malgré elle. Le Surréalisme et la transformation du littéraire
The very title of Effie Rentzou's study, Littérature malgré elle (Literature despite her(self)), followed by the author's explication, presents the/a problem: "how does a movement [surrealism] which scorns literature [défie la literature] manage to forge ties with that very literature [avec la littérature même]?" (7). The question that arises, of course, is the old Sartrean one: "What is literature?" How are we to read "literature" on each side of the equation? As an institution? A composite of literary genres/forms? As a broader category, or even a quality (the "literary")—and, if this last, who is to ultimately define it? Rentzou is fully aware of these complications, which she addresses in various parts of her study. In fact, a second question, which seems to run through her narrative (though never explicitly addressed), is, precisely, what one can learn about literature by probing the surrealist paradox (7).
Littérature malgré elle is certainly an ambitious endeavor and, hence, a significant contribution not only to the study of French and Greek surrealism, but also—and owing to its self-consciously inventive methodology—to the discipline of Comparative Literature. On the surface, it is an attempt to rethink the relationship between French and Greek surrealism, which far surpasses a mere effect of influence. Rentzou attempts a parallel study of these two versions of surrealism—or rather of its multiple and mutating manifestations—with a view to the particularities of each culture: its history, literary tradition(s), and, most importantly, its theory and criticism (including, of course, the reception of surrealism). At the same time, however, Rentzou ventures into a reappraisal of surrealist poetics and rhetoric by isolating themes and strategies that form a common surrealist matrix. These "fragments of theorization," as she calls them, often appear in marginal comments and asides (at least until the final chapter of the book), and would certainly deserve further elaboration.
The book is divided into three parts that often intersect but nevertheless treat distinct aspects of the material: "Surrealism and society," "Surrealism and poetics," and "Surrealism and rhetoric." At the risk of oversimplifying, one could discern a progressive shift of the emphasis from the movement's reception to its theorization/production and its performative vision.
The first part of the study consists largely in a critical history of Greek surrealism and its reception, shifting from the original skepticism against what is perceived as a foreign movement transplanted into Greece, to the canonization of individual surrealist poets purely on grounds of literary merit. The reluctant use (or rejection) of the term "movement" when it comes to Greek surrealists is attributed partially to their lack of cohesion and failure to produce a theoretical discourse (see, in particular, the non-materialization of the plan to found an avant-garde journal, Thiasos, following which some of them were assimilated to the Nea Grammata group). However, the discourse of failure that predominates even in contemporary scholarship rests more on what is perceived as the de-politicization of surrealism, which is to say its transformation into a neutralized aesthetic. As Rentzou astutely remarks, however, such criticism presupposes a quasi-Platonic [End Page 152] model of imitation, wherein French surrealism occupies the place of the original and Greek surrealism that of its (inauthentic) copy. Instead, Rentzou chooses to locate the political element of Greek surrealism in the materiality of the surrealists' language: through their seemingly reactionary use of the katharevousa at a time when the demotic had been adopted by both the political and the literary establishment, the surrealists managed to "cut through the neo-hellenic imaginary and culture" (113). This gesture, coupled with the transposition into surrealist poetry of different (unheimlich) languages and cultures (see, for example, Engonopoulos's Bolivar), lies at the core of the Greek surrealists' avant-gardist politics, here examined also as a critique of Greek modernity/modernism (129).
In the second part of the study, Rentzou examines surrealist poetics in the...