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  • Correspondance:Mail Art and Literary Appropriation in the 1920s
  • Jan Baetens and Michael Kasper

Correspondance was one of the first Belgian Surrealist serials, produced over seven months in 1924 and 1925 by three Francophone writers, Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans, and Marcel Lecomte.1 It was made up of twenty-two single-sheet tracts whose short, dense texts critiqued contemporary literary personalities, tendencies, and events. Each issue (a4-size, approx. 8 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches) was distributed by post to around a hundred recipients, thus making it an early example of mail art: direct, anti-commercial, inbred, and visual—as the tracts were printed on and named for different colors, and purposely set in a modernist typeface. Correspondance was also ahead of its time in its use of literary collage, and it was influential; a direct line can be traced from Nougé's practice of plagiarism, launched in Correspondance, through détournement, the Situationist concept, to notions of appropriation popular in writing and art in recent decades.2

The magazine didn't last long, nor was it widely known—not surprising given its intentionally marginalized publication history, its elliptical style and obscure content, and its origin far from Paris—but it was an intriguing and subtle intervention in twentieth-century culture.

Its Origin Far from Paris

Correspondance is a difficult body of work, although its perplexities are no longer, or no longer only, those that must have challenged its first—not always consenting—readership. Making sense of these tracts requires some knowledge of their specific cultural and historical context.3 Thoughtful reading always requires this, of course, but in the case of minor literatures, from peripheral cultures (as Belgian Francophone culture undoubtedly is), the challenge is greater, since the background tends to be especially unfamiliar. [End Page 109]

In these texts, the three authors were reacting critically to what was going on then in avant-garde literary circles in Paris, as adventurous Francophone Belgian writers generally did. Above all, Nougé, Goemans, and Lecomte targeted Surrealist writings, since they were at that time trying to resist incorporation into the hegemonic, Paris-based international movement. This relationship is the primary subject of Correspondance.

Surrealists in France were the heirs of Paris Dada. Their Surrealism sought a cultural revolution—not just a revolution whose success would bring a new culture, but a revolution in culture that would cradle a new society. Framed in literary terms, such a revolution implied a refusal of the established canon (though not of the practice of canonization) as well as a radical overhaul of the fundamentals of what literary writing was supposed to be. First, writing had to become a type of scientific activity, a way of producing truth, which meant insight into mental processes obscured by bourgeois culture; second, writing had to employ innovative procedures, of chance and willing suspension of control, either by inducing trance-like states of mind or by using specific constraints or techniques (the famous exquisite cadaver, for instance); third, writing had to abandon obsolete ideas of authorship and craft(collective forms of writing were promoted, and artists were encouraged to work in media in which they had no training); fourth, writing could no longer be an aim in itself, but must be in the service of exploring new ways of living.

Most remarkably formulated by André Breton in his first manifesto, in 1924,4 these principles were disseminated by the Parisian group (at this stage including Aragon, Éluard, and Soupault, among others) in journals, at public readings, and by personal contact. Other Parisian modernists, in particular the group associated with the Nouvelle Revue Française (Jean Paulhan, its chief editor, Paul Valéry, etc.), were receptive, or at any rate attentive, as were young experimental writers in Belgium.5

In 1924, there was as yet no official Surrealist group in Belgium, nor was there any distinctive gap between Surrealism and the wider cultural field of the time. In the wake of Dada, several noteworthy avant-garde journals emerged in Brussels in the first half of the 1920s. One was Le Disque vert ("The Green Disk") launched in 1922 by Franz Hellens (1881-1972), a novelist close to Paulhan and others...


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