- From Paris to Tlön: Surrealism as World Literature by Delia Ungureanu
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Surrealism was the first genuinely global art movement. Its spread outwards from Paris to the whole of the Americas, and southwards and eastwards through southern and eastern Europe into north Africa and eventually as far as Japan is the subject-matter of this equally expansive and complex book by Delia Ungureanu. Some of that diffusion was enabled by the emergence of international transport, broadcast media, communications infrastructure, and the mobilities brought about by displacements of war, prejudice, and ideology across the twentieth century. The diffusion was further facilitated by the nature of surrealism itself: not confined to any one language, culture, mind, or medium, the “surreal object” could be manifested in writing in any language, graphic art, sculpture, architecture, film, photography, drama, theatre, dance, games, gardening, art installation, or public event. This unconstrained liberation of form allowed surrealism to ignore national boundaries in favor of dream-like images, expressions of desire, and social revolution flavored by whatever culture it was absorbed into. Finally, there was a network of intellectual connections between people who either identified themselves as surrealist, moved in and out of the surrealists’ influence, or were closely associated with surrealism even if they eventually took another path. It is this intellectual network in particular that Ungureanu traces from its origins in the 1920s to post-communist Europe at the end of the century.
The book’s focus on the connections of mind inevitably leads to a narrative that tracks individual surrealists through history. Breton and Dalí are prominent in this, of course, together with the host of compelling characters that orbited around them between the wars. Much historiographic writing on surrealism falls into easy biography, partly because the stories of particular surrealist escapades are jaw-droppingly striking and eminently tellable. Ungureanu does not disappoint in these terms, but what distinguishes this book from a great deal of other scholarly material is the way in which she knits together the anecdotes and vignettes into a seamless overall picture of the spread of surrealist ideas between people.
Ungureanu does not neglect surrealist writing itself. Extracts from surrealist texts and a judicious deployment of drawings and photographs illuminate and clarify her account—several of these were new to me, not appearing in the canonical set of images that tend to be used in the many books on surrealism. She claims at the beginning of the book that her approach is drawn from the sociological method of “network analysis”—a process of finding and tracing connections. This exploratory method is indeed in evidence throughout the book, though in fact as a rigorous methodology it seems to me no more explicit than being a smart capacity for noticing connections and articulating them. Indeed, after its first mention, network [End Page 434] theory hardly reappears, and is barely mentioned in the index. In any case, I don’t think this framing is needed—Ungureanu’s compositional method is akin to a collage of pertinent nodes of intellectual interest. She pinpoints some striking reconfigurations in understanding surrealism, and mentions some surprising influences. It is a scholarly method that iconically echoes the surrealist notion of objective chance itself.
Objective chance (le hasard objectif) is the surrealist notion that phenomena that appear to be randomly or coincidentally linked in the world are surface evidences for the true interconnectedness of things at the psychic, unconscious, or surreal level of the universe. The notion underpins Ungureanu’s compositional method in this book. In a striking tour de force of scholarly linkages in one chapter, she disentangles a fictional character in a Jorge Luis Borges story, “Pierre Menard,” from a real Dr. Pierre Menard writing a psychoanalytical study of the protosurrealist poet Lautréamont in a surrealist journal around the same time, and a Paul de Man study of Borges and Lautréamont, with the publisher Victoria Ocampo as a nexus between European and South American surrealist magazines, and thus back to Borges. Subsequent chapters are equally dense...