Supreme Height of the Defenders of Surrealism in Paris and the Revelation of their Real Value

An account of a confrontation between surrealists and situationists from Internationale Situationniste #2, December 1958.

Submitted by Fozzie on December 14, 2022

The question, "Is surrealism dead or alive?" was chosen for a theme of debate by the [journal] Open Circle on 18 November [1958]. The session was presided over by Noel Arnaud. Invited to represent themselves in the debate, the situationists accepted after having demanded and obtained the official invitation of a representative of surrealist orthodoxy to speak to this tribune. The surrealists took good care to not take the risk of a public discussion, but announced that they would sabotage the meeting, because they wrongly believe that the subject was their specialty.

On the evening of the debate, Henri Lefebvre was sick unfortunately. Arnaud and [Guy] Debord were present. But the three other participants announced on the posters slipped away at the last minute so as to not confront the frightful surrealists (Amadou[1] and [Jacques] Sternberg under poor pretexts, [Tristan] Tzara without any explanation).

From the first words of Noel Arnaud, more than 15 surrealists and auxilliaries, timidly concentrated at the back of the hall, tried their skill at indignant howling and were ridiculed. One discovered that the surrealists of the New Wave, burning to enter into the career in which their elders are no longer present, have a great lack of practical experience in "scandal," their sect having never been constrained to go to these extremes in the last 10 years. The trainer of these conscripts, the pitiful [Jean] Schuster -- the director of Medium, the editor-in-chief of Surrealism Even, and the co-director of 14 July, who has shown a hundred times that he does not know how to think, that he does not know how to write, that he does not know how to speak -- this time proved that he does not know how to cry out.

Their assault did not go beyond a disagreement on a single theme: the passionate opposition to the techniques of sound recording. Arnaud's voice, actually, was diffused by a tape recorder,[2] certainly taboo for the surrealist youths who wanted to see the orator speak, since he was present. The remaining surrealists keep a respectful silence for a single moment, during which one read a message from their friend Amadou, full of obscene declarations of mysticism and Christianity, but good and paternal to them.

Then they did their best against Debord, whose intervention was not only tape-recorded, but also accompanied on guitar.[3] Having stupidly summoned Debord to mount the podium, and as he was soon there alone, the 15 surrealists did not think of disputing anything with him, and nobly left, after throwing a symbolic flaming newspaper.

Surrealism [said the tape recorder] is obviously alive. Its creators are still not dead. The new people, more and more mediocre, it is true, claim kinship with it. Surrealism is known to the public as the extreme of modernism and, on the other hand, it has become an object for university studies. It is indeed one of the things that live at the same time that we do, like Catholicism and General de Gaulle.

The real question is thus: what is the role of surrealism today? . . .

From the beginning, there was in surrealism -- comparable in this regard to Romanticism -- an antagonism between the attempt to affirm a new use of life and a reactionary flight beyond the real.

At the beginning, the progressive side of surrealism was present in its demand for total freedom and in several attempts at intervening in everyday life. A supplement to the history of art, surrealism is -- in the field of culture -- like a shadow of the absent person in a painting by de Chirico: it reveals the lack of a necessary future.

The retrograde side of surrealism is easily seen in the over-estimation of the unconscious and its monotonous artistic exploitation; the dualistic idealism that tends to understand history as a simple opposition between the precursors of surrealist irrationality and the tyranny of Greco-Latin logical conceptions; [and] the participation in the bourgeois propaganda that presents love as the only possible adventure in modern conditions of existence. . . .

Surrealism today is perfectly boring and reactionary. . . .

Surrealist dreams correspond to bourgeois powerlessness, to artistic nostalgia, and to the refusal to envision the liberatory use of the superior technical means of our times. The seizure of such means, and the collective and concrete experimentation with new environments and behaviors, correspond to the beginning of a cultural revolution beyond which there is no authentic revolutionary culture.

It is in this line that my comrades in the Situationist International advance. (This last phrase is followed by several minutes of very lively applause, also pre-recorded. Then another voice announces: "You have been listening to Guy Debord, spokesperson for the Situationist International. This intervention was offered to you by the Open Circle." A female voice goes on speaking, to finish in the style of radio advertising: "But don't forget that your most urgent problem remains fighting the dictatorship in France.")

The confusion did not diminish after the departure en masse of the surrealists. One simultaneously heard from [Isidore] Isou and the Ultra-Lettrist Group,[4] re-grouped against him by former disciples who want to purify the initial programme of Isou (but which seems to place itself on the pure aesthetic plane, outside the totalizing intention that characterized the most ambitious phase of the action previously inspired by Isou; none of them had been in the Lettrist International.[5] A single one had been part of the Lettrist movement before 1952.[6]) There was even a representative of a "Popular Surrealist Tendency," who gave out many copies of a short tract finely entitled "Alive? I am still dead," so perfectly unintelligible that it could have been written by Michel Tapie.[7] The majority of these substitute polemics produced the quite comic and slightly touching impression that the gathering was a retrospective of the sessions of the Parisian avant-garde over the last 10 years, minutely reconstructed with their [respective] personnel and arguments. But everyone agreed that the youth of surrealism, its importance, passed away a long time ago.

Unsigned, perhaps written by Guy Debord. Published in Internationale Situationniste #2, December 1958. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! July 2007. Footnotes by the translator. From:

[1] We have been unable to identify this person.

[2] Note that this must have been one of the very first uses of tape recorders by avant-garde artists who were not primarily musicians in the field of musique concrete: it wasn't until 1961 that Robert Morris began his experiments with tape recorders; until 1962 that William S. Burroughs began his experiments; 1964 that Brian Eno began his; etc etc.

[3] Flamingo-style. A scratchy recording of a different version of this intervention has been uploaded by Ubu.

[4] This group existed between 1957 and 1961, and included Jean-Louis Brau, Gil J Wolman, Francois Dufrene, and Robert Estivals, among others.

[5] Wolman must not have been present at the event, because he was certainly a member of the Lettrist International.

[6] Jean-Louis Brau.

[7] An art critic and Jesuit.