Sunday, 25 January 2015

Those First Dadaist's, The Original Surrealists - Lear and Carroll (and Spike)

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. 'Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?' he asked.  'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'
It was Guillaume Apollinaire who first used the expression surrealist. It was applied as a way of defining his 1917 play, The Breasts of Tiresias. The play had been conceived and written back in 1903 long before surrealism had established a foothold in the art world. Of course, Dada came first with porcelain lavatories inclined at wrong angles. It was they who suggested the absurd was funny and that all we saw was infinitely absurd. Long before then, when beautiful pea-green boats set sail on oceans of nonsense, when Jabberwocky's ran with runcible spoons down wooden hills that staired there way to Bedfordshire, the first surrealists, the nascent absurdist's, masters of the grotesque, Dada's Dad's, Lear and Carol, wove their frightful craft in mottled tones both droll and liquid.

"That an Anglican pastor should also be a distinguished professor of mathematics and a specialist in logic: no more than this is needed for nonsense to make its appearance in literature or at very least for it to make a spectacular reappearance (Lewis Carroll's most astounding poems show a constant, no doubt unsuspected filiation with certain "incoherent" poems of the French thirteenth century, known as fantasies, and with which only the name of Philippe de Beaumanoir has been associated). In Lewis Carroll, "nonsense" draws its importance from the fact that it constitutes in and of itself the vital solution to a profound contradiction between the acceptance of faith and the exercise of reason, on the one hand, and on the other between a keen poetic awareness and rigorous professional duties. The characteristic of this subjective solution is to be coupled with an objective solution, one that is precisely poetic in nature: the mind, placed before any kind of difficulty, can find an ideal outlet in the absurd. Accommodation to the absurd readmits adults to the mysterious realm inhabited by children. Children's games (beginning with simple "word games"), as a lost means of reconciling action and reverie so as to achieve organic satisfaction, thus regain their dignity and validity. The forces that preside over "realism," infantile animism, and artificialism, the forces that militate for unconstrained morals, and that go into remission between the ages of five and twelve, are not immune to a systematic recuperation that threatens the harsh, inert world in which we are told we must live. Right hand closed as if on the knob of the exit (or entrance) door, though actually closed on an orange, stands a little girl whom the poet Lewis Carroll--in reality the honourable Mr. Dodgson, who is hiding behind this pseudonym--has just led before a mirror and who, in an attempt to understand how she can see her-self holding the fruit in her left hand while still feeling it in her right, supposes she is holding it in her right hand "through the looking glass." To be sure, this foreshadows an utterly authentic "against the grain." No one can deny that in Alice's eyes a world of oversight, inconsistency, and, in a word, impropriety hovers vertiginously around the centre of truth.
Pink humour? Black humour? It's hard to decide: "The Hunting of the Snark," Mr. Aragon has noted, "appeared in the same year as Maldoror and A Season in Hell. In the shameful chains of those days of massacre in Ireland, of nameless oppression in factories where the ironic accounting of pleasure and pain preached by Bentham was established, while from Manchester rose in defiance the theory of free trade, what had become of human freedom? It rested entirely between the frail hands of Alice, in which this curious man had placed it."
It seems no less abusive to present Lewis Carroll as a "political" rebel and to impute direct satirical intentions to his work. It is a pure and simple deceit to suggest that the substitution of one regime for another could put an end to this sort of need. The fact is, the child will always set a fundamental opposition against those who try to mould him, and then diminish him, by arbitrarily limiting his magnificent field of experience. Anyone who has preserved a sense of revolt will recognise in Lewis Carroll their first teacher in the art of playing hooky."

Some poor souls, mortified to think that Dada or Surrealism had parents, both male, will throw up their hands in protest declining all thoughts of their beloved art forms owing anything, any form of influence apart from that given each other, to the works of two children's novelist and poets. I would disagree for doesn't Lear's nonsense poem bear uncanny similarities to Dada? And doesn't Carroll's Mad Hatter along with his tea party strike as being dreamlike?
"At this stage, in 1924, there was no mention of painting but under the aegis of Breton, the Surrealists developed pronounced likes and dislikes in both the literature and the art of past and present. Breton liked pre-Freudian demonstrations of the 'unconscious', such as the eighteenth-century English gothic novel and the nonsense writings of Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) and Edward Lear (1812-1888)".

To be honest it really isn't that much of a surprise, less a revelation. After all the likes of Syd Barrett, John Lennon and Ivor Cutler took influence from Lear and Carroll. And isn't 'I Am the Walrus' not a little like Alice, a little surreal? Of course, it is. No one really denies the connection between the Victorian authors and Dali unless it is those who sit at the alter of quasi-intellectualism elevating Dada and Surrealism to unwarranted heights of invention.The dissatisfaction with life, with modernism and the cog crunching machinations of the soulless industrial revolution, goes way back. You could even, at a push, include William Blake into the mix of pre-surreal surrealists. You could even go so far as to claim, at the other end of the time spectrum, The Beatnik's and the Counter Culture activists who followed them as being equally influenced by Lear and Carroll as they were themselves. Certainly The Goons, The Beatles, Spike Milligan and Monty Python grew their fungus fillets upon the mulch of Lear and Carroll. 

Say what you will, think what you like, elevate the poem to lofty heights if you must, whatever you do or indeed whatever you don't do matters little, 'The Hunting of the Snark' is now widely acclaimed as a major work of literature. Perhaps all they say, the way they dress the thing up in glittering jewels of pomposity, the manner in which they attribute a depth of thinking, may be true.
Lewis Carroll might have invested a deal of hidden meaning into the poem but I tend to think it far simpler than that, in fact, I'd go so far as to say the only person to get close to the truth was the man, or woman, who suggested when in communication with the author that it was about the constant search for happiness.  Even Lewis Carroll said he knew not what the poem meant. Still, a mystery is a good thing and people do like to believe in any old rubbish especially if there is a whiff of a conspiracy for bored househusbands and wives to mull over.
Carroll was certainly influenced by Lear and probably vice versa. After them flowed a raft of writers who dabbled in nonsense. To me the shared velocity of what we call nonsense, Dada and Surrealism, is obvious. The dreams of adults, the nightmares of children, the shenanigans of politics, the absurdity of day to day living all clash with reality. This demands release; release of pent up frustrations and emotions that need defining outside the immateria placed into the material, substantial world and cross breeding with humour. Without such the bringing together of the immateria with the material offers only insanity.
And let's face it, life is fucking ridiculous. From that point of view which I am not alone in thinking, it is no giant leap of intellect that brings  you round and back to Lear and Carroll.

Edward Lear is possibly the easier to dismiss as his art, leaving a lifetime illustrating others works to one side, is less refined than Lewis Carroll's. Many have claimed when he wrote his limericks and nonsense rhyme that he found influence from those bawdy old sailors who sung ribald shanties turning clerical faces red and the air about them as blue as the oceans they sailed. I can see a logic in that and besides, there is nothing, or very little at least, that comes fresh, new and without some influences.

Lewis Carroll though was more sophisticated. His work broke down boundaries that led from Lear's nonsense into the realms of the surreal. Sometimes these words, often found in poetical context, challenged thinking standing in rather dark spaces seldom visited before.

"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
   As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
   By a finger entwined in his hair.

"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
   That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
   What I tell you three times is true."

The crew was complete: it included a Boots—
   A maker of Bonnets and Hoods—
A Barrister, brought to arrange their disputes—
   And a Broker, to value their goods.

A Billiard-marker, whose skill was immense,
   Might perhaps have won more than his share—
But a Banker, engaged at enormous expense,
   Had the whole of their cash in his care.

There was also a Beaver, that paced on the deck,
   Or would sit making lace in the bow:
And had often (the Bellman said) saved them from wreck,
   Though none of the sailors knew how.

There was one who was famed for the number of things
   He forgot when he entered the ship:
His umbrella, his watch, all his jewels and rings,
   And the clothes he had bought for the trip.

He had forty-two boxes, all carefully packed,
   With his name painted clearly on each:
But, since he omitted to mention the fact,
   They were all left behind on the beach.

The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because
   He had seven coats on when he came,
With three pair of boots—but the worst of it was,
   He had wholly forgotten his name.

He would answer to "Hi!" or to any loud cry,
   Such as "Fry me!" or "Fritter my wig!"
To "What-you-may-call-um!" or "What-was-his-name!"
   But especially "Thing-um-a-jig!"

While, for those who preferred a more forcible word,
   He had different names from these:
His intimate friends called him "Candle-ends,"
   And his enemies "Toasted-cheese."

"His form in ungainly—his intellect small—"
   (So the Bellman would often remark)
"But his courage is perfect! And that, after all,
   Is the thing that one needs with a Snark."

He would joke with hænas, returning their stare
   With an impudent wag of the head:
And he once went a walk, paw-in-paw, with a bear,
   "Just to keep up its spirits," he said.

He came as a Baker: but owned, when too late—
   And it drove the poor Bellman half-mad—
He could only bake Bride-cake—for which, I may state,
   No materials were to be had.

The last of the crew needs especial remark,
   Though he looked an incredible dunce:
He had just one idea—but, that one being "Snark,"
   The good Bellman engaged him at once.

He came as a Butcher: but gravely declared,
   When the ship had been sailing a week,
He could only kill Beavers. The Bellman looked scared,
   And was almost too frightened to speak:

But at length he explained, in a tremulous tone,
   There was only one Beaver on board;
And that was a tame one he had of his own,
   Whose death would be deeply deplored.

The Beaver, who happened to hear the remark,
   Protested, with tears in its eyes,
That not even the rapture of hunting the Snark
   Could atone for that dismal surprise!

It strongly advised that the Butcher should be
   Conveyed in a separate ship:
But the Bellman declared that would never agree
   With the plans he had made for the trip:

Navigation was always a difficult art,
   Though with only one ship and one bell:
And he feared he must really decline, for his part,
   Undertaking another as well.

The Beaver's best course was, no doubt, to procure
   A second-hand dagger-proof coat—
So the Baker advised it—and next, to insure
   Its life in some Office of note:

This the Banker suggested, and offered for hire
   (On moderate terms), or for sale,
Two excellent Policies, one Against Fire,
   And one Against Damage From Hail.

Yet still, ever after that sorrowful day,
   Whenever the Butcher was by,
The Beaver kept looking the opposite way,
   And appeared unaccountably shy.

And then, long after Lear, Carroll, Kandinsky and Andre Breton came Spike. If ever a man
embodied all the disciplines in one outrageous whole, writing at speeds that mirrored his
sometimes mad genius, combining elements of the surreal with Dada and nonsense all
wrapped impossibly in a humorous cloth it was he. The thing with these strands the not only
connects them but keeps them forever contemporary is that we all recognise in life what
they express in art. They stay ever fresh and challenging because we see how absurd, how
surreal life can be at times.

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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