Surrealist Film at Pravda: Thoughts on Breton’s Automatism and Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose

17 Feb

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Pravda ran a Surrealist and Experimental film night series over the summer, and although I’m terribly late in posting about it, my friend and I had such a great time that I figured better late than never. One night of Surrealism can lead to many more!

Pravda is a subterranean Russian speakeasy in Soho, near two of my favorite bookstores, Housing Works and McNally Jackson. They serve delicious food and have a fantastic vodka selection. I cannot recommend the horseradish-infused vodka enough.

Occasionally they host special events, such as Salon Dinners, Roaring Twenties Parties, and Surrealist & Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 30s. The film nights are such a treat! The films are actually silent, and they hire a musician to play live piano music!! I was enthralled. Inspired. They showed films by Man Ray, whom I’d studied at Scripps College, as well as other artists.

A little background::: Surrealism developed out of Dada during World War I in Paris. André Breton is the key player here. Using Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic methods on soldiers, the French poet worked at a neurological hospital. In 1924, he wrote the Surrealist Manifesto, a work that defined the cultural revolution:

“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

While Surrealism affected all the arts, I want to pause right here to focus on the connections between Surrealist literature and the Beat Generation. The idea of Surrealist automatism is key here. Automatism is the practice of writing without self-censorship. The Oxford University Press defines it as:

Term appropriated by the Surrealists from physiology and psychiatry and later applied to techniques of spontaneous writing, drawing and painting.

“Spontaneous writing.” Sound familiar? Jack Kerouac wrote a writing manifesto called “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” In it, Kerouac wrote, for example:

Not “selectivity” of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought….

I haven’t yet done any extensive research into this to see if the connections are accurate, but there is a cultural connection to Kerouac and automatism. On Wikipedia (obviously not a true source to go by, but one that can be a launching pad for actual informed research) I read:

The notion of Automatism is also rooted in the artistic movement of the same name founded by Montreal artist Paul-Emile Borduas in 1942; himself influenced by the Dadaist movement as well as André Breton. He, as well as a dozen other artists from Quebec’s artistic scene, very much under restrictive and authoritarian rule in that period, signed the Global Refusal manifesto, in which the artists called upon North American society (specifically in the culturally unique environment of Quebec), to take notice and act upon the societal evolution projected by these new cultural paradigms opened by the Automatist movement as well as other influences in the 1940s.

Remember that Kerouac’s parents were from Quebec, and he and his family used to travel back and forth to visit relatives. The Automatism of Quebec happened in 1942, when Kerouac was already an adult, having graduated from high school and moved to New York by that time. Still, it’s possible that the seeds were planted in both Kerouac and Borduas around the same time and place, in at least the small point that they spoke French, the language of Surrealism.

In “Earwitness Testimony: Sound and Sense, Word and Void in Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight” for Empty Mirror, Gregory Stephenson makes the claim:

Indeed, in method and intention, Old Angel Midnight could be said to be closer to the sound poetry of the dadaists, Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, and to the automatic writing practiced by the surrealists, André Breton and Philippe Soupault, in their book-length exercise in textual autogenesis, The Magnetic Fields, originally published in 1919.

There’s much more to be said about Surrealism, Automatic Writing, Spontaneous Prose, and Surrealist Film, and the evening at Pravda whet my appetite.

 

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2 Responses to “Surrealist Film at Pravda: Thoughts on Breton’s Automatism and Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. White Trash Uncut: The Resource Magazine Interview with Christopher Makos | Stephanie Nikolopoulos - March 20, 2014

    […] moved to New York and, later, Paris. It was there that he became an apprentice to the esteemed Man Ray. Back in New York City, he photographed the scene on the Lower East Side—Beat writer William S. […]

  2. How Antonin Artuad Came to Influence the Beats | Stephanie Nikolopoulos - April 24, 2014

    […] Smyrna) whom he had seen give a screaming poetry reading in Paris. Artuad had written the first Surrealist film, The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), and produced Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The […]

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