THE CHICAGO SURREALIST GROUP – Andrew Joron
But it was above all the founding of the anarchistically inclined I.W.W. union, the Wobblies, in Chicago in 1905 that provides a direct line to the activism of the Chicago Surrealist Group today. Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, the co-founders and most prominent members of the Chicago Surrealist Group, both born and raised in the Chicago area, in their youth participated in labor organizing through the I.W.W. Chicago office. Penelope’s father, as she reports in her new book, “would sing Wobbly songs to wake [her] up in the morning.” Franklin Rosemont’s father was a union activist who has been described as a “working-class intellectual.”
The Wobblies themselves could be described as a working-class intellectual movement; they disdained conventional channels for achieving change, preferring direct action over bargaining with the bosses. Going beyond the purely economic focus of most labor unions, the Wobblies regarded working-class culture––especially the songs and stories of migratory workers who rode the rails––as important forms of resistance. The Wobblies’ emphasis on preserving and promoting the spontaneous creativity of down-and-out workers who were marginalized even within the working class became known as “hobohemianism.” The idea that true cultural creativity is found welling upward from the lower echelons of class society, and the idea that creative activity and oppositional activity are actually one and the same, were positions articulated by the Paris surrealists. But these ideas were already circulating in the U.S. and especially in Chicago thanks to the Wobblies––and the Chicago surrealists, having received this influence starting with their parents, have drawn upon this legacy in developing a surrealist practice with uniquely American roots.
In talking about the Chicago Surrealist Group, I’m mostly going to be focusing on the writings of Franklin and Penelope Rosemont; they are co-founders and in many ways are still the chief instigators. The group eventually expanded beyond Chicago and in this later incarnation has called itself the Surrealist Movement in the United States, and I’ll discuss some aspects of this later incarnation, and the work of some other members, as well. But for now I want to describe the group’s beginnings here in Chicago.
Now, as the youngsters who would later become the Chicago surrealists came of age in the fifties, the early Wobbly influence was supplemented with the influence of Beat literature. The “hobohemianism” of the Wobblies shaded naturally into the Beats’ “on-the-road” philosophy and countercultural critique of American life. As a young man, Franklin Rosemont himself went “on the road” in emulation of the Beats, ending up in San Francisco’s North Beach district for a time. Rosemont at this point was writing Beat-inspired poetry, and was invited by San Francisco poet Bob Kaufman to contribute to the now-famous Beat literary journal Beatitude. And the Beat influence is still visible, and is even still paramount, in the jazzy, often humorous tone and style of the poetry produced by the Chicago Surrealist Group. This may be because at some point in the sixties, the Chicago surrealists consciously and intentionally closed themselves off from engaging with major post-Beat developments in American literature. The Beat moment represents in many ways the last point of contact the Chicago surrealists had with innovative trends in American writing, because from their point of view, such later trends simply lack the revolutionary impetus of jazz and blues and Beat-influenced surrealist poetry.
In the zeitgeist of the fifties and early sixties, there was a natural affinity, recognized by the writers of the time, between the Beats’ rebellion against square, linear, conservative American culture, all in the name of expressing a more primal, libidinally free way of being, and the surrealists’ own rebellion against classical French culture. Both movements locate the source of imagination in convulsive eros, and encourage this source to override all moral, political, and aesthetic strictures on its expression. The synthesis of Beat and surrealist poetics occurs most obviously in the work of Philip Lamantia and Bob Kaufman but the current runs through most of the writers who are now classified as Beats.
It didn’t take long, though, for the alternative-seeking young activists who would later become the Chicago Surrealist Group to see surrealism as the primary element in the swirl of oppositional energy that the group was attracted to––a mix that included jazz and blues along with the Beat and Wobbly traditions, and that also included the black intellectual tradition being taught by St. Clair Drake at Roosevelt University, where the core group of the Chicago surrealists first met as students. For a group committed to the synthesis of imagination plus rebellion, surrealism stood out as the general theory that could best comprehend and extend the entire range of practices aimed at opposing and transforming the alienation of capitalist culture in the U.S.
In a way, the Chicago Surrealist Group grew out of the seed of a single phrase, “Elephants are contagious!”, attributed to the French surrealists Benjamin Peret and Paul Eluard, a phrase that Franklin Rosemont discovered in high school in a Reader’s Companion to World Literature entry on surrealism. As Rosemount recounted to Ron Sakolsky, “Those three words opened the door to the wonders and possibilities of language.” In the story Rosemont told to Ron Sakolsky for the Autonomedia anthology Surrealist Subversions, this phrase (“elephants are contagious”) ended up graffittied all over the walls of buildings in Maywood, the Chicago suburb where Rosemont grew up.
However, there is an earlier version of Rosemont’s first encounter with surrealism, in Rosemont’s first book of poetry, The Morning of a Machine Gun. In that book, Rosemont says “I discovered my accord with surrealism after dropping out of high school, when I began to notice that certain ‘chances of everyday life’ corresponded in a seemingly inexplicable fashion with the texts I was then writing. It was at this momemt that I read Andre Breton’s Nadja, which hastened the evolution of my thought.”
In any case, during Rosemont’s “on-the-road” period––on his Beat-inspired hitch-hiking sojourns across the Western U.S. and down into Mexico––he was already sufficiently familiar with the surrealist pantheon to seek out the great surrealist artist Leonora Carrington in Mexico City. It’s well known that Franklin and Penelope Rosemont travelled to France in 1965 to meet Andre Breton, and were welcomed by him into the surrealist movement, and that the Chicago Surrealist Group really was born at that moment, or shortly thereafter. But five years previous to the meeting with Breton, the first surrealist whom Franklin Rosemont met in person was the British expatriate Leonora Carrington in Mexico City. Carrington, for her part, came up to live in Chicago from 1989 to 1992, before returning to Mexico, and she still lives there, age 92. While the Chicago Surrealist Group is known for their fierce adherence to Bretonian principles, they have also described their brand of surrealism as “Carringtonian” as well.
However, it’s hard to see how this description fits very well, because political activism, and the political import of surrealist activity, stands out as a constant theme and overriding concern of the Chicago surrealists, and Carrington’s surrealism could hardly said to be preoccupied by political struggle, except by some kind of distant inference and implication. And the Chicago surrealists’ political practice would be anything but distant and implied. At the foundation of the Chicago group’s practice, as I mentioned, was their involvement with the I.W.W. Rosemont and friends started and ran the I.W.W.’s Solidarity Bookshop here in Chicago from 1964 to about 1974. The bookstore became known as a distribution point for Marxist, anarchist, surrealist, and radical publications of all kinds and also functioned in its way as a community center for radicals and freethinkers. The Solidarity Bookshop and the organization around it really provided the launching pad for the Chicago Surrealist Group, which was officially formed in 1966, shortly after Franklin and Penelope Rosemont returned to Chicago after meeting with Andre Breton in France.
By their own reports, the Rosemonts’ meetings were rather brief––Breton was already ill––and limited by language barriers on both sides. Despite the fleeting nature of their contact, the aura around the surrealist leader was, as the Rosemonts perceived it, quite intense. As Franklin Rosemont has written, “Of [the] first meeting with Breton, brief as it was, I retain an image distinct and ineffaceable, as of incidents in life that are larger than life, beyond all expectation, unhoped-for and staggering.” Rosemont also wrote, in his introduction to the compendium What Is Surrealism?, that “[s]ince [Breton] spoke little English, and our knowledge of French was meager at the time, the conversation was in short sentences, aided by translations of several surrealist friends.” Rosemont further testifies that “Although I met with Andre Breton too briefly and have come to know him through his writings, he remains for me [and this next phrase is italicized in the original] the closest of all possible friends
It turned out that the Rosemonts had reached out to Breton and the surrealist group in France at the last possible moment, because Breton died in 1966 and the French surrealist group officially dissolved in 1969. But the end of organized surrealist activity in France was the beginning of organized surrealist activity in the U.S., owing to the militant energy of the Chicago Surrealist Group. And the range of their activity became very wide indeed, once the disparate strands of their oppositional political and cultural activities were definitively tied together by surrealism––or more precisely by the idea of surrealist revolution. For the Chicago group correctly understood surrealism to be––and this bears repeating––not an art movement but a movement for the transformation of existence through the liberation of desire and imagination. Surrealism understood in this way includes and carries forward the Marxist project, the Freudian project, and the poetic project initiated by Lautreamont and Rimbaud, poets who produced works unfettered by traditional moral and aesthetic concerns. Far from being restricted to aesthetic categories, surrealism is a world view and a way of life, and a way of transforming life on every level, from the personal to the global. And this is the vision that the Chicago group has aspired to, since its formation in 1966.
Of course, this was the sixties, and a lot of different groups were working for revolution at that time, both in the U.S. and internationally. But even after the revolutionary tide receded in the seventies, the Chicago Surrealist Group has persevered until the present day, with no apparent loss of revolutionary zeal.
One very important aspect of the Chicago group’s activity has been the publication and dissemination of surrealist writings––in fact the Chicago group is responsible for making many of the classic texts of French surrealism available in the U.S. for the first time. One very important compendium of these classic texts, over 700 pages long, entitled What Is Surrealism?, was edited by Franklin Rosemont, who also provided a lengthy introduction for the volume. This anthology remains even now one of the best reference points for surrealist writing in the English language. In 1967, the group launched Black Swan Press (named after the black swan in Lautreamont’s proto-surrealist novel Maldoror). The press, which continues to function and which has published hundreds of surrealist and surrealist-related titles, was initially operated out of the Solidarity Bookshop. After the bookstore closed down in the seventies, Black Swan Press relocated but in some ways took over some of the functions of the store, distributing surrealist titles by other publishers as well. Around this time, the Chicago surrealists developed a strong relationship with the radical book publisher Charles H. Kerr here in Chicago. Charles H. Kerr has been publishing a long list of radical labor, anarchist, and Marxist titles since 1886, but its fortunes were on the wane until the connection with the surrealist group revived it. The relationship between Black Swan Press and Charles H. Kerr is so close––there’s even a similar look to the design of Black Swan and Charles H. Kerr titles––that they appear to be two wings of the same publishing operation.
The Chicago Surrealist Group is engaged not only in book production but also puts out a magazine, entitled Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion. Only four issues have came out, to my knowledge; the first issue was published in 1970 and the last one in 1989. It’s a large-format journal, heavily illustrated, and jam-packed with classic and contemporary writings by surrealists from all over the world. The journal (it’s really more of an anthology series than a magazine) also includes samplings from old-time popular culture, such as blues lyrics, that the surrealists find compatible with their project, as well as work by forgotten or neglected “outsider” artists and poets. Arsenal also features, as one would expect, a lot of work by the Chicago surrealists themselves: visual art, poems, pronouncements, manifestoes, and the like.
In a manifesto published in the very first issue of Arsenal in 1970, Franklin Rosemont declared, “What remains for surrealism to do far exceeds what surrealism has done.” Well, it’s almost forty years later, and despite vigorous activity by the Chicago Surrealist Group on multiple political and cultural fronts, including the mounting of an International Surrealist Exhibition here in Chicago in 1976, it can’t yet be said that what surrealism has done in the U.S. after 1970 far exceeds what was accomplished in Europe before 1970. That’s not to say that the Surrealist Movement in the U.S., which is another name that the Chicago group goes by, hasn’t accomplished a lot: in addition to their tireless political agitation, they’ve ardently promoted, through publications and events, the classic concepts of Bretonian surrealism here in the U.S., and sought to embody these principles in their own practice and poetry.
Looking back on these accomplishments, we can say that what the Chicago surrealists have produced was not only inspired by, but bears a strong family resemblance to, the work of the Paris surrealists. So strong that the word “imitative” might be applied by an ungenerous critic. Ron Sakolsky, who is a sympathetic commentator, has described Arsenal as having “typographical excellence, a distinctive design, and a special tone of its own.” In fact, however, the typography, design and tone of Arsenal is not entirely its own, but instead loudly echoes the typography, design, and tone of the French surrealist journal of the 1930s, Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution. This echo-effect is clearly no accident, but a deliberate act of homage or (again, to an ungenerous eye) imitation.
In other words, surrealism in the U.S. appears to be a perpetuation of French surrealism. The distinction between U.S. and French surrealism then corresponds to the distinction Thomas Kuhn makes, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, between normal and revolutionary science. Revolutionary science involves a paradigm shift, while normal science perpetuates a given paradigm, at most expanding it to cover new content.
One way that the Chicago group has expanded the original program of French surrealism is to seek out what they call the “popular accomplices” of surrealism in the U.S. These “accomplices,” it turns out, mostly belong to old-time culture: pulp magazines, Bugs Bunny, radio voices, flying saucers, Krazy Kat comics, and blues singers of a bygone era, exemplars of what Greil Marcus, in the context of folk music, has called “old weird America.” After the sixties, there doesn’t seem to have been much in American popular culture worth rescuing from a surrealist perspective.
The French surrealists, for their part, were also attracted to outmoded cultural artifacts. As Walter Benjamin pointed out in his essay on surrealism (and I quote), the Parisian surrealists were the “first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded,’ in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them.” I’m not sure if Benjamin was being a bit ironic here, when he wants to perceive “revolutionary energies” in five-year-old dresses and once-fashionable restaurants. But his point still stands. In Marxist terms, the use-value of things only becomes apparent once things have been emancipated from the cash nexus of exchange value; discarded things therefore are most susceptible to the imaginative redemption of their use value. Such discarded and outmoded things correspond to what, in Freudian terms, is called “the day’s residues,” experiences that sink into our unconscious at evening to be processed by the dream-work. In this analogy, outmoded cultural artifacts are like “history’s residues,” products of industrial civilization that end up tossed aside and buried by the very civilization that produced them, sinking to a more primitive, pre-civilized level of meaning that only the surrealist method, schooled in dreams, can access.
Surrealists, both French and American, put a lot of faith in the idea that when things get pulled out of the unconscious, they enter consciousness with explosive, liberating, and revolutionary force. This is the opposite of what Freud meant by the “return of the repressed,” where my my wish or desire, if it gets repressed, returns in an alienated form that I can’t control, resulting in neurosis. Freud saw the ego as being more or less oppressed by unconscious drives, and demanded that “where the Id was, there Ego shall be,” healing the ego by shining the light of consciousness into the unconscious. This polarity gets reversed in classic surrealism: the conventionalized, rationalized categories of consciousness are overthrown when the irrational forces of the unconscious are liberated, resulting in the free circulation of desire.
This model of throwing off the shackles of civilization in order to return humanity to its original unfallen state goes back, of course, to Rousseau and the Romantics. But there’s a stunning simplicity in the way the Chicago surrealists in particular use this model to reconcile and stabilize the inherently unstable synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Rimbaud (or sometimes the lineup is given as Marx, Freud, and Lautreamont), the three representative components of classic surrealism. With the victory of the irrational over the rational, what starts out as a psychological victory embodied in the free association of desires within the individual psyche becomes, in the form of collective action between individuals, a political victory of the working class, resulting in the free association of producers (a phrase that was actually used by Marx to describe communism), which in turn is paralleled by a poetic victory, as the free association of words yields the automatic poem.