Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Max Ernst: Une Semaine de Bonte'

Translated to English usually as A Week of Kindness, sometimes as A Week of Grace, Ernst's 1934 book Une Semaine de Bonte' (<-----the images are in a PDF linked there, highly recommended you glance through if you've never seen it!) is subtitled "A Surrealistic Novel in Collage" in my Dover edition, and it's one of the most wonderfully weird books I've ever read. Indeed, "reading" this book seems akin to the reading of Ezra Pound's ideograms, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, a William S. Burroughs cut-up novel such as Nova Express, studying Egyptian hieroglyphics, and you get my point. It's demanding.

                                          Max Ernst: Oedipus Rex, 1922. 

The entire "novel" consists of pre-existing images in wood-engraved illustrations that Ernst tweaked with technical virtuosity; the resulting images, which are framed in sections with a putative theme of the seven days of the week ("Seven Deadly Elements": mud, water, fire, blood, blackness, sight, and possibly falling women?), and other bizarre framing devices, such as characters with heads from Easter Island statues (Thursday and blackness), and a bevy of men with bird's heads, which I find particularly disturbing. Ernst liked bird-men, and even called his bird-man alter ego "Loplop," and "he" appears throughout Ernst's work, and even merges with the work of other surrealist's work, such as Andre Breton's.
                                            One of my favorite images from the book

The only writing part of the text consists of the framing devices, and quotes from proto-surrealist Alfred Jarry, Dadaists (Thursday features this quote from Jean Arp: "The stones are full of entrails. Bravo. Bravo."), and surrealists.

This "novel" of collages was concocted in about three week's time, in Italy, where Ernst stayed with friends, lugging a suitcase overflowing with images he'd cut out/collected from mail order catalogs, popular French novels of the late 19th and early 20th century, and some of Gustav Dore's work. Ernst takes a pre-existing engraved illustration and inserts other images in a cut-and-paste method, in which, during the printing process the visual demarcations of cut-paste are virtually eliminated, yielding a look of fantastic technique and profoundly bizarre imagery. The challenge to the reader - and it's quite a challenge - is to "read" each image, juxtaposed with the ones from the same "day," and attempt to make "sense" of it. (Or is this precisely what you aren't supposed to/cannot do or try?)

                                                   What the...?

Every time I leaf through Une Semaine de Bonte' I become overwhelmed by each image. But that's me. Your results may differ. But that may be a seminal point here: every reader brings to the text themselves and interaction with the images. In a way that seems fundamentally different to the opaque texts featuring WORDS I mentioned above (Pound, Joyce, Burroughs), making sense of a single image seems challenge enough; "reading"/making sense of just one "week" of images seems well-nigh impossible, and perhaps that's the main reason no one that I've ever seen or read about, has ever produced a complete critical analysis of the text. A hardcore Freudian named Deiter Wyss produced (I've not read it) a detailed  and heavily Freudian-jargoned analysis of the first day of the book (mud and the Lion of Belfort). And that's it. The book is that weird and unheimlich.

The surrealists were outraged and outrageous, especially about the state of politics. In order to hold a mirror up to what they saw, they drew upon free-association and dreams and Freud, erotic imagery at times lurid, scenes of violence, anti-clericalism, and anything that would be seen as that which must be "repressed" by the superego: crimes of passion, torture, executions and suicide, and depictions of the emotional aspects of class warfare between rich and poor. As Ernst conceived and assembled his anti-rationalist collage phantasmagorical "anti-novel" in Italy, the Nazis in his native country had condemned all of his work, which no doubt influenced the must-be-seen-to-be-believed disturbing imagery of Une Semaine de Bonte'. 

Because each page-image in the text is probably met by an individual nervous system trying to decode a metaphor from one's fixed stock of (largely unconscious) metaphors, trying to "make sense" of the text, readings seem to inevitably be pixillating; Ernst's virtuosity in juxtaposition, coupled with an implementation of the surrealist program, make each pictatorial "metaphor" so complex and uncertain - a function of mathematically ultra-dense information that verges on "noise" in the nervous system - that any one reading would seem to be as individualistic as the reader her-him-self.

Obviously, another way to "read" the text is by just letting the images wash over you; don't even try to decipher what may lie hidden beneath. I've gone this route too. It leads to odder-than-usual dreams later during sleep.

Speaking for myself and my own readings of Ernst's novel of collage, the main reason I dip into it and attempt the "read" it is because it reliably induces an altered state of mind. It's a cost-free (once the book's bought) buzz. It breaks mental set, gets me out of my "self" and opens me back into that sense of wonderful weirdness and the sheer marvelous of...something lurking outside ordinary "reality." I think this is all the real religion we need. There seems a strong sense in which no one can truly "know" Une Semaine de Bonte'. This kind of thing seems to make some people outraged or feel threatened by the disturbingly uncanny weirdness; some seem to feel vertigo and they don't like it. My nervous system is exhilarated by this uncanniness. I like not being able to "figure it all out." I like the repeated attempt. I like the buzz.

Alfred Jarry, the Dadaists (one said what they were doing was a reaction to the news that people were being bombed from airplanes) and the surrealists were in the avant about questioning technological rationalism in the West. All this wonderful new technology, and yet: an up-tick in mass warfare and killing, and poverty among riches. An artist's protest: use anti-rationality to try and make people feel-then-think in a new way.

Has the jury returned with their verdict on how successful the surrealists and their popular accomplices were?

Brief Scattered Notes on Max Ernst (1891-1976)
He had an authoritarian father, strict religion as a kid. Where have we seen this story before? Ernst was a self-taught painter, and around age 18 visited insane asylums and became interested in artwork by the mentally ill. While ground zero for Dada was in Zurich, Ernst opened a chapter in Cologne. He went to Paris in 1922 and collaborated with anarcho-surrealist/then communist/then libertarian socialist poet Paul Eluard, and lived in a menage a trois with Eluard and his wife. Eluard started to get spooked by this arrangement and took off to Monaco, then Saigon. The three reconciled. Ernst was married a bunch of times, captured by the Nazis twice. The first time Eluard helped him get away, the second time Ernst was helped by Peggy Guggenheim,  who helped him get to Unistat, and whose own biography is almost too marvelous to believe. Ernst was married to Guggenheim from 1942-46. Ernst and Man-Ray got married in a double ceremony in Beverly Hills in 1946, to Dorothea Tanning and Juliet Browner, respectively.

Friends, collaborators and accomplices of Ernst include Miro, Diaghilev, Breton, Giacometti, and Klee. Ernst appeared in Bunuel's 1930 film L'Age d'Or.

How do I sum up my experience "reading" Une Semaine de Bonte'? I think I'll quote one of the inspirations for the Surrealists, "Lautreamont" (died: 1870), who once wrote, "As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing-machine with an umbrella on an operating table."

This video contains a recording of Ernst, from the 1960s, talking about the artist's response to outrageous politics, etc: It's less than 45 seconds:


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

The surrealists had a huge influence on J. G. Ballard.

These Ernst images remind me of E. Gorey.

Jarry influenced De Selby's concept of patapsychology.

The band Pere Ubu came from Cleveland.

Your blog post makes me think about how to read tarot cards. Dr. Johnson, what do you think of Aleister Crowley?

I enjoyed the appearance of Man Ray and Bunuel in "Midnight in Paris", a film Oz Fritz has blogged about.

Thanks for another great post.


michael said...

The comments are always appreciated. "Swordfish!," indeed.

The more I've read and re-re-re-re-read Uncle Al, the more I learn and the more I feel I don't "get" him, but I have been very much persuaded by Scott Michaelson and Uncle Bob that Crowley can be fruitfully read as a Modernist writer, like Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, Pound.

There are times I've read Crowley and I FELT like I was trying to decipher Max Ernst. But as I say above, I LIKE that.

Loba said...

I like to just let the imagery wash over me and experience it on a sensuous level, then allow my autonomic system to sort it out in my dreams.... as you say, the results during REM can be surprising and delightful. It is like reading tarot... the images are the stimulus without interference from conscious analysis.

Do you read Random Lengths News? Just found it.


michael said...

I knew the guy who started Random Lengths, if you're talking about the same little progressive newspaper that was once (still is?) based in San Pedro. We used to get it delivered to our driveway. He'd pick up stuff that wasn't covered in the LA Times about Iran-Contra, the BCCI scandal, how the CIA and Vatican laundered drug money, etc.

Oz Fritz said...

Crowley and Ernst might have been acquainted with each other as they both frequented the same artist's cafes in Montparnesse in the 1920s.

michael said...

I have searched through four books on Ernst, looking for Crowley's name and have come up short. We must consider the academic PhDs in Art who writes these books: do I want to include the anecdote about this fringe character Crowley?

We'd all like to think writers/researchers on Art would be above that kind of snobbery, but in my experience, they are some of the biggest conceited assholes in academia. And yet Crowley was aiming towards similar goals in his work. Similar, not the same...

Still, I'd like to think they had a conversation over absinthe near Montparnasse.

Oz Fritz said...

In RAW's online course we learned that Crowley referred to himself as an asshole in "The Book of Lies." At least he was honest about it, and had that kind of critical self-evaluation. There's no question that he behaved like one at times.

I'm not aware of any point of contact between Ernst and Crowley other than it's documented that they both patronized the same establishment in Paris.

Austin Spare did a portrait of Ernst, and also contributed to Crowley's Equinox before falling out with him. Don't know if the portrait was from life or a photo. Spare is considered by some Art historians to be a forerunner of the surrealists.