David Emery Gascoyne by Bettina Shaw-Lawrence

José-Luis Moctezuma

"Negotiations with the Infinite":
David Gascoyne's Surrealist Mode


     The problem of evaluating the brief career of "David Gascoyne, surrealist poet," as opposed to studying the wider sphere of the career of "David Gascoyne, English poet," provides a heuristic capsule for two larger, fundamental inquiries: was there ever such a thing as "British surrealism" and what were the implications of this distinction? The first question could hypothetically be answered in the positive, though with some reservation: British surrealism did establish itself through distinct units and artist-groups (Unit One, the Surrealist Group of London, New Apocalypse, the Birmingham collective, the Free Unions Libres group) that formulated a uniquely English-accented optic for engaging with, and branching out of, surrealist techniques and philosophy. But British surrealism also identified with and was very much situated within the general "orthodoxy" of surrealism's continental locus. As a supremely self-conscious historicity and a platform for a politics of "the super-real," the originary European vector of surrealism promoted itself as a unified, transnational mobilization that went beyond nationalist parameters or cultural exclusivity.1 If Paris in the 1920s performed the role of a Vatican City in Rome to the catholic reach of the Surrealist Movement, then André Breton most certainly acted like the movement's self-designated "Pope." The publication in 1920 of Les Champs Magnétiques (the first major work, co-written with Philippe Soupault, to have been composed entirely through the technique of "automatic writing") was followed by Breton's Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, which offered the first and now famous definition for "surrealism" (including an "encyclopedia" entry for good measure):

SURREALISM, n. 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 thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.2

     Breton, a former student of psychiatry, based his key concept of "pure psychic automatism" on the Freudian Unconscious, such as it was first developed in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), to maximum effect.3 The surrealist colonization of the unconscious furnished a variety of methods and strategies for cultural production and dissemination that would prove enormously effective across multiple formats; automatic writing, condensation (of images and language), dream-hermeneutics, and the concept of "objective chance" (which Breton explained as "the sort of chance that shows man, in a way that is still mysterious, a necessity which escapes him"4), provided surrealists the psychic instruments for undertaking an infrastructural recuperation of what was perceived as a rampant stagnation of the sense for the real. It was in this respect that surrealism successfully posed itself as a genuinely cross-cultural movement, since its aims transcended the imbalance of historical materialist forces that shackled nations in a complex of arbitrated borders and uneven development, by virtue of its focus on the international language of the unconscious. The universal language of dreams posited a shared network of archetypes and image-tropes that affected all the citizen-sleepers of the realm of the unconscious, regardless of class, nationality, or education. The insurmountable problem of the irreducibility of language, whether in French, English, German, Spanish, and so forth, was no longer represented as a causal agent in the unequal construction of reality, but was rather theorized as the internal effect of a far more insidious assault on the senses (and, by extension, on the dreamlife itself) that was concomitant with historical capitalism's appropriation and exploitation of the external, material world and its reified symbols.

     With the publication of the second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929, followed that same year by the launching of Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution (a party journal that lasted until 1933), Breton sought to address and rectify the rifts caused by politically-motivated internal divisions within numerous surrealist factions. The question of the proletariat struggle and the efficacy of surrealism's participation in the political sphere (namely on the role of the Communist Party and the dilemma of Trotskyite versus Stalinist position-taking) became a matter of central importance. While stipulating that he did not "believe in the present possibility of an art or literature which expresses the aspirations of the working class," Breton reaffirmed the crucial advantage which surrealism carried over other literary movements and political platforms that aspired to restore spiritual motivation and economic vitality to the oppressed working classes: an unmitigated and thorough access to the human mind, in itself a form of socially-inscribed hyper-awareness that interpenetrated reality and reshaped it, redistributing its psychic resources, from within the realism of human cultural collectivity.5

     Within the British surrealist group too, internal divisions over party politics became a distinctive feature of its stridently heterological basis: "Surrealism in Britain was...defined not so much through agreed texts and declarations, as through internal controversy. If the incompatibility between the group's two political viewpoints [hard-line Communist Party allegiance on one side, and psychoanalytic aestheticism on the other] found no solution, at least it proved and reinforced surrealism's own independence."6 Between the years of 1933-1937, David Gascoyne witnessed and helped nurture the formation of the surrealist movement in England. It could be even be said that British surrealism officially recognized itself as a self-conscious, sprouting entity when Gascoyne, at the time only seventeen years of age, first met Roland Penrose in Paris in 1933. It was Gascoyne's first trip abroad (Penrose had already been living in Paris since 1922), and the younger poet had just finished publishing his first (and only) novel Opening Day, along with what Michel Remy claims was the first surrealist poem ever written in English: "And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis" (published in October in Geoffrey Grigson's New Verse).7 Gascoyne had very likely learned of surrealism, ingested its tenets and varieties of style, during his post-college days. Gascoyne's chance meeting with Penrose signaled a kind of coming-together of the British artists and poets who had been living in Paris prior to Gascoyne's arrival, but who had never really united in any comprehensive way: Julian Trevelyan, George Reavey, Eileen Agar, Henry Moore, and John Banting, among others, eventually formed an expatriate community interested in actively assimilating surrealist methodology for the advancement of British art practice as a whole. After excitedly sharing their experience of living abroad in Paris, both Gascoyne and Penrose came to the sudden understanding that something had to be done to promote an awareness for surrealism back home in England. "'It was the encounter of two explorers who had discovered independently the same glittering treasure,' is how Penrose described this event, crucial to the history of surrealism. David Gascoyne had exclaimed: 'Why do we know nothing of this in England?', and both men had decided to 'do something' in their own country, a resolve that was to lead eventually to the International Surrealist Exhibition."8

     For his part, Gascoyne took the initiative of composing the "First English Manifesto of Surrealism" in 1935 (written in French, naturally), a feat quickly followed by the publication of A Short Survey of Surrealism, a historical study of the precursors and active participants of continental surrealism. That same year (a veritable annus mirabilis for British surrealism), Hugh Sykes Davies published his experimental novel Petron, which would be hailed by Herbert Read as a work of masterful surrealist texture.9 Gascoyne's "Manifesto" did not in itself offer anything new to the well-defined foundations that were set down by the Manifestos of 1924 and 1929; Gascoyne's version merely echoed Breton's stipulations of "complete adherence to the historical materialism of Marx, Engels, and Lenin" and "complete and unrelenting opposition to fascism, war, imperialism, nationalism, humanism, liberalism, idealism, anarchic individualism, art for art's sake, religious fideism, and generally to any doctrine that would tend to justify the survival of capitalism."10

     For Gascoyne what was most important was the adoption of an anti-capitalist, Marxist politics that could be provocatively dream-based and theoretical while remaining fully committed to the concrete and material plane of existence. In the spirit of the Hegelian "negation of the negation," the surrealist platform improved upon the nihilistic tendencies of Dada (in itself a mere negation of the logical) by sublating Dada's polemical character beneath the fold of surrealism's more procreative objective of revitalizing reality at the level of matter itself.11 Hegel's dialectic (received by the surrealists through Lenin's interpretative model) was critical in this respect since it offered the surrealists a way of synthesizing Freudian dream-hermeneutics with the Marxist materialist platform. As Anna Balakian explains, "Which were these thoughts that Lenin had underlined and which clarified the surrealists' notion of the human world? It was Hegel's stress on the superiority of the concrete over the abstract, his belief in the inner unity of contradictory conditions and phenomena, and particularly his definition of knowledge as the linking of thought with its object. The surrealists inferred from Hegel that the true understanding of existence depended on the knowledge of the interrelation of the subjective and the objective, which in turn meant a refusal of the kind of idealism that sought something finer than the concrete manifestations of reality."12

     1936 was the year when all these incipient, scattered forces conglomerated in the grand staging of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, instigated by the planned visitation of surrealism's high priests, Breton, Paul Eluard, and Salvador Dalí. An organizing committee was quickly set up by Herbert Read and Roland Penrose in April 1936, and the committee's members included Gascoyne, Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Hugh Sykes Davies, Humphrey Jennings, Sheila Legge, and a host of others. The Belgian artist E.L.T. Mesens arrived only two days prior to a private showing of the exhibition, and Mesens very quickly solidified his robust, energetic leadership (Gascoyne confided in his journals how much he disliked Mesens' bullying nature) by forcing a redesign of the entire layout of the exhibition. The exhibition opened on June 11, 1936, at the New Burlington Galleries to much fanfare: 1,150 persons were reported to have attended its first day. Breton gave a lecture on "Limits Not Frontiers of Surrealism," Herbert Read discoursed on "Art and the Unconscious," Eluard led a talk on surrealist poetics, and Hugh Sykes Davies presented a paper on "Biology and Surrealism." Dylan Thomas walked around serving attendees boiled string from a china teapot, and Sheila Legge, her head completely shrouded by a mask-bouquet of roses (designed by Gascoyne himself), haunted the galleries in the role of the "Surrealist Phantom."

     The centerpiece of the opening day's events, however, belonged to Dalí. Walking into the gallery dressed in a deep-sea diving suit, and holding two borzoi on a leash in one hand and a billiard cue in the other, Dalí proceeded to give a lecture on "Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms," all the while relying on a friend to translate his nearly inaudible words from underneath the diving suit mask. Only after a few minutes of garbled speaking, Dalí began to emit signs that he was having trouble breathing, and while several of Dalí's attendants struggled to unscrew the mask, Gascoyne, thinking quickly, retrieved a spanner and pried the mask open, seemingly saving Dalí's life in the process. Cool as ever and acting as if nothing extraordinary had happened, Dalí concluded the "lecture" by showing "slides in any order and mostly upside down; every so often, he would claim they showed Greta Garbo in various staged attitudes, or protecting herself from journalists."13

     The exhibition was a massive success and a major turning point in the history of British surrealism: during the four weeks that the exhibition ran (it ended on July 4, 1936), nearly 23,000 visitors attended. "There were 360 collages, paintings and sculptures exhibited, 30 African and Oceanian objects, two walking sticks and several objets trouvés by Eileen Agar, André Breton, Max Ernst, Herbert Read, Roland Penrose; there were children's drawings, and surrealist objects by John Banting, Eileen Agar, Gala Dalí, Hugh Sykes Davies, David Gascoyne, Rupert Lee, Sheila Legge, Roger Roughton, E.L.T. Mesens and Yves Tanguy. Sixty-nine artists, representing fourteen nationalities, were exhibited, 27 of them British."14 In a sense, the exhibition was such a high-water mark that British surrealism after it would struggle to reach a similar peak again.15 But the exhibition did manage to make one thing clear: British surrealism was almost decisively a phenomenon of the visual arts than it was of literary productivity. With the exception of Sykes Davies' singular novel Petron, and the poetry of Gascoyne, George Barker, Roger Roughton, Dylan Thomas, and the Mass Observation movement headed by Humphrey Jennings, Charles Madge, Tom Harrisson and, early on, Gascoyne himself (though arguably Mass Observation was less a byproduct of surrealist thought than it was a concurrent development in the channeling of social-realist concerns into an experimental literary form that could account for "the collective"), a lot of the literary output of the British surrealists in the 1930s was almost always devoted to a wholesale translation or reappraisal of surrealist sources from the 1920s. Whereas continental surrealism, most especially in France, had been fueled by the literary productions of avant-garde writers like Breton and poets like Eluard and René Crevel, British surrealism found its most creative and original voice in the realm of the plastic and visual arts. As we may recall, long before Gascoyne visited Paris, Roland Penrose and a bevy of English artists were well into a decade of direct exposure to surrealism, ever since its beginnings in the early 1920s in France.

     Returning to our original question: how does Gascoyne's poetry help demonstrate the virtues and faults of British surrealism as a movement distinct from continental surrealism? For one thing, Gascoyne's deep but transitory immersion in surrealist praxis exemplified the profoundly visual aptitude which British surrealism evinced from the very beginning. As Michel Remy points out, "In contrast with French surrealism, a distinctive feature of the British movement is its almost exclusively visual quality. Little writing has been published by British surrealists, when compared to the amount of painting done, not to mention the vast productions of collages and objects."16 In this respect, Gascoyne's primarily ekphrastic technique mirrored the fact that British surrealism was more so a movement of artists and painters than it was one of poets and writers (as the cultural significance of the 1936 International Exhibition proved). On the other hand, the brevity of Gascoyne's involvement with surrealism, at the level of utilizing it for his poetics, seems to indirectly comment upon the difficulties of remaining loyal to the institution of a "house style" that frequently effaced personal signature in favor of an aesthetic automatism. These aesthetic difficulties were shown in two ways. First, that the inherent limitations of an artistic movement which operated largely on the basis of machinic reproducibility and mimesis threatened to encroach on the integrity of the poet's singular personality in such a way as to reduce him/her to an automaton devoid of signature or flourish; and second, that this same encroachment impaired Gascoyne in ways that would force him to permanently abandon the surrealist method early on in his career, a decision that prophesied the failure of the greater surrealist movement to fend off what Gascoyne would later dub the "imminence of the aimless Void."


     Writing in 1946, a full ten years after the breakout success of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, Gascoyne's attitude toward surrealism had fundamentally changed. In a "Note on Symbolism: its role in metaphysical thought" (published in Poetry Quarterly in the Summer of 1946), Gascoyne attempts to explicate the ritual of Symbolist language theory through the interaction of human logical reasoning (or what he calls simply "Reason") with material existence, or what Gascoyne calls with Hegelian relish "the objective reality of the Spirit":

When Reason banishes the Spirit, as it is apt to do when it confuses spiritual intuition with the blind and wishful suppositions of the physical instincts, or when it supposes its absolute authority to be threatened by forces which it cannot 'understand,' Man immediately begins to lose his ancient sense of mission and of purpose on the earth. The increasingly apparent futility of his existence becomes a source of constantly augmented torment to him; and in order to bring the incomprehensible suffering of this existence to the only end that unredeemable futility is fit for, he hastens to prepare a final orgy of destruction for himself and all his works. For Man cannot endure for long the constant imminence of the aimless Void which is concomitant with the denial of the Spirit.

The Spirit can return to life only through the secret channel of our inmost individuality. Each man must undertake alone and in silence the task of creating a new spiritual reality with which to fill the Void forever underlying objective and empirical reality's changing and uncertain surface.17

     Besides indicating the permanent shift Gascoyne made toward a heavily mystical tendency of thought, the language of the above passage also subtly critiques the requisites of irrational "pure psychic automatism" on which surrealism predicated itself. It would not be accurate to claim that Gascoyne had totally abandoned the surrealist concern for transmuting reality through psychic rehabilitation (he still sympathized with and would be lastingly defined by the surrealist desire for changing social structures from within psychic constructs by replenishing the sense of the real), but he had most definitely given up the methodology through which surrealism aspired to enact this counter-transformation of the concrete through the psychical. Citing that "the symbol is a bridge between subjective reality of personal experience and the objective reality of the Spirit," Gascoyne theorizes that the symbol (language itself) only becomes useful and revelatory when it has harnessed "a dynamism of spiritual, as distinct from merely somatic or unconscious mental, origin," a statement that unequivocally opposes a type of Christian-Mystic essentialism against "the blind and wishful suppositions of the physical instincts" which, in Gascoyne's eyes, surrealism had terminally based itself on. What this mystical conception of Spirit compounded is not exactly clear, though this new gnostic turn very likely spawned from the influence which German Romanticism, embodied by his reading of Holderlin's poetry, exerted on him, via the translations of Pierre Jean Jouve and the existentialist philosophy of Leon Chestov. Gascoyne seemed to conflate this "Spirit" with a deep engagement with physical existence freed from what he perceived as the hazardous impulses of the unconscious. For Gascoyne, simply giving free reign to the unconscious was evidently no longer enough for a truly redemptive and efficacious poetry.

     But the passage is also curious because it marks a regression to the Symbolist ideology of the previous century. It is fair to say that Gascoyne began as a quasi-Symbolist poet, if the juvenile poems of his first book of poetry, Roman Balcony (1932), are any indication. Take for instance the following stanza from a poem with the very apropos title, "Signs":

There fell down on the shadowed sand
Like dead birds from an evil nest
Across a livid space of sky:
A writhing hand,
The pale globe of a breast
And a dismembered thigh.18

     There is little to recommend in the above poem: the thoroughly unoriginal images (all of them sounding like random adjective-noun pairings gleaned from a quick review of French Symbolist poetry anthologies) form a rote network of rather obvious linkages, as for instance in the clichéd tonality of "shadowed sand," "dead birds," and "evil nest." (Yet one cannot be too hard on the youthful Gascoyne, who would have been fifteen or sixteen years old when the above poem was composed.) But one image stands out, not because of its metamorphic value or power, but because it would later be recycled/reconfigured during Gascoyne's surrealist mode: "The pale globe of a breast / And a dismembered thigh." The "pale globe of a breast" works like a second-hand copy of a Mallarmean phrase, but the "dismembered thigh" already stages a transition toward the displaced concretion of the quintessential surrealist anatomization of body parts. The monstrous thigh returns in the 1936 collection of poems Gascoyne would publish, Man's Life This Meat Is.19 The publication of this book of poems solidified Gascoyne's status as a bonafide "surrealist poet," and its concurrent appearance with Gascoyne's translation of Breton's What is Surrealism? were public relation moves evidently intended to coincide with the organization of the International Surrealist Exhibition. Like in "Signs," the thigh makes its monumentality apparent at the end of the poem titled "Future Reference":

A colossal thigh covered with veins
Is the monument to be raised on the seaswept shore
To all who have lost their lives in pursuit of a dream.20

     It may not be far-fetched to claim that the title of the poem seems to register the unconscious process through which symbolist images make "future reference" to their surrealist progeny, which is to say, that the bodiless thigh, no longer merely the lexical "sign" dismembered from its anatomical placement on the plane of the real, has now shed its abstract symbolism and become veiny, concrete, and, most importantly, weightily monumental---in the sense that its erection on the shores of the unconscious does not merely connote a horror at the dissection of words from their meaning (as would be inferred in the symbolist mode of "Signs") but is now celebrated as the actual raison d'etre of its bodiless exclusivity. The "dismembered thigh" of "Signs" connotes an anxiety over the gory image's displacement, whereas the "colossal thigh" of "Future Reference" evinces a kind of formal relish at its hazardous (in the two senses of the word) materialization; the thigh is no longer in need of a lexical or physical body to attach itself to, it already is the body, sans words, sans context, gloriously raised as an epitaph for the symbolists who died on their northwest passage to the country of the surreal.

     It is important to remember here that the Symbolist ethic provided the conditions for the transition Gascoyne's poetry would inevitably make to surrealism. In this respect, there seems to be a strong resemblance, in skill, purpose, and temperament, to his predecessor, Arthur Symons, another of the "major" English minor poets. The likenesses are multiple: Symons was among the first to introduce French Symbolist trends to his English compatriots, writing the highly influential book-length survey, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), which would acquaint younger poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to the work of Gérard de Nerval, Jules Laforgue, Maurice Maeterlinck, Paul Verlaine, and other key Symbolists; as we already know, Gascoyne performed something of the same duty with A Short Survey of Surrealism. Symons was a major translator of the Symbolist texts that littered his fin-de-siècle period, and so too was Gascoyne for the continental surrealist texts that emerged in the early twentieth century; Symons endured a mental breakdown in 1909 and was admitted for a brief time to a mental asylum, and Gascoyne would suffer something of the same fate in June 1964; both poets would write prose accounts detailing, in more or less detail, the conditions for their respective breakdowns. Most importantly, the individual styles of the two poets, Symons and Gascoyne, would suffer the indelible consequence of becoming indistinguishable from the "house style" which they helped to popularize: their placement in the minor poet canon was caused, unironically, through their immersive efforts in translating into their own tongue and cultural modus the poetic orthodoxies of Symbolism and Surrealism, respectively.

     In the case of Gascoyne, such immersion paid off momentarily in provocative images, such as they appear in Gascoyne's first "official" surrealist poem, "And the Seventh Dream Is the Dream of Isis":

prayerbooks in churches open themselves at the death service
and virgins cover their parents' beds with tealeaves
there is an extraordinary epidemic of tubercolosis in yorkshire
where medical dictionaries are banned from public libraries
and salt turns a pale violet colour every day at seven o'clock
when the hearts of troubadours unfold like soaked mattresses
when the leaven of the gruesome slum-visitors
and the wings of private airplanes look like shoeleather
shoeleather on which pentagrams have been drawn
shoeleather covered with vomitings of hedgehogs
shoeleather used for decorating wedding-cakes
and the gums of queens like glass marbles
queens whose wrists are chained to the walls of houses21

     The above lines in the poem were composed in strict observance to the surrealist technique of pure automatism, which is to say, Gascoyne controlled the flow of images that sprang up in his mind through a reciprocal process of regulating their non-semantic emergence in a quick-paced semiotic translation (into words and phrasal units that forgo the requirement of fitting into a logic of grammar), even as he gave free reign to the mechanism of his own "unconscious" to produce images of its own accord (in Freudian psychoanalysis, a virtually impossible feat, since the unconscious can never be tapped into at will, in a kind of reverse process, by the conscious mind). The first thing that is striking in the above lines is the quality of semantic leveling made apparent through the lower-case transcription of each word, regardless of there being any proper nouns or words beginning a line; thus, "yorkshire" (and elsewhere in the poem, "spain") are left in lower-case, since they are transcribed as purely semiotic units that no longer make reference to actual geographical locations. Each word in the poem is used in a relatively "concrete" way, in the sense that their non-semantic grouping is designed to be taken as so much material, so much paint on the canvas, which adds to the overall layering-effect of the poem.

     The poem's second notable feature is the repetition of various words---most prominently "shoeleather" or "queens" or "when"---which seems to signal a purely chance-based, supposedly "unconscious" process of literary production. This type of repetition or reiteration demonstrates two sides to automatic writing: on one side, the repetition signals the efforts of the conscious mind to "hold onto words," as a cognitive strategy for making sense of their deviously shifting grammatical placement. Like someone repeating a foreign word over and over again in the futile effort of penetrating its meaning, the conscious mind attempts to replicate meaning through obsessive reiteration, even as the unconscious (or more correctly, "the preconscious," which links the unconscious, in itself strictly inaccessible, to the realm of consciousness) keeps producing fresh images that disrupt the cognitive ability of the preconscious mind to hold onto words or find a proper grammatical-semantic placement for their rhythmic centrifugal flight. The other side of automatic writing which the above poem demonstrates is the critical dependency that automatism develops on the purely visual, as opposed to the purely semantic. Instead of developing narrative, the poem produced through automatic writing seeks a configuration of images that frees the surrealist poet from the burden of finding meaning, instead relaying this task to the reader who encounters the surrealist poem, as it were, by chance. Like a subversive reading of William Paley's teleological argument of the watch and the watchmaker, the reader of surrealist poems discovers a foreign object on the "seaswept shore" of the unconscious (verily, a found object for which no overt purpose can be immediately divined) and must rely on his optical sense to construe an occult relation to a superior, but highly evasive, sense of design. The supremacy of the optical faculty is effectively alluded to in the last two lines of the poem:

and the drums of the hospitals were broken like glass
and glass were the faces in the last looking-glass

     The preponderance of "glass" (repeated three times) exhibits a weirdly preconscious desire to see clearly what the unconscious---the mind in hermetic splendor---is in fact enacting through surrealist imagery. The surrealist goal is always the imminent concretion of psychic objects, via the suppression and/or disjunction of socially-codified grammars of meaning; and to accomplish this, or rather as the result of this desire, the optical faculty becomes a necessary constituent of mental transparency, e.g., the "glass" through which the self looks into the non-self, the unconscious laboring away in the dark recesses of the collectivized mind. The aggregation of units, like Isis gathering up the limbs of Osiris, works in the poem as a method of making the psychic stream truly concrete and nearly tangible, but also reconfigurable, to the reader exposed to its electrical convulsions like one who has been shocked into an absence of thought that favors a reciprocal plenitude of physiological reaction. Meaning is frequently what's at stake in lyrical production, but in the surrealist poem meaning is infinitely postponed, and no one correct interpretation acquires greater intensity over any other---the electric shock is all there is, formulating the before and after of the poem's heuristic life.

     Such suspension of the ratiocinative faculty, and an overreliance on the optical, eventually became the very reason for Gascoyne's apostasy from surrealist method. As the earlier passage from "Note on Symbolism" showed, the youthful advocate of surrealism eventually matured into something of a neo-Symbolist, or rather, an ardent follower of the mystic tradition which Gascoyne first glimpsed in the poetry of Holderlin at the end of 1946, in a small book of translations by Pierre Jean Jouve, the French poet who would be responsible for helping Gascoyne find a different voice from that of the surrealists.22 The flight away from the surrealist mode toward the mystical (or what may alternatively be called the "mythopoeic") was perhaps already apparent in one of Gascoyne's more successful surrealist poems, "Educative Process," as can be seen in the poem's final two sections:

The glass on the table is empty and so are your eyes.
Footsteps. The shadow just outside the door.
And do you suppose that forgetting
Is as easy as air?

The flowers' voice is evil, the caves
Are asleep. In the grass
Children playing take fear at the clouds carved like skulls.

I had forgotten to watch the wind
The wind playing with boats the wind
Shuffling the sands like cards--
But we cannot change now the daylight is here
Negotiations with the Infinite
Upon the empty beach.23

     The "glass" from the end of the "Isis" poem returns in this poem, only this time no longer as a subconscious marker of the desire for mental transparency, but as a marker of emptiness, an "imminence of the Void" in which not only meaning is vacated but also the optical faculty itself--hence, "the eyes" are also described as "empty". On this plane of interpretation, "forgetting" becomes difficult, even impossible, when the desire for any form of semantic cognition, whether through the optical or through the textual, assumes an urgency of blinding directness. Within the above images, there is a carefully compacted inquiry lying in wait: the conventional surrealist tends to equate the "forgetting" (of the semantic value of words) with the transparency, and ease, of the "air," i.e. the mental space of the unconscious (such as the "Isis" poem seemed to evoke the sense of), but Gascoyne appears to be questioning the legitimacy of "forgetting" words and their meanings as a valid methodology. The purely optical (surrealist) or the purely textual (Symbolist) are not enough on their own to accrue meaning, to give poetic meaning its rightful plentitude.

     The fear which "clouds carved like skulls" provokes in children also correlates to a fear of the dogmatism of surrealist hermeneutics--which is to say, surrealist interpretation, which would normally or mischievously read "skulls" into the surface of drifting clouds, tends to foreshadow its own interpretative death through a dogmatism of anti-interpretative models (or, rather, against the grammar which institutes the gesture toward affixing meaning). Fear thus signals a dread at the suspension of authentic meaning -- the moment "clouds" no longer mean clouds, then the death of meaning ("skulls") starts to presage a potentially permanent aphasia of the entirety of mental life. It is in this new, subtly anti-surrealist mode that Gascoyne is brought to admit: "But we cannot change now that the daylight is here." That which can be seen on the plane of the real can only be taken for what it is (a cloud is a cloud is a cloud), not for what it should not, in the clear and hard light of day, be falsely taken to be.

     It is fitting to end this brief look at Gascoyne's poetics with the final lines of "Educative Process," a poem that in its own way regrounds the educative processes of surrealist cognition on the plane not of lexical disorientation but on the same "seaswept shore" where the colossal thigh of Surrealism announced its tyranny over poetic meaning. The beach is now empty, the thigh is gone, or it has been effaced by the constancy of the waves and the wind and by the dubious import of its arbitrary existence. Instead, rather than a surrealist image of concretion, we gain a pseudo-Shelleyan glimpse at vast emptiness, the "imminence of the Void" that Gascoyne warned us against in the 1946 text on Symbolism, and with which he, as a poet on the brink of liberating himself from the clutches of automatism, would find himself desperately negotiating with, in search of a meaningful poetics set apart from "the blind and wishful suppositions of the physical instincts."


1. Michel Remy writes, "During this time [in the 1920s], the rapid spread of the cross-cultural spirit of surrealism provoked considerable activity, the launch of various magazines and the establishment of formal groups in Yugoslavia (1924), Belgium (1926), Romania (1928), Czechoslovakia and Denmark (1929), the Canary Islands (1932) and Egypt (1934), along with the migration of artists to Paris from Germany, Switzerland, Cuba, Chile and Spain specifically to join the movement between 1925 and 1935." (Surrealism in Britain [Ashgate, 1999] p. 16)

2. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (University of Michigan Press, 1972) p. 26

3. "In his very first manifesto...Breton gave Freud ample credit for his discoveries in dream interpretation...He foresaw as the ultimate achievement of dream study the marriage of the two states, in appearance so contradictory, of dream and reality, into one sort of absolute reality which he called surreality." (Anna Balakian, Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute [University of Chicago Press, 1986] p. 126)

4. "In attempting to articulate the 'situation of the object,' surrealist or otherwise, [Breton] further explained that he wanted to retain the 'broadest philosophical sense' of the word 'object.' Thus, 'objective chance' refers not only to the concrete things that punctuate our reveries but also to the generalized meaning of object as something toward which we direct our attention, affection, or aggression. In French, the word objet derives from the verb jeter, 'to throw.' Thus, it is this throwing onto, or projecting, that is significant in the meaning of objective chance. [...] We might thus think about objective chance as an encounter---with either people or things, but usually both---that throws the unconscious into view, making unspoken desire manifest through the very opacity of the interaction." (Janine Mileaf, Please Touch: Dada and Surrealist Objects After the Readymade [University Press of New England, 2010] p. 102)

5. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, pp. 154-161

6. Remy, Surrealism in Britain, p. 123

7. Ibid., p. 32

8. Ibid., p. 63

9. Paul Ray, The Surrealist Movement in England (Cornell UP, 1971) pp. 92-93

10. Ibid., pp. 86-87

11. "...the initial manifestations of the younger men who formed the first postwar literary movement, Dada, consisted of outburts of nihilism. But it became so quickly evident to some members of the movement that negation was noncreative, that with the impulsion of André Breton they buried Dada with much pomp and ceremony. And with the birth of surrealism, creativity became indeed the slogan...The surrealists set out to revitalize matter, to resituate the object in relation to themselves so that they would no longer be absorbed in their own subjectivity." (Balakian, pp. 45-46)

12. Ibid., pp. 135-136

13. Remy, Surrealism in Britain, pp. 73-78

14. Ibid., p. 78

15. The political rift which the Spanish Civil War caused that same year in 1936 divided the energies and allegiance of the British surrealists: some interrupted their artistic career to volunteer in Spain, only to return disillusioned, like Orwell and Gascoyne would later explain, by the antagonism that the Communist Party showed to libertarians, anarchists, and Trotskyites, republican groups that the artists had idealistically but erroneously grouped into the circumference of Stalinist politics. The onset of the second World War irreparably damaged the spiritual motivations of the surrealist platform not only in England but on the continent as well. It is in this respect that "Surrealism's post-war disorientation...[was] revealed in the gap in which English surrealism repeatedly situated itself, between constitution and self-effacement." (Ibid., p. 280)

16. Ibid., p. 340

17. Gascoyne, Selected Prose: 1934-1996 (Enitharmon Press, 1998) pp. 77-78

18. Gascoyne, Selected Poems (Enitharmon Press, 1994) p. 20

19. As Gascoyne himself explains, the manner in which the collection's strange title came to materialize was due to surrealist technique: "The title of the 1936 Parton Press collection was the result of a meeting with Geoffrey Grigson during which he produced a sample-book of printers' type-faces, which when opened at random showed the words 'this man's life is' in one sort of type at the end of the bottom line on the left-hand page, and 'this meat' in a different type of lettering at the beginning of the top line of the page opposite: as an example of what the surrealists described as 'objective hazard', this seemed at the time an ideal title." (Ibid., "Introductory Notes," p. xiii)

20. Ibid., p. 33

21. Ibid., p. 24

22. Gascoyne recalls the moment of encounter well: "In the autumn of 1937, my discovery of a copy of the 1930 edition of Pierre Jean Jouve's Poemes de la Folie de Holderlin in a book-dealer's box on the Paris quays marked a turning-point in my approach to poetry. I had not so much become disillusioned with Surrealism as begun to wish to explore other territories than the sub- or unconscious, the oneiric and the aleatory." For Gascoyne, Jouve was always to be considered by him as "the greatest [poet] it has been my good fortune to know." (Ibid., "Introductory Notes," pp. xiv-xv)

23. Ibid., pp. 45-46

Works Cited

Balakian, Anna. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Breton, Andre. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Fraser, Robert. Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.

Gascoyne, David. Selected Poems. London: Enitharmon Press, 1994.

      ----------------------. Selected Prose: 1934-1996. Ed. Roger Scott. London: Enitharmon Press,

      ----------------------. Collected Journals: 1936-1942. London: Skoob Books
                    Publishing Ltd, 1991.

      ----------------------. Paris Journal: 1937-1939. London: Enitharmon Press,

Germain, Edward B. (Ed.) Surrealist Poetry in English. London: Penguin Books, 1978.

Mileaf, Janine A. Please Touch: Dada and Surrealist Objects after the Readymade. Lebanon (NH): University Press of New England, 2010.

Ray, Paul C. The Surrealist Movement in England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Remy, Michel. Surrealism in Britain. Brookfield (VT): Ashgate Publishing Company, 1999.