That Obscure (Surrealist) Object of Desire

By stevenbkennedy@mac.com (Bernard-Henri Lévy)

Where does the story begin?

With the “savage objects” collected from Africa and Oceania by Paul Eluard?

With the metronome exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, to which Man Ray affixed a photo of Lee Miller’s eye?

With Dali’s first assemblages?

With Dada, which, before Dali, set out to capture the poetry that came, not from words, but from the refuse of the world?

With Morand? Yes, Paul Morand, whose Clarisse, in “Clarisse ou l’amitié,” collects nails and knobs that remind her of “the stupid paintings” from Arthur Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell”?

French museum curator Emmanuel Guigon and writer Georges Sebbag, in a new book entitled Sur l’objet surréaliste (The Surrealist Object), recently published in Paris (Les Presses du Réel, November 2013), are careful not to take a position.

But, from the new reign of the object that arose in the 20 years marked by the babbling of the first Surrealists, and then by the triumph of their revolution, the authors do draw several conclusions — perplexing, decisive — that deserve to be pondered in this time when merchandise, and the counter-revolution that accompanies it, holds the reins.

Objects are useful, in the thinking of merchandising. It has an accepted value within the bounds of which its purpose and its essence begin and end. Not so, say the inventors of the “table-screen” and the “long-view pen holder.” Some objects have no use at all. Or if they do, that use is an obscure one, one neither set nor spoken of. These are hijacked objects. Mad or ghost objects. Deeply paradoxical objects at the bottom of which lies a precious core, not of darkness but of irrationality. It is the role of the poet to find that core and bring it forth.

Objects are sparse and spare, according to the same current understanding. Man is diverse, changeable, profuse, showing infinite variation in his shapes and patterns, whereas the object is supposedly flat, boring, awkward. In such a world, there would be fewer objects than subjects — fewer singularities in the first, monotonous universe than in the second, far-richer one. Nothing could be less certain, insist the designers of the “staircase of love” and the “aphrodisiac jacket.” And perhaps there is more freedom, more multiplicity, in a landscape of objects in which one can sign snowballs with the names of Nadja, Picasso, Arp, or Tanguy than in the catalogue raisonné of the signatories themselves. Perhaps man has shown more imagination in producing objects than God showed in the creation and allocation of man’s faces. Mind-blowing.

Objects are space, continues the thinking that doesn’t think. The essential characteristic of their being is to have a location and to be no more than that. Heavens no! reply the discoverers of that dark continent that is the continent of savage objects. For, consistent with the principle of Marcel Jean’s “Specter of the Gardenia,” for example, there is an idea, a reverie, from which springs an act. Now, from dream to action, and then from action …read more

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