Sanctus Alienus: Purring Missals and Soft Black Stars

The relation between the decadent movement of the 19th century–figures like Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, Aubrey Beardsley, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, James Thomson and all of those who of whom one could simply say (“They were all Yelllooww..” NOT A COLDPLAY REFERENCE) has a semi well defined place in “the canon” of English literature, although we often fashionably leave out the most extreme–and therefore the most revelatory of these figures: David Park Barnitz:


(Barnitz, the son of a preacher and classmate of Wallace Stevens, was probably the last American decadent and the entirety of his work has been relegated to a website)

Or Emile Nelligan, the unfortunate young man who toppled over into psychosis early in life after writing a collection comparable to Rimbaud or Mallarme:


and the Surrealist movement of the 20 and 21st century is ill defined, indeed.  There are a few books on the subject, but most of them skirt over the actual “literary” connection by focusing on the occult interests of all involved, which is now kind of a moot and obvious point.

We know that Andre Breton was interested in the occult in all forms, of course.  His thirst for transcendence could not be sated by poetic marvels alone: it required corresponding external symbols that rang with what swelled within.



The sense of “the marvelous”, the concept of “objective chance” are indeed all manifestations of ideas by decadent poets, though significantly altered for what was then modernity: objective chance is, really, nothing more than Baudelaire’s idea of “correspondences” given a new name.
Coincidence multiplies when we pay attention, above all when we are charged with certain energies and moving outside the grooves of familiar routines and mindsets. André Breton, the French Surrealist, called coincidence “objective chance”. In his amazing narrative L’Amour fou (“Mad Love”) Breton shows us the state of mind, and the pattern of behavior, that turns us into walking synchronicity magnets.
What required is the kind of openness to the unexpected the French call disponibilité and, beyond this the choice of “lyric behavior”: the willingness to give oneself to the “dazzling revenge” of the imagination on a world of stubborn facts.

Baudelaire, the decadent par excellence, was perhaps more clear:


Nature is a temple where living pillars
Let escape sometimes confused words;
Man traverses it through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.
Like long echoes that intermingle from afar
In a dark and profound unity,
Vast like the night and like the light,
The perfumes, the colors and the sounds respond.There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphantThat have the expanse of infinite things,
Like ambergris, musk, balsam and incense,
Which sing the ecstasies of the mind and senses.. . .

The obsession with dreams, reverie, the ideal–that puffy burst of white ivory leaving dimples that grow, in the suffocating silence of everyday life (which is to say the music made by words separated in the cadences of space) and then stop speaking as a necessity of another puffy burst–began more with figures like Alfred Jarry, Jacques Vache, indeed, more with figures like Hopkins and Novalis than it did with Breton.

The difference between the decadents embrace of death and Surrealism is simple but not, and in that respect is a pretty good confirmation of what The New Surrealist Group is really about.

A Huysmans would have been content–an early Huysmans, probably–to let the buck stop at his idle reveries, at his attempts to escape into the pure state, whatever that really is–and while Huysmans is listed in the Surrealist Manifesto as one of our progenitors, Surrealism has never supported resignation or death worship of any kind.  (Or has it?)  Some of the greatest figures of the surrealist group, as with the decadents, came to early or bad ends: Artaud, Crevel, Unica Zurn?

There is a paradox here which is cheap because of the simplicity: it is a duende struggling with itself, indeed, clawing itself to death in and effort to live.  How does a surrealist find balance when his very existence is predicated upon the constant and vehement rejection of any security at all?  How does he not either burn his psychic energies in extremity and lament in old age or just die an early death?

The answer, this Neo Surrealist believes, is given shape in the form of poems by figures like Will Alexander, Lee Ballentine, Andrew Joron, Jayne Cortez, SHalha ROsa, Adam Cornford, Julian Semilian, or John Olson.  These men are not mad, at least not that i know of, and are also still alive, still living the dream even when they aren’t awake.  Perhaps this is the best development we’ve seen in the 21st century–men and women who may be torn and frayed by the quest of the wanderer along the highway but still walking.

A note from the extreme secular arm:

“Comrade Breton, your interest in phenomena of objective chance does not appear clear to me. Yes, I know well that Engels referred to this notion, but I ask myself if, in your case, it isn’t something else. I am not sure you aren’t interested in keeping open [his hands described a little space in the air] a little window on the beyond.” Leon Trotsky 


5 thoughts on “Sanctus Alienus: Purring Missals and Soft Black Stars

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  2. Objective chance and it’s implied opposite – chaos, are at issue. Also, the contrasts and similarities between the surrealist movement and the decadents (and also the symbolists ). I don’t have the scholarship to comment at length but I find the introduction to many of the persons, places, things, and poesy involved fascinating.
    It seems to me the Decadents protested against life ( the burgeois experience of life) and the surrealists attempted to introduce or liberate life from an atmosphere of death generated by what the Decadents opposed.
    “Objective chance” suggests an order, therefore a rationality of some sort against the rationalism of the institutions of the burgeois. The attempt to reveal or discover that order was one of Breton’s occupations but I don’t know if it remains a surrealist interest on a primary level.
    To some degree what bluesman say about the blues is true about surrealism – I’ll paraphrase – If something can be said discursively it probably isn’t surrealism, though it might be influenced by surrealism.

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