In yesterday’s post, which might be worth reading before tackling this one, we pondered the transmutation of base matter. Within Surrealism, this topic was at the heart of a fierce long-running argument between Andre Breton and Georges Bataille, as elucidated by Elsa Adamowicz in 2002 in the pages of Aurifex, a University of London journal. Her article, which has the pleasingly alliterative title Exquisite Excrement: the Bataille-Breton Polemic, merits reading in full, but I’ll attempt to summarise it as follows:
Breton took the view that Surrealist painting had the capacity- the obligation– to transport the viewer to some realm of the marvellous. Surrealism could, and would, unlock the magic suppressed by everyday life. Writing in the late 1920s about Dali’s paintings, Breton praised their hallucinatory and poetic power, and likened the psychic landscape of Dali’s art to a fantastical ‘treasure island’. “Dali… reigns on these distant lands”, where something in the inner world of the viewer is transmuted, and new possibilities are born.
For Bataille, this was a retreat into mysticism. He, in contrast, insisted on base materialism– in this view, matter is base, and that’s that. There is no possibility of it being any other way. This difference in perspective had profound implications, according to Bataille, who raged that Breton’s idealised dreamworlds were undermining Surrealism’s revolutionary potential, dissipating it in fantasies: “..absurd ‘treasure lands’, that’s fine for religion, for little castrated men, little poets, mystical little yapping dogs. But you can’t overturn anything with a big soft club, with a library-parcel of dreams.” Only militant base materialism could lead to real revolutionary action, and for Bataille this militancy took the form of a focus on “rotting matter, mutilation, bestiality and abjection, and on actions of violent dismemberment, masturbation, ejaculation or castration. Bataille’s claimed reaction is bestial rather than poetic: ‘In front of [Dali’s] paintings, all I want to do is let out a pig’s scream’.”
Dali himself seems to have found a way to agree with Breton regarding art’s transformative possibilities, but to join gleefully with Bataille in emphasising the darkest and most deviant aspects of his work as the key to that potential. He ends up mocking Breton and his circle as “.. toilet paper revolutionaries, steeped in petty bourgeois prejudice… They were terrified by shit and the anus. Yet what is more human and more in need of transcendence!” (this mention of ‘transcendence’ shows clearly that Dali did not subscribe to Bataille’s ‘base materialism’- Bataille would have scorned the very notion of ‘transcendence’).
Read the whole thing: many of the quotes from the protagonists relate directly to the themes of yesterday’s post. Breton even discusses the appearance of scarabs, rolling their balls of dung, in Dali’s work. In the meantime, here’s Dali’s painting Le Jeu Lugubre, or The Lugubrious Game, which is mentioned repeatedly in the article:
I should also mention here that I share a birthday with Georges Bataille, who was born 72 years to the day before me. However, I fear he was in error with his base materialism. Our experiences arise from matter (the physical flesh of our nervous systems), but are not reducible to it. This alone should give proponents of base materialism pause for thought.