Seven Steps

This is a version of a talk given on Sunday 31 August 2008 at The Reading Room’s Writing On The Theme Of Hysteria session, in collaboration with The Coelacanth Press. The event was staged to mark the occasion of Without Pomp or Nonsense, a re-enactment of Lord Byron’s funeral in Nottingham. The piece also appeared in The Coelacanth Journal No.2: Hysteria (Winter 2008).

Seven Steps On The Road To Mundane Hysteria

“Just listen, Doctor, how he raves. Who should have to listen to that?”

Eva Švankmajerová: Baradla Cave (trans Gwendolyn Albert, Prague, 2000)


In 1934, two entirely unrelated but nevertheless mutually illuminating documents were revealed to the world. On the first of June, in Brussels, André Breton delivered his lecture What Is Surrealism?, revisiting some of the movement’s earlier positions in the light of new developments, but also reiterating a commitment to the discovery of techniques that would “lead to the unknown”, and offer access, for all, to “the voice which it is open to each of us to hear and which speaks to us, in the most singular fashion, of something different from what we believe we are thinking, sometimes becoming solemn when we are most light-hearted, or speaking nonsense when we are wretched”. Meanwhile, that same year, in the private library of the Butler-Bowdon family of Lancashire, a previously unknown middle-English text was found. The Book of Margery Kempe had remained lost since its completion in 1438 by scribes working under the supervision of Kempe herself, and its narrative hinged on another voice, this time one heard by a woman from King’s Lynn, Norfolk, who, following the birth of her first child, had experienced what in today’s terminology might be described as a post-natal breakdown. This voice, believed Margery Kempe, was that of Christ, who had, she claimed, appeared and spoken at her bedside while she endured a fever. These voices, and the documents that elaborated upon them, can be seen as marking two key points in the long history of hysteria as a cultural force.


Margery Kempe’s book emerged from the context of late medieval religious mysticism, telling the story not of an anchoress or nun, but of a woman fully immersed in the world. Kempe was the mother of 14 children, ran a brewery and grain mill, and grew up the daughter of a merchant prominent in the local wool trade. Her conviction that Christ had spoken to her directly and her subsequent life of pilgrimage, which took her to Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Norway, seemed to be fuelled by public outpourings of emotion, ongoing conversations with Christ, and behaviour that saw her persecuted for unorthodoxy and revered for her charity, while all the while resembling symptoms of hysteria. The transformation in the standard view of such excesses of emotion between Kempe’s lifetime and the studies of Freud’s mentor, Jean-Martin Charcot, at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris after the 1850s, where he used hypnotism to induce and study states of hysteria among his predominantly female patients, suggests that the condition’s decline in status follows that of intuitive knowledge generally during the enlightenment. It was no accident, then, that the gothic and romantic arts embraced this disavowed emotional excess, whether in the form of the sublime, as experienced by man in the face of wilderness, solitude and extremity, or as the terror of an individual whose reason proves no defence against irrational and supernatural forces of the kind unleashed in the novels of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis as industrialisation gathered pace in Europe. Kempe’s autobiography stands on one side of this historical divide, Breton’s What Is Surrealism? on the other.


That the two texts mirror one-another is an intriguing but undeniable truth. Kempe’s testimony is strewn with injunctions to herself that she must forsake the social jealousies and worldly aspirations that hamper her quest to live a true Christian life, Breton’s with notes on the traps laid for surrealism by vain intellectual bickering and dogmatic political factionalism in ideas, by aestheticism and formalism in art. Resistance to such demands and pressures demands a determination to undermine what Breton calls “the conditions imposed on us by life” and project ourselves into a complete “internal enchantment”, a paradoxically active surrender to the convulsive beauty that bridges the material liberation of man and the surrealist liberation of the mind. “Everything leads to the belief that that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and imaginary, the past and future, the communicable and incommunicable, the high and low, are not perceived as contradictions”, writes Breton, going on to add, as Kempe insisted of her duty to serve Christ above any worldly institution, including the powerful hierarchies and authority figures of the medieval Church, “what could they expect of surrealism, who are still anxious about the position they may occupy in the world?”. Civil and religious leaders pursued Kempe for her perceived heterodoxies, not least that of preaching as a woman, while former surrealist comrades, such as the Communist Aragon and the materially ambitious Dali, made their own efforts to harness the excessive liberties of surrealism to their own partisan causes during the 1930s.


Surrealism’s roots in the romantic era were emphasised by Breton, both in his statement that the movement comprised “the excessively prehensile tail of romanticism” and his admiration for such works as Matthew Lewis’s febrile Gothic novel, The Monk, and Edward Young’s long, disconnected Night Thoughts, a notable romantic precursor completed in 1749, illustrated by Blake in 1797, and noted by Breton in 1934 as “surrealist from cover to cover”. The erasure of personality from poetry implied by Keats’ negative capability echoes Breton’s notion of objective chance, while in his 1936 essay Surrealism at this Time and Place, Hugh Sykes Davies draws links between Bacon’s materialism, Coleridge’s concept of imagination and surrealist tenets, remarking that “[Coleridge] was led to suppose a very close connection between imagination, the highest poetic faculty, and mania…between poesy and systematic delusion”, and in the same essay goes on to discuss the “melancholy, gloomy landscape and spiritual torture” of the Gothic novel, placing some emphasis on Byron’s use of “clay from [Ann] Radcliffe for his monstrous statue of himself as the new Don Juan, the Fatal Man who seduces by cruelty and evil fascination”. This clay will be shaped again in Baradla Cave, the sole novel by Czech surrealist Eva Švankmajerová, and perhaps the clearest example of a resistance strategy that might be described as mundane hysteria, a coolly disjunctive approach to poetic madness that stubbornly insists on its satirical ordinariness, its impersonal qualities, setting these against a world where social conformity is regimented by advertising’s efforts to sow the wilderness of the individual unconscious with prefabricated desires. The gothic and surreal alike are reconfigured not as exotic incursions into the realms of the ordinary, but as the fabric of ordinary reality itself.


In What Is Surrealism? Breton observes that the early surrealist emphasis on dream imagery had often led to an “excessive negligence among authors…who were content to let their pens run over the paper without observing in the least what was going on inside themselves…or put together more or less arbitrary dream elements intended to set forth their picturesqueness rather than make usefully visible how they had come about”. He might be describing the means used by advertising and entertainment to defuse surrealist subversion in the years after the second world war, sometimes with the active collusion of former surrealists – Dali in particular, with his Hollywood excursions, kitsch publicity stunts and appearances in commercials for luxury goods seemed to reconfirm Breton’s extraction of the anagram Avida Dollars from his name – but often independently, through simple appropriation of a dream-picturesque, in which chunky gold watches lie on beaches, fish ride bicycles, and ersatz disjunctions abound, bent on snaring the fickle attention of consumers. “Beauty must be convulsive or will not be at all”, Breton had noted at the conclusion of Nadja, his 1928 account of a relationship with a Kempe-like woman whose excessive nonconformity exposes his own accommodations with convention. Yet this adoption of surrealist methods by advertising was neither beautiful nor convulsive, merely a circus of images crudely engineered to press unconscious mental buttons, conflate erotic desire with consumer goods, blur the boundaries of reason not with revolutionary intent, but as a means of circumventing resistance to the purchase of largely unnecessary commercial products. The surrealist assault on reason had taken its cue from the resistance of romanticism to the regimentation of thought and social life that followed industrialisation. By the 1950s, it appeared that unreason was to become the preferred method by which advertisers glossed that same regimentation, now known as consumerism, with a veneer of rebellion, only to sell it more aggressively than ever.


How, then, could an artist committed to the tools developed by the surrealist project continue to press for what Breton had called the revolution of the mind? Although increasingly sidelined in Western Europe after 1945, surrealism thrived behind the border marked by that Cold War psychic and political entity, the Iron Curtain. In Prague, the Czech Surrealist Group, with Vratislav Effenberger as its primary theoretical force, was sufficiently active in 1970 to attract two of the key surrealists of the post war era, the husband and wife partnership behind the animation, assemblage and collage work of Jan Švankmajer, and the paintings, ceramics and writings of Eva Švankmajerová. One location that might be seen as equating almost exactly with Breton’s notion of that “certain point of the mind [where] life and death, the real and imaginary, the past and future, the communicable and incommunicable, the high and low, are not perceived as contradictions” is encountered in Švankmajerová’s novel Baradla Cave, the physical space of her fiction coinciding with the body of the book’s eponymous character, its dry humour and calculatedly flat prose in collision with the mundanely extraordinary incidents that occur in the course of its improvised narrative. Švankmajerová veers from sexual extremity to “the lamps and carpets department” with its “limited selection” inside a building whose promise of “the best of everything” leaves a woman and her daughter “sorely disappointed”. Statistics on women’s pay interrupt mysterious pregnancies, trials and convictions, the affairs of bureaucrats, and a man whose “eyes were like enormous teeth”, who in his turn observes a woman, in this case Baradla herself, “still naked from the mud”, her breasts issuing cries, “wheezing with terrible cold, ancient terror and fresh astonishment”. Here is the unsettling flavour of mundane hysteria, ripened on its thorny vine.


Švankmajerová’s novel was circulated as a samizdat document during the 1980s, and its blankly cool version of hysteria inverts the relationship between hysteria and lack of control, taking apart reality and logic like watches, and reconstructing these in prose that reads as affectlessly as any commercial bestseller. The poetic and erotic imagination remains key, but might itself prove a prison, if the unwary accept appearance for truth. Margery Kempe’s mystical delusion liberates her, Breton’s, deliberately cultivated, aims to liberate mankind through imaginative transformation. Švankmajerová’s are marked by ambivalence, striving not for exceptional status, but for full immersion in the ordinary. Her final project, before her death in 2005, was to work on Sileni (Lunacy), the fifth feature film of her husband and collaborator, Jan Švankmajer, in which the complications of liberty within the confines of a libertarian asylum are explored. The film echoes themes explored in the pages of Baradla Cave. Both offer worlds turned inside-out, feats of imagination whose greatest impact lies in their impersonal nature, the textures of the mundane crucial to their uncanny effect. A previous film, Otesanek (Little Otik), had at its heart an animated sequence in which Eva retold the folktale of a child longed-for by a barren couple. Carved from a tree stump and miraculously brought to life by the mother’s maternal desires, Otesanek goes on to show this fulfilled desire as it consumes everything in its path, the story  played out in an apartment block where dogs, cellars, cabbages and burning milk pans set the outer limits of experience. One Švankmajerová text runs: Stunned by freedom/you find out that:/a line can grab hold of you/like the flight/like fire/Colour takes your reason/like blood/and despair/clay shuts you up in jail/in the cemetery…dirties you/until you are finally saved. The lines testify to the potency of the art she made herself, and to her writing’s use of hysteria’s excessive emotion, that singularly inappropriate behaviour that would be recognised by Margery Kempe, now turned to revolutionary ends, and deployed where it remains most effective: nestled in the mundane, beyond the reach of propaganda.

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