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Penelope Rosemont’s Essays Expand the Surrealist Canon

At one point in her new collection of essays, Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields, Penelope Rosemont, a longtime member of the Chicago Surrealist Group, quotes André Breton: “In matters of revolt one needs no ancestors.” However, at a time when echoes of white supremacy are reverberating loudly, progressives ought to know that they, too, have a long and rich history of “ancestors”: artists and poets actively envisioning new ways of being.

Rosemont’s collection is titled after The Magnetic Fields (Les Champs Magnétiques, 1919) by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, considered the first Surrealist publication. Threaded throughout her essays is her firmly optimistic belief in Surrealism as a world-changing political and poetic practice. Her writing is decidedly non-academic, in that she writes for the most part from her own experiences, in order to illuminate, recover, and appreciate often-neglected figures.

The pieces on Nancy Cunard and Mary MacLane, two writers well known during their lifetimes, but now widely unknown, are particularly resonant. Cunard, the granddaughter of the founder of the Cunard Steamship Lines, was ultimately disinherited from the family. She became an ardent activist against fascism and racism, editing and publishing at her own expense the immense 1934 anthology Negro that brought together 150 contributors, including Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Schomburg, and William Carlos Williams. The stated purpose of the anthology was “to combat racial prejudice,” and was apparently banned in several British colonies. The controversial Mary MacLane, or “the Wild Woman of Butte,” is another fascinating rediscovery. She is rarely included in most canons of American writing, although she seems to have founded confessional autobiographical writing.

The cumulative effect of these and Rosemont’s other historical pieces is the reader’s realization that so much of progressive history has disappeared from dominant narratives. For instance, there is a world of difference between Rosemont’s account of George Francis Train, or “Citizen” Train, a 19th-century self-made entrepreneur who defended the Haymarket Anarchists, and online biographical accounts that focus on his “eccentricity” while eliding his progressive activism.

Rosemont is careful to champion art and joy as well as activism — and she emphasizes that creativity and humor are essential to a true mental revolution. However, not every art movement is funny, or revolutionary. On Pop Art, she writes, “We couldn’t see anything revolutionary or even imaginative in copying commercial art and further glorifying the almost deified commodities. Was there humor in the confrontation with an enlarged soup can? For me there was hardly any humor and no confrontation.” However, Bugs Bunny is a favorite for his anti-authoritarian attitude toward the conformist Elmer Fudd; the character inspired the short-lived Gallery Bugs Bunny, co-founded by Rosemont’s husband, Franklin, in Chicago in 1968.

In “Surrealism and Situationism: King Kong vs. Godzilla,” which contains the opening Breton quote, Rosemont finds the Situationists frustratingly close to Surrealism — she sees it as almost a missed opportunity to join forces — but the former are ultimately blind to fundamental issues, such as feminism and ecology. She writes, “[O]ne is hard-pressed to find even a passing reference to, much less any concern for the Earth or its creatures,” and, “Women and sexuality is a major area in which SI [Situationist International] should have been developed.” Rosemont, who edited Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (1998), finds an essential feminism in Surrealism, writing thoughtful pieces on artists Toyen, Leonora Carrington, and Mimi Parent. In addition, Rosemont is always careful to place these women at the center of the Surrealist gatherings she attended during her time in Paris during the 1960s.

It is this time in Paris that forms the heart of the book, with a series of essays chronicling her experiences, such as meetings with French surrealists, including Breton. Interestingly, in every telling, Breton remains an elusive figure with whom she never seems to fully interact. Encounters with Man Ray and Elisa Breton are similarly vague. More quotidian adventures, as in a candlelight visit to a Prisunic Supermarché during a workers’ strike, are most vivid. “Surrealism in daily life!” she exclaims while describing the candlewax dripping onto a cash register.

For Rosemont, the Paris streets were an ideal environment to enact the Surrealist concept of “objective chance.” In “Surrealist Encounters, Ted Joans, Jayne Cortez, Black Power,” she describes how she first meets Ted Joans by chance on the street after hearing he was in Paris, and how that meeting led to a crucially deeper understanding of Surrealism as a liberatory everyday practice. “Much more than mere coincidences, such encounters can and do shape decisive events in our lives. The experience is a little like paranoia, but in a pleasurable form: an acute awareness that more is going on around us than we realized, but that we are actively involved in it all, and that our desire is a crucial factor.” Each encounter with Ted Joans is revelatory and leads to further encounters, such as an introduction to Jayne Cortez, whom Rosemont describes as “one of the truly outstanding — and most profoundly radical — poets of our time.” Perhaps most poignantly, these encounters add up to an indelible portrait of Joans himself as another revolutionary artist and thinker who had a profound effect on those around him, but who is obscure in the dominant narrative of U.S. culture. Rosemont’s collection should go far in restoring Joans and many others to a more equitable “canon,” while also reminding us of a time when artists, poets, and activists worked together toward a deeply lived vision of societal change.

Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields by Penelope Rosemont (2019) published by City Lights Books is available from Amazon and other online retailers.