Richard's Blog

The Double; The Double 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 3:19:36 AM

The Double; The Double

One of Magritte's favorite mysteries is the double (One of Magritte's favorite mysteries is the double). Magritte used duplication frequently- some times using an exact double as in his 1926 Foolhardy or other times showing the double image from a different angle.

Magritte was surely familiar with Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson" (1839).  In Poe's story William Wilson, a man of "a noble descent" discovers he has an identical double who has the same name, who has roughly the same appearance, and who was even born on exactly the same date — January 19 (which was also Poe's birthday). Wilson's double follows him and copies his manner of speech and his actions. Now when Wilson sees his double, his double's face is always covered.

Finally at a ball in Rome, William drags his "unresisting" double — who was wearing identical clothes — into an antechamber, and stabs him fatally. After William does this, a large mirror suddenly seems to appear. Reflected at him, he sees "mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood."

Poe is not the first writer to use the Doppelgänger. Doppelgängers, as dark doubles of individual identities, appear in a variety of fictional works including Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double. The word is also used to describe the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, in a position where there is no chance that it could have been a reflection.


Rene Magritte: Portrait of Paul Nouge- 1927


Rene Magritte: An End to Contemplation- 1927

Magritte use the double image as an exact copy and also to show the duplicity of a person as in his 1935 Portrait of Georgette. The importance of the mirror in Magritte's work is likewise significant. The fact that Poe's character William Wison's double had his face covered could explain Magrittes penchant for hiding the face behind a variety of objects:


Rene Magritte: The Son of Man- 1964

Some writer's [see La Belle Captive: Alain Robbe-Grillet and René Magritte (1995)] have attributed Magritte's "painting within a painting on an easel images" found in The Human Condition/The Fair Captive series to be double images perhaps related to Poe's William Wilson. After all, Poe was a master of the text within a text.

Magritte also borrowed from illustrations found in books. His "Return of the Flame" is copied from the cover of a Fantomas magazine and his "Panic in the Middle Ages" is a copy of "The Death of Pissaro" an illustration in an 1878 Jules Verne book. Surely Magritte was familiar from this illustration found in William Wilson:


Byam Shaw's illustration for Poe's William Wilson in "Selected Tales of Mystery" (London : Sidgwick & Jackson, 1909) on the frontispiece with caption "A masquerade in the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke Di Broglio."


Rene Magritte: The Married Priest

Are these double images or has the priest been invited to the ball? As Magritte would say, "Sometimes there are only questions and no answers...for the mystery is the important thing."

 

Magritte, Poe, Scheherezade and the Pertified Forest 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009 2:18:29 AM

Magritte, Poe, Scheherezade, and the Pertified Forest

This is the tale of a tale or...Edgar Allan Poe's short story: The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade. Rene Magritte was, after all, fond of a good story. Rene loved to read mystery stories when he was young. According to Sylvester, "He even wrote an article about Nick Carter [dime novel hero and master detective] as well as one about Nat Pinkerton." Magritte was especially fond of any story by Edgar Allan Poe. What could be better that a tale by Poe based on the mystical events of the Persian queen Scheherazade?

Poe began his "Thousand-and-Second Tale" with these words: Truth is stranger than fiction. We know Magritte began painting his petrified objects about the same time as he painted his first Scheherazade in 1948. Coincidence...not likely. Magritte's tribute to Poe is found in several other paintings, noteably his 1937 portrait of Edward James "Reproductions Prohibited" and his 1938 "Domain of Arnheim." We can logically assume that not only did Poe's Scheherazade inspire his series of Scheherazade paintings (see the 1950 painting below) but it inspired a whole series of paintings using petrification (turning objects and people to stone). No, Magritte wasn't a stone age Midas, he just happened to like the mystery of morphing a live person to a rigid stone image. Why? Because he could. I didn't know where Magritte got the idea until now...it's in the footnotes of Poe's story.


Magritte's Scheherazade 1950


Magritte: Memory of a Journey

Now here's Poe's story. Be sure to read the second footnote (at the end of his short story):

The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade
by Edgar Allan Poe

Truth is stranger than fiction.

OLD SAYING.

HAVING had occasion, lately, in the course of some Oriental investigations, to consult the Tellmenow Isitsoornot, a work which (like the Zohar of Simeon Jochaides) is scarcely known at all, even in Europe; and which has never been quoted, to my knowledge, by any American -- if we except, perhaps, the author of the "Curiosities of American Literature"; -- having had occasion, I say, to turn over some pages of the first -- mentioned very remarkable work, I was not a little astonished to discover that the literary world has hitherto been strangely in error respecting the fate of the vizier's daughter, Scheherazade, as that fate is depicted in the "Arabian Nights"; and that the denouement there given, if not altogether inaccurate, as far as it goes, is at least to blame in not having gone very much farther.

For full information on this interesting topic, I must refer the inquisitive reader to the "Isitsoornot" itself, but in the meantime, I shall be pardoned for giving a summary of what I there discovered.

It will be remembered, that, in the usual version of the tales, a certain monarch having good cause to be jealous of his queen, not only puts her to death, but makes a vow, by his beard and the prophet, to espouse each night the most beautiful maiden in his dominions, and the next morning to deliver her up to the executioner.

Having fulfilled this vow for many years to the letter, and with a religious punctuality and method that conferred great credit upon him as a man of devout feeling and excellent sense, he was interrupted one afternoon (no doubt at his prayers) by a visit from his grand vizier, to whose daughter, it appears, there had occurred an idea.

Her name was Scheherazade, and her idea was, that she would either redeem the land from the depopulating tax upon its beauty, or perish, after the approved fashion of all heroines, in the attempt.

Accordingly, and although we do not find it to be leap-year (which makes the sacrifice more meritorious), she deputes her father, the grand vizier, to make an offer to the king of her hand. This hand the king eagerly accepts -- (he had intended to take it at all events, and had put off the matter from day to day, only through fear of the vizier), -- but, in accepting it now, he gives all parties very distinctly to understand, that, grand vizier or no grand vizier, he has not the slightest design of giving up one iota of his vow or of his privileges. When, therefore, the fair Scheherazade insisted upon marrying the king, and did actually marry him despite her father's excellent advice not to do any thing of the kind -- when she would and did marry him, I say, will I, nill I, it was with her beautiful black eyes as thoroughly open as the nature of the case would allow.

It seems, however, that this politic damsel (who had been reading Machiavelli, beyond doubt), had a very ingenious little plot in her mind. On the night of the wedding, she contrived, upon I forget what specious pretence, to have her sister occupy a couch sufficiently near that of the royal pair to admit of easy conversation from bed to bed; and, a little before cock-crowing, she took care to awaken the good monarch, her husband (who bore her none the worse will because he intended to wring her neck on the morrow), -- she managed to awaken him, I say, (although on account of a capital conscience and an easy digestion, he slept well) by the profound interest of a story (about a rat and a black cat, I think) which she was narrating (all in an undertone, of course) to her sister. When the day broke, it so happened that this history was not altogether finished, and that Scheherazade, in the nature of things could not finish it just then, since it was high time for her to get up and be bowstrung -- a thing very little more pleasant than hanging, only a trifle more genteel.

The king's curiosity, however, prevailing, I am sorry to say, even over his sound religious principles, induced him for this once to postpone the fulfilment of his vow until next morning, for the purpose and with the hope of hearing that night how it fared in the end with the black cat (a black cat, I think it was) and the rat.

The night having arrived, however, the lady Scheherazade not only put the finishing stroke to the black cat and the rat (the rat was blue) but before she well knew what she was about, found herself deep in the intricacies of a narration, having reference (if I am not altogether mistaken) to a pink horse (with green wings) that went, in a violent manner, by clockwork, and was wound up with an indigo key. With this history the king was even more profoundly interested than with the other -- and, as the day broke before its conclusion (notwithstanding all the queen's endeavors to get through with it in time for the bowstringing), there was again no resource but to postpone that ceremony as before, for twenty-four hours. The next night there happened a similar accident with a similar result; and then the next -- and then again the next; so that, in the end, the good monarch, having been unavoidably deprived of all opportunity to keep his vow during a period of no less than one thousand and one nights, either forgets it altogether by the expiration of this time, or gets himself absolved of it in the regular way, or (what is more probable) breaks it outright, as well as the head of his father confessor. At all events, Scheherazade, who, being lineally descended from Eve, fell heir, perhaps, to the whole seven baskets of talk, which the latter lady, we all know, picked up from under the trees in the garden of Eden-Scheherazade, I say, finally triumphed, and the tariff upon beauty was repealed.

Now, this conclusion (which is that of the story as we have it upon record) is, no doubt, excessively proper and pleasant -- but alas! like a great many pleasant things, is more pleasant than true, and I am indebted altogether to the "Isitsoornot" for the means of correcting the error. "Le mieux," says a French proverb, "est l'ennemi du bien," and, in mentioning that Scheherazade had inherited the seven baskets of talk, I should have added that she put them out at compound interest until they amounted to seventy-seven.

"My dear sister," said she, on the thousand-and-second night, (I quote the language of the "Isitsoornot" at this point, verbatim) "my dear sister," said she, "now that all this little difficulty about the bowstring has blown over, and that this odious tax is so happily repealed, I feel that I have been guilty of great indiscretion in withholding from you and the king (who I am sorry to say, snores -- a thing no gentleman would do) the full conclusion of Sinbad the sailor. This person went through numerous other and more interesting adventures than those which I related; but the truth is, I felt sleepy on the particular night of their narration, and so was seduced into cutting them short -- a grievous piece of misconduct, for which I only trust that Allah will forgive me. But even yet it is not too late to remedy my great neglect -- and as soon as I have given the king a pinch or two in order to wake him up so far that he may stop making that horrible noise, I will forthwith entertain you (and him if he pleases) with the sequel of this very remarkable story.

Hereupon the sister of Scheherazade, as I have it from the "Isitsoornot," expressed no very particular intensity of gratification; but the king, having been sufficiently pinched, at length ceased snoring, and finally said, "hum!" and then "hoo!" when the queen, understanding these words (which are no doubt Arabic) to signify that he was all attention, and would do his best not to snore any more -- the queen, I say, having arranged these matters to her satisfaction, re-entered thus, at once, into the history of Sinbad the sailor:

"'At length, in my old age, [these are the words of Sinbad himself, as retailed by Scheherazade] -- 'at length, in my old age, and after enjoying many years of tranquillity at home, I became once more possessed of a desire of visiting foreign countries; and one day, without acquainting any of my family with my design, I packed up some bundles of such merchandise as was most precious and least bulky, and, engaged a porter to carry them, went with him down to the sea-shore, to await the arrival of any chance vessel that might convey me out of the kingdom into some region which I had not as yet explored.

"'Having deposited the packages upon the sands, we sat down beneath some trees, and looked out into the ocean in the hope of perceiving a ship, but during several hours we saw none whatever. At length I fancied that I could hear a singular buzzing or humming sound; and the porter, after listening awhile, declared that he also could distinguish it. Presently it grew louder, and then still louder, so that we could have no doubt that the object which caused it was approaching us. At length, on the edge of the horizon, we discovered a black speck, which rapidly increased in size until we made it out to be a vast monster, swimming with a great part of its body above the surface of the sea. It came toward us with inconceivable swiftness, throwing up huge waves of foam around its breast, and illuminating all that part of the sea through which it passed, with a long line of fire that extended far off into the distance.

"'As the thing drew near we saw it very distinctly. Its length was equal to that of three of the loftiest trees that grow, and it was as wide as the great hall of audience in your palace, O most sublime and munificent of the Caliphs. Its body, which was unlike that of ordinary fishes, was as solid as a rock, and of a jetty blackness throughout all that portion of it which floated above the water, with the exception of a narrow blood-red streak that completely begirdled it. The belly, which floated beneath the surface, and of which we could get only a glimpse now and then as the monster rose and fell with the billows, was entirely covered with metallic scales, of a color like that of the moon in misty weather. The back was flat and nearly white, and from it there extended upwards of six spines, about half the length of the whole body.

"'The horrible creature had no mouth that we could perceive, but, as if to make up for this deficiency, it was provided with at least four score of eyes, that protruded from their sockets like those of the green dragon-fly, and were arranged all around the body in two rows, one above the other, and parallel to the blood-red streak, which seemed to answer the purpose of an eyebrow. Two or three of these dreadful eyes were much larger than the others, and had the appearance of solid gold.

"'Although this beast approached us, as I have before said, with the greatest rapidity, it must have been moved altogether by necromancy- for it had neither fins like a fish nor web-feet like a duck, nor wings like the seashell which is blown along in the manner of a vessel; nor yet did it writhe itself forward as do the eels. Its head and its tail were shaped precisely alike, only, not far from the latter, were two small holes that served for nostrils, and through which the monster puffed out its thick breath with prodigious violence, and with a shrieking, disagreeable noise.

"'Our terror at beholding this hideous thing was very great, but it was even surpassed by our astonishment, when upon getting a nearer look, we perceived upon the creature's back a vast number of animals about the size and shape of men, and altogether much resembling them, except that they wore no garments (as men do), being supplied (by nature, no doubt) with an ugly uncomfortable covering, a good deal like cloth, but fitting so tight to the skin, as to render the poor wretches laughably awkward, and put them apparently to severe pain. On the very tips of their heads were certain square-looking boxes, which, at first sight, I thought might have been intended to answer as turbans, but I soon discovered that they were excessively heavy and solid, and I therefore concluded they were contrivances designed, by their great weight, to keep the heads of the animals steady and safe upon their shoulders. Around the necks of the creatures were fastened black collars, (badges of servitude, no doubt,) such as we keep on our dogs, only much wider and infinitely stiffer, so that it was quite impossible for these poor victims to move their heads in any direction without moving the body at the same time; and thus they were doomed to perpetual contemplation of their noses -- a view puggish and snubby in a wonderful, if not positively in an awful degree.

"'When the monster had nearly reached the shore where we stood, it suddenly pushed out one of its eyes to a great extent, and emitted from it a terrible flash of fire, accompanied by a dense cloud of smoke, and a noise that I can compare to nothing but thunder. As the smoke cleared away, we saw one of the odd man-animals standing near the head of the large beast with a trumpet in his hand, through which (putting it to his mouth) he presently addressed us in loud, harsh, and disagreeable accents, that, perhaps, we should have mistaken for language, had they not come altogether through the nose.

"'Being thus evidently spoken to, I was at a loss how to reply, as I could in no manner understand what was said; and in this difficulty I turned to the porter, who was near swooning through affright, and demanded of him his opinion as to what species of monster it was, what it wanted, and what kind of creatures those were that so swarmed upon its back. To this the porter replied, as well as he could for trepidation, that he had once before heard of this sea-beast; that it was a cruel demon, with bowels of sulphur and blood of fire, created by evil genii as the means of inflicting misery upon mankind; that the things upon its back were vermin, such as sometimes infest cats and dogs, only a little larger and more savage; and that these vermin had their uses, however evil -- for, through the torture they caused the beast by their nibbling and stingings, it was goaded into that degree of wrath which was requisite to make it roar and commit ill, and so fulfil the vengeful and malicious designs of the wicked genii.

"This account determined me to take to my heels, and, without once even looking behind me, I ran at full speed up into the hills, while the porter ran equally fast, although nearly in an opposite direction, so that, by these means, he finally made his escape with my bundles, of which I have no doubt he took excellent care -- although this is a point I cannot determine, as I do not remember that I ever beheld him again.

"'For myself, I was so hotly pursued by a swarm of the men-vermin (who had come to the shore in boats) that I was very soon overtaken, bound hand and foot, and conveyed to the beast, which immediately swam out again into the middle of the sea.

"'I now bitterly repented my folly in quitting a comfortable home to peril my life in such adventures as this; but regret being useless, I made the best of my condition, and exerted myself to secure the goodwill of the man-animal that owned the trumpet, and who appeared to exercise authority over his fellows. I succeeded so well in this endeavor that, in a few days, the creature bestowed upon me various tokens of his favor, and in the end even went to the trouble of teaching me the rudiments of what it was vain enough to denominate its language; so that, at length, I was enabled to converse with it readily, and came to make it comprehend the ardent desire I had of seeing the world.

"'Washish squashish squeak, Sinbad, hey-diddle diddle, grunt unt grumble, hiss, fiss, whiss,' said he to me, one day after dinner- but I beg a thousand pardons, I had forgotten that your majesty is not conversant with the dialect of the Cock-neighs (so the man-animals were called; I presume because their language formed the connecting link between that of the horse and that of the rooster). With your permission, I will translate. 'Washish squashish,' and so forth: -- that is to say, 'I am happy to find, my dear Sinbad, that you are really a very excellent fellow; we are now about doing a thing which is called circumnavigating the globe; and since you are so desirous of seeing the world, I will strain a point and give you a free passage upon back of the beast.'"

When the Lady Scheherazade had proceeded thus far, relates the "Isitsoornot," the king turned over from his left side to his right, and said:

"It is, in fact, very surprising, my dear queen, that you omitted, hitherto, these latter adventures of Sinbad. Do you know I think them exceedingly entertaining and strange?"

The king having thus expressed himself, we are told, the fair Scheherazade resumed her history in the following words:

"Sinbad went on in this manner with his narrative to the caliph- 'I thanked the man-animal for its kindness, and soon found myself very much at home on the beast, which swam at a prodigious rate through the ocean; although the surface of the latter is, in that part of the world, by no means flat, but round like a pomegranate, so that we went -- so to say -- either up hill or down hill all the time.'

"That I think, was very singular," interrupted the king.

"Nevertheless, it is quite true," replied Scheherazade.

"I have my doubts," rejoined the king; "but, pray, be so good as to go on with the story."

"I will," said the queen. "'The beast,' continued Sinbad to the caliph, 'swam, as I have related, up hill and down hill until, at length, we arrived at an island, many hundreds of miles in circumference, but which, nevertheless, had been built in the middle of the sea by a colony of little things like caterpillars'" {*1}

"Hum!" said the king.

"'Leaving this island,' said Sinbad -- (for Scheherazade, it must be understood, took no notice of her husband's ill-mannered ejaculation) 'leaving this island, we came to another where the forests were of solid stone, and so hard that they shivered to pieces the finest-tempered axes with which we endeavoured to cut them down."' {*2}

"Hum!" said the king, again; but Scheherazade, paying him no attention, continued in the language of Sinbad.

"'Passing beyond this last island, we reached a country where there was a cave that ran to the distance of thirty or forty miles within the bowels of the earth, and that contained a greater number of far more spacious and more magnificent palaces than are to be found in all Damascus and Bagdad. From the roofs of these palaces there hung myriads of gems, liked diamonds, but larger than men; and in among the streets of towers and pyramids and temples, there flowed immense rivers as black as ebony, and swarming with fish that had no eyes.'" {*3}

"Hum!" said the king. "'We then swam into a region of the sea where we found a lofty mountain, down whose sides there streamed torrents of melted metal, some of which were twelve miles wide and sixty miles long {*4}; while from an abyss on the summit, issued so vast a quantity of ashes that the sun was entirely blotted out from the heavens, and it became darker than the darkest midnight; so that when we were even at the distance of a hundred and fifty miles from the mountain, it was impossible to see the whitest object, however close we held it to our eyes.'" {*5}

"Hum!" said the king.

"'After quitting this coast, the beast continued his voyage until we met with a land in which the nature of things seemed reversed -- for we here saw a great lake, at the bottom of which, more than a hundred feet beneath the surface of the water, there flourished in full leaf a forest of tall and luxuriant trees.'" {*6}

"Hoo!" said the king.

"Some hundred miles farther on brought us to a climate where the atmosphere was so dense as to sustain iron or steel, just as our own does feather.'" {*7)

"Fiddle de dee," said the king.

"Proceeding still in the same direction, we presently arrived at the most magnificent region in the whole world. Through it there meandered a glorious river for several thousands of miles. This river was of unspeakable depth, and of a transparency richer than that of amber. It was from three to six miles in width; and its banks which arose on either side to twelve hundred feet in perpendicular height, were crowned with ever-blossoming trees and perpetual sweet-scented flowers, that made the whole territory one gorgeous garden; but the name of this luxuriant land was the Kingdom of Horror, and to enter it was inevitable death'" {*8}

"Humph!" said the king.

"'We left this kingdom in great haste, and, after some days, came to another, where we were astonished to perceive myriads of monstrous animals with horns resembling scythes upon their heads. These hideous beasts dig for themselves vast caverns in the soil, of a funnel shape, and line the sides of them with, rocks, so disposed one upon the other that they fall instantly, when trodden upon by other animals, thus precipitating them into the monster's dens, where their blood is immediately sucked, and their carcasses afterwards hurled contemptuously out to an immense distance from "the caverns of death."'" {*9}

"Pooh!" said the king.

"'Continuing our progress, we perceived a district with vegetables that grew not upon any soil but in the air. {*10} There were others that sprang from the substance of other vegetables; {*11} others that derived their substance from the bodies of living animals; {*12} and then again, there were others that glowed all over with intense fire; {*13} others that moved from place to place at pleasure, {*14} and what was still more wonderful, we discovered flowers that lived and breathed and moved their limbs at will and had, moreover, the detestable passion of mankind for enslaving other creatures, and confining them in horrid and solitary prisons until the fulfillment of appointed tasks.'" {*15}

"Pshaw!" said the king.

"'Quitting this land, we soon arrived at another in which the bees and the birds are mathematicians of such genius and erudition, that they give daily instructions in the science of geometry to the wise men of the empire. The king of the place having offered a reward for the solution of two very difficult problems, they were solved upon the spot -- the one by the bees, and the other by the birds; but the king keeping their solution a secret, it was only after the most profound researches and labor, and the writing of an infinity of big books, during a long series of years, that the men-mathematicians at length arrived at the identical solutions which had been given upon the spot by the bees and by the birds.'" {*16}

"Oh my!" said the king.

"'We had scarcely lost sight of this empire when we found ourselves close upon another, from whose shores there flew over our heads a flock of fowls a mile in breadth, and two hundred and forty miles long; so that, although they flew a mile during every minute, it required no less than four hours for the whole flock to pass over us -- in which there were several millions of millions of fowl.'" {*17}

"Oh fy!" said the king.

"'No sooner had we got rid of these birds, which occasioned us great annoyance, than we were terrified by the appearance of a fowl of another kind, and infinitely larger than even the rocs which I met in my former voyages; for it was bigger than the biggest of the domes on your seraglio, oh, most Munificent of Caliphs. This terrible fowl had no head that we could perceive, but was fashioned entirely of belly, which was of a prodigious fatness and roundness, of a soft-looking substance, smooth, shining and striped with various colors. In its talons, the monster was bearing away to his eyrie in the heavens, a house from which it had knocked off the roof, and in the interior of which we distinctly saw human beings, who, beyond doubt, were in a state of frightful despair at the horrible fate which awaited them. We shouted with all our might, in the hope of frightening the bird into letting go of its prey, but it merely gave a snort or puff, as if of rage and then let fall upon our heads a heavy sack which proved to be filled with sand!'"

"Stuff!" said the king.

"'It was just after this adventure that we encountered a continent of immense extent and prodigious solidity, but which, nevertheless, was supported entirely upon the back of a sky-blue cow that had no fewer than four hundred horns.'" {*18}

"That, now, I believe," said the king, "because I have read something of the kind before, in a book."

"'We passed immediately beneath this continent, (swimming in between the legs of the cow, and, after some hours, found ourselves in a wonderful country indeed, which, I was informed by the man-animal, was his own native land, inhabited by things of his own species. This elevated the man-animal very much in my esteem, and in fact, I now began to feel ashamed of the contemptuous familiarity with which I had treated him; for I found that the man-animals in general were a nation of the most powerful magicians, who lived with worms in their brain, {*19} which, no doubt, served to stimulate them by their painful writhings and wrigglings to the most miraculous efforts of imagination!'"

"Nonsense!" said the king.

"'Among the magicians, were domesticated several animals of very singular kinds; for example, there was a huge horse whose bones were iron and whose blood was boiling water. In place of corn, he had black stones for his usual food; and yet, in spite of so hard a diet, he was so strong and swift that he would drag a load more weighty than the grandest temple in this city, at a rate surpassing that of the flight of most birds.'" {*20}

"Twattle!" said the king.

"'I saw, also, among these people a hen without feathers, but bigger than a camel; instead of flesh and bone she had iron and brick; her blood, like that of the horse, (to whom, in fact, she was nearly related,) was boiling water; and like him she ate nothing but wood or black stones. This hen brought forth very frequently, a hundred chickens in the day; and, after birth, they took up their residence for several weeks within the stomach of their mother.'" {*21}

"Fa! lal!" said the king.

"'One of this nation of mighty conjurors created a man out of brass and wood, and leather, and endowed him with such ingenuity that he would have beaten at chess, all the race of mankind with the exception of the great Caliph, Haroun Alraschid. {*22} Another of these magi constructed (of like material) a creature that put to shame even the genius of him who made it; for so great were its reasoning powers that, in a second, it performed calculations of so vast an extent that they would have required the united labor of fifty thousand fleshy men for a year. (*23} But a still more wonderful conjuror fashioned for himself a mighty thing that was neither man nor beast, but which had brains of lead, intermixed with a black matter like pitch, and fingers that it employed with such incredible speed and dexterity that it would have had no trouble in writing out twenty thousand copies of the Koran in an hour, and this with so exquisite a precision, that in all the copies there should not be found one to vary from another by the breadth of the finest hair. This thing was of prodigious strength, so that it erected or overthrew the mightiest empires at a breath; but its powers were exercised equally for evil and for good.'"

"Ridiculous!" said the king.

"'Among this nation of necromancers there was also one who had in his veins the blood of the salamanders; for he made no scruple of sitting down to smoke his chibouc in a red-hot oven until his dinner was thoroughly roasted upon its floor. {*24} Another had the faculty of converting the common metals into gold, without even looking at them during the process. {*25} Another had such a delicacy of touch that he made a wire so fine as to be invisible. {*26} Another had such quickness of perception that he counted all the separate motions of an elastic body, while it was springing backward and forward at the rate of nine hundred millions of times in a second.'" {*27}

"Absurd!" said the king.

"'Another of these magicians, by means of a fluid that nobody ever yet saw, could make the corpses of his friends brandish their arms, kick out their legs, fight, or even get up and dance at his will. {*28} Another had cultivated his voice to so great an extent that he could have made himself heard from one end of the world to the other. {*29} Another had so long an arm that he could sit down in Damascus and indite a letter at Bagdad -- or indeed at any distance whatsoever. {*30} Another commanded the lightning to come down to him out of the heavens, and it came at his call; and served him for a plaything when it came. Another took two loud sounds and out of them made a silence. Another constructed a deep darkness out of two brilliant lights. {*31} Another made ice in a red-hot furnace. {*32} Another directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did. {*33} Another took this luminary with the moon and the planets, and having first weighed them with scrupulous accuracy, probed into their depths and found out the solidity of the substance of which they were made. But the whole nation is, indeed, of so surprising a necromantic ability, that not even their infants, nor their commonest cats and dogs have any difficulty in seeing objects that do not exist at all, or that for twenty millions of years before the birth of the nation itself had been blotted out from the face of creation."' {*34}

Analogous experiments in respect to sound produce analogous results.

"Preposterous!" said the king.

"'The wives and daughters of these incomparably great and wise magi,'" continued Scheherazade, without being in any manner disturbed by these frequent and most ungentlemanly interruptions on the part of her husband -- "'the wives and daughters of these eminent conjurers are every thing that is accomplished and refined; and would be every thing that is interesting and beautiful, but for an unhappy fatality that besets them, and from which not even the miraculous powers of their husbands and fathers has, hitherto, been adequate to save. Some fatalities come in certain shapes, and some in others -- but this of which I speak has come in the shape of a crotchet.'"

"A what?" said the king.

"'A crotchet'" said Scheherazade. "'One of the evil genii, who are perpetually upon the watch to inflict ill, has put it into the heads of these accomplished ladies that the thing which we describe as personal beauty consists altogether in the protuberance of the region which lies not very far below the small of the back. Perfection of loveliness, they say, is in the direct ratio of the extent of this lump. Having been long possessed of this idea, and bolsters being cheap in that country, the days have long gone by since it was possible to distinguish a woman from a dromedary-'"

"Stop!" said the king -- "I can't stand that, and I won't. You have already given me a dreadful headache with your lies. The day, too, I perceive, is beginning to break. How long have we been married? -- my conscience is getting to be troublesome again. And then that dromedary touch -- do you take me for a fool? Upon the whole, you might as well get up and be throttled."

These words, as I learn from the "Isitsoornot," both grieved and astonished Scheherazade; but, as she knew the king to be a man of scrupulous integrity, and quite unlikely to forfeit his word, she submitted to her fate with a good grace. She derived, however, great consolation, (during the tightening of the bowstring,) from the reflection that much of the history remained still untold, and that the petulance of her brute of a husband had reaped for him a most righteous reward, in depriving him of many inconceivable adventures.

 

Foot Notes - Scheherazade {*1} The coralites.

{*2} "One of the most remarkable natural curiosities in Texas is a petrified forest, near the head of Pasigno river. It consists of several hundred trees, in an erect position, all turned to stone. Some trees, now growing, are partly petrified. This is a startling fact for natural philosophers, and must cause them to modify the existing theory of petrification. -- _Kennedy_.

This account, at first discredited, has since been corroborated by the discovery of a completely petrified forest, near the head waters of the Cheyenne, or Chienne river, which has its source in the Black Hills of the rocky chain.

There is scarcely, perhaps, a spectacle on the surface of the globe more remarkable, either in a geological or picturesque point of view than that presented by the petrified forest, near Cairo. The traveller, having passed the tombs of the caliphs, just beyond the gates of the city, proceeds to the southward, nearly at right angles to the road across the desert to Suez, and after having travelled some ten miles up a low barren valley, covered with sand, gravel, and sea shells, fresh as if the tide had retired but yesterday, crosses a low range of sandhills, which has for some distance run parallel to his path. The scene now presented to him is beyond conception singular and desolate. A mass of fragments of trees, all converted into stone, and when struck by his horse's hoof ringing like cast iron, is seen to extend itself for miles and miles around him, in the form of a decayed and prostrate forest. The wood is of a dark brown hue, but retains its form in perfection, the pieces being from one to fifteen feet in length, and from half a foot to three feet in thickness, strewed so closely together, as far as the eye can reach, that an Egyptian donkey can scarcely thread its way through amongst them, and so natural that, were it in Scotland or Ireland, it might pass without remark for some enormous drained bog, on which the exhumed trees lay rotting in the sun. The roots and rudiments of the branches are, in many cases, nearly perfect, and in some the worm-holes eaten under the bark are readily recognizable. The most delicate of the sap vessels, and all the finer portions of the centre of the wood, are perfectly entire, and bear to be examined with the strongest magnifiers. The whole are so thoroughly silicified as to scratch glass and are capable of receiving the highest polish.-- _Asiatic Magazine_.

{*3} The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky.

{*4} In Iceland, 1783.

{*5} "During the eruption of Hecla, in 1766, clouds of this kind produced such a degree of darkness that, at Glaumba, which is more than fifty leagues from the mountain, people could only find their way by groping. During the eruption of Vesuvius, in 1794, at Caserta, four leagues distant, people could only walk by the light of torches. On the first of May, 1812, a cloud of volcanic ashes and sand, coming from a volcano in the island of St. Vincent, covered the whole of Barbadoes, spreading over it so intense a darkness that, at mid-day, in the open air, one could not perceive the trees or other objects near him, or even a white handkerchief placed at the distance of six inches from the eye._" -- Murray, p. 215, Phil. edit._

{*6} In the year 1790, in the Caraccas during an earthquake a portion of the granite soil sank and left a lake eight hundred yards in diameter, and from eighty to a hundred feet deep. It was a part of the forest of Aripao which sank, and the trees remained green for several months under the water." -- _Murray_, p. 221

{*7} The hardest steel ever manufactured may, under the action of a blowpipe, be reduced to an impalpable powder, which will float readily in the atmospheric air.

{*8} The region of the Niger. See Simmona's _Colonial Magazine_ .

{*9} The Myrmeleon-lion-ant. The term "monster" is equally applicable to small abnormal things and to great, while such epithets as "vast" are merely comparative. The cavern of the myrmeleon is vast in comparison with the hole of the common red ant. A grain of silex is also a "rock."

{*10} The _Epidendron, Flos Aeris,_ of the family of the _Orchideae_, grows with merely the surface of its roots attached to a tree or other object, from which it derives no nutriment -- subsisting altogether upon air.

{*11} The _Parasites,_ such as the wonderful _Rafflesia Arnaldii_.

{*12} _Schouw_ advocates a class of plants that grow upon living animals -- the _Plantae_ _Epizoae_. Of this class are the _Fuci_ and _Algae_.

_Mr. J. B. Williams, of Salem, Mass._, presented the "National Institute" with an insect from New Zealand, with the following description: " '_The Hotte_,a decided caterpillar, or worm, is found gnawing at the root of the _Rota_ tree, with a plant growing out of its head. This most peculiar and extraordinary insect travels up both the _Rota_ and _Ferriri_ trees, and entering into the top, eats its way, perforating the trunkof the trees until it reaches the root, and dies, or remains dormant, and the plant propagates out of its head; the body remains perfect and entire, of a harder substance than when alive. From this insect the natives make a coloring for tattooing.

{*13} In mines and natural caves we find a species of cryptogamous _fungus_ that emits an intense phosphorescence.

{*14} The orchis, scabius and valisneria.

{*15} The corolla of this flower (_Aristolochia Clematitis_), which is tubular, but terminating upwards in a ligulate limb, is inflated into a globular figure at the base. The tubular part is internally beset with stiff hairs, pointing downwards. The globular part contains the pistil, which consists merely of a germen and stigma, together with the surrounding stamens. But the stamens, being shorter than the germen, cannot discharge the pollen so as to throw it upon the stigma, as the flower stands always upright till after impregnation. And hence, without some additional and peculiar aid, the pollen must necessarily fan down to the bottom of the flower. Now, the aid that nature has furnished in this case, is that of the _Tiputa Pennicornis_, a small insect, which entering the tube of the corrolla in quest of honey, descends to the bottom, and rummages about till it becomes quite covered with pollen; but not being able to force its way out again, owing to the downward position of the hairs, which converge to a point like the wires of a mouse-trap, and being somewhat impatient of its confinement it brushes backwards and forwards, trying every corner, till, after repeatedly traversing the stigma, it covers it with pollen sufficient for its impregnation, in consequence of which the flower soon begins to droop, and the hairs to shrink to the sides of the tube, effecting an easy passage for the escape of the insect." --_Rev. P. Keith-System of Physiological Botany_.

{*16} The bees -- ever since bees were -- have been constructing their cells with just such sides, in just such number, and at just such inclinations, as it has been demonstrated (in a problem involving the profoundest mathematical principles) are the very sides, in the very number, and at the very angles, which will afford the creatures the most room that is compatible with the greatest stability of structure.

During the latter part of the last century, the question arose among mathematicians--"to determine the best form that can be given to the sails of a windmill, according to their varying distances from the revolving vanes , and likewise from the centres of the revoloution." This is an excessively complex problem, for it is, in other words, to find the best possible position at an infinity of varied distances and at an infinity of points on the arm.There were a thousand futile attempts to answer the queryon the part of the most illustrious mathematicians, and when at length, an undeniable soloution was discovered, men found that the wings of a bird had given it with absoloute precisionrvrt since the first bird had traversed the air.

{*17} He observed a flock of pigeons passing betwixt Frankfort and the Indian territory, one mile at least in breadth; it took up four hours in passing, which, at the rate of one mile per minute, gives a length of 240 miles; and, supposing three pigeons to each square yard, gives 2,230,272,000 Pigeons. -- "_Travels in Canada and the United States," by Lieut. F. Hall._

{*18} The earth is upheld by a cow of a blue color, having horns four hundred in number." -- _Sale's Koran_.

{*19} "The _Entozoa_, or intestinal worms, have repeatedly been observed in the muscles, and in the cerebral substance of men." -- See Wyatt's Physiology, p. 143.

{*20} On the Great Western Railway, between London and Exeter, a speed of 71 miles per hour has been attained. A train weighing 90 tons was whirled from Paddington to Didcot (53 miles) in 51 minutes.

{*21} The _Eccalobeion_

{*22} Maelzel's Automaton Chess-player.

{*23} Babbage's Calculating Machine.

{*24} _Chabert_, and since him, a hundred others.

{*25} The Electrotype.

{*26} _Wollaston_ made of platinum for the field of views in a telescope a wire one eighteen-thousandth part of an inch in thickness. It could be seen only by means of the microscope.

{*27} Newton demonstrated that the retina beneath the influence of the violet ray of the spectrum, vibrated 900,000,000 of times in a second.

{*28} Voltaic pile.

{*29} The Electro Telegraph Printing Apparatus.

{*30} The Electro telegraph transmits intelligence instantaneously- at least at so far as regards any distance upon the earth.

{*31} Common experiments in Natural Philosophy. If two red rays from two luminous points be admitted into a dark chamber so as to fall on a white surface, and differ in their length by 0.0000258 of an inch, their intensity is doubled. So also if the difference in length be any whole-number multiple of that fraction. A multiple by 2 1/4, 3 1/4, &c., gives an intensity equal to one ray only; but a multiple by 2 1/2, 3 1/2, &c., gives the result of total darkness. In violet rays similar effects arise when the difference in length is 0.000157 of an inch; and with all other rays the results are the same -- the difference varying with a uniform increase from the violet to the red.

{*32} Place a platina crucible over a spirit lamp, and keep it a red heat; pour in some sulphuric acid, which, though the most volatile of bodies at a common temperature, will be found to become completely fixed in a hot crucible, and not a drop evaporates -- being surrounded by an atmosphere of its own, it does not, in fact, touch the sides. A few drops of water are now introduced, when the acid, immediately coming in contact with the heated sides of the crucible, flies off in sulphurous acid vapor, and so rapid is its progress, that the caloric of the water passes off with it, which falls a lump of ice to the bottom; by taking advantage of the moment before it is allowed to remelt, it may be turned out a lump of ice from a red-hot vessel.

{*33} The Daguerreotype.

{*34) Although light travels 167,000 miles in a second, the distance of 61 Cygni (the only star whose distance is ascertained) is so inconceivably great, that its rays would require more than ten years to reach the earth. For stars beyond this, 20 -- or even 1000 years -- would be a moderate estimate. Thus, if they had been annihilated 20, or 1000 years ago, we might still see them to-day by the light which started from their surfaces 20 or 1000 years in the past time. That many which we see daily are really extinct, is not impossible -- not even improbable.

-THE END-
 

 

The Man of the Crowd 

Monday, April 13, 2009 11:51:17 PM

The Man of the Crowd

Certainly sections of books have been written (and even books: The Man in the bowler hat: His history and Iconography‎ by Fred Miller Robinson) about Magritte's perception of the average man, the every man, the common ordinary man, the man of the crowd. "Magritte painted a representation of the void: the penetrating power of The Man in the Bowler Hat lies in this void, this emptiness."

Magritte liked to hide his face and remain anonymous or at least his "every man" did. Magritte's 1964 "The Man in the Bowler Hat" has a dove obscuring his face. Magritte saw himself as this dark shadowy animus, a fantomas, a James Bondesque figure with a mysterious smile and bowler hat.

Magritte wasn't the first to paint "the man of the crowd," he was just one of the best. Other artists were De Pisis (1919) Carra (1916) and more importantly Giorgio de Chirico in 1914 with "The Child's Brain." In 1923 Max Ernst took up De Chirico's "every man" with his "Pieta or Revolution by Night" which depicted De Chirico's everyman with a bowler hat. Rene Magritte recreated the image in 1926 with his Foolhardy, showing a similar mustachioed everyman image with his arm in a sling and his mirror reflection, something Rene saw in a dream.

Perhaps reading Poe's "Man of the Crowd" will shed some light on this bowler hatted man, this enigma, this fantomas...or will it?



Magritte: "The Month of the Grape Harvest"...Yes, they are watching and there's more of them this time (See: The Threatened Murderer)

The Man of the Crowd (1840) by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

IT WAS well said of a certain German book that "er lasst sich nicht lesen"-it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eyes-die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burden so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged.

Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large bow-window of the D--Coffee-House in London. For some months I had been ill in health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui-moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs-achlus os prin epeen- and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its everyday condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias. Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing. With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.

This latter is one of the principal thoroughfares of the city, and had been very much crowded during the whole day. But, as the darkness came on, the throng momently increased; and, by the time the lamps were well lighted, two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door. At this particular period of the evening I had never before been in a similar situation, and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me, therefore, with a delicious novelty of emotion. I gave up, at length, all care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in contemplation of the scene without.

At first my observations took an abstract and generalizing turn. I looked at the passengers in masses, and thought of them in their aggregate relations. Soon, however, I descended to details, and regarded with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance.

By far the greater number of those who went by had a satisfied, business-like demeanor, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried on. Others, still a numerous class, were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around. When impeded in their progress, these people suddenly ceased muttering; but redoubled their gesticulations, and awaited, with an absent and overdone smile upon their lips, the course of the persons impeding them. If jostled, they bowed profusely to the jostlers, and appeared overwhelmed with confusion. There was nothing very distinctive about these two large classes beyond what I have noted. Their habiliments belonged to that order which is pointedly termed the decent. They were undoubtedly noblemen, merchants, attorneys, tradesmen, stock-jobbers-the Eupatrids and the common-places of society-men of leisure and men actively engaged in affairs of their own-conducting business upon their own responsibility. They did not greatly excite my attention.

The tribe of clerks was an obvious one; and here I discerned two remarkable divisions. There were the junior clerks of flash houses- young gentlemen with tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips. Setting aside a certain dapperness of carriage, which may be termed deskism for want of a better word, the manner of these persons seemed to be an exact facsimile of what had been the perfection of bon ton about twelve or eighteen months before. They wore the castoff graces of the gentry;-and this, I believe, involves the best definition of the class.

The division of the upper clerks of staunch firms, or of the "steady old fellows," it was not possible to mistake. These were known by their coats and pantaloons of black or brown, made to sit comfortably, with white cravats and waistcoats, broad solid-looking shoes, and thick hose or gaiters. They had all slightly bald heads, from which the right ears, long used to pen-holding, had an odd habit of standing off on end. I observed that they always removed or settled their hats with both bands, and wore watches, with short gold chains of a substantial and ancient pattern. Theirs was the affectation of respectability-if indeed there be an affectation so honorable.

There were many individuals of dashing appearance, whom I easily understood as belonging to the race of swell pick-pockets, with which all great cities are infested. I watched these gentry with much inquisitiveness, and found it difficult to imagine how they should ever be mistaken for gentlemen by gentlemen themselves. Their voluminousness of wristband, with an air of excessive frankness, should betray them at once.

The gamblers, of whom I descried not a few, were still more easily recognizable. They wore every variety of dress, from that of the desperate thimble-rig bully, with velvet waistcoat, fancy neckerchief, gilt chains, and filagreed buttons, to that of the scrupulously inornate clergyman, than which nothing could be less liable to suspicion. Still all were distinguished by a certain sodden swarthiness of complexion, a filmy dimness of eye, and pallor and compression of lip. There were two other traits, moreover, by which I could always detect them: a guarded lowness of tone in conversation, and a more than ordinary extension of the thumb in a direction at right angles with the fingers. Very often, in company with these sharpers, I observed an order of men somewhat different in habits, but still birds of a kindred feather. They may be defined as the gentlemen who live by their wits. They seem to prey upon the public in two battalions-that of the dandies and that of the military men. Of the first grade the leading features are long locks and smiles; of the second, frogged coats and frowns.

Descending in the scale of what is termed gentility, I found darker and deeper themes for speculation. I saw Jew pedlars, with hawk eyes flashing from countenances whose every other feature wore only an expression of abject humility; sturdy professional street beggars scowling upon mendicants of a better stamp, whom despair alone had driven forth into the night for charity; feeble and ghastly invalids, upon whom death had placed a sure hand, and who sidled and tottered through the mob, looking every one beseechingly in the face, as if in search of some chance consolation, some lost hope; modest young girls returning from long and late labor to a cheerless home, and shrinking more tearfully than indignantly from the glances of ruffians, whose direct contact, even, could not be avoided; women of the town of all kinds and of all ages-the unequivocal beauty in the prime of her womanhood, putting one in mind of the statue in Lucian, with the surface of Parian marble, and the interior filled with filth-the loathsome and utterly lost leper in rags-the wrinkled, bejewelled, and paint-begrimed beldame, making a last effort at youth-the mere child of immature form, yet, from long association, an adept in the dreadful coquetries of her trade, and burning with a rabid ambition to be ranked the equal of her elders in vice; drunkards innumerable and indescribable-some in shreds and patches, reeling, inarticulate, with bruised visage and lack-lustre eyes-some in whole although filthy garments, with a slightly unsteady swagger, thick sensual lips, and hearty-looking rubicund faces-others clothed in materials which had once been good, and which even now were scrupulously well brushed-men who walked with a more than naturally firm and springy step, but whose countenances were fearfully pale, and whose eyes were hideously wild and red; and who clutched with quivering fingers, as they strode through the crowd, at every object which came within their reach; beside these, pic-men, porters, coal-heavers, sweeps; organ-grinders, monkey-exhibitors, and ballad-mongers, those who vended with those who sang; ragged artizans and exhausted laborers of every description, and all full of a noisy and inordinate vivacity which jarred discordantly upon the ear, and gave an aching sensation to the eye.

As the night deepened, so deepened to me the interest of the scene; for not only did the general character of the crowd materially alter (its gentler features retiring in the gradual withdrawal of the more orderly portion of the people, and its harsher ones coming out into bolder relief, as the late hour brought forth every species of infamy from its den), but the rays of the gas-lamps, feeble at first in their struggle with the dying day, had now at length gained ascendancy, and threw over every thing a fitful and garish lustre. All was dark yet splendid-as that ebony to which has been likened the style of Tertullian.

The wild effects of the light enchained me to an examination of individual faces; and although the rapidity with which the world of light flitted before the window prevented me from casting more than a glance upon each visage, still it seemed that, in my then peculiar mental state, I could frequently read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years.

With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepid old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age)-a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression. Any thing even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before. I well remember that my first thought, upon beholding it, was that Retszch, had he viewed it, would have greatly preferred it to his own pictural incarnations of the fiend. As I endeavored, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense-of supreme despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. "How wild a history," I said to myself, "is written within that bosom!" Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view-to know more of him. Hurriedly putting on all overcoat, and seizing my hat and cane, I made my way into the street, and pushed through the crowd in the direction which I had seen him take; for he had already disappeared. With some little difficulty I at length came within sight of him, approached, and followed him closely, yet cautiously, so as not to attract his attention.

I had now a good opportunity of examining his person. He was short in stature, very thin, and apparently very feeble. His clothes, generally, were filthy and ragged; but as he came, now and then, within the strong glare of a lamp, I perceived that his linen, although dirty, was of beautiful texture; and my vision deceived me, or, through a rent in a closely buttoned and evidently second-handed roquelaire which enveloped him, I caught a glimpse both of a diamond and of a dagger. These observations heightened my curiosity, and I resolved to follow the stranger whithersoever he should go.

It was now fully night-fall, and a thick humid fog hung over the city, soon ending in a settled and heavy rain. This change of weather had an odd effect upon the crowd, the whole of which was at once put into new commotion, and overshadowed by a world of umbrellas. The waver, the jostle, and the hum increased in a tenfold degree. For my own part I did not much regard the rain-the lurking of an old fever in my system rendering the moisture somewhat too dangerously pleasant. Tying a handkerchief about my mouth, I kept on. For half an hour the old man held his way with difficulty along the great thoroughfare; and I here walked close at his elbow through fear of losing sight of him. Never once turning his head to look back, he did not observe me. By and by he passed into a cross street, which, although densely filled with people, was not quite so much thronged as the main one he had quitted. Here a change in his demeanor became evident. He walked more slowly and with less object than before- more hesitatingly. He crossed and re-crossed the way repeatedly, without apparent aim; and the press was still so thick, that, at every such movement, I was obliged to follow him closely. The street was a narrow and long one, and his course lay within it for nearly an hour, during which the passengers had gradually diminished to about that number which is ordinarily seen at noon in Broadway near the park-so vast a difference is there between a London populace and that of the most frequented American city. A second turn brought us into a square, brilliantly lighted, and overflowing with life. The old manner of the stranger reappeared. His chin fell upon his breast, while his eyes rolled wildly from under his knit brows, in every direction, upon those who hemmed him in. He urged his way steadily and perseveringly. I was surprised, however, to find, upon his having made the circuit of the square, that he turned and retraced his steps. Still more was I astonished to see him repeat the same walk several times-once nearly detecting me as he came around with a sudden movement.

In this exercise he spent another hour, at the end of which we met with far less interruption from passengers than at first. The rain fell fast, the air grew cool; and the people were retiring to their homes. With a gesture of impatience, the wanderer passed into a by-street comparatively deserted. Down this, some quarter of a mile long, he rushed with an activity I could not have dreamed of seeing in one so aged, and which put me to much trouble in pursuit. A few minutes brought us to a large and busy bazaar, with the localities of which the stranger appeared well acquainted, and where his original demeanor again became apparent, as he forced his way to and fro, without aim, among the host of buyers and sellers.

During the hour and a half, or thereabouts, which we passed in this place, it required much caution on my part to keep him within reach without attracting his observation. Luckily I wore a pair of caoutchouc overshoes, and could move about in perfect silence. At no moment did he see that I watched him. He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare. I was now utterly amazed at his behavior, and firmly resolved that we should not part until I had satisfied myself in some measure respecting him.

A loud-toned clock struck eleven, and the company were fast deserting the bazaar. A shop-keeper, in putting up a shutter, jostled the old man, and at the instant I saw a strong shudder come over his frame. He hurried into the street, looked anxiously around him for an instant, and then ran with incredible swiftness through many crooked and peopleless lanes, until we emerged once more upon the great thoroughfare whence we had started-the street of the D---Hotel. It no longer wore, however, the same aspect. It was still brilliant with gas; but the rain fell fiercely, and there were few persons to be seen. The stranger grew pale. He walked moodily some paces up the once populous avenue, then, with a heavy sigh, turned in the direction of the river, and, plunging through a great variety of devious ways, came out, at length, in view of one of the principal theatres. It was about being closed, and the audience were thronging from the doors. I saw the old man gasp as if for breath while he threw himself amid the crowd; but I thought that the intense agony of his countenance had, in some measure, abated. His head again fell upon his breast; he appeared as I had seen him at first. I observed that he now took the course in which had gone the greater number of the audience but, upon the whole, I was at a loss to comprehend the waywardness of his actions.

As he proceeded, the company grew more scattered, and his old uneasiness and vacillation were resumed. For some time he followed closely a party of some ten or twelve roisterers; but from this number one by one dropped off, until three only remained together, in a narrow and gloomy lane, little frequented. The stranger paused, and, for a moment, seemed lost in thought; then, with every mark of agitation, pursued rapidly a route which brought us to the verge of the city, amid regions very different from those we had hitherto traversed. It was the most noisome quarter of London, where every thing wore the worst impress of the most deplorable poverty, and of the most desperate crime. By the dim light of an accidental lamp, tall, antique, worm-eaten, wooden tenements were seen tottering to their fall, in directions so many and capricious, that scarce the semblance of a passage was discernible between them. The paving-stones lay at random, displaced from their beds by the rankly-growing grass. Horrible filth festered in the dammed-up gutters. The whole atmosphere teemed with desolation. Yet, as we proceeded, the sounds of human life revived by sure degrees, and at length large bands of the most abandoned of a London populace were seen reeling to and fro. The spirits of the old man again flickered up, as a lamp which is near its death-hour. Once more he strode onward with elastic tread. Suddenly a corner was turned, a blaze of light burst upon our sight, and we stood before one of the huge suburban temples of Intemperance-one of the palaces of the fiend, Gin.

It was now nearly daybreak; but a number of wretched inebriates still pressed in and out of the flaunting entrance. With a half shriek of joy the old man forced a passage within, resumed at once his original bearing, and stalked backward and forward, without apparent object, among the throng. He had not been thus long occupied, however, before a rush to the doors gave token that the host was closing them for the night. It was something even more intense than despair that I then observed upon the countenance of the singular being whom I had watched so pertinaciously. Yet he did not hesitate in his career, but, with a mad energy, retraced his steps at once, to the heart of the mighty London. Long and swiftly he fled, while I followed him in the wildest amazement, resolute not to abandon a scrutiny in which I now felt an interest all-absorbing. The sun arose while we proceeded, and, when we had once again reached that most thronged mart of the populous town, the street of the D--Hotel, it presented an appearance of human bustle and activity scarcely inferior to what I had seen on the evening before. And here, long, amid the momently increasing confusion, did I persist in my pursuit of the stranger. But, as usual, he walked to and fro, and during the day did not pass from out the turmoil of that street. And, as the shades of the second evening came on, I grew wearied unto death, and, stopping fully in front of the wanderer, gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed me not, but resumed his solemn walk, while I, ceasing to follow, remained absorbed in contemplation. "The old man," I said at length, "is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow, for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds. The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the 'Hortulus Animae,'* and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that "er lasst sich nicht lesen."

* The "Hortulus Animae cum Oratiunculis Aliquibus Superadditis" of Grunninger.

THE END
 

The Surrealist Fait Divers 

Friday, April 10, 2009 6:06:44 PM

The Surrealist Fait Divers: Uncovering Violent Histories in J. G. Ballard's Running Wild
Jeannette Baxter

Abstract
In this paper I read J.G. Ballard’s illustrated novella, Running Wild (1984), as a subversive example of the surrealist fait divers. One of the most ethically challenging fragments in Ballard’s often controversial oeuvre, this modified detective fiction presents the reader with a catalogue of contemporary atrocities – parricide, political assassination and terrorism, acts of random violence – and challenges us, the readers, to get our hands dirty. I explore how Ballard negotiates the cultural and historical consequences of global capitalism in Running Wild, and how he tests, through fiction, the controversial theory that moral and social transgressions are legitimate correctives to psychological and social inertia. In this context, Ballard incorporates a variety of surrealist texts (paintings, photographs, collages) into his fait divers, I suggest, in order to open up moments of critical and ethical reflection, and to provoke the reader into a confrontation with the deviant logics and violent psychopathologies which operate below the polite surface of contemporary history and culture.

René Magritte’s The Threatened Assassin (1926) haunts the process of reading J.G. Ballard’s Running Wild. Influenced by the literary and cinematic adventures of Fantômas (the seductive genius of crime whom the surrealists admired), The Threatened Assassin offers, at first glance, a transparent narrative of murder and impending capture. [1] We observe the sprawled body of a naked female corpse; blood pours from her mouth, and a white towel lies across her shoulders. A man, whom we presume to be the murderer, stands with one hand in his pocket as he listens to a gramophone record. The presence of his hat, overcoat and suitcase suggest imminent escape. In the foyer, two detectives await the assassin with a bludgeon and a net. In the background, three men peer over an iron railing and observe the murder scene. The story of The Threatened Assassin appears to be foretold as verisimilitude counters enigma and mimesis dissolves any sense of mystery. But is this really the case?

Magritte’s surrealist exercises in transparency are anything but straightforward. For this painter of visual riddles, evident realities not only reveal that which is visible, but they also, crucially, conceal that which is invisible. Subsequently, transparency becomes a weapon of disorientation for the surrealist artist: it is ‘the privileged medium for turning convention on its head and transforming it into an enigma and, at the same time, revealing to the greatest degree possible the mystery that it contains within it.’2 Within this formulation, the mystery of The Threatened Assassin is never revealed but constantly evoked through concealed situations and alternative events which the painting’s realistic mise-en-scène hints at. The spectator is encouraged, therefore, to search the visual landscape and to penetrate its latent mysteries: who is the female victim? Why does the presumed murderer pause next to his victim in order to listen to music? Who are the three figures in the background? Are they accomplices or are they witnesses? And what about the ambiguous title of Magritte’s work – who is threatening the assassin, and why is the spectator urged to adopt an ambivalent moral position towards a potential murderer?

It is this line of associative enquiry which Ballard urges his readers to undertake as they step into the literary riddle of Running Wild. More of a why- than a whodunit, Running Wild is a work of formal and generic experimentation along surrealist lines of influence. Although Ballard’s condensed text has been read conventionally as a novella, I want to suggest here that Running Wild should be read within the subversive tradition of the fait divers, a narrative form which, according to Roland Barthes, is structurally ‘related to the short story and the tale, and no longer to the novel.’3

Evading a direct English translation - ‘human interest story,’ ‘oddity’- the fait divers was a rich source of literary and visual experimentation for the surrealists who appropriated the technique of listing scandalous and bizarre news items in order to unsettle consensual hierarchies of knowledge within the modern press. Mapping the ‘sensitive outer edges of public opinion,’ fait divers coverage of daily catastrophes and horrific crimes drew attention to ‘the disturbing violence, accidents and irrational impulses below the surface of the everyday.’4

Within my process of recontextualisation, Running Wild is not only a component of ‘insolent mass culture’ which displays a ‘flagrant disregard to cultural conventions and social proprieties,’ but it also unpacks as a surrealist experiment in ideological unchaining or ‘désenchaînement’ whereby conventional thoughts and perspectives are ruptured by latent, unconscious forces.5

Furthermore, in the manner of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s elusive criminal investigation La Belle Captive (1975) (which is illustrated with seventy-seven paintings by Magritte), Running Wild does not ask to be solved, for there is no definitive truth or reality to be recovered. Rather, this short text demands a process of readerly investigation which opens the transparent surfaces of contemporary history and culture up to the revealing powers of paradox and ambiguity. Just as Magritte suggested that Juve (the inspector of the Sûreté and arch-rival of Fantômas) would have to enter one of Fantômas’s dreams and participate ‘as one of its characters’ if he hoped to ensnare the villain, so Ballard challenges us, the readers, to immerse ourselves in the deviant logics and emerging psychopathologies of the text.6

This process of going ‘undercover’ is not only important for confronting difficult and often elusive questions about agency, guilt and moral responsibility which Running Wild throws up. But it is also marks an integral and invariably disquieting process of self-reflection: to what extent are we, the readers, implicated in, or complicit with, the criminal horrors of contemporary history?

‘These Children That Come at You With Knives’: Running Wild and the Logics of Late Capitalism I look at the things you do and I don’t understand … you say how bad, and even killers, your children are. You made your children what they are … These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them … Is it my fault that your children do what you do? What about your children? You say there are just a few? There are many, many more, coming in the same direction. They are running in the streets – and they are coming right at you!

Charles Manson, Los Angeles Hall of Justice, November 19, 1970.7
Charles Manson’s analysis of parent-child relationships echoes chillingly throughout Ballard’s tale of mass murder. Running Wild is set in Pangbourne village estate, an exclusive gated-community situated within convenient reach of London and the M4. The ‘newest’ and ‘most expensive … of a number of similar estates in Berkshire,’ Pangbourne estate boasts a landscape of security fences, state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, well-manicured lawns, and an equally well-heeled demographic of ‘senior professionals – lawyers, stockbrokers, bankers – and their families’ (Running Wild, 12).8

On the morning of 25 June, 1988, the estate’s plush social fabric is rent by a mysterious massacre: all 32 adult residents have been murdered in their own homes, and their children (totalling 13 and aged between 8-17 years) have disappeared without a trace.
On the face of it, the process of investigation is headed and narrated by Dr Richard Greville, a forensic psychiatrist who is called in by anxious Home Office officials. Together with his assistant, Sergeant Payne, Greville fails, however, to see initially what the reader recognises almost immediately: namely that the Pangbourne mystery is a very clear case of parricide. It is out of this contest of perspectives – the reader pitched against the detective – that another process of narrative investigation emerges. Greville’s perceptual obtuseness highlights what Michel Foucault, the historian of vision who also investigated and brought to public attention the parricidal crimes of Pierre Rivière in 1836, criticised as the intellectually immobilising quality of the self-evident.9

Although derived etymologically from the Latin word ‘videre,’ which means ‘to see’, self-evidence is that which is accepted unseeingly and uncritically. The self-evident promotes, therefore, a myopia of sorts, a rigid and blinkered modality of seeing which is nourished by habituation and assumption. It is this delimiting social vision, with its attendant discursive structures and established hierarchies of knowledge, which Ballard encourages the reader to scrutinise and dismantle. For a text in which perceptual acuity is paramount, Running Wild opens provocatively on a note of obfuscation:

From the Forensic Diaries of Dr Richard Greville, Deputy Psychiatric Adviser, Metropolitan Police 25 August 1988.
Where to start? So much has been written about the Pangbourne Massacre,  as it is now known in the popular press throughout the world, that I find it difficult to see this tragic event with a clear eye. In the past two months there have been so many television
programmes about the thirty-two murdered residents of this exclusive estate to the west of London, and so much speculation about the abduction of their thirteen children, that there scarcely seems room for even a single fresh hypothesis (RW, 1).

In the manner of Alfred Jarry’s fait divers writings for Le Canard Sauvage, Ballard holds the textualisation of historical reality up for critical scrutiny.10 Recent events at Pangbourne Village estate have been recuperated and reconfigured by the world’s press to the extent that a media phenomenon – the Pangbourne Massacre – has been created. A collation of popular hypotheses (which range from ‘International Terrorism’ and ‘Organised Crime’ to ‘Misdirected Military Exercise’ (RW, 21-23), official statements and unofficial speculations, ‘the Pangbourne Massacre’ is a flagrant intertextual and intervisual space in which history, reality and knowledge have been recycled to the point of obscurity. Any notion of origins has been subsumed under a process of mediatisation which immerses the actual historical event within competing moments of surface repetition.

As Jean Baudrillard notes, it is this ‘universality of the news item [le fait divers] in mass communication’ which characterises contemporary knowledge networks. All political, historical and cultural information is ‘received in the same – at once anodyne and miraculous – form of the news item. It is entirely actualised –i.e. dramatised in the spectacular mode – and entirely deactualised – i.e. distanced by the communication medium and reduced to signs.’11
 
In the absence of epistemological depth and historical specificity, the atrocity of mass murder is refashioned into a reproducible yet wholly inaccessible event. Ironically, the ‘Pangbourne Massacre’ as media spectacle has become something of an historical blindspot.
At first glance, Greville’s forensic diaries promise to puncture this prevailing climate of media fictions with a counter-narrative of empirical enquiry. A self-conscious framing device used commonly in detective and gothic fiction, the diary form functions conventionally to contain an ‘inexplicable event’ (RW, 13) within a rational and authoritative framework. As Greville’s textual investigation unfolds, though, the reader soon realises that Ballard’s framing device functions as a red herring. Indeed, Greville’s forensic document is as promiscuous in form and meaning as the equivocal media discourses which cloud his vision. His diaries are composed, for instance, of brief narrative extracts (including a ‘Reconstruction’ and a ‘Postscript’) which boast various titles – ‘The Missing Children’, ‘Marion Miller, the First Hostage’, ‘The Pangbourne Massacre: The Murderers Identified’ (RW, 44, 78).

Reminiscent of newspaper headlines, these titles establish a (false) hierarchy of information which directs the reader to aspects of the enquiry which the author-detective deems to be salient (abduction and murder). Furthermore, the sensationalist impact of these typographically bold and emphatic titles sets the tone for a narrative which indulges in the kind of emotive verbal poetics that characterises much media discourse. Averting his eyes from ‘files’ of incriminating evidence – ‘Extensive scuffmarks, bloody handprints and shoe impressions that match the children’s known shoe sizes indicate that almost all the children were present at the scenes of their parents’ murders’ (RW, 18) – Greville presents a profile of the children and their families which ignores the textual signatures, and which draws instead on a media-authored lexicon of victimisation, innocence and vulnerability. Seduced by
the media’s ‘melancholy parade of murder and kidnap victims,’ the detective ponders the loss of ‘enlightened and loving parents’ who were ‘guiding their sons and daughters towards fulfilled and happy lives when they were cut down so tragically’; he tortures himself with recurrent thoughts of ‘these orphaned children’ and their ‘desperate attempts to resist the kidnappers’ (RW, 10-16).

Replete with recycled platitudes and well-worn phrases which frustrate the reader, Greville’s response to the Pangbourne massacre gestures to a double logic embedded within the text. Firstly, Greville’s diaries, which he is revising ‘for publication’ (RW, 3), are implicated within an invasive media-capitalist logic which is dependent upon the perpetuation of a certain ideological framework for
its continued profits. The world’s press, Ballard reminds us, have fetishised the Pangbourne children, transforming them into media merchandise. Carefully selected photographs of ‘a group of thoughtful and pleasant adolescents smiling out of their school speech-day portraits and holiday snapshots’ (RW, 17) have been selected by editorial powers in order to trigger fierce emotional responses in the reader.

To rework an Orwellian axiom: all atrocities are newsworthy, but some, and especially those involving white, middle-class children, are more newsworthy than others. The national press’s organisation of a ‘marathon of manhunts’ and of ‘ransom funds, which received millions in public donations’ (RW, 74, 46) has nourished a cultural psyche which seeks the illusion of agency in the face of utter disempowerment. In this context, however, agency can never be anything more than the act of buying a newspaper or, in Greville’s case, the act of writing a text which will merely extend the burgeoning library of Pangbourne fictions and which will, in turn, cultivate the media-capitalist process. Greville’s conditioned reader-response also gestures to a prevailing cultural logic of denial. As
his list of Bizarre Theories on the Pangbourne murders reveals, the detective’s myopia is not idiosyncratic, rather it is symptomatic of a wider cultural condition: (9) Bizarre Theories
There remain a few outlandish possibilities.
(a) A unit of Soviet Spetsnaz commandos, targeted on the residential quarters of the NATO headquarters staff at Northwood, received an incorrect war alert order and were parachuted by error into the Pangbourne estate during the night of 24 June. They
slaughtered the adult residents, assuming they were senior military personnel, then realised their error and abducted the children.
(b) An experimental nerve-gas projectile fell from an RAF or USAF military aircraft into the Pangbourne area and deranged a group of nearby residents who committed the murders. They then destroyed all traces of the children before suffering retroactive amnesia that erased any memory of the crime. Unaware of the murders they carried out, they have now returned to ordinary domestic life.
(c) The murdered residents and their children were, unknown to themselves, deep-cover agents of a foreign power. Their mission accomplished, the parents were ‘instructed’ to murder each other, and the children disappeared into the cellars of the foreign embassy before being spirited abroad.
(d) The parents were murdered by visitors from outer space seeking young human specimens.
(e) The parents were murdered by their own children (RW, 24-25). Running Wild is full of very funny lists like this which collapse into cliché or absurdity. I disagree with Andrzej Gasiorek’s flat assertion, therefore, that ‘there is nothing funny about Running Wild.’12
Ballard’s fait divers is, in contrast, an audacious experiment in surrealist black humour which (in the tradition of André Breton, Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Genet) employs comedy as a mobilising and eruptive force. A defense ‘against the objective reality of the external world, and a perversion of its representation,’ humour noir is a site of critical and imaginative resistance, the political dimensions of which were recognised and exploited by the surrealists.13

The po-faced tone with which Greville delivers his hypotheses, for instance, is undercut radically and ironically by the ridiculousness of their contents – botched terrorist activity, a bio-chemical accident, retroactive amnesia, psychological de-patterning (brainwashing) and alien abduction. Moreover, Greville’s incredulous denigration of ‘parricide’ to the most ‘outlandish’ of possibilities creates a comedic and critical jolt which, moving beyond the detective’s obtuseness, alerts the reader to a latent cultural logic which also refuses to see ‘the obvious’ (RW, 3). On a literal and symbolic level, parricide is such an affront to patriarchal authority, to conventional notions of ‘the family’ and to social propriety that the dominant cultural psyche buries unpalatable truths beneath the convenience of stereotype. ‘Too much emotional capital had,’ after all, ‘been invested in the notion of thirteen orphaned children’ (RW, 79).

Following Sigmund Freud’s reading of jokes as forms of psychological effectiveness which ‘set themselves up against an inhibiting and restricting power – which is now the critical judgement,’ Ballard’s fait divers employs the convulsive energies of surrealist black humour as a means of exposing and dismantling a prevailing social consciousness which flaunts a reified ideological process
of semblance rather than substance.14

Visions of Murder: Running Wild and the ‘Papin’ and Nozières affairs
Running Wild is a palimpsest of real and imagined terror. When Greville eventually identifies the Pangbourne children as the murderers, for instance, he invites comparison with the ‘Hungerford’ massacre, ‘the Baader-Meinhof gang, the French Action Directe or the Italian Red Brigades,’ ‘the Jonestown massacre,’ and the Manson ‘Family’ (RW, 19, 22, 81, 84,). For my reading of Ballard’s tale of parricide, though, it is pertinent at this stage to introduce two more murderous intertexts which scandalised 1930s France, and which provided the surrealists with a source of intellectual and creative enquiry.

In February 1933, Christine and Léa Papin murdered their mistress, Mme Lancelin and her daughter, Geneviève, in a shocking display of domestic violence. Armed with a hammer, a kitchenknife and a pewter-jug, the Papin sisters bludgeoned their mistresses, before mutilating their battered bodies. The suggestion (which would later come from psychoanalytical case studies) that the sisters’
heinous crime was of an oedipal nature was born out of one particularly gruesome detail: the servants had torn out their victims’ eyes whilst they were still alive and with their bare hands.15

If the Parisian bourgeoisie were shocked by the action of servants ‘rising up to attack the citadel of bourgeois privilege,’ then they were soon to witness an unprecedented threat which ‘came from within the very ranks of the respectable classes.’16 During the trial of the Papin sisters, Violette Nozières was arrested for the murder (by poison) of her father and for the attempted murder of her mother. Nozières’s claims that she had been the victim of a sexually abusive father incited accusations of ‘double-parricide’ from
an outraged public. Not content with killing her father, this ‘vile’ and ‘promiscuous’ daughter also wanted to sully his memory.17

For the surrealists, the ‘Papin’ and ‘Nozières’ cases possessed a double resonance. Firstly, these young assassins joined the list of ‘surrealist anti-heroines’, keeping company with, amongst others, Germaine Berton, who assassinated Maurice Plateau, the ‘Action Française’ leader in 1923, and to whom the surrealists paid homage in the first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste (1924). In this
visual collage a central image of Berton is surrounded by photographs of the surrealists and their progenitors (including Freud). The text at the bottom of the page reads, ‘It is woman who casts the biggest shadow or projects the greatest light in our dreams.’18

Within the surrealist imagination, Berton, Nozières and the Papin sisters had retaliated poetically rather than criminally against the
repressive social and political order. André Breton especially felt a ‘visceral commitment’ to Violette Nozières’s case, believing ‘that Monsieur Nozières, not his daughter, had been the guilty party.’ Even more important, for Breton, ‘was the bad light in which this affair seemed to put the bourgeois family institution.’ For the surrealist artist, ‘supporting Violette Nozières meant spitting in the face of the parents he still resented.’19

The second source of fascination for the surrealists lay in the prevailing textual response to the women’s transgressions. In the aftermath of the murders a miscellany of newspaper articles, medico-legal commentaries and psychoanalytical case studies emerged which tried, in varying ways, to locate these violent crimes within a socio-economic context. Humanité ran a series of newspaper articles – ‘Christine and Léa Papin Give the Reasons Why they Mortally Beat Their Mistresses’ and ‘The Murderesses of Le Mans Are the Victims of Exploitation and Servitude’ – which re-presented the case within a narrative of material deprivation.20 As Jonathan Eburne points out, it was precisely the ‘challenge to the possibility of explaining, or justifying such violence as something fully conscious’ that made the Papin and Nozières affairs so ‘significant to surrealist political thought.’21

Less interested in class or political motives, the surrealists were more fascinated by the question of what ‘such an outburst of abject violence’ revealed about ‘motive, desire and breaches in the basic structure of every day reality.’22 The surrealists responded to the Papin and Nozières affairs with characteristic imagination. In 1933 Breton collaborated with sixteen other artists (including Paul Eluard, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Hans Arp, Salvador Dalí, E.L.T. Messens) on the fait divers, Violette Nozières. A collection of poetry, prose, illustrations and photographs, this surrealist work asserted ‘the legitimacy of Nozières’s act as a strike for freedom, linking her parricide with a liberation from an economy of rape (the "viol" encoded in “Violette”) and from the repressive values of petit-bourgeois family life.’23

In constructing their textual response to the case, the surrealists recycled certain elements from the fait divers rubric: press photographs were built into collages, circumstantial details (such as Monsieur Nozières' pornography collection) appropriated from news reports were written provocatively into poems.24 Counter to the linearity of conventional crime narratives, Violette Nozières presented a series of unstable and equivocal narrative fragments which teased the rigidity of ratiocinative thought with the playfulness of associative anticipation.

Figure 1: The Papin sisters, 'before' and 'after,' Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, 1933.

The surrealists rejoined official explanations of the Papin affair with equal insolence. Two photographs of the sisters, ‘before’ and ‘after,’ were published in Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution with the short text: ‘They emerged fully armed from a song by Maldoror’ (1933) [fig. 1]. Gesturing to the gratuitous evil of Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1868), Paul Eluard and Benjamin Péret’s caption works contingently with the image in order to open analyses of the Papin affair up to irrational forces.25 At first glance, the images invite a straightforward reading of radical transformation: docile submission has been corrupted somehow into diabolical subversion. Yet, when the images are reconsidered in conjunction with the text, a process of verbal and visual juxtaposition is initiated which invites further questioning: are the manifest signs of violence (in the second image) not also present, though latent, in the first?26 Calling for a re-examination of the transparency of the surface image, the surrealist fait divers accentuated the enigmatic, psychological depths of the Papin affair which the majority of media and medical commentators flattened into statements of motive and causality.

Ballard similarly incorporates visual images into his fait divers in order to excavate invisible social and psychological dimensions of the Pangbourne massacre. Although Running Wild is commonly known as a text-only work, it was published originally as an illustrated ‘novella,’ featuring six illustrations by Janet Woolley. Due presumably to financial restrictions, these visuals have fallen out of subsequent editions, but here I want to restore them to the critical frame [figs. 2 and 3]. In the first instance, it is worth noting how the colour has been drained from Woolley’s images. Although the reasons for using black and white copies of original colour prints (the book cover features a colour portrait of the thirteen child assassins) may, again, be financial, the presence of these monochrome plates is nevertheless open to figurative interpretation. Just as the ‘Police Video’ of Pangbourne Village uses a ‘minimalist style of camera-work’ which ‘exactly suits the subject matter, the shadowless summer sunlight and the almost blank façades of the expensive houses – everything is strangely blanched, drained of all emotion’ (RW, 4), so Woolley’s illustrations present chilling visions of murder.

 
Both illustrations return us, the readers, to the scenes of the crime, thus transforming the reading process into an act of witnessing. Admittedly, the initial impact of these illustrations on the reader is more comical than horrific. Resembling pictures from a comic-book or newspaper, Woolley’s drawings contrast markedly with Ballard’s psychologically realist prose. Indeed, the artist’s use of perspective coats these murder scenes with a veneer of innocence and harmlessness so that, at first glance, the diminutive assassins do not appear to pose any real threat. But appearances are clearly deceptive in Running Wild, and as the reader/witness looks more closely at these scenes, so our initial sense of distance breaks down.

Against expectation, the tiny guns (they are smaller than Mrs Reade’s earrings and hairclip) which enter the visual frame are not, as perhaps first thought, toy pistols [fig. 2]. They are weapons of execution. The horrific dimension of Mr and Mrs Reade’s murder lies less in the method of assassination, however, and more in the fact that this heinous crime could only be executed so effectively and efficiently through a violation of love and trust: ‘both have been shot by assailants who have crept so close to them that the cutlery beside their napkins is undisturbed’ (RW, 9). As this snapshot of familial togetherness conveys, intimacy can also be the harbinger of death.

Figure 2: Janet Woolley, illustration for Ballard's Running Wild, 1988.

Figure 3: Janet Woolley, illustration for Ballard's Running Wild, 1988.

In mood, tone and perspective, fig. 3 is equally unnerving. The faces of the soon-to-be victim and the assassin are blank and emotionless; father and daughter return the reader’s gaze unflinchingly. Contradicting Greville’s initial speculations on the psychological profile of the killers, Mr Miller is not, we see, murdered by a ‘deranged loner,’ a ‘crazed gunman’ or a ‘thrill killer’ (RW, 20). He is assassinated, instead, in the privacy of his own bathtub by Marion Miller, his eight year-old daughter, and by Robin Miller, his thirteen year old son, who is concealed from view. The literal (Mr Miller is ‘well over six feet tall, a former amateur boxer,’ RW, 55) and symbolic enormity of the children’s crime is conveyed through disproportion; the father figure looms large in the foreground, unaware of the oedipal revolt emerging from behind the shower curtain. Moreover, the depiction of oversized objects – a sponge, a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush holder and brushes (which are as big as, or bigger, than Marion) – disorientates the reader/witness to the extent that we are encouraged to reassess the function of these uncanny objects.

Reminiscent of Magritte’s and Paul Nougé’s Homage aux Soeurs Papins (1934), in which a jug is deliberately misplaced on the floor in order to accentuate its unexpected place within a ‘litany of household torture devices used in the Papin affair,’ Ballard’s fait divers employs the surrealist technique of dépaysement in order to expose and explore an invisible logic of violence which resides below the unassuming surface of the quotidian.27

Holding a hairdryer, ‘with a pistol grip’ (RW, 53), Marion Miller will drop the household weapon into her father’s bathwater. Then Robin Miller will emerge from the adjacent bedroom and stab his ‘stunned’ father with a ‘kitchen knife’ (RW, 54). Within this process of re-contextualisation, the means for exacting violence and cruelty are never far from reach. Revealing what Barthes terms ‘a false innocence of objects; the object hides behind its inertia as thing, but only to emit an even stronger causal force, which may derive from itself or elsewhere,’ Running Wild calls for an investigative reading process which is aleatoric and contingent.28

The Pangbourne mystery is not ‘constituted by a quantitively accumulated force, but rather by a mobile energy, active in small doses.’29 Greville’s meticulous accumulation of forensic evidence – the parents’ reading lists, ‘an A-Z of once modish names from Althusser and Barthes to Husserl and Perls’; displays of ‘electronic affection,’ such as ‘Well done Jeremy!’ which intrude across the childrens’ computer screens; a ‘mutilated copy of Jean Piaget’s classic text on the rearing of children’ (RW, 35, 36, 47) – remains, therefore, inconsequential to the investigative process proper. Although our myopic detective finally accepts the ‘strange logic’ of parricide, he remains reluctant to immerse himself in its complex psychopathologies. Subsequently, he forges an alternative, yet still rational and coherent narrative, out of a miscellany of information:

By a grim paradox, the instrument of the parents’ deaths was the devoted and caring regime which they had instituted at Pangbourne village. The children had been brainwashed, by the unlimited tolerance and understanding that had erased all freedom and all trace of emotion …

Altogether, the children existed in a state closely akin to sensory deprivation … The same schizophrenic detachment from reality can be seen in the members of the Manson gang, in Mark Chapman and Lee Harvey Oswald, and in the guards at the Nazi death-camps. One has no sympathy for Manson and the others – an element of choice existed for them all – but the Pangbourne children had no choice. Unable to express their emotions or respond to those of the people around them, suffocated under a mantle of praise and encouragement, they were trapped for ever within a perfect universe. In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom (RW, 82-84).

In an ironic intertextual reversal of materialist readings of the Papin affair, Greville argues that the Pangbourne massacre is an expression of imposed emotional and material excess. The murderers, within this formulation, are victims of atomisation, the death of the imagination, the rationalisation of desire, alienation and affectlessness. Echoing Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s anti-Enlightenment proposition, ‘Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant,’ it is tempting to accept Greville’s revised logic at face value.30 Indeed, in his review of Running Wild, James Marcus was so convinced by Greville’s final analyses that he questioned the efficacy of Ballard’s text as a social critique on the basis of them: ‘The assumptions Running Wild is supposed to challenge,’ he criticised, ‘such as the fairy-tale version of family happiness, haven’t been widely accepted for decades.’31

Seduced by the textual surface, Marcus does not read Running Wild beyond what he sees as the limits of its Enlightenment critique. Consequently this myopic critic, like the detective, fails to see the bigger picture. I agree with Dennis Foster and Andrzej Gasiorek when they observe that Greville’s concluding thesis is yet another comfortable delusion which allows society to avert its eyes from further offensive truths.32 More than a rebellion against a coercive regime of tolerance, the Pangbourne massacre is also this ‘social order’s most perfect expression.’33 Irreducible to one cause, the Pangbourne massacre should be read within a network of complex and contradictory logics at work within late capitalist society.

The meticulously planned and executed killings (which took place within ‘ten minutes’) would not have been possible, for instance, without either the vast network of surveillance and security equipment on the estate, or the parents’ own ruthless systems of observation – ‘Scarcely a minute of the children’s lives had not been intelligently planned’ (RW, 32). Equally, the killers’ escape in blood-stained clothes could only have gone unnoticed in a community blinded by social disconnection – no one would have noticed ‘a party of jogging teenagers, while the drying blood would soon have resembled mud-splashes of an arduous obstacle race’ (RW, 103).
Furthermore, Greville’s revised yet interminably reductive reading of events conceals another manifestation of the text’s prevailing logic of denial. Comparisons cannot be made, he insists, between the morally reprehensible crimes of Manson, Chapman, Oswald and Hitler, and the Pangbourne children’s cries for ‘freedom.’ Persistently short-sighted in its scope and emotive in its rhetorical expression, Greville’s theory is problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, his propensity to consider historical atrocities collectively and relatively demonstrates an uncritical historico-cultural perspective which collapses complex knowledges and psychopathologies into ready-made and consumable profiles. Secondly, by divesting the children from any sense of agency, Greville exercises a doublyrepressive logic which seals the Pangbourne mystery off from both conscious and unconscious activity. Ironically, though, the detective’s palatable explanations actually raise a number of unpalatable questions about history, agency and moral responsibility which the reader cannot ignore:

if the children ‘had no choice,’ then to what extent is Manson’s moral indictment of a capitalist society that produced and nurtured his psychopathology justified, albeit unwittingly, by Greville’s analyses?

What kinds of ethical tensions does this throw up for the reader? And, what about the possibility that the children acted randomly, and without motive. Greville considers this difficult proposition only to dismiss, and by extension contain, it within a narrative of insanity. But can we shut down the unconscious energies of ‘the Pangbourne massacre’ so readily? Uncertainty and ambiguity are clearly anathema to the myopic detective. Just as the authorities invest in a clean-up operation which will fill in ‘the deep ruts left in the finely trimmed grass’ and thus restore ‘the once-immaculate surface’ of the Pangbourne estate (RW, 5), so Greville’s closing remarks attempt to contain the murders within a narrative which society will accept uncritically and subsequently forget. Yet the challenges and complexities of Running Wild ask that we, as readers, resist convenient surface narratives and immerse ourselves instead in the text’s poetics of ambiguity. Despite Greville’s repeated efforts, the Pangbourne mystery remains, and indeed has to remain unsolved. For it is the function of the fait divers to preserve ‘at the heart of contemporary society an ambiguity of the rational and the irrational, of the intelligible and the unfathomable.’34 It is the evocation of mystery, rather than the revelation of it which Ballard’s surreal detective fiction demands.

1 The written series Fantômas was composed by Pierre Souvestre and Marcell Alain between 1912 and 1914. Louis Feuillade’s serialisation of Fantômas (1913-14) thrilled and disturbed a cinematic audience which included Apollinare (Fantômas was his favourite film); Suzi Gablik, Magritte, London 1970, 41-65.
2 Jacques Meuris, Magritte 1898-1967, Cologne 1998, 37.
3 Roland Barthes, ‘Structure of the Fait-Divers’, in Critical Essays, translated from the French by Richard Howard, Evanston 1972, 185-195, 187.
4 Barthes, Critical Essays, 70.
5 Robin Walz, Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Poplar Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London 2000, 3-
6 In his own description of Juve, Magritte concludes that ‘Juve has failed again this time. One means remains for him to achieve his end: Juve will have to get into one of Fantômas’s dreams – he will try to take part as one of its characters.’ René Magritte, Distances (March 1928), cited in Gablik, Magritte, 48.
7 Charles Manson reprinted in Vincent Bugliosi (with Kurt Gentry), Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, New York 1975, 524-31.
8 All quotations are from the 1997 Flamingo edition of Running Wild, London 1997. Hereafter abbreviated to RW.
9 Michel Foucault, ed., I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother Harmondsworth 1978.
10 Le Canard Sauvage was a weekly illustrated review dedicated to the fait divers which ran from March-October 1903. See David Walker, Outrage and Insight: Modern French Writers and the ‘Fait Divers’, Oxford 1995, 20-21.
11 Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, London 1998, 37. Emphasis in original.
12 Andrzej Gasiorek, J.G Ballard, Manchester 2005, 143.
13 In Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, Aragon wrote that in 1931 Lewis Carroll’s work was written at the same time as the English massacres in Ireland. He added that Les Chants de Maldoror and Une saison en enfer were written in the same decade, suggesting that we make the connection with the crushing of the Commune. Breton’s Anthologie de l’humour noir (1939) was also published in the face of Fascist ascendancy in Europe. Breton perceived humour ‘as a powerful force for revolt, as the origin of an avalanche, the political repercussions of which could go on indefinitely,’ Jacqueline Chénieux-Gendron, Surrealism, trans. Vivien Folkenflik, New York 1990, 90-91.
14 Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, edited by James Strachey, New York 1960, 162.
15 Rachel Edwards and Keith Reader, The Papin Sisters, Oxford 2001, 5.
16 David H. Walker, Outrage and Insight: Modern French Writers and the ‘Fait Divers,’ 94.
17 For a fascinating, in-depth analysis of the Nozières case see Jonathan P. Eburne, Surrealism and
the Art of Crime, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Pennsylvania 2002, 280-300.
18 Translated and reprinted in Briony Fer, David Batchelor and Paul Wood, Realism, Rationalism and
Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, New Haven and London, 1993, 177.
19 Mark Pollizotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, New York 1995, 393.
20 Jonathan P. Eburne, ‘Surrealism Noir,’ in Raymond Spiteri and Donald LaCoss, eds, Surrealism,
Politics and Culture, Aldershot, 2003, 91-110, 97.
21 Eburne, 'Surrealism Noir,' 101.
22 Eburne, 'Surrealism Noir,' 95.
23 Eburne, Surrealism and the Art of Crime, 285.
24 David H. Walker, Outrage and Insight, 77.
25 Eluard and Péret published their own series of fait divers called ‘Revue de la Presse’ (Reviews of the Press) in the May 1933 double issue of Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. ‘Revue de la Press’ is translated and reprinted in Eburne’s essay, ‘Surrealism Noir,’ 98.
26 I am following Eburne’s in-depth analysis of the double portrait of Christine and Léa Papin,
‘Surrealism Noir,’ 91-93.
© Jeannette Baxter, 2007
Papers of Surrealism Issue 5 Spring 2007
15
27 Eburne, ‘Surrealism Noir,’ 109.
28 Barthes, ‘The Structure of the Fait Divers,’ 191.
29 Barthes, ‘The Structure of the Fait Divers,’ 190
30 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming, London 1944; 1997, 3.
31 James Marcus, ‘In Short,’ New York Times Book Review, December 17 1989, 19.
32 Dennis A. Foster, ‘J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Senses: Perversion and the Failure of Authority,’
PMlA, May 1993, 519-32, 523 and Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard, 147.
33 Gasiorek, J.G. Ballard, 147.
34 Barthes, ‘Structure of the Fait Divers,’ 194.

Jeannette Baxter is an associate tutor at the University of East Anglia, specialising in Modern and Contemporary British Fiction. She is the author of J.G. Ballard’s Surrealist Imagination: Spectacular Authorship (Ashgate, forthcoming), and the editor of Contemporary Critical Perspectives: J.G. Ballard (Continuum, forthcoming). She is currently organising 'From Shanghai to Shepperton': An International Conference on J.G. Ballard (May 5-6, UEA, 2007). Other publications include journal articles and book
chapters on Angela Carter, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Primo Levi. Her current ‘mid-term’ project, Surrealism and the British Novel, is a study of the cultural and intellectual legacies of surrealism in British literature of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Alongside reassessments of writers such as Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Henry Green, Alan Burns, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie and Ali Smith, Surrealism and the British Novel engages with wider aesthetic

Surreal Hero for a Nation of Contradictions 

Friday, April 10, 2009 5:45:04 PM

Surreal Hero for a Nation of Contradictions
By Alan Riding, The New York Times, April 26, 1998

After centuries of being variously ruled by Austria, Spain, France and the Netherlands, Belgium was already suffering something of an identity crisis when it finally became a nation in its own right in 1830. Since then, things have not got much better. Divided between Dutch-speaking Flemish, French-speaking Walloons and polyglot Bruxellois, to this day Belgians often seem uncertain what, if anything, they have in common. No wonder local intellectuals entertain themselves by predicting that their country will soon break up.

But it may not happen quite yet. This year, at least, Belgians have discovered a rare point of unity in the dapper figure of Rene Magritte, Belgium's most influential artist this century. Joining forces to organize exhibitions, publications, television programs and walking tours to mark the centenary of his birth, they have embraced Magritte as the quintessential Belgian, the respectable pipe-smoking bourgeois in the bowler hat whose Surrealist paintings mirrored the absurdity of existence.

A Mania for the Absurdist
Magritte who had a good head near his shoulders. Thus, Belgians have found that to celebrate his art of the unlikely juxtaposition is to celebrate a nation in contradiction with itself. To accept the artist's refusal to explain his paintings is to be relieved of the need to
explain Belgium. Magritte's "This is not a pipe" has become "This is not a country," which is fine, because Magritte's nonpipe was also a pipe, just different.

An alternative take on this year's Magritte mania is simply that, having seen France quietly appropriate many of their French-speaking heroes (from Georges Simenon to Jacques Brel), Belgians are delighting in seeing the French traipsing in large numbers to Brussels to pay their respects to Magritte. Then there is the pleasure in recognizing Magritte in everyday life, not just those of his images that have been endlessly plagiarized in advertising and the performing arts to the point that their provenance is often forgotten (two new productions at the Paris Opera are full of uncredited Magritte references), but also those visual and intellectual enigmas that are now simply called surreal but were in fact first isolated by Magritte.

Of course, there may also be a simpler explanation: that anniversaries are hard to resist. Once Belgium's Royal Museums of Fine Art decided four years ago to record the Magritte centenary with the largest art exhibition in this country's history, other shows were destined to follow. "Hommage a Magritte: 1898-1967" at the Galerie Christine et 1sy Brachot in Brussels through May 31 focuses on his photography and sketches; "Rene Magritte and Contemporary Art," at the Museum of Modern Art in Ostende through June 28, looks at his influence on later artists, and "Magritte in Chatelet," at the Town Hall in Chatelet through May 17, is showing the work he did during his teen-age years while he was living there.

But the centerpiece, through June 28, remains "Magritte" at the Royal Museums of Fine Art, which is presenting 300 paintings and gouaches as well as posters, cover designs of musical scores, tracts, letters, magazine covers, photographs and homemade movies. The exhibition is displayed chronologically, starting with the groping steps that preceded the artist's discovery of Giorgio de Chirico and Surrealism in 1925. First came Magritte's encounter with Italian Futurism, which he proclaimed "a revelation" and which led him, as he later put it, to "do Futurism." A couple of years later, he belatedly found Cubism and produced what he described as "a mixture of Cubism and abstract art." But, he wrote near the end of his life, "these experiences gave me little satisfaction."

STILL IN STYLE: Rene Magritte at home in Brussels in 1965.
The man looked quite a bit like some of his paintings. Or was it vice versa? From 1925, though, he developed the style that, with a couple of brief digressions, would stay with him until his death in 1967 at the age of 69. It was a style marked more by his eye and his mind than by his hand, more by its content than by its technique, more by his desire to disturb than to give pleasure. Today he is considered to have been a competent but unexceptional painter, yet more than de Chirico and Max Ernst, whom he regarded as mentors, his work remains remarkably popular and topical. He did not like to be called the Father of Pop Art, and he was right. This show demonstrates that he has survived Pop Art.

The decade that followed Magritte's conversion to Surrealism was enormously creative. Already in the 1925 "Nocturne," some of the motifs appear that would stay with him for decades, in this case the notion of a painting within a painting, a bird in flight and what he called a "bilboquet," the carved wooden pole that variously resembled an ornate table leg, a staircase balustrade and a chess pawn.

Other favorite motifs, like the sea and clouds, joined his vocabulary the following year in "The Birth of the Idol” and "After the Water, the Clouds." In "The Musings of a Solitary Walker" of 1926, the mysterious bowler-hatted man, seen from behind, makes his entry, this time standing near the River Sambre where Magritte's mother drowned when he was 12. In 1927, he became entranced with the double image: the back and front of a bowler-hatted man in "The Meaning of Night"; a man in tails on either side of a door in "Portrait of Paul Nouge," his closest friend at the time, and, in "The Secret Double," where the double is an illusion because what is missing from the face and torso of a woman is placed beside her. All this was relatively simple: things are not as they appear.

In 1928 alone, when Magritte painted no fewer than 100 works, including the famous hooded images of "The Lovers," he began introducing words into his paintings, invariably meant to create tension between the perception of the eye and of the mind. A white blob becomes the body of a woman, dark blobs are variously described as a horse, a cloud, a gun. In time, he came to use fewer words on his canvases and concentrated instead, often with the help of friends and children, on coming up with bizarre titles for his works. A 1930 full-length portrait of a nude, in which the body is divided into five separate paintings, became "The Eternally Obvious."

Amusingly, for a man who never explained the meaning of his images, Magritte in fact spent a lot of time explaining why they could not be explained. "Too often by a twist of thought, we tend to reduce what is strange to what is familiar," he once said. "I intend to restore the familiar to the strange.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, this exhibition serves to confirm how many of his strange images are now all too familiar: the train emerging from a fireplace, a blue sky and clouds in the shape of a dove against a night sky, a lamp in a dark street against a bright sky, a green apple filling an entire room, a vast rock topped by a castle hovering over breaking waves, birds growing out of plants.

Less familiar are the works of the early 1940's, in what he called his Renoir period, when Magritte embraced the rich colors of Impressionism as an antidote to the grimness of World War II, and of the late 1940's, when he created his "vache," or cow paintings, as a way of shocking Parisians who in 1948 belatedly gave him his first one-man show. But he soon returned to his old style, which in "Golconda" of 1955 would produce that most Belgian of images of dozens of men in bowler hats and dark overcoats falling like huge drops of rain among gray apartment blocks.

Magritte kept working to the end, often making several copies or variations of the same work (for example, he did 16 versions in oil and 7 in gouache of "The Dominion of Light"). But he never felt a need to apologize; he derided the idea of a unique work of art. Indeed, near the end of his life, he liked to boast that he had done 1,000 canvases but had only 100 ideas. Nonetheless, 31 years after his death, both his ideas and his images are still being copied, still drawing crowds, still provoking a frown or a smile, even threatening to unite Belgians, which isn't bad for a man who insisted he was not really a painter.

René Magritte: The Anti-Surrealist, Surrealist 

Thursday, April 09, 2009 2:23:19 AM

René Magritte: The Anti-Surrealist, Surrealist
By William M. Noetling For Art History 109: 19th and 20th Century Art November 26, 1997

René Magritte, while an integral part of the Surrealist movement, really shouldn’t belong in the surrealism category of painters. Though the majority of his work is surrealistic in nature and theme, the painter himself didn’t really enjoy interacting with the rest of the surrealists. In addition, Magritte, like many artists, shifted styles several times throughout his career.

Magritte was born during the last few years of the 19th century, on November 21, 1989 in Lessines, Belgium, the oldest of three boys. In Suzi Gablik’s invaluable biography of Magritte’s work and life, he is quoted as saying:

I detest my past, . . . and anyone else’s. . . . I also detest the decorative arts, folklore, advertising, voices making announcements, aerodynamism, boy scouts, the smell of mothballs, events of the moment and drunken people. (Gablik 16).

The seeds for his dream-like themes were most likely planted in his childhood. Gablik points out that:

Magritte’s recollections of early childhood were few, but they were all bizarre. What he remembered especially, as in a kind of vision, was a large wooden chest, which had stood enigmatically near his cradle. He also remembered how, when he was a year old and his family had moved from Lessines to Gilly, two balloonists arrived suddenly one day, dressed in leather and wearing helmets, and dragging down the stairs the deflated envelope of their balloon, which had somehow become entangled on the roof of the house where he lived. (Gablik 21).

Both of these images will later be referenced in Magritte’s work.

Magritte’s mother drowned under mysterious circumstances when he was very young, and their father brought up the boy and his brothers. He met his future wife Georgette at the age of fifteen. At the age of eighteen Magritte enrolled at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, here he began his professional artistic career in a style that was similar to the early Picasso Cubist works. A short time later he began to write Surrealist and Dadaist poetry under the influence of E.L.T. Mesens. It was in the magazines co-edited with Mesens that Magritte would first encounter the work of Man Ray, Arp and other important members of the Dada movement.

In 1920, at the age of twenty-two Magritte endured several months in the military outside of Antwerp. During his military service he continued to design posters and utilized his free time to paint. It was during this time that Magritte’s search for his defining style would take a turn to Futurism.

While lecturing to students at the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp in 1938, Magritte said of Futurism:

In a state of real intoxication, I painted a whole series of Futurist paintings.

Yet, I don’t believe the lyricism I wanted to capture had an unchanging center unrelated to aesthetic Futurism (Torczyner 214).

Gablik suggests "his Futurism was never orthodox, in that it was always combined with a certain eroticism, as in the picture Youth, where the diffused figure of a nude girl hovers over the image of a boat (Gablik 23).

In a letter to Andre Bosmans written in April of 1959, Magritte himself said:

I’m neither a "Surrealist" nor a "Cubist" nor a "Patawhatever" (‘a philosophy invented by Alfred Jary, which was taken up by the Surrealists and Dadaists’) even though I have a fairly strong weakness for the so-called Cubist and Futurist ‘schools.’ Were I really an artiste-paintre, I would waver between these two disciplines. Were I an innocent intellectual, I would be content with what Surrealism entails in a large, very large part of unimportant matters. . . .

The elements that entered into the compositions of my paintings were represented by means of flexible shapes and colors, so that those shapes and colors could be modified and shaped to the demands imposed by a rhythm of movement (Torczyner 184).

In an earlier essay Magritte explained the artist’s penchant for new styles thusly:

So painters, misunderstanding the problem of painting, cast about for new techniques, and through them managed to restore to painting a few fleeting moments of superficial vitality. The Impressionists, Cubists, Futurists, all experiences moments of agitation and excitement due to original techniques, but they were futile, since these same moments of agitation and excitement could be achieved, and better, through other means than those related to painting (Torczyner 218).

Magritte would soon abandon all these styles for fully realized Surrealism. Gablik says "In 1925 Magritte painted what he considered his first ‘realized’ picture, in that it introduced a poetic idea. This was the presence of something more than what can actually be seen – something mysterious and unknown" (Gablik 25). This monumental painting would be called The Lost Jockey, and while the piece was painted in many versions, it would mark the first piece done in the style that Magritte would continue in for the remainder of his career.

Magritte had been influenced by Girogio de Chirico’s The Song of Love, which revealed to him "’the ascendancy of poetry over painting’" (Gablik 25). Gablik further states that de Chirico’s work "could be made to speak about something other than painting. . . " (Gablik 25). Magritte avidly explored this style during this period, often painting a piece a day. He had his first solo exhibition in 1927 in Brussels, and while it carried very little success, it did bring him the financial support that he needed to devote himself entirely to painting.

Somewhere in this time period Magritte found himself meeting other Belgian Surrealists, including Marcel Lecomte and Louis Scutenaire. Soon after he jointed the Surrealist crowd in Paris. Gablik describes:

The Surrealists under Breton were fanatical activists, and many of them were politically involved on the extreme left. . . . Magritte himself avoided all political affiliations, with the exception of a short-lived and nominal membership in the Belgian Communist Party in 1945 (Gablik 43).

Magritte spent only three years in Paris with the Surrealists. He left in 1930 after an altercation with Breton in which the subject of religion became the crux of an argument. Though Magritte would continue to correspond with Breton for quite some time to come, he would continue to distance himself from the Surrealists and their leader. Gablik says "Magritte burned all the possessions which recalled to him his Surrealist period, including letters, tracts, and even an overcoat, in the gas heater" (Gablik 66).

Magritte would write in 1946:

Surrealism always meant Breton, and we never did anything to make the public connect us with the word. When Breton lectures in Brussels, we let him go ahead without interfering, etc. Perhaps it is too late for us to get this venerable term back and make use of it, and we will probably have to work hard if we want the public to understand the term differently. Wouldn’t it be simpler to use a new word and direct our energy elsewhere? New ideas call for a new vocabulary, and a new name would avoid confusion.

I have laid Surrealism to rest – my own for some time now, and Breton’s with even greater reason (Torczyner 68-69).

Gablik further points out the difference between the two men:

Breton saw in Surrealism the possible resolution of two states, contradictory in appearance, dream and objective reality, in sort of absolute reality which he called ‘suréalité. If dreams are a translation of waking life, equally waking life is a translation of dreams. For Magritte, references to unconscious activity only satisfy the persistent habit of explanation. The world does not offer itself up like a dream in sleep; nor are there waking dreams (Gablik 71).

Gablik writes that "His feelings about Surrealism, as we have seen, were rather ambivalent" (Gablik 72).

During the post-war years, Magritte exploited Impressionism, in what he called "Surrealism in full sunlight" (Torczyner 186). These oils are very reminiscent of Renoir’s works. He soon abandoned this style for a style that was derivative of the Fauves. He called this style "l’epoque vache" which when translated is a direct response to the name "Fauve." If a Fauve is a wild animal, the a "Vache" is a sort of domesticated beast.

Magritte would return to his previous Surrealist style, accidentally "fathering" pop art in the process. A parentage that he would disdain. He would say:

Yes, I know I’m called the father of Pop Art, Op Art, and all kinds of other "arts". . . . But Pop Art is nothing but another vision -- an infinitely less audacious one – of the good old Dadaism of fifty years ago! Modern painting went through an evolution that ended with Picasso. Everything touted today as novelties is only a variation on what was already done many years ago.

. . . And Pop! Let’s just say that it’s not very serious, and that it’s probably not even art? Or perhaps [it is] poster art, advertising art, a very temporary fashionable art. It is effective enough in the streets, I admit, on young girls’ dresses (Torczyner 68).

He simply wasn’t interested in being known as the founder of this modern art movement, no would he have been interested in being associated with any art movement.

Towards the end of his life Magritte ventured where most Surrealists feared to tread; sculpture. He had several bronze pieces cast of his most famous works. Unfortunately he died on August 15, 1967, without ever seeing one of these pieces.

"Magritte was the most paradoxical of all the Surrealists." Gablik explains: "Where the others deliberately created scandal in life, he tried to remain outwardly inconspicuous" (Gablik 154). She also references a point that Louis Scutenaire made in a monograph simply entitled "René Magritte". Scutenaire says that "Magritte had the ideas of everyone else on matters where we might expect singularity, and extraordinary ideas in realms where we would be unlikely to expect them" (Scutenaire 16). For Magritte these ideas, though rooted in Surrealism existed in an artistic category of his own, one that, like many other artist’s styles, cannot easily be defined.

Magritte’s imagery and iconography are not soon forgotten. Perhaps his greatest achievement in artistry is that his work is still viewed and appreciated, as well as appropriated. Magritte’s bowler hatted men are continually being utilized in print advertisements as well as video and film. Though his primary artistic style is clearly Surrealistic in nature, Magritte would never characterize himself as a Surrealist. In fact, he went to great lengths to disassociate himself with that group. It is a testament to his skill that he is recognized as a great Surrealist, despite this admonition.

Works Cited

Chilvers, Ian. Ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Arts and Artists, 2nd Ed. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1996

Gablik, Suzi. Magritte, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1970

Noël, Bernard. Magritte, New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1977

Paquet, Marcel. René Magritte 1989-1967: Thought Rendered Visible. Köln, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1992

Torczyner, Harry. Magritte, Ideas and Images, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977
 

Against sincerity: Rene Magritte, Paul Nouge and the lesson of Paul Valery 

Wednesday, April 08, 2009 8:35:11 PM

Against sincerity: Rene Magritte, Paul Nouge and the lesson of Paul Valery

BY ROGER ROTHMAN
WORD & IMAGE, VOL. 23, NO. 3, JULY–SEPTEMBER 2007

For much of his life, Andre´ Breton was deeply ambivalent about what to make of Paul Valery. Early in his career, he was drawn to Valery’s symbolist poetics and went so far as to dedicate a poem to him in 1913. The two became friends and the younger poet looked to the older as a mentor and critic.

Even more than Valery’s poetry, however, it was his prose piece, An Evening with Monsieur Teste (1896), that most fascinated Breton in his early years (he practically knew it by heart, he once remarked). And it continued to fascinate him for the rest of his life. Decades later, Breton remarked:

Still today, there are plenty of circumstances in which I hear this fellow [Mr Teste] grumbling the way no one else can; he’s still the one who is always right. For me, Valery had reached the supreme point of expression with Mr Teste; a character created by him (at least I suppose so) had truly set himself in motion, had come forward to meet me. [1]

But if Mr Teste was ‘one who is always right’, Breton could not say the same of Valery himself. As Breton’s interest turned from Symbolism to Dada and Surrealism, Valery’s classicism — his ‘Racinian alexandrines’, as Breton called them [2]— came to be seen as a betrayal of Mr Teste’s ‘grumbling’. By the end of the 1910s, Breton had turned his attention toward developing a poetry of immediacy, which he referred to as ‘automatic writing’.

For Breton, automatic writing— which aimed at the direct, unmediated connection between thought and word — was the antithesis of Valery’s attention to poetic conventions and the classical tradition, an attention exemplified in the most retrograde fashion (as far as Breton was concerned) in the poem with which Valery, in 1917, broke his long and famed silence, The Young Fate (La jeune Parque).

Still, the two remained friends, with Valery even serving as Breton’s best man at his wedding to Simone Kahn in 1921. But the relationship cooled considerably throughout the 1920s, as Breton’s allegiance to Surrealism — and with it, the insistence on poetic immediacy — grew more intense and uncompromising.

As Breton wrote in his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924): ‘the first sentence will come spontaneously, so compelling is the truth that with every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard’. [3]

Poetic spontaneity, Breton knew well, was the exact opposite of Valery’s hyperrationalized craft. The final break between the two came in 1927, when Valery was inducted to the Academie Francaise. Revolted, Breton sold his entire correspondence to Valery to a book dealer on the very day of the induction. [4] Three years later, Valery’s name would appear on Breton’s ‘do not read’ list of authors both past and present (alongside Plato, Bergson, Malraux, and others). [5]

The Belgian faction of the Surrealist movement — centered in Brussels — is typically presented as a satellite of the French movement led by Breton. To a great extent this is true: the groups collaborated on a number of projects in the 1920s and 1930s and, for the most part, these collaborations were organized under the auspices of Breton’s group in Paris. It is also true that the paintings of Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux and (to a lesser degree) the poetry of Camille Goemans and Paul Nouge gained international attention only after their work was reproduced in the pages of Breton’s various publications.

One would thus expect to find that, like Breton, the Belgian Surrealists would have held Valery’s poetic conventionalism in contempt. In fact, however, Magritte, Nouge and the others in Brussels held up Valery as a model for emulation and at the same time had little interest in Breton’s concept of ‘automatic writing’ and the call for a poetics of immediacy. What interested them even more than the poems and the Teste stories was Valery’s collection of meta-poetic texts — texts that ranged from thoughts on Leonardo to reflections on myth and history. And, above all, what struck them most directly was Valery’s abiding interest in the notion of artifice, of the inherently deceptive nature of linguistic communication and, with it, an uncompromising assault on the notion of literary sincerity.

This essay sets out to detail the ways in which the Belgian Surrealists — Magritte and Nouge in particular — transformed Valery’s critique of sincerity into pictorial and poetic practice. It is hoped that, in doing so, light will be shed on the considerable divide that separates the discourse and practice of the Belgian Surrealists from their French counterparts to the south.

Before developing an account of the ways in which the Belgian Surrealists incorporated Valery’s ideas into their own practices, it is important to outline the particular aspects of Valery’s poetics that most interested them. First of all, it should be noted that Valery was at least as ambivalent toward Breton’s practice as Breton was toward his. In a number of well-known comments, Valery dismissed Breton’s approach as 

Magritte's Forgeries 

Wednesday, April 08, 2009 2:03:29 PM

Hi,

This Blog we'll examine Marcel Marien's claim that they sold forgeries that Magritte painted in the early 1940's. At some point I'll be doing more research on this topic.

Marcel Mariën published Magritte's first book of prints in 1943. This was done during the German occupation of Belgium when money was tight. The book with 20 color plates was published by Marien,  Scutenaire and Magritte in 1943. Here's some information from  "La Reproduction Interdite: René Magritte and Forgery" by Patricia Allmer© Patricia Allmer, 2007

"The first monograph on René Magritte’s art, entitled Magritte, was published in 1943. Marcel Marïen wrote the introductory essay for the book and Magritte himself chose twenty images which were reproduced in colour. As David Sylvester writes: ‘There was one highly significant difference in the book as published from the book as originally planned – that all the reproductions were in colour. This was a surprising development given the cost involved and Magritte’s precarious financial position…’ 

Marcel Mariën’s autobiography Le Radeau de la mémoire states that the funds for this book, and for other projects, stemmed from Magritte’s production and sale, between 1942 and 1946, of artistic forgeries. Mariën cites Magritte to illustrate his relaxed attitude towards forgeries stating ‘that buying a fake diamond without knowing will cause the same degree of satisfaction [as buying a real one], due to the fact that one has paid a high price for it.’ [3] Sylvester has reproduced some of the forged images in question in the Magritte Catalogue Raisonné..."

According to Marien's biography: Marcel Mariën along with Scutenaire and Nougé published a collection of paintings by Magritte. From 1942 he frequently went to Paris clandestinely selling forged paintings by Magritte of Renoir, Klee, Picasso, Leger, and De Chirico. Marien wrote,  “From 1942 with 1946, I sold a big number of drawings and paitnings (gouches), mostly forgeries of Picasso, Braque and Chirico, all made by Magritte." 

Maien claimed to take some of the forgeries to France and others were sold through the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Here is one work that substantiate's Marien's claim:


Magritte: Signed Klee (no date given- circa 1942-1946)

This painting was found hanging on above the staircase at Georgette's house after Rene was dead. It is signed Klee and is one painting that gives credence to Marien's claim that they participated in selling forged art druing the 1940s.

Perhaps the most intriguing evidence come from Marcen Marien's December 1983 article, "The American Twin" where he compares the two identical versions of "The Flavor of Tears" that Magritte painted in 1948. In his article he provides an excerpt from a letter written by Magritte on May 19, 1944: "I am still going through a period of intense fatigue, I have not created anything recently except to begin work on a Titan and a Hobbema, that I intend for the Auction House; I am trying my hand at this sort of painting and if it is more sucessful than Magritte painting, I will give up the later because of insufficient reward." That's all for now,

Marien also includes photographs in his book of two of Magritte's "Picassos" a drawing made in 1944 and a painting done in 1945. Magritte also made use of Picasso's ideas to paint his "The White Race."

 

 

Richard

 

 

 

Magritte's: The Threatened Murderer (1926-27) 

Tuesday, April 07, 2009 10:53:08 PM

Hi,

Today we'll look at one of Rene Magritte's best and most enigmatic early works. Several poem series have been written about his work. Ironically, the painting may be based on a poem by Paul Nouge.



The Threatened Murderer (L'assassin menacé)-1926 

Most interpretations of The Threatened Murderer (1926-27) assume it is another of Magritte's paintings that captures the mystery of Fantomas. The painting is similar to a scene in Louis Feuillade's Fantômas film of 1912. It depicts two figures concealed by the doorway, armed with strange weapons, watching the "murderer," who is dressed in a business suit. Fantômas , the film, was based on the thirty-two-volume series written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, each of whom wrote alternate chapters. Magritte was fascinated by the character of Fantômas who can pass unseen through matter, defy the establishment, and subvert its order.

Here's an analysis from Silvano Levy: Magritte's room, portraying the "stabbed mannequin," by its very complexity, sets up resonances that echo throughout Robbe-Grillet's text. It matters little that the latter's narrative contradicts details in the painting or adds to them, since the picture is subverted in the same manner that reality is contradicted. The three men looking in the window of The Threatened Assassin are not mentioned in Robbe-Grillet's text and the bowler-hatted man on the left, outside the door, is holding a baluster, not a club. Robbe-Grillet invents the sound of the phonograph that the young man inside the room is listening to and the narrator says it is replaying the woman's cry. This cry animates the painting and the naked mannequin which becomes a "real" woman. Although there is no sewing machine in the picture, the narrator tells us that the phonograph is the same age as the sewing machine, an allusion to Lautréamont's dissecting table where the fortuitous encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine generates the ultimate spark of Surrealist beauty and activity.

The Beribboned Bomb By Robert James Belton:  Belton relates that Magritte's painting may be based on the case of murderer Henry Landru who in 1922 was executed for murdering several women for their money. He also associates the painting to Fantômas who "always escapes and even passes through walls."

David Sylvester, Magritte's biographer suggests that this painting and the 1927 "Girl Eating Bird" were scripted  from a set of violent and erotic poes by Paul Nouge finally published in 1956. The poems were written circa 1926-1927 when both Magritte and Nouge were working together designing catalogues for Samuels, a fur company. Here are some of the poetry lines:

[In the background, at the level of the window sil,
Four heads* stare at the murderer.
In the corridor on either side of the wide pen door,
Two men are approaching unable as yet to discern the spectacle.
They are ugly customers.
Crouching, they hug the wall.
One of them unfurls a huge net, the other brandishing a club.
All this will be called, "The Threatened Murderer."] Paul Nouge

*Magritte only had room for three heads- the fourth head is behind the suit of the murderer.

Certainly Magritte was fascinated by Fanatomas and this may have been an additional association. It appears that this was simply Magritte's painting of Paul Nouge's poem.

CBS and Magritte 

Tuesday, April 07, 2009 1:40:10 PM

CBS and Magritte



The False Mirror (Le Faux Miroir) 1928

The False Mirror became one of Magritte's enduring images. In 1951 William Golden designed a logo for the CBS Television network — a cloud-filled eyeball— which was clearly based on "The False Mirror."  See below:


CBS-TV new logo aired November 16, 1951

Magritte's painting The False Mirror was displayed in NY at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) just blocks from CBS NY offices. Magritte was reportedly upset (He discussed the matter in letters to his lawyer Harry Torczyner, a New York-based attorney, who probably alerted Magritte in the first place) about the appropriation of his image and considered legal action [The Avant-garde and American Postmodernity By Philip Nel] but did nothing about it. CBS quickly removed the clouds from their logo but retained the image as their official logo.
 

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