Surrealist Debate continues (Harry Smith & Stan Brakhage et al)

Harry Smith & Stan Brakhage, NYC, July 9, 1988 – photo by Allen Ginsberg

continuing with transcription from Naropa’s 1988 Surrealism symposium – continuing from here

AG (to Anne Waldman): You have a comment here
Anne Waldman: Well Harry – let’s hear from Harry Smith

Harry Smith: Yeah well I was.. I didn’t intend to come to this…
AW:  But you’re here
HS: ..and…because..but..  this cut-ups thing,   You know I was waked up earlier and I have arthritis and after they..  so I’m cranky.   And..but..  a great number of experiments that I’ve done with variant texts (either by cutting-up, or using alternate versions, reprints of books where.. and then reading down the columns of the last words, and a variety of other things), has convinced me that the messages that appear are some force other.. (maybe inside the earth (I tend to think of it “up in the sky, ever so high”), messages from some other intelligent place, and.. the problem is, (is) this place intelligent?  But they are sort of messages of an exact sort and should be analyzed and understood from that source. that someone who doesn’t comprehend the way, or some thing that doesn’t comprehend the way that the so-called human mind so-called thinks, see gets a feeble message through. As far as the Arapahoe are concerned…this was particularly…   In New England, for example, at materialization seances, the character.. (and I have seen a paraplegic veteran wear sort of, like, boy-scout Indian clothes at some seances that I went to (as a) Kiowa in Andarko, Oklahoma), no Indians appear. There are people that are dressed with plug hats and accoutrements suitable for perhaps Lincoln or Grant, something like that, but..

Also these feeble messages that come through from somewhere else may be the force that binds Surrealists together. There isn’t a name in English for that unity of diversity that makes Surrealism impossible to talk about. These lectures having been on something that used to be called Mannerism, but…and Fantasy, and..  It’s funny nobody has mentioned Alice in Wonderland...

AG:  Yes, yes…
Student: Ah-haa!
Student 2:  Jonathan read from Alice in Wonderland! – Jonathan read from Alice in Wonderland
AW: We had a reading from Alice in Wonderland.
HS: Hopefully.. what happened?  the Snark was a butoh master after all?
I think you should take that into consideration. There may be something..

Student: I just wanted to make an historical comment about the way Andre Breton rejected Tristan Tzara and his cut-ups. It’s sort of an ironical rejection because the whole Surrealist idea of subjective chance says that there is no such thing as random chance, that there is a purpose to everything (which is a little but what Harry was saying), that it comes from somewhere, and it’s that kind of contradictoriness in Breton’s way of leading the Surrealist group that caused a lot of people to leave at the end of the 1920’s, including  Robert Desnos, and they got together and wrote a third Manifesto of Surrealism that was against Breton’s second manifesto, in which they refer to Breton as a corpse, because they say. that he’s..he’s not living according to his own precepts of what Surrealism should be, and Desnos notes in particular in his contribution to that, said that Surrealism is open, its free, anyone can be a Surrealist, it’s…that you don’t have to be a member of there club to be Surrealist.  But I think that this.. this business of rejecting the cut-ups, which at the same time is sort of an example of what the Surrealists believed in is an interesting point
[There follows a short delay while participants attempt to adjust microphones]

Student: I was struck, on Stan’s reading from Artaud [Editorial note – not on this tape] and there was something about “the powerlessness of language” or “the inability of language”,
or something like that, and I think the whole question of language is obviously an extremely important one, the whole questioning of what it is that language is, but then I was struck by the date, (it was 1926), and I suddenly said, language was not “powerless”.  That was the start, very soon we’re going to have Nazi propaganda, very soon we’re going to have language as an incredibly evil force, and I think that that issue has not really been addressed in this conference, and I was wondering if people here would like to address it.

William Burroughs (1914-1997)

Stan Brakhage: That is what I honor about Burroughs’ piece on cut-ups, is that he has been clear (as he always is), he has been very clear in this paper that his tactic is to find a method where we do not have to wait for these accidents, or these conjunctions to leave ourselves open, or the disciplines of being open, to recognize these mysterious voices. But, in searching, (as so many people have, and not just in respect to the arts but everything else)] some way to have power over everything. And that is as pervasive in the arts in the 20th century as it has been in any other activity of humans. And the will, the willfulness of some of these manifestos, is a clear indication of why so many of them fell for fascism, for example. They were intrinsic fascists themselves. They wished to have power over nature, over most..  They were men, they were anti-feminists, they wished to have power over women. They wished to have power over creativity, and, fortunately, they’re in the condition of farmers – they are dependent on nature. And it’s those that I honor the most, that have given over these tactics and have left themselves open for these accidents and so on, these chance revelations, which puts them in a position to be recognizing these voices, (as I believe with Harry that they are from another.. you know…)

HS: Well, I was just trying to say that I believe that the science of travel, and, especially (the) use of alternate versions of the same book, is really in the discipline of psychical research not in the discipline of creativity…
SB: That’s a very good distinction
HS: ..and shouldn’t be bothered too much by….me

Bobbie Louise Hawkins: In language, one must always take the trash out. Language is lively and dies and the burden of the weight of the dead wood has to be constantly dealt with by people to whom language matters. And the major peril of language is that it dies and continues to be treated as if it’s lively, and people buy that because they get sold a bill of goods

SB: Can I just interpose a brief story about John Cage also (this was told to me by Jim Tenney, who was assisting him as a page-turner at a concert at Carnegie Hall some time back in the ‘Sixties, I guess. And it was an event, a charity event and there were a variety of acts. And John was scheduled to follow a brief ballet section of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, I believe. And Jim, the young electronic composer who was.. was embarrassed that his mentor, Cage, would have to endure this Tchaikovsky. And suddenly saw that Cage was weeping. And at the end of the music (they couldn’t see the dance very well being  back stage), at the end of the music, John turned to Jim and said, “Oh, wasn’t that beautiful!”.     He said, “You know, I so love Tchailovsky’s music that I have had to go to these extremes in order not to be just overwhelmed by him and just do variations on Tchaikovsky.”

John Cage (1912-1992)

Student: I’m not sure exactly what you said about feeling it wasn’t good to do cut-ups because people might think that they were being creative?  and that somehow… you were talking about teaching creativity and that maybe that wasn’t possible or.. is that what you said?

Stan Brakhage:  As Harry so beautifully corrected whatever polemic I may have been making there in reaction to Burroughs, it depends on how you do it, and why and to what purpose? – I have no..nothing..(there’s) absolutely nothing wrong with.. I don’t want to get into faulting the goodness or not of cutting-up. I do want to say that as an express tactic that says that we.. for instance, everyone, poetry belongs to everyone.  Well I believe that with all my heart and and art is intrinsic, creating things is intrinsic to being human (and exhibit A is any children’s drawings)  but it is now these days a tactic of the academies (which affects us all,
I feel, or most of us)  to develop ways of seeming creative without really being so. Of which the avant-garde (that’s been the major use of the avant grade in the industry of education) And it’s a more complex and utterly more personal matter than that, and so, yes, there will be people who do cut-ups – Cage does his chance operations and he’s a great mentor of mine – but he does cheat on them. He uses them as a way to help him get around Tchaikovsky not as a way to produce music easily and willfully.

Student: How can you seem creative, tho’ – I don’t really understand that thought
SB: How can you what?
Student: Seem creative
Student 2: You either are or you aren’t.  How can you…
Student 3: Why are you making that distinction?
SB: Oh, because certain kinds of writing, as you well know, for instance, the poem to begin with,  anybody faking a poem, it takes a lot of energy to find out whether it’s a real poem or not. It…  And language that isn’t straightforward takes a lot of thought on the reader’s part to determine whether it really is something or not, and the new always takes that kind of energy and difficulty to determine. So, if you create, you go and create a (vast) cutting mess  of moving images and throw it at people, my experience has been that most people haven’t got the slightest idea whether that’s meaningful or not, or whether it’s a joke or not and, in fact it has become a very…
Student:  So please do it right the first time! – alright, everyone
Student: “In every mama there’s a dada, don’t believe it, don’t eat it, don’t sweat it don’t sleep with it, just do it!”

to be continued.   (this transcription will conclude tomorrow)

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately two-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately sixteen-and-a-half minutes in

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