Chance encounters on the dissecting table

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In times of great uncertainty about our mission, we often looked at the fixed points of Lautréamont and De Chirico, which sufficed to determine our straight line.

André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, 1928

1: The metaphor, 1869

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You can’t read the history of Surrealism for very long before encountering some variation of the most famous line from Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont/Isidore Ducasse: “beautiful as a chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. Translations vary, as do misquotations; the page above is from the Alexis Lykiard translation where you can also read the surrounding text. The context of the description is seldom mentioned when the quote is used, and reveals that the words are describing the attractiveness of an English schoolboy living with his parents in Paris. The insipid Mervyn is stalked, seduced and finally murdered by the villainous Maldoror. Lautréamont’s metaphor, like so much else in the book, carries a sting in its tail.


2: The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920

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Man Ray, like Mervyn, was a foreigner living in Paris when he created this artwork. The “enigma” may be taken as referring both to the wrapped object (a sewing machine sans umbrella) as well as to the mysterious author of Les Chants de Maldoror, who died at the age of 24 after writing his explosive prose poem, and about whose life little is known. I first encountered Ducasse’s name in art books showing pictures of this piece which is one of the earliest works of Surrealist art. For a young art enthusiast the enigma was more in the name itself: who was this Ducasse, and why was he enigmatic? The original of Man Ray’s piece was subsequently lost, like many of his pre-war sculptures, but may be seen inside the first issue of La Révolution Surrealiste. Editions of the work that exist today are recreations made in the 1970s.


3: An illustration for Les Chants de Maldoror, 1934

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Salvador Dalí created 30 full-page etchings and 12 vignettes for an illustrated edition of Lautréamont’s work published by Skira in Paris in 1934. Dalí must have seemed an ideal match for a book whose prose descriptions offer copious atrocities and mutations but, as with many of Dalí’s illustrations, the pictures owe more to his obsessions than to Lautréamont’s text, and could easily be used to illustrate something else entirely. Plate 19 does, however, feature a sewing machine.


4: Electrosexual Sewing Machine, 1935

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A Surrealist painting by Oscar Dominguez which emphasises the sexual nature of Lautréamont’s metaphor, or at least the Freudian interpretation of the same. Breton and company took the sewing machine for a female symbol, while the umbrella was male; the dissecting table where their encounter takes place is, of course, a bed.

[In Electrosexual Sewing Machine] the dissection appears to be under way. There is a strange abusive surgery being undertaken, the thread of the sewing machine replaced with blood which is being funnelled onto the woman’s back. The plant itself may even echo de Lautréamont’s umbrella. Domínguez has taken one of the central mantras of Breton’s Surreal universe and has pushed it, through a combination of painterly skill and semi-automatism, in order to create an absorbing and haunting vision that cuts to the quick of the movement’s spirit. (via)


5: Sewing Machine with Umbrellas in a Surrealist Landscape, 1941

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More from Dalí who was hired by Fritz Lang to create images for a sequence of drunken delirium in the film Moontide. The commission arrived four years before Dalí’s work for Hitchcock on Spellbound, and if successful might have even dissuaded Hitchcock from hiring Dalí, but Lang left the film once shooting had begun, and his replacement, Archie Mayo, disliked the artist’s contributions. This surviving concept painting seems lazy compared to the Spellbound sequences (which were also trimmed by the ever-interfering David O. Selznick): the colonnade is a bald swipe from De Chirico, while the umbrella-bedecked sewing machine makes clumsy and literal use of the Lautréamont metaphor which is better left as a provocative collision of verbal imagery.


6: “As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissection table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella…”: Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, 1976

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A painting by Philip Core, part of a series in which well-known cultural figures (eg: Harold Pinter and Joe Orton) encounter each other in rooms that reflect their works. Core wrote a biography of Andy Warhol, so maybe he knew something that I don’t, but I’d be very surprised if the Pop artist ever played a game of chess in his life, never mind being proficient enough to win so many pieces from the chess-obsessed Duchamp. As for Marcel, he’d raise an eyebrow at that wrongly positioned chess board…


7: Nurse With Wound, 1979

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Lautréamont infects another medium. Steven Stapleton’s music group/art project has been infused from the outset by a pranksterish Dada/Surrealist spirit, so the purloining of the metaphor for the title of the first Nurse With Wound album is entirely fitting.

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8: L’Ombrello E La Macchina Da Cucire, 1995

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Unlike this album by the very prolific Franco Battiato which Discogs describes as “experimental”. The first piece on the album uses the same title as the album, and is anything but experimental, especially compared to the improvised racket created by Nurse With Wound.

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9: Maldoror, 2003

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A jazz album by Erik Friedlander which I haven’t heard but which takes its track titles from phrases by Lautréamont.

Do other examples exist? No doubt they do, but the more recent uses of Lautréamont’s words only demonstrate how over-familiarity dulls an effect that was once shocking and original.

Previously on {feuilleton }
Santiago Caruso’s Maldoror
Jacques Houplain’s Maldoror
Hans Bellmer’s Maldoror
Les Chants de Maldoror by Shûji Terayama
Polypodes
Ulysses versus Maldoror
Maldoror
Books of blood
Magritte’s Maldoror
Frans De Geetere’s illustrated Maldoror
Maldoror illustrated

Afore Night Come by David Rudkin

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RSC programme, 1962.

Not a review, this, you can’t really review a stage play you’ve never seen. Following the re-viewing of David Rudkin’s White Lady I’ve gone back to some of the published plays. If all you know of Rudkin’s work is his television drama, the plays are instructive for showing the consistency of his themes across the years. The recent resurgence of interest in Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 has seen Rudkin’s work included among that group of film and TV dramas that Rob Young memorably labelled Old Weird Britain (after Greil Marcus and The Old, Weird America), a loose affiliate that would include films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, television works by Nigel Kneale and Alan Garner (The Owl Service, Red Shift), and the BBC MR James adaptations, one of which, The Ash Tree, was also written by Rudkin.

If the Old Weird Britain lies at an intersection between different dramatic forms—ghost story, horror story, science fiction, historical drama—then not all of Rudkin’s work would fall into the intersection, but two of the plays—The Sons of Light and his first staged work, Afore Night Come—could be coaxed into the charmed circle: The Sons of Light, with its sinister human experiments taking place underground, has ties to Artemis 81, while Afore Night Come is another piece about (intentional or otherwise) human sacrifice in rural England. I hadn’t read Afore Night Come until last week, and was struck by its similarity to John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (1970), a more deliberately ritualistic piece of work. In its first act Afore Night Come is an almost documentary-like account of a day in the life of workers hired to pick the pear harvest in an orchard outside Birmingham; the eruption of violence in the second act is certainly foreshadowed but seems less premeditated than in Robin Redbreast, a factor which has apparently shocked many audiences. During its performances in the early 1960s the tendency was to see the play in the light of Harold Pinter and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it’s only in retrospect that a connection with more generic works emerges. There’s also a connection to White Lady via the pesticide spraying about which the workers are continually warned, and whose advent coincides with the moments of violence.

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Sight and Sound, August 2010. Illustration by Becca Thorne.

A couple of other things are worth noting: until 1968 all the plays performed in Britain were vetted by the Lord Chamberlain’s office who would routinely strike out any material deemed offensive or irreligious. Knowing this I was surprised by the recurrence of the word “fuck” in Rudkin’s script, and also the hint of same-sex attraction between two of the male characters, a detail that would usually have been removed. It seems that plays pre-1968 could be performed without censorship if the theatre was declared to be a private club for the evening (a similar state of affairs helped evade some film censorship) which is what happened with Afore Night Come in 1962. Given this, and the incident of a decapitated head being rolled across a London stage (probably the first since the Jacobeans, says Rudkin), it’s easy to see why audiences at the time might have felt assaulted, although the play still won the Evening Standard Drama Award that year. Sexual ambiguity/ambivalence or outright homosexuality have been a continual thread in Rudkin’s drama yet he’s seldom been given much credit for this pioneering work. A year after Afore Night Come there was Rudkin’s first play for television, The Stone Dance, a piece which sounds like another potential addition to the works in the Old Weird Britain catalogue. Rudkin describes it thus:

A Revivalist pastor pitches his crusade tent within a Cornish stone circle. His repressed son becomes sexually obsessed with an outward-going local boy, and suffers a hysterical loss of speech. A storm blows the pastor’s tent away, and amid the stones, their primal purity reasserted, by the boy’s accepting touch the son is healed.

I believe that, prior to this, no tv play had overtly treated homosexual emotions as a central theme. (In Britain at this time, any gay sex could incur a prison sentence of up to two years.)

Many of the TV plays from the 1960s are now lost so there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see this, a shame considering that Michael Hordern and John Hurt were the leads. No guarantee either that we’ll see any staging of the more interesting plays like The Sons of Light and The Triumph of Death which seem to be too eccentric for theatre directors. The scripts can at least be picked up relatively cheaply. To date there’s only Afore Night Come that seems to be revived with any regularity. Michael Billington, a long-time champion of Rudkin, reviews the Young Vic production from 2001 here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
White Lady by David Rudkin
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

Further farewells

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Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt.

2008: the year that keeps on taking.

The Guardian has a copious collection of Pinter pieces including Michael Billington’s lengthy obituary. Eartha Kitt was just as unique in her own way, prompting Orson Welles in the 1950s to call her “the most exciting woman in the world”. For my sister and I a decade later she was the most exciting Catwoman in the world and that’s how I’ll remember her. But let’s not forget those Cha-Cha Heels

Eartha’s frivolity might seem to jar beside Pinter’s moral and political seriousness but the World Socialist Web Site managed to link the pair with a priceless headline, Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt, artists and opponents of imperialist war. Their article tells you a few things about Eartha that many of the obituaries would have ignored. I’m sure Pinter would have been proud to hear of her speaking her mind at the White House. The world is a smaller place when talents and voices like these are gone.