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Synthesis/Regeneration 46   (Summer 2008)

Umour vs. the Debraining Machine

reviewed by R. Burke

Jacques Vache and the Roots of Surrealism, including Vache's War Letters & Other Writings. By Franklin Rosemont, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 2008, 396 pp. $20 paper. ISBN 978-0-88286-321-4 (0-88286-321-5)

The most revolutionary cultural, philosophical and political current to emerge from the early 20th century was surrealism. Frequently misrepresented by art historians as a mere "style" of art or as a defunct movement (though they never seem to agree on the date of its "death") surrealism was, and remains, a total assault on the entire reality principle of capitalist society. In Jacques Vache and the Roots of Surrealism Chicago Surrealist Group poet Franklin Rosemont provides us a glimpse into one of the most elusive and least documented phases of the origins of the movement.

Launched in 1924 with the publication of the first Manifesto of Surrealism by poet/theoretician Andre Breton, and influenced by the discoveries of Freud, surrealism sought to explore the depths of the unconscious mind and the world of dreams. The movement quickly gained the membership and support of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Rejecting most of the heritage of Western civilization, which had recently plunged into the carnage of the First World War, surrealism sought inspiration in so-called primitive and eastern cultures which were the victims of colonialism and imperialism.

...surrealism sought inspiration in so-called primitive and eastern cultures which were the victims of colonialism and imperialism.

A decidedly political side emerged when the surrealists declared themselves Marxists and joined the early French Communist Party. The rise of Stalinism quickly led to the exit of the surrealist group from the party and their joining with Trotsky's Left Opposition. After World War Two surrealism's political trajectory moved in the direction of anarchism, left Marxism, and the utopian socialism of Charles Fourier. When Franklin and Penelope Rosemont visited France in 1966 to meet with the Paris Surrealist Group, Breton expressed approval of the button worn by Penelope which declared, "I am an enemy of the state."

The subject of Jacques Vache and the Roots of Surrealism is the influence that Vache had upon Breton and the early surrealists. A medical student at the time, Breton was serving as a nurse in the French army when he met Vache in a military hospital where the latter was recovering from a leg wound. A friendship quickly emerged which led to an exchange of letters, later published in 1919 as Vache's War Letters, recognized today as one of the seminal surrealist texts.

By that time Vache himself was dead at age 23 from an overdose of opium, yet the impact he had on Breton and surrealism was profound. Rosemont makes clear that it was precisely that impact which led Breton, whose poetry had already been published and who had attracted the friendship of older, more established poets, to embark on a project that was nothing less than the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist civilization.

Much of the problem in trying to explore this influence comes from the lack of documentation relating to Vache, who left little in the way of writing or artwork. He came from a mixed Anglo-French background, and his father was a career officer in the French Army.

One possible factor in his development was childhood years he spent in Vietnam, then a French colony. Rosemont speculates that perhaps here he developed a sympathy for eastern cultures and his rejection of colonialism, imperialism, and militarism. As a youth in Nantes, Vache was part of a group of artists and poets who had declared their sympathies with the anarchist movement. When World War One began Vache found himself conscripted into the French Army, much to his displeasure. Serving as a baggage-master and as interpreter for the British Army due to his knowledge of English, he soon began to develop his own distinctly personal style of refusal and resistance.

Vache became a master of what he termed "desertion from within" and "disservice with distinction."

Vache became a master of what he termed "desertion from within" and "disservice with distinction." This could, for example, express itself by deliberate insults in French to British officers who didn't quite realize they were being insulted! At other times he would confuse the translation process with a barrage of double-talk and jargon. To what degree his lack of respect was recognized by his superiors is unclear. Rosemont points to hints in one of his later letters, expressed in guarded terms to confuse the military censors, that he was beginning to get in trouble for his activities.

For Vache, the chief weapon of resistance was what he termed "Umour" - humour without the "H" - which he defined as a sense of the "theatrical (and joyless) pointlessness of everything." An important symbol in his letters was the "debraining machine" which he borrowed from the work of the pre-surrealist playwright Alfred Jarry. Rosemont explains that "in this sinister device for depriving human beings of the ability to think and dream for themselves, Jarry - and Vache after him - saw a terrifying symbol of modern technology's most devastating potential." Herbert Marcuse, himself a friend of the Chicago Surrealist Group, named it "One Dimensional Society;" situationist Guy Debord, who had met the Rosemonts in Paris, and who was also an admirer of Vache, called it the "Society of the Spectacle." For Jacques Vache it was nothing less than umour vs. the debraining machine.

Decades after his friend's death Breton continued to pay tribute to Vache and his powerful influence, publishing the War Letters posthumously and continuing to evoke his memory as a touchstone of revolt. Rosemont traces the effect that he had on 20th century cultural and political movements, such as Dadaism and the Situationist International, who saw in Vache a precursor. One particular resonance which Rosemont mentions in his conclusion, but does not explore further, is with the Punk Rock movement of the 1970s. There is a clear affinity between Vache and songs such as the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK or the Clash's antimilitarist tune The Call Up. To put it into the words of a recent Don Letts documentary, Vache had "Punk Attitude."

Jacque Vache and the Roots of Surrealism contains translations of Vache's War Letters and other writings as well as being profusely illustrated by his drawings and cartoons. Franklin Rosemont has performed a great service by exploring the effect that an otherwise obscure individual had on the cultural and political history of the modern era. We can be sure that this influence will continue. Marxist critic Walter Benjamin stated in his 1929 essay Surrealism that "Since Bakunin, Europe has lacked a radical concept of freedom. The Surrealists have one... And this proves to them that `mankind's struggle for liberation in its simplest revolutionary form (which, however, is liberation in every respect), remains the only cause worth serving.'"

Richard Burke is an artist and teacher. He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Surrealist Movement.

[21 may 08]

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