Confounding the mystagogues

Metal Butterflies and Poisonous Lights

November 13, 1998

This book is noteworthy for its clear, unwavering focus on the language of poetry and its no-nonsense approach to surrealism. Derek Harris intends to avoid thematic discussion and concentrate on the close analysis of linguistic processes such as homophony and the association of ideas, all the while testing each text for its range of coherence. The result is an especially clear-minded discussion of surrealism as occasionally practised by four major Spanish poets. Mystagogues beware.

Debates over how deeply and to what extent surrealism penetrated Spanish literature have produced little resolution. The advent of surrealism in 1924 drove a wedge into the Generation of - older poets like Salinas and Guillen reacting with disdain, and younger talents like Dal! and Bu$uel unconditionally on the surrealist side. All this was complicated by a resentment of French influence and a deep suspicion of the automatic writing extolled in Breton's initial manifesto. Harris, in his useful chapter on the French context, points out the heuristic purpose of automatism, which was supposed to show the actual way the mind worked, and in any event never completely escaped a controlling syntax that inhibited the mere listing of words.

Lorca sent some "spiritualist" prose pieces to the Catalan critic Sebastia Gasch that seem today, despite Lorca's denial, quite surrealistic. Lorca retained an ambiguous attitude towards surrealism, and it was this unwillingness to commit himself wholly to the new movement from France that helped make Poeta en Nueva York the masterpiece that it is. Poeta en Nueva York is a hybridisation of expressionist and surrealist elements. The manuscript with its list of variants suggests a strong affinity with automatism, but the final result is ethical, outraged, and syntactically controlled.

In his season in hell, described in Sobre los ngeles, Rafael Alberti works always, according to Harris, from a neoromantic, expressionist core. The surrealist dimension, which is more marked than in Lorca, tends to rescue Alberti from the "trap of romantic cliches".

Luis Cernuda discovered surrealism at about the time he accepted his homosexuality. He saw in surrealism an example of a revolt against society that suited his own temperament, but his poetry, on the whole, maintains "analogistic coherence", and, although he makes a more radical rejection of the conventional world than does Lorca, he maintains a haunted, beautiful, disturbing tone that goes beyond the question of schools and influences.

From 1930 to 1936, Vicente Aleixandre wrote poetry that fulfilled much of the tenets of surrealism: paratactic to the point of incoherence, words listed but not combined, vastly disparate meanings unresolved by the text. Perhaps he comes the closest to creating a parallel world, a universe where "glass hair and metal butterflies exist on their right, not just as metaphors".

Howard Young is professor of romance languages, Pomona College, California.

Metal Butterflies and Poisonous Lights: The Language of Surrealism in Lorca, Alberti, Cernuda and Aleixandre

Author - Derek Harris
ISBN - 1 901704 00 9 and 01 7
Publisher - La Sirena
Price - £24.95 and £14.95
Pages - 246

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