To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticsm (18): Eugene Jolas’s Pan-Romanticism

[From Eugene Jolas, "Pan-Romanticism in Atomic Age," Transition Workshop, ed. Eugene Jolas, New York: Vangard Press, 1949, pp. 393-395.]

If there exists a single unifying line traversing the entire activity of Transition, it might be called pan-romanticism. Many of the writers whose original or translated work appeared in the twenty-seven numbers of the review belonged to that heritage of visionaries which was epitomized by the continuous attempt to find a synthesis through philosophical and philological transformation. Transition contained elements of gothic, romantic, baroque, mystic, expressionist, Dada, surrealist, and, finally, verticalist modes of thinking. In the last phase it tried to blend these traditions into a cosmic, four-dimensional consciousness.

Most of the writers were aware that the social convulsions of the epoch could be exorcised only through psychic freedom. In this striving towards a magic idealism, some of them sought the re-definition of old terms that had become exhausted and overladen with a contradictory aura. They invented new words for the expression of newly discovered areas of the psyche. In the war against all forms of totalitarian nihilism, they strove for complete liberation of the creative mind.

James Joyce pursued a pan-romantic objective by breaking through archaic literary forms. He explored the mythic unconscious of his heroes and invented a new language of many dimensions. Ernest Hemingway is a pan-romantic in that he searches for geographical and spiritual realities which will transfigure the nostalgia for love and death. André Breton is a pan-romantic in that he has continued Gérard de Nerval's and Achim von Arnim's descent into the abyss of chimeras and liberated the imagination by applying Freud's theory of free association and automatic writing. Franz Kafka was a pan-romantic in that he recognized Kierkegaard's doctrine of existential fear as a basic emotion and presented man's tortured migration towards the light as the will to escape from the prison of existence. Dylan Thomas is a pan-romantic because of his metamorphosis of Welsh folklore, his use of the myth of man's renascence, and the wealth of his metaphor.
Romanticism was presented in Transition as early as 1928, by translations of Novalis, Jean Paul, Hölderlin and others of this epoch. The Hymns to the Night [Novalis], which I translated into English in 1929, do not sing of the bitter conflict between the finite and the infinite but grow out of a certainty of redemption, a spiritualization of the sensual, in which the real and the transcendental worlds interpenetrate. Preoccupation with the nocturnal was a characteristic of the early romantics, for whom the dream and the daydream, the fairy tale and the fable constituted sources of a future literature. To them poetry and life were identical. This may have been mere Schwärmerei, as the philistines insist, but it was also an attempt to demolish the dualism of spirit and nature, of the I and the non-I.

After periods of realism and naturalism, the romantic idea came to life again in the great symbolist movement of Mallarmé. It ended in the dream-monologues of Maeterlinck's plays. (Maeterlinck, it should be recalled, was the first to translate Novalis's The Disciples at Sais into French.) There were neo-romantic movements in both France and Germany in the early years of the twentieth century, but not until the explosion of the first World War did a modern form of romanticism, under the aegis of Freud and the psychoanalytical school of Zurich, foster the magical operation of the inner world again. Such expressionists as Franz Werfel, Georg Trakl, Carl Einstein, and others, presented a frontal attack against naturalistic materialism and made possible a revolution of the soul. They liberated both form and language and reintroduced the metaphysical and the numinous into life and art.

Dada was born in Zurich in 1915, when Hugo Ball, a German poet, Tristan Tzara, a Franco-Romanian poet, Hans Arp, an Alsation poet and sculptor, and Richard Huelsenbeck, a German poet, along with a few others, gathered at the Café [Cabaret] Voltaire for readings and lectures. The wild irrationalism of their utterances expressed their insurgence against a war-mad world. Looking for a suitable appellation, Ball and Huelsenbeck chose the word dada, which they found quite by chance in a Franco-German dictionary. They invented sonorist verses and developed an antiliterary style in which the absurd was the quintessential element. The war ended, the movement soon reached Paris. By this time Hugo Ball had withdrawn, having returned to the quietism of his Catholic faith. With the early dadaists, language was a method of conjuration, and their poems – especially in the case of Arp's verbal phantasmagoria – became fairy tales in sound.

Surrealism, under the leadership of André Breton, continued the irrationalism of Dada, but systematized its antidoctrinary elements into a rigid dogmatism. It was based on certain romantic and post-romantic predecessors (Achim von Arnim, Lautréamont, Rimbaud) and drew heavily on Freud's discoveries. In 1924, Breton gave impetus to the movement with his Manifeste de Surrealisme. He surrounded himself with a brilliant group of young poets and painters, among whom were Benjamin Péret, Robert Desnos, André Masson, René Crevel, Antonin Artaud, Paul Eluard, Philippe Soupault. The exploration of the dream and other tenebrous aspects of romanticism found expression in automatic writing and the famous textes surrealistes which Breton and Soupault inaugurated with Champs Magnétiques.

Harking back to Novalis and Jean Paul's symbolism of the flying dream, verticalism revolted against the nightmare quality of its predecessors and inaugurated an attempt to liberate the human personality from the possession of nihilism. It stressed the creative urge towards a liturgical renascence by reconstructing the myth of voyage, migration, flight, and particularly ascent, in all its romantic-mystic manifestations. It sought the "marvelous of the skies" in the poetry of aeronautical flight, in the conquest of the law of gravitation, and in an aspiration towards aerial perspectives. It also developed the poetry of cosmic or sidereal flight, tried to sing of the stellar spaces, and accentuated the vision of the "third eye." In the poetry of mystic flight it sought a transcendental reality. This new poetry of ascent wanted to express its vision in a language that would make possible a hymnic vocabulary.

Paris, September 1949


Born 1894 in New Jersey, grew up in Lorraine (France), returned to U.S.A. at 17. Died 1952. From Paris (1927-1938) he edited Transition, a comparatively long-lived magazine that acted as a principal link with European modernism (especially Surrealism & related events) & a vehicle for maintaining a consciously numinous & experimental tradition in American poetry between the two world wars. In all of this his intention was toward a total transformation of language & consciousness in the light of anthropology, psychology, linguistics, folklore, mysticism, etc.; & his enthusiasm for the tantric & gnostic, the primitive & archetypal, if not original with him, would reemerge as germinal ideas for the poetry & lifeways of the 60s & beyond. Against the force of that continuity, his own poetry seems often spotty, & his language experiments & platforms (verticalism & trilingualism, the revolution of the word, language of night, etc.) naively one-dimensional. Yet when he hits, the “energy” is still a very real presence, & that, I would suggest, is more than can be said for those of his contemporaries who chose the safer middle-ground.

(J.R., from Revolution of the Word A New Gathering of American Avant-Garde Poetry 1914-1945)