Saturday, April 18, 2009

Remembering a Wobbly Surrealist

The debate about the relationship, or lack of relationship, between avant-garde art and left-wing politics has been rumbling on for a week or more now in the comments boxes of this blog. Despite or because of thousands of words of polemic, there appears no consensus over whether or not radical art can help to effect radical political change. One man who had no doubt about the connection between art and politics was Franklin Rosemont, the American labour activist and surrealist who died last week at the age of sixty-five.

Rosemont was born into a working class family in Chicago, and at the age of seven he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, known colloquially as the 'Wobblies'. He would remain committed to the organisation for the rest of life, despite its steadily declining membership. Inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road, Rosemont left school at fifteen and hitched around America and Mexico, winding up in the Beat stronghold of San Francisco. During a subsequent journey to Europe he met the elderly Andre Breton, and became an instant convert to the Surrealist movement.

Upon returning to America Rosemont founded the Chicago Surrealist Group and began to produce poetry and visual art. Another key member of the group was Philip Lamantia, who had also graduated from the Beat movement to Breton's rather austere aesthetic.

I remember encountering the poems of Lamantia and other members of the Chicago Group during my undergraduate days, and being struck by how little they owed to the main tendency in American poetry in the '60s. While the Beats, feminist poets like Anne Sexton, New York School poets like Frank O'Hara and even doyens of the mainstream like Robert Lowell were trying to make their poetry casual and accessible, the American surrealists were churning out lines full of inscrutably strange images. Narrative and argument were rejected, because they were seen as impediments to the free expression of the subconscious mind. Although it was supposed to express the deepest impulses of its authors, the work of the American surrealists seemed to me oddly impersonal, and sometimes even cold. Perhaps Lamantia, Rosemont and co. were like the medieval mystics who tried to enquire so deeply into themselves that they would discover what was common to all humans. I must confess struggling to find much more than a tangle of incomprehensible lines and the occasional beautiful image in the work of Rosemont and his comrades. It was impossible not to admire the energy of the Surrealists, though, and the way that they tried to fuse their art with the radical politics which shook up the United States in the second half of the sixties.

Rosemont was a scholar as well as an artist and political activist, and from the seventies into the noughties he turned out a series of essays and books about the history of the labour movement in the United States and overseas. His biography of Wobbly martyr Joe Hill became popular amongst scholars as well as activists, and was eventually translated into French.

I am grateful to Rosemont for 'Karl Marx and the Iroquois', his long, stormy meditation on Marx's little-known Ethnological Notebooks.

The Notebooks, which were only published in 1974, were an aspect of the massive, unfinished researches into pre-capitalist societies that Marx began in earnest in the early 1870s and continued right up until his death in 1883. They document Marx's readings in the work of pioneers of anthropology like Lawrence Henry Morgan. Although Rosemont's subject might seem fusty, the opening sentences of his essay make it clear that he is offering something much more exciting than the average academic discourse:

There are works that come down to us with question-marks blazing like sawed-off shotguns, scattering here and there and everywhere sparks that illuminate our own restless search for answers. Ralegh's so-called Cynthia cycle, Sade's 120 Days, Fourier's New Amorous World, Lautremont's Poesies, Lenin's notes on Hegel, Randolph Bourne's essay on The State Jacque Vaches War letters, Duchamp's Green Box, the Samuel Greenberg manuscripts: These are only a few of the extraordinary fragments that have, for many of us, exerted a fascination greater than that of all but a very few "finished" works.

Karl Marx's
Ethnological Notebooks - notes for a major study he never lived to write - have something of the same fugitive ambiguity. These extensively annotated excerpts from works of Lewis Henry Morgan and others are a jigsaw puzzle for which we have to reinvent the missing pieces out of our own research and revery and above all, our own revolutionary activity.

Rosemont believes that the Notebooks represent Marx's move away from the Eurocentric perspective of the first edition of Capital, toward an appreciation of the importance of the struggles of the Iroquois and other indigenous peoples against the encroachment of capitalism on their world:

For Late Marx, the motto doubt everything was no joke. Or at least it was not only a joke.

This is especially noticeable in the last decade of Marx's life, and the Ethnological Notebooks are an especially revealing example of his readiness to revise previously held views in the light of new discoveries. At the very moment that his Russian "disciples" - those "admirers of capitalism," as he ironically tagged them-were loudly proclaiming that the laws of historical development set forth in the first volume of
Capital were universally mandatory, Marx himself was diving headlong into the study of (for him) new experiences of resistance and revolt against oppression - by North American Indians, Australian aborigines. Egyptians and Russian peasants...

Late Marx emphasized as never before the subjective factor as the decisive force in revolution. His conclusion that revolutionary social transformation could proceed from different directions and in different (though not incompatible) ways was a logical extension of his multi-linear view of history into the present and future.

Rosemont urges the relevance of the Notebooks to fin-de-siecle struggles against globalisation and primitive accumulation in the Third World. In 'Late Marx and the Iroquois' Rosemont pays homage to EP Thompson, who had pointed to the importance of Marx's late work in his controversial 1978 polemic 'The Poverty of Theory'. Rosemont is less restrained than Thompson in his interpretation of Marx's fragmentary late texts, and his argument that the Ethnological Notebooks represent a complete repudiation of Capital is finally unconvincing. More careful scholars, like Haruki Wada and Raya Dunyaveskaya, have noted that Marx was reworking even the first, published volume of Capital right up until the end of his life, and incorporating his new insights into the book.

Rosemont also makes the mistake of equating Marx's views with Morgan's, when in fact the Notebooks contain criticisms of Morgan's tendency towards a stagist view of human development. Raya Dunyaveskaya has shown that Marx's criticisms were ignored by Engels when he used the Notebooks as a source for The Origin of the State, the Family and Private Property.

What 'Karl Marx and the Iroquois' lacks in scholarship, though, it makes up for in eloquence. In a memorable passage, Rosemont addresses some of Marx's latter-day academic disciples:

Despite their pompous claims, ninety-seven percent of the neo-Marxists are actually to the right of the crude and mechanical Marxists of the old sects, and the separation of their theory from their practice tends to be much larger.

Certainly the Wobbly hobo of yesteryear, whose Marxist library consisted of little more than the IWW Preamble and the Little Red Song Book, had a far surer grasp of social reality - and indeed - of what Marx and even Hegel were talking about-than today's professional phenomenologist-deconstructionist neo-Marxologist who, in addition to writing unreadable micro-analytical explications of Antonio Gramsci, insists on living in an all-white neighborhood, crosses the university clerical-workers' picket line, and votes the straight Democratic ticket.

I'm not sure if he would have approved, but I was proud to quote Rosemont's remarkable study of Marx's late work in my PhD thesis. Even if I couldn't appreciate the man's verse, I found a lot of poetry in his prose.


Anonymous David said...

Fascinating post. Breton spent much of the war in the US. Has anyone written about his influence on the art and writing scene here?

10:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Working class art in Auckland?

10:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis

white curtains of infinite fatigue
dominating the starborn heritage of the colonies of St Francis
white curtains of tortured destinies
inheriting the calamities of the plagues
of the desert encourage the waistlines of women to expand
and the eyes of men to enlarge like pocket-cameras
teach children to sin at the age of five
to cut out the eyes of their sisters with nail-scissors
to run into the streets and offer themselves to unfrocked priests
teach insects to invade the deathbeds of rich spinsters
and to engrave the foreheads of their footmen with purple signs
for the year is open the year is complete
the year is full of unforeseen happenings
and the time of earthquakes is at hand

today is the day when the streets are full of hearses
and when women cover their ring fingers with pieces of silk
when the doors fall off their hinges in ruined cathedrals
when hosts of white birds fly across the ocean from america
and make their nests in the trees of public gardens
the pavements of cities are covered with needles
the reservoirs are full of human hair
fumes of sulphur envelop the houses of ill-fame
out of which bloodred lilies appear.


across the square where crowds are dying in thousands
a man is walking a tightrope covered with moths

there is an explosion of geraniums in the ballroom of the hotel
there is an extremely unpleasant odour of decaying meat
arising from the depetalled flower growing out of her ear
her arms are like pieces of sandpaper
or wings of leprous birds in taxis
and when she sings her hair stands on end
and lights itself with a million little lamps like glowworms
you must always write the last two letters of her christian name
upside down with a blue pencil

she was standing at the window clothed only in a ribbon
she was burning the eyes of snails in a candle
she was eating the excrement of dogs and horses
she was writing a letter to the president of france


the edges of leaves must be examined through microscopes
in order to see the stains made by dying flies
at the other end of the tube is a woman bathing her husband
and a box of newspapers covered with handwriting
when an angel writes the word TOBACCO across the sky
the sea becomes covered with patches of dandruff
the trunks of trees burst open to release streams of milk
little girls stick photographs of genitals to the windows of their homes
prayerbooks in churches open themselves at the death service
and virgins cover their parents' beds with tealeaves
there is an extraordinary epidemic of tuberculosis in yorkshire
where medical dictionaries are banned from the public libraries
and salt turns a pale violet colour every day at seven o'clock
when the hearts of troubadours unfold like soaked mattresses
when the leaven of the gruesome slum-visitors
and the wings of private airplanes look like shoeleather
shoeleather on which pentagrams have been drawn
shoeleather covered with vomitings of hedgehogs
shoeleather used for decorating wedding-cakes
and the gums of queens like glass marbles
queens whose wrists are chained to the walls of houses
and whose fingernails are covered with little drawings of flowers
we rejoice to receive the blessing of criminals
and we illuminate the roofs of convents when they are hung
we look through a telescope on which the lord's prayer has been written
and we see an old woman making a scarecrow
on a mountain near a village in the middle of spain
we see an elephant killing a stag-beetle
by letting hot tears fall onto the small of its back
we see a large cocoa-tin full of shapeless lumps of wax
there is a horrible dentist walking out of a ship's funnel
and leaving behind him footsteps which make noises
on account of his accent he was discharged from the sanatorium
and sent to examine the methods of cannibals
so that wreaths of passion-flowers were floating in the darkness
giving terrible illnesses to the possessors of pistols
so that large quantities of rats disguised as pigeons
were sold to various customers from neighbouring towns
who were adepts at painting gothic letters on screens
and at tying up parcels with pieces of grass
we told them to cut off the buttons on their trousers
but they swore in our faces and took off their shoes
whereupon the whole place was stifled with vast clouds of smoke
and with theatres and eggshells and droppings of eagles
and the drums of the hospitals were broken like glass
and glass were the faces in the last looking-glass.

by David Gascoyne

This is the first surrealist poem in English, published in October 1933.

4:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So long, Franklin, you hairy, helpful, hallucinating old wizard of the left.
I first came across fellow worker Rosement and his equally improbable and kindly wife Penelope a few years ago, in the course of researching NZ's early radical literary traditions. I was startled to discover that a vast proportion of the wave of imported leftist reading matter (and it was practically all imported) which fed the dreams and desires of the largely autodidactic radical labour movement in the early 20th century originated from a single source, the Chicago-based Charles H. Kerr publishing house. It was equally surprising to learn that the company was still vigorously extant, its original principles intact, turning out many marvellous books annually under the slogan "Subversive literature for all the family".
So I sent them my research on the NZ connection with their business, and Franklin (who had bought the company in the 70s to save it from insolvency) responded at characteristic length and generosity, sending me signed copies of several of his own works (including the biography of Joe Hill you mention above) and inviting me to contribute to a forthcoming one, a revised edition of the Haymarket Scrapbook.
So I did, and we kept in touch, sending each other good stuff we'd come across and news of our local communities. I've never had a livelier, more welcome correspondent. He usually addressed me as Fellow Worker, meaning he saw me as a Wobbly like himself, and I wish I truly deserved such a tribute.
I also wish we'd managed to meet up, and that he'd lived to finish a few more works in progress. But it would have been a tango of a tangi for old Franklin.

Give them hell in heaven, you old bugger.

Mark Derby

8:32 pm  
Blogger Jared Davidson said...


I still have your copies of Franklin's books! I just realised as I posted a tribute up on my blog.

Just say the word and I will give them back (even though it would be hard to give up 'Joe Hill'!)

Jared Davidson

8:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometime you get a wrong number.

"Hello, I'm comin' Louise. Don't you worry."

"Hello--excuse me? I think you have the wrong number."


"No. This is not Louise."

I hang up.


I had not received a wrong number in years.

I thought it strange this silly, annoying wrong number.

I had just been to Franklin Rosemont's funeral. Waldheim Cemetery. Very sad day. I cried.

I went home and re-read "An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers"

I cried again and then, I laughed.

passional distractions, fruitfulness of error, desirable improbabilities, objective chance,
spoken doodles, the poetic use of the useless, treasure maps to utopias worth living

1:40 pm  
Blogger NanoFiberKnot said...

Thank you very much for this post; it was a nutritious read. I have a little book on the original surrealist movement, published by Taschen, in which the author mentions most of the membership's inclination toward leftism at that time. I remember not being surprised at this when I first read it 3.5 years ago. I'm certainly not a historian, but atrocity in the name of communism may not have been in full swing at that time. However, with the help of my ingenious baboon engineer, I was rebuilt by a contingency of ghosts into an ectoplasmic nanomachine.

3:20 am  
Blogger Daurade said...

David, I believe that yes, a lot has been written about Breton's influence in the US. Check this out:

This might be a good place to get some ideas about where to start looking.

Also, if I recall correctly, Mark Polizotti's "Revolution of the Mind" discusses his American sojourn in some detail.

Ernst and Duchamp were also in the US for a long time. Surrealism was very big in the US in the postwar period. Sorry this so short on detail, but it's something.

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