Surrealism and H.P. Lovecraft

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In my readings of the underbelly of 19th and 20th Century literature of late from the decadents to the surrealists, gothic to punk I came across an interesting little history of Surrealism by Patrick Lepetit The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies which mentions the exile period during WWII when many of the French Surrealists moved to America during that dark time. He speaks of their involvement in many various materialist rituals and practices both playful and serious within their tight knit community. Surrealists were interested in materialist and atheistic forms of the sacred and visionary, incorporating much of the darker elements of the ancient occult lore and hermetic alchemical traditions. They frowned on spiritualism and were adamant about a materialist form of ritual and practice. Officially the surrealist movement continued up to 1969. But even now many of its base notions have been incorporated by various artists and it continues to transform itself even in our era.

My interest in all of this has been to discover certain radical materialist discourses that used the various occultation material for its programs as well as experimental and heretical investigations into drugs, altered states of consciousness, arcane ritual and magical practices all based upon an atheistic challenge to monotheistic religious morality and official social norms. For Breton and his followers there was always a sense of revolutionary spirit underlying the transforming powers of consciousness and its use in art and materialist practices. History of the Surrealist Movement by French philosopher and art critic Gerard Durozoi is still the standard work of reference. But this one by Lepetit gives a nice overview of the magical elements within that history. It offers specific anecdotes, memoirs, fragments from journals, etc. Interesting.

At one point many of them came across the work of H.P. Lovecraft (himself a rationalist) and Lepetit shows how his new mythos impacted many of the surrealists of the age:

Inasmuch as we find ourselves among more or less malevolent powers, let’s add that the path of the surrealists during their American exile even crossed that of the Great Old Ones, Cthulhu, Dagon— the monstrous half-man, half-fish hybrid that makes a brief appearance in the Bible— Nyarlathotep, or Yog Sothoh, who had been awakened by the son of an Egyptian Rite Mason, Howard Phillips (H. P.) Lovecraft. Lovecraft, who was highly versed in the field of fantasy literature, as shown by his book Supernatural Horror in Literature, was the author of texts he called “Gothic horrors,” which possess elements reminiscent of Lautréamont, namely through their “horrifying reversal of the Christian thematic.”  Robert Allerton Parker was the first to devote a text to the author of “The Dunwich Horror,” with “Such Pulp as Dreams Are Made On” (which also examined the work of Lovecraft’s friend Clark Ashton Smith, whose name had already appeared in “First Papers of Surrealism” in issue 2– 3 of VVV in March 1943). Franklin Rosemont of the Chicago group and even Gérard Legrand in France were quick to follow suit; an article by Legrand, “H. P. L. and the Black Moon,” appeared in the first issue of Médium. In it Legrand writes, “Lovecraft’s grandeur resides in nothing less than the creation of a personal mythology that makes modern history look ridiculous. Scattered in pulp magazines until his death, this mythology is evidence of authentic occult knowledge treated with total freedom.” He then concludes this article, “Rarely has so much rigor been used to evoke abysses.” Robert Benayoun, in a brief item titled “Babel Revisited,” appearing in the fourth issue of Médium, sharply attacks the translator of an unnamed work by the “hermit of Providence,” but which could easily be The Color Out of Space, an ad for which appeared at the back of this same issue. Benayoun described the American’s “book . . . as spun from shadow” and saw in it “the greatest endeavor of collective panic of the half-century, the sure progression through the awareness of an anxiety drawn from the source of the ages.” He also took the trouble to praise the author’s “imperturbable, anachronistic, and solemn style.”

Legrand returned to this subject in La Brèche, n ° 8 (November 1965), adding, “Religious historians generally contain theosophists who don’t know it— those who Lovecraft criticized (not without naïveté) for their ‘blissful optimism.’” Remedios Varo, Jean-Pierre Duprey, and the future leader of the Phases group, Edouard Jaguer— contrary to Breton— also greatly esteemed the American, according to the testimony left by Jaguer personally in his book Le Surréalisme face à la littérature (Surrealism at the Hands of Literature),  as did Yves Elléouët. While deploring Lovecraft’s rudimentary style, Julien Gracq, who seems to have particularly liked “Dagon,” also felt Lovecraft was participating in the renewal of the novel by the efforts of imagination his books presume,  whereas Mandiargues reports in Le Cadran lunaire  on “the success of Lovecraft’s once scorned writings and of the audience granted to the people of his school.” Finally, Sarane Alexandrian, in his Histoire de la philosophie occulte (History of Occult Philosophy), makes this observation, whose full importance we shall see later: “A book on twentieth-century gnosis should also include the fantasy novelist H. P. Lovecraft, who was inspired by the Syriac text by Teodor bar Konaï on manicheism.” Konaï was the eighth-century author of a Liber Scholiorum, which “stands out,” Jean Doresse tells us, “by the strange nature of certain heresies it helped save from oblivion.”1


  1. Lepetit, Patrick (2014-04-24). The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies (pp. 114-115). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.

Georges Bataille: Beyond the Empire of Words

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I cannot consider someone free if they do not have the desire to sever the bonds of language within themselves.
…..– Bataille, On the subject of Slumbers

Georges Bataille would affirm that the “absence of myth is also a myth: the coldest, the purest, the only true myth.”1 An enemy of surrealism as he would say “from within” he would define it conclusively:

It is genuinely virile opposition – nothing conciliatory, nothing divine – to all accepted limits, a rigorous will to insubordination. (p. 49)

He would sum up Andre Breton with a scalpel precision saying of his timbre and voice that it was “measured, pretentious, and swollen with learning” (p. 38). In fact as he’d relate what “caused me the greatest discomfort was not only the lack of rigour, but the absence of this completely insidious, joyous, and telltale cruelty towards the self, which tries not to dominate but go a long way” (p. 38).

Of Louis Aragorn …”from the first Aragon disappointed me. He was not a fool, but he was not intelligent either. … What we shared was a common feeling of misfortune at living in a world that we felt had become empty – of having, for want of profound virtues, a need for ourselves, or for a small number of friends, to assume the appearance of being what we did not have the means of being” (p. 39).

Of Antonin Artaud … “He looked like a caged bird of prey with dusty plumage which had been apprehended at the very moment it was about to take flight, and had remained fixed in this posture” (p. 43). He would quote a passage that Maurice Blanchot had kept from Artaud: “I began in literature by writing books in order to say that I could write nothing at all; it was when I had something to say or write that my thought most refused me. I never had ideas, and two very short books, each of seventy pages, turned on this profound (ingrained and endemic) absence of ideas. (p. 45)”

For Bataille the failure of surrealism was that it suspended everything in a “rigorous solitude”. It ceased to be “connected to the affirmation of a hope of breaking the solitude (p. 51).”

  1. Georges Bataille. The Absence of Myth. (Verso, 2006)