Toni del Renzio: Dementia Praecox and Poetry

Toni del Renzio: A Too Brief Memoire

I first met Toni in 1993 at Conroy Maddox’s 80th birthday party. By the time I met him I already knew a little of his history, his aristocratic origins in Italy, his attempt to stimulate surrealism in Britain and his feud with E.L.T. Mesens. I found him friendly and sympathetic, quite lacking that air of superiority that some elders’ assume in the presence of young pretenders. We remained in contact and then three years later renewed our acquaintance at the Surrealist Visuality conference at Keele. Although present, until he stood up to speak on the final day of the conference, he seemed  rather put in the shade by the reputation of his late ex-wife Ithel Colquhoun.

From then on we stayed in touch, meeting occasionally and once I was invited to his birthday party. Resplendent in dinner jacket, he stroked his pet rat and regaled a few of us with anecdotes that, if one did not know Toni’s history, would assume he had completely lost it. His tales involved Russian agents and Goldfinger, that is, the modernist architect Erno Goldfinger, who gave his name to Fleming’s villain. Goldfinger was a Stalinist, and shopped Toni to the MI5 as Toni was a Trotskyist. A fuller account can be found in the links below:

A couple of years on again and I met him at Conroy Maddox’s funeral. By now I was a member of the London Surrealist Group and Toni showed a lively interest.  Later that Spring several of us were present at his 90th birthday party, held at Mayor Gallery. He was very eager to show us his continued commitment to surrealism and we decided to invite him to join the group.

This act seemed to heal an ancient wound in Toni. Although he was, by now a little infirm, and had to be accompanied to London by his sons, he attended several group meetings at the Seven Stars pub and read the text published here at an evening of readings we held at Treadwell’s Bookshop in late 2005. At ninety, Tony was, by far, the oldest member of the group and the youngest was just 17. Unfortunately, a split occurred in the group shortly afterwards and Toni was unable to meet with us as we attempted to restart our activities. When I next met him, a few months later, in the spring of 2006, he seemed much older and weaker, and then was unable to meet him again for a few months. In the Autumn I was asked to go and see him in Ramsgate. By now he was in hospital and near death. When I arrived I found him delirious and not really knowing I was there, but when one of his sons made a grammatical error he suddenly snapped into focus and crossly corrected him. He died in January 2007.

The text reproduced here, and the accompanying collage should have been included in the third issue of our journal Arcturus. It was the victim of the split in the group and for a long time we did not have the resources to get it into print and Arcturus fell by the wayside for quite a while. When we decided to put some of the material for the third issue online, alongside newer works, we knew we would have to publish Toni’s essay. Therefore the occasion of this publication is to honour the fervent wishes of Toni del Renzio, once again to find himself among surrealist comrades.

Stuart Inman


The Denizens of the Mind

toni_del_renzio_collageEarlier this year I began to write a surrealist tract – a declaration of principles and intents which led me, in its final paragraph, to confront a phenomenon that had always intrigued me and which had also appeared, from the founding members of the surrealist group on, an aspect of the human unconscious and a contributing factor to surrealist poetics, perhaps at its most evident in Breton and Eluard’s Immaculée Conception, the ambiguous status of the Ego!  It was, and, of course, still remains a consequence of the autonomy of the diverse elementsthat are locked in perpetual antagonistic cooperation and cut right across the Freudian Triad, the Ego, Id and Super-Ego which had always seemed more the result of casuistry than any questioning of the mind’s structure and affectivity.  It seemed to suggest the unconscious was not just the residence of one single, possibly unique persona but, rather, the stomping-ground of many, deeper and darker entities, of which the Ego might, at best, be only one, and that, even, a hotly disputed place and this above all else made, in surrealist eyes, egocentrism such an unacceptable attribute.  Moreover, this multiplicity of the mind’s occupying entities, in permanent conflict and mutual restraint could be seen as the mechanism that produces what we have come to view as typical surrealist imagery, and with respect to this the parity with the cadaver exquis is significant, one more example of the creative contribution of surrealist ludic experience.

It is the ever varying complexity that endows the images with their startling unmediated presence, their surreality, the inevitability of their clash that authenticates the unity that is always more than just the sum of the parts and suggests the Freudian Triad is less than sufficient to explain the workings of the unconscious and breaks out of the circle, vicious or not, of the psychoanalytical argument, long suggesting the curriculum for a rapprochement with a less rigid, though no less rigorous behaviourism, not yet, I fear, under way, but still to be formalised from fleeting fragmented tentatives.  But these still constitute uncharted territories, familiar, nonetheless, to poets who have stalked inspiration across the forbidden landscapes of primeval conflict where they uncover the inscrutable elements of broken dreams, the characteristic and affective productions of the psyche at its most vulnerable in the vulgarity of Dali as in the sublimity of the breath-stopping structures of Les Chants de Maldoror, particularly in the marvellous similes that, early on, surrealism discovered and claimed its own, “Beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine upon a dissecting table”.

But, more and more, as I have considered this phenomenon, not just recently but over the years, now, I reckon, rather more than seventy, it required deeper and thorough investigation and recognition of its crucial role in the poetry and other works that gained surrealism its begrudged reputation that every literary fly-by-night has sought to destroy while stealing what they neither understand nor are able to simulate, and surrealism, to the contrary, has enshrined within the canon of its operations.  Furthermore, should my thoughts prove to be merely suggestive or assertive, there still remains much evidence that the phenomenon is a fecund factor within surrealist poetics.  It seems, very strongly, indeed, to me, that the mind must be the site not of just one psychic entity, simple and incontestable, the ego, but, rather, of a whole band, struggling one with another no less than with exterior reality, to create the unconscious personality that is only rarely permitted to hoist itself into the arenas of the mind where it suborns thought’s process with the weapons of logical inconsistency raising the non sequiturs to the imperious questioning of, “Why not?”  At this glittering height the many, distinct and incompatible participants in the struggle in the mind to reach expression, at some point betwixt coherence and incoherence, are more or less indistinguishable, at best, forcing an ill-considered figuration into the characteristics of style that the best poets have always cultivated and only the rarest individuals have been able to pursue, freed of any reservation or evasion or even inhibition.  This long literary process wriggled into pre-eminence with the struggle, almost throughout the nineteenth century, to establish a romantic trend more and more untamed by the expectations of literature opening the doors to the unexpected producing that frisson, alone seen to determine the trajectory along which poetry hurtled into orbit, never again to settle into any accommodation with tradition.  Blake and the more vigorous among the romantics in England, and the undisciplined maul of French poets like Gerard de Nerval, who crowded the walkways, previously considered only the uncultivated verges of literature, hurried an unsuspecting world into modernism.  Baudelaire, with Rimbaud hot on his heels, broke rambunctiously with the literary establishment and broke, too, fresh ground in which to cultivate a poetry for which Isidore Ducasse, “Comte de Lautréamont”, quite independently, as far as one knows, wrote the new rulebook, Poésies, more from observation of the current practices around him than from any notions of prescriptive directions for the immediate future and any evasion of the sentimental moeurs of romanticism sunk into its dotage and decadence, although unaware he was laying the foundations of surrealism.

Toni del Renzio

Surrealism and the idea of the avant-garde

The Love of Zero

The Love of Zero

In attempting to consider, from the surrealist point of view, the relevance of the concept of the avant-garde and whether surrealism can be considered an avant-garde movement, I suppose that the simplest answer would be no.  Surrealism is, in many ways, opposed to the idea of vanguardism both politically and culturally, at least if we consider the traditional meanings of the term (and despite Peter Bűrger’s claim that surrealism is the ultimate avant-garde).  The cultural avant-gardes of the twentieth century are roughly divided between those that purvey what they consider to be the newest, most advanced form of art, literature, music – Fauvism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and so on; and those that have a broader cultural and philosophical programme, such as Fururism, Poetism, certain forms of Expressionism, advocates of a worldview rather than a merely formal radicalism.  While surrealism was most certainly born out of the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, it claims to be different in kind.Firstly, the cultural avant-gardes are concerned as much as anything else with novelty.  The sensation of newness wears out very quickly and needs a newer one to replace the old new, to be replaced in turn as that new quickly wears out.  Surrealism, which has survived for the best part of a century, can hardly be thought of as a novelty!  Too often the avant-garde movements have been easily co-opted into reactionary political tendencies, Futurism in Mussolini’s Italy for instance.

The political avant-garde can often be too observant of the party line.  In claiming to be in the van, the front line, the party then claims to speak for those others they regard as following their line.  Political vanguardism is, therefore, too frequently attached to the Identity Principle, attempting to homogenise what is, in fact, deeply heterogenous.  Surrealism, in considering itself as always quite other, stresses its non-identity with all dominant ideology.

The resources of surrealism date back beyond its birth; the ancient principles of Analogy and Hermeticism combine with modern thought (Freud and Marx being only the best known), as well as the ideas of extraordinary figures such as Fourier.  It would be a great mistake to ever consider surrealism as some amalgam of Freudian and Marxist thought as both are held at some distance by this principle of non-identity.  Surrealism’s close links with other movements are never a capitulation to the whole framework of that movement’s ideology, just as its approximation to those ideas is not merely eclectic.  They create a frame of references that inform surrealist activity, allow it to develop along independent lines and to which surrealism can at times contribute.  The best image here is that of the constellation.

Another consideration is whether or not the concept of the avant-garde is to be thought of as at all current.  Given that we live in a world that announces itself as “postmodern” at least according to many – the term avant-garde seems irredeemably modernist to many.  I do not wish to denigrate all that is termed postmodern.  Like modernism, it has much that is good, much that is bad, and in any case the term has been so abused as to be fairly meaningless unless one defines one’s terms very strictly.  But the idea of the postmodern has taken over much that was the role of the old avant-garde including, too frequently, an uncritical love of the new, in this instance the love of the cybernetic rather than the paroxysms of the mechanical.

It becomes increasingly obvious when one considers the postmodern scene how what is thought of as “advanced”, for instance in the arts, is often only so in the most superficial way.  It has already been so co-opted by big business, by power, that it offers no real resistance to what the situationists called the Spectacle.  The front line is only a front line of a mass of conformity.  Surrealism, by contrast, has claimed to be a “microcivilisation” (see, for instance, La Civilisation Surrealiste, the result of collaborations between the Czech and French surrealists in the 1970s, organised by Vincent Bounoure and Vratislav Effenberger).

It is in this concept of a microcivilisation that a clear image can be seen of surrealism’s claim to its non-identity with the avant-garde, not the front line, but a principled desertion.  However, I would also claim that surrealism’s abandonment of avant-gardism is in no way a simple retreat.  I would, in fact, make the claim that it is a dialectical act of overcoming the idea of the avant-garde.  Surrealism is the laboratory for an experiment in living.  As such, it offers the possibility for a life directed by poetry, or rather a profound poesis.  The antithesis of the avant-garde is, therefore, not conservative art or politics, but a virulent other that has absorbed the concept of the avant-garde as it has overcome it and points the way, not to the front line, but to the antipodes of the wreck of the civilisation we all still live in.

Stuart Inman

The Liberation of Wilderness

Today, environmental action is both essential and urgent.  Even world leaders are quite happy to mouth the words, while their actions continue the downward spiral towards environmental catastrophe.  There are imminent ecological dangers that must be faced, climate change and its consequences being, perhaps, the most terrifying.  As the rulers of capitalism prevaricate, more afraid of falling profits than of human extinction, it is at least some small encouragement that the awareness of this has become more widespread, no longer the preserve purely of ageing hippies and backwoods radicals.

Yet for us as Surrealists, even a triumph of environmental activism would not be sufficient to turn humanity aside from millennia of conflict with nature.  Our own radical ecology, our quest for the poetic unification of the human imagination with the lived and living environment, is not a matter of salvaging whatever we can from the wreck, nor is it dependent on a sentimental re-visioning of nature.  Rather, we demand the absolute liberation of wilderness.

The civilised bourgeois hates and fears the wilderness, damning it as evil in its untamed vitality and eroticism, even as he builds civilised killing machines and uses them to fight civilised wars.  For us, on the other hand, wilderness is essential to the creation of a truly complete humanity.

And where is wilderness to be found today?  It is in the spirit of rebellion and of revolution, it is in human desire, in the forests of the imagination and in a fully liberated sexuality as much as it is in mountains or oceans.  The Surrealist vision sees our world not simply as a physical, environmental, unity but also as a poetic unity.

Thus when another species is extinguished by the vaulting greed of capitalism, the destruction affects the ecosystem outwardly and at the same moment it extinguishes a part of our humanity.  Whether the victim is dodo, redwood or wolf, the loss inevitably resonates through the deepest levels of our own being.

We want to bring back the wolves.  We even want to bring back the dodo.  Only this will bring us back to becoming fully and irrevocably human.

There can be no true victory for the ecological movement unless and until we are able to bring about the rebirth of wilderness in the most profound sense.  This, beyond the prevention of climate change or the preservation of ancient landscapes, is a central objective of the Surrealist revolution.

London Surrealist Group

Against the Archons

abraxas_2Surrealism has been described as a “magic materialism” and Breton associates it with “a certain philosophy of immanence”.  As such,  it sets its face against idealism, against religion and the very idea of God.  At the same time it also shows itself to be against the narrow and reductive version of materialism, impoverished versions of Darwinism, naȉve Marxism, knee-jerk Behaviourism, that would have us consider the human to be no more than a mechanism, something that neither Marx nor Darwin would have approved of.  For us the difference between our “magic materialism” and that leaden materialism is the idea of freedom.

It is impossible to deny that we are conditioned at every level, genetic, biological, cultural, psychological, but at the same time there is an excess, a something more that is a source of mental light.

Idealist philosophies, in tending to return all things back towards God, would do the same with this mental light.  If it were God’s then it must either be a gift or brought, somehow, to earth.  In the myth of Prometheus he steals the fire from heaven to give it to men and is consequently punished by Zeus.  In considering this fire to be our mental light, whether we think of it as the illumination of logic or of poetic insight (or even a synthesis of both) we need to rethink that myth in order to gain a proper and materialist understanding of it.

In another myth, this time Gnostic, the true god has withdrawn and the universe is in the hands of the Demiurge, Ialdaboth.  Part dictator, part mafia don, he is a “jealous god” and he and his pantheon of Archons rule the heavens and earth.  The Gnostics believed that divine light had descended and must be gathered up and must ascend beyond the reach of the Archons, cruel usurpers, in order to return to the true god.

Surrealism, considered as a materialism, must invert these myths in order to arrive at their true meaning.  As the idea of god is abolished there can be no true god, only the false image of the Archons.  The divine light is actually a human light that has been stolen, not from the gods, but from us by religion.  Thus Prometheus returns to us what is ours.  Our earthlight must return to earth and illuminate human eyes.

Stuart Inman