Ideas Have No Smell: Three Belgian Surrealist Booklets: Paul Nougé, Paul Colinet, Louis Scutenaire (Ugly Duckling, 2018)
I like to look at the sleeve of Ideas Have No Smell as a treasure trove. Or a treasure chest. As my fingers touch the textured paper and pull out what is contained within, I feel the value of joy that only I can know, the reader intimately locked into an incoming history lesson. A sense of fictional and self-imposed nostalgia. A bearing of mystery and radicality that will flip switches and produce great emergence.
Contained within the sleeve is a beautiful micro-collection of avant garde documents, all translated from the French with heart-churning grace by M. Kasper: Transfigured Publicity by Paul Nougé; Abstractive Treatise on Obeuse by Paul Colinet; and For Balthazar by Louis Scutenaire. Holding possession over these voices, be they bleeps that puff like shaken dust or guffaws echoing across canyons of bookshelves, is a magical experience. They skitter across the desk in their flightiness. They cascade and maninpulate their image through the sorting and the shuffling. They are three siblings aligned with charm and quixotic presence.
All are gently wrapped together into a compelling and illuminating essay by Mary Ann Caws, which is, in a mode of abstract rebellion, printed on the backside of a large Vispo text created by Paul Nougé. This text, partially broadside, partially map, is both minimal and bizarrely engrossing at the same time; there is a vortex of language that (as readers will discover in their own way) pulled from and given into Transfigured Publicity.
With the involvement of Kasper and Caws, a gentle subtext of approval smooths out the ruffled process of three individual experimenters of the 20th Century and their collectivity in this publication. But despite the analysis, the thorough homework and critique and biography included within Caws’s essay and within the works themselves, the translated batch of titles feels strong on its own.
“DON’T FORGET / IN / THIS / CITY / ONE CAN / WITH NO FUSS / PROCURE / AUTOMATIC PISTOLS / AND / SPEAKING MACHINES” reads a random page I open in the Nougé text. Transfigured Publicly (pulled together from a performance in 1926) is filled with these anti-aphoristic expressions, evocative and startling and absurd. That these books are surrealistic is a matter of history. That they read like the Futurists and Dadaists is quintessential. “LOOK / AROUND / YOU // LOOK / IN / YOUR / MIRROR // THIS / CORPSE / THESE / POOR / CORPSES / WHO / ARE / CORPSES / GLADLY” goes another.
A burst of laughter is followed by my trembling, caffeinated composure. What is this breakdown in language? The full sense of an appreciated nihilism. An examination of the ruination of society, but in a way that is alleviating and enlightening. Nougé by way of Kasper bleeds the history of his contemporaries and predecessors, but now, with this iteration, there is a reinforcement of the clusters of brilliance from a hundred years ago.
Part of the awe of Ideas Have No Smell is that the brilliance from the previous century is carried forth to now, to this moment, to this lens, and yet with it carries the history itself. While Nougé’s language might feel as contemporary and provocative now as it was when it was first composed (written, performed, and so on), Paul Colinet’s Abstractive Treatise on Obeuse (pulled together at various points throughout the 20th Century) feels distinctly from another era. It feels like Oulipo. It feels like absurdism. It feels like symbolism, and Dadaism, and it feels challenging separate. The juxtaposition with Nougé is dynamic and their perpendicular meeting point is water feeding flame, and otherwise.
In the text, Colinet has created a character, as simple as possible, illustrated in the form of a black circle, colored in (a la scribble). “OBEUSE / IN ONLY ONE STITCH / (definitive edition)” the book begins, with the circle hovering above. The isolation is breathtaking, and yet disturbing. It is humorous and deadpan. It is conceptual and agonizing. The book continues page after page (for eleven pages total) collecting a form of examination (retrospection, even) the dissolves as minimally as it appears. The casual reader would blast through the work in under two minutes, and might not give it a second thought. I admit I leaned toward such a direction before reading the curious and thorough afterword provided by Kasper. The text, the treasure in the trove, has a story ranging from Breton to Magritte to Piqueray, and is deserving a good read. There is humor within the text itself, and there is humor within the afterword itself, for other reasons. It begs some understanding, perhaps a foray, into the dance between the biographer and the artist, between Kasper and Colinet, in a way that is rarely as shocking to understand in most publications. The mystery, in other words, is a tracing of the ghost of the self and the ability to vanquish the ghost and pounce towards history.
History and mystery continue their place front and center in the final of the three volumes in Ideas Have No Smell, the rough and personal For Balthazar by Louis Scutenaire (published as a pamphlet in 1967). Utterly contemporary in tone and form alike, this tiny booklet is a single string of utterances and statements ranging from the philosophical to the narrative to the confessional. “No matter what, no matter how, no matter where.” begins the book. “So happy to ignore anything he doesn’t know.” ends it. There is an urgency that gets filled in with exclamatory nonsense, unstoppable personalization, and a giant warp of meaning.
That Scutenaire had a varied background, going far beyond writerly experience to form his representational methods, is important to realize. That this sequence might as well be considered aphorisms despite its nature of connectivity and a larger plot is important as well. Ultimately, I read it and find it fleeting, but important. I find it a form of personal interrogation, and also distanced. For Balthazar may be a keystone to this writer’s significant other spaces and operations. Ultimately it might not strike out the way the other two pieces of the collection strike, but its lashing is long-lasting and affording a revisit.
In thinking about the avant garde, Surrealism, and beyond, treasures like this will only aid us in learning about our own contexts. It’s fantastic that Ugly Duckling has done due diligence to craft the historic record and bring it to a beautiful, well-crafted fruition. It would be even more significant to see future translations made available of these writers and their obvious, intensely fascinating other writings.
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All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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