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A review of Ivan Sviták's The Windmills of Humanity: On Culture and Surrealism in the Manipulated World

by G.S. Evans

The Windmills of Humanity: On Culture and Surrealism in the Manipulated World by Ivan Sviták (Author), Joseph Grim Feinberg (Editor and Translator), Andy Lass (Illustrator), Chicago: Charles H. Kerr 2015

Even beyond the substance of its arguments, especially its explication of a Marxist surrealism, The Windmills of Humanity: On Culture and Surrealism in the Manipulated World has a number of interesting elements. First and foremost this would include the life story of its author, Ivan Sviták. A leading Czech intellectual at the time of Prague Spring, he was forced into exile in 1968 by the Warsaw Pact invasion. His unwillingness to become a part of the anti-communist exile “establishment” (e.g. working for Voice of America) led to his teaching for almost 20 years at the rather obscure Chico State University in Chico, California (formerly Chico State Teachers College). Already having had a close association with the Group of Czechoslovak Surrealists, he made contact with the Chicago Surrealists with whom he corresponded for some number of years. It is from the Chicago group that this book has arisen, long after Sviták’s return to the then Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s (he died of cancer in 1994). The translator and editor of the book, Joe Grim Feinberg, has himself closely collaborated with both the Chicago and Prague surrealist groups, and the book was published by Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, which has a close association with the Chicago surrealists.

Because it is a surrealist and not an academic text, Windmills of Humanity not only features a selection of excerpts from Sviták’s theoretical writings, but also some of his poems and parables, as well as a number of illustrations by the surrealist artist Andy Lass and a cover illustration by Jan Švankmajer (both members of the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists). But of course it is the book’s theoretical import which concerns us here, and this is nicely epigraphed in the beginning of the book with a reference to Don Quixote that also inspired the book’s otherwise inexplicable title:

“Let us imagine Don Quixote at the moment of his departure for his encounter with the windmills, and let us ask the question: WHY DOES HE FIGHT AGAINST AN ILLUSION? Because illusions are more real than reality… Values are born only in the utopian fight…”

Which is to say that we are here concerned with Sviták’s discussion, within a dialectical framework, of human hope, imagination and creativity as propulsive agents of human history. In the case of hope, this is stated quite clearly on the first page of the opening essay, “The Human Being and Utopia”:

“People cannot live without hope, for hope is both their motive for action and their future, their goal. […] But the need for hope is felt not only by individuals; whole groups share this need—social classes, nations, groups of nations. And it can be observed that the worse historical conditions have been, the higher human hope for change has risen. That is why history, which appears as an almost uninterrupted tale of hunger, misery, war, plunder, and exploitation, is also a history of human hope. Not only economic law, but also hope makes history.”

Sviták then argues that this hope has taken three forms in the course of human history, and these are also in a somewhat chronological order: 1) belief in a golden age (a previous age before class society) which provides “one of the earliest testimonies to the hopes of people in class society who kept their lost freedom alive, at least as a memory…”; 2) an escape into an alternative, spiritual world and/or after-life provided by religion that could also manifest itself more concretely in, e.g., feudal revolutionary movements; and 3) the development of a potentially more forward looking utopia in which, “[w]ith the discovery of a new world and a new cosmos, the Renaissance posed new questions about social development, resulting in the classic literary utopias [such as More’s Utopia and Bacon’s New Atlantis]” and the many utopian ideas and works that have followed since.

But these proposed utopias did not ask how we were to arrive at these ideal societies, instead presenting them as something already attained, the result of some moral and spiritual perfecting of humankind. But, as Sviták argues, very much in the Marxist tradition, the liberation of humanity will not come about as a gift, accident or intervention of a wise ruler, since the “people must free themselves.” And here Sviták reiterates another familiar Marxist element, the dialectic, when he writes that “the dialectic of utopia and science, hope and actuality, dream and reality, is continuously unfolding in the history of human thought. The human being overcomes hope by realizing it, kills the dream in order to think awake, takes scientific control over the future in order to conquer space for new utopias. Hope transformed into the reality of socialism provides an impulse toward still more certain hopes for a new personality of communist society, stepping out of the horizon of our longings like Aphrodite from the waves of the Aegean Sea.”

Sviták, by introducing the dialectically propulsive “thesis” of utopia/hope/dream against the antithesis of existing society with all of its inequalities, injustices and alienation (and the various ideologies that rationalize and justify these oppressive structures), clearly differentiates himself from the traditional “dialectical materialism” that would have characterized much of the communist party establishment he was challenging. According to the grab-bag amalgam of Marxian ideas (as opposed to something that Marx did, or would have, put forward himself) that is dialectical materialism, the propulsive forces of history are far removed from any such subjective manifestations; they are instead a set of deterministic natural laws that create the conditions according to which humans receive the idea to make the revolution, with the revolution itself being made possible by a specific set of material conditions (in which quantitative change builds toward qualitative change). Though subjective drives such as the one Sviták discusses aren’t -- lest dialectical materialism fall into a kind of Calvinistic predestination trap -- entirely denied, they are certainly never elaborated on or even, necessarily, mentioned.

However, this still begs the question as to the specifics of the imagination-based dialectical thesis that Sviták puts forward, i.e., what is its actual form and character. This is addressed in the essay "The Surrealist Image of Humankind," in which Sviták most directly puts Surrealism forward as being, as it were, the revolutionary agent of this imaginative aspect of the dialectic. Here Sviták discusses the "metamorphosis of the human type," what he terms the "anthropological transformation," which is the how and why of how technology, science, production, etc. impacts and changes us human beings.

The first three of these transformative agents -- the change in relations between an individual and society, the changes in the forms of human existence (e.g. increasing urbanization), and the changes in people's subjective feeling and reasoning (e.g. how a medieval person looks at the world vs. a modern person) -- might all fit under the rubric of a historical materialist analysis that might satisfy many a traditional Marxist (though, arguably, not Marx himself) and social scientist.

It is in the elaboration of the fourth agent -- "humanity's awareness of these changes, its interpretation of the objective evolutionary modifications" -- that we begin to see the surrealist at work. We have now left the realm of the "objective”, seeing instead that “people’s knowledge about their own transformation, about the changes in society and the world, is a priori subjective”. The a priori subjective knowledge of any particular individual or group might well be seen by us as mistaken or misguided, but it cannot be ignored; certain “models of humanity” flow from this and always include an interpretation of the meaning of the world, history, and humanity, an orientation toward certain values and a sense, peculiar to each age, of the objective (e.g. economic) factors that determine humans and society.

The interesting thing about the fourth agent is that this constant striving on the part of humanity to interpret itself, to give meaning to itself, its culture and its actions and its particular interpretation of the objective factors that determine itself and its society – this anthropological transformation, as Sviták calls it – can, in his opinion, sometimes be more of a factor in the making of history than the objective factors themselves. Indeed, history itself can be regarded as “a succession of different self-interpretations, as a series of changing ideological models, a series of the human being’s images of itself.” Furthermore, he adds, these ideological models of humankind are most easily seen in art, such as in the various artistic movements of the 20th century.

The dialectical (surrealist) interpretation

And this, not surprisingly, is where surrealism comes into play. Indeed, it is the “dialectical (surrealist) interpretation of the human being” which Sviták believes can provide a truly liberating self-interpretation of humankind. This is most decisively achieved by utilizing the following surrealist concepts:

  • A dialectical ambivalence of life: this describes the dialectical, internally contradictory, opposite and conflicting elements that the surrealists believe form the very essence of human existence and which, rooted in the union of dreamed and factual reality, are described as “the surrealist conception of life as a concrete mystery with the magnet of love as a union of magic and reality, imagination and facts.” It thus describes an existence that has the character of being an open movement of living contradiction in which the meaning of life is continually being created and regenerated by a human being itself, “a slave to its longings, finding itself in a kind of permanent transcendence in relation to the reality in which it lived, in motion toward the object of its dreams and desires.”
  • Concrete irrationality: the practical projection of this dialectical form of existence, concrete irrationality is “the precise expression of the old artistic truth that real magic and fantasy lie hidden within the reality of things, relationships, and ideas, and that they do not need to be made up.” It is “a principle which enriched human existence in its everyday reality—that is, which promoted the particular facticity of imagination and fantasy. The propensity to poeticize and lyricize the world and humanity was not the deliberate result of an aesthetic program but an authentic image of reality itself.” Concrete irrationality is thus the true reality of humankind.
  • Personality conceived in depth: by this is meant the Freudian unconscious, a foundational principle of Bretonian surrealism, in which the divorce between our conscious, rational existence and our unconscious is so great the Cartesian cogito should be reformulated as “I think, therefore I am not.” The belief in the existence of a hidden unconscious and even its ultimate primacy is why the surrealists place such emphasis on automatic writing and see “humanity itself as a living myth, composed of lucid rationality and of the abysses of fantasy.”
  • A schizoid tendency: that which quite naturally springs from the above “discovery” that “the human being not only has several layers but is, in addition, internally split.” That the “I is someone else.”
  • The value of protest: “Surrealism further regards the human as a permanently protesting being – as a rebel who is aware of the value of protest as evidence of the personality’s integrity … [revolting] not only against the social system of capitalism in its decline but also against the tendency to dehumanize the world.”
  • Revolutionary practice: “The human being who revolts, protests, and participates in the permanent revolution of history is at the same time an acting, active, and practical being … [s]urrealists were openly on the side of the transformative processes that were revolutionizing human relationships and the human being itself, and they acted in accordance with what they held to be the truth.”
  • The disruption of conventions: the surrealist dialectic also “had the effect of decomposing aesthetic conventions, literary techniques, and art forms” in which its “ostentatiously anti-artistic features and programmatic principles expressing contempt for classical art constitute an attempt to preserve the freedom of creation in art and to get rid of the conventions of various classicisms.” This was done to reach the goal in which “the myth of art” would unite “humans with the cosmos, and in the authenticity of one’s own ego one finds salvation from the confusion of the world.”

Towards a dialectical (irrealist) method

The last three categories, in which Sviták discusses the value of protest, revolutionary practice and the disruption of conventions, are also where he takes his greatest aim at existentialism or, that is to say, the popular, generalized interpretation of existentialism that he seems to be addressing (Sviták doesn’t ever address directly or cite the actual work of any existentialist thinker).

Thus while, on the one hand, we learn that “surrealism further regards the human as a permanently protesting being—as a rebel who is aware of the value of protest as evidence of the personality’s integrity” and that “surrealism’s optimistic conception of humanity was associated with the same optimism about the future as history … [t]he human being is a private permanent revolution,” we also learn that this is the exact opposite of existentialism’s “nihilistic doctrine that enthroned disgust and anxiety” and the existentialist’s reduction of experience to “purely intuitive feelings, to emotionality and the analysis of emotions, or to a declamatory commitment that does not know what to commit itself to.”

Indeed, Sviták’s generalizations about existentialism have a familiar ring to them, albeit in a somewhat different context: in a recent paper published in the Journal of the Kafka Society of America (“Against Allegory: A Reappraisal of French Existentialism's Encounter with Kafka,” Thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth years, 2013-14, pp. 27-34), Jo Bogaerts describes how Kafka scholars have generally dismissed the existentialists’ critique of Kafka without, however, bothering to look at what the existentialists actually wrote about Kafka. Instead, relying on a flawed analysis by the French critic Marthe Robert, they have argued that the existentialists simply reduced the meaning of Kafka to some catch-phrase concepts that have characterized existentialism in the popular imagination -- e.g., that Kafka's work represents a paradigm for “the philosophy of the absurd.” Having thus stripped the existentialist critique of its complexity and essence -- the actual critiques of Kafka by the likes of Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were far different and more nuanced than these catch-phrase concepts would imply -- Kafka scholars dismissed it out of hand.

That Sviták would, in this essay, also generalize in such a manner about the existentialists is curious given that, in another essay (“The Absurd Rebel” 1964), he writes at length about Camus and with considerable respect. But only, apparently, by separating Camus from existentialism in general as he feels the need to assert that, “although [Camus’] work is linked to the doctrine of existentialism whose pessimism he did not share, Camus the thinker impresses us with his genuine lucid and enlightened thinking…” Also surprising, given his Marxist inclinations, is that Sviták dismisses the famous dispute between Sartre and Camus (in which Sartre condemned Camus for his “bourgeois liberalism” and Camus Sartre for his turn to Marxism) with casual a wave of the hand; at the same time he also shows little knowledge or interest in Sartre’s later work, such as Search for a Method (first published in the Polish journal Twórczość in 1957) which was the introduction to the Critique of Dialectical Reason that is often considered a foundational text in the humanist Marxist movement that Sviták considered himself to be a part of. Indeed, Sartre’s political positions in these texts as well as in his celebrated fight with Camus showed him to most certainly not be a writer that represents a “declamatory commitment that does not know what to commit itself to.”

But, whatever the issues Sviták had with existentialism that caused him to give it such a facile rendering in this article, I will here take advantage of his having brought it into the discussion and utilize his own compelling structure of the “anthropological transformation” and its self-interpretation to put forward a dialectical (irrealist) pathway to an anthropologically transformative self-interpretation. I am, of course, proceeding on the basis (as I have done elsewhere in the pages of this publication) that an existential-phenomenological approach is fundamentally important to an effective articulation of what is expressed and experienced in irreal literature.

So what, then, might this dialectical (irrealist) self-interpretation of the human being look like? Perhaps something along the following lines:

  • The dialectical ambivalence of life: in this first category, we would parallel to a considerable extent Sviták’s description of the dialectical, internally contradictory, opposite and conflicting elements forming the essence of human existence. That they function as an open movement of living contradiction in which the meaning of life is continually being created and regenerated by the human being itself would also figure into our analysis. This open movement, however, is in our view neither exclusively driven nor best explained by humans being “slaves” to their longings, as Sviták states, but instead by the fact that humans cannot help but “totalize” the field of possibilities that is presented to them toward some goal, whether it be profound or trivial, whether it be to realize a longing or to deny it. Indeed, it is this incessant totalizing of our field of possibilities – our practice -- that underlies Marx’s description of humans as being innately productive, “productive” being understood here in its broadest sense (i.e., including not just the creation of economic products, but also creative and artistic products, and even the “products” of interpersonal relations, personal development, social change, and so on). Thus, feeling hungry, I might quite reasonably totalize an establishment that calls itself a restaurant as a place to get a bite to eat and enter it with just that intention, just as I might, feeling desirous of political power, totalize the residents of the city I live in as a vehicle to achieve this goal and announce my candidacy to be mayor. Of course, my totalizations can also in turn be detotalized by others’ goals and intentions: the restaurant might for example prove to be closed because the proprietor has decided to take a vacation; the other residents of my city might well decide that others are both more capable and ideologically preferable to me and reject my desire to become their mayor.
  • Concrete irreducibility: this totalizing, however, takes place against the backdrop of the impossibility that these totalizations -- undertaken by finite consciousnesses against the backdrop of an infinite field of possibilities (the natural world) and the competing wishes, desires and realities of other totalizing agents (other individuals, social groups, institutions) can ever fully achieve their goals. And the impossibility, to the extent that these totalizations are realized, that they can be sustained. This creates both mystery in the realm that lies between what we can actually totalize and the totality of what there is, and absurdity in that we have no choice – are “condemned” – to keep totalizing our field of possibilities towards the goal of making our life meaningful, however that might be defined, when there is no such meaning per se.
  • The personality conceived, in its immediacy, “without” depth: which is to say, the artistic image and practice resulting from the psychological and philosophical discovery and explication of the pre-reflective cogito -- “I am aware, then I think” -- which attacks the traditional Cartesian emphasis (“I think, therefore I am”) on the reflective cogito. This recognition of the centrality of the pre-reflective cogito, i.e. that we experience and then we reflect on it, is seen in the directness and immediacy of many an irreal text. Indeed, the nature of the narrative in the dream-state, so influential on irrealism, is just this, a continuous stream of experience with limited ability to reflect on the strangeness of the narrative or its surroundings beyond the immediate emotional reaction of grief, joy, terror or surprise.
  • The crisis of impulse control: the never ending stream of feelings, impulses and memories that affect our psychological state and which we are forever having to analyze, make sense of and decide how to deal with and/or control, and yet the recognition that it is all happening within the confines of a single consciousness, my consciousness. That, just as Sartre famously describes the chasing down of a streetcar (that though I am wholly focused on catching the streetcar I know that it is I who am trying to catch the streetcar and not another consciousness), I know that these are my feelings, impulses and memories even as I am dealing with their consequences and meanings.
  • The inevitability of protest; revolutionary practice; and the disruption of conventions. The first four points of the (irrealist) dialectic suggest a lack of stability in “the human condition.” Meaning, broadly speaking, an inability of human beings to find in their life situations a truly lasting place of rest or stability, either in their own lives or in the groups or societies of which they are a part. No sooner, it would seem, is one “orthodoxy” established then it must worry about being detotalized and undermined by changing life situations, group or interpersonal dynamics, economic or societal change, or another orthodoxy. From this generalized instability we must surmise that protest as well as the possibility (and the reality) of revolt is inherent to any given human situation, personal or political. Regarding political situations, the possibility of protest and revolt is always lurking beneath the surface of the (usually) self-defeating rationalizations of those being ruled over. It can even be said to lurk beneath the surface of the rationalizations of those who enforce an oppressive ruling order – meting out injustice is, after all, a choice that must be made time and time again and for some it can become a choice that they have been asked to make one too many times until they finally, figuratively or literally, “turn their guns on their superiors.” Thus, all social and ruling structures try to maintain “order” against this generalized instability and indeed attempt for this reason to suppress, discourage or belittle serious discussion of the dialectically propulsive thesis of utopia – hope – dream that Sviták described.

But applying an analysis of this generalized instability only externally, i.e. against society-at-large with its ruling structures and ideologies, does not represent what might be irrealism's unique contribution to revolutionary practice. Which is to say, to pick up on the previous point: even revolutionary groups seemingly united by a common purpose, such as the surrealists themselves in the time of Breton, found unity and rest a fleeting phenomenon at best. Indeed, apologists of ruling structures take great pleasure in pointing out the struggles that revolutionary groups and utopian projects (most recently in the case of the Occupy movement) have with internal conflict and dissension. If irrealism has then something to contribute to the articulation of protest, it is this recognition of the inevitability of the flux of protest and revolt, even among kindred spirits, and that an important component of revolutionary practice is the recognition of this; here is where the very phrases that we have often used in the more innocuous setting of our writer’s guidelines take on a political import, thus a “reality being constantly undermined” is simply a dramatized reflection of our daily reality that even as we attempt to totalize our environment to our own ends, we are immediately de-totalized by others (whether it be individuals in our immediate environment, or groups and institutions operating at societal levels) attempting to totalize the environment (which includes us) to their own ends. The fact that this is also a perennial fact of life within revolutionary groups – indeed often even more intensely than within other groups – must not be seen then as an aberration to be excised or liquidated (or serve as reason to leave the group) but as a fact of life.

Another catch phrase of ours, that an irreal story is “so many pointers to an unknown meaning,” can also be seen as a key component towards promulgating a non-dogmatic revolutionary practice in that it reflects the realization that no action introduced into the flotsam of history will have the precisely desired effect that we wish of it. It will either be ignored or, perhaps even worse, be picked up and used in ways or towards goals very different from that which we intended. Marx himself can serve as an example of this: he put some number of revolutionary concepts, indeed a revolutionary philosophy, into play which most specifically did not apply to backward, peasant nations such as Russia or China, and yet these were the nations which made revolutions in his name and actually put some of his ideas into practice (or, at least, their interpretation of some of his ideas); in a historical sense, then, we can say that Marx’s ideas, once introduced into the world were interpreted, misinterpreted, reinterpreted, negated, totalized and detotalized, over and over again, becoming so many pointers to an unknown meaning (though, it must be said, not toward any meaning, but one that included certain concepts of, e.g., worker liberation even if, for millions of loyal communist party members of the former East Block, their bureaucratic, totalitarian states represented just that).

And yet it is in this very realization that others can detotalize us as effectively as we can them, and that our ideas and actions, once introduced into this seeming flotsam, might be taken up by others in ways that we didn’t intend (or, the realization that if they are ignored altogether, they will remain pure but also completely meaningless in the greater scheme of things), which spurs us to collective action to either defend our ideas and actions or to promulgate them. For no matter how much our efforts might be negated and detotalized we are still driven by the hope that Sviták writes of. This is why in reading Kafka we do not think that either K. nor Joseph K. should simply retreat into themselves in the face of their situation, and indeed empathize with them in their struggles, no matter how flawed we might consider their practice to be. They may only be charging windmills, but we recognize the hope that provides the foundation for their continuing struggles.

If irrealism, then, doesn’t offer itself up as the revolutionary method in the way that surrealism ultimately did, it is because it sees itself more modestly, as performing a certain function within a broader revolutionary movement, as being more akin to Sartre’s modest appellation of existentialism to the human side of the greater Marxist dialectic. A dialectic to which, of course, Sviták himself contributed many interesting ideas and analyses in this book, some of which I have here of course appropriated (and/or misappropriated) in this, the conclusion of this “book review.”


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