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by Bruce Sterling
Tachyon Publications, $19.95, 192 pp.
The Last Days of New Paris
by China Miéville
Del Rey, $25, 224 pp.
Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of Myth
by M.E. Warlick
University of Texas Press, $32.95, 335 pp.
Well, it's 2017, a century-plus since Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire first raised the flag of Dada derision above the senseless carnage of World War I. The founding group of Dada expats soon attracted many other bohemian rebels seeking freedom from existing social, aesthetic, and governmental norms. Of course, as Bruce Sterling's new novella, Pirate Utopia, points out, the pro-war, pro-nationalist Italian Futurist movement was winning followers at the same time, and their manifestos ultimately supported the rise of Italy's Fascist Party.
Dada believed it could subvert authoritarianism with ridicule alone, but Dada was wrong. That's why, after only eight years, the international Dada underground was rather abruptly supplanted by André Breton's more strategically organized Surrealist project. Surrealism prospered -- as documented in M.E. Warlick's Max Ernst bio, as well as by China Miéville's The Last Days of New Paris -- and former Dada loyalists switched allegiance in droves.
The lesson here is that art and liberation movements that aspire to effective forms of dissent need to do their homework and store lots of different tools in their activist toolbox. While it may seem unlikely that two science fiction novels, plus one comprehensive artist biography, could mentally prepare creative communities for drastic social change, never underestimate the value of a broad historical perspective.
Miéville, a left-leaning British fantasist with a Ph.D. in international relations, is also a celebrated practitioner of "New Weird" fiction. Sterling is a science fiction writer from Texas, long famous (along with William Gibson) for spearheading the Cyberpunk and Steampunk movements. Both typically write genre fiction with a view toward helping readers grapple with some of our era's thornier socioeconomic problems.
When Sterling decides to craft a black comedy about a short-lived soldier-citizen republic on the Adriatic (commandeered between 1919 and 1920 by Futurist poets and fighter pilot Gabriele D'Annunzio), he is doing more than playfully distorting actual people and events. He is showing us how cultural production can be manipulated to make fascist bombast and violence fashionable. From 1914 to 1919, the theorists of Futurism became so aesthetically sophisticated that they were able to brand their crackpot paramilitary occupation of Fiume with signature songs, gestures, jargon, logos, textile designs, postage stamps, manifestos, and flags. All this made their revolution highly recognizable and marketable. Little wonder that many Futurist survivors of WWI (like Mussolini) were able to ride media-savvy Futurist propaganda right into Italy's Fascist ruling class.
While Sterling sets his cautionary tale amid the postwar chaos that arose in Fiume between 1919 and 1920, Miéville imagines a Vichy Paris still occupied in 1950. He introduces us to the twentysomething Thibaut, member of the Writer's Hand, a forgotten cell of Parisian warrior-poets who are fighting Nazis with living art.
Called "manifs," or manifestations, these surreal apparitions were originally captured on paper or canvas as spontaneous visitations from the unconscious. Now these walking dreams have become more powerful than anything produced by the conscious ego.
The fictional adventures Sterling and Miéville fabricate around the Futurist and Surrealist projects are masterfully told but need a broader nonfictional context if they are to help us better understand the cultural precedents that made a Trump presidency possible. Warlick's Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of Myth supplies this context by providing a richness of biographical detail that is relevant to why any synergistic collision between art and politics is worthy of sustained attention.
Novelists with interdisciplinary interests like Sterling's and Miéville's revisit modernism's arty cabals hoping to stumble across some alchemical key to sustainable social progress. In this quest, their creative goals dovetail perfectly with Max Ernst's -- a visionary German artist who wrestled with the same need to let art, not politics, shape his life.
Interned twice in occupied France as an enemy alien, Ernst arrived in New York in 1941 as one of many Surrealist refugees rescued by Varian Fry and art collector Peggy Guggenheim. At the time, his importance as a leading figure within the movement was all but unknown in the States. Warlick spent a decade documenting Ernst's work as a multilingual poet, painter, collage-maker, critic, scholar, lay ethnographer, Dada provocateur, and Surrealist philosopher. Every chapter in her book is also replete with illustrations of the esoteric and psychological themes integral to his work.
Like so many of the young soldiers who survived the military to embrace the Dada and Surrealist rebellions, Ernst returned to his native Germany emotionally bruised from World War I. Unlike Italian Futurists who thought war could be a positive impetus for social change, Ernst knew there were better ways to evolve. As proven in dozens of collages, paintings, sculptures, and collaborations, Ernst (a leader within Berlin, Cologne, and Parisian Dada circles) turned his lifelong interest in alchemical symbols and philosophy into a means of personal transformation.
That's why Warlick's lucid explanation of Ernst's journey helps support the visionary narratives of Pirate Utopia and The Last Days of New Paris. Alternate-history fiction, like Miéville's novel and Sterling's Nietzschean pirate fantasy, helps us imagine roads not taken. Learning how to weaponize such thought-experiments -- as a means of self-defense -- may be the only way the American Dream will survive our incoming administration.
Published in: Village Voice, January 11, 2017
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