Ideas Have No Smell: Three Belgian Surrealist Booklets

In April 1945, a young Marcel Broodthaers interrupted a performance event of Resistance Poetry in Brussels shouting from the audience “Louis Aragon, when will you stop compromising French poetry?,” followed by the theatrical slamming of a door behind him by friend and artist Christian Dotrement, Broodthaers immediately reopening it and sitting back down as if nothing had happened. It’s a story that gets repeated because it works as a great anecdote for contextualizing Broodthaers’s circumlocutory, cerebral work (triple-layered irony, full-tilt theatrics, and the politics and conventions of performance, exhibition, publication … to wit, Broodthaers loved Aragon). But strangely, the story almost always stops there, rarely spinning into a larger, and exceedingly overdue, conversation on Belgian Surrealism.

That Magritte was a mentor and influence to Broodthaers is an established cornerstone of any study of his work; what has proven harder to incorporate into the literature on Broodthaers is the direct and pervasive lineage of Paul Nougé, Marcel Lecomte, E.L.T. Mesens, and, in general, the formative dada-surrealist writers whose trenchant and provocative intellectual work he avidly consumed as a young man. This of course may be due in part to the usual menacing forces of category (literature. visual art.) but in this case an even larger blindfold may figure — that the Surrealist movement in Belgium has been by and large forgotten and otherwise marginalized from the art historical canon of Surrealism ex officio (excepting Magritte, of course). The general consensus on this neglect is that it is likely owed, in fairly equal parts, to both the Belgian Surrealists’ significant theoretical divergences from the French (making for a messier reduction in canonical approaches to the movement), as well as the group’s staunch ethic of underground and elliptical obscurity. As such, and despite the scintillating exchange of ideas and criticism that fueled the wide and divergent influence of both the French and Belgian movements, the latter now figures as scarcely a footnote in the textbooks.

Over the last 10 years, artist and translator Michael Kasper has been slowly and exactingly changing this fact — bringing Belgian Surrealist writings and text-based work both into English and attentive study — and has done it again with a formidable trifecta newly out from Ugly Duckling Presse, Ideas Have No Smell: Three Belgian Surrealist Booklets (Paul Nougé, Paul Colinet, Louis Scutenaire). In this superbly fashioned sleeve edition of three slim booklets plus poster, Kasper brings together three of the most singular writers of the Belgian Surrealists with works that underscore their markedly different register from the French tracts (less academic, less automatic, less of the unconscious): Transfigured Publicity by Nougé (16 pages plus hand-drawn poster); ABS-TRAC-TIVE-TREATISE-ON OBEUSE by Colinet (8 pages); and For Balthazar by Scutenaire (12 pages).

Had Kasper been looking for an exceedingly more boring title, “On the Origins of Mail Art, Happenings, and Détournement” would have worked too. Belgian Surrealism emerged with the magazine Correspondance in 1924, the same year as Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto, and would prove to be equally as seminal, if not now as famous. Edited by Paul Nougé (chief theorist of the Belgian Surrealists), Camille Goemans, and Marcel Lecomte, Correspondance was printed on different colored papers and distributed by post to select recipients (practices Broodthaers would incorporate into his early poetry). The Belgian Surrealists made an intentional choice to resist the doctrinaire and spine-bound trappings of the French Surrealists, choosing ephemeral and more intimate approaches to writing, publication, and distribution; indeed, the texts in Correspondance were largely witty and trenchant, if sometimes oblique, responses to their counterparts’ literary debates in Paris. (Thirty years later, Ray Johnson would resurrect the spirit of Correspondance correspondence beginning in 1954, officially adopting the title New York Correspondance School in 1962.) What begins to take shape in this magazine and in much Belgian Surrealist writing to follow, is an approach to critical inquiry part-Dada, part-scientific-reasoning that Nougé called serpigineuse (serpiginous, serpentine) and Marcel Mariën described in his essay Der Surrealismus aus Brüsseler Sicht (trans. by Jörg Ebeling) as “slip(ping) into the skin of their subjects of criticism and seize(ing) their pens — they grab the texts from the insides whilst helping themselves to the words of their subject of criticism, in order to bend these words to their own purposes” — in other words, deconstruction and détournement.

Correspondance of course was not only a publication but also the moniker this group of avant-garde writers, artists, and musicians pushing the boundaries of alternative communication and aesthetic liberty, used to describe themselves; indeed, Belgian Surrealist writing and art were not disseminated by mail-born missives alone — more often that not, they were performed and experienced. In Kasper’s superb afterword to Nougé’s Transfigured Publicity in Ideas Have No Smell, he relates that the visual poems that make up the booklet were first performed at a concert-spectacle in 1926, during which they “were performed, accompanied by a panel displaying hand-lettered versions of the poems” (included as a fold-out poster in the UDP edition). Adopting the tonal quality of billboards and shop ads (Nougé was intensely wary of the commercialization of literature), Transfigured Publicity pushes the Futurists parole in libertà and French calligrammes to new conceptual plateaus:









Describing the original performance of these poems, Marcel Mariën writes, “the texts were for the most part brought together into a sound montage designed by André Souris for four speakers and nine percussion instruments (played by a single drummer) (…) the speakers being Camille Goemans, Paul Hooreman, Nougé, and Souris,” … leaving you endlessly dreaming about how the typography may have been performed as a score; would an oversized and bold SILENCE be mouthed? shouted? cowbelled?

Paul Colinet’s hand-drawn artist’s book ABS-TRAC-TIVE-TREATISE-ON OBEUSE given to Breton as a sign of friendship in 1948, sparkles with gnomic and painterly wit in the shades of a Kenneth Patchen or Bob Brown, and can’t help but leave you laughing out loud from start to finish. The “Obeuse” (a nonsensical word that could be read as a neologism in the French for “obeyer” or maybe a phonetic riff on the English “abuse”?) takes the shape of a black, hand-drawn circle the size of a large pea, represented here by two oversized (and overly perfect for Colinet’s purposes) periods:




(slowly undoing the redundant horse)

Knowing Abs-trac-tive is both a treatise and hand-drawn manuscript dedicated to Breton makes it hard not to interpret these poems, or captioned drawings, as playful sparring with Surrealism and/or commentary on the factional debates that abounded in Paris — is the Obeuse Surrealism? Automatic writing? Poetry? — probably wrong, but still fun.

The last Surrealist of the trio is Louis Scutenaire, known as Scut, who first read Nougé and Goemans’s work in a bookstore in 1926 in the form of an original text posted and signed by both, at the bottom of which was listed an address of publication (actually the medical laboratory where Nougé worked). Scut promptly sent a handful of his own always unconventional vignettes off to the discovered address. Upon receiving them, Nougé paid a visit to the author to confirm they’d been sent in earnest (apparently he suspected a ruse), but so convinced, invited him to a Correspondance meeting the following Sunday, where he would meet Camille Goemans, René MagritteE. L. T. Mesens and Paul Hooreman; and the rest is history. For this collection, Kasper has chosen Scut’s pamphlet For Balthazar. Though originally published in 1967 for a pocket collection, it’s a perfect choice for this delightful 4 x 6 inch clutch of unconventional three, as it sustains the scale and ephemeral quality of the Correspondance impetus (as indeed does the format for all three works). Scut’s texts are deceptive in their oddball perfunctory, first amusing but then quickly shifting into something blurrier that makes you go back and read them again and wonder about historical context: “Solange and I build an imaginary asylum, / so well designed that the ceiling could be walls / and the walls ceilings” or “After my adversary had landed fourteen punches / and split open an eyebrow, my manager wanted / to throw in the towel. ‘Not so fast,’ I told him, / ‘the blood isn’t getting in my eye and anyway this guy doesn’t hit hard, otherwise I’d have / been knocked out long ago.’ And I was right / since two minutes later I laid the guy out for the / count with a left to his gut. Yet I hadn’t hit him / hard.”

 There are always a lot of factors that go into deciding whether or not to include the original language in a work of translation, cost chiefly, but I do wish that we could have the Scutenaire and Colinet texts in the French. (The accompanying poster provides the original handwritten calligrammes for Nougé’s Transfigured Publicity.) Both writers will likely be new to English readers and it seems a missed opportunity to not have accommodated their original writings in the folds. That said, I appreciate that these slimmed-down pamphlets sustain the condensed and fleeting gesture of the originals, and having read many of Kasper’s translations, do not doubt at all that they are outstanding in their fidelity and rigor. Indeed, we —and art and literature and historical scope, all — owe a great debt to Kasper for bringing these Belgian Surrealist writers back into our hands. Ideas may Have No Smell, but at least now they have a page.

Ideas Have No Smell: Three Belgian Surrealist Booklets by Paul Nougé, Paul Colinet, Louis Scutenaire, edited, translated, and facsimilized by M. Kasper is published by Ugly Duckling Presse and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Elizabeth Zuba is a writer and translator of poetry and artists’ writings from the French and Spanish. Her translations include several books and other writings by Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (Siglio...

3 replies on “An English Translation of Belgian Surrealist Writing”

  1. i have a number of booklets produced by Marcel Marien & other Belgian surrealists, given to an American friend, Kim Connell, who worked with them personally on a number of translated collections in the 80s & 90s. amazing work, with its especial flavor. his work was published by Owl Creek Press.

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