Brief Encounter: The Meeting, in Mass-Observation, of British Surrealism and Popular Anthropology

Article excerpt

'Poetry will be made by all'


Andre Breton did not like anthropologists, whom he criticized for their 'regard race'. He thought these

specialists of the 'human sciences' take advantage of their stay in the field, even though it be of the least perilous or the briefest ... That this circumstance fundamentally uncovers the very opposite of a profound communication with the ethnic group on which they had designs and on which they imposed themselves, is only too probable (quoted in Jamin 1986: 56, my trans.)

Breton's attitude is initially surprising, for Clifford (1981) portrays Paris between the wars as a time and a place where the fledgling discipline of ethnography and the emergent aesthetic of surrealism mutually enriched one another. The culturally critical approach of either one to a conventionally defined reality both mirrored and gave depth to the equally radical approach of the other. But as Jamin's re-analysis of the period (1986; 1991) suggests, surrealists and ethnologists had little of substance to say to one another - even when they were listening: 'If both extend invitations to travel to the far reaches of "otherness" to discover "the savage heart", one discipline is committed to preserving it as such, listening for the echo of repressed and buffed voices there, and the other is committed to explicating it through concepts and an interpretative grid' (1991: 84-5).

Given this historically particular context, where ethnologists and surrealists appear as mere travelling companions, and given that Clifford, as he openly confesses, deals more with the influence of ethnography on surrealism than vice versa, it is instructive - both for our ideas about the possibilities of ethnography and for our understanding of the way the historiography of anthropology has been constructed - to look at an alternative case, at one where a group of surrealists joined forces with a popularizing anthropologist to do prolonged ethnographic work on their own people. In other words, it is instructive to look at the establishment by Charles Madge, Humphrey Jennings and their friends, together with Tom Harrisson, of Mass-Observation.

A democratic surrealism

The initial nucleus of Mass-Observation was formed by the collection of friends who used to meet regularly at the home of Charles Madge in Blackheath, London. Their number included David Gascoyne (poet), Stuart Legg (film-maker), Ruthven Todd (poet), William Empson (poet and critic) and Kathleen Raine (poet and Madge's wife). Several of them had been educated at Cambridge, where they had been members of the brilliant group of students under I.A. Richards, the promoter of 'practical criticism'. As Madge said of this select undergraduate set, 'We had in common a sense of the important shifts of vision which were taking place in the giant intellectuals of the nineteenth century, and which changed the relation of prose and poetry and undermined the older antithesis of the material and the spiritual' (quoted in Merralls 1961: 31).

Like so many other left-wing writers, film-makers and photographers of that time (Cunningham 1988), they harboured the hope of creating artistic forms which might provide a kind of social therapy and maybe even help to bring about social change. They wished to represent the modern world in a contemporary mode. Emphasizing the primacy of reality, they wanted to reveal the texture of everyday life, which the great majority of their forebears had disregarded for the sake of an overly composed classicism or an elitist romanticism (Calder & Sheridan 1988: 4). Unlike many of their peers, however, they did not attempt to achieve these aims in a purely documentary manner but tried valiantly to blend that approach with their own interpretation of surrealism, to which they had been introduced by Gascoyne and Jennings.

In developing their own form of surrealism, this clutch of co-believers came to employ the Freudian theory of sexuality as the mainspring of all unconscious activity, but in a much less doctrinaire manner than their Parisian counterparts. …