The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

A Version of Surrealism: transition and its Romantic Legacy

Douglas C. Cushing
University of Texas at Austin

Founded by poet and journalist Eugene Jolas, the magazine transition (1927–1938) remains an important, if underexplored, vehicle for Surrealism’s communication to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Jolas published the Surrealist poets and artists initially out of appreciation; he recognized them as belonging to his larger project to forge a new pan-Romanticism. Audiences and commentators, however, soon confused the magazine for a Surrealist appendage, and Jolas became increasingly critical of the movement. Simultaneously, Jolas integrated Novalis’s Romantic ideas as well as Jungian psychology into his own aesthetic program—expanding the space between transition and the Surrealists. This essay explores how, through criticism and recontextualization with other pan-Romantic art and literature, Jolas transmitted not pure Surrealism to his readers, but a version of it. The closing paragraphs offer vignettes suggesting the manner in which transition, and the version of Surrealism it proffered, found resonance in the United States among young artists and publishers of the following generation.

Keywords:  transition / Eugene Jolas / Surrealism / Romanticism / Novalis

In his 1961 essay "Notes on Pollock,” Lawrence Alloway underlines the Romantic impulses present in the New York School’s milieu. The critic recalls the premier issue of David Hare's American Surrealist magazine VVV, which, in June 1942, reported on European and American artists’ ranking of modern attraction to “various creatures in mythology and legend” (62–63). The very appearance of the inquiry, Alloway implies, demonstrates that the rise of "technology and a revived classicism" had not quashed Romanticism in American art. "Romantic imagery and mythology, in the hands of the surrealists and the lately-neglected ‘Transition’ writers (Eugene Jolas and his group), continued to thrive," Alloway remarks (38).1 "During the 40s,” the critic emphasizes, “mythology contributed to...the early work of Gottlieb, Newman, Rothko, and, of course, Pollock" (38).

Alloway's commentary is noteworthy for two reasons. First, he acknowledges the importance of Romanticism for the New York School, despite the inclination of some critics to insulate Abstract Expressionism from that older movement. Second, his assertion concatenates Romanticism, Surrealism, and transition, suggesting the periodical's prominence for transatlantic audiences. transition represented one of the few Anglophone vehicles presenting a full portrait of Surrealism in the United States during the 1920s and early 1930s.2 As Dore Ashton observed in The New York School, “Except for the scarcely read little magazines such as transition, the antics of Surrealism were not broadcast to most Americans [during this period]” (85). What renders transition historically consequential is not the scope of its readership, but the fact that the magazine did broadcast Surrealism to audiences stateside and elsewhere. By way of Eugene Jolas’s magazine, Surrealism made the voyage across the Atlantic years before its Parisian practitioners set foot on a steamer, fleeing the Second World War (Durozoi 391–96) (Fig. 1).

The complication here, however, is the fact that Surrealism arrived in transition at first held up as a model for new, experimental art and poetry, but then increasingly qualified, reproached, and contextually reshaped. Jolas was not Surrealist, and transition was not an appendage of the movement. He was an early advocate of Surrealism’s spirit of Romantic revolt, but he grew to reject its tenebrous timbre and intellectual orthodoxies. transition’s founder presented the Surrealists’ work for audiences to experience, but he also submitted Surrealism to a framework wherein the movement’s Idealism and infernal impulses eventually provided a pendant, dark Romanticism for his spiritually ascendant species. In the July 1932 issue of Contempo magazine, Samuel Putnam indicated Jolas’s historical role regarding Surrealism, musing,

WHO BROUGHT DADA TO AMERICA?...The answer is, NO ONE BROUGHT DADA TO AMERICA! No one, certainly, before Eugene Jolas...And what Jolas and the old transition brought, was not Dada, but a version of Surrealism,—Surrealism plus the Joycean Revolution. (5)

Crediting transition as a key vehicle for communicating Surrealism across the Atlantic, Putnam correctly added the caveat that Jolas transmitted not orthodox Surrealism but an amalgamated version thereof. Jolas recontextualized Surrealism by way of his magazine’s juxtapositions, which, while eclectic, followed his particular philosophical bent. This included publishing the Surrealists alongside James Joyce’s revolutionary Finnegans Wake—serialized in transition as “Work in Progress”—as billboards for experimentation with language and the subconscious. Everything Jolas did fell squarely under the umbrella of his pan-Romantic outlook—including publishing the Surrealists. That the magazine’s audience included Jackson Pollock, Phillip Guston, John Cage, Robert Motherwell, and Charles Henri Ford is all the more justification for wishing to understand the publication better. Apprehending its history and its afterlives offers insights into how Surrealism’s seeds were broadcast in the United States, prior to, it should be noted, Alfred Barr’s groundbreaking exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936–37).

Art with a Spine: Notes on Little Magazines and transition

Little magazines like transition proliferated especially in the 1910s and 20s, but continued to be printed throughout the century. In their essential volume The Little Magazine, Frederick Hoffman, Charles Allen, and Carolyn Ulrich conservatively estimated that between 1912 and 1946 Anglophone publishers released at least six hundred little magazines (2). Usually ephemeral, these non-commercial, low-circulation periodicals focused on experimental literature and art, as well as politics. In his essay “Small Magazines,” Ezra Pound argued that by the early 1910s, commercial magazines were already failing “lamentably and even offensively to maintain intellectual life” (689). Advertising took precedence over aesthetic exploration. Jolas similarly decried the “unspeakable state into which commercial publishing, and especially the American magazine [had] fallen,” noting that most of the important writers of the day had first been published by little magazines, including Broom, The Little Review, and Secession (“A Review” 140). Given little magazines’ rejection of commercialism, it is little surprise that financial instability often plagued them. transition was no exception; Jolas launched the magazine in France in 1927 as a monthly, shifted to a quarterly format after March 1928, suspended publication in June 1930 amid the Great Depression, and resurrected it in March 1932. Publication was sporadic thereafter. Welcoming James Johnson Sweeney's editorial and financial support in 1936, Jolas shifted operations to New York, publishing three numbers over two years before returning to Paris to prepare the final, spring 1938 issue of transition (McMillan 70).

Successful by little magazine standards, transition’s circulation reached into the thousands (Mansanti, "Between" 718; Josephson 323).3 Moreover, the magazine sustained a following in its afterlife. A May 1939 letter to Eugene Jolas’s wife Maria (née McDonald) from Gotham Book Mart’s founder, Frances Steloff, shows that demand persisted for the defunct magazine; back issues from the first year even sold at a premium. Likewise, Sweeney, who handled transition’s post-suspension financial affairs, wrote Maria Jolas the next year in France, apologetically asking her to send issues requested by “TRANSITION enthusiasts,” whom he had personally entreated to be patient and sympathetic. Posthumous interest in transition, it shall be shown, even prompted the founding of other little magazines.

Making the Transatlantic Man

Still under the lingering pall of the Great War’s cataclysms, Jolas’s aim was utopian: to remake the world through art. Jolas’s biography is instructive for grasping the roots of this Romantic worldview. Born in Union City, New Jersey in 1894 to French and German parents, he moved as a toddler with his family to Forbach, Lorraine (then German, now in the French department of Moselle). Jolas recalled in his autobiography, A Man from Babel (hereafter cited as MFB), that he “grew up, an American in exile, in the hybrid world of the Franco-German frontier, in a transitional region where people swayed to and fro in cultural and political oscillation, in the twilight zone of the German and French languages” (5). Between 1906 and 1909 he attended seminary in the Montigny suburb of Metz, Lorraine (MFB 14). His literary education was Teutonic, focusing, as he explained, on a period when “poets and fabulists created magical word-conjunctions, when they sought the Gothic wonders of the Christian Middle Ages, when they chanted the night and the evocation of ghosts and sidereal ecstasies” (MFB 1). Sights of “ruined castles” and the “dusty vaults of the Gothic cathedrals” filled him with sublime awe (MFB 14). Jolas recalled that one of his professors lent books from his own library, which contained the classics, “but especially the Romantic works of Novalis, Tieck, Heine, Hoffman, and Jean Paul” (“Prolegomenon” 222–23). The same educator read Novalis’s Henry von Ofterdingen aloud, introducing Jolas to the poet’s famous blue flower, symbol for the Romantic longing ("Prolegomenon" 222–23). 

In 1909, Jolas withdrew from seminary and moved to New York, where he learned English and began a career in journalism (MFB 15). Returning to Forbach in 1923, Jolas made excursions to Paris, became acquainted with the literary milieu of Strasbourg, and, importantly, reconnected with his friend Marcel Noll, an early Surrealist (MFB xix). In 1924, David Darrah hired Jolas to work at the Chicago Tribune’s European edition, where he took over Ford Madox Ford’s job as city editor of the literary page. Throughout 1924 and 1925 Jolas penned the weekly column “Rambles through Literary Paris” for the Tribune’s Sunday Magazine. Jolas considered himself a “reportorial observer and recorder of the ideological currents in post-war Paris” (MFB 71). Via Marcel Noll, Jolas met other Surrealists beginning in 1923, including Paul Éluard. Éluard, in turn, arranged for Jolas’s first interview with Breton in 1924 (E. Jolas, “Surrealism” 23–24). In that conversation, Breton acknowledged Surrealism’s Romantic precursors and diagnosed the Romantics’ failure to build a unified philosophy—a task he set for his movement (MFB 80–81). After a sojourn in the United States in 1926, Eugene Jolas and his wife Maria returned to France, where they founded transition with journalist Elliot Paul (M. Jolas, Maria Jolas 83–100, E. Jolas, MFB 87–88)

Jolas’s Romanticism: Novalis and the Absolute Night 

Jolas recorded in his autobiography that transition’s primary purpose had been “to encourage the creation of a modern romanticism, a pan-romantic movement in literature and the arts” (93). Elsewhere, he elaborated, 

From its very inception, in 1927, I conceived the review transition as a Neo-Romantic organism. Under an approximately collective ideology, I tried to gather into it the leading Pan-Romantic writers—Surrealist, Dadaist, Expressionist—who were striving to expand human consciousness. (“Prolegomenon” 224)

The most consequential Romantics for this project were arguably the early German Romantics, a group including Friedrich and August Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, and Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known as Novalis), who met in the University town of Jena during the 1790s. The most important among these thinkers for Jolas was Novalis.4 Best known as a Romantic poet, Novalis was also philosopher who rigorously studied Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Idealist Wissenschaftslehre. If transition was a Romantic vehicle, Novalis’s ideas most informed Jolas’s practice, including his magazine’s inclusion of visual art.

Both Jolases, Paul, and Sweeney all took part in selecting art for transition. Eugene Jolas, however, remained the magazine’s core editor from beginning to end, and he was proud of the visual material that appeared in his magazine. In “Frontierless Decade,” he crowed, “All the new painters, photographers, and sculptors were reproduced [in transition], beginning in 1927, when many of them were unknown outside of a small circle on the continent” (7). Yet, transition was foremost a literary review, and the implications of Jolas’s project for the visual arts remained only vaguely articulated throughout the magazine’s existence. Nevertheless, Jolas presented advances in painting, photography, and cinema as heralds of what the written word might achieve if poets embraced radical experimentation. In his essay “A New Vocabulary,” for example, Jolas asked, “While painting...has proceeded to rid itself of the descriptive, done away with classical perspective, has tried more and more to attain a purity of abstract idealism, should the art of the word remain static?” (172). Writers, he suggested, could learn from painters.

Jolas’s accord with the early German Romantics suggests a richer understanding of his view of art. As Frederick Beiser explains, for the Jena Romantics, assigning “the term Poesie not only to works of literature but to all forms of aesthetic production was necessary in order to achieve their fundament goal: Bildung, the education of humanity” (22). Thus, he insists, for the early German Romantics we should “apply the term Poesie to all the arts—to painting, sculpture, drama, and music as well as literature” (22). The arts are interlinked in the process of self-realization. Novalis demanded the Romanticization of all knowledge and culture-producing disciplines. Among the fragments Novalis published collectively as Pollen, one defined his poetics well. He demanded,

The world must be made Romantic. In that way one can find the original meaning. To make something Romantic is nothing but a qualitative raising to a higher power. In this operation the lower self will become one with a better self . . . . By endowing the commonplace with higher meaning, the ordinary with mysterious respect, the known with the dignity of the unknown, the finite with the appearance of the infinite, I am making it Romantic. (Philosophical Writings 60)

Novalis's fragment reflects the early German Romantics’ desire for poetry and life to be one, and for the improvement of humanity through aesthetic praxis. Novalis insists upon the role of poetics in expressing the primordial unity, infinite, or absolute. Beiser explains that for the Romantics, "the creativity of the artist will also be the self-revelation of nature itself" (86). While discursive thought determines the world by limiting it, for Novalis, art, dreams, and religion permit glimpses of the absolute via feeling. Essential to Romantic poetics is the idea of organicism, in which the whole exceeds the parts' sum, the purpose of the whole precedes its parts, and the parts themselves are reciprocally determined (Beiser 83–87). In Romantic poetics, rhetorical figuration, e.g., metonymy and synecdoche, allow parts or associated units to stand in for the organic whole, to bring the infinite within reach. 

For Jolas, Novalis most forcefully poeticized the absolute as Night. Both men believed that in dreams we draw nearest to the unconditioned whole. “When we dream that we are dreaming,” Novalis mused, “we are closest to waking” (Philosophical Writing 36). In his Hymns to the Night—which Jolas translated in part for transition no. 18, along with a number of fragments—Novalis hypostasized Night as a quasi-goddess. The author-narrator of the Hymns, having traveled through the realm of light seeking death, so as to rejoin a deceased love, discovers a new intimacy with Night. He pleads, "Must the morning always come?" (74). Novalis eulogizes Night: “ not surmise that, heaven opening, you step toward us from out of ancient stories, and that you carry the key to the dwellings of the blessed silent messenger of unendin[g] mysteries” (Hymns 74). Jolas argued in “Romanticism is Not Dead” that a single thread ran through Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Novalis, Gérard de Nerval, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, each increasing our understanding of the irrational unconscious; the Surrealists, for Jolas, represented an extension of that line (59). The First World War, Jolas wrote, “unleashed again the long-hidden world of night, and the explosion of Dada became the very symbol of the new Romanticism...Surrealism systematized the revolt” (60, emphasis added). Thus, Jolas initially welcomed Surrealism's intellectual and artistic revolution as a constituent ally in the Romantic exploration of Night and project of human progress.

Surrealism in transition, Nos. 1-8 (April–November 1927)

From the first, Surrealism had a visible presence in transition. The premier issue, for instance, included a reproduction of Max Ernst’s Mer et Oiseau (Fig. 2), as well as poems by Robert Desnos, Marcel Noll, and Philippe Soupault—all translated by Eugene Jolas.

transition’s second issue augmented that participation. Jolas translated five of Paul Éluard’s poems for the number and included visual works by Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and Giorgio de Chirico (whom the Surrealists considered an antecedent) (Durozoi 663–64). Notably, Galerie surréaliste—the Surrealists' official venue, founded in March 1926—supplied the Tanguy reproduction. Marcel Noll was then among the gallery’s directors, and he secured Surrealist art for transition (MFB 90); Jolas in turn ran advertisements for the gallery (Fig. 3). That arrangement ended, however, when the gallery closed in 1928 amid financial troubles and scandal (Durozoi 121–22, Polizzotti 259, 296–97, 310). 

Éluard also generously supplied his own poems to Jolas for translation and solicited others’ work for the magazine (MFB 90). Jolas considered his early presentation of the Surrealists a coup since inside France André Breton restricted his circle to publishing in official Surrealist vehicles such as La revolution surréaliste (90). Even Breton, however, published texts in transition, including “Introduction to the Discourse on the Dearth of Reality” and passages from Nadja as well as Mad Love. As a corollary, the Jolases proposed the publication of an anthology of Surrealist painting and poetry in the United States. When Maria Jolas traveled to New York in 1928 to sell the book, however, publishers declined, weary of the ephemeral array of movements that constituted the French avant-garde (M. Jolas, Maria Jolas 95).

As Roger Shattuck indicates in his introduction to the English edition of Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism (1965), “Eugene Jolas’s Transition was long associated as closely with surrealism as with Joyce’s 'Work in Progress'" (Shattuck 30). Casual readers of transition might be excused for such a sentiment. After all, over the course of its existence, transition featured works by current and former Surrealists, including Louis Aragon, André Breton, René Crevel, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Robert Desnos, Oscar Dominguez, Michel Leiris, Joan Miró, André Masson, Marcel Noll, Benjamin Péret, Man Ray, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Kurt Seligmann, Philippe Soupault, Yves Tanguy, and Roger Vitrac. Moreover, Jolas published artists with Surrealist ties like Hans Arp, Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, and Paul Klee. Nevertheless, confusion of the magazine with Surrealism rankled Jolas, rendering his clarification imminent.

The key to transition’s program was Jolas’s Romantic aspiration to revivify art in order to remake life. Maria Jolas wrote of her husband, that, despite his American acclimation, he remained a product “of Lorraine Catholicism and...German Romanticism,” adding, “The XXth Century European manifestations of earlier currents: i.e., Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism interested him profoundly; however altered, their sources were still recognizable” (M. Jolas, Maria Jolas 84). Eugene Jolas was attempting to forge a modern Romanticism, and he received Surrealism as a new form of the older movement. “For this reason,” he explained,

I welcomed individual Surrealist contributions, from the beginning until the last issue in 1938; and, in fact, transition was the first review to present Surrealist poems, texts, dreams, etc., in English; the first non-French review to reproduce photos of Surrealist and abstract objects and paintings. Not that I was ever a member of the Surrealist clan, but I sympathized with Andre Breton's early efforts.... (MFB 930)

These statements testify once again to the contours of Jolas’s welcoming of Surrealism under his pan-Romantic aegis. Jolas’s qualification, “early,” in the final sentence, however, betrays his later change of heart.

The first critical commentary on the Surrealists that transition's audiences encountered came not from Jolas, but from future editor Robert Sage in transition no. 2. In “La réalité,” Sage sets forth Surrealism’s Freudian connection to the dream, its rejection of realism, and he explains that audiences should not seek “vulgar” meaning in Surrealist art, but something beyond the commonplace conception of reality (160). In transition no. 3, Jolas offers his first critical appraisal of Surrealism in “Suggestions for a New Magic.” In order to make way for “new words, new abstractions, new hieroglyphics, new symbols, new myths,” Jolas insists upon the need for the disintegration of existing language (179). He explains that by “re-establishing the simplicity of the word” language might be restored to its “old magnificence” (179). Here, Jolas includes the Surrealists among those whom he felt shared in this revolutionary renewal. transition’s next major Surrealist landmark was the publication of Breton’s “Introduction to the Discourse on the Dearth of Reality” in transition no. 5. Jolas was doubtless sympathetic to Breton’s complaint therein against habit as a stultifying force (140). Demonstrating a continued sympathy with the Surrealists in transition no.7, Jolas published the first canto of Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse), who loomed large in their pantheon. In his essay “Enter the Imagination” in that number, Jolas celebrates those writers who “create a universe of their own dreams and evocations of infinity” (157). Against the realism of Jacques Maritain, Jolas set Lautréamont’s work in Romantic terms as “the conception of conscious revolt, the assertion of the negative...the diabolical principle. It is the essence of an attitude that sets no limits to its flight towards eternity” (158). At this date, Jolas was still willing to praise Lautréamont’s “hymn to the satanic” for its anti-bourgeois courage, declaring that only in poetry “not afraid to glorify shadows, the sinister aspects, the macabre, the grotesque, can life remain a magical adventure” (160).

Surrealism’s Enemy: transition No. 9 (November 1927)

At the close of 1927, Jolas’s proximity to Surrealism finally prompted a public articulation of transition’s independence from the movement. The impetus was an attack on the magazine, its editors, and its contributors by Wyndham Lewis in The Enemy no. 2 (September 1927). Under the title “Art and ‘radical’ Doctrines,” Lewis admonished the magazine, insisting that it printed Gertrude Stein and James Joyce out of trendiness and cliquish loyalty (xxiii). More pointedly, he complained, “the real foundation for Transition is Dada, which group [sic] has become the Super-realist group now” (xxiv). Lewis then recast transition as a propagandistic mouthpiece for the Surrealists, meant to reach the English-speaking world and spread their Communist politics. He syllogized that transition was communist since it was Surrealist and the Surrealists were Communists. transition was dangerous.

Jolas’s response was withering. In “First Aid to the Enemy,” transition’s editors mocked Lewis as a bad imitator of Picasso and a bourgeois, failed avant-gardist (162). Lewis, they derided, “has elected himself Defender of the Western World” (163). “This outlaw’s victims,” they pounded, “—communism, surrealism, transition, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Indians, Negroes...coincide with the hatreds of the deeply entrenched nobility, the solid M.P., the British critic and commentator, the conservative middleclass newspaper reader” (165). Undermining Lewis’s equating of magazine and movement, Jolas and Paul noted that to date only about ten percent of the work in transition was Surrealist. 

Still on the attack, the editors scolded that they were “no more communists than they are fascists,” subtly rebuking Lewis's own politics (175). Following this censure, against the Surrealists’ politics Jolas and Paul carved out a position of political non-ideology. Having thus rhetorically decoupled transition from Surrealism, the magazine’s editors added, as caveat, that their response “should not be construed as an attempt to wash [their] hands of the surrealists,” continuing, “if we have a warm feeling for both them and the Communists it is because the movements they represent are aimed at the destruction of a thoroughly rotten structure” (175). They added, however, that they disagreed with the Surrealists’ insistence that “writing should be exclusively of the interior” (175). Instead, they explained portentously that transition was aimed at a new romanticism, which “achieves magic by combining the interior and exterior, the subjective and objective, the imaginary and the apparently real” (175). 

Differences Realized: Surrealism in transition, Nos. 10–27 (January 1928–Spring 1938)

In her refutation of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)—which attributed all of transition’s early editorial program to Elliot Paul—Maria Jolas described how her husband and Paul had argued over the initial inclusion of the Surrealists. Eugene Jolas’s argument and analysis, she explained, eventually won Paul’s approval and even enthusiasm for “Breton and his Surrealist friends” (M. Jolas, “Testimony” 10). Thus, the Surrealists appeared in transition, because Eugene Jolas believed that they belonged in his magazine. Nevertheless, after printing “First Aid,” Jolas’s reproofs of Breton and the Surrealists multiplied as Novalis and Romanticism gained new prominence in the magazine.

In “First Aid to the Enemy,” Jolas articulated his major divergences with Surrealism as he understood the movement. The first of these was a rejection of Breton’s pure “psychic automatism” defined in the First Manifesto of Surrealism as “expression...Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason.” (Breton 26). By contrast, Novalis advised, “without philosophy a poet is incomplete” (Philosophical Writing 54). The Surrealists’ production “exclusively of the interior” was incomplete for Jolas. It stopped short of creative synthesis, or, as Novalis urged, a “union of the understanding and the imagination” (Philosophical Writing 54). The second of Jolas’s differences with Surrealism was his rejection of Communism as fixed ideology. This was not a matter of disagreeing with leftist politics. Rather, Jolas sought from the outset to make his periodical intellectually heterogeneous and mobile. Its eclecticism functioned like the Romantics’ use of fragments, which effected a philosophy of practical non-closure in which organic relations remained in flux.5  

Following the fracas with Lewis, Jolas continued to publish material by the Surrealists and their precursors, including the first chapter of Breton’s Nadja, an excerpt from Raymond Roussel’s African Impressions (with Vitrac’s commentary), and visual works by Man Ray, André Masson, and others. Lewis, having been stung by “First Aid to the Enemy,” launched a more than 80-page surrebuttal, “The Diabolical Principle,” in The Enemy no. 3 (first quarter 1929), accusing transition's editors (and the Surrealists) of politically-driven philistinism, nihilism, being false revolutionaries, and debasing art through kowtowing to the herd instincts of humanity.  Jolas received this as an opportunity to further articulate his position. In “The Innocuous Enemy,” Jolas defends his publication of Lautréamont against Lewis’s recent histrionics by comparing Maldoror to the works of William Blake, insisting upon the poet's license to plunge into the “night-mind” (208). Then, accusing Lewis of “rank provincialism,” Jolas outlines his position on Surrealism at length. “Their revolution,” Jolas asserts, 

destroying as it did the old chronology and atticism, has made possible the conquest of new regions of the spirit...through their experimental work, [they] have given us glimpses into the unknown. If philosophically and politically, they are Marxian collectivists, transition did not emphasize that feature of their collaboration. (208)

Praising the Surrealists while sidestepping their politics, Jolas elaborates on his disagreements with the movement, explaining,

[The] interpretation of reality which I developed in transition does not agree with that of the surrealists. While they were determined to completely deny the physical world, basing themselves on a Hegelian interpretation, I continued to believe in the possibility of metamorphosing the real. I envisaged a dualism, I believed that the external world should be made the basis from which to proceed into the supernatural and the magical....The conquest of the absolute must remain our aim, but unless there is a real metaphysics as the basis, abortion must follow. This difference of viewpoint, however, does not reduce my admiration for the works of [the Surrealists]. (208–209)

Jolas assigned to the Surrealists a form of Hegelian Idealism claiming mind as the sole reality. Thus read, Breton’s Surrealism represents a desire to reshape the world as mere Ideal production. By contrast, Jolas based his philosophy on Novalis’s “Magical Idealism,” in which internal and external realities both exist with a shared basis—an adaption of Baruch Spinoza's Monism (Beiser 141–43). Another foundational source here seems to be Kant’s Idealism, in which manifold sensation of the thing-in-itself is mediated through the mind’s imposition of pure intuitions of time and space, categories, and concepts. Novalis’s “Magical Idealism” proceeds from dualism to suggest that mediating mind might exert control over matter, beginning with the body itself. "Magic," Novalis writes in Pollen, "is using the world of the senses at will....In the age of magic the body serves the soul, or the world of spirits...communal madness ceases to be madness and becomes magic. Madness governed by rules and in full consciousness" (Philosophical Writing 61). Elsewhere, Novalis reflects, "Is our body in itself nothing but a common central effect of our senses...If our senses are nothing other than modifications of the mental organ...then with mastery over this element we shall also be able to modify and direct our senses as we please" (Philosophical Writing 76). Novalis sought to reconcile Idealism with Realism. He believed mind and senses might be used voluntarily, as we direct our limbs, individual sense organs reformed in the process of remaking reality. 

Jolas makes his adherence to Novalis's principle clear. In "Logos," Jolas writes that the new artist "brings together realities far removed from each other, that seem without any organic relationship...his imagination demolishes the tyranny of the world by eliminating its customary analogies and substituting new ones” (27). Similarly, in "Literature and the New Man," Jolas alludes to Novalis's governed madness by insisting that the artist will “invent a new world in which appearance blends with reality, and in which the delusional mechanism is a voluntary act" (19). If material reality for us is Ideally mediated, he suggests, then let us take the reigns of our apperception and poetically transfigure the world. How disparate Jolas's view is from the Idealism of Breton’s second manifesto, which sought “the annihilation of being into a diamond, all blind and interior” (122–23). For all he shared with the Surrealists, Jolas delineated himself from them along lines of philosophy and praxis. He accepted material and mental spheres equally into his framework, and he diverged from the Surrealists as to how to use the unconscious’s raw materials in remaking the world.6

With his magazine, Jolas explicitly sought to use art to bridge cultures, nations, and races. While the Romantic absolute represented a metaphysical, organicist basis for such a unity, psychology provided a further point of universalism via the study of the subconscious. In another break from the Surrealists, Jolas championed the ideas of Carl Jung over those of Freud. In transition no. 18 Jolas first made this difference explicit. In “Notes on Reality,” Jolas asserts that while Freud and Pierre Janet had made great leaps by recognizing the subconscious as an “immense basin” into which our inhibitions pool, it was Jung, “a dissident of the Freudian School,” he notes, who observed that in addition to being a reservoir, the subconscious also “contains the collective mythos thus establishing connection with the social organism and even the cosmic forces” (17). In Jolas’s reading of Jung, the subconscious contains elements that cosmically relate an individual to “collective life” (15). “In dream and phantasies,” Jolas observes, “there are symbols that are identical to those of the sagas and the fairy tales of humanity” (15). 

In his March 1932 manifesto, “Poetry is Vertical,” Jolas set out to shift his magazine’s outlook toward a mystical-constructive stance, buoyed by metaphors for spiritual ascension. In doing so, he wedded Romanticism and Jungian theory; his manifesto declares, “The transcendental ‘I’ with its multiple stratifications reaching back millions of years is related to the entire history of mankind, past and present, and is brought to the surface with hallucinatory irruption of images in the dream, the daydream, the mystic-gnostic trance” (148). Thus, for Jolas, dreams follow an organic principle. Individual dreamers are united by the common history of the unfolding of nature through humankind. 

In transition no. 19–20, Jolas returns to the subject of Jung's project in “Literature and the New Man” (published in the same issue as a translation of Jung’s “Psychology and Poetry”). Here, Jolas employs Surrealists as his foil yet again. By presenting the Surrealists in translation, Jolas clarified that “transition introduced a spirit, which nurtured by Rimbaud, Freud and Lautréamont, sought in the discovery of another reality the exclusive aim of expression” (14, emphasis added). While Jolas credited the Dadaists and Surrealists as having the rare vision to continue exploring unconscious realities, he accused them of willfully neglecting the construction of a new reality, and, damningly, an inability to “transcend the traditional style” (14).

After transition ceased publication in 1938, its founder began to cast his differences with Surrealism in Manichean terms, coupling Surrealism with a “Black Romanticism,” driven by destructive impulses, as opposed to the “White Romanticism” of Novalis and his own Verticalism. Jolas charged Breton with going “so far as to dig up certain early ‘black’ Romantic writers, such as Raab, Borel, and von Arnim” (MFB 96). Jolas’s post-transition cleaving of Romanticism was doubtless an attempt to rehabilitate the movement. Cultural analyses of the Second Word War, such as Peter Viereck’s 1941 book Meta-Politics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, placed Romantic philosophy at the intellectual heart of Nazism. In his unpublished text “Romanticism and Metapolitics,” Jolas cast Nazism as a betrayal of the early German Romantics’ beliefs. Most of transition’s readers, however, never encountered these final developments, since they occurred in unpublished essays such as “Prolegomenon, or White Romanticism and the Mythos of Ascension,” in French publications as with his 1951 essay “Novalis ou le romanticisme blanc,” or in his autobiography, only published in 1998.7 Nevertheless, the trajectory of Jolas’s position on Surrealism had long been obvious.

In his essay “What is the Revolution of Language” in transition no. 22, Jolas credits Rimbaud, Joyce, the Futurists, the Dadaists, and others as sources for his “Revolution of the Word” project, which sought to poetically revitalize language. But, he remarks coldly, “it owes nothing to surrealism” (125). His fragment “From a letter” in that issue similarly lays the Surrealism’s failures at the feet of Breton’s circle for their inability to “draw the full consequences from their see that the expression of the unconscious demanded new means” (113). Jolas scolds, “It was not enough to whirl the unaccustomed realities of the dream state together” (113). Instead, Jolas insists that art needs to actively create a new “a-logical grammar” (113). Despite such criticism, Jolas continued to print the former and current Surrealists. Yet, it would remain for another generation to take up the cause again of discovering a new, unconscious grammar.

Vignettes: transition among the New York School and Beyond

While transition halted publication as the Second World War loomed, the magazine persisted in the minds of audiences into the next decade and beyond. Near the close of the war, Jolas's magazine even received posthumous public exposure with Marcel Duchamp’s Lazy Hardware, an April 1945 window installation at Gotham Book Mart accompanying André Breton’s publication of Arcane 17. The display featured a copy of transition no. 25, with Miró’s cover, positioned near the bottom right of the window. The previous issue, adorned with a design by Fernand Léger, stood just behind it (Schwarz 227, 781; see also Joseph Cornell/ Marcel Duchamp 250).  Jolas’s Romantic spirit outlived the magazine’s active years, its legacy informing a new generation of artists and writers.  Alloway correctly identifies the Romantic undercurrents in American art of the 1940s and 50s, but why did some thinkers deny them? One reason to do so might have been the aforementioned post-war connection between Romanticism and Nazism. Another cause might lie in criticism; Clement Greenberg famously derided Romanticism, charging that painting “suffered most at the hands of the Romantics,” as the arts became confused, borrowing one another’s effects (26). Thus, for Greenberg’s admirers and benefactors, Romanticism was abhorrent for rendering painting literary. Another black mark against Romanticism would simply have been the perception of it as an outmoded, fixed, collective ideology. If the New York School represented a coherent movement in any sense, it was in the all-over unity of diverse threads of thought, its “multiple individuality” as Robert Goldberg calls it (Ashton 2). Jed Perl rightly avows that the fact that the New York School’s romanticism “was full of contradictions and sometimes even involved the rejection of the very idea of romanticism only made [their] quest all the more romantic” (159–60).  Among such Modernist romantics, one discovers transition readers in the fold and on the periphery.

Jackson Pollock, for instance, was aware of transition as a teenager around 1929. A student in California at Riverside High School and Los Angeles’s Manual Arts High School, Pollock befriended a group that included artists Reuben Kadish, Philip Guston, Manuel Tolegian, and writer Donald Brown. B.H. Friedman relays Kadish’s recollection that they “were living in a European fantasy” and reading transition (8–9). Thumbing through transition with his friends likely constituted some of Pollock’s first encounters with Romanticism, Surrealism, and Jungian theory. In the magazine, the painter would have discovered the automatic, gestural line of Masson’s Battle of the Fishes (Fig. 4) as well as Miró’s hermetic hieroglyphs.

It is impossible to say what remained with Pollock from such encounters. But it is tempting to think that something of transition stayed with him as his style developed, from automatic-expressionistic figuration to an alogical grammar par excellence, a poetry that flowed from itself, threadlike verses overstepping the confines of the page. Introduced to art magazines like Creative Art, as well as Theosophy and mysticism by their teacher Frederick Schwankovsky, Pollock and Guston were readymade readers for Jolas; intellectually curious yet unfettered, each developed a highly personal painting language (Friedman 9). 

Viewing the same circle from another vantage, Dore Ashton explains that Don Brown introduced Guston to “Joyce, Pound, Cummings, the French Surrealists, and little magazines such as transition” (Critical 15). Guston, for his part, later echoed Jolas’s rebuke of Surrealism’s mere interiority, telling a panel moderator around 1958 that one could not “begin painting a ‘surrealist’ have to be a realist in the sense that you want to make concrete...with your matter, with your form, how you feel” (qtd. in Ashton, Critical 15). The painter also explained that Surrealism’s significance for him lay in the fact that “it insisted on changing man” (qtd. in Ashton, Critical 16). Guston recalled that the Surrealist painters that he liked, de Chirico and Miró (who received ample attention in transition), were only labeled that later, admitting a preference for the movement’s poets, who he likely happened upon in Jolas's magazine during his youth (Ashton, Critical 16–17). Moreover, the ethical idea of the Surrealists to which Guston spoke resonates with Jolas’s initial reason for including them in transition. From the magical realities of his figuration in the forties, to the drive for poetic expression and darkness, which weighed upon his years of abstraction, to his uneasy commingling of black humor and the grotesque of his late figuration, lessons from Romanticism and Surrealism seem to permeate much of Guston’s work.

Turning from painters to the wider field of the arts, Branden Joseph reveals the importance of transition for John Cage. Joseph explains that not only did Cage discover the magazine around 1930 or 1931, but he included it among “the greatest influence on his thought” (45). Introduced to transition by a friend, Cage pored over the magazine’s back issues, specifying a preference for the magazine in the 1920s; Joseph explains that when Cage first discovered transition, it still possessed a revolutionary, avant-garde reputation—a factor that would have attracted him (45). Cage, Joseph suggests, was Jolas’s “ideal reader”: an American artist who, with avant-garde spirit, wished art forms to escape history, to stretch out towards the poetic absolute. Moreover, as Austin Clarkson indicates, before his Zen studies, Cage was steeped in the work of the historical avant-garde, whose ideas he adapted and transmitted decades later in his work. Clarkson draws a particular comparison to Hans Arp, a friend of Jolas, whose poetry and plastic art appeared many times in transition. Austin writes, “Both Arp and Cage regarded chance as the means by which they could remove taste, memory, and tradition from art and infuse it with the numinous” (98). This notion seems in keeping with the Romantic context in which a young Cage would have discovered Arp amid the pages of transition

Coincidentally, when the short-lived magazine Possibilities was published during winter 1947–48, Cage was the magazine’s music editor, working along with editors Pierre Chareau (architecture), Harold Rosenberg (literature), and Robert Motherwell (visual art). Motherwell had adopted the magazine’s four-part structure because it yielded unexpected resonances, arising from juxtapositions between the arts—Romantic and Surrealist in spirit. In fact, managing editors Motherwell and Rosenberg owed their magazine’s existence in part to transition. Writing to Jolas in 1947 regarding republishing his translations in a Dada anthology, Motherwell soon revealed his personal admiration, remarking,

As you may have noticed from the letterhead, some of us young artists have got together to publish an occasional magazine, in large part to fill the gap left by the suspension of “Transition,” which remains for many of us the most important magazine ever edited by an American—I hope someday you will resume your publication.

Motherwell repeated this sentiment to Ann Gibson in 1987 (36). Rosenberg, for his part, had even contributed to transition. Thus, at least three of the editors of Possibilities knew transition and, according to Motherwell, saw themselves as inheritors of Jolas’s project.

One last figure to consider here is Charles Henri Ford, who was a transition contributor and enthusiast. That appreciation was something he doubtless brought with him in founding View magazine in 1940—View and Hare’s VVV forming beacons for Surrealism’s stateside legacy during the Second World War and afterwards. In a 1982 interview for Bomb magazine, Bruce Wolmer asked Ford about the founding of his first magazine, Blues, and the importance of transition for him. Ford responded that his foremost influence in this regard was “Eugene Jolas himself” (54). Ford added, “Later on I discovered Paul Éluard and André Breton and the poet Benjamin Péret. But my first surrealist thrill came from a nonmember of the official group who was, however, an advocate of surrealism—Jolas himself” (54). As Ford admits, Jolas’s presentation of Surrealism was formative for the young poet and publisher. Nevertheless, where Jolas was happy to transmit Surrealism to a select, little magazine audience, Ford and co-editor Parker Tyler sought to bring Surrealism to the masses (Dimakopoulou 738). Like Jolas, however, he was an American interloper publishing his own version of Surrealism in transition's tradition. 

In a review of Possibilities and Tiger’s Eye, Tyler later opined, “With the demise of View there remained no well-equipped magazine in the field that in anyway could be considered to maintain the “big” little magazine edition of Transition” (109). Thus Tyler placed his work with Ford on the shoulders of what they considered to be a little magazine giant. These few vignettes stand provisionally to illuminate transition’s profound reach—rather than influence. For these readers, Jolas never prescribed a simple rehearsal of Dada or Surrealism, or even of his own Verticalism. In pursuit of new artistic languages and a new world, Jolas insisted only that his readers explore the Night and their dreams. “Out of them,” he exclaimed, “may come new landscapes, new ecstasies” (“On a Quest” 194). 


transition''s title featured a lower-case “t” through issue no.19–20.

2The majority of the scholarship on transition belongs to literary history and criticism. The two book-length explorations of the magazine, which provide indispensable overviews, are Dougald McMillan's ground-breaking Transition: The History of a Literary Era (1927–1938) and Céline Mansanti's more recent La revue transition (1927–1938): le modernisme historique en devenir.

3 A contributing editor for transition, Matthew Josephson, notes in his memoir, Life among the Surrealists, that the magazine's circulation reached as high as four thousand.

4 Not only do Jolas's activities clearly lend Romanticism and Novalis a central place in his intellectual practice, but in a 1937 letter to Eugene Jolas's brother Jacques, Sweeny confirmed this centrality, quipping that that he was "romantically in the dark" about the future of  transition, as "things should be with a magazine rooted in a background of Wackenroder, Novalis, and Kierkegaard."

5 Beiser argues convincingly that the early German Romantics' politics was not one of absolute non-closure, as some postmodernist scholars believe. Politically, Novalis et al sought a perfect society as a regulative ideal, but in practice this required perpetual striving, the exercise of awareness and imagination, which closure (e.g., a fixed ideology) would arrest (33–34).  

6 Breton, for his part, responded by criticizing Jolas's program for the "revolution of the word"—without naming Jolas himself—in a November, 1929 essay for a Salvador Dalí exhibition catalogue (Breton, "First" 44).

7 One forum in which Jolas's post-transition criticism of Surrealism did become public for Anglophones was his 1941 publication of "Surrealism: Ave atque Vale" in Fantasy magazine. That essay declared Surrealism to be dying in France even as it spread elsewhere, and it rehashed the question of Surrealism, transition and politics. A pair of letters from Jolas to Breton that year (now at the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet) reveal that the essay precipitated another falling-out between the two men. Jolas learned secondhand, via André Masson, that Breton had accused him of "grande hérésie" after reading the piece. Jolas noted that this was a curious charge, given that he had never been a Surrealist. (Jolas, Letters to André Breton; Mansanti, La revue transition 158–59).


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