The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

We Are Property: The "Great Invisibles" Considered Alongside "Weird" and Science Fiction in America, 1919–1943

Gavin Parkinson
The Courtauld Institute of Art

This article attempts a recuperation of André Breton’s much-maligned "new myth" of The Great Invisibles through its consideration in the context of popular culture in America in the interwar years. Published as part of the "Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Else" in the US Surrealist review VVV in 1942, Breton’s myth imagined invisible, benign beings watching the human race in the way humans looked upon animals or insects. The sources he acknowledged for the idea were quite familiar ones to readers of Breton and are to historians of Surrealism, lying mainly in European poetry, fiction and the esoteric tradition. I attempt to reframe the origins of The Great Invisibles within an American context in order to place its interpretation more in tune with the new psychological atmosphere and cultural environment experienced by Breton and Surrealism during the Second World War. To this end, I discuss Breton’s speculation initially alongside the appreciation of the weird fiction of H. P. Lovecraft by Robert Allerton Parker in 1943 in VVV, through a close reading of the American author’s fiction and by paying particular attention to the Old Ones of his tales. But I also survey the kind of science fiction that had predated the Surrealists’ arrival on American shores in magazines such as Unknown Worlds, Air Wonder Stories and Weird Tales in the form of the alien-proprietor genre, authored by writers such as Eric Frank Russell and Edmond Hamilton. Like Lovecraft, both authors knew the writings of Charles Fort whose work was introduced to the Surrealists by Parker in 1942, the same year as the publication of Breton’s hypothesis of The Great Invisibles, and would find a rapt audience among younger Surrealists in the postwar period. When read against this strand of popular culture in the US, Breton’s myth of The Great Invisibles takes on a greater coherence and relevance, and can even be regarded as a shrewd and timely intervention in mythic life in the New World.

Keywords:  science fiction / H. P. Lovecraft / weird / myth / Charles Fort

The H.P. Lovecraft scholar Maurice Lévy had this to say in 1972 about the initial reception in France of the American author of "weird" fiction:

Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels discovered and launched him. They had spoken of him as early as Le Matin des magiciens [1960] and gave him a significant role in their great enterprise by publishing a tale of his in the first issue of Planète [1961]. To them we owe our first encounter with the “grand génie venu d”ailleurs,” and we are deeply grateful to them. Thanks to them, Lovecraft is, paradoxically, better known and more appreciated in France than in his own country. (Lévy 12)1

An ardent reader and collector of American pulp magazines, the chemical engineer and journalist Jacques Bergier had come across Lovecraft much earlier, in fact, while perusing the fantasy magazine Weird Tales during the 1930s, subsequently initiating the poet—novelist, amateur mathematician, and one-time Surrealist Raymond Queneau into his work the decade after.2  Queneau would be followed in this enthusiasm a few years later by Nouveau Romancier Michel Butor at the time of the surge of curiosity and excitement about Anglo-American science fiction in France after the Second World War, to which the postwar Surrealist group was not immune.

However, by the time Queneau first read him in France in 1946, the process of publicizing Lovecraft for a French language audience had been set on its way elsewhere, when his writing was introduced to the Surrealists and their readers in the US during the Second World War by means of a significant essay of 1943 on pulp fiction by Marcel Duchamp”s friend, the American journalist and critic Robert Allerton Parker (Parker 62–66). Writing in VVV, the bilingual Surrealist review published in New York (four issues, 1942–1944), which Duchamp contributed to and supported, Parker wrote enthusiastically of the role played by the “'futurian' literature” of action stories, westerns, aviation adventures, and narratives driven by sexual encounters in satisfying “the subconscious craving for purely physical derring-do” (Parker 62). Parker went on to express his own preference for a form of SF that would be returned to by Surrealists in later years:

Most fascinating, perhaps, are those pulps devoted to super-realistic “wonder,”—to the weird, the horrendous, the pseudo-scientific, the resurrection of ancient myths and folklore. In these we discover a wild, undisciplined jailbreak from the concentration camp of the mundane, a carefree defiance of all the physical laws of the universe, a flight from the penury of life in three or four dimensions. Here is explosive volatilization of repressed imaginations, wrenching off the manacles of Time and Space! (Parker 62)

The initiator of such fiction was Lovecraft, according to Parker, for whom the fascination of Lovecraft's writing lay in its rejection of the domesticated, relatively shallow past given by mainstream history and archaeology. Lovecraft replaced the accustomed millions of years of the world and mankind and the thousands of years of civilization with billions of years in which continents collide and break up, mountains rise, fall, and rise again, and pre-human organisms create civilizations far more advanced than our own, which exist for millennia and then disappear or continue in unreachable parts of the globe.

Parker was describing an epistemological space—a window through which the past could be imagined and therefore the present reconceived—that opened out from the fantastic and onto the new genres of weird fiction and SF, and which was surprisingly attuned to the mythic thought that the Surrealists had cultivated intensely since the mid-1930s. In this article, I am going to show that the literary and interplanetary aliens that entered American shores between the wars—that is, weird fiction and SF—help account for the mythic perambulations of the transatlantic aliens who arrived there during the Second World War—that is, the Surrealists—in the emergence in 1942 around the time of Parker's text of André Breton's frequently bemoaned “new myth” of “The Great Invisibles,” and I will argue that they offer the means by which we can positively re-evaluate and contextualize Breton's premise.


The Great Invisibles and H.P. Lovecraft's “Weird”

Parker particularly admired the stories by Lovecraft titled “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928) and “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) where the mythology that was developed in “The Shadow out of Time” (1936), comprising inconceivable tracts of time and archaic pre-human civilizations established by ancient astronauts visiting Earth from other planets, was first propounded. Accordingly, he compared Lovecraft to that author's own hero, Arthur Machen, whose idea that “a frightful race of dark primal beings of immemorial antiquity and wide former diffusion still dwell beneath the hills of unfrequented Wales” had been lauded years earlier by Lovecraft in the essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (Lovecraft, “Supernatural” 119). It fed his customary fictional conceit that man lived on earth side by side with older, more advanced, non-human races and was therefore of a lower level of development; or, in Machen's words, quoted by Parker, the suggestion that life on earth “may sometimes return on the track of evolution” (Parker 64).3 The “Old Ones” of Lovecraft”s ficto-mythology, a component of the larger Lovecraftian schema that humans might be the accidental outcome, offshoot, or subject of an older and more powerful, unfamiliar and hidden race, acts as a bridge between the invisible folkloric beings in stories by Machen, such as those of the extraordinary “Great God Pan” (1890/1894), and the agenda of VVV, which lay substantially in the development of a “new myth” (Machen, "Great"). In this, the review extended Breton's call in the essay “Nonnational Boundaries of Surrealism” (1936–1937) for a “collective myth appropriate to our period,” by which he meant an extended analogy like the Gothic novel that illustrated at one representational remove the subterranean, latent emotions of the period (Breton, “Nonnational” 14–15).

Breton's own contribution to the stock of myth would indeed be true to and even slightly in advance of its time, though in ways linked to popular culture that Breton could not have expected and might not even have wanted. This was “Les Grands Transparents,” originally translated as “The Great Invisibles” when it was first aired bilingually in the inaugural number of VVV, previous to the one that carried Parker's essay on SF and Lovecraft, as the final section of Breton's “Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism or Else” (1942). There, he speculated that “[m]an is perhaps not the centre, the focus of the universe,” going on to consider him as a creature known by, yet incidental to, camouflaged animal-beings “escaping his sensory frame of reference,” an idea which “tends to reduce man, as an interpreter of the universe, to a condition as modest as the child conceives the ants to be in when he has overturned the ant-hill with his foot” (Breton, “Prolegomena” 216). He continued as follows:

Considering perturbations like the cyclone, in the face of which man is powerless to be anything but victim or witness, or like war (on the subject of which notoriously inadequate views have been advanced), it would not be impossible, in the course of a vast work, which would be constantly presided over by the boldest kind of induction, to succeed in making plausible the complexion and structure of such hypothetical beings which obscurely manifest themselves to us in fear and the sensation of chance. (Breton, “Prolegomena” 216; translation slightly modified)

This “new myth” was indeed appropriate to its period, then, in the sense that it reflects in its content not only Breton's own sense of displacement from Europe during the Second World War, but also the spectacle of humanity at the time as a helpless creature in the hands of an apparently greater power.

Breton's attempt to conjure a myth out of nothing has been scoffed at since its inception as forced and presumptuous, and as weary, fag-end Surrealism, while the idea of The Great Invisibles specifically has been equally disdained as superficial and derivative.4 Even though the latter was intended—Breton's myth was meant to further an idea already rooted in Western cultural consciousness—it was expanded upon by no other Surrealist writers and extended or alluded to only momentarily by a few artists in or close to the movement, including Schlechter Duval, Jacques Hérold, (Fig. 1), Gerome Kamrowski, Matta, Man Ray, Kurt Seligmann (Fig. 2), and Yves Tanguy.5

The Great Invisibles are usually said to have materialized by way of the visual culture with which Breton was closely acquainted, firstly Duchamp's revered masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even or Large Glass of 1915–1923, referred to by Breton in 1934 as a “non-sentimental speculation” about a woman's loss of her virginity “which would almost seem to have been engaged in by a visitor from outer space [être extra-humain]” and viewable from 1943 in New York at The Museum of Modern Art (Breton, “Marcel” 94);6 also, the contemporary explorations of Wolfgang Paalen in Mexico, evident in his “cosmic” art and the writings he was publishing at the time in his “post-Surrealist” journal Dyn (six issues, 1942–1944) (Parkinson 157–62; Leddy 9–34); and finally those of Matta and David Hare, both of whom were attracted to SF or comics (Flahutez 81).7

Matta's painting The Earth is a Man (1942) figured in the catalogue of the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York in 1942, most of which was taken up by the collage-album by Breton “De la survivance de certains mythes et de quelques autres mythes en croissance ou en formation”/”On the Survival of Certain Myths and on Some Other Myths In Growth or Formation” (Breton, “First” n.p.). Among other myths included were “la communication interplanétaire” featuring the medium Hélène Smith's “Martian” handwriting, an extract from Charles Cros's love poem of two planets “Sonnet astronomique” (1872), and a Vernean collage by Max Ernst (Cros 93).8 There was also a page devoted to The Great Invisibles, featuring a melted photographic negative or “heatage” by David Hare titled Hidden Fundamental (c. 1941–1942) in which a naked human form seems to be disappearing, an engraving by Johann Theodor de Bry from the German alchemist Michael Maier's Secretioris Naturæ Secretorum Scrutinium Chymicum (1687) presumably taken from the copy that is held by the New York Public Library (and which crops up again in Seligmann's Mirror of Magic of 1948, again in Breton's L'Art magique of 1957, and yet again with the rest of the illustrations from Maier's volume in ex-Surrealist Roger Caillois's Au Cœur du fantastique of 1965) (Breton, L'Art magique 54; Caillois 73–81), and a quotation from Guy de Maupassant's feverish and paranoid fantastic/horror story “The Horla” (1886/1887) (Fig. 3) (Maupassant 313–44).9

Breton returned to The Great Invisibles in his letter to participants reproduced in the catalogue of Le Surréalisme en 1947, the International Exhibition of Surrealism held in Paris in that year, where it was aligned with the zodiac sign Aquarius and took part in the stated objective of the event: once again, the search for a new myth (Breton, “Projet” 135–38; Rioux 163–71).

Matta was particularly involved in the conception of The Great Invisibles, acting as a kind of sounding board once apprised of the notion (to the extent that there is some doubt as to whether they can be called the sole creation of Breton), and providing a scratchy drawing when Breton touted his myth for the first time in VVV in 1942 (Fig. 4).

For Matta, The Great Invisibles were not so much beings as the communication system that existed between them, analogized in his painting of the period as electromagnetic and other waves (see Ferrari 120). His figurative work of the postwar period with its apparently tortured, helmeted beings, suspended or held in spaces cut up by labyrinths, has often been compared to SF in the absence of any remark made to that effect by Matta himself and without reference by any commentators to exactly what books he might have read in the US to prompt these human dramas, spatialities, and fraught scenographies (Flahutez 128; Potts 95, 97). Indeed, such speculations might be anachronistic: their resemblance is not to what Fredric Jameson convincingly observed as the Chandleresque, film noir-styled SF of A.E. van Vogt”s novels, to which Matta had access in the forties, but to later twentieth-century SF animation, games and film, the comparison with the latter made more compelling by the movie screen scale and horizontality of some of these large works such as Être Avec (1945) (Jameson 317–23). It might even be more accurate to say that Matta's painting of the forties inspired the style of later SF.

In spite of the efforts of Matta in the 1940s as interlocutor over and perhaps even co-initiator of The Great Invisibles, Breton's poetic notion of transparent beings among us did not have adequate persuasive force in its beginnings or evident potential in its substance to harness the considerable imaginative capacities of the Surrealists. Unlike Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos it was never elaborated at sufficient length or by enough hands to achieve a depth and complexity comparable to a real myth.

Is the myth of The Great Invisibles beyond redemption, then? If we look beyond its rather flat-footed presentation in VVV we can argue that it finds significant relevance in a context close to but to one side of the historical one of the Second World War. This is to be found in American weird fiction and SF of the 1920s and 1930s that would reach France mainly after the war, where it would be closely attended by the rise of interest in the possibility of interplanetary travel, in UFOs and the paranormal. Like Lovecraft's earlier version of the Old Ones, the hypothesis of The Great Invisibles is dimensional, imagining nonhuman beings existing in the same space as humans, rather than at a temporal or spatial distance. And Breton's suggestion that The Great Invisibles might “obscurely manifest themselves to us in fear and the sensation of chance” (Breton, “Prolegomena” 216; translation slightly modified) brings to mind those beings described in the so-called Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred in Lovecraft's Machen-inspired story “The Dunwich Horror” (1929), read by Wilbur Whateley as the librarian Henry Armitage looks on:

“Nor is it to be thought,” ran the text as Armitage mentally translated it, “that man is either the oldest or the last of earth's masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them. They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.” (Lovecraft, “Dunwich” 21)

Later, in “At the Mountains of Madness,” Lovecraft resituated them as geographically distant, writing of “primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth life as a joke or mistake” whose home is ultimately discovered in a “tangle of orderly stone” on “a hellishly ancient table-land fully twenty thousand feet high, and in a climate deadly to habitation since a prehuman age not less than five hundred thousand years ago” (Lovecraft, “At the Mountain” 63).

Breton did not derive The Great Invisibles from Lovecraft's Old Ones, of course, and there are obvious differences between them. Whereas mankind has grounds to fear Lovecraft's Old Ones, for instance, Breton's Great Invisibles are conceived indirectly as more or less benign masters of an all but domesticated human race. Yet there are obvious similarities, too, and good reasons for them. The stated aim of VVV to “[take] account of the myth in process of formation beneath the Veil of happenings” meant that Lovecraft”s layered ficto-mythological narratives could sit comfortably alongside Breton's theoretical statements on myth and those of the other Surrealists from the 1940s on (Breton, “Declaration VVV” 338). In fact, both were cut from the same cloth in the sense that Breton had compared the requirement for a new myth in “Nonnational Boundaries of Surrealism” in the 1930s to the symptomatic emergence of the Gothic novel in “the social upheaval that shook Europe at the end of the eighteenth century” (Breton, “Nonnational” 15); while Lovecraft traced the lineage of his own brand of weird tale back through the stories of Edgar Allan Poe to the same genre in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” ten years earlier, crediting what would be Breton's own candidate for the launch of automatic writing, Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), as “the actual founder of the literary horror-story as a permanent form….destined to exert an almost unparalleled influence on the literature of the weird” (Lovecraft 87).

For further, unequivocal confirmation harmonizing through their fantastic antecedents Breton's poetics of myth with Lovecraft's ficto-mythology, we can go back to Breton's picture essay in the First Papers of Surrealism catalogue, “De la survivance de certains mythes,” where one of the three means of illustrating The Great Invisibles is by means of a quotation from “The Horla,” clearly one of Breton's main sources for the idea. Given in the form of a diary in its second, superior, and better-known version (for which the first version sounds like a sequel), Maupassant's frantic, autobiographical account of a man's belief that he is being scrutinized and potentially possessed by the “Horla,” a transparent extraterrestrial being and “invisible wanderer of a supernatural race…” who might herald the invasion of the Earth (Maupassant, Selected 334), has been identified by Lovecraft specialists S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz alongside Machen's story-within-a-story, the “Novel of the Black Seal” (contained in The Three Imposters of 1895), as one of the “two dominant literary influences on [”The Call of Cthulhu”]” (Joshi and Schultz 28), and was characterized by Lovecraft himself in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as “perhaps without a peer in its particular department” (Lovecraft 99; Machen, “Three Imposters” 46–85).10


Surrealist, Science Fictional and Fortean “Invisibles”

Although the canonical writers of the Gothic novel have long been slotted into the ancestry of SF along with Poe and Maupassant, Breton's own sources or justifications for The Great Invisibles did not include the fictions of Walpole and the others; nor, more expectedly, did they consist of pulp, weird fiction, or SF with which Breton had little contact and no sympathy.11 He cited in the “Prolegomena” more traditional fantastic, poetic, parodic, philosophic and scientific classics and treatises: those of Cyrano de Bergerac, Jonathan Swift, Novalis, William James and the microbiologist Émile Duclaux, quoting James from a letter as follows: “Who knows whether, in nature, we do not hold as small a place beside beings whose existence we do not suspect, as our cats and dogs living in our houses at our sides?” (Breton, “Prolegomena” 216–17). Breton had long been aware of the James siblings' “spiritualist” writings and inclinations, as the parapsychologist Jean Bruno has noted, and we can discern an early outline of The Great Invisibles sketched in these remarks and carefully chosen from an American source (Bruno 65).12 Although they are supposedly from a letter by James, their origin has remained obscure (Breton, Oeuvres 1143–144).13 However, the idea is the same as the following from James's treatise A Pluralistic Universe (1909):

[i]n spite of rationalism's disdain for the particular, the personal, and the unwholesome, the drift of all the evidence we have seems to me to sweep us very strongly towards the belief in some form of superhuman life with which we may, unknown to ourselves, be co-conscious. We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all. (James 309)

Yet Breton's personal, on-off interest in spiritualism must be viewed alongside the related cultural fantastic of his day, rooted in the travels recorded by Cyrano and Swift, which have frequently been designated proto-SF by anthologists and historians of the genre since the early 1950s (or mid-1940s in the case of Swift). This interpretation rests on the way Cyrano initiated interplanetary travel and even the “ancient astronaut hypothesis” or Paleo-SETI (Adam, he tells us, whose home was the Moon, came to Earth to hide from God, soon followed by Eve) (Bergerac 32).14  Swift introduced lost or forgotten islands into literature with Lemuel Gulliver's various voyages as a response to the endless travel publications stemming from the exploration of the Americas from which Parker logically, so to speak, extrapolated the pulp possibility of giants on Jupiter or “Brobdingnagian Jovians” (Parker 63).15 If The Great Invisibles look back to Maupassant and William James, and sideways to Lovecraft and Machen, then by Breton's half-acknowledgement, they also come at the end of a lineage leading from Cyrano and Swift to SF. They were even tied rhetorically to the arrival of Anglo-American SF in France by Lovecraft enthusiasts Pauwels and Bergier in The Morning of the Magicians.16

Comparison with Lovecraft's Old Ones is a way of showing this; a better illustration of the closeness of The Great Invisibles to SF can be made through demonstration of their resemblance to the beings at the centre of the classic of that genre by English author Eric Frank Russell, Sinister Barrier (Fig. 5).

Sloppily written and mind-numbingly sexist, Russell's apocalyptic detective-SF thriller appeared in 1939 in the first issue of Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell's short-lived US fantasy magazine Unknown or Unknown Worlds. It was published as a book in 1943, during the run of VVV, revised in paperback in 1948 in order to enlarge the story and characters and to accommodate nuclear technology and Hiroshima, and would be translated into French in 1952 under a title redolent of Breton's myth, Guerre aux invisibles.17

Set in the United States in 2015, Sinister Barrier describes the scientific discovery of mind-reading creatures called “Vitons,” who exist beyond the range of human vision and have created and cultivated mankind like cattle. Living off human energy and arranging large-scale conflict on Earth in the form of world wars to ensure a supply of that energy, they kill off anyone who comes close to discerning their existence, disguising the homicides as suicides or heart attacks to conceal their actions. Eventually revealed in Sinister Barrier as “queerly glowing balls of blueness” three feet in diameter, Vitons are ultimately defeated pretty much single-handedly by no-bullshit ladies' man, government officer Bill Graham, but not before they have brought about the Third World War between the US and “the Asians” (all this imagined by Russell before Pearl Harbor and the Second World War) (Russell 84). Expanding on their interaction with the human race, Russell goes one better than Breton in “reducing” man, with his wonderful suggestion that Vitons are “True Terrestrials, while we are the descendants of animals which they've imported from other worlds” (Russell 24–25).

A typical example of the “imagination of disaster” in SF that Susan Sontag saw as particularly characteristic of films of the genre in the fifties and sixties, Sinister Barrier was also precisely the kind of “educational literature” that Hugo Gernsback stated SF should aspire towards in his editorial introduction to the first issue of Amazing Stories in 1926 (Gernsback 3). It came directly out of Russell's fixation on the writings of the sceptic Charles Fort and the activities of the Fortean Society, which had been set up in the US in 1931 to promote Fort's work and which made Russell its British Secretary in the thirties (he also contributed regularly to its magazine Doubt, mentioned in Sinister Barrier) (Ingham 108; Russell 108). The foreword to the first edition of the novel declares its debt to Fort's collection and publication of items of unexplained, extra-scientific phenomena, claiming “fact-fiction” status in its presentation of “believe-it-or-not truths in the guise of entertainment” and quoting Fort's remark from The Book of the Damned (1919), “I think we”re property” (Russell 1, 2; Fort 163).18  With this hypothesis, Fort wanted to suggest that the Earth was once colonized and fought over, and was now in the possession of absent owners like any plot of land, while human beings were likewise protected and useful to “emissaries, perhaps, from other worlds, or voyagers who have shown every indication of intent to evade and avoid” (Fort 163).

Russell connects Fort and Surrealism in passing in Sinister Barrier, listing the Fortean oddities collected by the recently deceased Dr. Irwin Webb, who had concluded that if it were not now understood that these were the outcome of the behavior of the previously unknown Vitons,[i]t would seem a nightmarish hodge-podge of surrealists at their worst" (Russell 15). But Russell's novel goes further later on in an astonishing passage from the crisis speech by Professor Chadwick explaining Viton invisibility, which not only links SF directly with Surrealism but also—by analogy with the Vitons—to Breton's myth of invisible beings observing mankind. This was written at the very time Surrealism's leader was nurturing the idea of The Great Invisibles, which like Russell's Vitons were partly determined by the apparently senseless spectacle of the Second World War:

Disregarding supporting murmurs from his audience, Professor Chadwick said, “Believe it or not, but one man's extra-sensory perception, or his wide-sightedness, was so well developed that he was able to paint an excellent picture showing several Vitons floating over a nightmarish landscape and, as if somehow he sensed their predatory character, he included a hawk in the scene. That picture is Paul Nash's Landscape of a Dream [sic], first exhibited in 1938, and now in the Tate Gallery, in England. Nash himself died suddenly a few years later” (Russell 119).

Certainly Nash's most stereotypically Surrealist work, painted at the peak of his involvement in activities with the groups in London and Paris, Landscape from a Dream (1936–1938) (Fig. 6) was crafted from a spatial and iconographic language of screens, mirrors and pictures-within-pictures drawn from the styles of Giorgio de Chirico, Ernst and René Magritte.

It was given to the Tate Gallery in London in 1946, the year the English painter died of a heart attack (or perhaps was killed by Vitons). Supposedly revealing the existence of the parasitic masters of the human race in the form of hovering spheres, Russell's Professor Chadwick would probably have said that Nash has even suggested their eventual materialization from an independent, unknown dimension into the realm of human visibility in three dimensions through the deployment of a propped up screen/mirror. However, there is no evidence that Nash was directly inspired by or even familiar with the typical “multiple worlds,” “alternate reality,” or “dimensional beings” plots of SF in the thirties. Rather, Nash's painting was susceptible to Russell's interpretation in Sinister Barrier because of Fort's speculations in the US between the wars, allied with the emerging character of SF there as a “modern mythology” or “modern folklore” as it was later identified by Surrealism-friendly critic Michael Carrouges in the fifties, skeptical about religion but also about science (Carrouges 6).

The use of Fort's writings by SF authors and even the famous phrase “I think we're property” from The Book of the Damned seem to have been commonplace from the 1930s.19 Another Fortean Society member, American SF author Edmond Hamilton, was explicit about Fort's ideas in the preface to the Chicago-set Fortean invasion tale “The Space Visitors” that he published in Gernsback's magazine Air Wonder Stories in 1930. In this story, an enormous invisible scoop descends to Earth and procures sections of its surface. Mistaken by most as a crashed meteorite, it is suspected by a minority to be evidence of powerful beings “infinitely beyond us in intelligence and science” (Hamilton, “Space” 807). The metaphor used by Hamilton is close to Breton's of a child kicking over an ant-hill: “Were we merely crawling things upon Earth's surface, to be fished for and examined curiously by unimaginable beings and vessels far above?” (Hamilton, “Space” 807). Well, yes, apparently, but the Earth is soon made safe in “The Space Visitors” by “air mines” made out of “steelite,” which float above our planet detonating and destroying the alien fishing vessels.

Yet another example of proprietor-beings that functions similarly as a metaphor of the secular decentering of humanity in an age of global warfare, skepticism about religion and inconceivable technological advancement can be found in Hamilton's invading dark clouds in his US-situated tale “The Earth-Owners,” surely known to Eric Frank Russell well before his invention of Vitons since he was a dedicated reader of Weird Tales, where this brief story appeared in 1931.20 Here, the same quotation by Fort—“I think we”re property”—generates the narrative in which Earth's benign light globe proprietors fight off the wind-defying vampire clouds (”They might be the owners of the earth coming to visit their property”), even though the happy ending looks forward optimistically to a self-sufficient human race, as it does in “The Space Visitors” (Hamilton, “The Earth-Owners” 22).21

This was the opposite future to the one pre-ordained by Breton's myth of The Great Invisibles propounded a few years later, which did not assume a re-centering of mankind once it had learned its lesson, or learned to look after itself, or learned something or other. Lacking parasitism, horror, or even malice, Breton's Great Invisibles compare with Hamilton's light globes, which signify the infantilism of the human race, communicating benevolence towards it: “all fear was leaving my mind...there beat upon me the vast, calm, beneficent will of the light-globe, reassuring me as one might reassure a frightened child!” (Hamilton, “The Earth-Owners” 139). Whatever the particulars, the general Surrealist idea of a separate, hidden, adjacent race is equally lodged in a realm of the Fortean fantastic that overlaps that found in pulp fiction and SF in America.22 When viewed in this way, The Great Invisibles seem a remarkably suitable and shrewdly chosen means to further Breton's quest for a “new myth” in the US.

In fact, the intersection of Fort and pulp SF had been made for the Surrealists themselves courtesy of Parker. His VVV essay extolling the virtues of pulp in 1943 was preceded the year before by his initiation of the Surrealists into the writings of Fort, the “Socrates of the Bronx,” under the Jamesian heading “Explorers of the Pluriverse,” in his introduction to the catalogue of First Papers of Surrealism. Prompted by the appearance of the thick omnibus The Books of Charles Fort (1941), which had harvested an abundance of “Surrealist” imagery from the newspapers, Parker cited from Fort “snowflakes the size of saucers, of black rains, red rains, the fall of a thousand tons of butter, of jet-black snow, pink snow, blue hailstones, of hailstones with the flavour of oranges” (Parker, “Explorers” n.p.).23 Like Hamilton and Russell, Lovecraft had himself plumbed Fort's Book of the Damned a decade or so earlier for ideas he could use in his stories, dismissing its factual content and theories in an ultra-materialist letter of 1935 to the writer Emil Petaja (Lovecraft, Selected 172–73). He even mentioned Fort in his 1931 tale “The Whisperer in Darkness,” which appeared next door to Hamilton's “The Earth-Owners” in the August issue of Weird Tales (Lovecraft, “Whisperer” 206; Sprague de Camp 221–22).



Although the myth of The Great Invisibles seemed to share the same roots as SF, speak a similar conceptual language, and even predict the arrival of the genre in France, Breton remained unmoved by SF as either myth or the dreaded “literature”; nor did he mention Lovecraft in the 1950s when the American writer was being translated into French.24 This was the point at which Lovecraft was “rediscovered” by younger Surrealists such as Gérard Legrand and Robert Benayoun (who was concurrently translating Fort's Book of the Damned into French, to appear in 1955) (Benayoun and Legrand 14). Breton had the first French translation of Lovecraft in his library, the collection of four tales of 1927–1936 titled La couleur tombée du ciel, which included “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” and appeared in 1954 through Denoël's SF collection begun that year “Présence du futur,” but it is doubtful he ever read it. Apparently, he did not even own it: the copy of the book in his apartment was signed by the Lovecraft aficionado Bergier, who had written its brief introduction “H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937)” (crediting the author with the creation of a new genre based on science, which he calls the “materialist tale of terror”) (Lovecraft, “La couleur” 7). Bergier dedicated it with the inscription “this irruption from the dark side” (”cette incursion du côté des ombres”) to Breton”s friend and regular contributor to the journal Médium: Communication surréaliste, René Alleau, who must have given it to Breton or lent it to him and not got it back.25

Nevertheless, the status of the Cthulhu Mythos as a collective or “experimental mythology” that might be factored into a larger work on The Great Invisibles was later assessed by Chicago Surrealists whose esteem for Lovecraft was rooted in the earliest reception of the author in VVV (Rosemont, Franklin 107). They argued that the revival of Gothic terror by Lovecraft and his friends in the early twentieth century constituted a record of the deepest emotions of humanity at the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, echoing Breton's contention in “Nonnational Boundaries of Surrealism” that the fantastic events of the eighteenth century Gothic novel composed a metaphorical representation of the latent content of the period of the French Revolution.

If such precursors of SF and materializations of the fantastic as the Gothic novel, Maupassant's short story “The Horla,” and Lovecraft's pulp novellas could be understood by French Surrealists from the thirties, through the American experience during the Second World War and up to the seventies, as mythic, connotative signposts that drew attention to the underlying machinations of the age, then we might have expected SF and studies of it to receive their full attention and even their esteem. This is especially so given the strong thematic overlap I have shown to exist here between The Great Invisibles and interwar Anglo-American SF in what might have been a deliberate attempt by Breton and the Surrealists to find an audience in the US through their recourse to the “invisible master” yarn in order to serve their “new myth.” However, the Surrealists' taste for the fantastic was close to but apart from SF on the whole, and as we might infer from their emphasis on the Lovecraftian myths of prehistory as opposed to the interplanetary features of Lovecraft's stories, they were ultimately taken less with imaginary techno-futures than with past time in the present, or with the evaporation of the categories of “past” and “present” altogether.


1 Lévy was referring to the tribute by Jacques Bergier, “Lovecraft"; this was followed in the same issue by a new translation of a short story: H.P. Lovecraft, “Hypnos.” 

In fact, Lévy's estimate was way out: for a chronology of the welcome given Lovecraft in France from 1954, see Buard; and also see the incomplete chronology that, nevertheless, usefully includes all of the book reviews of the first set of Lovecraft translations, which was collected as La couleur tombée du ciel (1954) (though without any reference to the Surrealist reception of the author; last accessed 14 December 2018).

2 For evidence that it was Bergier who was the long-standing sponsor of the writer, see the much earlier, rather lofty expression of admiration for Lovecraft's “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (1934, co-written with E. Hoffmann Price), “Pickman's Model,” and “The Rats in the Walls” (1934) (greater than Edgar Allan Poe, apparently) by the 23-year-old (Bergier, “From a French Reader” 381).

3 Machen's quotation had been used as an epigraph at the opening of H.P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook.”  There is little chance that Parker knew the quotation from the story where it originally appeared: Arthur Machen, “The Red Hand” (1895). For his own estimation that Machen”s writing “stands alone in its class, and marks a distinct epoch in the history of this literary form,” see Lovecraft (“Supernatural" 116).

4 For a record of the contemporary criticism of Breton's ambition to create a new myth at the time of the Nazi preoccupation with mythology, see Adams (67–75).

5 See Duval.  Kamrowski is quoted (without a source) as calling The Great Invisibles “a myth that didn't fly” by Martica Sawin (217). 

6 Simon Watson Taylor”s translation belongs to the period of SF, the space race, and Moon landings.

7 The significance of transparency for artists close to Breton is looked at by Sawin (217). The importance of Duchamp's work to the evolution of themes of transparency in Matta's painting, along with the claim by Matta that he originated The Great Invisibles, can be found in Golan.

8 For Breton's allusions to Hélène Smith, see Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (lv–lvi).

9 For the first version, see Guy de Maupassant, “The Horla” (1886), in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories.

10 Joshi proposes the impact of “The Horla” also on Lovecraft”s “Dunwich Horror” (Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Volume 2, 129, n. 51).

11 “The central message of the Gothic romance form, involving an assertion of the power of the irrational over the rational, is also the message of most science fiction,” writes Patrick Brantlinger (31). For Poe, see Ketterer (50–75). For all three, see Clareson (15–23, 83).

12 Bruno was referring to Breton's conveyance of James's characterization of F.W.H. Myers's science as a “gothic psychology” during the period Breton was immersed in Gothic novels, see André Breton, “The Automatic Message” (129). To my knowledge, James never actually used that phrase; Breton was legitimately extrapolating from passages in James's obituary of Myers, such as the following: “Even with brutes and madmen, even with hysterics and hypnotics admitted as the academic psychologists admit them, the official outlines of the subject are far too neat to stand in the light of analogy with the rest of nature. The ultimates of Nature,—her simple elements, if there be such,—may indeed combine in definite proportions and follow classic laws of architecture; but in her proximates, in her phenomena as we immediately experience them, Nature is everywhere gothic not classical. She forms a real jungle, where all things are provisional, half-fitted to each other, and untidy,” William James, “Frederic Myers's Service to Psychology” (200–201). Breton read this passage when the eulogy appeared in French translation: William James, Etudes et réflexions d”un psychiste (123–40).

13 See the unsourced quotation by James and the one by Émile Duclaux in Marie Duclaux's long introductory essay in Robert Browning, Poèmes de Robert Browning (86–7; see André Breton, Oeuvres complètes, 1143–44). Beyond Marie Duclaux's unreferenced citation, the source of the quotation credited to Émile Duclaux—“Around us, perhaps, circulate beings who are built on the same plan as ourselves, but different from men, for example, beings whose albumins are straight”—remains untraced (Breton, What is Surrealism? 217). The quotation from Novalis dates from 1798–1799: “We really live in an animal—as a parasitic animal—this animal”s constitution determines our own and vice versa” (Novalis 182).

14 For Lovecraft and the “ancient astronaut hypothesis” or Paleo-SETI (after the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence carried out by NASA), see Colavito (13).

15 This phrase is the first concrete association I know of made between SF and Swift. Along with the reference to Cyrano, it became commonplace a few years later beginning with Derleth (viii) and Bridenne (32).

16 See the discussion of The Great Invisibles in the context of SF by Pauwels and Bergier as an illustration for the unseen activities of mutants who supposedly walk among us (393–94). I discuss this and the Surrealists' enmity throughout the sixties towards that fallacious tome in my book Futures of Surrealism: Myth, Science Fiction and Fantastic Art in France, 1936–69.

17 Raymond Queneau read it in English in the late 1940s; see further references to Russell's novel by d'Astorg and Spriel (660); and Hoveyda (47).

18 This foreword is missing from later editions of the book, which mention Fort only in the “Clipping from a New York daily” that immediately followed it, provided by none other than Julius Schwartz, then editor of Superman, and one-time literary agent of Russell and Lovecraft. Fort's third collection of odd facts Lo! (1931) was serialized between April and November 1934 in Astounding Stories under F. Orlin Tremaine's editorship and that is where Russell first came across his work.

19 See, for instance, the paranoid quotation from Lo! setting up the impressive time travel story by H. Beam Piper, “Police Operation,” Astounding Science Fiction, vol. 41, no. 5, July 1948, 8—35.

20 Russell knew Hamilton later on but claimed not to have known of his story when he wrote Sinister Barrier; although Hamilton's “Space Visitors” came first, he later viewed “The Earth-Owners” as the first “parasitic mastery” tale (Ingham 140).

21 Years later, the much-used quotation would be (typically) misquoted by the SF-addled Jacques Bergier—who knew “original thinker” Eric Frank Russell's work and was well aware of The Great Invisibles—in the service of a comparable notion to Breton's: “Charles Fort said: 'We are the property of someone.' I go further than he does, in declaring that we are the creation of someone; and far less, in postulating that we are under surveillance and that perhaps 'they' intervene in our activities and in our history” (Mysteries viii, 154; this book appeared in America under the title Extraterrestrial Visitations from Prehistoric Times to the Present in 1973).

22 Yet another example of the unseen, malevolent-creatures genre is H. J. Campbell's badly paced, techno-illiterate Beyond the Visible (1952) set in 1997, translated into French in 1953 as Spectateurs de l'invisible.

23 Charles Fort, The Books of Charles Fort, 1941.

24 Breton himself continued to propagate the “myth” of The Great Invisibles intermittently, using it as late as 1963 to characterize the monsters in Enrico Baj's painting with reference, again, to habitually chosen and, by then, confirmed SF precursors de Bergerac and Swift (and also, here, to the Comte de Lautréamont) (Breton, “Enrico Baj” 398–99). In the same year, a rare allusion to The Great Invisibles took place in the Surrealists' review La Brèche in the dedication “Aux grands transparents, en hommage à leur discrétion infinie,” at the head of a poem by Jean-Claude Silbermann, “Hôtel du sans visage.”  Franklin Rosemont prefers affinities to influence, regarding The Great Invisibles as a myth “implicit also in the writings of Benjamin Paul Blood, in the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, in the works of Charles Fort and in certain of Tex Avery”s animated cartoons” (Breton, What is Surrealism? 272).

25 The copy in Breton's library can be viewed here (last accessed 14 December 2018).


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