'From snob to S.NOB: Edward James turns fifty in Mexico' by Dr. Joanna Pawlik

In this paper, Dr. Joanna Pawlik explores Edward James' publication in, and financial backing, of the short-lived little magazine S.NOB. Edited by literary radicals Salvador Elizondo and Juan Garçia Ponce, S.NOB was published in Mexico City and ran for seven issues between June and October, 1962. The magazine was a melting pot of European and Latin American avant-gardism and it included the work of several surrealist artists who had relocated to Mexico in the wake of the second world war such as Kati Horna and Leonora Carrington, as well as those who had visited Mexico decades earlier, such as Antonin Artaud. Issue seven featured an account by James of his experience of hallucinogenic drugs on his fiftieth birthday in a hotel room in Mexico City, alongside other images and texts representing visionary experiences. This paper uses the magazine to rethink James's involvement with transnational surrealism; it seeks to enlarge the roster of unlikely places in which he sponsored the movement, adding to the genteel country home in Sussex and the sculpture gardens in the rainforest near Xilitla, the heady, psychedelic avant-garde of Mexico City in the 1960s.

This paper was first published by West Dean College in Edward James in Mexico, a catalogue of essays produced to coincide with a sympoium of the same name in 2015.

Explore Categories

From snob to S.NOB: Edward James turns fifty in Mexico

On her birthday in May 1962, Kati Horna took a series of photographs of Edward James in the Francis Hotel in Mexico City. The images depict a slightly dishevelled looking James, wearing a brocade dressing gown in a rather dimly-lit room, festooned with what appear to be electricity cables that pass into or behind large glasses, some of which contain fish. This scene of introspection and claustrophobia contrasts sharply with better-known photographs of James in Mexico that situate him, frequently surrounded by macaws and full sunshine, in the lush undergrowth and elaborate structures of his gardens in Xiltla.[1]

One photograph from Horna's series was used to illustrate an account James wrote of his visionary experiences whilst taking hallucinogenic mushrooms on a hot August evening, his fiftieth birthday, in a hotel room in Mexico City in 1957. This was published in the seventh and final issue of the little magazine S.NOB (October 1962), edited by the Mexican film-producer, writer and translator, Salvador Elizondo. In this image James crouches in the lower-left of the photograph, head bowed and eyes downcast, with his hand resting on a piece of furniture as though for support. The radical little magazine S.NOB featured an eclectic portfolio of interests, including literature, music, film, photography, ethnography, and science fiction, drawn from transnational sources across the twentieth-century, which were pressed into the service of invigorating a Mexican avant-garde that ran counter to discourses of cultural nationalism in the early 1960s. S.NOB seems, perhaps, an unlikely forum for James to be affiliated with, yet he and Horna are listed as members of the editorial committee for this special issue devoted to exploring narcotics. James also provided financial support for the issue, perhaps one of the 'fortuitous circumstances' alluded to in the editorial, which enabled the magazine's unexpected release as well allowing the editor to entertain plans, albeit unrealised, for subsequent publications.[2]

James's text is multimodal, intertextual, and self-consciously syncretic in its recourse to a variety of visual and verbal sources, both high and low, new and old, that help him make sense of his visionary experiences. He specifies that 'most of the hallucinations had worn a definitely Renaissance or pre-Renaissance guise', referring to two works by Arcimboldo in his collection, Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Breughel, as well as to Andrea Mantegna's The Lamentation of the Dead Christ (c.1475-8), whose technique of foreshortening he recalls when speculating on his awareness of the apparently vast distance between his head and his toes.[3] But Surrealism is also called upon, post-facto, to provide visual corollaries for his visions. Horna's photograph was one of several images accompanying James's account, which included two drawings by Leonora Carrington and one by Jose Horna. Horna's drawing of elongated legs provided another figuration of James's sense of dislocation from his feet. Rather than use foreshortening like Mantegna, whose example constitute one of the 'earliest' and 'greatest achievements in perspective' according to James, Horna adopts an elevated vantage point so that the sketch of the extraordinarily long limbs and the waving lines they bisect resemble the outline of a shore and a river on a map, recalling the out-of-body experience that James's text is grasping at.[4] Carrington represents two of the most frightening of his visions: an 'enormous blackish green octopus' and 'a black-robed featureless Inquisitor'.[5] Though frequently invoking animals in her visual and verbal practice, Carrington's depiction of the octopus, complete with eyes in between the lower tentacles, recalls the particular iconography and fractal patterns associated with psychedelic art. Similarly, robed figures recur in Carrington's work, often interpreted as indicative of her interest in the occult, alchemy and myth, but in this context the figure serves a different function; it substantiates James's visions of 'self-conscious entities, absolute individuals', whose existence 'exterior to myself' during the hallucination he struggles to convey in his prose.[6]

We are also invited to read Horna's undated and unattributed photograph as an illustration of James's text. Both depict James in a hotel room in Mexico City and are presented as though corresponding thematically and temporally with each other. There are other clues in Horna's image that, like Carrington's drawings, render it congruent with text it accompanies. The multiple transparent vessels atop a variety of flat surfaces in the room contain fish and vegetation, into which a lattice of electricity cables pass. The composition refuses customary distinctions between the man-made and the natural, the visible and the invisible, surface and depth, which recall the rhetoric in James's account. The different sizes of the glasses, many of which appear larger than James's head, correspond to the confusion of scale and perspective that James outlines, and suggest a densely-populated room echoing his visions of swarms of imps and cascades of vegetables (from an apparition of Arcimboldo's Winter) even if he (and his parrot) were the only occupants of the room. The distortion and reflections resulting from the water and the transparent vessels also suggest the confusion of empirical experience that his text strains to articulate. Horna's image appears on a page opposite photographs of a gaunt and wizened Antonin Artaud that date to his release from the Rodez asylum in 1947. These accompany his text 'Aphorisms and three marital letters,' which directly precedes James's in this issue of S.NOB. Artaud and James, customarily held apart by time, class and nation are here presented as allied veterans of extreme psychic states.[7]

S.NOB has been largely overlooked in histories of Surrealism's presence in, influences from, and impact on Mexican culture, which tend to focus on dialogues and activity during the 1930s and 40s, a period which encompasses André Breton's encounter with Diego Rivera, Frieda Kahlo and Leon Trotsky in 1938, the International Surrealist exhibition in Mexico City in 1940, and the formation of the close circle of Surrealist emigres centred around Carrington, Horna, Benjamin Péret and Remedios Varo, as well as James.[8] Accounts of James's activity in Mexico, however, usually prioritise the elaboration of his 'vision of Eden' in the gardens at Xilitla. His participation with the vedanta movement whilst in Los Angeles during the 1940s, a drug-cult informed by Hinduism, with fellow participants including Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley, provides some context for his interest in the hallucinogenic mushrooms, but of the many avant-garde ventures benefitting from his financial and artistic input, S.NOB is all but off the radar.[9]

S.NOB is best known, in Anglophone scholarship at least, for publishing a section of Elizondo's translation of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, coming to the attention of scholars exploring the transnational reception of Joyce's work.[10] The publication has also been picked up as evidence of Elizondo's interest in the transgressive eroticism of the dissident Surrealist Georges Bataille, which was most fully articulated in Elizondo's novel Farabeuf (1965), a direct response to Bataille's outré novella The Story of the Eye (1928).[11] The photograph of the Chinese sacrificial victim originally published in Bataille's magazine Documents appeared in issue seven of S.NOB, although this appears to be the only direct invocation of Bataille in the publication. Given S.NOB's interest in dissident Surrealism, Artaud was perhaps a not unlikely inclusion in the same seven. His text 'Journey to the Tarahumaras' (1936), an account of his experience of the peyote ritual whilst amongst the Tarahumaras people, was frequently excerpted and translated in the decades following its composition. Artaud had accrued a reputation amongst new avant-garde audiences in the 1950s and 60 as an excoriating critic of the impoverishment of Western bourgeois culture. Foremost amongst these were Beat Generation and countercultural artists and writers who shared his fascination with shattering established patterns of perception and consciousness, and the desire to reach behind, beyond or beneath this erroneous veneer. Of this new generation, with both a lay and scientific interest in narcotics, William Burroughs is represented in issue seven S.NOB in the form of an appendix to his notorious novel Naked Lunch, 'Testimony Concerning a Sickness' which advocates the substitution of apomorphine for heroin as a means of overcoming addiction. James finds company in this issue of S.NOB with a decidedly transnational and transgenerational avant-garde, characterised by more than a passing interest in hallucinogenic drugs.

There is, it should be noted, no discernible element of social critique emanating from James's exploration of altered states of consciousness. And yet his account of his solitary experience of ingesting mushrooms in a hotel room in Mexico City does not reach us as an exclusively private affair: the questions prompted by his experiences explicitly open out onto issues of representation and ontology as they play out in art history. Moreover, the text was a profoundly collaborative effort, the product of James communicating his experiences to Jose and Kati Horna, and to Leonora Carrington. Its production was not coterminous with the experience, as was the case with Surrealism's early experiments in altered states of consciousness, traced through automatic drawing and writing. The past tense is absolutely foregrounded in the text: 'It was a birthday present-the mushrooms were'.[12] The text as published in S.NOB is necessarily a product of the experience exceeding and outliving that August evening in Mexico City, through its correspondence with the later production of his Surrealist interlocutors and their readiness to provide visual evidence for his account.

As befitting the introspection prompted by passing a milestone birthday, James opens his text by remarking that he's 'no young cockerel any more. Though I can still crow'.[13] In a publication indebted to pre-second world war avant-garde precursors, such as Bataille and Artaud, youth was not a perquisite for inclusion, or for alignment with cultural radicalism. Living, dead, or 'other' in the case of the visions conjured by his text, all planes of existence might make a claim to significance. Chronological, linear time that marks this birthday as his fiftieth is already eschewed by the time-travelling gymnastics of his visions, in which bodily experience is conflated with extant works of art, as well as illustrated, post-facto, by future ones. S.NOB has been referred to as a publication that is trying to 'revive' European Surrealism, as if to breathe life into an old corpse. And yet the complex spatial and temporal politics of the publication, and of articles like James's, play fast and loose with stable oppositions between now and then, before and after; the dead and the living are not always so different. Young cockerels and old roosters are heard alike in S.NOB.

[1] See Margaret Hook, Surreal Eden (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).

[2] In S.NOB, facsimile re-print (Aldus, 2004), p.1.

[3] Edward James 'My Fiftieth birthday', (trans. Dr. David Stent) in Edward James in Mexico (West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, 2015)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Antonin Artaud, 'Aphorisms and three marital letters', S.NOB (October 1962).

[8] The exception is Jonathan Eburne's 'Leonora Carrington, Mexico and the Culture of Death,' Journal of Surrealism and the Americas 5.1 (2011). For a sample of this literature, see Dawn Ades, Rita Eder, Graciela Speranza (eds) Surrealism in Latin America: Vivisimo Muerto (Getty Research Institute, 2012) and Melanie Nicholson, Searching for Breton's Ghost: Surrealism in Latin America (Palgrave, 2013).

[9] See John Lowe, Edward James: Poet, Patron, Eccentric: A Surrealist Life (Harper Collins, 1991).

[10] See TransLatin Joyce: Global Transmissions in Ibero-American Literature, eds Brian L. Price, César A. Salgado, John Pedro Schwartz (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[11] Juan Carlos Ubilluz, Sacred Eroticism: Georges Bataille and Pierre Klossowski in the Latin American Erotic Novel (Bucknell University Press, 2006)

[12] Edward James 'My Fiftieth birthday', (trans. Dr. David Stent) in Edward James in Mexico (West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, 2015)

[13] Ibid.

Joanna Pawlik is a lecturer in Art History at the University of Sussex. Her research looks at transnational surrealism, with a particular emphasis on the reception of surrealism in North America. She is particularly interested in responses to surrealism outside of the art museum and its politicisation by artists and writers associated with the counterculture, Black Nationalism, grass-roots labour organisations, the Beat Generation and the anti-psychiatry movement. She has published on African American surrealist artist and writer Ted Joans, the Chicago surrealist group, and Antonin Artaud and is currently finishing a monograph entitled Remade in America: Transnational Surrealism 1938-1972. She is an editor of the online journal Papers of Surrealism and participated in a three-year AHRC research project about surrealism and sexuality at the University of Manchester (2008-11). She is co-editor of the publication Queer Surrealism (Manchester University Press).

Edward James in 1957 © all rights reserved. West Dean College, part of The Edward James Foundation.
Cover of S.NOB, October 1962. © all rights reserved. West Dean College, part of The Edward James Foundation.