[Montevidayans, here is the beginning of an essay I wrote for skool that owes much to Johannes, Daniel Tiffany, and discussions about kitsch on this blog that I've only come to fully grasp recently. The essay goes on to analyze Roberto Piva's amazing Paranóia, which I plan to post more about later.]
In light of the prominence of internationally recognized figures such as Octávio Paz, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, and Aimé Cesaire, it is undeniable that surrealism has long enjoyed a rich and fruitful trajectory in Latin American poetry written in Spanish, French, and even Vallejo’s native Quechua. As soon as one turns to the literature of Portuguese-speaking Brazil, however, the influence of André Breton and countless writers and artists worldwide seems either lacking or, upon further consideration, mysteriously obfuscated. Surrealism, if we are to believe the gatekeepers of Brazilian poetry, simply found little to no cultural relevance in South America’s largest and most populous nation. According to concretist poet Haroldo de Campos, “South American Spanish poetry was very much influenced by Surrealism, whereas in Brazil [there is] no surrealism at all” (Jackson 175). Beyond merely reflecting attitudes within national literary discourse, surrealism’s supposed insignificance in Brazil has also been invoked in recent discussions about American poetry and the international avant-garde. In Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, Marjorie Perloff attests to the irrelevance of the aesthetic among Brazilian literati when she quotes de Campos’ brother Augusto: “Brazil never had surrealism because the whole country is surrealist” (Perloff 67).
For Perloff and the de Campos brothers, incidentally, this would-be absence of an enduring and far-reaching aesthetic is hardly lamentable. As a global manifestation of the avant-garde, surrealism proved to be “distraction rather than breakthrough” according to the Brazilian concretist poets (67). Unlike concretism, which Perloff herself considers an “arrière-garde” movement that exemplifies Marx’s evocation of a “‘hidden face of modernity,’” surrealism purportedly failed to engage “the transformation of materiality itself” (53, 68). Surrealists, in this sense, were misguided in their pretext of rupturing from tradition and aiming for novel artistic expression; their focus on dreams, fantasy, figurality, the unconscious, and political revolution led to innovation that was merely “thematic rather than formal or material” (83).
If this equation posits concretism as the rightful heir to the early twentieth-century avant-garde by virtue of its formal and material self-reflexivity, it does so by relegating surrealism to the status of false consciousness. Surrealism, as per Haroldo de Campos, fell short of its goal to reject rational logic insofar as it left untouched the materiality of the signifier and, in turn, ideological claims to the autonomy of language. Cast accordingly as a deviation from the avant-garde, the movement takes on the stained legacy of a debilitating virus or plague after spreading from Europe to the Americas and elsewhere. In rhetoric as scathing as turns of phrase lobbed by earlier critics of surrealism, de Campos went so far as to deem the latter’s “influence” outright “traumatic” (67).
This essay takes as its starting point the concretists’ criticisms in order to contextualize and foreground the self-professed “beat-surrealist” writing of Roberto Piva, a contemporary of the de Campos brothers. Slightly over a decade after the founding of the concretist group Noigandres in 1952, Piva’s Paranóia was published in 1963. While Paranóia sold well and was reviewed in Breton’s magazine La brèche, its reception alone failed to push surrealism beyond the margins of Brazilian literature. Despite decades of indifference if not scorn on the part of the literary establishment, Piva belonged to a community of writers who shared his aesthetic sensibilities, including Claudio Willer, Sergio Lima, José Silvério Trevisan, Antonio Fernando De Franceschi, Roberto Bicellias. As an indication of the growing interest in Piva since Paranóia as well as the vitality of surrealism in Brazil, the major publishing house Editora Globo has, in recent years, reissued his entire oeuvre as a series of collected works. A number of scholarly theses and dissertations also published in the last decade, meanwhile, argue for his significance in Brazilian letters at large.
Even Haroldo de Campos is said to have once spoken highly of Piva’s writing—a fact that should not lead us to dismiss the concretists’ charges against his aesthetic influences as a matter of purely subjective preference based on intellectual whim. By framing surrealism as essentially inauthentic—or, in de Campos’ own words, as the “bastard child” of a rationalism it was ultimately incapable of evacuating—the concretists deployed rhetoric highly resonant with modernist art critic Clement Greenberg’s essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” For Greenberg, the artistic and mass productions of surrealism and kitsch, respectively, overlap as one and the same imitation of a true avant-garde. As in de Campos’ formulation, the fundamental shortcoming of the surrealist writer or artist lies in his or her apparent disregard for “the medium of his [or her] own craft” (Greenberg 7). Just as de Campos faults surrealism for its lack of critical attention to form—an oversight that, in Augusto de Campos’ words, resulted in the movement’s “automatic factory of metaphors” (Perrone 28)—Greenberg identifies in the mass product of kitsch a similarly deceptive capitalist formulism:
Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.
Although Greenberg was perhaps unique in excoriating surrealism as an aesthetic tantamount to kitsch, many other critics have analyzed kitsch on terms that condemn its parasitism, falsification, superficiality, ornamentality, predictableness, manipulativeness, and/or decontextualization. By echoing Umberto Eco’s notion of an ‘aesthetic lie,’ even Haroldo de Campos himself wrote an essay (bearing the same title as Greenberg’s, no less) that sustains Hermann Broch’s normative view of kitsch as “the element of evil […] lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art” (Broch 62-3).
Clearly, the ferocity with which critics have vilified kitsch alone begs the question of its relationship with surrealist cultural production such as Piva’s Paranóia. If kitsch is evil and surrealism exemplifies yet another one of its insidiously successful disseminations, we might pause to ask, along with Greenberg, “How is this virulence of kitsch, this irresistible attractiveness, to be explained?” (Greenberg 12) And to what extent do criticisms of kitsch inform and illuminate a historically persistent bias against surrealism not just in Brazil but—if we recall Perloff’s discussion of an international avant-garde—anywhere vulnerable to such contagion?
In “Dream Kitsch: Gloss on Surrealism,” Walter Benjamin had, in fact, identified the aesthetic relationship we are considering long before Greenberg; his discussion recasts our questions in terms that enable rather than foreclose kitsch as a lens or category worthy of analysis. In stark contradistinction with their detractors, Benjamin argues that the surrealists “are less on the trail of the psyche than on the track of things” (Benjamin, “Dream” 238). Dreams and material objects, in Benjamin’s theorization, are kitsch insofar as modernity has rendered them not just accessible and tangible but actually an integral part of the human body; mass production advertently “advances on the human being” and “ultimately fashions its figures in his interior” (238). By focusing less on the materiality of the signifier than its ever-proliferating plethora of referents, the surrealists thus enact through their work the perceptual proximity that defines modernity itself. What surrealism negatively traces as the loss of auratic distance, in turn, translates into its potential to blend dreams and objects, confuse what is interior and exterior, and “take in the energies of an outlived world of things” (238).
 As Jason Wilson points out, critics have written about Vallejo’s surrealism even though he, like many detractors noted in this essay, officially rejected the movement and its aesthetic as inherently formulaic (Wilson: Companion 256).
 Here de Campos was himself echoing Décio Pignatari, another concretist poet.
 Ezra Pound, Umberto Eco, and Saul Friedlander, among others.