Friday, September 22, 2006

Review: An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers

When most people hear the word Surrealism they think of the powerful visual images created by the painters who followed the practices of the group. Dali’s melting watches, Magritte’s businessmen with their bowler hats standing amidst a perplexing landscape…It’s understandable, because so many of the images are startling, fun, dirty, and childlike. Often all at once. But most of the core members of the Surrealists, including the group’s self-appointed leader Andre Breton, were poets. They played and experimented with many of the same ideas in text that the painters explored on the canvas.

One of the few American-born Surrealists, at least one of the few that I know of, is Franklin Rosemont. Although best known for collecting and editing material for books like What Is Surrealism, Rosemont is a poet, essayist, thinker and cultural provocateur in his own right. His most recent book An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers collects a series of short essays using the theme of wrong number phone calls as a framework.

We’ve all had them. Those irritating telephone calls that break us away from whatever we happen to be doing----reading, writing, sleeping, watching t.v.----and end up being a complete waste of our time. The only thing worse is a telemarketer. How and why could this little piece of life experience be worth exploring? Rosemont sez:

Any sudden ringing of the phone inevitably arouses one’s sense of anticipation, but in a Wrong Number it is an unknown voice that speaks, and it utters the unexpected. The recipient of the Wrong Number finds himself/herself to be the unwelcome intruder between two unknowns. The voice that calls and the name it pronounces remain forever faceless and formless for the one who answers. Despite their brevity, therefore, Wrong Numbers are acute moments of derealization…..The Wrong Number is an essentially irrational experience, all the more disturbingly so because it is also concrete. (Rosemont, 10)

For this reason Rosemont entered into an experiment tracking all the wrong number phone calls he received for close to thirty years. I do stress, however, that he admits his study is not very scientific. Many of his notes were scribbled on scraps of paper, a number of which have been lost. Others were scratched out late at night with the lights off and remain, to this day, completely unreadable. Some of his notes just briefly describe the call while others show Rosemont acting on things, trying to coax the stranger into an even odder conversational experience. After defining the basic purpose of his book a series of personal essays, commentary and critical theory move on to expose and explore his idea more deeply.

The early parts of the book unfold like an autobiography as he tries to explain why and how this concept became so important to him. We first see Rosemont as a teenager hitchhiking from Chicago to San Francisco in the early 1960’s so he could take in the Beat Poetry scene. From there we learn about his early exposure to Surrealism, his first correspondences with and even meeting important Surrealists like Claude Tarnaud, Nicolas Calas and Breton. Later we get a few hints on Rosemont’s founding of the U.S. arm of Surrealism in Chicago (which, according to this website anyway, is still doing quite well, thank you very much). Written with a very light tone, these sections draw a fun portrait of the art world of the time.

The whole idea of the wrong number phone call really works quite well as a metaphor for Surrealism. What’s often left out in a definition of Surrealism is that it involved a lot more than the exploration of dreams. It was a direct reaction to the ideas of rational thought that dominated so much of the 19th century; the Surrealists felt rational thought was all fine and good, but it only told part of the story of this thing we call reality. As a group and individually they explored Gnosticsim, mythology, spirituality, random chance and anything else they could get there hands on to get them and their audience thinking and feeling in a different way.

As Rosemont’s essays move forward they start connecting wrong numbers to seemingly anything and everything they possibly can: Bugs Bunny, Marxist theory, Noir films, bebop jazz, alchemy, H.P. Lovecraft, Jacques Vache, etc, etc. It’s interesting and fun for a time. His overall approach is pretty light and humorous for the most…but it does wear on you after a time. The repetitive nature of the book probably makes it better to read in small doses and not 50 or so pages at a time like I did. I definitely plan on keeping this book on my shelf and will probably even look for some of Rosemont’s poetry. As for recommending it to others, it’s an understatement to call it a niche book. But if you like oddball cultural theory you might enjoy it. If nothing else, it makes you appreciate the Surrealist movement a little more and gets you looking at your own life in a slightly different way.

As a final aside, I will say the day I started reading this book I was visiting Miss L in Baltimore. While I was there she received two wrong number calls in the same day, one on her cell phone for someone named Tony and another on her home phone from a lawyer’s office seeking someone regarding their past jail time (Miss L swears to me she’s never spent a day in the clink). In the past week I received six wrong number calls myself, one of them received on my cell phone while writing this review. Coincidence? Probably. But I can’t honestly remember the last time I received a single wrong number, much less six so close together. I will admit to maybe just not paying attention, but it’s enough to make me think that there just might be something to all of Rosemont’s odd little ideas.

Dial carefully.


1 comment:

JoshNeuman said...

That's a surrealist I didn't know of. Thanks for the information... If I find enough about him, I'll make a section about him on my new surrealism website... It's at