Ideas Have No Smell: Three Belgian Surrealist Booklets
translated by M. Kasper
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018
Reviewed by Zack Anderson


“I don’t lie, I juxtapose,” writes Louis Scutenaire in For Balthazar, one of three artist’s books collected in Ideas Have No Smell. Translated and facsimilized by M. Kasper, these booklets offer a fascinating glimpse into the work of the Belgian enclave of the Surrealist movement.

Scutenaire’s For Balthazar, from 1967, is a loose assemblage of fragments, aphorisms, and diaristic observations. For Balthazar ranges from epistemological meditations (“At the root of every active truth, a theoretical lie”) to jokes and surreal koans (“A hard-head is a hard-head”). The effect is to collapse the hierarchy of the text by placing decontextualized samples of various genres on the same plane. There are flashes of insight among these fragments that indicate the more playful, exploratory spirit of Belgian Surrealism. In one longer prose poem, Scutenaire articulates the Surrealist project as a radical engagement with the outside world, as opposed to the dreamy interiority that readers tend to ascribe to it: “I’m a god who wanders around with the other gods. Everything ties us together unties us and space and time with shiny faces with obscure detours. Everything ties us together unties us loses us and finds us again seated at our table or strolling down your streets. We count the syllables, the syllables count us. Rhyme lacks what eternity provides.”

In Paul Colinet’s Abstractive Treaty on Obeuse (1948), created as a unique manuscript and gifted to André Breton, we encounter a Rorschach-like interplay between minimalistic images and accompanying text. The subject of the book is an entity called “Obeuse,” a neologism that resonates with words like “obtus” (dull, slow-witted) or “obus” (artillery shell). By way of its juxtaposition of text and image, Obeuse is intriguing because of the associative leap demanded of the reader. On one page, for instance, two identical dots hover side by side. The accompanying text reads, “Obeuse and one / of his horses // (slowly undoing / the redundant horse).”

Paul Nougé’s contribution, Transfigured Publicity, appeared as part of “a ‘concert-spectacle’” in 1926. As the title suggests, the poems resemble billboard signs, prefiguring John Giorno’s poem-paintings. Nougé also plays with typography, recalling F.T. Marinetti’s Futurism and Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes. One particularly striking example still seems timely ninety years later:

Don’t forget
one can
with no fuss
automatic pistols
speaking machines

Ideas Have No Smell marks a significant attempt to draw attention to the Belgian Surrealists, who tend to be occulted by their French neighbors. As usual, Ugly Duckling Presse has translated these curious texts into beautiful collector objects, complete with a poster-sized facsimile of Nougé’s handwritten visual poems from the Brussels concert-spectacle. At the same time, Ideas Have No Smell is limited to a run of 1000 copies, similar to the collection of work by fellow Belgian Surrealist Marcel Broodthaers, published by Siglio Press in 2016 and now out of print. These strange little booklets will help to introduce readers to the exciting work of a group of writers who have remained more or less obscure. However, this limited release also highlights the need for a more extensive anthology of writing from an important cohort within the Surrealist network.