Bridging the Contradictions: Karel Teige’s Socialist Realism and Surrealism

Deborah Garfinkle, Independent Scholar

When the poet Vítězslav Nezval announced the formation of the Prague Surrealist group in early 1934, there was the implication that the Czechs had adopted the Surrealist program wholesale. However, because of their geographic location and the fact they had already been engaged in an avant-garde experiment of their own for over a decade, the Czechs brought to the movement a critical perspective that often diverged significantly from that of the center. While the French Surrealists’ position toward the Soviet Union was marked by discord, the Czechs maintained a long-standing relationship with the Soviet avant-garde and the Communist Party. After signing on to Surrealism they struggled to preserve this relationship by bridging the ideological divide separating Paris and Moscow because they believed that a united front was the Left’s only hope to defend culture against the rise of European fascism.

Nowhere was the Czechs’ genius for reconciling the contradictions separating East and West more evident as in their response to the advent of socialist realism in the wake of the First All Union Congress of Soviet Writers (Pervyj vsesojuznyj s”ezd sovetskix pisatelej) in 1934. Although Breton refused to make concessions when it came to Surrealism’s rule over aesthetics, the Czechs held a far more broadminded view. In this paper I will show how critic Karel Teige in his 1935 lecture “Socialist Realism and Surrealism” used Nikolaj Buxarin’s speech from the Moscow Congress, “On Poetry, Poetics and the Problems of Poetry in the USSR,” (O poèzii, poètike i zadačax poètičeskogo tvorčestva v SSSR) to prove that the seemingly inimical approaches to representation were actually fraternal twins descended from the same common ancestor – revolutionary romanticism. By arguing that Buxarin’s conception of socialist realism hinged on embracing dialectical diversity, Teige came close to achieving the union of contradictory ideologies that had eluded the intellectual avant-garde for so long. Unfortunately, history proved Teige’s unifying vision to be overly idealistic. By the end of the decade, Buxarin was dead, bitter political disputes had destroyed the Czech Surrealists’ collective and Europe was once again plunged into the chaos of world war.