Two Realities – the Promise of Surrealism in the Modern World

August 12, 2014

I’ve always been attracted to Surrealism. There is just something so delightfully odd, so weirdly compelling about surrealist imagery.

In fact there are several ‘Surrealisms.” The one best known to the most people is the Surrealism of the Surrealist painters, such as Dali, Ernst, DeCherico, (briefly) Picasso, Magritte, and many others. However, the so-called ‘philosophical’ Surrealism is found in the writings of, primarily, Andre Breton.

So I decided to go back and re-read Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto with fresh eyes. It’s been years… decades. Personally, I have not found Breton to be particularly lucid regarding the visual art aspects of Surrealism. Probably because he’s not interested in that. He’s a total intellectual, in the French tradition. Breton seems almost incapable of writing a simple declarative sentence. His musings start with one thought, and after a number of personal and professional digressions, not to mention frequent mock-phony humility, end somewhere else. It’s tough sledding, a lot of it.

Still, I think the basic idea of Surrealism – the premise of dual realities (the rational and the surreal) – is a valuable one for art, especially the making of art. To me, Surrealism is the only art movement to deal with the psychology of the artistic process. Think of minimalism, or ab-ex, or impressionism – they dealt with the superficiality of how you perceive, not the creation (notice I don’t say ‘creative’) process.

The Surrealist duality takes inspiration from Freud’s revelations about the mind, which were at the time both revolutionary and current. For Breton, unification of these paired linkages of conscious and the unconscious, as well as the rational and the fantastical is the cornerstone of the Surrealist process.

Breton himself later summed it up in this way: A certain immediate ambiguity contained in the word surrealism is, in fact, capable of leading one to suppose that it designates I know not what transcendental attitude, while, on the contrary it expresses a desire to deepen the foundations of the real, to bring about an even clearer and at the same time ever more passionate consciousness of the world perceived by the senses. At the limits, we have attempted to present interior reality and exterior reality as two elements in process of unification, or finally becoming one. This final unification is the supreme aim of surrealism: interior reality and exterior reality being, in the present form of society, in contradiction.

In 1924 Breton issued what he termed The Surrealist Manifesto, a lengthy tract wandering all over the place as it attempted to wrap the movement around a degree of philosophical coherence. Whether it succeeded in that, who knows, but the Manifesto contains numerous passages that I think apply, however obliquely, to painting in the Surrealist tradition. I have excerpted these from the mass of text in order to streamline the thought process. Here’s my ‘best-of’ bits from the Surrealist Manifesto.

From Le Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1924


Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality. It is not the fear of madness which will oblige us to leave the flag of imagination. Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable. Perhaps the imagination is on the verge of recovering its rights. If the depths of our minds conceal strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface, it is in our greatest interest to capture them.

We are still living under the reign of logic: this, of course, is what I have been driving at. But in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience. Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices. It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer -- and, in my opinion by far the most important part -- has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud.

I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams. What reason, I ask, a reason so much vaster than the other, makes dreams seem so natural and allows me to welcome unreservedly a welter of episodes so strange that they could confound me now as I write? And yet I can believe my eyes, my ears; this great day has arrived, this beast has spoken.

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.

At this juncture, my intention was merely to mark a point by noting the hate of the marvelous which rages in certain men, this absurdity beneath which they try to bury it. Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.

At an early age children are weaned on the marvelous, and later on they fail to retain a sufficient virginity of mind to thoroughly enjoy fairy tales. No matter how charming they may be, a grown man would think he were reverting to childhood by nourishing himself on fairy tales, and I am the first to admit that all such tales are not suitable for him. The fabric of adorable improbabilities must be made a trifle more subtle the older we grow, and we are still at the age of waiting for this kind of spider.... Fear, the attraction of the unusual, chance, the taste for things extravagant are all devices which we can always call upon without fear of deception. There are fairy tales to be written for adults, fairy tales still almost blue.

The marvelous is not the same in every period of history: it partakes in some obscure way of a sort of general revelation only the fragments of which come down to us: they are the romantic ruins, the modern mannequin, or any other symbol capable of affecting the human sensibility for a period of time.

We really live by our fantasies when we give free reign to them.

It was a question of going back to the sources of poetic imagination and, what is more, of remaining there. Not that I pretend to have done so. It requires a great deal of fortitude to try to set up one's abode in these distant regions where everything seems at first to be so awkward and difficult, all the more so if one wants to try to take someone there. Besides, one is never sure of really being there. Be that as it may, the fact is that the way to these regions is clearly marked, and that to attain the true goal is now merely a matter of the travelers' ability to endure.

In those days, a man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing: The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be -- the greater its emotional power and poetic reality...* (Nord-Sud, March 1918)

What strikes you about them above all is their extreme degree of immediate absurdity, the quality of this absurdity, upon closer scrutiny, being to give way to everything admissible, everything legitimate in the world: the disclosure of a certain number of properties and of facts no less objective, in the final analysis, than the others.

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. But we, who have made no effort whatsoever to filter, who in our works have made ourselves into simple receptacles of so many echoes, modest recording instruments who are not mesmerized by the drawings we are making, perhaps we serve an even nobler cause. Thus do we render with integrity the "talent" which has been lent to us.

It is true of Surrealist images as it is of opium images that man does not evoke them; rather they "come to him spontaneously, despotically. He cannot chase them away; for the will is powerless now and no longer controls the faculties."* (Baudelaire.) It remains to be seen whether images have ever been "evoked." If one accepts, as I do, Reverdy's definition it does not seem possible to bring together, voluntarily, what he calls "two distant realities." The juxtaposition is made or not made, and that is the long and the short of it.

It is erroneous to claim that "the mind has grasped the relationship" of two realities in the presence of each other. First of all, it has seized nothing consciously. It is, as it were, from the fortuitous juxtaposition of the two terms that a particular light has sprung, the light of the image, to which we are infinitely sensitive. The value of the image depends upon the beauty of the spark obtained; it is, consequently, a function of the difference of potential between the two conductors.

It is not within man's power to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas militates against it. We are therefore obliged to admit that the two terms of the image are not deduced one from the other by the mind for the specific purpose of producing the spark, that they are the simultaneous products of the activity I call Surrealist, reason's role being limited to taking note of, and appreciating, the luminous phenomenon.

The Surrealist atmosphere created by automatic writing is especially conducive to the production of the most beautiful images. One can even go so far as to say that in this dizzying race the images appear like the only guideposts of the mind. By slow degrees the mind becomes convinced of the supreme reality of these images. At first limiting itself to submitting to them, it soon realizes that they flatter its reason, and increase its knowledge accordingly. The mind becomes aware of the limitless expanses wherein its desires are made manifest, where the pros and cons are constantly consumed, where its obscurity does not betray it. It goes forward, borne by these images which enrapture it, which scarcely leave it any time to blow upon the fire in its fingers. This is the most beautiful night of all, the lightning-filled night: day, compared to it, is night.

For me, their greatest virtue is the one that is arbitrary to the highest degree, the one that takes the longest time to translate into practical language, either because it contains an immense amount of seeming contradiction or because it derives from itself a ridiculous formal justification, or because it is of a hallucinatory kind, or because it very naturally gives to the abstract the mask of the concrete, or the opposite, or because it implies the negation of some elementary physical property, or because it provokes laughter.

The mind which plunges into Surrealism relives with glowing excitement the best part of its childhood. From childhood memories, and from a few others, there emanates a sentiment of being un-integrated, and then later of having gone astray, which I hold to be the most fertile that exists. It is perhaps childhood that comes closest to one's "real life"; childhood beyond which man has at his disposal, aside from his laissez-passer, only a few complimentary tickets; childhood where everything nevertheless conspires to bring about the effective, risk-free possession of oneself. Thanks to Surrealism, it seems that opportunity knocks a second time. With a shudder, we cross what the occultists calldangerous territory. In my wake I raise up monsters that are lying in wait; they are not yet too ill-disposed toward me, and I am not lost, since I fear them.

Unflagging fidelity to the commitments of Surrealism presupposes a disinterestedness, a contempt for risk, a refusal to compromise, of which very few men prove, in the long run, to be capable.

Andre Breton, 1924

Just the next day, after posting this, I ran into a short essay by the author, William Gibson, writing an introduction to Rudy Rucker’s Tetrology volume. He had this to say about surrealism after being given a book about it (edited slightly).

“The capital-s Surrealism was splendid stuff, but I now recognized a similar but lower-case impulse in virtually everything that had ever attracted me in the popular arts. And I saw it, of course, in the prose science fiction I had grown up with: a folk surrealism, a street surrealism, entirely free of Breton’s faux-papal excommunications and other tedious hi-jinx. It was, I saw, the equivalent of the ethanol molecules in an alcoholic beverage. Later, I took it instantly for granted that in Rudy Rucker I found an exemplar of that very thing, a natural-born American street surrealist, bordering at times on a practitioner of Art Brute [sic]."

Natural-born American street surrealist. Isn't that an awesome description?