What is Surrealism?

Today a friend asked me what surrealism is, which is something that I believe I have a better idea of then the average North American. I’m not completely certain that I gave him a proper definition though, so this blog post is to give my definition of what surrealism is.

The word “surreal” was first used by Apollinaire to describe a play he wrote called “Les Mamelles de Tiresias,”(French for “The Breasts of Tiresias”). The Wikipedia no longer explains what this play was about, but I don’t think the breasts were that  integral to the plot (or what passed for the plot), but it ended with a moral in favor of sex. I have read a bit of his poem “Zone,” which was a bit surreal itself, since it used the metaphor of Paris as a field of sheep or something like that. This all happened around 1917, and Appollinaire would shortly be biting the bullet in the trenches, so he won’t be coming into this.

We know go to the Dadaists. The Dadaists were a fun-loving bunch of anti-artists who generally were not fans of the factory of death that was WWI. Their argument went something like this.

  • Modern society is based on the achievements of the rational mind (i.e. railroads, industry and such).
  • Our society is slowly crumbling apart because of the onslaught of this pointless, stupid and machine death-factory of the Great War
  • THEREFOR, our rationalist society is the cause of this war. It is evil, or at least not very efficient, and thus we should mock the hell out of it. Let’s go shock the academy.

And thus the Dadaists were born, largely in Switzerland. Dadaism lead to all kinds of fun things to shock the old fogies, such as toilets claimed to be art, placing random words together to make poems and getting dressed up as a funny pope thing and intoning meaningless nonsense.

As fun as it must have been to be a Dadaist, they were not really an art movement meant to last. This leads us to a young French man named Andre Breton. Andre Breton is the guy if you want to know about Surrealism, largely because if there wasn’t an Andre Breton there wouldn’t be surrealism and Dali would have just been considered weird. Breton got his start in the Dadaists, but was also very inspired by his time as a doctor during WWI. He worked at a psychiatric hospital and hanged out with a lot of crazy people. Among these crazy people was a guy called Jacques Vache. Very little is written about him on Wikipedia, except that he was a bit of an anti-social jerk, Andre Breton was pretty taken with him, and he wore a monocle. O, and he apparently OD’d on opium in 1919. Vache was also a fan of another crazy guy called Alfred Jarry. Jarry wrote a bunch of plays about a guy called King Ubu that were apparently violent and banned shortly after the first performance. Jarry’s a big name in Surrealism, as like Appolinaire he is very direct precursor.

Anyways, back to Breton. Around 1924, he wrote a little document he liked to call The Surrealist Manifesto. To Breton, surrealism was…

Psychic automatism in it’s pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by 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.

…and this proved to be popular among various French artists. Andre Breton was able to get together a bunch of people to start what he called the Bureau of Surrealist Research, under the direction of a guy named Antonin Artaud, who was an interesting guy who I try reading but find a bit to angry. The Bureau’s main goal was to experiment with Surrealism so that it could exist outside the world of art; that they could basically make a working competitor to scientific rationalism. Artaud was a big guy in this, as he saw that Imagination was just as real as the rest of reality. He believed that what we consider real is merely part of a consensus and he for one was not for the consensus he had to live in; kind of like Mage: the Ascension. If they had LARPs back then, he would be an interesting person to run one. Actually, I think that the Surrealists in general would have loved the concept of LARPing and would have probably done some very fun and crazy ones.

So if I had to give a definition of surrealism, I would probably go for that definition, a rejection of rationalism that exists largely within the world of art, but is trying desperately to get out. No, surrealists are trying desperately for surrealism to replace rational thought. My own opinions on this are that I have sympathy for the surrealists, but I also am a bit cynical about the whole enterprise. While Imagination is beautiful and not wholly separate from reality, I do not think that the surrealist idea of ultimately replacing the rational with the surreal is feasible, or even ultimately desirable. This undesirability is due largely because I don’t know how normal humans would react if we all abandoned rational thought. Would we become more violent, or would we just all become fishmalks? Yes, it is possible that this could lead to a reversal where individual people become irrational, insane beings and countries are all rational entities that don’t waste money on war and stuff like that, but that could just because the government is busy investing money in clown cars for immigrants or breeding winged giraffes or something. Also, everyone would be too busy slapping each other with fish because they’re all crazy fishmalks to slap other nations with fish.

Still, Surrealism does exist in the world of the imagination and that has got to count for something. While we have yet to make a full summoning of surrealism into our plane of existence to overthrow the tyranny of the machine-gods of Rationalism we can still imagine worlds of sock islands and purple otters and whiskey trees, or stuff we’d rather imagine because who the hell wants a whiskey tree besides alcoholics and bootleggers?

Anyways, that’s my definition of Surrealism. Hope you enjoy.

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