On Surrealism Today
Eighty nine years after it entered public discourse, Surrealism remains imperfectly understood, or in some cases deliberately misunderstood. A surprising number of contemporary poets have recourse to invoke Surrealism when discussing certain of their poems, but one is moved to ask, “Is it really Surrealism?”
The dictionary definition: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.
From an encyclopedia: Surrealism. 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.
The first Surrealist Manifesto was written by Andre Breton in 1924 and published the following year. The manifesto describes Surrealism as:
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.
As one can see, our dictionary entry author has gone to the source for her definition so we may assume its accuracy. The Surrealist Manifesto includes numerous examples of the applications of Surrealism to poetry and literature, but makes it clear that the tenets of Surrealism can be applied in any circumstance of life, and is not restricted to the artistic realm. The great Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel said, “For me Surrealism was not an aesthetic, just another avant-garde movement; it was something to which I committed myself in a moral and spiritual way. You can't imagine the loyalty Surrealism demanded in all aspects of life.” How many of our contemporary poets who dabble in Surrealism can say the same?
Above all, dreams are privileged sources of inspiration. Andre Breton discusses his initial encounter with the surreal in his famous description of a hypnogogic state that he experienced in which a strange phrase inexplicably appeared in his mind: “There is a man cut in two by the curtain.” This phrase echoes Breton's apprehension of Surrealism as the juxtaposition of two distinct realities brought together to create a new, marvelous union.
Surrealism also has an important political dimension. As a political force it developed unevenly around the world, and in some places more emphasis was on artistic practices, in other places the political was dominant, and in other places Surrealist praxis looked to combine both the arts and politics. During the 1930s the Surrealist idea spread from Europe to the Americas, the Caribbean, and throughout Asia, both as an artistic idea and as an ideology of political change. Politically Surrealism is ultra-leftist, communist, or anarchist. Whether individual Surrealists are communists or anarchists, both draw on Marx’s theory of alienation. According to Marx, the dynamism of the people's revolution into socialism rises from the interaction of two psychological attitudes: (a) the spiritual alienation of the proletariat, because of extreme division of labor and capitalist productive relations, from humanity’s original concern with production and from natural social cooperation; (b) the brute reaction to intolerable deprivation brought on by the falling rate of profit and the capitalist crises. To expand these points somewhat:
a)To Marx the specific properties of humanity are the ability to produce things and to give mutual aid in production. But the sub-division of labor and the capitalist use of machine technology de-humanize production: a person makes only a part of a commodity sold on a distant market, and performing an automatic operation she employs only a modicum of her powers. Further, the conditions of bourgeois competition and wage-slavery isolate people from each other and destroy mutuality, family-life, comradeship. There is therefore nothing in the capitalist institutions to engage the deep interest or keep the loyalty of the proletariat. They are made into fractional people and these fractions of beings are indifferent to the bourgeois mores and society.
b)On the other hand they are not indifferent to starvation, disease, sexual deprivation, infant mortality, and death in war; but these are the results of the wage-cuts, imperialism, unemployment, and fluctuation inherent in the bourgeois need to counteract the falling rate of profit and to reinvest. At the level of resentment and frustration and animal reaction to pain, there is concern for a violent change, there is latent rebellion.
From these attitudes, the revolutionary idea emerges somewhat as follows: driven by need to consult their safety, and with understanding given by teachers who explain the causes of their hurt, and with their original human aspirations recalled from forgetfulness and already fulfilled somewhat by comradely unity, the proletariat turns toward a new order, new foundations, a socialism immeasurably improved yet in its main features not unlike original human nature. By contrast to this idea, the life of the bourgeoisie itself seems worthless. And being increased in numbers and with their hands on the productive machinery of all society, the proletarians know that they can make the idea a reality.
Whatever one may think of the validity of Marx’s formula (I find it to be true at least in part) the Surrealists saw their praxis as addressing the alienation characteristic of modern life under capitalism. Further, the revolutionary Surrealists went so far as to claim that capitalism is inherently hostile to poetry, and that Surrealism demonstrated that authentic poetry is inherently hostile to capitalism. As the American Surrealist Philip Lamantia put it, “It is poetry, more than anything else—the supreme disalienation of humanity with its language—that prepares the climate of expectation and readiness for the actualization of the Marvelous without which revolutionary change is unthinkable.” Quite likely our occasional Surrealists are unaware (or choose not to be aware) of the political implications of Surrealism.
Today, the true inheritors of the Surrealist tradition are the Chicago Surrealists whose work can be found in their irregularly published journal Arsenal, and I can do no better than quote them to conclude this brief examination of Surrealism: "Surrealism is not some lost, esoteric body of thought longing for academic recognition. It is a living practice and will continue to live as long as we dream… Surrealism considers love and poetry and the imagination powerful social and revolutionary forces, not replacements for organized protest… Surrealism recognizes that any revolution must begin with thought, with how we imagine a New World, with how we reconstruct our social and individual relationships, with unleashing our desire and building a new future on the basis of love and creativity."