Tag Archive for andre breton

Being Surreal(ist) a Century Later

A pleasing consensus so far about my novel Crazy Time is that it’s pretty darned surreal: one reviewer calls it “not just a horror novel, but a surreal world,” which makes my heart race a little. I was certainly going for effects I think of as surreal, but now that I’m accepting the surreal as part of my brand, I’m thinking more about what makes the surreal tick and how I feel about Surrealism in general. For help, I went back to a text I hadn’t read in more than 25 years, André Breton’s The First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924). The reread made me realize that, although I agree with many of Breton’s fundamental points, having explored a century of writing since his manifesto, I simply can’t agree with one thing: his concept of Surrealism! So, I’m going to do a few things. I’m going to say what I have in common with Breton. I’m going to say why I break with his Surrealism and propose a way of approaching the surreal informed by more recent thinking. To exit, I’ll make a few notes about how I attempt the surreal in my writing. I am not seeking a revisionary manifesto-level performance here; I just want to get some thoughts out.

So, to begin, Breton struck me with his wit and insight; we have a lot of snarky things in common, not merely a love for Matthew Lewis’s forever-iconoclastic Gothic novel The Monk (11). Here are two major points from his manifesto that I can’t deny:

  • “The realistic position… appears to me to be totally hostile to all intellectual and moral progress. It horrifies me, since it arises from mediocrity, hatred and dull conceit” (5). Don’t get me wrong. I love some (R/r)ealist art. However, an insistence on the realistic combined with the uppity assumption that the best works hold a mirror up to “nature”–whatever that means–is about as dull as that Hamlet reference.
  • “In the realm of literature, the marvellous alone is capable of making fertile those works which belong to a lesser genre such as the novel…” (11). Okay, now Mr. Breton’s being a little snooty about the novel, but he mostly means realistic novels, and in any case the good point here is what he says about the marvelous, meaning the fantastic, the supernatural, that which stretches the imagination rather than relying on regurgitation of the quotidian… this stuff is what makes for the richest lit, not the pretension to capturing “life as it really is”–whatever that means. The marvelous opens doors to new possibilities. An attempt to nail down life within imaginatively bereft boundaries denies more possibilities than it allows.

So, Breton looks to counter realism with the marvelous, acknowledges the Gothic already does that to an extent, and wants to go further. What he wants is more psychologically involved, more opposed to conventional thought. He complains, “We are still living under the rule of logic… in our day, logical procedures are only applicable in solving problems of secondary interest” (7). His primary interest is in what lies beyond the merely rational, which stretches the purview of the traditional Gothic (and of contemporary horror), and in that, he and I are allied.

To go beyond the rational, Breton turns to “the omnipotence of dream” to access “the superior reality of certain forms of neglected association” (19). He gives “thanks to Freud for his discoveries” (7). The Surrealist turn to dream associations as an alternative to rational associations is incredibly productive. The marvelous permeates dream. Moreover, dream and the dream-like involve connections among words, images, objects, concepts, and experiences that unseat rationality as the only possible way of constructing and understanding worlds. The ruling regime of the rational is tyrannical; dream is liberatory. “Liberatory” is as far as I’ll go, however. I can’t agree with Breton about any “superior reality,” and though I’ve read and enjoyed more of Freud’s work than is healthy for any individual, I can’t link Freud to anything like what Breton eventually calls “absolute truth” (28). My rejection of Freud comes not merely from his myopia with regard to human diversity, nor merely from his limited understanding of how dreams might actually operate. The main reason is simpler. The notion of truth, especially an absolute one, and the notion of a superior reality–notions prized by both Freud and Breton–are not notions I, having survived in the postmodern condition, find tenable. Surrealism’s dreamy alternative to rationality points to a plurality of thought models, a plurality of realities, not a higher, “omnipotent” truth. Breton refers to madness and madmen several times, perhaps inadvertently positing mental illness as a third thought model to go along with dream and rationality. In one of several definitions of the surreal, Breton claims, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, seemingly so contradictory, of dream and reality, in a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak” (10). In the absence of absolutes and confronted with pluralities, I must revise and extend Breton’s claim into one of my own about what constitutes surreality. I believe in the concurrence of these two states, seemingly so contradictory, of dream and reality, in dreams as realities among other realities that expose the fragile illusion of a single, rational “real.” That process of exposing illusion creates a surreality, so to speak.

I suppose I might seem hypocritical by making the surreal superior in its faculty for exposing rationality’s claim to monolithic truth as illusion. Yet I am not saying rationality is an illusion, inferior to dream or to that which would expose its claim to being the singular reality as false. Rationality, too, is a reality among other realities. The surreal is a leveler that destroys claims to singularity and the absolute with unexpected associations, of which dream associations are exemplary. The surreal unsettles by disrupting hierarchical relations, but otherwise, it doesn’t play hierarchical games.

Breton holds up automatic writing as a process likely to achieve surreal effects. It allows the writer to channel thought while staying ahead of rational calculation and self-reflection, and in that, I can’t argue with its validity as a leveler. I don’t have much interest in it, though. I find the concurrence of different thought methods–such as rationality, dream, and different manifestations of psychosis–far more productive, and frankly, I think calculated effects work out better (I believe calculation, perhaps combined with other types of association, lies behind the most effective early Surrealist art as well). Here are some ways I calculate for the surreal in Crazy Time and other writings:

  • Broken causality. Realistic narratives, and even most narratives that indulge in the marvelous, rely on chains of cause and effect to tell their stories in ways that make enough sense to keep readers comfortable (and paying). A causes B, which causes C, and so on, until the story reaches a logical and satisfying conclusion. To create the surreal, I break causal chains, withholding causes, supplying effects that have unclear or distorted connections to their apparent causes, etc., failing to provide sense and comfort. When rational, causal explanation is unnecessary, very strange things can happen. Writing seminars will tell you that you have to provide logical reasons for the things that happen in your stories and clear motivations for characters’ actions. I’m saying you don’t, but I’d add that causality shouldn’t be broken all the time. The broken stands out when it disrupts the unbroken.
  • Unresolved multiplicities. The flip side of broken causality, which is an absence of conventional narrative logic, is an abundance of causality, or multiple explanations for events and behaviors that coexist simultaneously, in tension with each other, while none has clear priority. This multiplicity is not the same as having multiple theories in suspension until a mystery is resolved. This multiplicity proves to be unresolvable, and it works best when at least some of the explanations in play are irrational, absurd, or all-out batshit crazy.
  • Uncontrolled resonance. Repetition always involves difference, and as elements in a story repeat and transform, we tend to like to infer causal connections that motivate the repetition and spur the transformation, but such inferences can be difficult or even impossible. I tend to repeat words, phrases, images, and events, sometimes with premeditation and sometimes without, so that all the instances of the recurring elements resonate (often eerily) with each other. The resonance can accumulate into a theme, but it’s surreal when it prompts a reaction along the lines of, “Why the hell is this showing up again here, now, in this context?!?”
  • Unreliable physics. So-called “nature” is supposed to follow laws. The core physics class I took in college was called “Space, Time, and Motion.” We talked a lot about smart people who formulated some of those natural laws, which we expect to function in a way that keeps the universe more or less rational and orderly. Ergo, breaking those laws–having space, time, and motion misbehave–can produce surreal effects. Perhaps I should have titled this bullet “unreliable science.” Unreliable biology can produce rather surreal effects as well, but that might fall mostly under…
  • Imagery, imagery, imagery. Breton devotes space in his manifesto to making fun of the tediously detailed imagery of realistic writers. I take his point, but I nevertheless think that, while much great writing aspires to the condition of music, surreal writing aspires to the condition of painting (or graphic arts). By the time they learn to read, most people have prejudices about how “real” things appear to their senses. Describing people, places, things, movements, sounds, smells, etc.–but especially visual images–that fall outside most people’s understanding of the real provides a challenge to complacent thought. It can also accomplish the surreal at its most twisted, majestic, beautiful and/or sublime.

“Surreal” is a word tossed about in a way that often simply means bizarre, unusual, or weird. Breton helped popularize “surreal” and “Surrealism” with much more specific ideas. Rereading him, I know I can’t call myself a true Surrealist in the 1920s meaning of the term, but if you will accept my modified understanding, I’d be happy to call myself a centennial Surrealist, still working to overthrow the tyranny of logic in 2022.

Salvador Dali’s The Face of War (1940)