In these trying times, looking to art and history gives me a temporary feeling of solace. It not only lets me search the ideas of the past that have enabled humanity to survive this long, but it also provides me a kind of shelter in this storm the way that fiction always has. At this point, I turn to Surrealism, the idea of our unconscious states taking over — the dreamlike hallucinations and encounters produced in art that offers a distraction and even meaning in our current quarantined state.
About a century ago, a cultural movement was starting to take place. The world had gone through a global war, and logic and reason somehow gave way to the death and destruction of mankind. The Dadaist movement, which rejected capitalist ideals, expressed art in the form of irrationality and nonsense as a reaction to the problems that logic and reason gave rise to. In effect, another movement was created towards the end of the Dadaist reign in art.
Using psychoanalytic techniques from Sigmund Freud, a man named André Breton would aide soldiers suffering from shell-shock in World War I. His involvement in the Dadaist movement would later influence the movement known as Surrealism: he would start the literary journal Littérature with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault in 1919; in 1920, he would publish The Magnetic Fields, of which the technique of Automatism was first used to unlock the unconscious mind by using free association or stream of consciousness writing; in 1924, with Yvan Goll, he would publish the Surrealist Manifesto, the book in which he officially started and defined 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, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
In other words, whether through writing, painting, collage, or film, Surrealism is expressed through the depths of our unconscious. Freud’s psychoanalysis was a prominent influence on the Surrealists, and it seemed that trying to unlock our repressed ideas and dreams would only give way to beauty and liberation.
It’s astonishing to look at the works that these past artists have produced. The Elephant Celebes by Max Ernst, in particular, strikes me as something so unorderly, yet captivating. The backside of a deformed elephant is seen with what looks like a bull’s head attached to its tail. It seems somewhat mechanical, yet alive. Eyes peak out of randomly shaped tiles on top of its massive storage-like body, as more contorted figures on the right — a naked headless body, and a totem-like shape with a suggestive red cone protruding out of its body — bask in the glory of the beast. Meanwhile, fish can be seen flying in the sky above.
Without having to go beyond it’s deeper meaning by just looking at the artwork, there’s a sense of awe and horror I feel, as this war-like creature imposes itself within the borders of the picture. Its proportions take up most of the canvas while its two sets of eyes somehow feel like they’re spying on you despite the prominence of its body. Beholden to its heft and its irregularity, I wonder, would this piece have evoked something in me if a pandemic hadn’t been going on?
In the novel Kafka on the Shore, a more contemporary piece of fiction with surrealistic elements unfolds. Author Haruki Murakami explores the unconscious by elucidating humans’ wants and desires. With prophecies, talking cats, raining fish and leeches, and goofy characters called Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders set in Japan, the novel tests your assumptions of what is real and what isn’t.
We can only wonder what everything means and ponder about what life brings us. In the case of Surrealism, what goes beyond our imagination isn’t too far out of our reach. In the novel, when Hoshino meets Colonel Sanders dressed as — yes, the actual Colonel Sanders — all Hoshino can do is ask questions, and be the vessel that moves the story forward without really knowing the answers. Deep into the questioning, Colonel Sanders only tells Hoshino, “I’m a metaphysical, conceptual object” to Hoshino’s doubtful amusement.
Surrealism, in a way, lets us know that we’re not going out of our minds. It tells us that the outpouring of these suppressed and irrational thoughts are a necessity. There’s an endless well of imagination bottled up inside our consciousness, and so making sense of something strange or unusual as much as we can without actually knowing what it means is something we have to accept and find our meaning within ourselves.
Kafka and Oshima’s conversation about music offers Kafka some insight into art’s way of making sense of reality:
“She captured words in a dream, like delicately catching hold of a butterfly’s wings as it flutters around. Artists are those who can evade the verbose.”
“So you’re saying Miss Saeki maybe found those words in some other space — like in dreams?”
“Most great poetry is like that. If the words can’t create a prophetic tunnel connecting them to the reader, then the whole thing no longer functions as a poem.”
However odd the present situation seems now, there are fantasies beyond this reality that can be reached if we just paid attention and attempted to seek it. I’m not suggesting an escapist point of view. Surrealism only lets us know that what we’re going through is collective.
One of Surrealism’s goals upon the movement’s manifestation was to get everybody to make art, not just to passively consume its works. Its egalitarian approach has only served to inspire other creators to make something for themselves and other people. Breton even suggested that surrealists have no talent because they needed no filter. From that argument comes the conclusion that anyone can be a surrealist. Whether it’s through consuming the works or making your art in painting, novels, or films, a deep dive into our unconscious will allow us to capture something magnificent and unimaginable.