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May 06, 2010

What is Surrealism? Traditional (?!) Characteristics.

I am currently preparing a talk on Welsh poetry and Surrealism for the Hay Jamboree and so I am going back to basics and asking myself the question, what is surrealism and what are its traditional (probably an inappropriate word!) characteristics? José Pierre explains in his essay, ‘To Be or Not To Be Surrealist’ that there is ‘nothing specifically French about Surrealism, save perhaps for the language, of course, which in poetry as well as theoretical texts was developed to an unrivalled point of incandescence’ (Pierre 1999: 34). Surrealism is often thought of as an avant-garde branch of poetry, but Pierre suggests that “Contrary to what is usually maintained, Surrealism is not an avant-garde movement’ (1999: 34). For the avant-garde, originality is the main priority, where as for the French Surrealists, the focus was on a particular ‘state of mind’ (Pierre 1999: 34). Thinking through how to define Surrealism in general, Pierre suggests that there has to ‘a “great rejection” of the unbearable constraints imposed on individuals by the common institutional context in which they live’ (1999: 35).

What is clear in trying to define Surrealism, is that for the French Surrealists and consequent surrealist writing, poetry is key. Pierre explains that in French Surrealism, ‘Poetry was the favored means of entering into communication with the profound movements of the universe’ (1999: 36). Surrealist poetry became ‘the key to creation in whatever medium, whether writing, painting, or sculpture’ (Pierre 1999: 37). This is unsurprising though when one considers the Surrealist interest in Freudian psychology, which ‘makes poetry indigenous to the very constitution of the mind’ so ‘the mind as Freud sees it, is in the greater part of its tendency exactly a poetry-making organ’ (Trilling 1950: 52).

In the chapter, ‘Definitions’, the critic Paul C. Ray considers the key ideas of French Surrealism, but is suspicious of easy definitions. Ray refers to the view of Jules Monnerot that it is better to build up a picture of Surrealism gradually by studying its key ideas, than to try to sum it up in a few lines. Ray lists these key ideas as follows:

1. Automatism
2. Objective Chance
3. The Surrealist Object
4. The Surrealist Image
5. The Occult
6. Humour

To these I would add another few key ideas or themes such as:

7. Dreamwork
8. The Primitive
9. Love

Over the next few days I am going to discuss these key ideas, drawing on Ray and other critics to define what Surrealism really is. The entries to follow are:

• Surrealism and Dreamwork (Entry 1 of 9)
• Surrealist Automatism (Entry 2 of 9)
• Surrealism and Objective Chance (Entry 3 of 9)
• The Surrealist Object (Entry 4 of 9)
• The Surrealist Image (Entry 5 of 9)
• Surrealism and the Occult (Entry 6 of 9)
• Surrealism and the Primitive (Entry 7 of 9)
• Surrealism and Humour (Entry 8 of 9)
• Surrealist Love (Entry 9 of 9)

General References

Pierre, José (1999) ‘To Be or Not To Be Surrealist’ in Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, ed. Edward Weisburger, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications.

Ray, Paul C. (1971) The Surrealist Movement in England, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Trilling, Robert (1950) The Liberal Imagination, New York: Viking.


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