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.

- 5 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. George Ttoouli

    What, no Surrealism and Representations of Women? I went to an interesting exhibition at Compton Verney with Simon and Rochelle, about hysteria and the female form. Very much a male-dominated movement, but one that seemed to put women on a pedestal, aestheticise, though very problematically. (Probably you’ve got this covered on most of your points!)

    Looking forward to this series, and hoping to see you at the Jamboree!


    10 May 2010, 23:09

  2. Yes, I guess it would be typical of me to write about Surrealism and “Representations of Women”! But don’t typecast me just yet!

    The exhibition sounds interesting. And yes, I think I might say something about women in the entry on Surrealist love. My impression is that the French Surrealists thought about love via the idea of objective chance – meeting with an unknown woman as a revelatory experience, redemptive even, possibly sublime. But there are some very sinister representations of women. From an exhibition of Dali’s illustrations in Brussels, I’ll always remember one particular image. At the bottom was a tiny boat peopled by tiny stick men and over it loomed a giant naked woman without a face. I found it quite disturbing – what it seemed to be saying about women.

    11 May 2010, 00:11

  3. Simon Turner

    Of course, what it says about Dali is just as revelatory: the man had what can be described charitably as a ‘problematic’ relationship with women. There is a tendency for women within Surrealism to be reduced to the status of muse, and the movement in its various forms has been rather male-dominated, but there are some notable exceptions: Leonora Carrington, who’s excellent (I’d recommend reading ‘The House of Fear’ and ‘The Seventh Horse’ if you can get hold of any copies), Dorothea Tanning, Dora Maar, Lee Miller, and Emmy Bridgwater (one of the Birmingham Surrealists). I’m sure there are other names, but none are coming to me right now.

    I’ve noticed that you’re using Michael Benedikt’s translations of Surrealist poems: have you read any of his own stuff? It’s actually really good, and he’s quite an interesting theorist on prose poetry and its relationship to un- or sub-conscious processes of composition. Well worth checking out.

    18 May 2010, 09:04

  4. Yes, you’re right, and I must read these women writers you mention a bit more thoroughly. And thanks for recommending Benedikt’s writing too. It sounds right up my alley.

    Women are definitely a problem for certain kinds of Surrealism. I felt a bit “conflicted” about posting Breton’s ‘Free Union’ on the blog here: It is a clever exercise of a poem, but some of the images are rather disturbing. The wife as a doll, the wife with a stabbed tongue etc.

    18 May 2010, 19:24

  5. Hey, I forgot that I found on the web a tiny version of the Dali picture I was talking about: I find it really quite creepy.

    26 May 2010, 22:48

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