Why Surrealism is What We Need, Esp. in Novel Forms

Allegory and surreality are linked by symbols

I think what is called allegorical painting in one era is surrealism in the next.

Compare Jacopo Ligozzi’s “Fortune” to Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Song of Love” or maybe René Magritte’s “Homesickness” or “Personal Values.”

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Jacopo Ligozzi, Fortune

What we see are a lot of objects placed together.

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Rene Magritte, Personal Values

These objects are re-discovered after being put in a context we’re not used to seeing them in (“Someone, get this man a copy-editor!”). Thanks to Andre Breton for helping me define surrealism. As soon as we see one of these paintings, we know what we’re looking at: the world behind the painting and the world inside ourselves.

For Christians who just-can’t-handle-that, it’s basically the same evocation as fairy stories, according to the claims of J.R.R. Tolkien. The progression of Fantasy-Escape-Recovery-Consolation is a similar progression as the surrealist progression. The difference is that the fantasy is generated, not by new forms, but by old forms put together to form new ones. I guess he kind of claims that about adjectives and the power of language to reinvent (in his essay, On Fairy-Stories). We know grass is green, but we can do fantasy simply by calling the grass red. And we can imagine it, because the language has imagined it for us.

Similarly, there is a sort of fantasy when we see a huge apple wearing a bowler hat falling from the sky, or whatever. The difference, I think, is that surrealism or maybe the surreal is the re-use of the familiar instead of the familiar-turned-strange. The outcome is the same, nevertheless. When we see something we have seen before, transmogrified before our eyes, we know that we are really seeing something true about our world that we have not seen before, or have so far failed to see. That is where the consolation comes in.
As for the mid-portions of Tolkien’s claims—escape and recovery—all I can say is that there is a sort of terror or disturbing quality about surrealist art. Or symbolism.

Bad example/don’t have time: “That skeleton looks alive! Oh no! Oh, wait, it’s okay. He’s just a symbol. Whew. But crap, it’s me. Omgsh, I’m going to die.”

The avant-garde is pretty typical

The connecting bridge for both allegory and surreality is the use of symbols to refer to the unseen. If you don’t know what the signifiers refer to, it just appears absurd to you. Powerful SECRET KNOWLEDGE.

We met a guy named I Forget, but he claimed to be really famous. He had a big white beard and smelled of cheese and he said he is the “Van Gogh of the modern age.” He said “only Siena would accept my art, because America never could.”

Fool! America accepts this giant tissue box! You can make money anywhere, doing anything! I’m sure you’re a nice man, but you have lived in America longer than I have and you’re so willing to judge it wholesale like that? Maybe it’s because you’re not good at the whole-knowing-what-unseen-realities-to-show-people biz.
But alas, America is too big and too free and too strange and too metamorphosing for your trash not to find some market.

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untitled—and I don’t want to know who made it.

And we looked you up afterwards. On google! You’re not famous. The Avant-garde movement you claim to have been a part of in the 60s is dead, my friend. Because it mostly sucked, so get over it.

The inheritors of this symbolic tradition are people like him, unfortunately. I for one prefer performance art (in general) over conceptual/installation artwork. Installation artwork almost always fails. Maybe I need more exposure to better examples of it, but anyway.

DIVERSION ALERT: Performance art, on the other hand, can at least be extremely stimulating (Trisha Brown’s “Walking on the Wall” which reminds me of the kind of theatrics done at Peter Gabriel concerts. Give me theatrics any day and I’ll be happy!). Like Laurie Anderson telling a story with big lit-up goggles. I could honestly listen to her tell a story any day. Not sure how that fits into the symbolic tradition, but to most people’s far-off view, it’s at least part of what layman call “the avant-garde.”

But if the “avant-garde” are the movers and inventors of new, previously unaccepted forms, then any good novel writer is “avant-garde.” I like to think of novels as being long, protracted essays. If an essay is the attempt at attaining something, which it is, through reason and contemplation, the novel SHOULD be (should be) the attempt to attain some previously unattained thing. Whether it be some new world, atmosphere, or form. But in either case, what is being sought after is previously unseen and the only way to see it is to bring into existence this new form.

Many of the structural novels that came out around the same time that garbage like that old guy likes are also garbage. And very sad.

Literature needs love

Why are they sad?

Because they have not love. That’s my takeaway. There has to be a deep, abiding love and earnest desire to reach out more, to push farther, to know better.

In literature, this happens by exploring the power and force of language and the acknowledgment that characters are merely the composite symbols and vessels for what we have seen or wish to see. Maybe this all sounds like trash talk to you. But I don’t think it is.

What I am trying to get at is that most of these novels-worth-hating (let’s name some names: William Gaddis, Guy Davenport. Okay, we named some. Or freaking J. M. Coetzee, ugh) are built off the belief that we cannot know, we cannot know more, we cannot love more, we cannot reach out, because language is a barrier. Language to them is preventative (I know very little about this, but in the back of my mind are discussions of Symbolic Logic and Ludwig Wittgenstein: thanks guys (Isn’t like ANY literature person worth their salt going to also hate symbolic logic? Answer: yes)). So instead of loving language and words, they abuse their powers, they chastise their tools, and they call what is natural (the ability to understand the basic sense of words) unnatural and blase.

And instead of revealing to us more about the unseen world and the material world that sustains it and presents it to us before our eyes (the world we must get to know once more by means of the prophets of surrealism or the prophets of fairy stories or whatever the garbage you want to call those who actually believe in the depths), those who fundamentally believe we cannot know also fundamentally believe we cannot show. They believe we cannot love characters, that it isn’t real, that we cannot spread the same ideas from mind to mind through the sublime encounter of words fitly spoken, that we cannot invent new forms for the unpossessed territory within our hearts, the hearts that are hardly big enough to hold the entire world that presses on us, like a hand pressed to a bleeding nose, the world that presses on us like the moon swollen with dust, like the warm side of a lover under the sheets, like other crap and more ridiculous similes that I won’t share. Make your own.

There is an unseen world. And this is no direct evidence, but why do we feel so desperately to reach out and touch it? What is the sublime encounter? Why do we constantly invent symbols to remind us of them, in painting and in literature?
And why does this damn tissue box not make us feel sublimely?
Because it’s not based off constructing something worth loving, it’s deconstructing what we have a lot of difficulty loving, but should. We don’t love enough, or care enough. So why is this art telling us to care less?
[Insert Pink Floyd quotation here]
Maybe the sublime does not present us with anything unseen. But it is the most damnedest satisfying boon for any soul. And I, along with anyone else that cares, is going to try to bring into the world new forms to possess the worlds we feel pressing on us desperately for attention, like a pack of screaming children. We are meant to love what this world shows us.
We are meant to be heartbroken when the world is broken, because our hearts are meant to hold the world, not hate it. And we, with our frail tools of language and love and symbols, are trying to hold the world.

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Hieronymous Bosch, The Vision of Tondal

 

One thought on “Why Surrealism is What We Need, Esp. in Novel Forms

  1. Interesting on the similarities between allegory and surrealism, how they both point beyond percept to a hidden inner drama. I think the difference is that works we normally associate with allegory put more emphasis on surface realism, building circumstantial detail to give a realistic environment in which the drama plays out. The works we normally associate with surrealism deliberately break that perspective by creating dissonance between the circumstantial details. I do think you’re right about the “same end result” similarities. Just trying to keep it interesting 🙂

    Like

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