From the “Soiree” series. Short essays incited by the Soiree de Poesie Francaise held monthly at the TeaSpot in Cranford, NJ with my careful co-host Carrie Pedersen Hudak.
Please cover your eyes for a moment. Feel your fingers over your eyelids, feel how more profoundly loud my voice has become….
What can one say about surrealism? It is a literary form innovated and defined by Andre Breton. You may already be familiar with the idea of nonsense randomly injected into poems, or the idea of retrieving errant bits of dreams for display, and possibly you have experimented with the discipline of automatic writing, where one writes uninterruptedly for a set period of time without any editorial, story, or lyrical intention. But what I would like to resurrect most in this short note about the contribution of Andre Breton is the overriding sense of *fun* that the surrealist enterprise was both driven by and tried to drive back into life.
For Breton, dreams were an opportunity to snare some of our original, unscripted, individual responses to actually being alive. With eyes shut, with the paws of Morpheus firmly over our daytime sight, dreams open another portion of ourselves to examination. As opposed to Freud (to whose pioneering work the surrealists owed much), who saw in dreams the resolution, re-enactment or re-engagement of a set palette of timeless dramas, traumas, and family situations, the surrealists saw subconscious life as an arena in which we were ourselves without the conscious mediation of society’s rules. We spend most of our lives learning to obey these rules in all their intricacy, forming our characters to exist within the set of behaviors our culture considers acceptable. In dreams, however, we are free to commit murders, rapes, enact heinous revenges and lusts, or dawdle on pink river banks plucking inexhaustible daisies sighing “Love me, love me not.” We can engage in the sort of endless lolly-gagging that neither society nor we ourselves would allow in our day-lit existences.
Surrealists–Breton foremost among them–sought ways to bring this liberated feeling of the dream realm into our daily and artistic lives. Automatic writing, dream journals, and other tactics were employed to get us closer to the sense of expansive liberation and terror of dreaming and farther away from our self-definitions and all-too-self-conscious self-definitions. And one of the key feelings that accompanies liberation is an expanded sense of *fun* and hilarity. “I’m doing this because I can, and not because I must. What fun!” Joy, games, the innocence of childlike guesswork and play are all key components in the surrealist enterprise.
And this is where surrealism most closely resembles its immediate artistic ancestor, Dada. The whole world had been mapped, and, with WWI, blown to pieces. Dada emerged from the energy of *rejection* of the status quo that had brought the Western world to the massacre of total war. But even in the midst of this overwhelming demolition, the self was still throwing out its imperative nonsense in millions of unbounded dreams each evening. Some twenty-five percent of the globe is living in a dream as we gather here. Who is to say that those dream heroes, dream agonies and joys are not more ultimate than our own repetitive waking obsessions? As smoke curls from a pipe, our dreams, thrown into the light, reveal the hidden currents of the atmosphere that surrounds us. It is the old tale of the fish not seeing the stream that sustains him. Surrealism has a more improvisational and eternal character than Dada. It is rooted in each individual’s original confrontation with Life. Whether that confrontation with life is ridiculous or daring none can say–it is itself, bound to no ritual past or completed self-conception. It exists in pure, ecstatic *discovery*. What new continents will unfurl in the explorer’s wake?
Being open to our unknown selves, to mystery as the essence of our existence and not some unsolved corner of the puzzle of what it is to be–is to live in creativity. Every rule is transformed from a necessity discovered by some dire trial-and-error experiment mired in accumulated history to the fun and temporary rules of a game–a game of peek-a-boo we play with the mystery of which we are composed. With surrealism, we swim constantly at the edges of our boundaries–hop-scotching happily among our myriad aspects.
I do think that Breton’s many manifestoes of surrealism should be seen in this light: as invitations to play *this* game with him, and not some other game. To enunciate such a plethora of principles and “rules” is its own sort of wry in-joke that challenges the prejudices and pre-conceptions of its own previous iteration. As the classic tune of the American West sung by the out-sized folklore character Pecos Bill playfully proclaims: “Don’t fence me in!”
[Gregg G. Brown]