Sunday, April 05, 2009

Unintentional Surrealism

I find I don't need to go looking for surreal moments in life, or play any of the Surrealist Games, in order to have such moments. They occur naturally. All you have to do is pay attention: life is constantly throwing absurd jokes your way, odd little anachronisms and inappropriate juxtapositions.

What Surrealism was always intended to do, although it eventually became an artistic movement that was just another -ism, was to activate the unconscious. Surrealism as an -ism became far too self-conscious, in the way teenagers are self-conscious about their appearance and their sexuality, and eventually fell apart because the last thing that was going on, was anyone's unconscious becoming activated. It became a form of ideology that dictated what could and could not be a valid Surrealist Artwork: dictation, rather than revelation. Although Surrealism began in revelation, by exploring methods of unlocking the power of dreams, automatic writing, and other ways of bringing forth the contents of the unconscious self—in ways that the conscious, controlling mind cannot dictate—eventually it became a movement of artists rather than of discovering art. Surrealism was partly triggered by Freud's work in discovering and identifying the unconscious aspects of self—the phrase "subconscious mind" is deceptive and misleading because we're not talking about "mind" here, but other aspects of self that literally undermine the conscious mind. Nonetheless, many of the Surrealist Games were invented as ways to short-circuit the conscious mind, and release the power of the unexpected; and many of them worked, as such, while they remained fresh and uncategorizable. Many were designed to be able to limit the artist's will and control, so they contain elements of concealment and randomness that succeeded, for awhile, in shaking things up. The problem with Surrealism as an artistic movement is that, like any other -ism, it's tropes and patterns can be appropriated and diluted by those followers and borrowers whose aims are often shallow and commercial. A lot of advertising uses easy surrealism to raise an eyebrow or make a joke, which some art critics now call "soft surrealism."

But the aspect of the river of power that runs under our selves, that is the power of life, that buoys us up, upon which we float, the aspect of that river which is one of the substrates of Surrealism is available anytime, anywhere, if you just look for it. It can be very sly, very funny. It helps to have a sense of humor that does not shy away from the absurd. It can be deadpan dry in its delivery, which is in truth a mask behind which churns edgy and amoral chaos. This river of unnamed power is what Conrad Aiken was referring to when he wrote about his fellow poet, Federico Garcia Lorca: To call him a surrealist is a mistake, for to be a surrealist is to be something else than a poet, something less than a poet: surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made. Surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made. Aiken knew his Freud, and that knowledge appears in both his criticism and his poetry. But he also knew that there was something even deeper than those aspects of the self that Freud described; Aiken did not name those deeper aspects, although Freud's breakaway heir and disciple Carl Jung did. Jung took Freud's ideas deeper, and more astutely, in the shadows of the self; what he brought back was alchemical gold.

But when you go spelunking in the dark, wet caves of the self, what you bring back is often oddly distorted, a little off-kilter, a little fantastic and mysterious. The power it contains, that demands our attention, is numinous by definition. And it can be humorous, odd, strange, somehow perfectly wrong yet also just right: surreal.

i believe the best puns are accidentally discovered, not planned out. I think those moments of encounter, out there in daily life, that are most surreal, most resonant, most weird, are also stumbled over, discovered, revealed to us. Going looking for something weird tends to become mannerist: it holds no power to activate the unconscious because it's well thought out. Dali's paintings can powerfully change the way you see the world; but his verbal expectations can block that activation, by being distractions rather than enhancements.

So I prefer unintentional surreal moments to intentional ones. I spend a lot of time looking sideways at life, because that's one good way to encounter the unintentionally surreal, the slightly absurd and silly yet also profoundly meaningful: by looking at life from a slight angle. E.M. Forster described the poet Constantine Cavafy as "standing at a slight angle to the universe." That's it exactly.

Poetic language is much better than technical psychological language to describe these moments of encounter, usually. The exception are those psychologists who are willing to write poetically in their texts; or who understand the necessity of oblique approaches to mythopoetic and archetypal materials.

Walk out into the world and expect to be poetically surprised, and thou shalt be. Close your mind to the possibility and of course it won't arise. Notice and observe, and let those archetypes bubble up around you, and soon you'll begin to see little else. The random universe suddenly takes on profound meanings. You become required to abandon the word "coincidence" entirely: because everything seems charged with meaning, and eager to speak to you. Everything wants your attention, and usually it's to tell you something of profound importance, which is simultaneously all a big joke. The paradox is where meaning hovers: not in resolution and certainty, but in that dynamic balancing act on the cusp of collapse.

Look closely: Something's trying to tell you somebody.

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Blogger Dave King said...

Actually life becomes more and more surreal with each day, I find. Your observations are true and timely. The images are, where not surreal in themselves, possessed of an almost mythic quality (Still haven't got the thin king for my post out of my head!)though I think that may have all to do with the vision of the photographer.

6:14 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Dave, that's exactly what I was trying to get at: that daily increase of surreality.

Surreal vs. mythic: Hmn, I think you're most likely right about that. I hope I haven't created confusion between those; rather, I've tried to show, I hope, that they arise from that same substrate, so they often have the same or similar "feels" to them.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Michael Mata said...

I like the last picture- it really does appear to be a skull. Uncanny and coincidental.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Michael. It's strange, isn't it, what one sees?

11:21 PM  

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