Wednesday, May 13, 2015

S is for the Surrealist Manifesto

Hey, finally, something with "Manifesto" in its actual name!  You thought I forgot about those, didn't you?  :-)

The first Surrealist Manifesto was written in 1924 by André Breton, whom I profiled first and foremost in my 2013 April A-Z posts.  I've got a soft spot for Breton's romanticism and crazy creativity, even if he sometimes took it to extremes that I'd shun.

His 1924 manifesto begins with some thoughts about how life, for most adults, tends to make one kind of dazed and anesthetized.  Only children and the insane seem to be able to see through the thick fog.  Art should be an escape from the fog, but in Breton's time there was an ascendancy of ultra-realistic novels that plod on and on with piddly details...
And the descriptions! There is nothing to which their vacuity can be compared; they are nothing but so many superimposed images taken from some stock catalogue, which the author utilizes more and more whenever he chooses; he seizes the opportunity to slip me his postcards, he tries to make me agree with him about the clichés.
He takes a swipe at Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as an egregious example.  (I admit, I could never get through it.)

But then he goes into psychology and Freud... concentrating on the idea that DREAMS can sometimes tell us truer truths than the boring stock catalogue of normal waking consciousness.  That's what art can be like, he ponders.
We really live by our fantasies when we give free reign to them.
Then he's got to define his terms.  This search for a new reality above (sur-) the workaday world now has a name:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. [...] Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.
The remainder of the manifesto gets crazier and crazier... I won't quote more of it here, since you should go and experience it for yourself.  Suffice to say it gives you the tools you need to never be bored around boring people, to catch the eye of desired members of the opposite sex, and to properly usher in death when it's time.

What I do want to do is to list some of my own favorite surrealist tools, many of which have a heritage that goes back to Breton and his merry cohorts:

1.  Hypnagogic States:  When you're just at the threshold of falling asleep, do you sometimes hear voices?  If you catch it at just the right state (which, for me, is very rare, but I've experienced it) the voices can be crystal clear and just as audible as if someone was in the room.  The words are usually random and dreamlike, but sometimes insightful as hell.  I've used them in poetry.  I once heard a phrase that reminded me of a famous tomb inscription in Westminster Abbey, but with a more familiar subject: "O Rare Breton!"

2.  Semi-Automatic Writing:  This phrase without the "semi" has many possible definitions.  I'm thinking of the thing where you just sit down with a blank pad of paper and a pen, and set a stopwatch for 5 or 10 minutes.  Then just start writing out your stream of consciousness.  Write down absolutely everything that comes to mind, with no editing or censoring.  Go as fast as you can, and don't stop until the time is up.  Afterwards, you'll either want to burn the paper, or treasure it away for the rest of your life.

3.  Tzarization:  This is often called the Dada technique, pioneered by Tristan Tzara.  I'll let him define it:

"The poem will be like you."  Aren't they all?

4.  Juxtapomo:  The surrealists liked to make startling compositions that mashed up things that usually didn't belong together -- but still had enough in common to make you think -- like, say, a fish and an umbrella.  But is that really all that different from Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game, which I've blathered on about on this blog to no end?  :-)

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