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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

A Note on Surrealism

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 05/01/05 at 10:00 PM

This will be the first of a series of brief comments and queries I would like to make on the subject of surrealism. By way of introduction to the whole shebang, I would like to reference two comments by important (for me) critics, Allen Grossman and Guy Davenport.

In 2000, Grossman gave an interview to the Harvard Advocate, which for some reason is no longer available online or even in Google’s cache, as far as I can tell. Grossman is a great interview: he has a thought (at least) on just about everything, & even in conversation he’s aphoristic. What I will quote tonight is not one of the zingers from the interview, but it gave me pause. In the course of a geographic survey of High Modernism, which he sees as a monumental “self-revision…practiced almost in unison across the whole spectrum of European writing,” he credits France with “this enormous, and still conceptually unassessed innovation of surrealism, which incorporates the high cultural insights that Freud, for example, offered.” Two things spark my interest here: (1) the possibility that surrealism has yet to be accounted for, and (2) the idea that surrealism in a sense precedes Freud, if not chronologically, then logically (if that’s the right word). This would seem to forestall any psychoanalytic reduction of the surrealistic project. & though I think psychoanalysis is a hoot, I wish it wouldn’t go around reducing things.

This idea that surrealism is larger than any heretofore offered account of it corresponds with some thoughts on surrealism I came across in Davenport’s “Civilization and Its Opposite in the 1940s,” from The Hunger Gracchus:

Surrealism defies definition but is always recognizable, whether as a canvas by Giorgio de Chirico or a play by Eugene Ionesco. Since its tactics are to disclose the illogical and the absurd through imaginative juxtaposition, it is technically a satiric art. Yet it differs widely from satire in that it is essentially poetic. Surrealism is the metaphysical poetry of satire.

Again, two ideas jump out at me: (1) if one were to simplify the surrealistic innovation as the adaptation of dream narrative techniques into other media, one might also have to qualify this sketch by noting that surrealism lyricizes narrative. One of Ray Davis’s many insights is how the gravitational pull of narrative always captures the lyrical comet. Surrealism may be one way the lyric (dare I say) subverts the narrative. Think of the servant mocking the master. (2) the categorization of surrealism under satire points to the possible larger thing Grossman is getting at. Surrealism is a satire, not of our sense of social propriety, but our sense of reality.


I think that the phenomenon is greater than the movement. In my never humble opinion, much of the best work of the surrealist kind was done by unaffiliated authors like Michaux, Max Jacob, or Reverdy, or predecessors like Rimbaud.

A lot of stuff was already happening when the Dadaists and Surrealists started making noise.

In these writers, and also in the music of Satie, I think that you get a sort of floating, wandering, or static effect, without the forward movement and impulse of earlier work. There’s also a move away from overt patriotism, sentiment, political messages, climactic moments, dramatic staging, etc. I think that Satie’s anti-Wagnerianism was one of the big turning points.

By John Emerson on 05/02/05 at 12:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I meant to say something like that. (W/comments, every post is a bleg. What do the Linux people call them? RFCs?)

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 05/02/05 at 12:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence, no one is leaving comments to this perfectly fine post. I don’t know why. Let me just say: I like “surrealism is the metaphysical poetry of satire.” I’m going to do something with that.

By John Holbo on 05/05/05 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is interesting to me, as a writer. On one level, I see surrealism as the play of meaning, the fact that our minds produce sense. This connects Surrealist paintings to confounding optical illusions, such as the Necker Cube, etc. There is also the vexed question that perhaps humans are incapable of producing anything without meaning, so the “empty canvas” that people project on to is a fallacy. similar accusations were levelled at the Ern Malley hoaxers’ modernist poetry, and i think it was justified, the basic contention being that a poet cannot switch off their poetry-making faculties at will, and that although the poems were conceived as being without merit or any particular meaning, they were in fact suffused with it.

In language, there is the fact that there are a vast number of statements that are grammatically correct but meaningless, and I see similar effects to Surrealism in the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, as well as the cut-ups of William Burroughs.

underlying questions provoked by the experience of Surrealism are, for me, stuff like:

Is anything natural?
Is anything normal?
Is our sense of continuity absolutely just a consequence of how our minds function? and what does that mean for the notion of finding more optimal ways to function?

this last question leads on to what i think is a natural intersection, that of Surrealism and the Psychedelic Experience. to borrow from the phrase in the post, the psychedelic experience is an “experiential satire of reality” or perhaps, “an experiential satire of conditioned perception.”

(apologies if my language is not suitably scholarly for The Valve, i’m simply an interested observer)

By Jason Kennedy on 02/05/06 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There are various flavors of the surreal, are there not. De Chirico is one sort; Bunuel , or Dali or Terry Southern quite another. There is a distinction between a typical surrealist icon--say an iron with nails, a fur-lined cup--and poetic representations; the image at once more immediate and troubling and possibly blasphemous (in either good or bad way, depending) than the syntactical realization.

Surrealist art may be haunting, sort of melancholy, and a bit macabre as in De Chirico ; or it may include more political or subversive type of imagery as in Ernst’s mockery of religious icons : the Madonna giving Le Infante Jesus a few swats.  The satire and black humor are politically important as well: Voltaire and Swift are not far from the surrealist ideal in prose; Candide subverts the ideas of progress, of optimism at any price, of theological absurdities, and indeed of academia: and Panglosses are not unknown in US universities. The surrealist writer or artist is not a mere abstractionist or decorator; he relies on reference, or context--generally a parody of bourgeois assumptions and institutions--whether love, religion, progress, etc. Freudianism does not adequately define it, tho’ some of his ideas may be essential. Perhaps a Candide, or even Southern’s Magic Christian are ultimately more important than the visual representations that surrealism takes, but both forms are somewhat similiar in there attacks on fairly specific cultural or political ideas and institutions.  SUR realism is ultra-realism, and not mere fancy or abstraction. 
Sometimes it fails: Dali for one did a lot of gratuitous art probably for profit rather than some sort of specific Freudian or marxist purpose. Yet even with Dali there is a specificity and sort of poetics of perception which may extend beyond subversion to memory and the metaphysics of time .  .  .

Grandpa Munster: Ave Atque Vale

By on 02/05/06 at 09:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment


By on 02/08/06 at 05:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dali was just trying to become “Surrealism”.  He was well known to be in love with money and wanting to be known for his greatness. Being an artist was 2nd on his to do list.

Here’s a surrealism artist directory I just finished.. <h2>[url="http://www.Surrealism-Artlinks.com"]Surrealism Artist Directory

By Josh Neuman on 10/18/06 at 12:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Three more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, Three more days to Halloween… silver shamrock

<A HREF=” http://myspace.com/zombielogic"> Click here to go there </A>

By Zombielogic on 10/23/06 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

very interesting....
Optical Illusions

By on 09/04/08 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

surrealism shows someone around a scene in a beautiful way that i wonder if the author was really present. it’s such beautiful to use in writing poetry and prose.

By on 12/29/10 at 08:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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