Monday, July 16, 2007

Surrealism and Cinema: The Artificial Night

This is the first in a series of occasional posts I’m planning on the subject of surrealism and cinema.

Seriously, I could keep this blog occupied for a long while simply by playing detective and unearthing great, should-be-better-known essays by Adrian Martin. My latest discovery is a lucid, synthesizing piece written in 1993 called “Surrealism and Cinema: The Artificial Night,” tucked away into the publication that accompanied the exhibit “Surrealism: Revolution by Night,” organized by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

The beautifully evocative phrase “artificial night” comes from Robert Desnos, who used it to refer to the movie theater. I’m frequently paraphrasing or excerpting Adrian Martin (AM) below.

* * *

“Surrealism” is a word that has passed so totally into common usage that its precise links with history, culture, art and film have been gradually obscured over time. The first thing to realize is that surrealism isn’t really an aesthetic style (an ‘ism’ like Impressionism or Cubism). It goes beyond that. Surrealism is an attitude, a way of looking at the world and experiencing it, a mode of living.

AM refers to André Breton’s collaborator Jean Schuster and his distinction between (1) historic surrealism, which comprises certain figures, careers, and the activities of those who are closely associated with the term and used it to identify themselves, and (2) eternal surrealism, which is a longer and broader history of the surrealist attitude or impulse that might include, for instance, de Sade, Alice in Wonderland, trance rituals of African tribes, Bugs Bunny, and so on. And so surrealist cinema comprises not just Luis Buñuel but also Raul Ruiz, Jan Svankmajer, etc.

But the absorption of ‘surrealism’ (the word and its multiple connotations) into common global-cultural usage should also signal some caution as we think and talk about it:

Since surrealism does have a historic dimension, some of its most familiar gestures and images have inexorably become repetitive, congealed, vulgar and empty. Long before slick TV ads and music video, the Situationist philosopher Guy Debord was already complaining in 1957, ‘that automatic writing is monotonous, and that the whole genre of ostentatious surrealist “weirdness” has ceased to be very surprising.’ We must separate the purely ‘decorative and stereotypical aspects’ of surrealism (as Ruiz calls them) — the banally monstrous or magical imagery that today floods TV, graphic design and films — from the deeper and more fertile surreal impulse.

Surrealism isn’t just a plunge into dreams, fantasies and the imagination but instead a search in reality for the ‘marvelous’:

The properly surreal realm is that of daily life — but daily life freed from the stranglehold of the ‘reality principle’, and invaded by the forces of love, the unconscious and what Schuster calls ‘the indestructible nature of the interior poetic voice’. Surrealism is not about escaping into ‘the imaginary’; it celebrates the sometimes fleeting triumph of the imagination in a world battened down by misery, oppression and repression.

[…] In surrealist cinema, quite simply, reality surprises us. This surprise may come with the force of revelation, but it is militantly without conventional ‘meaning’ [unlike cinema, sometimes surrealist-influenced, that leans toward a certain ‘symbolist’ mode in which imagery can said to be often accompanied by a ‘key’, e.g. Cocteau, Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Polanski, etc.].

The first, historic path of surrealism and cinema must be (according to AM) broadly defined to include not just officially acknowledged ‘classics’ by René Clair, Germaine Dulac & Antonin Artaud, Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, etc., but also certain films by Robert Benayoun, Ado Kyrou, Nelly Kaplan, Walerian Borowczyk, Toshio Matsumoto, Jean Rouch, etc. And then there is a second path of films, those that can be viewed in a particular, surrealist manner:

The history of the surrealist experience at the movies is a grand one indeed. It is an important history to explore because it widens our perception of what surrealism was (and is) about — not just paintings, sculptures, drawings and films, but also reviews, homages, ravings, poems, games. For surrealism proposes a theory of experience — a set of suggestions about how to perceive the world in a suitably intoxicated manner (whether one is intoxicated by love, drugs, poetry or political rage).

On the penchant for ‘artificiality’:

Surrealists have always worshipped ‘tacky’, cheaply made ‘B’ films whose tricks and bursting seams are completely evident — and they have worshipped these films not in a derisive, ‘camp’ fashion but in a quite sublime way. […] ‘B’ films — particularly in popular genres such as fantasy, horror, film noir, science fiction and the musical — can reach the heights of dreamlike abstraction precisely because they are so blatantly artificial. What’s more, they are surrealist in (usually) an involuntary, not self-conscious manner. And — best of all — they are virtually anonymous works in the eyes of official culture […] Among the more deliberate and erudite of film ‘artificialists’, Orson Welles (Mr. Arkadin, 1955) and Raul Ruiz (The Three Crowns of the Sailor, 1982) hold a supreme place.

And for intensity:

Even when surrealism is at its most light-hearted, it embodies a seriousness of purpose — a deep investment in the signs of a free imagination, whenver and wherever it breaks out. Searingly serious emotional intensity — bordering on complete paranoia and pyschosis—governs many surrealist favorites, from the astonishing Hollywood romance Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935) to the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter (1955), which Paul Hammond has rightly called ‘a freak, an anomaly, an oasis’.

On the dialectical split in surrealist history between Breton and Georges Bataille:

Much recent discussion of surrealism has taken the form of a fervent rehabilitation of Bataille — and of a wider tradition that includes Antonin Artaud’s asylum writings; Jacques Vaché’s black ‘umour’; Hans Bellmer’s pornographic dolls; Michel Leiris’s autobiography, Manhood; Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis of the alienated human condition; and even the ‘counter-cultural’ fantasies of American novelist William Burroughs. Such work has emphasized the perverse, gothic, violent and monstrous aspects of the free imagination; in surrealism’s artificial night, this tradition is perhaps its black sun. It is seemingly under the sign of Bataille that many dark, contemporary surrealist films have appeared, from those of David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch, 1992) and David Lynch (Blue Velvet, 1986) to Ruiz’s City Of Pirates (1983). Such works enact a bleak politics of surrealist transgression — a tearing open of bodies, and a voyage of no return into furiously alienated minds.

In entering the black surrealist tradition, however, we are perhaps in danger of entirely overlooking Breton’s ‘provocative openness towards poetry’ [Jean Schuster’s words] — and its particular resonance within movies and popular culture generally. The surrealism of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics, of Daffy Duck cartoons, of Mad magazine in the 1950s or of Sam Raimi’s delicious horror film Evil Dead II (1987) offers a special kind of imaginative liberation. While often blackly humorous and full of social rage, this surrealism is also light, airy and supremely comic.

* * *

Next up in the “surrealism and cinema” series: Paul Hammond’s The Shadow and its Shadow. I’m also in the middle of Franklin Rosemont's Revolution in the Service of the Marvelous and Surrealism and its Popular Accomplices (ed. Rosemont). If you have any recommendations of some of your favorite surrealist reading (fiction or nonfiction), I’d love to hear about them.


Blogger Alex said...

Minor point: Svankmajer and Ruiz are explictly surrealists, and both explicitly tap into long traditions of formal surrealism (Svankmajer Eastern European surrealism and Ruiz French and Latin American surrealism). They are both part of historic surrealism, there's no need to put them in a more vague category.

July 16, 2007 8:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Actually, the article was making that point with reference to a particular, narrow, France-centric historic version of surrealism (there are multiple historic versions), that it started in '24 with Breton's manifesto and ended in the 30s. In that version (limited both geographically and in time), Bunuel would come much quicker to mind than Ruiz or Svankmajer.

Alex, I enjoyed and meant to link to your interesting new post, "Kings and Princes: A Thought Project of a Potential Aristocratic Film," but it slipped my mind. Let me quote from your opening:

"Perhaps the greatest problem of film is it’s newness as an art form. Precisely because film was born around 1900, we have no film that exists outside of modernity – indeed, no film exists outside the most recent period of modernity. One result of this is we do not have films that exist outside of contemporary political ideas – whereas much of the greatest drama and poetry come from monarchic or aristocratic regimes (Shakespeare, Racine, Homer, Cervantes, Montaigne and many others). This means that the expanse of film experience is really quite limited because all films share a limited range of political ideas - the limited range of politics we’ve experienced inside of modernity."

July 16, 2007 8:51 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

The latest issue of Cinema Journal (Spring 2007, 46:3) has an article called "The Surrealism of the Photographic Image: Bazin, Barthes, and the Digital Sweet Hereafter", by
Adam Lowenstein.

I haven't read it yet (just glanced at it) but the argument seems to be that Bazin's and Barthes' "realism" is in fact a surrealism.

(I need to look at this, because I am just in process of sending in for publication an article where I write about Bazin's and Barthes' realism and how this is affected by the rise of the digital. Though I say nothing about surrealism).

July 16, 2007 8:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Steven, there's a chapter (or part thereof) in Christian Keathley's book Cinephilia and History: The Wind in the Trees that talks explicitly about the influence on Bazin of surrealism.

I saw that Adam Lowenstein article and filed it away to read after I've seen the Egoyan film again (it's been ages now, and I don't seem to remember it very well).

July 16, 2007 8:59 PM  
Anonymous cinebeats said...

Fascinating reading Girish. I’ve been thinking a lot about surrealism in cinema in recent months after writing about Stuart Cooper’s film Overlord and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another.

As far as books go, I have "Dada & Surrealism" by Matthew Gale on my bookshelf which I picked up in 2002 at the Dreaming with Open Eyes: Dada and Surrealist Art Exhibit in San Francisco, as well as Breton’s classic "Manifestoes of Surrealism" and I recommend them both. I also love all of Georges Bataille’s books (fiction and non-fiction) but his brand of surrealism is very transgressive.

I love a lot of surrealist fiction and some favorites include Comte de Lautréamont‘s "Maldoror" which was again very transgressive and more of an influence on surrealists than an actual surrealist work. Breton’s "Nadja", Max Ernst’s "Une Semaine De Bonte" and Louis Aragon’s "Paris Peasant" are also favorites of mine but I get the feeling you've probably read them all.

I’m currently interested in reading the work of Czech surrealists like Vítezslav Nezval myself and I really want to learn more about the British Surrealist Group. If you, or anyone who happens to read this, can suggest good books about Czech and British surrealism, I would greatly appreciate it as well.

July 16, 2007 9:52 PM  
Blogger alsolikelife said...

How timely, girish, as I am preparing my post on one of Eastern Europe's most notable/notorious surrealist works, The Saragossa Manuscript. Have you come across any writing on that film so far? I just read a long and rather tedious essay on the film's surrealist elements that did more undigested referencing of Andre Breton than analysis of the film in question. So it's nice to read your thoughts as well as the other authors you cite for the very tangible sense of purpose to surrealism that you collectively endorse.

"In surrealist cinema, quite simply, reality surprises us." I wonder if this might function as a working definition, insofar as it helps to describe why, to cite two recent examples of surrealist cinema, Syndromes and a Century works for me while Inland Empire doesn't. In all fairness I think I am partial to the strain of surrealism that gradually subverts reality rather than the kind that seeks to overthrow it altogether.

Off the top of my head, a couple of recent great surrealist comedies: Adam McKay's ANCHORMAN and Jeff Tremaine's JACKASS. I'm sure others will come to mind...

July 16, 2007 10:00 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

After his famous short co-directed with Robert Florey, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1928), you may want to track down some of the surreal montage work of Slavko Vorkapich, especially his extraordinary opening for Crime Without Passion (1934) and the dream sequences for The Mask (aka Eyes of Hell, 1961).

July 17, 2007 12:04 AM  
Blogger dave said...

some recommended books that draw on Surrealism:
almost anything by Anglea Carter, but most especially The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. I cannot recommend this highly enough. Possibly my favorite work of fiction.
Also, DM Thomas's The White Hotel and Jerzy Kosiński's The Painted Bird are among the novels that find surrealism as an essential tool for confronting the Holocaust.

July 17, 2007 1:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Kimberly, Kevin, Flickhead and Dave.

Kimberly -- I had no idea you were such a surrealist connoisseur. I've not read anything by either Czech or British surrealist writers, but perhaps someone else here will be able to offer some suggestions.

Kevin -- I've seen Saragossa Manuscript but don't have any essays on it in my files. (I tried JSTOR at my college after you posted your comment but that didn't turn anything up either.) And viewing contemporary comedies in a surrealist light (Anchorman, Jackass) is something I hadn't thought of.

Flickhead and Dave -- Vorkapich, Angela Carter and DM Thomas are artists I've heard of but whose work I haven't seen/read.

In the last few weeks I've acquired a couple of more books on surrealism and film: one a collection edited by Rudolf Kuenzli (Dada and Surrealist Film), and the other writen by William Earle (A Surrealism of the Movies), both academics.

July 17, 2007 7:49 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Hi G.. Thank you for this description:

"the indestructible nature of the interior poetic voice"

By the way, have you read Gerard De Nerval? If not, I recommend the book, Aurelia!!!

July 17, 2007 10:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi Jen, thanks for that recommendation!

July 17, 2007 10:59 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

The Street of Crocodiles is by far my favorite surrealist novel. The chapter on Nimrod was particularly affecting, evoking the startling thrill of innate knowledge--a thrill most of us lose out on nowadays, living such mediated existences, with such a wealth of pseudo-experiential preparation for every given situation in life. I haven't felt that way since adolescence....

July 17, 2007 1:48 PM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

Seriously, I could keep this blog occupied for a long while simply by playing detective and unearthing great, should-be-better-known essays by Adrian Martin.

I strongly suspects that the week in which Adrian's long delayed website finally opens my head will explode due to excess of new ideas suddenly available.

July 17, 2007 3:53 PM  
Anonymous cinebeats said...

Kimberly -- I had no idea you were such a surrealist connoisseur. I've not read anything by either Czech or British surrealist writers, but perhaps someone else here will be able to offer some suggestions.

Well, I'm more familar with surrealist art than fiction really. My own attempts at art have often been inspired by the surrealists, but I don't make enough time for art these days.

July 17, 2007 6:52 PM  
Blogger Paul Doherty said...

Flickhead is right on about Vorkapich. Girish, check out the 19 hour "Unseen Cinema" box set. Plenty of Vorkapich to enjoy as well as many other great films. I have been a huge Dali fan and have only seen clips of the unreleased film 'The Prodigious Adventure of the Lacemaker and the Rhinoceros". This is a gem that should be released. Dali's biography "The Secter Life" is truly insane, also his work of fiction "Hidden Faces".

July 17, 2007 7:05 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Derek, Filipe, Kimberly, and Paul.

Kimberly--Thanks for posting that link; wow, that's an impressive collection of artworks in a variety of media! I had no idea...

Filipe--When it comes online, that website will keep us fed and going for months if not years...

July 18, 2007 9:24 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Jan of Jahsonic saw this post and put up a link to the film Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) by Toshio Matsumoto.
-- Another film link: Tucker of Pilgrim Akimbo posts Martha Rosler's short film Semiotics of the Kitchen.
-- Acquarello has been filing reviews from the Woodfall films series in New York.
-- Dan Sallitt on Claire Devers's film Noir et Blanc:

July 18, 2007 9:31 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I just saw the documentary Basic Tsukamoto, about Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto. Some of his imagery might also be termed surreal. I have only seen Gemini, based on writing by Edogawa Rampo so far.

July 18, 2007 10:34 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

That's the only one of his films I've seen too, Peter. I really loved it. I'm curious to learn if it launched the semi-recent mini-wave of Japanese evil twin horror movies, also including Doppelganger and the Neighbor in 13, or if there's an earlier precedent.

Surrealism in cinema is certainly a worthy topic to contemplate, though I've not done much of it myself. Thanks for this primer, girish!

July 18, 2007 9:18 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

You are indeed a detective, Girish! FYI, I have revisited parts of my 1993 text on surrealism (and also an unpublished 1998 text on "Surrealist Sex and Violence")in a recent essay on Tod Browning in a collection on him edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, coming out early '08. The recent Michael Richardson book on surrealism and cinema is worth consulting, although very literary, and prone to that territorial 'I know what surrealism really is and you don't' mentality that infects many 'art movement' specialists. But it has a commendaly broad sweep: Ruiz, Svankmajer, the lamentably neglected Nelly Kaplan, Borowczyk, Tim Burton, etc. I hope to write more on the topic again one day. And to you and Filipe: that website of mine is happening this year, I promise!

July 18, 2007 10:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Peter, Brian and Adrian!

Adrian, I look forward to that Tod Browning essay.

And reading your '93 piece spurred me to pick up the Michael Richardson book this week. And also Bataille's Absence of Myth collection, to which Richardson penned the introductory essay. Thanks for the caveat on the former.

"And to you and Filipe: that website of mine is happening this year, I promise!"

Awesome news!

July 19, 2007 12:41 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Lots of reading in the new issue of Reverse Shot in which contributors were asked to "pick a single, memorable shot and use it as a springboard for reconsidering a film, filmmaker, or even cinema itself."
-- And the Reverse Shot issue includes a piece by Andrew Tracy on Going Hollywood which discusses surrealism.
-- New issue of Offscreen.
-- Dave Kehr on Raymond Bernard in his NY Times DVD column.
-- A podcast at Errata which discusses some good films of the year so far.

July 19, 2007 7:45 AM  
Blogger acquarello said...

Interesting. I never thought of experimental fiction in terms of surrealism, but within the context of the paragraph about being in a state of figurative "intoxication" (such as one fueled by political rage), this would imply that two of my favorite novelists, Witold Gombrowicz and Kobo Abe would be considered surrealists. If I had to describe their work, I would have called them "realist fantasies" or something like that, because I had always thought of surrealism as alignment with the art movement. I guess in that sense, I do think it's a word that needs to be rehabilitated as well.

July 19, 2007 10:34 AM  
Anonymous Edwin said...

How excellent to find a discussion on Surrealism. The importance of it seems to be more valuable than I had assumed prior to the a more recent personal re-evaluation of it.

How would a genuine culture of Surrealism look today?

Of Batailles, Christophe Honore's adaptation of Ma Mere was fascinating. In agreement with girish's pointing to the fact that Surrealism's fundament is its un-disconnected totality of looking; attitude; mode.

July 19, 2007 4:14 PM  
Blogger Alex said...


Thanks for the cite. I don't know surrealism well, and, since I generally practice forms of neorealism, it generally hasn't been my focus.

But, led partially by Godard and partially by his Kojeve book, I did read Raymond Queneau's Odile, which I don't know if it is surrealism or not (Queneau was certainly a part of historical surrealism and was in the mix with Breton, Bataille, Desnos and the gang). Odile is OK. I wouldn't call it a great book, though.

July 19, 2007 8:09 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Ok, considering that I wrote a Raymond Queneau post - is Zazie dans le Metro surrealism or not? (of course, there is also the question of book or movie).

July 19, 2007 8:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Acquarello, Edwin and Alex, for all those suggestions of books/authors.

Folks, I have to take a little vacation from the Internets for a week or two. Work and other obligations have started impinging on this summer with some urgency. As always, please feel free to use this space to link, chat, etc.

July 20, 2007 1:14 PM  
Anonymous greg said...

Alex, I would say Zazie, and Queneau in general, is not surrealist. As a matter of fact Queneau was married to Andre Breton's wife's sister and had a brief moment in the surrealist circle but came to quickly refute much of its tenents. Chiefly the idea of automatic writing, etc. His formation of OuLiPo with Le Lionnais was grown out of the College Of Pataphysics, also a precursor to and a group that had members in the Surrealists, but took a fairly opposite view that writing and "originality", or something, is more successfull under conscious constraint, rather than the falling back upon accepted tropes and tendencies that comes about in automatic writing. This is obviously a generalizing gloss but a hint at the ideas.

While many of Queneau's novels could have elements some might label surrealist, Pierrot Mon Ami, The Blue Flowers, The Sunday of Life for a few, I would argue that they are not by any means. The surrealism people may find in them is more of the general catch all tag that people apply to things that aren't actually surrealist in its funndamental sense. i.e A talking bear does not a surrealist work make. What Queneau is doing is of an entirely different sort, and his occupations with constraints, forms, language, etc are all done in a very different way (and one I perhaps enjoy more, but I'm a huge Queneau fan). (I would apply a similar argument to the early Harry Mathews novels. Both writers have much to owe to Roussel ((and Mathews to Queneau)) and I would say their reading/inheritance of Roussel is more proper to his works than Bretons.)

Finally, as this is long, Queneau's novel "Odile", one of his more autobiographical novels, has many humorous passages lampooning the Surrealists and Breton taken from his experiences. Tellingly the Queneau character prefers mathematics. The short book also has one of the most touching, truthful, and personally resonant endings I've encountered, almost striking a similar theme/note as Desplechin's My Sex Life...

July 20, 2007 1:32 PM  
Blogger C.K. Dexter said...

Greg, I agree that Queneau is not a surrealist (and nice to encounter a fellow Queneau fan!). Frankly, I can't see him as anything but a Queneauist. He's one of a kind.

I'm well versed in surrealist artworks, but not in surrealist theory. So I'm a bit curious about this quote:

"The properly surreal realm is that of daily life — but daily life freed from the stranglehold of the ‘reality principle.’"

A question for those who know the surrealists' theoretical backgrounds better than I do: is this interpretation of Freud the customary one among surrealists?

It's a bit peculiar, since it suggests that repression is a product of the reality principle, when, for Freud, repression is a product of the pleasure principle's demand for immediate gratification overriding the reality principle's demand for greater overall gratification.

This slight twist on the Freudian original seems to have interesting theoretical consequences. Freud would probably see surrealism (and to a degree, all art) as "escaping into ‘the imaginary’". For he thinks that the world is "battened down by misery, oppression and repression" in part _due to_ the
"triumph of the imagination" that enables the mechanism of repression.

Intriguing, then, if the surrealists attempt to turn Freud against himself, making reality rather fantasy the key source of discontent, and fantasy rather than reality the solution.

July 21, 2007 9:36 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

CK, I'm not sure to follow your phrasing of Freud's models. Repression is a mechanism developped by the super-ego to hinder the principle of pleasure. The results of repression are dream, phobia, nerosis... In a way, you're right, we could argue that without the Principle of Reality, we probably wouldn't need to develop a (creative) defense mechanism to overcome self-censorship.
In other words, the Pleasure Principle (desire) wants to act, it doesn't need repression to generate passions, it is pure (sometimes immoral) desire. The Principle of Reality (reason) knows to delay, to moderate or stop these (socially reprehensible) passions. It directly opposes and censors the expression of desires by the Principle of Pleasure, because of immorality, illegality, guilt, nonsense, madness...

Surrealists want the same thing the Id wants, which is to open the floodgates of free imagination, to let the unconscious surface and speak up. Dream is one natural way the unconscious finds to express itself, partialy. But all the work of Surrealists is to find more ways to tap into the pure imagination of the unconscious. Automatic writing is a way to by-pass the Principle of Reality, and set free what the reason has concealed. They are not in contradiction, in fact Surrealism is directly inspired by the theories of Freud, espacially on dreams. Even if they disagree on the clinical danger to play with the mind.
In the 1924 manifesto, Breton defines it as : "Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason" and "It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life."

I agree that Queneau belongs to the OuLiPo tradition (Roussel, Perec, Calvino, Roubaud), which is an intellectual gameplay with linguistics, grammar rules, syntax, letters (reasonable constraints typical to the Principle of Reality). Surrealists however fight against any control of the Reason over their spontaneous creations.

Thanks for this fascinating post Girish. Where can we find the full article by Adrian? I, too, hope his website will be up soon.

July 21, 2007 11:17 AM  
Blogger C.K. Dexter said...

"Repression is a mechanism developped by the super-ego to hinder the principle of pleasure."

True, but we must be careful not to identify the super-ego with the reality principle and rationality. It is the ego, as mediator between superego and id, that Freud associates (at least in his mature, fully developed theory) with reality and the reality principle and with rationality. That is to say, Freud is (blessedly) a rationalist to the core.

"Reason" does not repress, indeed, is not an agency in Freud (he is also a naturalist, who thinks all psychological activity is the product of drives and basic psychological principles, never of a single "self" or rational subject--the "ego" (das Ich) is a relationship between id and reality, not an agent.)

Rationality does have a role in the control of drives, but not necessarily in repression. Namely, when postponing gratification will lead to more pleasure in the long run, reason and the reality principle allow the subject to recognize this and act for the maximization of pleasure instead of instant gratification.

Freud ultimately ties the superego and the id together--both are expression of blind instinct that pays no attention to reality. The superego has two origins: love and hate toward the child's parents. As objects of love, the id refuses to give them up, and so introjects them as superego. As objects of hate and jealousy, the parents are introjected as a channel for destructive impulses--the source of the superego's moral cruelty.

All of this is to say that the superego is, at bottom, an expression of the id, not its enemy. To be sure, it represses the id, but this is a conflict among differing drives and desires, not a conflict between completely independent principles or agencies.

And although the reality principle plays a role in repression--e.g., a child represses a desire for its mother in part due to recognizing the real rivalry with the father, the driving force of repression is the id: in this example, a love for the mother that refuses to bear the pain of recognizing its frustration and overcoming it, and so buries it from consciousness.

For Freud, the source of every neurosis and psychosis is a flight from reality, and the cure is a return to it.

July 21, 2007 1:09 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Ok we agree. I didn't mean to get technical. I thought you meant that Surrealists disagreed with what Freud said about the function of the P. of Reality.
Freud is not an artist. Surrealists are not doctors. So their usage of the unconscious has obviously different purpose (but not antagonistic).

July 22, 2007 4:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree. Freud is an artist and the surrealists are doctors.

July 22, 2007 10:00 AM  
Blogger C.K. Dexter said...

"Freud is an artist and the surrealists are doctors."

I love this statement--it sounds like something the surrealists themselves might say.

Harry Tuttle: thanks for the patient replies. I hope I haven't completely misinterpreted your view.

"I thought you meant that Surrealists disagreed with what Freud said about the function of the P. of Reality."

I think we agree on many points, but not all. Sorry to belabor the point, but I do think the Surrealists may disagree with Freud here. They seem to think (again, those who know surrealism better than I do can correct me if I'm wrong) that the reality principle is repressive--so that liberation comes through independence from the reality principle.

But Freud sees the reality principle as positive--liberation comes through the reality principle, not through its rejection. I think Freud would see the surrealist project as fundamentally misguided. He might be wrong, and perhaps the surrealists' use of Freud is one that reveals his limitations--but I do think it's a pretty basic disagreement: salvation comes either through embracing the limitations of reality or rejecting them.

(I admit my interpretation of surrealism here doesn't square with the original quote that "surrealism is not about escaping into the imaginary." But the quote doesn't make sense: how is freedom from the "stranglehold of the reality principle" not an escape into the imaginary?)

This isn't to say there's no common ground between the surrealists and Freud, but that they're moving from that common ground in very different directions. By analogy to surrealist literature: Freud has more in common with the Lautréamont of the Poésies, than with les chants de Maldoror.

July 22, 2007 11:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me complicate CK Dexter's explanation of Freud:
Though Freud equivocates about the role played by reality, I don't think he ever equates the reality principle with the cure. Once he abandons the theory that all neurotics were seduced by a parent, he recognizes a structural dimension to seduction that is more important than determining what actually happened. The reality principle is on the side of the pleasure principle. As you say, it is a way of postponing pleasure and thus enhancing it. But once he writes Beyond The Pleasure Principle, he severely limits the importance of "the reality principle" and it drops out of his thinking. Instead he introduces a new binary Eros and Thanatos that sweeps aside the questions of the economy of pleasure vs. reality. It is this struggle between the sex and death drives of the late Freud that has the most influence on people like Breton and Bataille.

July 22, 2007 11:54 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

We shouldn't give positive/negative "intentions" to the natural dynamics within the psyche scheme, because they don't know to work otherwise, it's their nature. The resulting human behavior could be judged good/bad because it's a choice between two poles. You can talk about "salvation" in the case of Freud because he starts from a pathology to be cured. But the Surrealists' work has no therapeutical purpose per se. They just want to get in touch with the roots of the mind, beyond the artificial formats constructed by the rational mind. So is the reservoir of ideas that is the unconscious ill intentionned or not? Is it negative to let it speak without the censorship? We can't judge that, especially since it's about artistic expression, not enacting crimes like incest, paricide, suicide...
Reality and Pleasure would have less trouble to agree if the ultimate goal was maximization of pleasure. The conflict resides in the frustration of easy pleasures that cannot be compensated elsewhere. A sane life is to cope with reality, yes, and learn how to cope without inaccessible desires.
Usually Freud's scheme is debunked by detractors that's why I thought you meant Surrealists disagreed with his theory.
If you talk about what they do of it, then yes, the Surrealist work is probably not very orthodox in therapeutical terms and Freud would find it a wasted opportunity. Like a wild psychoanalysis but without interpretating the cryptic cry for help sent by the unconscious. But it's just art. It's not like if their little games reversed or aggravated the job of a therapist. Both Freud and Surrealists are only witnesses of obscure forces that take place beyond our reach. The former is trying to make sense of them, the latters only record them for its intrinsic aesthetic.

July 22, 2007 8:09 PM  
Blogger C.K. Dexter said...

True, the reality principle in the sense of "determining what actually happened" is not the cure. But it is integral to the cure in a different sense: as the lifting of repression and recognizing the reality of the repressed and the reality of its cause. So, e.g., in the classic Oedipal scenario, repression depends on a dual denial of reality: the denial of the reality of the impossibility of satisfying the oedipal desire, and the denial of the reality of that desire.

The introduction of instinctual dualism complicates his theory, but doesn't eliminate the role of reality and pleasure principles, only limits their extension. The principles are the "laws" that regulate the drive--so for example, Eros is permitted its drive toward union only given its consistency with pleasure. The death drive does introduce a kind of third principle that defies the pleasure principle--the principle of repetition. But this simply introduces a conflict of principles--he doesn't drop the others from his theory.

"We shouldn't give positive/negative "intentions" to the natural dynamics within the psyche scheme, because they don't know to work otherwise, it's their nature."

True. I only mean that Freud's attitude towards the reality principle is positive--and primarily in contrast to the suggestion that the reality principle is intrinsically repressive.

"Is it negative to let it speak without the censorship? We can't judge that, especially since it's about artistic expression, not enacting crimes like incest, paricide, suicide..."

True, but might not Freud say that if the repressed takes the form of artistic expression then it's in a sublimated form, which means it hasn't entirely been freed from censorship or fully revealed? That surrealist art is not dangerous or "negative" precisely because it fails in its desire to reveal the Id?

"They just want to get in touch with the roots of the mind, beyond the artificial formats constructed by the rational mind."

This is, again, a key difference, since for Freud there's nothing beyond the constructs of the mind but bare reality and blind drives: which gives the surrealists little to reveal. "Artificial constructs" aren't the work of reason but of imagination: the result of the rejection of reality--e.g., when a desire frustrated in reality leads the subject to dream that it's satisfied--or an artist to create a fiction in which it is satisfied.

This reinforces why surrealist art isn't necessarily negative, but also may not have the radical liberatory power it's sometimes claimed to have: because it works on the level of artificial constructs rather than reality. Surrealist art is often described as "dreamlike"--and like a dream, it remains a censored version of the repressed.

"But it's just art. It's not like if their little games reversed or aggravated the job of a therapist. ...The former is trying to make sense of them, the latters only record them for its intrinsic aesthetic."

True, their art doesn't pose any real threat to Freud's therapeutic endeavours. But I had the (perhaps mistaken) impression that the surrealists themselves saw it differently. Did they really see their work as nothing more than a "little game"? Didn't they think there was a truly revolutionary power and purpose in their work?

July 23, 2007 9:29 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Off topic, another TCM alert, John Ford's last feature SEVEN WOMEN will be playing today at 6pm.

July 26, 2007 10:13 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

On Wikipedia they say Freud criticized Surrealism for being a pure product of the conscious instead of the unconscious. I guess that settles the argument. They may not have escaped the grip of the Ego, but they succeded in generating art without what is commonly known as rationality (even if not in a strict psychoanalytical sense).

Back to Surrealism. I wanted to say that "eternal surrealism" sounds like a free-for-all bag, which is what dilutes and trivialize the original spirit of Surrealism. The "second path" (films viewed in a surrealist manner) has no cohesion since the films only have a value in the eye of the surrealist viewer. In this case the appropriation is surrealist, the film itself, alone, is not.
If we take "official" Surrealist art as a reference, only the dreamlike, unscripted absurdities would qualify as Surrealist cinema.
I never found much surrealist aspects in Buñuel's films, except in his collaboration with Dali. The rest of his films are only quirky, with occasional surrealist scenes, or even just nonsensical visual gags. For instance, The Exterminating Angel, is merely a Twilight Zone type of fantastic film. There is too much rationality and continuity in the main plot.
Better exemples of Surrealist Cinema are certain films made by Arrabal, Jodorowsky, Maddin, early Lynch, Maya Deren, Peleshian, Tscherkassky, Shuji Terayama who work in the tradition of collage and dreamlike logic, breaking away from the conventional grammar of a dramatized scenario.
Inland Empire is probably Lynch's only Surrealist feature length film. The others fall in a different category of fantastic cinema.

Breton classified as "White Humour", the British nonsense. This is absurd comedy and I wouldn't assimilate this with proper Surrealist work. That would be Alice in Wonderland, Monty Pythons, Bugs Bunny, Marx Brothers...

July 26, 2007 4:26 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Some more on Surrealism and cinema (my first piece for a newspaper in around 18 months):,25197,22128814-16947,00.html


July 26, 2007 5:29 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks Adrian, nice synchronicity. I wasn't arguing the power and greatness of Buñuel's oeuvre. But is it sexual fetishism, anti-clericalism, anger against social oppression, the subversive humour, morbid fascination... that makes a film surrealist? This we can find in many "conventional films" expressed through a non-surrealist form. To me the surrealist formalism is key, and especially the process of this "deconstruction" of our reality. Laws of reality are bent or broken, but not just for one scene, or for one aspect of the scenario, it's an entirely new world we fall into, where non-realistic rules apply.

There was a piece in Senses of Cinema about Surrealist documentaries citing Las Hurdes as example, as well as others naturalist documentaries. It sounds like anything can be surrealist. A truly surrealist documentary would be Dali's Impressions de la Haute Mongolie, which is not mentionned in the piece.

July 27, 2007 4:54 AM  
Blogger Riley Puckett said...

Interesting as always Girish. I’ve also just made my way through the comments and read Adrian Martin’s piece on Bunuel and thought I’d add a couple of thoughts. The trick with these things is that you don’t want to provide a definition of surrealism that amounts to policing what is surrealist and what is not (though Breton himself was not adverse to this sort of policing) and at the same time, you don’t want to be so all inclusive that the surrealist project loses all specificity. I, for one, agree with Mr. Martin (contra Mr. Turtle) that the key surrealist gesture is to say that the ordinary is itself extraordinary and not the transformation or deconstruction of reality. Let me provide an example that connects to the discussion of Freud above. One thing surrealism takes from Freud is the practice of literalization. I agree with “anonymous” above that surrealism is closer to the late Freud of Eros and Thanatos than the Freud of the reality principle. On the other hand, there’s an early Freud book that seems especially key to surrealism and it’s not The Interpretation of Dreams but rather The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. In Freud’s analysis of parapraxis (the famous Freudian slip) the point is not that we can unveil the unconscious motives behind the literal meaning of a statement. On the contrary, Freud’s provocative claim is that we mean exactly what we say. Literally! This for me is one of the most brilliant gestures taken up by surrealism: to take reality at its word. This is not “the reality principle” which Freud connected to the self-preservative instincts (and which is given far too much importance in British and American receptions of psychoanalysis). This is an aspect of Freud taken up by Jacques Lacan who was also very close to Bataille. Lacan defined “reality” as imaginary. This is the level of our common sense understanding. He then put the literal, the material, on the side of what he called “the Real.” This is why Bunuel and not Lynch is a surrealist. Magritte and not Dali is the exemplary painter here.

July 27, 2007 10:06 AM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Hey Adrian, my buddy Steven Boone wrote this in May about Mexican Bunuel. Thought you might like it. And especially the clip he made marrying images from _Illusion Travels by Streetcar_ with some Angelo Badalamenti composition.

July 27, 2007 5:21 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Turtle? Here's a Freudian slip. ;)

Well I never meant to let Freud's theory define what is or is not Surrealism. Freud got into the discussion because of a specific technical question linking the two. It's interesting to see where their (mis)interpretation match up with Freud's concepts, but their art doesn't have to fit in any clinical classification.
My understanding of Surrealism comes from their own manifesto and their graphic production (Ernst, Arp, Dada, De Chirico, Miro, Dali, Man Ray, Duchamp, Magritte, Delvaux).
Magritte is about as less realistic as Dali, vis-a-vis Buñuel. Magritte paints levitating objects and persons, faceless people, hybrid/deformed objects, optical illusions, highly symbolical compositions...
Now if we look at films made by Man Ray (The Mysteries of the Chateau de De), Clair (Entr'Acte), Dulac (Seashell and the Clergyman), Duchamp (Anemic Cinema), Richter (Ghosts Before Breakfast), Dali (Destino), Cocteau (The Blood of a Poet)... they produce dreamwork without apparent logic, free-associative images, wandering delirium, cock-and-bull stories, creative combinations. These are formalist studies to go beyond reality. While Buñuel merely introduces "funny" dialogues or awkward animals within a "mainstream" narration (I'm caricaturing), so this is a very light dose of surrealism in comparison. Buénuel might be surrealist to some extant ("eternal surrealism"?), but I wouldn't use his solo films as the most representative example for (historic) Surrealist cinema.

I know "deconstruction" was a bad choice of word, because it referes to something else, but the point is to dissociate logical/intuitive bounds between elements and re-associate them otherwise, in unexpected ways (which is basicaly what dreams do, in rough terms).

July 28, 2007 8:50 AM  
Blogger Riley Puckett said...

Mr. Tuttle/Turtle,
Yes a Freudian slip, but you are clearly not slow nor do you hide in a shell so there must have been some displacement involved.
Quickly, I brought up literalization as a way of highlighting an element of surrealism that is somewhat different maybe even opposed to the dream-like imagery you seem to be emphasizing. As for Magritte, I don't think he is a realist, but I do think his painting always resists being interpreted as symbolic. (It's hard to say the same for Dali, but I'm not saying this makes Dali any less the surrealist.) I'd need more time to back this up, but another way of thinking about it through another term of Freud's: uncanny. Uncanny (unheimlich) means both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I think Bunuel has a great talent for the uncanny and in this way he keeps faith with the surrealist project. I don't think I need to back this up because I think Adrian Martin nicely illustrates this in the piece he linked to. You say surrealism is about dissociating intuitive/logical bonds. This may be so but my point is that one should not (and I'm not saying you are) equate logic with intuition. They use intuition against logic and logic against intuition. I wanted to highlight this latter move with the idea of literalization.

July 28, 2007 10:05 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

What do you call "literalization"?
I'm not sure what you mean by "symbolic" either... I can see the difference between Dali and Magritte, but they both use a symbolised language. Magritte also pictures elements under symbols. I guess you mean that he doesn't want to say anything particular, that his elements aren't "meaningful", but they are still symbolic, an abstract language. If you look hard enough you could even decode some Freudian symbols : the woman face with eye-breasts and mouth-sex, faceless people, disembodied faces, the train through the fireplace (Hitchcockian symbol!), doors, windows, egg, apple, pipe, nudity... Aren't these symbols? If you think Magritte is far from Dali, check out Les idées de l'acrobate (1928).

Surrealism goes beyond just the uncanny (which is just a dissonant perception of something real). When a guy pulls a piano with monks attached to it, or ants appearing on a hand stuck in a door (Un Chien Andalou) it's more than uncanny, it's an invented metaphor that doesn't exist otherwise in reality.
Even Buñuel has limited use of the uncanny. We could give a comprehensible synopsis of his film (which is not the case for the Surrealist films I've cited above). In Archibaldo de la Cruz, it's the story of a man with sexual fetish and murderous tendencies, not very uncanny, nothing typically surrealist about it. Same for Belle de Jour and Le Journal d'une femme de chambre. There is a surrealist episode in Illusion Travels by Streetcar, but that's because it's a dream, precisely. La Voie Lactée, Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Le Fantôme de la liberté tend to include more uncanny and surrealism, even in the plot structure, which become hard to grasp with rational words. Still this is more nonsense and comedic satire than proper surrealism.
p.s. The relation I implied between logic and intuition was "and/or", not a mutual dissociation.

July 29, 2007 7:07 AM  
Blogger Riley Puckett said...

1) Literalization. I say Turtle and you are Turtle. If the point is that I am picturing you as a turtle as a metaphor or symbol or through the analogy of you being like a turtle then we are no longer using literalization. I say “may my grandmother drop dead” and my grandmother drops dead. I’m just using this gag from Shoot the Piano Player as an example of literalization, I’m not trying to say it’s a surrealist film. Examples of literalization abound in Magritte and Lewis Carroll. My point is not that literalization was invented by surrealism or exclusive to surrealism but only that it is a device employed by surrealism to say that the unconscious is in language literally as Freud does with parapraxis. This was a way of thinking about the idea that what was most revolutionary in historical surrealism was not, as is sometimes thought, the leave-taking of reality for fantasy but something closer to the inverse. One of the best essays that I know of on surrealism is the one by Walter Benjamin in which he claims that if we view surrealism as merely about intoxication and fantasy, we miss the whole point. Focusing on the writings of Breton, Eluard, Desnos and Aragon, he says that surrealism is about “profane illumination” which is, according to him, materialist, and “concerned literally with experiences.” If anything, he says, surrealism is about de-intoxication from “that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.”

2) Magritte/Dali. I’m not saying that you cannot draw interesting connections between Magritte and Dali. The only reason I mentioned Dali was because his name has become synonymous with a certain popular idea of surrealism and his most iconoclastic and disseminated images seem to promote a different image of surrealism than the one I wanted to emphasize. As for Magritte and his bowler hat, apple, pipe and so on, you ask “aren’t these symbols?” I say no. But of course you can interpret them symbolically. I think that what is most interesting in Magritte is that these objects tend to resist that interpretation. I refer you to Michel Foucault’s essay “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” which makes this point much better than I can.

3) Bunuel. Well, we read Bunuel and surrealism very differently. Is Archibaldo Cruz surrealist? I’m not that interested in insisting one way or the other. If you wanted to say that it is you’d probably point out that it is a vision that puts desire ahead of bourgeois ethics. But I take your point that this may be more a matter of theme than form with this particular film. I haven’t seen it recently enough to argue otherwise, but I’m not sure that the way Bunuel uses narrative is as conventional as you seem to suggest. Surrealism is tied to fabulation as much as it is to automatic writing, and as such not allergic to employing narrative codes and conventions for its own purposes. A better example of what I’m talking about would be his last film Cet Obscur Objet… What makes it uncanny is that we find two actresses playing the same role in a film that is NOT dreamlike in a conventional sense. Nor does it lend itself to being read as symbolic or metaphorical. It is a kind of literalization of schizophrenia. What you call more than uncanny, I might call less than uncanny. There’s an article to be written about why Las Hurdas is a more surrealist than Seashell and the Clergyman, but that's for another time. I think this comment is my last word, or sigh, on the subject for now.

July 29, 2007 2:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

CK Dexter, Harry, Adrian, Riley, Anonymous, Greg, Daniel, and Ryland --

Thank you for taking the time for a great discussion!

Hope to back with a post by tomorrow.

July 29, 2007 5:35 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 30, 2007 8:22 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

What is surrealist is the contrast between two halves of an idea, not the literalization (which is used in non-surrealist context too). One can forge literalizations (or mimic surrealism) for comedic effect (nonsense), where the drive is to associate silly/grotesque antagonisms. While the goal of surrealists was never to make fun of their wordplay. On the contrary it's to cause a suspension of reasoning, to reach another level of understanding (much like the zen riddles).
The slip functions like automatic writing, it ultimately reveals a hiden meaning when the scrutiny of the reason begin to tire. But the slip is involuntary, and could hardly be used as a method to produce art, unlike automatic writing, dream transcription, exquisite cadaver.
You want to define Surrealism based on someone who has been excluded from the mouvement, in opposition to actual members who are "less surrealist" according to you. Morevover your broad definition of "profane illumination", "a vision that puts desire ahead of bourgeois ethics" or literalization applies to so many films it could hardly distinguish Surrealism from non-surrealism. We could talk about literalization in Lynch, Dali or even Bresson (Balthazar?) you know.

I never said Surrealism was "intoxication and fantasy"... I haven't read this essay, but these words don't evoke anything typically Surrealist to me. "Fantasy" could be Sci-Fi, fairytales, cartoon, Lord of the Rings, porno... There are many sides to the "imaginary", but the Surrealist creation is very specific.

You should tell Freud about objects used as symbols that resist interpretation ;)
"Ceci n'est pas une pipe" make us self-conscious of symbolism, while we would tend to blur the line between representation and reality. Magritte denies the "suspension of disbelief" naturally associated with paintings. He says "this is paint on canvas", but that doesn't mean the pipe is not a symbol. Symbolism is only evacuated by the rise of Abstract Art and Kandinsky.

There is an uncanny moment in Archibald de la Cruz, when a human-sized doll stands in for a real woman, or when he burns this doll as if she was the real thing. There a few flashbacks but nothing unusual by mainstream standards, the logical continuum is respected as best as I remember. We agree that Surrealism employ narrative conventions, but if they are not perverted/corrupted, then we just have plain classicism. To introduce a critique of bourgeois values and sexual fantasy is not enough to make a film surrealist.

p.s. you're not forced to reply, it's a free forum. ;) It's been nice chatting with you.

July 30, 2007 8:23 AM  
Blogger Riley Puckett said...

thanks ht, i've enjoyed it too. at some point, it's turtles all the way down.

July 30, 2007 9:55 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I got the message the first time, Mr. Hawking. ;)

July 30, 2007 6:43 PM  
Blogger Rodolfo García said...

Hey, I'm seeing this just now! this is a great text, thank you Girish! In fact I just finished a research about Ruiz's surrealism, and it would have been great to add some quotes from Martin's writings about surrealism, as I used the ones he wrote about Ruiz. I didn't even know this text existed and literature on cinema and surrealism is so restrained! The only major book on surrealist posterity is the one of Michael Richardson, which is a bit arrogant, as Adrian said, but is worth checking out as it includes a whole new dimension of contemporary filmmakers.
I don't know if @cinebeats will read this, but there's a great book about Czech surrealist cinema: Avant-Garde to New Wave: Czechoslovak Cinema, Surrealism and the Sixties, by Jonathan L. Owen. It's a great one. It's just so sad that he included just one of Jaromil Jirès movies, whereas others like "kriik" (1963) can also be considered as a surrealist film. All the best, thank you for the interesting reading!

January 27, 2015 5:37 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Rodolfo! I don't know the Owen book--and will look for it soon!

January 27, 2015 7:33 PM  

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