Surrealism vs. Zen

Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, also known as This Is Not a Pipe, is a famous example of surrealist style, which uses realistically rendered images to say something profound about the workings of the human mind.

26 April 2018 – As you can tell by the discrepancy between the date at start of this column and the publication date listed in red above, it’s taken a looong time to get this thing written! The date at the text start, of course, is the date I started writing the manuscript, and the red publication date was automatically added when I actually finished all the corrections and made the thing live on the blog page. My main excuse for taking so long to write it is that the day I started the manuscript I also came down with the flu. It cut my work output drastically ’cause I suddenly started spending so much of my work day in a semi-comatose state.

Before starting this manuscript, I finally finished reading the (really massive) catalog for a 2001-2002 Exhibition put together by the Tate Modern Gallery in Bankside, London, UK entitled Surrealism: Desire Unbound. This tome is 349 pages long and provides a serious look deep inside the mindset of proponents of the Surrealist Movement, which was arguably the most far reaching creative enterprise of the Twentieth Century.

I care about that because stylistically most of my art falls into the surrealistic style. That is, it’s an attempt to render mental images in a realistic manner. I have, however, major differences with the classic surrealists led by Andre Breton regarding the theory of how the mind works. That affects the content chosen.

I’m not a trained psychologist, but neither was Breton. While Breton attempted to base his creative theory on his interpretation of Freud’s pioneering psychoanalytical research, most of Freud’s writings were unavailable to him at the time he was developing the ideas on which he based his 1924 booklet, Manifeste du surréalisme. The fact that Freud’s work is now quite readily available is largely immaterial because Freud’s research delved into mental illness, whereas I’m interested in the workings of reasonably healthy minds.

I prefer to follow the introspective traditions of Zen Buddhism.

In his manifesto, Breton says: “. . . one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” In other words, he proposed to free artists of all disciplines from discipline itself.

From today’s vantage point, nearly a century removed from this event, that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. We have gotten used to the idea that an artist can do pretty much anything he or she damn well pleases, call it art, and get away with it. I’ve no problem with Breton’s statement, except that he went so far as eschewing the editorial process.

As a veteran journalist, fiction writer, and visual artist I know from experience, that not editing invariably results in gobbledygook. I also know the surrealists didn’t actually do it.

The essence of all creative arts, from journalistic writing to making motion pictures, is communication. An artist has something to say, and attempts to say it. That’s the difference between a Michelangelo and a house painter.

(Having painted houses professionally, I hesitate to say anything derogatory about house painters. Then again, I did get fired from that job for taking too long to get anything done! So, maybe I should shut up about painting houses professionally.)

The purpose of editing is to ensure that the audience has half a chance of figuring out what the author is trying to say. It has been said that James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness novel Ulysses is the most difficult thing to read in the English language. Since fighting through more than ten pages of the thing in one sitting gives me a splitting headache, I don’t disagree. Joyce would have done the English-reading world a great favor by consulting a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style!

Hey, Jimmy, ever hear of quotation marks?

So, by trying to bypass the editing process, the early surrealists’ attempts at automatic writing produced pretty ungainly stuff. Of course, from concept to pen, “automatic” writers actually do a lot of editing. Take, for example, two lines from Joyce Mansour’s first book of poetry (supposedly automatically written) Chris:

I will fish out your empty soul
In the coffin where your mouldy body lies

Do you, or anybody you know, think in such complete sentences? I don’t. Even if I started with the complete mental image, I’d do a lot of backing and filling to gin up those two lines complete with intelligible word order. I’d likely start with the coffin image, then realize I needed a subject to view the image, then maybe come up with the fishing idea, and so forth.

It’d all happen really fast because we humans are really fast verbal thinkers. It might almost seem instantaneous if I were willfully not paying attention to the process. But, “the absence of any control exercised by reason” would NOT obtain!

Does anyone believe Salvador Dali’s The Hallucinogenic Toreador is NOT the product of careful planning?

Similarly, does anyone believe Salvador Dali’s The Hallucinogenic Toreador is NOT the product of careful planning and reasoned arrangements of intertwining visual components? I doubt if Dali, himself, would assert that!

I am currently working on a simple painting that realistically depicts a woman’s eye. I’ve had it on my easel for at least a week, during which time I spent a couple of days carefully erasing the eyebrow that I made too dark in the original underpainting. I’ve spent another day deciding whether to mix up additional yellow paint to correct the skin color, or just get started with what paint I already have on hand and worry about running out when, and if, I run out.

That’s all part of the editing process.

It’s something every artist has done all the way back to the cro-magnon guy (or maybe girl) scribbling graffiti on the cave walls in Lascaux. DaVinci spent a lifetime editing details of the Mona Lisa. Dali, trained in the same style, did the same thing.

Why would Breton be so enamoured of automatism? It goes back to his reliance on the image Freud posited for human mental activity.

Freud imagined a mind divided against itself. He imagined a subconscious filled with desires and emotions trying to express itself, but held in check by a conscious ego that constantly says: “No, No! You can’t say or do that!”

Breton’s goal was to free the subconcious from conscious control.

To a Zen Buddist that model of mental activity is absurd. Zen’s ancestor Taoism solved Breton’s problem roughly twenty-four centuries earlier with the image of the “uncarved block.”

Basically, as the second line of Lau Tsu’s Tao Te Ching says:

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

That means dividing things up (by naming them) breaks them. Dividing the mind into subconscious and conscious parts breaks it.

Having a conscious mind controlling a subconscious mind results in insanity. To a Zen Buddhist, the sane person has a whole, undivided mind. What Freud imagines as the conscious part in fact always chooses a plan that expresses the desires of the unconscious part. How could a sane person act differently?

To a Zen Buddhist, it’s all one mind, not a bunch of disjointed pieces at war with each other.

What about the many examples of individuals whose unconstrained desires would run them afoul of society? To the Freudian surrealists, that was the normal state of affairs. To Zen Buddhists, on the other hand, that indicates one of two situations:

* Stupidity in which the conscious mind chooses inappropriate means to express the “unconscious” desires; or

* Mental illness in which the unconscious desires are such that no person “in their right mind” would actually desire them.

For example, Breton’s surrealists professed to admire the freedom from constraints expressed in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Sade’s protagonists have a desire to cause suffering in others. To the Freudian surrealists, that forces a choice between consciously suppressing the violent urges, or going to jail for acting them out.

Having that desire in the first place would horrify any Buddist! Buddhists want to end suffering. You’d have to stand on your head, philosophically speaking, to imagine a Buddhist subconsciously desiring to cause suffering for any creature. The very existence of such a desire demonstrates a deranged mind!

The Buddhist would choose the kinder, gentler way of confining the kooky Marquis in the eighteenth century version of a loony bin, while providing him barrels of ink and reams of paper with which he could mentally live out his barbaric fantasies without actually hurting anyone. That, of course, is exactly what the French authorities did.

Good for them.

Of course, the Sade-smitten surrealists were generally neither stupid nor insane. A quick search revealed exactly zero instances of surriealists being jailed for violent behavior. Several of them did run afoul of decency laws, but most of us now would opine that was the fault of the laws, not the law breakers. I’m fairly confident that, though the surrealists often depicted instances of cruelty, they pretty much never actually hurt anyone, themselves.

Even that famously revolting shot in the film Un Chien Andalou by Dali and Luis Bunuel, that apparently shows a girl’s eye being sliced open, didn’t actually happen. It was a special-effects masterpiece.

So, what does all this mean for surrealism in the first quarter of the twenty-first century?

Well, a number of historians counted surrealism as dead at the end of World War II. Others confidently claim that surrealism died with Andre Breton in 1966. Still others say it died with Salvador Dali in 1989.

My experience indicates that surrealism might insist, along with Mark Twain: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

I constantly see exquisite new works done in a style that can best be described as surrealist. That is, these works render images of mental landscapes and ideas in a startling realistic way. They make the life of the mind visible.

Sounds like surrealism to me!

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