The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Surrealism: A literary and artistic movement whose proponents view the unconscious as the source of imaginative expression and who seek to liberate the mind from the constraints of reason, convention, self-censorship, and conscious control. Surrealism, which arose in France in the 1920s, grew most immediately out of Dadaism — a movement aimed at destabilizing the art and philosophy of the time through nihilistic works designed to protest the madness of war — but was also influenced strongly by the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. It subsequently spread internationally, throughout Europe and into the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, and Australia. Characterized by experimentation and a preoccupation with the unconscious, surrealist works typically feature unusual sequencing and syntax; free association; fantastic, even nightmarish images; and the juxtaposition of jarringly incongruous elements.

Guillaume Apollinaire, an early twentieth-century French writer and surrealist precursor, coined the term surrealism in describing Parade (1917), a collaborative ballet by Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, and others, as “a kind of super-realism [sur-réalisme].” Subsequently, in 1924, André Breton, another French writer and the chief founder of the surrealist movement, co-opted the term. In his Manifeste du surréalisme (Surrealist Manifesto), Breton challenged “the realistic attitude” as “hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement[,] … made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit.” Attacking rationalism and logic in favor of imagination, he advocated “a new mode of pure expression,” which he called surrealism and defined as “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 thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” He further described surrealism as “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.” Subsequently, in 1929, Breton published a second surrealist manifesto in the final issue of the movement’s flagship journal, La révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution) (1924—29).

As Breton’s manifestos suggest, surrealists aim to transcend the reality to which we are accustomed, to enter the realm of the “super-real,” and to unify the conscious and unconscious. As such, they privilege dreams, hallucinations, and the sleep/wake boundary and seek to tap into the unconscious through techniques such as “automatic writing” and “automatic drawing,” spontaneous expression said to be given over to and guided by unconscious impulses. Other common techniques include collage and “exquisite corpse,” in which individuals collaborate in the production of a text or visual image through cumulative additions, typically in accordance with some rule or after seeing the prior segment.

Surrealism has also had significant sociopolitical dimensions. Indeed, it was founded as a revolutionary movement with the aim of achieving social change by freeing society from false rationality and social strictures. Many members embraced communism, and its second journal, Le surréalisme au service de la révolution (Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution) (1930—33), was even more political than the first. However, the more mainstream journal Minotaure (1933—39), which featured surrealist art and literature, brought the movement more recognition.

Significant influences on surrealism aside from Dadaism and Freudian thought include the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch; two nineteenth-century French poets, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud; and the twentieth-century Greek-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. Surrealism in turn significantly influenced a variety of literary genres as well as film and art. Absurdist playwrights Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett are indebted to the movement, as are many magic realists; Beat writers such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg; and Caribbean writer Aimé Césaire, a founder of the négritude movement. Moreover, while surrealism reached its height as a movement between the First and Second World Wars — and while various scholars have argued that the movement ended with World War II, Breton’s death (1966), or the death of Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1989) — surrealist works continue to be produced today, particularly in the visual arts. Indeed, Terrance Lindall, an artist and author of the New International Surrealist Manifesto (2003), asserted that “Surrealism Isn’t Dead, It’s Dreaming,” the subtitle of an essay entitled “What’s New in the Surreal World” (2006).

Noted surrealist writers aside from Breton include Louis Aragon, René Char, Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, and Philippe Soupault. Franz Kafka’s fiction is commonly called surrealistic, although most of his works preceded the surrealist movement. Surrealist artists include Jean Arp; Leonora Carrington, who was also a writer; Max Ernst; Frida Kahlo; René Magritte; André Masson; Joan Miró; Man Ray; Dorothea Tanning; Remedios Varo; and Dalí, who, in provocatively surrealist fashion, once declared, “There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.” (“Dalí Is a Dilly,” The American Magazine [July 1956]).

EXAMPLES: Breton’s novel Nadja (1928), which begins, “Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ’haunt.’” Other noted surrealist literary works include Kafka’s novella Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) (1915); Les champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields) (1920), coauthored by Breton and Soupault using the automatic writing technique; Robert Desnos’s La liberté ou l’amour! (Liberty or Love!) (1927), a collection of poems; Carrington’s short story “Down Below” (1944), recounting the author’s experiences “on the other side of the mirror” following her mental breakdown; and William Burroughs’s Nova Trilogy (1961—64, revised 1966—68), also known as The Cut-Up Trilogy for Burroughs’s use of the cut-up technique, which he used to incorporate material from The Word Hoard, manuscripts he had written in the mid-1950s.

Examples of surrealistic artwork include Ernst’s painting Le baiser (The Kiss) (1927); Dalí’s painting The Persistence of Memory (1931), shown below; Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932); and Tanning’s painting Eine kleine nachtmusik (A Little Night-music) (1943). Surrealist films include Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929), a sixteen-minute short by Luis Buñuel and Dalí that begins with a woman’s eye being slit open; L’âge d’or (1930), a collaborative Buñuel/Dalí feature film; and Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a film short by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid filled with dreamscapes and Freudian overtones.


Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory: An example of surrealism.

Recent surrealist literary works include Franklin Rosemont’s essay collection An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers (2003); much of Haruki Murakami’s fiction, including his novels Kafka on the Shore (2005) and IQ84 (2011); Zachary Shomburg’s poetry collection The Man Suit (2007); Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps (2010); Blake Butler’s novel There Is No Year (2011); and Nouveau’s Midnight Sun (2014), an anthology of twenty-first-century surrealist poetry edited by John Thomas Allen. Contemporary surrealist artists include painter Carrie Ann Baade; digital artist George Grie; painter Eva Juszkiewicz; and Laurie Lipton, who does black-and-white drawings. Other contemporary works permeated by surrealism include Twin Peaks (television show 1990—91, 2017; film 1992), created by Mark Frost and David Lynch; Michael Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); My Winnipeg (2007), which director Guy Maddin described as a “docu-fantasia” about his hometown; and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s semi-autobiographical movie The Dance of Reality (2013).