To be is to despair and to despair is to remember the thousand tightly missed connections and not-yet completed conversations that will reveal themselves eventually as never really begun. The Surrealists got despair, perhaps better than most. They adopted Existentialism’s finer frustrations and rendered them with comedy, joy, and horror in sometimes strange proportions.
The comedy of coincidence and the tragedy of imminent abandonment dominate their work. Everyone is always alone, and this fact is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying in Surrealist Art.
André Breton, a founder of the movement, defined Surrealism as larger than a philosophy, deeper than mere art, an example of pure reason. His definition was both narrow and enormous, and it left his fellow writers, thinkers, and artists with the notion that they either were or were not Surrealists, whether they thought they were or not. If you said you were, you probably were not, and vice versa. The Surrealists did not reside in a safe and amusing world interrupted by slightly sad moments and then dinner; they lived fully in a horrifying and hilarious existence that demanded full attention, especially to one’s unconscious.
I love Dalí, but I find his works exhausting sometimes. Every pixel is tasked with depicting that simultaneity of horror and hilarity in a search for the third thing that would be produced by marrying those first two. For Breton, that third thing is purity. His definition of the word surrealism, at the conclusion of his first Surrealist Manifesto, declares it: “Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.” By its nature, purity is exhausting.
Thought with no control. Dreams. René Magritte, whose work “Golconda” is at the top, comes closer than does Dalí to depicting my own inner dreamscape. Are the men in suits and bowler hats falling up or floating down? Is this an invasion, a bombing run dropping drone businessmen, or the Rapture? In any of those readings, each faceless figure is utterly self-contained and alone.
Alone. To be alone is nothing, to realize it is despair. I was going to write about a moment alone, but I am not now in that moment (and it was only a moment), and I am not mature enough a writer to recover it, describe it, depict it without falling into the trap of encouraging a reader to feel sorry for the figure of me alone in my lonely aloneness. It was the night when walking … pah, enough. Everyone has been there in that place inside themselves, when they might see the bowler hat men in the painting are falling and not rising. That is the hilarious and horrifying thing, the surreal thing, about loneliness: it may be universal.
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In a short prose-poem, Breton attempted to find that Surreal purity in despair itself:
The Verb to Be by André Breton
I know the general outline of despair. Despair has no wings, it doesn’t necessarily sit at a cleared table in the evening on a terrace by the sea. It’s despair and not the return of a quantity of insignificant facts like seeds that leave one furrow for another at nightfall. It’s not the moss that forms on a rock or the foam that rocks in a glass. It’s a boat riddled with snow, if you will, like birds that fall and their blood doesn’t have the slightest thickness. I know the general outline of despair. A very small shape, defined by jewels worn in the hair. That’s despair. A pearl necklace for which no clasp can be found and whose existence can’t even hang by a thread. That’s despair for you. Let’s not go into the rest. Once we begin to despair we don’t stop. I myself despair of the lampshade around four o’clock, I despair of the fan towards midnight, I despair of the cigarette smoked by men on death row. I know the general outline of despair. Despair has no heart, my hand always touches breathless despair, the despair whose mirrors never tell us if it’s dead. I live on that despair which enchants me. I love that blue fly which hovers in the sky at the hour when the stars hum. I know the general outline of the despair with long slender surprises, the despair of pride, the despair of anger. I get up every day like everyone else and I stretch my arms against a floral wallpaper. I don’t remember anything and it’s always in despair that I discover the beautiful uprooted trees of night. The air in the room is as beautiful as drumsticks. What weathery weather. I know the general outline of despair. It’s like the curtain’s wind that holds out a helping hand. Can you imagine such a despair? Fire! Ah they’re on their way … Help! Here they come falling down the stairs … And the ads in the newspaper, and the illuminated signs along the canal. Sandpile, beat it, you dirty sandpile! In its general outline despair has no importance. It’s a squad of trees that will eventually make a forest, it’s a squad of stars that will eventually make one less day, it’s a squad of one-less-days that will eventually make up my life.—translated from the French by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow, published in The Paris Review, issue 95, Spring 1985
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This first appeared in slightly different form in February 2015.
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