Surreality Show, or Rebelling Against The Real (Book Review of Surrealist Subversions) by Alison Ross
I am about three-quarters of the way through Surrealist Subversions, and I actually had to take a break from it for a bit over the holidays to recover my (in)sanity. Indeed am still reeling from its unmitigated awesomeness and stinging lucidity. It has hit me squarely in the gut - despite the ethereality suggested by its title, it's a raw read. In fact, surrealism is much more viscerally REAL than any philosophy I have ever encountered. I've always loved the surrealists, but for their art; I wasn't as versed in their political-philosophical ethos, even though of course I had discerned the contours of their value system through the assertion of their art. But this book makes surrealist ideals excruciatingly explicit, to the point where they cannot and will not be ignored.
This particular book compiles the writings of the Chicago Surrealists, a group that is still thriving in the midwest. Most people think of the surrealists as a defunct group of European artists and poets in the 1920s, whose impact was great but whose lifespan was brief. Not so, we learn, thanks to the prolific rantings of the Chicago group who seek to subvert every meticulously crafted element of our cherished provincial ways of thinking. Surrealism vastly pre-dated the 1920s and will persist mightily into the future. Indeed, surrealism so omnisciently insinuates itself into our lives that we scarcely recognize it. The philosophy appears in the form of our daily protests against the tyranny of work, against bigotry and other brands of discrimination, against political oppression, against the cynical squelching of creativity, and so on.
For that is what true surrealism is: it's not the elaborate dream symbols in a painting or the jarring juxtapositions and incongruous images in a poem, although it is that too. But those are merely SYMPTOMS of surrealism - expressions of this ebullient condition.
No, surrealism is, simply, the will to enjoy absolute unbridled freedom, the likes of which is our birthright. It is the willfulness to metaphorically revert to the halcyon days of our childhood, where imagination reigns, so we can capitalize on our innate creative impetus.
After all, Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." He knew that imagination is the tool that we utilize to puzzle out the seemingly insoluble dilemmas of our life, to bring about whimsical joy. Without a healthy imagination, existence becomes a tedious trudge through meaningless minutiae. But a fully functioning imagination enables us to live more jubilantly consequential lives.
Basically, through its writings, the surrealists desire to overturn the sundry institutions that aim to suppress and stifle our ultimately irrepressible colorful and compassionate natures. The surrealists long for the ubiquity of creative anarchy, because this will bring us back to a more primitive (and therefore more civilized) state of bliss.
Surrealist Subversions is compartmentalized into sections that touch on themes such as patriarchy and gender oppression and liberation, miserabalism and the media, the terrors visited upon society by white culture, environmental purity, black art and music, pop culture, critiques of the establishment left, and so on.
"Miserablism" is what the surrealists stringently oppose; our society nourishes a culture of abject misery, through attempting to placate our various hungers in moronically misguided ways (consumerism, religion, etc). "The Quest for the Marvelous" is what surrealists feverishly seek. The Marvelous is anything that radically rewrites our collective fate to encompass unhinged liberation of the creative force as opposed to rigid imprisonment of the imagination.
"The Marvelous vs. Miserabalism" might be a suitable subtitle for this book.
The ideas in Surrealist Subversions are not dramatically different from the ones you might encounter in, say, a tome of liberal tirades or even Buddhist essays. But what's disparate in this book from socialistic scribblings or mystical musings is the presentation. The surrealists do not hew to political ideology and will viciously slam the sometimes-lazy left with scathing critiques if need be. Surrealist views are antithetical to right-wing authoritarianism, to be sure, and surrealists fiercely embrace the working class and all other oppressed peoples, but they hold no punches when it comes to criticism of the more bourgeois among liberals, with their hypocritical lifestyles.
Furthermore, the surrealists have an edgier, more aggressive approach than the Buddhists, and do not shrink from linguistic violence. The surrealists aim for a vigorously peaceful existence rather than a more zenful placidly peaceful one. Duality is something to cultivate in the surrealist cosmos, rather than eradicate toward realizing a more centered state, ala Buddhism.
The rantings in Surrealist Subversions make no stealthy secret about their disdain for that popular emblem of surrealism, Salvador Dali. They especially repudiate his later work as distressingly derivative and nauseatingly commercialized. Indeed, the early surrealists kicked him out of their movement when they felt his direction was sharply diverging from theirs.
This may seem excessively doctrinaire and dogmatic, and yet I can see their point. I still like Dali, though, quite a bit, and would not be afraid to flaunt that in the surrealists' face. I credit Dali, among others, like Miro, for drawing me deeper into the world of visual art.
The surrealists, in the end, are anti-establishment, and so they oppose the enshrinement of art in multi-million dollar museums. Again, I can see their point, even as I do revel in big museums like The Prado, the Louvre, The Met, MoMA and so on. But I also love street art and folk art and outsider art and believe that we should paint murals and spray graffiti on every public wall on every corner.
What is most luxuriously satisfying to me is the surrealists' maniacal polarity toward the world of work. It's so good, so rife and rich with radical righteousness, I am devoting an entire rant to it, complete with copious quotes, in the next issue of The Cat. Stay tuned.
I also appreciate the true gender equality that the surrealists cultivate; they are neither misandrists or misogynists, but simply humane toward both genders.
Surrealist Subversions has become my bible. Instead of filing it away on a bookshelf once I am finished with it, I am going to keep this book out in the open, and refer back to the copiously underlined passages with rigid regularity. I am going to preach the gospel of surrealism whenever I can. Sure, that sounds antithetical to surrealism, because it's about freedom, not preachiness. But somehow, dogmatic sermonizing in the service of liberating the imagination seems incongruously appropriate in this case, and I don't think the surrealists would mind at all.
"To the fellow anarchists and like-minded revolutionary dreamers, and most especially to the gender-bending 'zine-wielding animal-rights Earth First! monkeywrenching billboard-revising Zapatista punk hip-hop Critical Mass prison abolitionist copwatch computer-hacking race-traitor Crimethinkers micro-radio underground -- in other words, to the young rebels of all ages who֨ave been creating vital outposts of resistance, revolt and revolution around the world."