Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Bittersweet Taste of Surrealism

Welcome to gorgeous, curious 2011! Overhaul and update! Hiatus ended! Sheets to the wind!

Last week we screened surrealist films in World Cinema, the class at UC Riverside in which I am a proud TA. After we watched the 1928 Bunuel/Dali short film Un Chien Andalou, I asked the class, rather fatuously, if they were ready for Eraserhead.

"Wait, wait," said one of the 75 undergraduates. "I have a question."

"Maybe I can help you with it," I said. 

"What just happened?" he said.

Indeed. "I can't help with that," I said. "Maybe there is someone in the audience here who is high, and would like to help the rest of us?" 

Of course I could have also said: Maybe there is someone in the audience here who is dreaming? Maybe there is someone in the audience here who is profoundly dissatisfied with current hegemonic rules of rationality and aesthetics? Or maybe there is someone in the audience here who is actively thinking about what dominant culture has taught them about "the abject?"

What happens in that film. Ants crawl out of a hole in a man's hand. An eye is cut open. A moon is sliced by clouds. A woman is man-handled. A piano is dragged across a room. A man holds a book/a gun in his shaking hand. Many things happen. A man in a nun-suit rides a bicycle. A woman is disturbed. And many more things. But this was not what I was being asked. I was being asked: "Where was the plot?"

Later that week I read the students' film journals. One of the most startling lines: "Un Chien Andalou is a film in which essentially nothing happens." Was that my fault?

Essentially nothing, I thought. Maybe this is true. Where the student might have felt he was delivering an incisive critique of what seemed to him a worthless film structure, he inadvertently stumbled into my most secret dear heart of artist's longing. How beautiful can "essentially nothing" possibly be? Isn't it the goal of meditation to arrive at essentially nothing? Isn't true creative practice the state of controlling essentially nothing? Isn't love itself the miracle that springs from essentially nothing?

Last quarter I read Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology." In the dense maze of abstraction, I found a window, a clearing, a space to gather: Heidegger's call for our awareness of efficiency and optimization as the governing principles of our lives. Efficiency. Plot delivery. Optimization. Moral and message. Clean lines. Making Sense. 

In other words, technological thinking, which is ubiquitous in late capitalism, has so structured our daily lives that it feels terrible to try and step out of it. It feels like a sin. It may very well be a sin.

Walrus. By the way.

And so I came to lunch at a tiny Italian restaurant with my friend April, and I said, "How do I lead a discussion on Surrealism tomorrow? How do I let the students know that the disruption of 'rational' flow is one of the most important political acts of the 20th and maybe also the 21st century? That it took a kind of surrealist vision to come up with the idea of real social justice? That all revolutions stem from surreal and utterly unthinkable dreams of a future in which the rules of the entire socio-political order have been restructured? How? How?"

"Make them play," was her answer. "Ask them to do something surreal."

Make them play! Make you play! May you play! 

There is no stopping you once you've decided to feel the intense pleasure of a fencepost in the moonlight.

Exquisite Corpse. We shall see if it is more bitter or more sweet.


  1. Optimization. Optimization. Optimization. I have a student who dreams like Bunuel. Her Dad won't pay for her college tuition, though, unless she's in Business. May the Vanessa blogs and Bunuel films of the world free her and others like her. The last thing we need in America is more efficiency.
    The first thing we need is minds like yours plastered all over the place. Seriously, how do you sound so organized and coherent when talking about irrationality?!

  2. There's also this problem: all that making sense, all that efficiency and rationalization, doesn't MAKE sense. It's mostly insane, the veil of sense, a farce of logic covering a kind of madness. A peculiar kind of madness that most of us think is reasonable! I've never experienced good "efficient" art. Talk about how inefficient novels are, always, how long they take to write and long to read. Watch Fitzcarraldo or other films by Herzog about people with daringly surreal visions for their lives. Talk about poetry because it refutes all rational forces and throws dreaming and memory into the world. Suggest they spend more time sitting in the sun with nothing to do, or just a pen and a journal. Tell them they don't have to live only the texts they have been given but that they get to write them, too.

  3. You opened a way from surrealism to the rest of the world that I never saw. To play is not a loss of time. It creates brain associations that lead to thinking differently.

  4. nice one, Vanessa. nothing is essential, especially when most somethings are distractions to keep our minds in someone else's order.

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