Why Surrealism Matters
Thoughts on thought from the files of the River Journal's Surrealist Research Bureau
Younger readers, avert your eyes from this month’s column; imagine yourself as the head goose in a large V-shape of your fellows lazily heading south. Your beaked nostrils flare at the faint scent ahead of turbulence, of doubt and darkness, and you make a discreet turn away from the unknown danger and lead your younger, more inexperienced fellows towards sunshine and safety. Just so, this column should warn you of storm clouds roiling and gathering herein. Your fellow younger geese should follow your posterior into the sunshine of salvation and eternal bliss.
Oh, but if your nerves are made of steel, and fire from heaven you would steal: read on!
In the summer of ‘69, nothing made sense, not to me, and apparently not to the world at large. I’d just returned from two and a half hallucinogenic years of madness in Vietnam and enrolled on the GI Bill in college while trying to piece together my shattered ego, but as I said, nothing made sense. A series of strange free plays at school struck a chord, politically: Jarry’s scathing Ubu Roi from the 1890’s, where Pere Ubu, like then Richard Nixon was a venal, crass power-mad politico. The Firesign Theater’s “Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers!” led me to examine their sources, the font behind these brief moments of clarity. Oh, and what wonders I found! Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses to the “unholy trinity” of the fathers of surrealism, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautreamont. From these three you could stretch back further into the wild, turbulent roots of Poe, DeSade, and the horrific Old Testament tales of a vengeful, blood-drenched deity. Man’s entire history seemed a bizarro world of depraved emperors, sadistic Popes, religious wars of intolerance and vendettas and cruel oriental vices par excellence.
Lautreamont, though, was my guide and pole star. That fortuitous meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella. Imaginary tales blossomed forth in my brain of a real Rimbaud and Lautreamont meeting at the barricades of the Communard (they were both known to have battled on the ramparts, Lautreamont dying shortly thereafter and the teenage Rimbaud forsaking poetry forever and fleeing to Africa as a gunrunner) colliding with visionary idylls of Orwell’s Homages to Catalonia, to the Dada uprisings which led to the final orgasms of organized surrealism in the 1930s. From there a fervent underground grew, to the beatniks of the 50s, the hopeful Yage and psylocibn prose/poems of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Kesey, et al to Lennon’s Utopian Imagine, Lucy in the Sky and yes, back to the Firesign Theater again where I began working as a roadie and writing of my own first brief excursions into the looking glass world. Oh, and it’s a wondrous land of beauty, of never-ending delights of discovery.
Scratch the writings of the bizarre Raymond Roussel (or almost any surrealist) and you’ll find someone who’s said (or felt), “I feel a burning sensation at my brow, I once felt there was such a star at my brow and I can never forget it.” Back again to Jarry’s Ubu Roi; it was the opening of this play, in 1890, followed by wild riots, that caused the poet and audience member W.B. Yeats to write sadly, if prophetically, “After us, the Savage God!” He could as easily have flashed forward to the riotous opening night of Bunuel/Dali’s 1928 “The Andalusian Dog,” a mysterious box strapped to the chest of a somnabulist bicycler, ants crawl out of the palm of his hand, six cassocked priests pull a piano by ropes across a sitting room, on top of which is a dead, rotting horse covered with buzzing flies. Flash again to the Soundtrack of the Damned; Jim Morrison’s ode to the Oedipus complex, The End; The Jefferson Airplane’s ode to the Alice books, White Rabbit; Pink Floyd’s early hymn to Ego disintegration, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”
I began to realize and accept Jung’s concept of the animus and the anima, that we all hold within us a dark side and that to hold it secret and repressed leads only to neurosis and alienation from the marvelous world around us, which will not be silenced! Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, who “bubbled, boiling and blaspheming in nuclear chaos,” was a leavening counterpoint to that marvelous, calm world of the beyond/within.
Humor, like The Firesign Theater, is another such counterpoint to the often serious, often deadly world about us. Recently, intruding into the world of politics for instance, a group of young surrealists, angered by then candidate Rick Santorum’s equation of homosexuality with bestiality, simply began, after an online voting campaign, using the name Santorum as a euphemism for the aftereffects of anal sex. It’s now a commonplace, mainstream definition, as any Google search will confirm, but its importance to me is simply proof of another surprise visitation from the dark/surreal side into the otherwise fixed, immobile reality of a bewildered Mr. Santorum and his followers.
Like UFOs, Bigfoot or lake monsters, the dark and surreal side of our selves will always surface and intrude whenever it’s ignored or marginalized. In the 1930s an early group of young surrealists opened a storefront in Paris, the Surrealist Research Bureau, in which passers-by were encouraged to come in and write down their dreams, their visions, their Ouija board contacts with the dead. I sometimes hope, in some small way, my own Surrealist Research Bureau will also encourage such visits to and from the “other side.” Beauty will be Convulsive or it will not be at All!
Finally, I recently learned of the passing of The Firesign Theater’s Peter Bergman after a brief illness. This one’s for you, Pete! More Sugar and Happy Trails!
‘til next time, Keep spreading the word: Soylent Green is People! All Homage to Xena!