I. What is Surrealism?
Surrealism (pronounced suhr-REAL-ism) is a literary and artistic movement in which the goal is to create something bizarre and disjointed, but still somehow understandable. Surrealist paintings and novels often have a dreamlike quality – they sort of make sense, but they’re extremely bizarre and hard to follow.
II. Examples and Explanations
The artist M.C. Escher provides a superb example of surrealism in art. His art is “realistic” in a sense – it employs perspective, and contains physical objects that seem like they could be real. But it is ultimately irrational. For example, his famous lithograph Relativity shows a twisting knot of staircases going in all different directions. At first glance, it is a three-dimensional, fairly realistic drawing of staircases. But if you try to follow the staircases individually, you become hopelessly lost. The appearance of rationality turns out to be an illusion.
It was the end of sorrow lies. The rail stations were dead, flowing like bees stung from honeysuckle. The people hung back and watched the ocean, animals flew in and out of focus. The time had come. Yet king dogs never grow old – they stay young and fit, and someday they might come to the beach and have a few drinks, a few laughs, and get on with it. But not now. The time had come; we all knew it. But who would go first? (André Breton, Le Champs Magnetiques)
It would be hard to miss the weirdness in this passage. But at the same time, it’s not completely weird. It hovers somewhere between sense and nonsense, which makes it an excellent example of surrealism.
III. The Importance of Surrealism
Surrealism emerged as a direct response to World War I. In that terrible war, people all over Europe experienced the devastation of industrialized warfare for the first time – brave soldiers charged headlong into machine gun fire and were cut down in their masses like cows in a slaughterhouse. The war also brought such horrors as chemical warfare and the deliberate bombing of civilian population centers; the sheer scale of the war was unprecedented. And it left an entire generation deeply traumatized.
In the wake of these horrific events, nothing seemed to make sense. The old certainties that had given life meaning – religion, nationalism, etc. – had burned up in the fires of war. How could artists and novelists create anything meaningful in a world so bitter and damaged? One answer was surrealism. By embracing the world’s chaos and irrationality, surrealist artists helped European culture recover from the trauma of World War I.
Today, surrealism is less popular than it was in the immediate aftermath of the war, perhaps because the traumas of war are not as broadly shared. But there are still many artists, writers, and filmmakers who feel that surrealism is the best way to express their worldview and create beauty out of meaninglessness.
IV. Examples of Surrealism in Literature
Not all literary surrealism is quite as weird as the Andre Beton passage we saw in section 2. (On the surrealist spectrum, that quote falls closer to absurdism than to magical realism.) In some cases, authors create a narrative that seems easy to understand, but that has bizarre and irrational events. In Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor, for example, the doctor experiences an increasingly strange sequence of deaths before ultimately being stripped of his clothing and laid into bed with a man whose body is decaying while he is still alive. Like much of Kafka’s work, the story is chilling in its details, and very accurately replicates the experience of a nightmare, but at the sentence level it is written quite clearly.
What miracle is this? This giant tree.
It stands ten thousand feet high
But doesn’t reach the ground. Still it stands.
Its roots must hold the sky.
Mark Daneilewski’s House of Leaves is composed of small snippets of text, all pasted together in a seemingly random collection lacking chronological structure or order. Each snippet makes some sense on its own, but not much – and it’s hard to connect the different snippets together. By reading carefully, though, readers can discern multiple horror stories that have been stitched together into a single book. Indeed, some of the snippets come from books about the book, and books about those books, and so on.
V. Examples of Surrealism in Popular Culture
Video games have recently started employing surrealism, especially in the horror genre. For example, the first-person shooter E.A.R. puts the player in a series of creepy, abandoned spaces squaring off against supernatural enemies. The game simulates the main character’s experience as he slowly goes insane, and the player is never entirely sure what’s real and what’s a hallucination. Much of the imagery is Kafka-esque in its imitation of a nightmare.
Supernatural urban legends often have a surreal component to them. For example, the Slenderman is a tall, faceless man in a black suit who purportedly appears in photographs of people before they die. Although the Slenderman is easy to envision, he is deeply unnerving due to his surreal lack of human features, motivations, and personality.
VI. Related Terms
Realism, clearly enough, is the idea that literature should be realistic. That is, it imitates the real world as much as possible, and tries to avoid saying anything that does not make sense.
Magical realism is an outgrowth of surrealism. In this literary style, the world is basically believable, but it contains a few supernatural, surreal, or bizarre elements. For example, the film Pan’s Labyrinth has a basically realistic plot, but its main character is a little girl whose world is full of monsters and magic – the line between imagination and reality is never entirely clear.
Absurdism is even more bizarre than surrealism. In a surrealist novel, the characters or situations might not make sense, but they can still be pictured or imagined. In an absurdist novel, even this is impossible. The novel might even be written in animal sounds, or be otherwise incomprehensible to human beings.
These terms all lie along a spectrum, from most absurd to most realistic. Absurdism is the most absurd – so absurd that it comes close to complete nonsense. Surrealism may seem normal on the surface, but any attempt to make sense of it quickly fails. Magical Realism is fairly realistic, but has certain fanciful elements. And Realism lacks all fanciful or absurd elements.