Monday, October 15, 2007

Surrealism and the holy crap

Surrealism is a revolutionary poetical movement that strives for the liberation of mankind in all its aspects. This is not a simple task, and we see that the surrealist movement often suffers from weaknesses in making this understood. As we know, this has been a constant problem throughout its history, especially as regards its relations to art and "culture".

Here, we'd like to focus on the problems of unclarity regarding the supernatural and its ideological companion, supernaturalism, and also about some related surrealist hookups which seem to be lacking an honest and critical approach.

It is (more or less!) known that surrealism is actively and explicitly against religion.

Other beliefs of dubious character also occur though, e.g. that surrealism, inspired by the psychoanalytic ideas, sees as its mission to liberate the unconscious from the repression of the superego; that surrealism accepts and likes everything that defies rational thinking, including not only dream and chance but also, for this reason, spiritism, esoterism, chaos, the "wild", "primitive" peoples, everything non-Western, sadism, perversions, crime, serial killers ... all this in opposition, of course, to the prevailing capitalist order, but also in opposition to rationalism itself.

We are sorry to say that the reasons for these miscomprehensions are not only misunderstandings from art scholars or journalists, they are often caused by texts written by surrrealists themselves. In the worst cases, these surrealists appear to be little more than art-producing new-age apologists. In better cases, they are inspired writers that somehow have a difficulty of explaining the limits and circumstances of the surrealist appreciations of dreams or of primitive peoples, for example. Maybe they are actually confused, or maybe lazy. (We're not in the business here of judging who is a surrealist or not - but regardless of the label they might put on themselves, they hold attitudes that we find important to confront and that we think surrealism doesn't benefit from. In some cases we think it's obvious they misunderstand basic concepts of surrealism, in others it might be necessary to modify or clarify the surrealist standpoint. We don't mention names because it's better for those concerned to recognize themselves instead of feeling that they need to defend themselves. If someone should be mentioned, why not Breton himself? Isn't it obvious how exaggerated his trust in Freud was, or that he had an uncritical belief in the abilities of (certain?) clairvoyants, mediums and even astrologists?)

In many surrealist texts, the uncritical repetition of Freudian psychoanalytic concepts is embarrasing (or to say the least outdated). Freud's ideas can at most be taken as an inspiring and fascinating attempt to make a theory about the mind, but not as indisputable truths or undoubtable scientific discoveries about it. It must be admitted that they consist of non-scientific specualtion and partly also of falsifying evidence. Freud's writings have in many ways also been contradicted by later research and discoveries. This might therefore not have been possible to know at the time and the surrealists were also apparently lacking in knowledge about scientific methods and the necessary rigour demanded of scientific investigation. The psychoanalytic "case studies" are of no more scientific value than the many observations of UFO landings and their accompanying "conclusions". The tendency to regard the Freudian concepts as holy and unquestionable, whatever they are, does no good to surrealism.

Alchemy and other occult, esoteric or mystic currents, dead or alive, are other subjects that need to be approached more critically. If they historically could be described as "precursors" to science as well as to surrealism (even though many of them still prevail or have been reintroduced), it must also be clarified in what way they have been doomed to be abandoned: their supernaturalistic (often religious) world-view made (and makes) it impossible for them to significantly advance human knowledge and understanding of the world. (The development of science and critical thinking does this, though.) What remains, at best, is a poetical practice misunderstanding itself as anything else. Their beauty and fascination, then, is also tragic.

To hail alchemy as a watchword, like so many surrealists do, is obscurantistic. Alchemy had certain interesting elements, while others are examples of superstitions and the primitiveness of thinking that we should fight today as ever.

The double tool of surrealism: dialectics (or, why not say "critical thinking?") and analogy can only be useful if they are kept apart but also taken to the extreme. Superstition and supernaturalism are failure to do so.

Esoterics and psychoanalysis have been getting an exagerrated attention from some surrealists also just because they to a large extent are symbol-makers. The mere listing of these conventional symbols in accounts of dreams or "objective chance" experiences are not of specificly surrrealist value. Symbols have no truth value and surrealism is not a symbolism. Symbols, just as anything else, can of course be of poetical value if they appear in a personal mythology relating to actualities in the individual desires. But symbols, looked up in a book in order to write a more juicy text to impress the reader, are just anthropological anecdotes, and to base observations on those is a false drama. There is a literature based on the concept of objective chance, that sometimes seem shallow and fake in the sense that they don't really tell about the poetical value for the individual, they list a number of encounters such as every person has now and then. Chance encounters are valuable to people not because they reveal telepathy or other psychic powers, fate or signs of a higher truth (they don't!), but simply because they consist of coincidences that involve elements who talk to the memories or desires of the persons involved or create a certain kind of beauty or adventure. It's no mysticism. It's a heightening of the sensibility in everyday life.

Among the exaggerated hailings are the ones of "primitive peoples" or anything not belonging to the western civilization. This seems sometimes to have a tendency of a blind embrace, disregarding everything that wouldn't fit into the picture. According to this attitude, primitive peoples have a closer non-exploitative relation to nature, they have a poetic relation to the universe, their art is integrated in all of their lives etc; but it's never mentioned that they might have superstitions, they never have a limited understanding of the world, they don't repress women or children and are never violent. A criticism of western civilization doesn't need this one-sidedness. Maybe it is a misdirected solidarity that comes from the fact that primitive and non-western peoples certainly are repressed groups. That surrealism is against workers' chauvinism is clear and obvious since the 30's confrontations with stalinist "workers' culture", but it's time to abolish also "primitive" or "non-western" chauvinism. Neither they, nor us, benefit from it.

We're not new agers or exotists. We have to be more clear about our relation to magical thinking as a world view. As with alchemy, we have to distinguish things. Magical thinking, stripped of its supernaturalism, is no longer magical thinking. It is poetic sensibility.

Magical thinking has to be replaced by personal mythology and poetical thinking. Magical thinking creates superstitions, conserves lack of understanding and blunts critical thought. It enforces gullibility and authoritarianism. Next step is religion and capitalism. Magical thinking did not die with the development of civilization, it's at the base of capitalist ideology and teams up with its "rationalism". (Isn't it enough to look at commodity fetishism and advertisement?)

Some surrealist writing shows a more or less plain opposition to science in general and might scorn its strict rational methods. This is absurd. What is the point of attacking the scientific method? Surrealism has never been an irrationalism, absurdism, anti-intellectualism or denying rationality. (If it ever had tendencies to it, they should be abandoned!)

Science and the scientific method are among the greatest achievements of the human mind, and are enormously valuable to the understanding of the world and, at least potentially, a great vehicle against human misery; material, social, intellectual as well as spiritual. This doesn't mean that science would be the only source of knowledge or of inspiration, but it can certainly be one of the sources, alongside other expressions of the spirit that are more likely to be mentioned by surrealists; love, desire, creativity, play and curiosity: activities outside of, but not necessarily in opposition to, science.

The scientific method is nothing more than an extension of critical thinking. That scientists are often bought and sold and used for commercial and repressive purposes - much in the same way as artists - is an altogether different affair. Science might be done mainly by experts, but is in its philosophical base egalitarian. (Science should be made by all!) Science's theories about the world can in principle be tested by anyone, provided he or she does it in controlled circumstances and with relevant methods. Anyone that have claims about some part of reality will fail to convince scientifically if the claim can not be confirmed through repeated experiment or (in relevant cases) randomized, double-blind observation. Scientific rigour, thus, is above personal interest and a moral question.

The scientific world is not lacking in self-consciousness about its scope and limitations. We want to draw special attention to the international movement of so-called Skeptics in this matter. Robert T. Carroll, author of the Skeptic's Dictionary ( calls skepticism a "virtue" rather than a philosophical system. The different groups and individuals related to this movement fight frauds and pseudoscience and debunk supernatural claims, in an ongoing fight to protect the mind from charlatans, spiritists, healers, fakirs, astrologers, psychics and other liars, robbers and swines, and defend the status of the scientific method. Many sceptics also fight religious superstitions and their preachers' absurd claims about reality.

There must be no doubt that surrealism whole-heartedly supports these struggles, although with (at least theoretically) a wider and complementary understanding. This is not only a fight for the defence of science. Those "healers" (protected by the freedom of religion, i.e. the freedom to fool and be fooled), can destroy people's lives giving them false hopes, false treatments, false beliefs, false understanding of reality and obediance to false authorities besides giving them stupidifying entertainment and wasting their time. In this way it's also a fight for the defense of the freedom, power and understanding of the human spirit.

Surrealism should be in a special position to properly embrace the whole scope of the reasons to fight supernaturalism: the scientific, political, ideological, moral and poetical reasons. We don't need any mystical, esoteric or psychoanalytical concepts to explain that the human mind by itself (interacting, of course, with the "outer world") is capable of its deductions, productions and inspirations, that the poetic sensibility is not divine or supernatural, but purely human.

Surrealism should be able to appreciate the discoveries and the achievements of the rational and intellectual minds, at the same time demand the same liberty for the imagination and see them as one and the same quest. Surrealism should see the repressions of free inquiry (scientific investigation, research and knowledge), of the freedom of expression and the freedom of imagination as one and the same. The liberation from capitalist and state repression, commercialism, work ethic and careerism is the same as the liberation from priests, superstitions, healers and psychics.

If surrealism will have any significance today, it is still in the struggle for the liberation and expansion of the totality of the human potentials; fighting all the repressions of the mind: from stifling symbolism and stupidifying supernaturalism to repressive ideology and downright ignorance; for the expansion of rational thinking as well as of inspired thinking.


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