A while ago I was watching the PBS Idea Channel video, “Is Super Mario a Surrealist Masterpiece?“. A very interesting exploration of a classic video game, art history, and Japanese culture in its own right, what jumped out to me was a line from Andre Breton’s The Surrealist Manifesto:
“…the realistic attitude… clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit.”
“Whoa! That’s the Church!” was my first thought. Which is a disappointing first thought.
Our culture, and specifically, my protestant, evangelical culture, has become hostage to a paradigm of interpreting and understanding reality and God’s action in history in the most fruitless way.
We are not known for our love. Our art is not known for its rich and boundless creativity, depth of expression, and trailblazing imagination. Our intellectual pursuits are subservient to our theological presuppositions. Instead, we are seen as being hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement; mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit are our synonyms. Like all good art, Breton’s words prove unfettered to time in their grasp of the human condition.
Western Christianity, as it is understood in the year 2018, is in crisis. We have spent generations affirming and reaffirming ideas, doctrines, and dogma to the point that the well-worn tracks of our thinking have become for us a crater that, rather than try to escape, we have called home. And the wheels that rutted us have been turned into shields that we try to hide from our anxieties behind, succumbing to the “incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable”, as Breton says.
Except, that’s not quite true. The “mania of wanting to make the unknown known” isn’t incurable. At least, I don’t think that it is. Perhaps, like Breton and his contemporaries believed, we need to open ourselves up to new possibilities and the real beyond the real.
A Crass Summary of Surrealism
If I were to crassly sum up the history of Surrealism into a single sentence I would say Surrealism can be seen as the confluence of Impressionism, Dadaism, and dream psychology: movements that arose in response to the tired realism that marked the Romantic works of the 18th Century; a reaction to the political and cultural values belived to be responsible for World War I; and the work of Sigmud Freud.
At it’s core, Surrealism is about the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated elements to create a work that raises questions more than simply conveying ideas. The argument being that, since our subconcious, dreaming mind pays no regard to rules or sensiblities in its creation of images and events as we sleep, neither should the waking mind be bound by such limitations.
In a lot of ways it’s about how context shapes meaning. Take for example Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone. We know and have feelings about telephones. We know and have feelings about lobsters. Both are fairly mundane (unless you are a kid at a grocery store, then the live lobster tank is the highlight of your day). But what happens when you combine them? As Anna Claybourne asks in her book Surrealism, “Does it surprise you, scare you, or make you laugh? Is it ugly, silly, strange, or beautiful?”. This is the invitation to consider new possibilities and to think about things in a new way that surrealism offers.
But Surrealism, to me, isn’t just about putting random things together to see what happens (if it ever really was). Because even in our dreams, there is a logic at work – a sometimes bizarre and alien logic to be sure, but a logic nonetheless. So too with Surrealist art. There is a certain logic to a herd of elephants with tubas for heads. There is a certain logic in business men falling from the sky like rain. It’s almost like taking metaphor seriously. Not for the sake of reducing metaphor to a singular, literal understanding; but to create space to engage with the myriad emotions and implications of an idea in a way that gets our logic, rules, and expectations out of the way, and thus, begins us thinking differently… almost like a renewing of the mind. This is where, for me, Surrealism begins to collide with the life and practice of faith.
Surrealism and Faith
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”
Can’t you just imagine those words in the hands of surrealist painter, René Magritte? Men in black suits and bowler hats leaping out of the water like a school of flying fish as a boat cuts through the frenzy, net in mid-toss. Suddenly I see these overly familiar words in a new light and my engagement with, not just this image, but all associated ideas of evangelism, becomes invigorated. It’s familiar… but not too familiar… but not too not familiar. It’s surrealism.
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.”
Isn’t this a lot like that eye scene from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (which is still, to this day, rather horrific)?
This was how Jesus challenged the deep ruts of law and tradition of his day: with similie and metaphor; language meant to capture the imagination, ignite our emotions, and push back against our assumptions by placing them in a new context.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field…”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…”
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…”
“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”
Why did Jesus not say anything without using a parable? Some say it’s because the people Jesus spoke to were an agrarian people that would connect to the agrarian imagery and help it make sense. But if that was the case, why did no one seem to understand him? Some say it was to obfuscate the truth from those who wouldn’t understand, but if you are trying to reveal truth and save the world, what’s the point in that?
Maybe it’s because the kingdom of heaven is indescribable; that the realities of the divine are so “other” that we lack the adequate language (sort of like a Lovcraftian horror, but without the horror… the opposite of horror). Like how no one can see God, so God becomes incarnate. We cannot understand divine truths, so the divine truths become incarnate (a.k.a. art) that we forever explore and ponder and grapple with.
The Fruit from our Tree
Andre Breton and his crew saw war, authoritarianism, and facism rise on the wings of the logic and values of their day. It’s no wonder they wanted to change how people thought and percieved because the alternative was literal Nazis. What is the fruit of our current evangelical climate of literalism and fundamentalism? In my eyes, at best it ranges from “fine, I guess” if not a bit unfruitful. But at worst, and in a lot of cases, it is complicit in supporting and fueling our worst human tendancies.
We have taken the mystery and made it mundane by reducing the prophetic possibilities of God’s Logos into a single interpretation, methodology, hermeneutic, experience all while eyeing with suspicion and fear anything foreign to us. We have taken the holy, the set apart, and profaned it by making it common and homogeneous.
Except we actually haven’t. There are a wealth of interpretations, methodologies, hermeneutics, and experiences that make up the Great Tradition. But rather than explore and engage them, we have pitched our tents on the first chunk of land we found and waged holy war against everything outside our camp (just look at the way some evangelical leaders sling the word “heretic” like they’re some weird Reformed Robin Hood). What a sad way to pursue and celebrate the mysteries of God, and the redemption and restoration of all things that Christ invites us to participate in. The things of God are not things we understand once for all time – they are bigger than what a single mind can ever fully comprehend. And the mystery, as Richard Rohr says in The Divine Dance “isn’t something that you cannot understand – it is something that you can endlessly understand!”
More Than Real
While “surreal” has come to be synonomous with “weird”, “unreal”, and “dreamlike”, it was originally a french word meaning “beyond real” or “more than real” (Breton described it as “a sort of absolute reality”). Perhaps, spiritually speaking, it might be considered “the most real.” I don’t know. But isn’t that what we believe about the kingdom of heaven and the reality of God? That this life as we know it is but a dim reflection of the greater whole? That it is in fact our perception of reality that is dreamlike and incomplete? Like the Apostle Paul wrote, “For now, in this time of imperfection, we see in a mirror dimly – a blurred reflection, a riddle, an enigma. But then, when the time of perfection comes we will see reality face to face.”
I believe that art, particularily art like surrealism, which challenges our assumptions and sensibilities by posing questions to us and inviting us into humility and empathy, instead of idealogically safe and familiar conclusions, is what we need. It is the shovel we wield to help dig us out of the ruts of our understanding. It’s how we grasp the mirror and tilt and twist it to catch the light from a different angle in hopes to see more of the reflection.