Sunday, 2 May 2010

We Find Ourselves in the Full Daylight of a Sudden Discovery

Studying Surrealism? I was asked this at a Book Fair yesterday. No!

But then, what am I doing? Exercising a curiosity, enjoying the art, acquiring books…. However, what fascinates me, and which in the conversation I tried to convey a little by calling Breton a rational intellectual afraid of the irrational, is Surrealism’s mistakes.

Breton absorbed too much Freud, mistaking a Freudian interpretation of the mind for the external world; that world which exists beyond our experiences. This misunderstanding was very fruitful. It is also helps us see Freud’s own, quite fundamental, errors. I explore this a little, here.

Do not read it in Freud who is always wrong

Veronica Forrest-Thomson
(from Cordelia: or, ‘A Poem Should Not Mean, But Be’)

Rather than being the great discoverer of the irrational, a distinction that should go to Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, Freud domesticated it (Gellner in his book the The Psychoanalytic Movement explains why).  Consider The Interpretation of Dreams, and his theory that all dreams are fulfilled wishes:

…they are psychical phenomena of complete validity – fulfilments of wishes; they can be inserted into the chain of intelligible waking mental acts; they are constructed by a highly complicated activity of the mind.

To prove this he elucidates every single item in a dream, referring to it back to some fact in the person’s life – sometimes it rings true, often it feels forced.  However, he can only do this on the assumption that everything in the mind is open to rational enquiry; that is, that you can make the unconscious conscious.  This can only be done if you assume that the unconscious is rational.

For some critics of Freud the unconscious doesn’t exist: because it cannot be proved.  In itself this argument means very little: as Gellner shows in his review of Karl Popper, the Realist view, that that there is an external reality independent of our senses, is a metaphysical belief.  Thus, like so many things in life, the unconscious is part of our speculative thought, whose existence we may posit, but which we cannot absolutely prove. 

Breton by following Freud so closely brings out a particular failure in the latter’s conception of the unconscious.  Surrealism is noticeable amongst the Modernists in its use of figurative, or narrative, imagery (even if there appears to be no logic to it).  This reflects its rationalist preoccupations; the influence of ideas, thoughts, memories etc….  However, the unconscious, it seems to me, has little to do with the rational part of the mind.  Rather, it is dominated by the emotions and our body’s physical processes.  And it is these that generate (or trigger, might be a better word) ideas, images, and memories.  Klee, I believe, understood this very well - and even more importantly showed how feelings and ideas are all mixed up. 

If one believes that the unconscious is truly irrational it cannot be completely explained, as Freud believed.  Often we can only speculate about what is going on, and much remains mysterious.  There is also a corollary to Freud’s approach.  Just as Freud reduced the unconscious to explanations, he sort to foster ideas onto it (Oedipus Complex, Projection, Transference etc).  Seeming not realise that there is a great difference between ideas and feelings, the former a poor copy of the latter.  Often poor copies (is art the best one?), or simply speculations, which may have little substance; at least for many individuals. 

We see this clearly in certain types of therapy, where ideas are used to explain a person’s problems –their parents were Narcissistic, or they wanted to have sex with their father.  People are then given intellectual answers to illnesses that may originate in the emotions. 

Gellner in his book on the movement suggests the success of Psychoanalysis was in part due to the relationship between the therapist and the client.  In our mobile, insecure, secular world this is the only relationship where a person can be guaranteed to be heard at length, and over a long period of time.  As he put it: it may be the only public occasion we can show our dirty underwear. 

Of course, even within the modern world there are areas of life which generally give security and stability – parents and their children, especially in the early years.  Where there is no stability during these formative years, which presumably gives emotionally security to the child, the rest of a lifetime can be spent trying to recover it. This is the role of the therapist – the ideas are mostly camouflage.  Their purpose is an emotional substitute to the lost dependence of early childhood.  Of course, ideas can be important too, and sometimes people need them to supplement their emotional life – like taking pills, or using a walking stick. 

Surrealism itself is a good example of the richness of bringing in ideas, of creative misunderstandings, but it also indicates some of the problems too.  In Breton’s case it limited his engagement with the world, and his understanding of its deepest mysteries:

Andrè Breton came to visit me.  I expected he would be poetically and sensitively alert to the atmosphere of my life, to my inarticulate emotions.  He was not.  He was intellectual…

He had been talking about the Surrealist game of getting together and then engaging in unplanned action.  They will take a train and get off anywhere, a place they do not know, and wait for surprises, things to happen… He tells this with solemnity, more like a King speaking at an audience than a fellow artist talking to other artists…

Then he said “The other day I received a letter from a woman… she commented on my emphasis on ‘surprise,’ on coincidences, and said she would like  to meet me alone under the Pont Royal one evening at midnight. She would not identify herself in anyway.”

I waited for the rest of the story.  Breton added: “I did not go, of course.”

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