Study Guide

Surrealism Introduction

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Surrealism Introduction

Hey, Shmoopers, a question: how many Surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Answer: A fish.

Confused? Good. That's the point of Surrealism, with its melting clocks, its men with apple faces, and its mechanical elephants.

When you hear the word "Surrealism," the first thing that comes to most people's minds is that moustache-with-a-man-attached known as Salvador Dalí. And that's a good start… but it's hardly all there is to the crazy, madcap, dissociative world of Surrealism. Surrealism is often associated with the visual arts (thanks to Dalí, who made Surrealist painting famous), but in fact it developed as a movement not only in the visual arts, but in the literary arts as well.

A group of writers—headed by a dude named André Breton—got together in the early 1920s in Paris. They wanted to shake things up on the literary scene. Breton published The First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, which defined the aims and goals of the Surrealists. Among those aims was to create new forms of literature that would break with the old. Break? Ha. More like blow to smithereens.

The Surrealists were mostly poets, although some of them also wrote novels and other prose works. They developed, among other things, a technique called "automatic writing," in which a poet would let words, images, and sentences flow freely onto the page, without interruption. The Surrealists were influenced by psychoanalytic ideas, and their literary techniques—like automatic writing—allowed them to write in a way that was more in tune with unconscious drives and impulses.

The Surrealists were literary bad boys and this was exactly why their writing was so revolutionary. They didn't depict settings, scenes, or events that were "realistic." Crazy, irrational things happen all the time in Surrealist literature: we'll find animals who brush their teeth, houses that bleed, people who eat rats, and a million and a half other utterly trippy things. Their work often evokes dream and fantasy, and forces us readers to see and think about the world in a whole new way.

Because, after all, what's more insane, confusing, and thought-provoking than the world we live in? Have you looked at an anglerfish recently? Or a naked mole-rat? The wha—?

Surrealism puts a funhouse mirror up to our lives to make us realize how distorted and magical everything is—from a sunset to an iceberg to the Mariana Trench of our own minds. We're all mad here: our dreams make no sense, our bodies act in unpredictable ways, we're unaware half the time about what we actually want or need. What better way to showcase that nuttiness than with a little bit of Surrealism?

What is Surrealism About and Why Should I Care?

We're going to let Woody Allen take care of this one.

In a scene from the movie Midnight In Paris, the perplexed Gil Bender finds himself travelling through time to the 1920s. He feels kind of alienated: who can he tell about his wackadoodle time-warping ways? Then, he ends up in a café with Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and Luis Bunuel.

"You guys are going to think I'm drunk," Gil says. "But I have to tell someone. I'm from a different time […]"

"Exactly correct," says Man Ray. "You inhabit two worlds. So far I see nothing strange."

"Well, yeah. You're Surrealists," shrugs Gil.

And that, Shmoopers, is why you should care about Surrealism. No, not because we think you're going to end up time-travelling (unless you're this guy), but because you can think of the Surrealists as the best people to turn to when you're feeling a little loony.

Are you in love and confused? The Surrealists have your back: they understand. Was your dream last night wildly upsetting and distorted? Lean on a Surrealist's shoulder. Do you ever get paralyzed by the mysteries of life? Cry it out with a Surrealist; she gets you. Is the universe terrifyingly vast and human existence ant-like and pitiful? Tell a Surrealist all about it; he knows what you're going through, bro.

It's the same comfort as the Cheshire Cat saying "We're all mad here." A little creepy, sure. But also comforting. Hey, we're all confused, we're all confusing, and the world is surreal. Thems the breaks.

If the world gives you confusing lemons, say the Surrealists, make melting/floating/exploding-lemon-with-eyes-and-beak-and-moustache lemonade. And then, instead of drinking that (admittedly weird) lemonade, set it on fire and write about your experience.

You should also care, of course, because those Surrealist guys were a hugely influential force in 20th-century literature. Modernism and Magical Realism, for instance, were two important movements that were influenced by Surrealism. Not that the Surrealists themselves care about such things… they're too busy trying to make art in anti-gravity situations.

Surrealism Resources


A Brief Guide to Surrealism
This is a succinct introduction to the Surrealist movement and its roots.

Surrealism in Literature
Here's another pithy overview of the movement, with references to its development in the visual arts.

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