Study Guide

Surrealism Characteristics

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  • Automatic Writing

    The Surrealists were big on this thing called "automatic writing." That's when you write whatever comes to your mind without stopping or structuring your thoughts. You just go with the flow, and let everything pour out onto the page unfiltered.

    The Surrealists liked this style of writing because they felt that it led to a more spontaneous, more genuine form of expression. Of course, if us at Shmoop were to pour out whatever came into our heads onto the page and turn it into a poem, it might not be very good. But the Surrealists, in fact, were very good at it. Some of the most famous works of Surrealism are works produced through "automatic writing."

    Chew On This

    Tristan Tzara loved scribbling poems in "automatic writing" mode. Check out his poem "Volt," which evokes automatic writing.

    And here's an imaginary conversation between the writers Georges Bataille, André Breton, and André Masson on automatic writing. It doesn't end well.

  • Juxtaposition

    One of the defining stylistic characteristics of Surrealism is the juxtaposition of imagery. The Surrealists like to put together crazy things that we wouldn't normally associate with one another. They might compare a head to a shoe, or a door to a snake, or a cup to a tree.

    The juxtaposition of elements or images that might not seem to have much to do with one another on the surface is a way that the Surrealists tried to get their readers to make new connections, and to see things in a different light. It's also one of the key techniques that the Surrealists used in their writing.

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    Robert Desnos' poem "The Zebra" juxtaposes a zebra's dark stripes with prison bars.

    We'll find some serious juxtaposition going on in the poem "The Landscape." Robert Desnos compares love to a "flint sparking under my feet at night." Delve into the poem here.

  • Association

    Another stylistic strategy that the Surrealists are known for, which is related to their use of juxtaposition and automatic writing, is association. "Association" refers to the connections that we make between different thoughts, ideas, or images. Sometimes these associations are really bizarre, which, according to our Surrealist buddies, makes them that much better.

    The Surrealists like to "associate" thoughts and images with one another, even if those thoughts and images are super different. Automatic writing is dependent on association as a literary technique. The Surrealists liked to let their minds (and their pens) wander and come up with all kinds of nutso associations.

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    So how do Surrealist poets use association? In his poem "Central Heating," the Surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy associates the central heating system to the human body and heart. Have a look at an analysis of this association here.

    In "Free Union," the poet André Breton makes all kinds of crazy associations between his wife's body parts and other things. Have a look at these associations here.

  • Irrational

    The Surrealists thought that Western society placed too much emphasis on rationality. The problem with rationality, according to them, is that there is a whole realm of experience that exists outside of the rational mind. After all, we often behave in irrational ways, don't we? We might argue with our boyfriend or girlfriend about something silly, even if we know that that isn't the right (or the rational) thing to do. We might eat a lot of junk food, even if we know rationally that junk food isn't good for us.

    The Surrealists felt that the irrational is a big part of our identity as human beings, and it's also a big part of how we understand and see the world. And they wanted their literature to reflect that. A lot of crazy things happen in Surrealist literature. A man might suddenly turn into a bird. A child might become a stone. The events and images that we'll find in Surrealist literature often don't conform to the laws of rationality. Anti-rationalism, and the irrational, are huge in this literature.

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    Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic bug. This is just one of many examples of irrational events we'll find in Surrealist literature. Have a look at these quotations from the novella.

    In Antonin Artaud's poem "Plates of Sound," brains brew in glass and the sky seethes with immodesties. Pretty irrational, we'd say. Have a look at the poem here.

  • The Unconscious

    Ahh… the spooky, spooky unconscious. That deep, dark place beneath our conscious minds, where all that stuff from our childhood is buried, as well as all our fears and neuroses. The Surrealists were very interested in the unconscious mind for a couple of reasons. First of all, they were interested in it because the unconscious is the source of the irrational (and the Surrealists loved the irrational). Second of all, the unconscious is also a source of creativity.

    As a group of writers, the Surrealists were interested in digging beneath the layers of our conscious experience just as they were interested in digging beneath the layers of our rational experience. They believed that the unconscious mind is central to our identity. In order to truly understand who we are, we need to understand what's going on in that dark place in our mind. And it's for this reason that their writing often evokes the unconscious.

    Chew On This

    In Robert Desnos' "Under Cover of Night," there's a shadow at the window. Could that shadow be our unconscious self?

    In Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up to find that he's turned into a bug. Could his transformation be motivated by unconscious drives? Perhaps.

  • Dream and Fantasy

    We knew this one was coming. After all, if the Surrealists are interested in the unconscious mind and the irrational, how could they not be interested in dreams and fantasies? Dreams and fantasies are often the means through which our unconscious selves, and our irrational drives, find expression.

    Surrealist literature often evokes dream and fantasy worlds. Strange things happen—things that couldn't happen in reality. When we read a Surrealist poem or novel, we will often feel as though we've entered into a dream world. It's where all the fun is at.

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    In "Last Poem," the speaker of Robert Desnos' poem dreams so deeply of his lover that he loses touch with reality. Happens to all of us.

    In Pierre Reverdy's "Live, Flesh," the speaker fantasizes about a corpse rising up and walking. Pretty fantastical, we'd say.

  • Revolution

    The Surrealists were revolutionary writers. That is, they felt that there was something seriously wrong with the society in which they lived. That society, remember, had just come out of World War I, a war that had resulted in the brutal deaths of millions and millions of people. Nothing more surreal than mass death, eh?

    According to the Surrealists, a society that was capable of so much destruction was definitely corrupted. And so part of their mission was to revolutionize society. They felt that literature—specifically Surrealist literature, of course—was capable of giving people new perspectives both on themselves and on their society. Surrealist literature was a way to escape the old, corrupted ways of thought (which had led to so much dang destruction) and to enter new ways of thought: ways of thought that would be more productive, rather than destructive.

    Chew On This

    Tristan Tzara's "Poem for a Dress" is revolutionary both in terms of form and imagery.

    The speaker's body is shattered and born anew in Antonin Artaud's poem "Who am I?" It's all symbolic of revolution, of course.

  • World War I

    The massive destruction caused by WWI had a huge impact on the literary scene. After the end of the war, many writers felt that they had to reckon with the meaning of so much blood 'n' guts.

    Surrealism, as a literary movement, partly emerged in response to the war. The war itself, after all, was a surreal experience: destruction on that scale had not been experienced in the history of Europe. The emphasis on the surreal that we'll find in Surrealist literature reflects the craziness of the war.

    The Surrealists also felt that the social, cultural, political, and economic frameworks that had led to the war had to be challenged. And they began to challenge these forms by creating a new type of literature… one that made as little sense as war itself.

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    The speaker of Benjamin Péret's "Little Song for the Maimed" tells us all about how terrible World War I was.

    So just how devastating was World War I, exactly? Delve into some facts about the War here.

  • Dada

    You can think of Dadaism as the older cousin of Surrealism. The Dadaists, like the Surrealists, were way into in the irrational, and their work emphasized this. They also wanted to destroy the old cultural forms and create new ones.

    A big name in the movement was the French artist Marcel Duchamp, who coined the term "anti-art." He created works of art out of ready-made objects (like spades and, ugh, urinals). The Dadaists ignored traditional artistic conventions; in fact, they loved breaking them.

    But Dada was different from Surrealism in a number of ways. For one thing, the Dadaist movement didn't have a "leader" in the way that the Surrealist movement did (it was led by André Breton). Surrealism was based in Paris and was very closely associated with the city, whereas Dadaist artists and writers were scattered all over Europe. But the two movements had a lot in common, and Dada served as a big inspiration for the Surrealist writers based in Paris.

    Chew On This

    Tristan Tzara is a poet who is associated both with Dada and Surrealism. His "Poem for a Dress" focuses on irrational imagery—and of course the Dadaists were big on the irrational.

    Tzara's poem "Way" is another example of Dada writing. Have a look at its striking imagery here

  • The First Manifesto of Surrealism

    How revolutionary was Surrealism? Shucks, it had its very own manifesto.

    In 1924, André Breton, a French poet who is also the most important figure in the Surrealist movement, issued The First Manifesto of Surrealism. The publication of this manifesto is considered to mark the "official" beginning of the Surrealist movement.

    In the manifesto, Breton defined Surrealism as: "Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern."

    Yeah, they were confusing, but the Surrealists were also organized (and used a ton of SAT vocab words). As we can see, the emphasis on automatic writing and the irrational—which characterizes Surrealism as a movement—was already present in Breton's definition of Surrealism. This manifesto played a very important part in defining the movement and giving it expression.

    Chew On This

    The First Manifesto of Surrealism defined Surrealism as a movement.

    And here's a poem by André Breton, "No Proof," which shows automatic writing—one of the concepts defined in The First Manifesto—in action. 

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