I’ve always assumed I was a surrealist but recently I thought I had better double check. I might be wrong. Maybe I was something else. Perhaps I was an absurdist. Perhaps surrealists are always absurd but absurdists are not always surreal. There must be formal definitions. How could it be that I’d never investigated this crucial matter of identity?
The doubt arose when I heard Scott Sizemore, an infielder for the New York Yankees, describe the experience of being on a baseball field after a long injury-imposed absence as ‘surreal’. People toss the word around as casually as a baseball, but can they be right, technically speaking?
Well why not? If an experience seems a bit heightened and dreamlike, that’s good enough for the likes of me. But Andre Breton, who wrote the manifestos, might have called us all cretins and cockroaches and pimps. He had a bad temper. Back in the day when Surrealism was spelled with a capital ‘S’ and had revolutionary ambitions he tossed people out of the movement right and left.
Respectable sources will tell you it was because of their failure to commit sufficiently to collective action. Breton himself, in the Second Manifesto, was far more entertaining, tossing one man out because he was ‘incapable of considering the political or sexual problem other than from the viewpoint of Gascony terrorism’; another for writing ‘a disgusting article on love’; a third for ‘congenital imbecility’; yet another for ‘literary coquetry in the worst sense of the word’. In short the lot of them were ‘cads, shammers, opportunists, false witnesses, and informers’ whom Breton simply could not let ‘run around loose’. In return they vilified Breton in a pamphlet called Un Cadavre and formed a competing branch of Surrealism under George Bataille, who could be every bit as withering as Breton.
Perhaps this was all performance art in service of the Surrealist principle of ‘total revolt’. More likely Breton was a bit of a prick, tearing down so many restrictive customs only to throw up so many new ones like a big wet blanket over all that liberation. I feel certain he would have had devastating insults ready for bourgeois sportsmen who dared to co-opt his labels. One sympathises since without any rules at all you don’t have much of a movement, you just have individuals doing their own thing. Which is fine, unless it really was a movement you wanted.
As for me, I’ve realised that my surrealists never were the Bretons and the Tzaras and Artauds. Mine were Tex Avery and Harpo Marx and Yogi Berra, who said ‘it’s amazing what you can see if you look’. I’d still like to take up the mantle of Breton, and Bataille as well for that matter, and call myself a surrealist at the risk of incurring their ghostly wrath, but only if I can put the fun back into it. And that, my friends, is more or less what I’ve tried to do in Fontoon.