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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Irrealism is not a surrealism: a consideration of Analogon #32 (The sphere of the dream)

by G.S. Evans


Based on the popular definition of surrealism -- that it’s a style of art that produces “fantastic or incongruous imagery” -- it would be hard to distinguish irrealism from surrealism. When we look at what surrealists actually think and produce, however, the differences become apparent. A recent issue of the journal Analogon, published by the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists, helps to illustrate this. Titled “The sphere of the dream,” the essay that opens the issue declares that the importance of dreams is that they represent (after Freud) the “royal road to the unconscious,” and that the unconscious is the true reality. The surrealist’s claim that they aren’t interested in art, only in “researching” the unconscious, is confirmed by the approach they have taken with this issue, the majority of which is composed of straightforward recountings of dreams that the group's members have had. The implications are clear: if the surrealists produce work that sometimes looks like art, that is simply because the unconscious has revealed itself in a form that resembles art, not because the person involved has consciously created art. Indeed, as this issue makes clear, the whole purpose of surrealism is to relax the conscious mind so that the unconscious can directly communicate with us. This is a process that occurs naturally, according to the surrealists, when we dream, but can also be induced by various surrealist techniques, such as automatic writing.

Irrealism, which also considers the dream state to be of fundamental importance, differs from surrealism in that it sees itself very much as being in the realm of art and artistic technique (an irrealist might write a story that was inspired by a particular dream, but would never report the dream directly). It, therefore, considers consciousness to be integral to its work. This difference is manifested in two different forms. The first might be termed existential: the surrealists, in believing that the dream state reflects a concrete reality (the unconscious), hold that this reality can interact with the "physical" reality of the world and be synthesized into a higher reality, a surreality. Irrealists, on the other hand, hold that there can be no such synthesis between dreams and reality, instead holding that there is an inherent tension between the two and that, indeed, the point of an irreal story is to bring out this unrelenting tension between what we can imagine (the dream) and what is possible (reality); indeed, in an irreal story, the unreal is continually juxtaposed against the real such that the reader can never find a “point of rest” - this because the reader is never certain which "reality" he or she is in. Since, in real life, a person can either be in the dream state (if we include here daydreaming, the hypnagogic state, delirium, etc.) or in the waking state (conscious of and aware of our surroundings), irrealism, by forcibly juxtaposing the two, self-consciously creates an artistic artifice. Thus, there is no suggestion that irrealism is or could be, in any way, a true reality; it is, rather, a device that can, in the way great art can, reveal and enlighten us in respect to reality (in this case, an existential one).

The second way in which irrealism differs from surrealism is phenomenological. Specifically, surrealism holds that what we “see” in a dream are images that are stored in the unconscious, like so many photographs or recordings, being stirred up by our instinctive and libidinous drives. Thus, the unconscious is independent of the conscious mind, whose only role in the imaginative life is to repress the unconscious. Irrealism questions this, arguing (phenomenologically, and at length) that the images we see in a dream are actually being generated by consciousness, though a consciousness that is closed in on itself and using a symbolic language to address various issues of concern to it; that consciousness must be involved in the dream process because dreams tell a story and only consciousness can tell a story; and that because irreal writing, like all good fiction, uses various literary techniques to "induce" a kind of hypnotic state in the reader similar to that of the dream (i.e., when the reader becomes "captivated" by the story and unaware of the "real" world), it more closely resembles a dream in this context than surrealist techniques such as automatic writing, where the writer can only report the various images that appear to him or her, leaving the reader distanced and objective. Thus the irreal writer can more successfully bring the dream state into the waking world of the reader, in an immediate and direct way, than surrealism, wholly engaged as it is in “surrealist” research and the process of revealing one's own unconscious. Where artistry is a key to irrealism then, it is only an obstacle to surrealism.

1. Surrealism: a definition

Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines surrealism as: "the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery in art or literature by means of unnatural juxtapositions and combinations." This definition, which reflects the more common and generic use of the word, could probably be used with equal validity to describe both irrealism and surrealism. A more precise definition of surrealism is given by the The Oxford English Dictionary: "a movement in art and literature seeking to express the subconscious mind by any of a number of different techniques, including the irrational juxtaposition of realistic images, the creation of mysterious symbols, and automatism."

The surrealists themselves, however, wouldn’t be entirely satisfied with this definition either. As articulated by André Breton in the First Surrealist Manifesto (1924) and later writings, the surrealists rejected the categorization of themselves as an art movement or style in the manner of impressionism, cubism, or expressionism. Instead they saw themselves as a movement of the imagination that “scientifically” investigated the unconscious and strove after “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” Breton himself, in fact, in the First Manifesto formally 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 thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”(Footnote 1) Of course, Breton’s position that surrealism should be free of any aesthetic concerns led to conflicts with some of the very artists that made surrealism famous (e.g., Dali and Magritte). Nevertheless, Breton’s insistence on this meant that when surrealism faded into the background of the international art scene in the course of the 1940's 1940's and 1950's, the surrealists didn’t simply disband, as a movement focused on artistic style would have (“art” in the traditional sense of the word is, to the surrealists, simply an affectation and a barrier to reaching surreality). Instead its members continued on with their research into the nature of the unconscious and their development of various methods to bring it forth (various “games,” automatic writing, and other devices).

2. Analogon and surrealist research

That this surrealist research continues to the present day is probably nowhere better illustrated than by the thirty-second issue of the journal Analogon, published by the Skupina ceských a slovenských surrealistu (Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists), which came out in the summer of 2001. One hundred and thirty-two pages long, the entire issue is devoted to the Sféra snu, or The sphere of the dream. The opening essay, co-written by group members Bruno Solarík, František Dryje, and Roman Telerovský, is titled "More Reality!" and declares that the goal of the various public presentations of surrealism -- art exhibitions, publications, and so on -- is to make surrealism "a place for the revealing and conquering of reality."(Footnote 2)

Such a goal, though it might seem ironic in the face of how the public usually perceives surrealism, in fact confirms the basic surrealist position "of opposition to 'pragmatic realism', whose two hundred year attempt to govern Euro-American civilization has more or less collapsed, and 'virtual realism,' that, through its continually expanding media outlets, now supplies the dominant cultural voice and mechanisms of contemporary life." To the majority of the "informed" public, it goes on to say, surrealism is a style of art producing fantastic images; "The surrealists, however, want to present things in precisely the opposite sense. Their aim, among others, is to eliminate the various alluvial deposits -- such as artistic 'style', the entertainment industry, the various forms of phantasmagoric salvation, the endless series of political, military, and who knows what other kind of alibis - under which, the surrealists remain convinced, pulsates a many-sided, concrete, living reality."

A substantial portion of this covered-over reality is described as the "reality of imagination -- that 'queen of ability,' which has the power (and in the long run also the reason!) to orient a person in the social and cultural darkness of the light of day." This nature of this “reality of the imagination” is further delineated with a quote from Synesius of Cyrene, to the effect that "A tyrant could never enjoin us not to gaze into dreams, at least not until he actually banished sleep from his kingdom." Then "the founder of psychoanalysis" (Freud, of course) is cited to the effect that dreams constitute "The royal road to the unconscious." Thus, dreams are important because they give us direct access to the unconscious which, consistent with Breton's interpretation of Freud, is the "reality" that lies under the alluvial deposits of our apparent reality -- "pragmatic," "virtual," and otherwise. It is the real "us" and dreams are the best way, "the royal road" as it were, to get at this real us. "Dreams have in themselves more of the reality of people's struggle for life and its meaning than many of the 'facts' that represent the prevailing societal trends or dictates of the day." Therefore, as this introductory essay concludes, "Surrealist thought doesn't partake in the building of illusion; on the contrary, it prepares for the end of illusion, an end that has to be the beginning of understanding and the searching of a person and life in its concrete, if difficult to achieve, entirety."

The vital importance of the issue’s theme having been established, the dream is then explored in considerable detail. Toward this end there are some essays about dreams, including a "text collage" culled from a survey of the group's members about how they regard their dreams, titled "Unerring appearances: reality - dream - creation - communication"; Alena Nádvorníková's "The hypnagogic state;" and Roman Telerovský's "The ego in the dream and the theory of trauma in the dream." The greater part of the issue, however, is given over to an actual recounting of dreams by the group’s members (with some contributions from members of the Paris and Leeds surrealist groups). A typical example of this would be one of the "Dreams humoresque" from the esteemed film director and group member Jan Švankmajer:

Dream about crossing a street
(July 30,1975)

I am crossing a street. I cross quite energetically without regard to the light signal. In my hand I'm holding a piece of raw meat, wrapped in an old newspaper. While crossing I tear at the meat with my teeth. I don't cross just one street, but a whole series of streets, which are grouped together one after the other. Suddenly behind me I hear a desperate cry. Standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the street I'd just crossed, a man is wailing about how he can't cross over to the other side of the street because somebody stole the green light and so the red light kept shining all the time. In that moment I identified with that despairing man and felt great anxiety from the fact that the "Walk" sign had disappeared from the traffic light.

A few of the dreams are recounted in verse (by Albert Marencin and Karel Hynek) and others are presented by the author in a theoretical context, such as Ludvík Šváb's "Humor in the dream," in which some dreams that he had over a period of 15 years are recounted in relation to Freud's The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious. There is also a series of illustrated dreams, in which collages are built up from various member's dreams; these, in turn, inspired the very similar surrealist "games" from the Paris Surrealist Group that follow.

Thus this journal, which most people at a casual glance would assume to be an "art journal" (despite the sub-title, which reads, "Surrealism - Psychoanalysis - Anthropology - Natural Sciences") is really a research journal, albeit one in the surrealist mode. No attempt is made to be "artistic" and though some of the illustrations, such as the "illustrated dreams," might be looked on as art by some, they are not intended to be art. They were created, quite literally, to illustrate the dreams in question. If they appear artistic as a result, that is because, coming from the unconscious as they do, they have a great deal of imagination. The surrealists are only reporting on this imagination.

3. Irrealism is not a surrealism: an existential consideration

"We certainly wish the realm of dreams to be respectable -- but our works are not oneiric. On the contrary. If "dreams" are concerned in this context, they are very different from those we have while sleeping. It is a question rather of self-willed "dreams," in which nothing is as vague as those feelings one has when escaping in dreams... "Dreams" which are not intended to make you sleep but wake you up." René Magritte (after his break with Breton and the Surrealists)

We are fully inclined to agree with the surrealists that the dream is important. Indeed, the dream state is fundamental to irrealism and something that a good irreal story, in some form, evokes. However, we have a profound disagreement with the surrealists as to what dreams actually represent and how they should be approached. We are not, for example, particularly interested in the simple transcription of dreams. What interests us is how successfully the writer juxtaposes the dream-state against waking reality.

This emphasis, in turn, reflects a belief on our part of the existence of a fundamental and irresolvable tension between reality and the dream-state. That when we are dreaming, we are wholly involved in the dream-state, totally immersed in the category of the unreal; when, on the other hand, we are awake and operating normally in the world, we are totally immersed in the category of the real. The irreal story, especially in its classical, Kafkaesque form, attempts to juxtapose the one (the unreal) against the other (the real). What results, for the reader, is considerable tension and, even, frustration. For the story is neither a dream nor reality: there is, as it were, no resting place, no "neutral matter" as Sartre put it, for the reader to use as a reference point to reassure him or herself that this is really a story about a particular time, a particular person. The story purports to be reality, and yet there is nothing in the story that the reader can use to place the story in the category of the real. This is because reality is constantly undermined, as it is in a dream, and yet the story proceeds as if it is about something that actually happened. The reader is forced to confront this unreality as a reality even though it is never resolved into a reality. This is why The Cafe Irreal will reject an otherwise effectively written story if, in the end, the protagonist "wakes up" and we realize that all the fantastic events described were just "a dream"; the tension caused by the juxtaposition of reality and unreality has been resolved into reality and the story is no longer irreal. Of course, the implications of this are clear: the irreal story is describing something that, according to us, cannot actually be. Irrealism can only exist in art. There never was, and never could be, a world in which one undergoes a "trial" such as Joseph K. underwent. Irreality is created by the forcible juxtaposition of the real and the unreal in a work of art and can, therefore, only exist in a work of art. We believe that, like all great art, its contrivances can illuminate and reveal fundamental truths about reality (especially, in its case, existential ones), but do not create nor describe a “tangible” reality in and of itself. Since we are not interested in describing reality but only in reflecting a reality, one that involves the dream state but cannot be reduced to the dream state, we are interested in what the conscious, rational writer does with the various qualities of the dream-state. Therefore, writing skill, literary style -- up to and even including plot -- are integral to irrealist literature. (3)

But, where irrealism exalts in the irresolvable tension between the real and the unreal, surrealism would not view this dialectic, where reality is the thesis and the dream is the antithesis, as being irresolvable simply because the unreal, the dream state, is by their figuring “true reality.” In fact, it was the very possibility of the synthesis of this dialectic that caused Breton to introduce the word that describes his movement, when he spoke of: “the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” Echoing this, Solarík, Dryje, and Telerovský speak of the "dialectical unification of dream and reality," and while they took pains to add that they don't mean by that the subordination of one to the other, nor the two becoming one and the same thing, it is a unity nonetheless. (4)

Surreality, then, is treated as a “real” thing. Or, at least, a potential real thing. Given its vital importance, the surrealists are quite naturally interested in describing it as it actually is, or would be. The same is true for the unconscious that, in another passage, the writers of Analogon consider to be the true reality, covered over by our apparent reality. Thus, a surrealist is first and foremost interested in describing the "reality" of surreality and the unconscious, which ironically places him or her more in the mode of a realist writer then a writer of fantasy. (Or, in the case of this issue of Analogon, more in the mode of a researcher as opposed to a writer of fiction.) The other techniques that the surrealists use, such as game playing and automatic writing, have the similar goal of describing these realities. In fact, by considering aesthetic considerations as one of the "various alluvial deposits" to be eliminated, the surrealists in this regard go beyond the typical realist writer, who is still quite interested in artistic devices such as symmetry, plot, character, and so on. Indeed, the surrealist can in this way be considered one with the hyper-realist American writers who rejected all and any stylistic affect or attempt at contrivance and instead strove after as straight-forward a depiction of reality as possible. Both would view the sustained tension between the real and the unreal that is the bete noir of irrealism to be an artistic and stylistic artifice, though both would consider the other to be seriously delusional as to what actually constitutes reality.(5)

4. Irrealism is not a surrealism: a phenomenological consideration

"It is true of Surrealist images as it of opium images that man does not evoke them; rather they ‘come to him spontaneously, despotically. He cannot chase them away; for the will is powerless now and no longer controls the faculties.’” André Breton, First Surrealist Manifesto (after Baudelaire)

The second issue of contention between irrealism and surrealism centers around the absolute primacy given by the surrealists to the Freudian unconscious. For if, indeed, we believed as the surrealists do that the unconscious represented the true reality, we could hardly disagree that research into and the revealing of this unconscious would and should be the primary goal of anyone and everyone. But, far from believing this, we question the very existence of the Freudian unconscious.

Reduced to its core element, this disagreement can be explained (regrettably, only at some considerable length) with a consideration of our differing conceptions of what, exactly, an "image" is, and whether it is something that “comes” to our consciousness, or is generated by our consciousness.

Whether we are asleep and dreaming, or awake and imagining, we are dealing with images (something that we "imagine", e.g., when I think of an apple that isn't in my view-of-field), as opposed to perceptions (e.g., the apple that I can see). On this much, surrealism and irrealism agree. The difference, as already stated, arises as to whether the image comes to us, as the surrealists would have it, or whether we ourselves "generate" the image, as the phenomenologists would have it. The surrealists, of course, whose metaphysics, in turn, was based in this regard on Hume.(6) According to Hume, an image (e.g., when we think of, or imagine, the apple) is simply a weaker version of a perception (e.g. the apple we see in front of us). To Hume it is as if the thing we see, whatever that thing is, has been "photographed" or "recorded" by the brain, and when we imagine something we call up that recording, though like any recording, it will be less vivid than the original. Naturally, in the course of our lives, there are many such recordings, far more in fact than we can be conscious of at any one time. Hence, an unconscious. Or, as Sartre described it, "as there is no thought in these thinkers of thought creating its images, these images already exist in our mind. Since at any given moment there are a number of these images that we're not aware of, they then form the unconscious that Hume never articulated but which is inherent in his philosophy and which his whole psychology implied." Freud, though, most certainly articulated such an unconscious and the surrealists used this as the foundation of their theory of the imagination. Namely, that the sole source of our imagination is our unconscious, composed of a multitude of repressed thoughts and memories, being stirred up by various instinctive and libidinous drives. The conscious mind, the seat of rationality that acts as the "censor" of the unconscious, has little or no role to play in this process. According to Yves Dupleiss, “...no conscious mental control goes into the making of a work that deserves to be qualified as absolutely Surrealist," and therefore the Surrealist "only prides himself on that for which he is least responsible [that is, the unconscious]." (Dupleiss, pp. 75-76, 60-61) Their primary “literary” method, automatic writing, is the simple transcribing of the words that "come" to the writer in such a state, without making any attempt to understand or organize them; the whole point of the various surrealist techniques and games is to make the conscious mind "passive," and so allow the unconscious, as if it were a kind of independent, material thing, to step forth into the light of day.

A phenomenological irrealism approaches the question of the image very differently. First of all, we hold that an image is not a passive, material like "recording" of a perception that sits in our unconscious, but is actually generated by consciousness itself to serve a symbolic function. Thus, even on the level of the image, we hold that consciousness is involved the dream-state. Unlike a surrealist, we hold that the mental process used to perceive the paper in front of me is very different from that necessary to imagine a piece of paper in front of me. If I want to perceive the paper in front me, all I have to do is to look at it and direct my consciousness, or "attention," toward it. It will be there, in all of its existence, and all of its visible detail. But if, sometime later, I try to imagine the same piece of paper my consciousness must "conjure" up the image. I cannot simply look at, and focus my consciousness on, an existing object but must imagine an object that I'd once seen, what it looked like, what its qualities were. It is true that in the immediate aftermath of the perception -- if I close my eyes and imagine the paper immediately after having looked at it for some number of minutes -- I will still see the image without any particular extra mental effort and will also see it in nearly all of its detail. As time goes by, however, it will require additional mental effort to remember what the paper looks like. In fact, after some number of hours or days I will begin to increasingly rely on various descriptions (or knowledge) to recall the paper, i.e., the image of the paper, when I try to remember it, won't simply be summoned up as a distinct though faded picture as Hume would have it; rather I will have to increasingly "describe" the paper to myself, that is, decide whether the paper was white, or not; whether it was lined, or not; whether it was large, or not; etc. (I might, in this regard, not recall its size per se but by how much space it took up, proportionately, on my desk, which is still here in front of me. Or, in trying to remember if the paper was lined or not, I might have to recall not the image of it on the desk in front of me, but a later time, when I was actually writing on it, and incorporate this later knowledge into the image I have of the paper.). Only when I've remembered and assembled these various descriptions of the object, will I then recall with any degree of detail what the object actually looked like (though never with as much detail as I would have had if I could simply look at the object). Thus, the mental image is assembled by consciousness, not simply "downloaded" as an intact image from the unconscious.(7)

The implications for the dream-state are clear. If consciousness generates the images we see in a dream then it becomes a non sequitur to say that consciousness isn't involved in the dream-state. Turning off, or "relaxing", the conscious mind to uncover the unconscious doesn't make any sense because the conscious mind generates the images we see in the first place. In other words, if we see an image in a dream it is because consciousness itself has generated the image. And if consciousness has assembled such an image, it has generated it for a reason.

Of course, a dream is more than simply images. It also tells a story, of which the images can be seen as a kind of source material. The surrealists, in arguing that the unconscious is made up of recordings, would not deny that dreams tell a story, though they would most certainly rule out a role for consciousness in the telling of this story. But who then, we might ask, is the storyteller if not the conscious mind? Or, to put it another way, if the unconscious is filled with repressed memories and instinctive drives, and the dream state brings these to the forefront, then what force organizes them into the coherent narrative of our dreams? The memories themselves, in the form of "recordings", would seem incapable of anything more than simply repeating already lived memories, the only variations from the actual lived experience being gaps or distortions in the memory caused by time. And it is hard to imagine how our libidinous and instinctive drives could tell a story. We might wish that we could fly, for example, and have a dream in which we can fly. But it is hard to imagine how this desire to fly can actually tell a story about how we fly. It, like any of our other drives, can inspire a story, or color a story with a certain mood, but what, besides consciousness itself, can actually organize the various elements of a potential story into a narrative? (8)

We think that the surrealists own literary method, automatic writing, points to the truth of our contention. Works that result from using this technique, such as André Breton's Soluble Fish do not particularly resemble a dream, or even a delusion. The writer, letting go of any attempt to have his or consciousness control the text, is supposed to write "randomly" and "without intention"; the resulting work, true to form, is almost entirely lacking in narrative coherence (a sentence or two, perhaps even a paragraph, might begin to tell a story, but then the narrative shifts to another thought or subject, and soon to something else again); in a word, no coherent story is told by automatic writing.(9) And yet, a dream or even a delusion does tell a story -- no matter how strange or unusual the story may be there is still a concrete narrative.

So who, then, is telling the story in a dream? We argue consciousness itself. If we have dreams relating to a difficult decision we must make, it is because we are trying to resolve the various aspects of this decision even while we are sleeping, not unlike the way in which we sometimes want to lie down and close our eyes in order to "think something over," by constructing and re-constructing events and scenarios (much as Aristotle described how emplotment can create a meaningful whole out of varied and disparate elements, a new order out of disorder, and a coherent narrative out of disconnected elements). Similarly, consciousness, isn't "turned off" by sleep, but is simply in a different mode, one in which the rules and regulations of the "real" world have been turned off, leaving consciousness free to explore, as it were, itself. If I, for example, was considering leaving a stable and secure job in order to pursue art and then woke up in a panic from a dream in which I have suddenly lost all of my money in a strange city, I might have to conclude that I’m really and truly worried about the financial consequences of the decision. I might have to realize this even though, up until that point, I’d considered myself oblivious to such consequences. This wouldn’t mean, however, that I’d received a “revelation” from my unconscious; it would mean that I’d come to the realization that I was more troubled by the question of economic security than I’d previously allowed myself to believe (perhaps I’d changed over the years, since I was younger and faced such economic hardships with equanimity, but hadn’t wanted to admit it to myself). Indeed, after waking up from the dream and thinking about it, I might well realize that I’d been concerned over the issue for quite some time, though until the dream it had been in the form of a generalized anxiety that I “hadn’t been able to put my finger on.”

But it was necessary here for the dream to contain a story, some kind of scenario. The realization didn’t come to me through the revelation of a of a single image, or a series of related but still abstracted images, as with automatic writing, but by the telling of a concrete narrative. In the dream I found myself in that strange city, trying to figure out what to do and coming to the realization that there is nothing to do. The city itself may very well not exist, and indeed the potential hardships I might have faced in my decision may very well have nothing to do with being alone and broke in a strange city, but nonetheless their consciousness has constructed such a scenario as a symbolic rendering of a potential future scenario of unacceptable hardship. Without the scenario the dream would have meant little.

The technique of automatic writing, we would argue, simply takes the "conscious" mind out of its "storytelling" function. Consciousness is still there, generating the symbolic images that are presented in the texts of automatic writing, but is no longer trying to bring them together into a story or schema, which might help to make sense of a situation, or help to distill the fundamental elements of a problem. Automatic writing, in our view, presents not the repressed elements of the sub-conscious, but a sort of "stream-of-consciousness" selection of the issues and problems that concern consciousness, are presented symbolically by consciousness and then written down by the writer, but which are not, due to the particular technique, ever allowed to be addressed or worked out in the form, a story or a schema, by consciousness.

We, then, consider a dream to already have some of the basic elements of a literary effort -- a basic situation is presented followed by some sort of a plot, sometimes with a climax and even a denouement. As Sartre put it: "[The dream]...is primarily a story and our strong interest in it is of the same sort as that of the naive reader in a novel. It is lived as a fiction and it is only in considering it as a fiction which happens as such that we can understand the sort of reaction it arouses in the sleeper. Only it is a 'spell-binding' fiction [where] consciousness...has become knotted."(Sartre, Psychology, p. 255) Consciousness is thus the ultimate storyteller. Like a good writer, it not only puts the different elements of the story together into a meaningful narrative, but also, as we described earlier, by its generating the images used in the dream, is like the writer who must similarly generate, via his or her descriptive powers, the image, the object described, in his or her fiction. Given the role of consciousness in this process, we not only don't see their as being any contradiction in making a literature in the traditional sense (i.e. worked over by consciousness) that is directly evocative of the dream-state, as the surrealists do, but consider it to be entirely natural. We therefore can't share Bréton's revulsion for "vile crossings-out [that] afflict the written page more and more," that mode of "correct, correct yourself, be corrected, polish, find fault." (Breton, Message, p. 12) It is, in our view, entirely natural and logical to consider the sensibility and imagery of the dream-state to be the "raw material", the "naive narrative" from which greater literary works can be built.

Thus, irrealism from a stylistic point of view quickly departs from surrealism. It is not only, in our view, unpractical but also undesirable to completely cut off the dream-state from literary effort. We hold this for two reasons (besides the existential considerations given earlier). The first comes from the assumption that it is important for the writer, the person trying to communicate the dream-state, to evoke this dream-state to whatever extent is possible in the reader. But to do this we must make the object into something aesthetic. For, when we look on any work of art, make any aesthetic contemplation, we enter into a type of dream state. That is, we enter into the category of the unreal because we negate reality. The "reality" of the book in front of me is its paper and the words that were printed on it. So long as I see it as just that (and, if it was printed in a foreign language I couldn't understand, I could see it as only that) it is still very much in the category of the real. Even if I start to read it but can't get my mind off of, let's say, something that happened to me that day, I might be able to transform the letters on the page into words, and have some vague idea about what the writer is describing, and yet I will still be very conscious of the fact that I'm reading a book. When, however, the book itself ceases to exist for me and I'm aware only of the world being described in the book, at that point I am experiencing the "induced dream" of which Sartre speaks of when he argues, "Esthetic contemplation is an induced dream and the passing into the real is an actual waking up." (Sartre, Psychology, p. 281) I have, in other words, fallen into the trance of the narrative in a similar fashion that I have fallen into the narrative trance of the dream. Thus, even the stodgy, realistic form of literature that Breton rightfully despised, those "'sonnets' that still get written," with their "senile horror of spontaneity," (Breton, Message, p. 12) still represent, for the reader, an induced dream. Perhaps not a very interesting one, but a dream nonetheless. In fact, because the reader has become engaged in this way it causes, for the reader, more of a sense of being in the dream state than any straightforward description of a dream or any text of automatic writing can. The straightforward description of the dream is and reads like a synopsis. A synopsis though, even a detailed one, isn't intended to and indeed doesn't cause the reader to fall into the trance that we have been describing. Automatic writing, by its very randomness, also fails to engage the reader in such a way that the book and words "disappear" and the dream state is induced -- stylistically, in fact, it resembles certain forms of experimental writing that intentionally want to avoid this narrative trance so that the reader remains objective.

A straightforward rendering of a dream in the written form can only serve as a written record of the dream. To re-capture any measure of the tension, horror, or joy of the dream to another person requires good storytelling skills. Thus, our contention that a writer such as Franz Kafka succeeds far better in conveying the immediacy of the dream state than does automatic writing or surrealist research. And further that, the more practice, dedication, and skill the writer has in utilizing traditional literary devices (all of which a writer such as Kafka had in abundance), the more effectively the writer will be able to bring the reader into this dream-state. Of course, what kind of a "dream" a writer of fiction chooses to induce in the reader varies widely. The "dream" induced by the writer of historical fiction doesn't take us, perhaps, very far into the category of the unreal. But an irrealist writer such as Kafka attempts to take the reader to the furthest point in the category of the unreal where, according to Sartre, we can have "a privileged experience which can help us to conceive what it would be like to lose our being-in-the world, of being deprived of the category of the real." (Sartre, Psychology)

By failing to take into account that dreams are inherently "literary", then, the surrealists, with their emphasis on automatic writing (interesting and compelling though it might be as research), have failed to recognize that artistic and literary technique is not only legitimate, but necessary, to draw readers into the dream state.

To a surrealist, however, this criticism would likely seem gratuitous as they are not interested in engaging the reader in their work in this way; no doubt they’d think the reader should, instead, explore his or her own unconscious. Clearly, the goals of irrealism and surrealism are different, based on very different concepts of consciousness and unconsciousness. The end result, stylistically, is that artistry is important to irrealism where to surrealism, wholly engaged as it is in “surrealist” research, it is only an obstacle. These different approaches to questions of style and aesthetics, however, springs from fundamentally different approaches to the nature of the unconscious itself.


(1) All citations from the First Surrealist Manifesto are taken from Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism. Back to the text

(2) All translations from the Czech are mine, taken from Analogon #32: Sféra snu (2001), published by the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists. Back to the text

(3) And we hold that this irresovability between the dream state (where we can wholly and completely realize our wishes, where we can reach complete transcendence) and the waking state (where such wish fulfillment and transcendence isn't possible) is indicative of the irresolvable dialectic of the infinite and finite described by Kierkegaard. He argued that while we can imagine an infinite number of possibilities, we can only fulfill a finite number of them; this causes us to feel dread and the fact that a similar tension exists in irreal literature is the reason why irreal literature is inherently an existential literature. Indeed, Kierkegaard was an influence on Kafka and according to Borges, was one of “Kafka’s precursors." Back to the text

(4) In fact, far from being existentialist, the surrealists in this regard sometimes appear almost Hegelian as they seem to postulate surreality as a kind of grand synthesis in the manner of the Hegelian Absolute: a synthesis to end all syntheses. Hegel postulated such a synthesis, which would represent "the end of history," as a resolution to the turmoil of human life and society. Kierkegaard was, in fact, reacting to and rejecting Hegel's Absolute when he wrote about the irresolvability of the infinite and finite. Back to the text

(5) This doesn't mean that the surrealists aren't interested in the tension between "dream" and "reality", but they would view this tension more as a socialist might view the tension between "socialism" and "capitalism," which is to say, a prototypical way of being (the surrealist one), comes into conflict with an established way of being (our current, bourgeoisie one), before hopefully winning out and establishing a new reality. In the new reality, surreality, that these tensions will disappear. As a result, surrealist literature rarely strives after the inner tension that characterizes irreal literature. Back to the text

(6) Indeed Breton invokes associationism, a distinct Humean concept, in the following passage from the First Manifesto: "In my opinion, it is erroneous to claim that 'the mind has grasped the relationship' of two realities in the presence of each other. First of all, it has seized nothing consciously. It is, as it were, from the fortuitous juxtaposition of the two terms that a particular light has sprung, the light of the image, to which we are infinitely sensitive. The value of the image depends upon the beauty of the spark obtained; it is, consequently, a function of the difference of potential between the two conductors. When the difference exists only slightly, as in a comparison, the spark is lacking. Now, it is not within man's power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it." (p. 36-37) Back to the text

(7) This implies a greater degree of mental activity and is, indeed, why imagination is considered to require more "mental energy" than perception. Indeed, a phenomenologist might point to the often-cited difference between listening to a radio play and watching television -- that with radio you must imagine what the characters and locations look like, that it was more active than the "passiveness" of television viewing -- to illustrate this difference. If the radio play were simply evoking, from our subconscious, a series of recorded "photographs," as Hume might have it, why do we feel this extra strain, this extra necessity to concentrate and imagine when listening to the radio program? Because to imagine an object, even one we posit to be "life-like," is more than simply summoning up a photograph, faded or otherwise, from the "data bank" of our memories. Back to the text

(8) Freud (unlike, for instance, Jung) himself tried to de-emphasize the importance of the narrative in the dream, which he called the manifest content, by emphasizing the latent content. As Erich Fromm described it, Freud held "that in order to interpret the dream we have to cut it up into its several pieces and thus do away with its semi-logical sequence. We then try to associate to each element of the dream and to substitute the thoughts that come into our mind in this process of association for the parts that appeared in the dream. If we put together the thoughts arrived at by free association, we arrive at a new text which has an inner consistency and logic and divulges to us the true meaning of the dream." But it is, first of all, clear that the surrealists themselves don't use this method, as they simply and straightforwardly report their dreams (e.g. in this issue of Analagon) without any other commentary and thereby actually emphasize the narrative aspect of the dream (by not reporting the various associations from their own lives that, according to Freud, "caused" the dream and to which we, as outside observers, have no access to and therefore cannot read into the dream anyway). And for us, of course, Freud's basic contention is problematic. First of all, even if he disregards the importance of the story being told in the dream (which we certainly don't), a story is still being told, and that means that consciousness is actually involved in the dream state and therefore is active even when we are sleeping. And, secondly, in his Interpretation of Dreams he addresses the question of the flexibility and variability of free association in dreams with the answer: "It is easy to establish relations of this sort, as the jocular questions and conundrums with which we amuse ourselves suffice to show. The range of wit is unlimited." And yet "wit" itself has a conscious intentionality. A masterwork of puns and unusual associations such as Alice in Wonderland couldn't be created by automatic writing and further, automatic writing itself no more conveys the complicated but coherent structure of free association that Freud describes in dreams than it conveys the sense of narrative that is found in a dream. Back to the text

(9) An excerpt from Soluble Fish reads as follows: "On the Saint-Genevieve mountain there is a wide drinking-place where, when nights falls, all the disturbing beasts and surprising plants that still exist in Paris come to refresh themselves. You might think it would dry up did you not see, on examining things rather closer, a little red trickle that nothing can stanch. What precious blood, then, continues flowing in this place so that the feathers, down, white hairs and declorophyled leaves that it sets going turn back when they reach the only end that is visible? What princess of royal blood consecrates herself thus after her disappearing on the entreaty of all the most sovereignly tender flora and fauna of this country? What saint with apron of roses has made this divine extract flow into the veins of stone? Every evening the marvellous mould more beautiful than a breast is opened and new lips and the refreshing virtue of rose-blood join the whole of the surrounding sky, while on a boundary-stone shivers a young child counting the stars; soon it will bring back its herd from the millenary manes, from the archer or water-arrow who has three hands, one for extracting, the other for caressing, the other for shading or directing, from the archer of my days to the Alsatian dog who has one blue and one yellow eye, the dog of the anaglyphs of my dreams, the marshes' faithful companion." (Copied from an interesting on-line essay on the webpage of Dr. Ernst-Jan C. Wit, "The Role of Automatic Writing in the Surrealist Movement: Its aspirations and failures.") Back to the text


Breton, André. The Automatic Message. Tr. Antony Melville. London: Atlas Press, 1997.

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Tr. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, 1969.

Duplessis, Yves. Surrealism. Tr. Paul Capon. New York: Walker and Co., 1962.

Embree, Lester, et al. Encyclopedia of Phenomenology. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997.

Nádvorníková, Alena. K surrealismu.. Prague: Torst, 1998.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Imagination.. Tr. Forest Williams. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1962.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Psychology of Imagination.. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.

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