Surrealism and Futurism

18 September 2009


André Breton, author of the Manifesto of Surrealism, as photographed in 1930 by Man Ray.

André Breton, author of the Manifesto of Surrealism, as photographed in 1930 by Man Ray.

In two recent posts, The Feeling of the Surreal and Revisiting the Surreal, I discussed the surreal as an element of human experience. I did not in those posts say anything about surrealism as a quasi-ideological movement. When I earlier wrote about futurism in A Hundred Years of Futurism and Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia, I treated futurism primarily as an ideological movement, but had nothing to say about futurism as an element of human experience.

"Portrait of F. T. Marinetti" by F. C. Coletti

"Portrait of F. T. Marinetti" by F. C. Coletti

Perhaps the surreal is primarily experiential, perhaps not. But it is also, besides being an experience, an ideological or aesthetic movement of at least equal importance to futurism, and probably more important than futurism by a purely quantitative measure: there have probably been more surrealist artists that futurist artists. And futurism — how could this be experiential? Certainly there is experience that looks to the future and which is structured around the future, but there is no established idiom for discussing futurism as an element of human experience, though one could well formulate such an idiom.

It is possible that the primarily experiential character of surrealism and the primarily ideological character of futurism accounts, if only in part, for the greater quantitative success of surrealism as a purely aesthetic movement. Artists are more enamored of experience than of politics. Similarly, one could account for the prophetic accuracy of futurism by its primarily ideological character. Industrialized civilization is a secularization of the cult of the machine so explicitly formulated by Marinetti in his original manifesto.

But the very real differences of surrealism and futurism ought not to prevent us from seeing what they also have in common. While surrealism is primarily aesthetic and futurism is primarily ideological, both movements are syntheses of both trends, and we could accurately call both surrealism and futurism aesthetic ideologies.

Thus surrealism and futurism have been primarily aesthetic ideologies, and the well-known surrealists and futurists have been artists. As ideological movements both also have an implied political content. Both movements had manifestos, Marinetti’s “The Founding the Manifesto of Futurism” of 1909 and Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism” of 1924, and if we read between the lines of these apparently distinct aesthetic ideologies we find a curious political parallelism. Put simply, futurism is rightist surrealism and surrealism and leftist futurism.

The distinct imagery employed in the manifestos of surrealism and futurism also display a certain parallelism. There is in common, for example, a sense of fatalism. Breton writes, “The mind of the dreaming man is fully satisfied with whatever happens to it.” Marinetti writes, “The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen!” Breton in his manifesto repeatedly invokes the dream in relation to surrealism, while Marinetti praises “a feverish insomnia,” but the waking dreams of futurism are little different from the dreamlike wakefulness of surrealists.

Both surrealism and futurism (as aesthetic ideologies, not as elements of human experience) hold a privileged place in relation to modernism. Surrealism is the aesthetic modernism of the left, while futurism is the aesthetic modernism of the right. And the most fearsome embodiments of ideology in the twentieth century seem to bear this out: there is something deeply surreal about Stalinist Soviet Russia, with its industrial gigantism — like a horrible dream from which one wishes only to awake. But one does not awake, because it is real. One finds oneself saying, “I can’t believe this is happening!” but one is saying this only because one knows all-too-well that it is happening. And Nazism, while often represented as a primitive and retrograde ideology that looked back to the past, was in fact understood in its time as a movement of renewal that looked eagerly to the future. John Lukacs, in his many books on Hitler and Nazism, emphasizes the radical modernism of the Nazis, and I think that he was right in this.

I am again reminded of a famous passage at the end of Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” But when Hitler and Stalin were the madmen in authority, they were less interested in the dated academic scribblers than the most recent and most modern ideas of the most advanced and progressive artists of their time. An effective madman in authority — one who is able, by the force of his diseased will, to put the entire world into a tailspin — must assimilate the most up-to-date ideas of his time in order to fully exploit the technological resources at his disposal and thus consolidate his ruinous rule. This should be a cautionary tale to us all.


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