Freud's "mental iceberg" image of The Mind. Add in the sex and aggression of species continuation, and you've got psychoanalysis. Click on image for larger version.

The Coming Of The Unconscious

By JG Ballard

New Worlds, July 1966

SURREALISM, by Patrick Waldberg (Thames & Hudson, 18s.)
THE HISTORY OF SURREALIST PAINTING, by Marcel Jean (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 4 gns.)

The images of surrealism are the iconography of inner space. Popularly regarded as a lurid manifestation of fantastic art concerned with states of dream and hallucination, surrealism is in fact the first movement, in the words of Odilon Redon, to place "the logic of the visible at 'the service of the invisible." This calculated submission of the impulses and fantasies of our inner lives to the rigours of time and space, to the formal inquisition of the sciences, psychoanalysis pre-eminent among them, produces a heightened or alternate reality beyond and above those familiar to either our sight or our senses. What uniquely characterises this fusion of the outer world of reality and the inner world of the psyche (which I have termed "inner space") is its redemptive and therapeutic power. To move through these landscapes is a journey of return to one's innermost being.

The pervasiveness of surrealism is proof enough of its success. The landscapes of the soul, the juxtaposition of the bizarre and familiar, and all the techniques of violent impact have become part of the stock-in-trade of publicity and the cinema, not to mention science fiction. If anything, surrealism has been hoist with the petard of its own undisputed mastery of self-advertisement. The real achievements of Ernst, Tanguy and Magritte have only just begun to emerge through the melee of megaphones and manifestos. Even in the case of a single painter, such as Salvador Dali, the exhibitionistic antics which the Press have always regarded as "news" have consistently obscured the far more important implications of his work.

These contradictory elements reflect the dual origins of surrealism -- on the one hand in Dada, a post-World War I movement not merely against war and society, but against art and literature as well, out to perpetrate any enormity that would attract attention to its mission -- the total destruction of so-called "civilised" values. The rise of Hitler, a madman beyond the wildest dreams even of the Dadaists, shut them up for good, although the influence of Dada can still be seen in "happenings," in the obscene tableau-sculptures of Keinholz and in the critical dictats of Andre Breton, the pope of surrealism, that "surrealism is pure psychic automatism." Far from it.

The other, and far older, source of surrealism is in the symbolists and expressionists of the 19th century, and In those whom Marcel Jean calls "sages of dual civilisation" -- Sade, Lautreamont, Jarry and Apollinaire, synthesist poets well aware of the role of the sciences and the industrial societies in which they lived. Sade's erotic fantasies were matched by an acute scientific interest in the psychology and physiology of the human being. Lautreamont's "Song of Maldoror," almost the basic dream-text of surrealism, uses scientific images: "beautiful as the fleshy wattle, conical in shape, furrowed by deep transverse lines, which rises up at the base of the turkey's upper beak -- beautiful as the chance meeting on an operating table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." Apollinaire's erotic-scientific poetry is full of aircraft and the symbols of industrial society, while Jarry, in "The Passion considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race," unites science, sport and Christianity in the happiest vein of anti-clerical humour.

This preoccupation with the analytic function of the sciences as a means of codifying and fractionating the inner experience of the senses is seen in the use surrealism made of discoveries in optics and photography -- for example, in the physiologist E. J. Marey's Chronograms, multiple-exposure photographs in which the dimension of time is perceptible, the moving figure of a man represented as a series of dune-like lumps. Its interest in the peculiar time-values of oceanic art, in the concealed dimensions hinted at by Rorschach tests, culminated in psychoanalysis. This, with its emphasis on the irrational and perverse, on the significance of apparently free or random associations, its symbolism and whole concept of the unconscious, was a complete mythology of the psyche -- moreover, a functional mythology which could be used for the systematic exploration of the inner reality of our lives.

Something of the ferment of ideas that existed by 1924, when Andre Breton issued the First Surrealist Manifesto, can be seen from both these histories. What seems particularly extraordinary is the sheer volume of activity, the endless stream of experimental magazines, pamphlets, exhibitions and congresses, films and bizarre frolics, as well as a substantial body of paintings and sculpture, all produced by a comparatively small group (far smaller, for example, than the number of writers in science fiction here and in the U.S.A.)

Equally, the movement is noted for the remarkable beauty of its women --
Georgette Magritte, demure sphinx with the eyes of a tamed Mona Lisa;

the peerless Meret Oppenheim, designer of the fur-lined cup and saucer;

Dorothea Tanning, with her hieratic eyes;

the mystic Leonora Carrington, painter of infinitely frail fantasies;

and presiding above them all the madonna of Port Lligat, Gala Dali, ex-wife of the poet Paul Eluard, who described her before his death as the one "with the look that pierces walls." One could write a book, let alone a review, about these extraordinary creatures -- nymphs of another planet, in your orisons be all my dreams remembered.

In so far as they have a direct bearing on the speculative fiction of the immediate future, the key documents of surrealism seem to me to be the following. Together they share an explicit preoccupation with the nature of that reality perceived by the inner eye, with our notions of identity and the metaphysics of our lives.

Chirico: The Disquieting Muses. An undefined anxiety has begun to spread across the deserted square. The symmetry and regularity of the arcades conceals an intense inner violence; this is the face of catatonic withdrawal. The space within this painting, like the intervals within the arcades, contains an oppressive negative time. The smooth, egg-shaped heads of the mannequins lack all features and organs of sense, but instead are marked with cryptic signs. These mannequins are human beings from whom all transitional time has been eroded, they have been reduced to the essence of their own geometries.

Max Ernst: The Elephant of Celebes. A large cauldron with legs, sprouting a pipe that ends in a bull's head. A decapitated woman gestures towards it, but the elephant is gazing at the sky. High in the clouds, fishes are floating. Ernst's wise machine, hot cauldron of time and myth, is the tutelary deity of inner space, the benign minotaur of the labyrinth.

Magritte: The Annunciation. A rocky path leads among dusty olive trees. Suddenly a strange structure blocks our way. At first glance it seems to be some kind of pavilion. A white lattice hangs like a curtain over the dark facade. Two elongated chess-men stand to one side. Then we see that this is in no sense a pavilion where we may rest. This terrifying structure is a neuronic totem, its rounded and connected forms are a fragment of our own nervous systems, perhaps an insoluble code that contains the operating formulae for our own passage through time and space. The annunciation is that of a unique event, the first externalisation of a neural interval.

Dali: The Persistence of Memory. The empty beach with its fused sand is a symbol of utter psychic alienation, of a final stasis of the soul. Clock time here is no longer valid, the watches have begun to melt and drip. Even the embryo, symbol of secret growth and possibility, is drained and limp. These are the residues of a remembered moment of time. The most remarkable elements are the two rectilinear objects, formalisations of sections of the beach and sea. The displacement of these two images through time, and their marriage with our own four-dimensional continuum, has warped them into the rigid and unyielding structures of our own consciousness. Likewise, the rectilinear structures of our own conscious reality are warped elements from some placid and harmonious future.

Oscar Dominguez: Decalcomania. By crushing gouache Dominguez produced evocative landscapes of porous rocks, drowned seas and corals. These coded terrains are models of the organic landscapes enshrined in our central nervous systems. Their closest equivalents in the outer world of reality are those to which we most respondigneous rocks, dunes, drained deltas. Only these landscapes contain the psychological dimensions of nostalgia, memory and the emotions.

Ernst: The Eye of Silence. This spinal landscape, with its frenzied rocks towering into the air above the silent swamp, has attained an organic life more real than that of the solitary nymph sitting in the foreground. These rocks have the luminosity of organs freshly exposed to the light. The real landscapes of our world are seen for what they are -- the palaces of flesh and bone that are the living facades enclosing our own subliminal consciousness.

The sensational elements in these paintings are merely a result of their use of the unfamiliar, their revelation of unexpected associations. If anything, surrealist painting has one dominant characteristic: a glassy isolation, as if all the objects in its landscapes had been drained of their emotional associations, the accretions of sentiment and common usage.

What they demonstrate conclusively is that our commonplace notions of reality -- for example, the rooms we occupy, the rural and urban landscapes around us, the musculatures of our own bodies, the postures we assume -- may have very different meanings by the time they reach the central nervous system. Conversely, the significance of the images projected from within the psyche may have no direct correlation at all to their apparent counterparts in the world outside us. This is commonplace enough as far as the more explicit symbols of the dream are concerned -- the snakes, towers and mandalas whose identity Freud and Jung revealed. Surrealism, however, is the first systematic investigation of the significance of the most unsuspected aspects of both our inner and outer lives -- the meaning, for example, of certain kinds of horizontal perspective, of curvilinear or soft forms as opposed to rectilinear ones, of the conjunction of two apparently unrelated postures.

The techniques of surrealism have a particular relevance at this moment, when the fictional elements in the world around us are multiplying to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish between the "real" and the "false" -- the terms no longer have any meaning. The faces of public figures are projected at us as if out of some endless global pantomime, they and the events in the world at large have the conviction and reality of those depicted on giant advertisement hoardings. The task of the arts seems more and more to be that of isolating the few elements of reality from this melange of fictions, not some metaphorical "reality," but simply the basic elements of cognition and posture that are the jigs and props of our consciousness.

Surrealism offers an ideal tool for exploring these ontological objectives: the meaning of time and space (for example, the particular significance of rectilinear forms in memory), of landscape and identity, the role of the senses and emotions within these frameworks. As Dali has remarked, after Freud's explorations within the psyche it is now the outer world which will have to be eroticised and quantified. The mimetising of past traumas and experiences, the discharging of fears and obsessions through states of landscape, architectural portraits of individuals -- these more serious aspects of Dali's work illustrate some of the uses of surrealism. It offers a neutral zone or clearing house where the confused currencies of both the inner and outer worlds can be standardised against each other.

At the same time we should not forget the elements of magic and surprise that wait for us in this realm. In the words of Andre Breton: "The confidences of madmen: I would spend my lite in provoking them. They are people of scrupulous honesty, whose innocence is only equalled by mine. Columbus had to sail with madmen to discover America."