The best ‘ism’ to ex­plain our time

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Robert Zaret­sky Robert Zaret­sky teaches at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton and is fin­ish­ing a book on Catherine the Great and the French En­light­en­ment.

Sur­re­al­ism is cel­e­brat­ing its 100th birth­day this year. The poet Guil­laume Apol­li­naire coined the term to de­scribe his play “Les Mamelles de Tire­sias” (The Teats of Tire­sias), which opened in a small Parisian theater in 1917. Be­gin­ning with an ac­tress re­mov­ing her breasts and end­ing early with an un­scripted riot — fea­tur­ing a pis­tol-flail­ing au­di­ence mem­ber — the play launched a move­ment that long con­vulsed French art and pol­i­tics.

The cen­te­nary ar­rives in a sur­real news en­vi­ron­ment. In­deed, among the dozens of isms used to ex­plain the Trump pres­i­dency — from iso­la­tion­ism and pluto-pop­ulism to nar­cis­sism and au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism — none does a bet­ter job than sur­re­al­ism in cap­tur­ing the cur­rent mood.

An­dré Bre­ton, the “Pope of Sur­re­al­ism,” de­fined it as a “psy­chic au­toma­tism in its pure state … ex­empt from any moral con­cern.” In his First Man­i­festo of Sur­re­al­ism, Bre­ton railed against ra­tio­nal­ism and the “reign of logic.” Clar­ity and co­her­ence lost bigly to the tu­mult of un­con­scious de­sires, while ci­vil­ity and cour­tesy were for bour­geois losers. Up­ping the ante in his Sec­ond Man­i­festo, he claimed the sim­plest Sur­re­al­ist act “con­sists of dashing down into the street, pis­tol in hand, and fir­ing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trig­ger, into the crowd.”

Un­armed Sur­re­al­ists were con­tent to bran­dish their ids. What was once the stuff of re­pres­sion was now ripe for ex­pres­sion. Every­thing that welled up into the con­scious mind flowed across paper and can­vas. The true Sur­re­al­ist turns his mind into a “re­cep­ta­cle,” re­fus­ing to “fa­vor one group of words over an­other.” In­stead, it is “up to the mirac­u­lous equiv­a­lent to in­ter­vene.”

Or not. As a sober reader finds, most Sur­re­al­ist lit­er­a­ture is un­read­able. The pre­cur­sor to Sur­re­al­ism, the Ro­ma­nian Tris­tan Tzara, fa­mously com­posed po­ems by cut­ting words from a newspaper, toss­ing them into a bag, pulling them out and recit­ing them one by one. The re­sult, Tzara de­clared, “will re­sem­ble you.” (Per­haps that’s true if you hap­pen to be crashed on your kitchen floor, sleep­ing off an all-night bender.) As for Bre­ton, he fa­vored “au­to­matic writ­ing” by be­com­ing a “record­ing ma­chine” for his un­con­scious. The fi­nal prod­uct, he beamed, shines by its “ex­treme de­gree of im­me­di­ate ab­sur­dity.”

Trumpian word sal­ads bear the sur­re­al­ist seal of ab­sur­dity. In Ex­quis­ite Corpse — a Sur­re­al­ist ex­er­cise aimed at un­leash­ing the un­con­scious — you write a word on a piece of paper, pass it to your neigh­bor who jots a sec­ond word with­out look­ing at the first word, and so on. This led to sen­tences like “The ex­quis­ite/corpse/shall drink/the new/wine.” Trump’s gift of free as­so­ci­a­tion — “His one prob­lem is he didn’t go to Rus­sia that night be­cause he had ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, and they froze to death” — al­lows him to play a soli­taire vari­a­tion of the game.

A French trans­la­tor re­cently mar­veled that Trump seems to have “the­matic clouds in his head that he would pick from with no need of a log­i­cal thread to link them.” This is true not just of his speech, but also of his gov­ern­ing strat­egy.

Ig­nit­ing a re­ac­tion sim­i­lar to those fol­low­ing Mar­cel Duchamp en­ter­ing a uri­nal at an art show, Trump has ex­hib­ited his Sur­re­al­ist aes­thetic in bu­reau­cratic Wash­ing­ton. But he sub­verts ready-made ex­pec­ta­tions in­stead of ready-made ob­jects. With a Sur­re­al­ist flair for show­man­ship wor­thy of Sal­vador Dali, he ran­domly pairs ti­tles and in­di­vid­u­als. Thus, his son-in-law, a New York real es­tate de­vel­oper, plays Mid­dle East en­voy one day, opi­oid cri­sis czar the next. Trump’s claim that if Jared Kush­ner can­not bring peace to the Mid­dle East, no one can ex­presses the Sur­re­al­ist con­vic­tion that where rea­son and strat­egy have failed, un­rea­son and whim will pre­vail.

The same aes­thetic lies be­hind — or, rather, be­low — the Wall. Its fail­ure to make eco­nomic, strate­gic or diplo­matic sense is not be­side the point; it is the point. Its rai­son d’être is to shock the po­lit­i­cal estab­lish­ment and to give shape to what, un­til now, had been the re­pressed de­sires of Trump’s base. Think of it not as a real se­cu­rity mea­sure, but as a vir­tual sculp­ture that will al­low its au­di­ence to touch, and not just talk about their pho­bias. Like a Sur­re­al­ist ob­ject, the Wall is a shapeshifter — opaque or trans­par­ent, con­tin­u­ous or dis­con­tin­u­ous, topped with barbed wire or so­lar pan­els — and ex­presses the Sur­re­al­ist val­ues of ex­cess and ex­trav­a­gance, ag­gres­sion and trans­gres­sion.

In the end, Trump­ism, like Sur­re­al­ism, seeks to force re­al­ity to con­form to in­di­vid­ual de­sires, no mat­ter how il­licit, il­le­gal or sim­ply out­ra­geous. This might work aes­thet­i­cally, even fi­nan­cially — just ask Dali, whose name Bre­ton turned into the ana­gram Avida Dol­lars — and, it seems, po­lit­i­cally. But, one can hope, only in the short term.

Even­tu­ally, Sur­re­al­ism’s re­volt against the “re­al­ity-based com­mu­nity” ended with a whim­per, with its art rel­e­gated to post-din­ner games and dorm room posters. One day, per­haps, politi­cians will look back on Trump­ism in the same dis­mis­sive way.

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