How Surrealism Can Save Us From Fascism
By John Schoneboom
[Transcript of pub talk from PubhD Newcastle, The Town Wall pub, April 21, 2016]
So I'm a novelist doing a creative writing PhD, and the research bit of my project is about how surrealism can save us from fascism. I call it Surrealpolitik. The original Surrealists tried to save us from the original Fascists, so there's a history there that I'm kind of echoing in a way.
I'm not writing an overtly political novel or anything. I'm just fascinated by some of these themes and they sort of infuse the work as a sort of background. The thing is, we live in a time when authoritarianism and secrecy are on the rise together, which is bad news. When you live under total surveillance and they can arbitrarily put you in some jail, no charges, no evidence, forever, I'm just going to go ahead and call that fascism, even if it's done under a leader who is good-looking and smiley and seems extremely cool in many ways. I'm flexible on the label, use a different word if you like.
We accept it because terrorism. We don't like the police state, we argue with the police state, but, judging from the lack of revolution, broadly speaking, we basically accept that the reason for it is legitimate. In other words the terrorist threat is a thing that exists in Reality.
What is Reality? I'm a surrealist so I have to ask. And we're going to have a quick poststructuralist moment here. It's OK. We'll get through it together. You've got Reality, and you've got the Real. They're not the same thing. Reality is the thing constructed by culture and language, by all the ways we organize and give meaning to things. It's a mash-up of fact and fiction. It's full of myth and ideology, but it doesn't like to admit it. That's Reality. Then we have the Real. The Real is the raw stuff of existence, the world as experienced by a newborn baby. The Real intrudes into Reality in various ways. It's in our dreams, in our unconscious desires and -- just by always being there -- it's the present moment that's so hard to occupy.
Well, dreams and the unconscious and the present moment happen to be the tools of surrealism. So to me surrealism is the art of subverting, expanding, redefining, and improving Reality by amplifying that intrusion of the Real, in order to loosen Reality's grip on our minds, to free us to think more critically about our assumptions, and to imagine some possibilities that Reality was hoping we wouldn't notice.
Note Reality says you're the one doing the gripping. That's your job. Get a grip! You've lost your grip! Surrealism says no no, it's Reality doing the gripping, and by the way loosen up.
Now I'd like to tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a very bad man called Abdullah Rashid Al-Baghdadi. He was head of the Al Qaeda group in Iraq, which became ISIS, the existential threat facing us today. Baghdadi was public enemy number one for a few years there, always in the news causing trouble or getting captured or being killed. In 2007 the US military came out and said oh that guy, yeah, Baghdadi. He doesn't exist. He never did. He was literally a fictional character. New York Times, July 2007. But did that slow down that wily Baghdadi? No my friends it did not. For three years after that he continued to appear in new stories. He's captured, he's killed, he's releasing tapes. Finally in 2010 he's killed for the last time in a US air strike, and we got a new Baghdadi. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, said to be the head of ISIS to this day.
So we know, Reality can suffer an embarrassing outbreak of fiction and shrug it off like it never happened. The realist narrative just keeps rolling. There are actually lots of stories like that, some of them more ambiguous, but I find if I tell more than one, people start to look at me like I'm crazy. Crazy people are always full of facts. "Listen to me! You fools! I've got evidence!" Right? It's not a sexy look. And for god's sake don't take a surrealist's word for anything anyway.
But I think if you investigate these things you find there's always different sides to all these stories. They can be defended, they can be debated, but the one thing they cannot do, it seems to me, is justify a sense of certainty about what's going on out there. Authoritarianism and secrecy don't build confidence. They build halls of mirrors. And then they ask you to accept a narrative not on the evidence — the evidence is secret — but on faith. And most people will, because it's nice in the narrative. You're going with the flow in the narrative, you're part of the team. Outside the narrative things are weird and difficult. Now none of this means you need to run around with your hair on fire raving about the Illuminati (although I'd defend to the death your right to do so). I'm just saying that, given the stunning ambiguities and known fictions in the terrorism narrative, it makes more sense to be skeptical and ask questions than not to. And I don't think that's a particularly radical observation.
But Reality doesn't make sense. Skepticism at this level is marginal. Questions of this kind are often taboo. We're in the postmodern age, facts in general are suspect, often for good reason. This is why surrealism is relevant. It doesn't try to go tit for tat on facts and get drawn into endless debates. It hauls Reality out of its comfort zone, puts it on the couch, and analyzes its dreams. Yes: Surrealism is Reality's psychotherapist.
I write novels. I do realize that it's impossible for a novel to save the world. But art does matter — Hitler and Stalin both feared it. Fascism is built in a million little ways, so I think we need to fight back in a million little ways. I guess this is my little way. I reckon a fun little novel, a little surreal, blurring the lines between dreams and Reality, with a bit of a mad political gleam in its eye but never strident or overbearing — in some small way could help us see like newborn babies again and take a fresh approach to what is and isn't crazy — and what might not be impossible after all.
I think I'll leave it right there. Thanks.