Thursday, April 20, 2006


Surrealism has sometimes been accused – especially by those who, either deliberately or through ignorance, actively misrepresent it – of being a kind of escapism, immersed in a pursuit of fantasies and pleasures which is at best a retreat from reality, and at worst complicit with the hedonism of consumer society. These accusations are risibly false, and yet the ease with which they are made should give us pause. If the place of pleasure in Surrealist praxis appears so childishly simplistic to others, if Surrealist pleasure seems so inadequate to social reality, how are Surrealists to correct such views? Could it be, perhaps, that we Surrealists ourselves have conceived these issues in too simplistic a way? What is the place of pleasure in Surrealism?

One powerful strand of Surrealist thought, developed over several decades, has seen the task of Surrealism as the liberation of the Pleasure Principle from the Reality Principle, where the former is identified with unconscious desires and the latter with the repressive social and political order. It has been argued, for example, that the Pleasure Principle embodies a ‘will to authentic human integrity’; that the Reality Principle stands for the ‘egoistical irresponsibility’ of capitalism and its ecological destructiveness; that these two principles are as implacably opposed to each other as liberty is to repression; and that Surrealism is the demand that ‘the reality principle gives up its throne to the pleasure principle’ (Bruno Solarik, ‘The Walking Abyss’). Influential and inspiring as this argument has been, both politically and imaginatively, I do not follow it. I consider it mistaken in its characterisation of the relationship between the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle, and hence mistaken in its conception of the tasks of contemporary Surrealism.

As it has been conceived by many Surrealists, this pleasure/reality dichotomy (Pleasure Principle = authentic integrity and freedom, i.e. good, Reality Principle = repression and irresponsibility, i.e. bad) is at once too clear-cut and too static. In a word, it is simplistic. It assumes that the Pleasure Principle, in all its supposed infantile and aboriginal authenticity, pre-exists the Reality Principle of social conformity, and moreover that it does so in a fully formed state which is then simply repressed by the Reality Principle. Thus the Pleasure Principle is implicitly ascribed a ‘natural’ status which frames it within another dichotomy, that between nature and civilisation; and that dichotomy too is presented as a static and implacable opposition, where nature is equated with goodness and authenticity. This conception of the Pleasure Principle has often been presented as the theoretical basis of the Surrealist rage against what today passes for ‘civilisation’ world-wide. I share the rage, but I reject the theorisation, for the following reasons:

  1. I have argued elsewhere (Two Extracts from a Prolegomenon to a Surrealist Manifesto of Eroticism, a.k.a. the first SLAG manifesto) that desire and pleasure are neither ‘natural’ nor ‘originary’, and so I will not rehearse that argument at length here. Suffice it to say that in my view the Pleasure Principle is not a pre-given or natural paradise lost to which we can return by simply overthrowing ‘reality’. This is not least because the infantile pleasures at stake in the Pleasure Principle, from feeding to excretion to physical caresses, are themselves firmly embedded in social reality (the sexual division of labour, the relative material poverty of the child’s carers, variability in family forms which are not always – and certainly not preferably – Oedipal, etc. etc.). Moreover it must not be forgotten that the Reality Principle is no less a part of the Unconscious than the Pleasure Principle and that the latter cannot therefore claim a monopoly on ‘unconscious desires’. The ‘reality’ against which Surrealists struggle is not just the ‘exterior reality’ of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and environmental catastrophe, but also the ‘interior reality’ of egotism, Oedipality and the super-ego. This is precisely why the Surrealist revolution is psychical as well as material – because psychical reality and material reality are inextricably intertwined. Now as always we come back to Breton’s celebrated dictum: ‘“Transform the world,” Marx said; “change life,” Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are one for us.’ When we have changed the Reality Principle, the Pleasure Principle will also change, and vice versa: an eroticism which is truly free, like a civilisation which is truly free, will have been transfigured beyond recognition.
  2. It hardly needs restating that Surrealism since its first wave of activity has been concerned to seek the dialectical vanishing point between contradictions. This applies not just to the apparent contradiction between dreams and ‘reality’ but also, paradoxically, between freedom and necessity, as encapsulated in the supremely Surrealist understanding of the necessity of freedom. Moreover the positing of such contradictions as ‘mutually exclusive’ rests on an identitarian logic which is alien to Surrealist thought. Therefore our first impulse when faced with any apparent dichotomy, such as that between ‘pleasure’ and ‘reality’, should not be simplistically to align ourselves with one side or the other, but rather to seek the vanishing point between them by bringing them into dialectical play. In this case, the dialectical play between the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle brings forth a new term which embodies the necessity of freedom: the SURREALITY PRINCIPLE.
At the vanishing point between freedom and necessity lies the necessity of freedom. At the vanishing point between exterior reality and interior reality lies Surreality. And at the vanishing point between the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle lies the Surreality Principle. Surrealism’s task is to put the Surreality Principle into practice.

This is a paradox: to put the Surreality Principle into practice requires the changing of life and the transformation of the world; but life can only be changed and the world can only be transformed by acting in accordance with the Surreality Principle. In this respect it embodies the Surrealism’s essentially pre-figurative nature: we are striving to follow the principles of a reality which does not yet exist, but which we ourselves are trying to bring about precisely by following its principles.

This is not a question of rejecting the Reality Principle, or of setting up a romanticised version of the Pleasure Principle into which the requirements of thoughtful activity or physical survival, either for the individual or for the collective, somehow do not intrude. But whereas the Reality Principle represses the Imagination in accordance with the demands of accepted social reality, the Surreality Principle demands the abolition of accepted social reality in accordance with the demands of the Surrealist Imagination.

‘Surreality will reside in reality itself and will be neither superior nor exterior to it. And conversely, because the container shall also be the contained. […] I resist with all my strength the temptations which […] might have the immediate tendency to withdraw thought from life as well as place life under the aegis of thought’ (André Breton 1928). The Surreality Principle refuses neither civilisation nor the exercise of Reason. It demands the magical thinking of Surreason in the revolutionary pursuit of new and wholly beautiful forms of civilisation. When dreams, eroticism, chance, poetry, love and freedom are the foundation stones of all activity – only then will the word ‘civilisation’ have any meaning.


Robert said...

absolutely fantastic!

applauds :)

Pearl Handel said...

Thanks, Robert!

Anonymous said...

Thankyou. Personally I can't understand a word Freud wrote (and i am not illiterate, maybe he had some clarity but could not express himself. just my own point of view), so I don't know what actual evidence he provides scientifically for any of these seperate 'principles' of human existence. I do think collective, creative work is joyous.

3 days from now there will be the biggest labor strike & marches in U.S. history. Some U.S. surrealists will be taking part in them, and some won't even know they are taking place. But I think that it is from the political radicalizations that each wave of surrealism has developed.VIVA REALITY!

Thanks for a great article. The only thing I wondered was... in the perspective for the future, love, chance, desire, eroticism, etc, no mention of social solidarity/free union. Of course, it's implicit, to some, but not to others. Yet there's no greater pleasure than replacing I with WE. Don't our goals require the revolutionary overthow of capitalism and the building of classless societies? Isn't it the avoidance of that issue -- class --which leads artists to eventually lose hope and become conservative, decadent, and (essentially) decorative?

Pearl Handel said...

Yes, of course I quite agree. Surrealism by definition implies revolutionary politics. I took this to be implicit but as you say, it may not be so obvious to everyone, so thanks for making it explicit here. I would only add that for me it is not a question of straightforwardly replacing I with WE, but rather of bringing I and WE into some kind of dialectical relationship to produce something new, a new form of subjectivity perhaps. But that is getting onto another, much larger, topic ....

Shibek said...

Paul I've enjoyed your most recent posts here.

In trying to embody and sur-realize the 'pre-figurative experience' surrealists would naturally make the terrain of pleasure dream and nightmare their own playground and inspired study. This would include finding the points where these 'themes' merge into each other just as the pleasure & reality principles are envisioned as 'communicating vessels' not precisely mapped out.

A research, which would challenge and unsettle the everyday quite effortlessly as it already does. Not because the dream & nightmare are separated from the everyday, but because they can intimately subvert its pretensions from within.

Thanks. Shibek

Pearl Handel said...

Thanks Shibek. Actually the specific posts I think you are referring to, on the Surreality Principle and on nightmares, were by me.

I think there remains a lot for us to do in relation to nightmares and the 'dark side' of the Marvellous in particular. We need to find ways of taking fear and horror seriously without simplistically explaining them away as the side effects of repression. It's easy for us as Surrealists to lionise to the ways in which pleasurable dreams subvert the everyday, but what do we do with the subversion of the everyday by horror? That's a trickier question.


Anonymous said...

Sorry Merl! It's hard to tell just who is writing under 'Pearl Handel' and I somehow lapsed into the old idea that this was mainly Paul's blog when leaving the comment.

Regarding the surrealist use of nightmare: another angle on this is the different perspectives on what makes a nightmare horrific. For example, across class boundaries and amongst racists, homophobes, etc, some 'nightmares' would actually be a source of delight for the surrealist who appreciates and applies black humor!


Pearl Handel said...

Um ... neither this blog nor our other one ( has ever been "mainly Paul's", they have both always been joint projects (and now, in the case of the Robber Bridegroom, a 3-way joint project with Jill). The whole point of "Pearl Handel" is that the blog is a reflection of the whole group rather than the private property of particular individuals. I get pretty fed up with the way women still get treated as junior members by certain parties in the Surrealist movement -- I'm not for one second suggesting that YOU do that Shibek, but it does happen more generally in the movement.

Anyway, to get back to the subject under discussion ... Sure, I would say it's a truism that one person's utopia is another person's "nightmare" -- if that were not the case then there would be no opposition to Surrealism after all. But without wishing to underestimate the importance of that utopian angle, I do think that that's the easy part. I am talking about a more literal sense of "nightmare" than just dystopia. There's a level of the Unconscious in which desire and horror are intertwined which I am suggesting can't just be explained away by the effects of the Pleasure Principle alone (i.e. by saying the desire/pleasure is real and the horror just some kind of side-effect of repression and hence unreal). I'm not saying I know what the answer to that dilemma is, I am just saying that Surrealists need to recognise it and take it seriously. Not keep "looking on the bright side" of the Marvellous but be prepared to encounter its dark side too.