In his “Materia Poetica,” Wallace Stevens delivers what remains the most pervasive, if not the most detrimental, misunderstanding of Surrealism that persists to this day:
The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent, not to discover. The observation of the unconscious, so far as it can be observed, should reveal things of which we have previously been unconscious, not the familiar things of which we have been conscious plus imagination.
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The imagination does not add to reality.
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The great well of poetry is not other poetry but prose: reality. However it requires a poet to perceive the poetry in reality.[i]
According to Stevens, there is a definable line that can be pinpointed with laser-like precision between poetry and reality. And Surrealist poetics tend to simply add fluff to—or else otherwise pad—that reality, distancing us even further from its concrete truth. Rather than tell us more about what is in front of us, Surrealism embellishes, it ornaments, it distracts us. It ignores and ultimately obscures reality from view (odd, considering that later in the same piece he claims that “Poetry increases the feeling for reality,” but I suppose one must assume, for the sake of his argument, that Surrealist poetry is simply the wrong or extremist vantage of whatever form of imagination he ascribes to this purpose). For Stevens, the Surrealist inflates his head full of a dreamy helium ad infinitum, floats away into the ether, and fiddles his way into a self-collapsing void. While right in front of him, reality burns, and the ever-increasing size of its bloated head gradually blots out any vestiges of light.
The problem is that Stevens takes the same great misstep that has impeded large swathes of “environmental,” “local,” or “regional” poetics for decades—that is, presupposing that any reality, or any object of reality, can exist in a vacuum; or, put yet another way, that any reality, environmentally-oriented or otherwise, is objective, disconnected from and impervious to orbiting influence. This assertion is not only ontologically unsound, but through the lens of contemporary ecological understanding, invokes a deeply damaging anthropocentric ideal: the beholder of reality as emperor of said reality. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to convince any self-respecting ontologist, or ecologist, for that matter, that any given observable object of reality can be grasped in and of itself, isolated from observer, context, or environment. Just as the seed of any given plant species germinating in a novel environment is influenced by its freshly adopted surroundings, so too does reality, germinating in the human psyche, fall under an inevitable influence that need be parsed. Reality is always, enigmatically, both very close and very far away. The strange truth about reality is that it is perpetually enigmatic.
That reality remains an enigma does not mean that there is no methodology at our disposal for revealing its form; otherwise, this essay would be an exercise in futility. It is exactly the aesthetics of Surrealism, I will argue, contrary to what Stevens suggests, that provide poets with the most effective toolkit with which to ontologically probe reality, and by extension, our environment. It is an argument that owes to Georges Bataille and his substantial body of work of the late 1940s and early 1950s devoted to the Surrealist agenda. Bataille alleged that the history of human society was conventionally predicated upon an orientation around myth [religion, ritual, prophecy, etc.] and that “although contemporary society was not without myth, it had denied the very basis of ancient myth, founded on a mediation between mankind and the natural world through which the cohesion (and necessity) of society would be affirmed. The myth of contemporary society, therefore, was an ‘absence of myth,’ since that society had deluded itself into believing it was without myth by making a myth of its very denial.”[ii] Society, then, always depends upon myth, even if that myth be the very absence thereof. And just what was contemporary society’s purported absence of myth become myth? Reality itself:
For Bataille, the profound sense of surrealism lay in the fact that it recognized the falsity of rationalism’s ideological claims to define what is ‘real.’ Such a concept destroys the notion of myth, just as it becomes itself what it denies: reality is a myth.…The crucial point here is that everything about the concept of reality is mythical….The only reality we can know is defined by the use we make of myth to define our ontological principles”[iii]
But despite Bataille’s celebration of Surrealism as an extraordinary conduit by which to utilize the myth of reality and thereby bring reality into sharper focus (“define its ontological principles”), he never quite defined how Surrealism might do so.
My goal with this series will be just that: to show how Surrealism can help navigate the myth of reality (its ontological phenomena) and to present Surrealism as fundamentally and unequivocally an avenue towards realism that indeed can, rather than mediate between humankind and the natural (nonhuman) world, reveals humankind’s inextricable cohesion with the nonhuman. To do so, I will take the following steps:
Illustrate the divide between our subjective view of reality (with particular attention to our environment, “Nature,” and even our planet) and objective reality, and how this divide is complicated by the inclination toward expansive or even excessive thinking and interrogation.
Reflect briefly on how the conventional approach to eco-poetics perpetuates and reinforces the ideological divide between the human and nonhuman, humankind and Nature, and subject and object.
Provide the reader with an abridged history of how Western ontological philosophy has served to drive a wedge between objective reality from subjective reality and how the resulting anthropocentrism can be overcome through the stewardship of an Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO).
Detail how OOO lends itself to not only the efforts of anti-anthropocentrism but ecological awareness.
Explain how Surrealism deploys OOO in its poetics and how the Surrealist mode can be used as a revolutionary means with which to combat anthropocentrism and thus promote ecological thinking.
And finally end with a working definition of what might encompass an ecological form of a Surrealist poetics, what I refer to as a Mantic Compost Poetics.
Considering that the revolutionary potential of Surrealism has long been slandered, denied, and degraded by elite institutions, academic, and artists of all stripes, there is much damage control to be done, so I ask the reader for their patience in this endeavor. Indeed, it will be no easy pill to swallow.
Surrealism was forced on the defensive from the moment of its inception—no great surprise, considering that Surrealism asked its readers, on a number of fronts, to challenge all sorts of realities (ontological realities, environmental realities, political realities, class realities, sexual realities, and so forth) long taken for granted. Indeed, André Breton, one of the first and arguably most influential theorists of Surrealism, wasted no time in leaping to its defense. Consider the opening line of his First Manifesto of Surrealism, which prophesies his readers’ doubts before a case for the movement can even be made: “So strong is the belief in life, in what is most fragile in life—real life, I mean—that in the end this belief is lost.”[iv] Breton, like Bataille, believed that the average person held so tightly to their conventional approach to reality that, in the end, this hold on reality was at best disingenuous, and at worst, gravely mistaken. This essay will challenge the contemporary poet’s approach to the environment, to “Nature,” to poetics, to eco-poetics, and ultimately to reality itself. It will be one humble step toward an attempt to rediscover and reaffirming a belief in life—in real life. As Climate Change rears its ever-graver head and continues to disorient and devastate our sense of reality around the globe, one thing is clear: This project is well overdue, and time is running out.
[i] Wallace Stevens. “Materia Poetica.” View: Parade of the Avant-Garde 1940 – 1947, edited by Catrina Neiman and Paul Nathan. Thunder’s Mountain Press, 1991, 7.
[ii] Michael Richardson. “Introduction.” The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism. Verso, 1994, 13.
[iii] Ibid., 14.
[iv] André Breton. Manifestos of Surrealism. Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. University of Michigan Press, 1972, 3.
Part I: The Need for Thinking That is Ecological
In producer Darren Aronofsky’s One Strange Rock—a 2018 television documentary series originally aired by National Geographic—a collection of specialists (including, amongst others, geologists, evolutionists, ecologists, biologists, and even astronauts) pool together their expansive collection of personal and professional perspectives in order to dramatize and narrate the magnitude of Earth’s many eco-evolutionary processes. In general, scientific documentaries about scientific processes tend to remain just that—scientific. So what is Aronofsky, whose name is synonymous with surrealistic or otherwise psychologically-oriented dramatic films, doing at the helm of this one? What possible need could the ecological sciences have for someone like Aronofsky? Is there a precedent for calling on artists to interpret ecological processes, let alone the current ecological state of our world? These are questions with no definitive answers. But pressed for insight, I would make the argument that the ecological processes of our world, revealed in detail, indeed make up a reality that seems intrinsically strange, or at least foreign to our immediate perception. This being the case, it comes as little surprise that someone like Aronofsky should be employed to make sense of it, as our thinking must often traverse strange, unreal-seeming—or even surreal—realms in order to grasp the reality of the world around us.
To illustrate the point, let’s take a quick look at the first episode of One Strange Rock, entitled “Gasp,”[i] which offers a stunning example of just how strange, expansive, and surreal the ecological processes of our biosphere are, and how they can defy our immediate apprehension of reality. “Gasp” tells the story of the air we breathe—the story of how it is produced and how that production is perpetuated through a series of natural processes taking place in a vast distribution across time and space. The story of the air we breathe, as we come to find out, is an odd story, and it begins in no less of an odd place—the hot and arid Danakil Desert of East Africa. Here, we are introduced to a scene of local villagers who are busy mining salt from the Earth’s crust. The portrait of their painstaking labor under intense weather conditions, combined with the sweltering and seemingly desolate landscape stretching out for miles in every direction, renders it difficult to believe that any such area might be capable of supporting life. But appearances, as we will soon find out, can be deceiving.
As we are brought to see, the intense winds that regularly occur in the Danakil Desert generate powerful storms, which sweep the dust of the surrounding area into an enormous cloud (weighing in at an incredible 20 million tons). The resulting dust cloud then moves west across the continent, picking up such intense speed and velocity that it traverses the entire length of the Atlantic Ocean, floating its way toward South America’s Brazilian coast, where it runs headlong into the Andes Mountains. Once running into the mountains, the dust cloud disperses and falls across the Amazon rainforest. These dust particles, culminating in nothing but desert in their African origin, become the perfect fertilizer for the existing multitudinous flora of the Amazon. As the plant species of the Amazon flourish, the lush foliage transforms the surrounding atmosphere’s carbon monoxide into oxygen. The amount of oxygen produced there is so abundant that it emits 20 times more than all the people on Earth combined could collectively consume at any given moment. And yet not one human on Earth—we are told—ever breathes a single breath of it.
We are reminded that although one often hears of the Amazon rainforest referred to as “the lungs of the Earth” (and indeed there is truth to this), the metaphor severely oversimplifies and moreover underserves the complexity of the process. At this point at least, the entirety of the oxygen generated by the plants remains in the Amazon rainforest, where it is consumed by the equally abundant animal life. And this is where it all begins to get really strange. Although no human benefits from the immediate processes by which the Amazonian plants turn the region’s carbon monoxide into oxygen, humans do ultimately benefit from further—less immediately perceptible—processes undergone by the plant life there.
The plant life of the Amazon, now sufficiently fertilized and thriving due to the dust particles imparted from Africa, continues to sustain itself through photosynthesis. This involves pulling water up through their bodies, by way of their roots, from the Amazon basin. The excess water, having traveled the length of their bodies, is then released through the ends of their leaves in the form of vapor, in an act known as transpiration. Because the plant life of the Amazon is so abundant, the amount of vapor released from the combined flora is massive. It accumulates in the atmosphere, where it proceeds to form a gigantic “flying river” (larger, in fact, than the Amazon River itself) that floats up above and over the rainforest. This gigantic cloud of water vapor, or “flying river,” as it were, is then carried by wind currents towards the Andes Mountains, where it condenses into raindrops, erodes the mountainous rock on its way down, and carries sediment from that rock into the Amazon Basin.
And this is where the whole thing somehow gets even stranger. The silica contained in the sediment of the eroded mountain rock becomes nourishment for organisms, living in the basin, known as diatoms—a group of single-celled microalgae commonly found in bodies of water around the world. Thanks to the silica that has been ferried into the basin via dissipation of the aforementioned “flying river” down the Andes Mountains, the diatoms are able to form a protective shell around themselves, photosynthesize, reproduce on a large scale, and transform even more of the surrounding area’s carbon monoxide into oxygen. The amount of oxygen produced by these diatoms is quantifiably massive and ends up accounting for over half the oxygen on Earth consumed by the human population.
And so we come to see that the vast majority of the air we as humans breathe is not made by the openly visible plant life of the Amazon rainforest, but the invisible-to-the-naked-eye microscopic algae whose existence is ulterior to and propagated by that plant life. And somehow things get even stranger still. Because when diatoms die, they float to the bottom of the body of water they inhabit and form an aggregated layer on the seafloor. After millions of years, that body of water, containing the layer of deceased diatoms, will dry out and transform into a desert rife with diatomaceous earth. And that’s exactly what originally happened in Africa’s Danakil Desert. That dust cloud from East Africa—the one that ultimately ended up as fertilizer for the Amazon rainforest, that triggered the formation of the “flying river,” that perpetuated the existence of living diatoms, and that ultimately produced the air we breathe—was, in fact, once a seafloor that had collected diatomaceous earth as a result of the exact same ecological processes. Just behind that seemingly lifeless, dry, inhospitable and empty façade of the Danakil Desert, lay one of the most vital components of life itself.
This expansive thinking, this thinking deeper—past the immediate appearances of things—into the complex processes underlying the surface of reality, illuminating the interrelationship between the human and nonhuman, across vast expanses of time and space, on micro and macro scales, is what eco-philosopher Timothy Morton has referred to as “big thinking,” or, “the ecological thought.” The ecological thought, writes Morton, is first and foremost “the thinking of interconnectedness.” It is “a thought about ecology, but it’s also a thinking that is ecological…It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings—animals, vegetable, or mineral.”[ii] I am, of course, interested in “thoughts about ecology,” as anyone concerned with the current state of our planet necessarily should be, and as such, I am all the more interested in how to think them—that is, the necessity of “thinking that is ecological,” or, the sort of thinking that looks beyond the appearance of things toward the deeper complexities constructing their reality. Examining any aspect of the human or nonhuman world, artistically or scientifically, necessarily reveals “more” of that world, revealing it to be more expansive, complex, and strange (as in, foreign to our immediate perception) than was previously thought. And that increase in complexity, expanse, and strangeness cannot be thought without equally complex, expansive, and strange thinking.
Expansive thinking has proven to be more imperative now than at perhaps any other epoch: Globalization has accelerated and extended the international scale and influence of the capitalist market, technological innovations such as Google Earth and other mapping softwares have fit the entire globe into the palm of our hands, increased means and speed of communicational networks have facilitated increased socialization on a worldwide scale, and so on. More than ever, we as a people cannot help but think on global and interconnected scales. Nothing so illustrates the necessity of thinking on global and interconnected scales, however, quite like the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene—the current geological age in which human activity has considerably altered the global climate and environment, and in which the altered global climate and environment in turn alters human activity—has made ecological thinking, in all its many expanses, an absolutely critical endeavor.
Moreover, it has complicated the traditional divisions between the human and the nonhuman, man and Nature, and subject and object. In an age in which nonhuman entities, such as Climate Change (one among many defining symptoms of the Anthropocene), can threaten the very existence of humanity, a narrow system of thought that assumes our world to be composed of clearly delineated objects (bereft of agency) and clearly delineated subjects (exerting agency) no longer suffices. We are living through a period which forces us to think the human and nonhuman, man and Nature, and even the subject and object as more inextricably intertwined than once thought. In order to accurately conceptualize this state of affairs, we will need to reassess and update our ontological purview, and along with it, our artistic purview.
[i] Graham Booth. “Gasp.” One Strange Rock. Produced by Darren Aronofsky. National Geographic, Season 1, episode 1, 2018.
[ii] Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010, 7.