How the Surrealists Harnessed Their Dreams and Made the World Way Weirder

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Dreams are strange, misunderstood things. This week, Science of Us is exploring the latest research that helps explain what they are, what they might mean, and how they affect our waking lives.

At the start of the 1929 silent film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), a barber steps out onto a balcony at night, looks up at the moon, and sees a wispy cloud pass over it — then the film cuts to a woman with her eye being held open by what looks to be to the same man, who takes a straight razor and slides it right over her armpit. A few beats later, a young man in a suit stands staring at ants crawling on his wrist, which changes into the underarm hair of a woman, and finally a sea urchin. It only gets weirder from there. What do you have to blame for such brutal, absurd imagery? Well, dreams, of course.

Un Chien Andalou is a product of surrealist movement: Directed by Luis Buñuel, who wrote the screenplay with his college buddy Salvador Dali, the film has a logic all its own, one that, as Roger Ebert details in his superb review, came from the duo’s dreams. While today dreamlike narratives are normalized, though still mystifying and jarring — from Tree of Life juxtaposing suburbia and dinosaurs to Upstream Color turning people into pigs and orchids — back then surrealists used dreams to attack the European culture they hated. The main weapon was shock: Buñuel dreamt of the moon being sliced like an eyeball, Dali of ants on his hand, and the film burst forth from there. Buñuel, who said that he’d spend 22 hours a day dreaming if given the chance, insisted on dreamlike associations for the film. “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted,” Ebert quotes Buñuel as saying. “We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.”

The surrealists got their formal start with André Breton and his Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1924. (The word surreal itself combines “sur,” meaning “beyond,” and réalisme, meaning “realism;” it was coined by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire.) Breton was inspired by Freud, and thought it nuts that dreams had been so neglected until psychoanalysis and an appreciation of the unconscious; as he phrased it, “Thus the dream finds itself reduced to a mere parenthesis, as is the night.” Breton and the zanies he fell in league with sought to bring more of the unconscious into conscious life, using the marvelous (or deeply surprising) as a way to shock the ego and maybe rattle something new out of it. They had techniques for recruiting more of their unconscious, like “automatic drawing,” where the hand “irrationally” drew without conscious consideration, or the game Exquisite Corpse, where players take turns drawing lines or writing words on a canvas.

Willard Bohn, Illinois State University art historian and editor of Surrealist Poetry: An Anthology, tells Science of Us that the surrealists drew their inspiration from the form of dreams, less so their dreams themselves. You can see it in the magical associations, across mediums. The Catalan poet J.V. Foix had a priest emerge from a trapdoor in a town square in his poetry, Buñuel had a guy drag a broken piano with priests and dead donkeys on top of it, and Dali had tigers leaping out of a fish leaping out of a pomegranate. “Dali is a good example of someone who didn’t portray his dreams, but he modeled his paintings on dreams. You almost get a [film] dissolve in some of his paintings that are of course static,” Bohn says, like in body parts of The Enigma of William Tell, or most famously, the melty clocks from The Persistence of Memory. “Each object mirrors each other but they’re different, one dissolves into another,” he says.

While the surrealists were culture jammers of their day, the name of their very movement has become a part of the popular lexicon. “Surrealistic is kind of a synonym for weird, eerie, surprising,” Bohn says. “It has been absorbed by the culture as a whole.” You can see it in the interstitial dreaming of Inception, and 1990s kids will forever have the bizarro Saturday-morning-cartoon postmodernism of Animaniacs seared into their memory. In a way, the surrealists got their wish — pop culture has way more use for dreams; it’s just not nearly as scandalous as when they were raising hell.

How the Surrealists Harnessed Their Dreams