I considered titling this post ‘On Surrealism’, but ‘Sucking the Blood out of a Mosquito’ sounded less stodgy, so I went with that. Sorry if it grosses you out a little. Anyway, here it is:
It was one of the primary goals of the surrealist movement to astonish its audience. I believe the surrealists have succeeded wonderfully in that regard, but I am not sure to what end. In terms of the impact, there is little difference between a hare getting a tortoisecut and an apple crawling out of a worm—both are surreal and astonishing, but neither one communicates to us a particular truth or wonder. It seems that in trying desperately to liberate his expressive palette, the surrealist has actually restricted it and very nearly reduced it to utter meaninglessness. Instead of reconciling fantasy with reality, he has rejected reality altogether, turning inward to the more vivid but even less satisfying world his of imagination.
Salvador Dalí (1904 – 1989) was a Spanish surrealist painter, and at times, a devout Catholic. He is probably most famous for painting this:
Perhaps, considering how iconoclastic a movement he followed, it might astonish us that Dalí was ever a Catholic. But I think this only reflects how greatly our modern society tends to misunderstand what it means to be Christian. Unlike Surrealism, Christianity is an ideology with no preference for either novelty or convention. The Surrealist movement has existed entirely for the sake of revolution—take away the radicalism and the astonishment dies. But Christianity makes no comment on either the radical or the obvious, and if it harbours any implicit affiliation with tradition, it is that religious tradition exists for the sake of Christianity and not the other way around. However, while the novelty of Surrealism then poses no incompatibility in itself, there still seems to be a conflict between the Surrealist movement as it originally began and Christianity. That conflict is the alleged rejection of reason.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, there really is no such thing as illogical thought. One can believe in the irrational but not experience it. And this belief is what fuels conventional surrealist art, while also providing its greatest shortcoming. What I find so uninteresting about an apple crawling out of a worm is not the situation itself, but its implied context. Surrealism cannot help but take place in a world with no rules, a world with no limitations or conflicts. But these adversities are the very things that make earthly life interesting in the first place, and to exclude them from an imitation of nature is to overlook the most beautiful thing on this side of eternity: the resolution of dissonance. Good art doesn’t astonish merely for the sake of astonishment; instead it imitates nature, and that is astonishing in itself. Perhaps making that kind of art might entail hares getting tortoisecuts or sucking the blood out of mosquitos, but at the same time, every incongruity ought to be rationally explained, and that will make it all the more beautiful.
Sometimes as Christians we can forget how astonishing the world really is. We too might think that the only recourse from the dull vexation of this revolving planet under the sun is some kind of escape. But in actuality, we need no compensation for the truth. There is in fact nothing more astonishing than the most fundamental reality of our lives:
There is nothing illogical about God’s creation, but everything about it is astonishing. For we could not imagine something more beautiful or surreal than what Our Saviour has done for us in reality. And what is the purpose of art or even of fantasy if not to reinvigorate once again our astonishment with that truth?
Incidentally, Dalí was also fascinated with rhinoceroses.