Surrationally Yours

by Ralph Dumain

I finally got a friend to obtain an old book on surrealism I first read when I was 17 years old, [*] which I believe made for me the first connection between surrealism and Gaston Bachelard's surrationalism. It is not very informative about surrationalism per se except to call it open rationalism, although the book does go into some detail on Bachelard's theory of images, alchemy, and the poetic imagination, as well as the relationship between Bachelard and Breton, the founder of surrealism. However, on my own I managed to make some sense out of Bachelard's "Surrationalism" article, which is difficult to understand because it is highly metaphorical and more suggestive than explicit, but reading between the lines one can make sense out of it. I believe it can be applied on a literal level in the philosophy of science, on a more diffuse level concerning thought and culture in the most general terms. There are a number of intriguing passages in the article but the most inspiring one is this:

Where then, lies the duty of surrationalism? It is to take over those formulas, well purged and economically ordered by the logicians, and recharge them psychologically, put them back into motion and into life ... In teaching a revolution of reason, one would multiply the reasons for spiritual revolutions.

I find this most suggestive, also inspiring and moving. The business about putting formulas back into motion and into life can be read among other ways in a very strict sense of finding a new philosophy of logic and of mathematics (Bachelard mentions non-Euclidian geometries) that will comprehend their ultimate role and meaning in a way that goes beyond the limited formalist conceptions of logic and science. His comments (in other works if not in this essay) on the age of conceptual artificiality, of taking science beyond the realm of familiar metaphors and intuitions into greater abstraction, characteristic of the twentieth century, and his cryptic remarks about putting reason at total risk are highly metaphorical, but could be related to his larger project of showing how modern science, radically temporal and developmental, constantly being constructed, reconstructed, and called into question, requires a break with the old static way of doing philosophy, of deducing everything before one knows anything as if time and development did not exist. Also, the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries demonstrated a certain flexibility and pluralism and dynamic in the development of axiomatized systems themselves. The will to develop one among several alternatives and apply it to the outside world and there test its viability could be viewed metaphorically as placing one's reason at total risk.

The twentieth century has seen a revolution of reason, and one could pick several areas, including Gödel's incompleteness theorem in mathematical logic. But what does "multiply the reasons for spiritual revolutions" mean? What is a spiritual revolution? I guess it could have something to do with world view, or culture, or inner transformation. Now consider all the ways in which revolutionary scientific discoveries were popularized and interpreted during the course of the century. In most cases modern science was equated with mysticism: quantum mechanics and Eastern mysticism, Gödel's theorem and Zen Buddhism, all that insufferable nonsense. Might there not be different and more worthwhile lessons to be learned, ones which have not yet been detected or taught? I think Bachelard was on to something, although in a highly metaphorical (though not obscurantist!) and anticipatory way. I think he had a sense of what was really new, but he was ignored in favor of the mysticism and sensationalism that we all know about. If we could really ascertain what is entailed by the revolution of reason, then perhaps we could enjoy a "spiritual revolution" worth having, and even multiply the occasions for it.

*   *   *   *

The surrealist writers are a peculiar lot. Of the painters, I have an enormous intellectual fondness for Magritte, and I would like to see more of his writings translated. The most famous "surrealist" turned out to be Dali, who was atypical of the lot in many ways, and gained his fame through shameless opportunism. The original philosophy of surrealism articulated by Breton is very complex, often annoying, intriguing, yet equivocal about a number of things. What does it mean to unite dream and reality? How does one reconcile its atheism with its propensity toward occultism? What about the relationship between modernism and primitivism? Obviously, surrealism has a modern spirit, but intellectually it failed to evolve completely, in my view.

Although this is one of my minor interests, this kind of stuff is in a sense my life's work, to see how ideas fit into the cultural system, and how we use new developments in culture, science, and philosophy to make sense of a changing world.

* Caws, Mary Ann. Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard. The Hague: Mouton, 1966. [—> main text]

From a letter written 3 September 1992. Excerpted 26 November 1996, revised 20 February 2004.
©2004 Ralph Dumain

Gaston Bachelard on Surrationalism & a Revolution of Reason

Surrationalism” (1936) by Gaston Bachelard

Premières vues anciennes (Gaston Bachelard: Le Surrationalisme)
par Paul Eluard

Excursus on Bachelard’s The Philosophy of No (Excerpt)
by Maire Jaanus Kurrik

The Synthetic Value of the “Philosophy of No”
by Gaston Bachelard

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