November 12, 2010
The politics of the unreal part two: Protosurrealism
by Melville House
Yesterday, we posted our author Jean-Christophe Valtat‘s eloquent defense of the politics and literary merits of the steampunk genre (after this attack on the form by Charlie Stross). Today we were surprised to find in the MobyLives comment box a response from an unexpected source: Mahendra Singh, the artist behind our newly illustrated edition of Lewis Carroll‘s The Hunting of the Snark. Singh argues that surrealism (or “protosurrealism”) is the appropriate artistic response to the technological and moral challenges of the 19th century:
M. Valtat’s riposte to the anti-steamers is of great interest to me, for as you know, the visual style of my GN version of Lewis Carroll’s Snark is mostly a melding of Victorian wood engravings and 20th century Surrealism. The two styles have been mashed up before (most notably by Max Ernst) and the general principles involved are those of steampunk. I must admit that Carroll would have probably been flummoxed by such a treatment of his verses with images referring to a future the poet never knew or probably would have cared to know but that’s the upside of collaborating with the dead for artists such as myself.
For me it was forcible steampunk with aggravating circumstances, a genre which I call Protosurrealism. This begs the question, what was Surrealism? Roughly speaking, it was the simultaneous dream-memory of everything, thus making Protosurrealism the same as the above with the added frisson of also remembering an impossible future. I should add that Protosurrealism is the 21st-century application of 19th-century answers to 20th-century problems or even that the true Protosurrealist is a postmodernist (or even a postpostmodernist) who telescopes his Surrealist past into a Victorian intellectual’s expected future until his own past becomes his future and his nostalgia becomes his anticipation.
To get back to Valtat’s point that steampunk is essentially the unfinished business of the 19th-century, I would agree and then add that Surrealism was the only answer that was possible to the 19th-century’s dilemma: how to live in the modern age without losing one’s connection with all that is good and truthful (and thus beautiful and honorable).
Surrealism short-circuited the human brain back into itself, into dreams and reveries, into half-conscious, universal constellations of imagery and sensory impressions and emotions, it was Romanticism but with no ultimate agenda except the re-habitation of the human body and mind. The conflict between Rationalism and Romanticism is the real story here. Steampunkery uses the trappings of the former to indulge in the emotions of the latter and this is a healthy reaction to an insane dilemma: a 21st-century in which every emotion & relation is completely commodified and dehumanized for the most stupidly logical reasons imaginable.
The Protosurrealism of my Snark is a variation of that game. The trappings are Romantic but the emotions are Rational for the verses I illustrated are the high point of one of Victorian England’s finest creations, Carrollian Nonsense, the logical and rule-driven subversion of thought itself!
The business of the 19th-century, and of 21st-century steampunkery and Protosurrealism and Carrollian Nonsense is an attempt at believing in a brighter future by building upon the better rubbish of the past. For M. Valtat and myself, I suspect that the rubbish is not only our shared historical culture but equally important, the mostly-discarded idea of semiotic playfulness (discarded because it cannot be safely commodified) and the way it naturally opens up a space for beauty.