The Surrealism of the Bullet
Andre Breton, artist and author of The Surrealist Manifesto, once said that the simplest act of surrealist art would be to go out into the street with a revolver and start shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. Despite violent crime as a whole being down, incidents of young men walking into the street and opening fire seems to be more and more common. The causes of these incidents are legion and are regularly touted or ignored in the media. Being that this is happening on a fairly regular basis -- the U.S. Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Tucson, to name a few -- the Surrealist concept of art expressed in this horrifying prophetic phrase might be worth examining. This is, of course, not to imply that a painting by Salvador Dali or a poem by Rimbaud is directly responsible in any way for these incidents of mass murder. But the Surrealist movement, what it stood for, what it was born of, and what it influenced may shed some light on the current state of our social dilemma of young men taking to the streets, guns in hand.
The surrealist movement was the offspring of Dada, a nihilistic form of art born out of the horror of World War I that rejected reason, rationality, and meaning. Surrealism continued this rebellion against Rationalism by championing a form of irrationalism that could be somewhat characterized by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, namely, casting off the old conceptions of life and morality and becoming a god unto yourself, molding the world as you see fit. Thus, Surrealist art can be seen as a rearrangement of life, a blending of the real world and the dream world where either ecstasy or agony, dream or nightmare were brought into being. In essence, most Surrealist art looks like an LSD trip in which your perception is molded into a new virtual reality; the surrealist world is not what you expect, it is the strange and the bewildering and the completely irrational amongst the common, the everyday, and mundane. Hence, Salvador Dali's clocks drip and melt, Vladamir Kush's windmills are actually giant butterflies, and Rene Magritte's "Son of Man," is an anonymous being in a bowler hat whose face is hidden by an apple. There are no boundaries of reality in Surrealism; all is transcended by the will to power.
Likewise, the mass shooter transcends all laws, values, and norms of conduct and fires indiscriminately in places where violence is so unexpected as to appear almost dream-like in its execution. It is a surreal moment, watching the video of Aaron Alexis stalking through the offices of the Naval Seas System Command. Even more sinister and devastating is the image of jetliners smashing into the World Trade Center on a bright blue Tuesday morning. It is the brutal invasion of our rational, mundane world by the irrational and insane.
Albert Camus offered a blistering critique of Surrealism: "The essential thing is that every obstacle should be denied and that the irrational should be triumphant. What, in fact, does this apology for murder signify if not that, in a world without meaning and without honor, only the desire for existence, in all its forms, is legitimate?... Everything that stands in the way of desire -- principally society -- must therefore be mercilessly destroyed." If the world is without meaning, without the grounding of rational thought and a belief in truth that transcends our subjective definitions, then there is no boundary to inflicting our wildest whims and desires on society, because we, gods onto ourselves, have so determined that this is what must be done to satisfy those desires.
But what does this irrationality have to do with today? For starters, the Surrealist movement was a great influence on what became known as Postmodern philosophy, a philosophy which denies any transcendent notions of truth, justice, etc. and is currently in vogue at your local university and has been for quite some time now. That is a subject that has been well tackled by Alan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and numerous others. Possibly more important however, is the collision between the irrational and the rational. Take, for instance, the segment of shooters that have been American born but clearly mentally ill at the time of the shooting: Adam Lanza of Newtown, CT; Jared Lee Loughner of Tucson, AZ; James Holmes of the Aurora, CO shooting; and Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech. All of these individuals showed sure signs of delusional psychosis, schizophrenia, and other possible mental disorders. The world of a schizophrenic or delusional psychotic is one in which irrationality reigns; disambiguated voices, strange visions, paranoia, and a breakdown of reality. Take this passage from the true memoir Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl: "Suddenly, as I was passing the school, I heard a German song; the children were having a singing lesson. I stopped to listen, and at that instant a strange feeling came over me, a feeling hard to analyze but akin to something I was to know too well later -- a disturbing sense of unreality. It seemed to me that I no longer recognized the school, it had become as large as a barracks; the singing children were prisoners, compelled to sing. It was as though the school and the children's song were set apart from the world."
No more a surrealist image could be painted or written, except, perhaps that of a delusional shooter who sees it as his mission to "liberate" those children being forced to sing. No one knows exactly what was playing through these young men's minds when they snapped but there were plenty of indications that they were not only unstable, but verging on explosion. Yet these warnings were denied or ignored. Society chose to turn a blind eye rather assert that there was something inherently wrong and thereby make a judgment based on social norms, values, and rationality.
But there is another form of insanity that has manifested in the form of terrorism based on religious zealotry. As much as Western society likes to scoff at the benign irrationalism of Christians who believe that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs five thousand years ago, there is surprisingly little commentary or ridicule of religious fundamentalists that impose death and destruction in the name of an irrational ideology. What could be stranger or more surreal than an Army officer shouting "Allahu Akbar" while gunning down his fellow soldiers at a military base in which the soldiers themselves are devoid of guns? Or a man trying to detonate his own underwear aboard a trans-Atlantic flight? Or perhaps the sexy Rolling Stone image of a young man who was raised in the American welfare system, slacked off in school, and then built bombs out of pressure cookers? All of these can be seen as a triumph of the ultimate form of Surrealism -- that of going into the street and firing indiscriminately into the crowd.
What does it mean for a society that these forms of irrationalism have bubbled to the surface and have continued unabated? Being that the stated goal of Surrealism was the dismantling of society that had been built on rationality, the persistence of these random acts of insanity -- religious and otherwise -- and Western civilizations' refusal to confront it, may just indicate that the Surrealist project be reaching its ultimate conclusion. Some Surrealist artists decided to take their philosophy to its ultimate conclusion and took their own lives. Likewise, a society that refuses to impose limitations, norms of conduct, or assert its own values commits a form of cultural suicide that manifests in strange, surreal moments of shooting in the streets.