Surrealism and Transgressive Desire

Salvador Dalí Metamorphosis of Narcissus

For the Surrealists, the liberation of erotic Desire was always the holiest of holy grails. The ‘Establishment’ keeps itself in power and us in our place through various means, but the regulation and suppression of Desire has always been one of its principal devices – clamping down on those who would deviate from its prescribed codes of behaviour, and infiltrating our heads with irrational ‘moral’ values to police us from the inside. Fighting back against such oppression and mind control, the Surrealists celebrated the free expression of Desire, especially in its transgressive modes – ‘The noblest Desire is that of combating all obstacles placed by bourgeois society in the path of the realisation of (our) the vital Desires…  of body (and) imagination.’ (Éluard, 1932)

The fightback had successes. Since the 1960s and 70s women, gays and lesbians and sexual subcultures have made giant strides towards the light, but in recent years the clouds of a new Victorian age have been gathering, with conservative and supposedly ‘progressive’ forces forming a strange alliance in their shared committed to censorship. It is now commonplace to hear of books and films from previous decades that ‘could not be released now’. 

In Freud’s view we all have transgressive Desires, and he outlined three main psychological stratagems for ‘handling’ them: ‘the unconscious phantasies of hysterics (which psycho-analysis reveals behind their symptoms)… the clearly conscious phantasies of perverts (which in favourable circumstances can be transformed into manifest behaviour), [and] the delusional fears of paranoiacs (which are projected in a hostile sense onto other people)…’ (adapted from Freud, 1905) 

However, all of these stratagems are potentially harmful to self and others, so Freud championed a fourth way: to ‘Know thyself’ through psychoanalysis. For the Surrealists, however, these other stratagems were worth exploring as routes to new levels of experience and understanding. Freud wanted to bring us back to reality; the Surrealists were in search of ‘sur-reality’. 

In Hysteria, the conscious mind feels threatened by transgressive Desires and tries to ‘forget’ them by repressing them into the unconscious. But repressed material is not forgotten and strives to find alternative ways of expressing itself. Usually this is through dream, the safety-valve on the pressure-cooker of the unconscious, but if repressed material is too powerful or pungent for dream to cope with, the ‘return of the repressed’ will manifest itself as neurotic symptoms, mental and/or physical. Any story the conscious mind cannot or will not articulate will tell itself in other ways, more disturbed and disturbing. Indulging neurotic symptoms held little interest for Surrealists, but Dreamscapes exerted a fascination for many, Breton, Ernst, Miró and Leonora Carrington included. 

In Perversion, the Desire is acknowledged, and expressed in conscious phantasy or activity. Danger arises if the Desire involves violence or abuse inflicted on unwilling victims, but Freud saw the controlled expression of perverse Desire as ‘the opposite of neurosis’, and usable in consensual erotic play, the arts (which, providing a privileged space for untrammelled expression, should be free from moralistic interference and censorship), or sublimated (into the mystical etc.). The Surrealists agreed, and further, following the Marquis de Sade, saw art itself as a weapon, a breeding ground for revolutionary impulse, a space for liberty of expression and liberty of Desire, and a searchlight to expose the perversions harboured and denied by the ‘upright citizens’ who call loudest for censorship – ‘Beware of your deviations…we shall not miss a single one.’ (Aragon, 1925). Admiration for Sade and the celebration of the liberating and revolutionary power of ‘perversion’ was widespread in Surrealist circles: Artaud, Bataille, Bellmer, Breton, Buñuel , Leonor Fini, Annie LeBrun, Masson, Picasso, Man Ray, Dorothea Tanning, Toyen and many others. 

In Paranoia, the Desire is disavowed, and converted by syllogistic reversals into delusions, which can then be projected aggressively onto others. The Desire concealed in Paranoia is often homosexual – (Freud insisting the problem lies not in the desire itself, but only in any fear or denial of it). So if a man rejects his homosexual feelings, he may deny that ‘I love him’, and reverse it into ‘I hate him’, which if that is still disturbing, may shift again into ‘He hates me’, precipitating a delusion of persecution. A man in a heterosexual relationship struggling with homosexual feelings, may reverse ‘I love him’ into ‘I don’t love him’ and then into ‘She loves him’, leading to paranoid jealousy – the Othello syndrome. [Delusions of grandeur have another root: a man disturbed that ‘I am a narcissistic infantile brat’ can reverse into ‘I am a nice baby’, and then again into ‘I am great man.’ This might be of interest to White House watchers.] 

Among the Surrealists, Dalí, having been a champion of Perversion – ‘the most revolutionary form of thought and activity’ – then decided to make Paranoia his territory, which fed his fascination for his own delusions, provided a veil over his own unacknowledged homosexuality, and also spawned his major contribution to the Surrealist tool-kit – the ‘Paranoiac-Critical Method’. This he described, with perhaps less than crystal clarity, as ‘a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the interpretative-critical association of delirious (delusional) phenomena’, by which the viewer, in a state of ‘distracted concentration’ or lucid frenzy, perceives doublings and superimpositions leading to transformations and multiplications of associations. His Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) was the first work ‘obtained entirely by integral application of the paranoiac-critical method’ [the alienated ‘disgusting’ hand, a regular trope in Dalí’s work since Un Chien Andalou (1928) and The Lugubrious Game (1929), reveals another of his sexual anxieties]. Dalí heralded the time when ‘by a process of thought, paranoiac and active in character, it will be possible (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states) to systematise confusion and to contribute to discrediting the world of reality entirely’ (1930). This offered Surrealism a pro-active addition to its arsenal, while simultaneously rejecting its objective, substituting a ‘discrediting of reality’ for the Surrealist aim of incorporating and transcending reality into sur-reality. Dalí’s relationship with Surrealism was becoming awkward some time before his right-wing sympathies and ‘Hitler-complex’ led to the final falling out. 

Reuben Saxment

Aragon, Louis (1925): Declaration of the Bureau of Surrealist Research [in Harrison, C. & Wood, P.(ed.): Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Blackwell 1992)]

Dalí, Salvador (1930): L’Âne Pourri (The Stinking/Rotting Ass) [in Harrison, C. & Wood, P.(ed.): Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Blackwell 1992)]

Éluard, Paul (1932) [in Mundy, J. (ed.): Surrealism, Desire Unbound (Princeton Press 2001)]

Freud, Sigmund (1905): Three Essays on Sexuality [in Richards, A. (ed.)  Sigmund Freud 7: On Sexuality (Penguin 1977)]

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