The uncanny—by which I mean the type of horror story that focuses on an encounter with supernatural powers and the existential dread that comes from contemplating the Unknown—was the first style of narrative weirdness storytellers indulged in, but for most people today the term “weird” is almost synonymous with the term “surreal.” This is a shame, because “surreal” has come to be thrown about loosely and imprecisely as a term for anything that is even mildly unusual. For evidence of this, just look up movies that have been tagged with the keyword “surrealism” by IMDB users. Among legitimately Surrealist works, you will find such questionable entries as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Disney’s The Lion King (!) Until recently, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall also appeared on this constantly evolving list.
Although the word “surreal” is common today, it’s a very new word, less than a century old. “Surréalisme” was coined by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), but it was André Breton who redefined the term and gave it its current meaning when he wrote the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 to describe a new artistic and political movement. The word derives from the French prefix “sur-” (above, beyond) and “realism,” and suggested that this new movement would produce works that transcended realism. Throughout most of human history, the artist’s dominant concern was realism, the quest to accurately depict or reproduce external reality (e.g., to paint a flower that is instantly recognizable as a flower to any viewer; to tell a story that “really could happen”). Deeply affected by Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious, Breton was concerned that art was unfairly limiting itself to only a part of the human experience, the rational, waking world, and ignoring the separate language of dreams and myth. He also believed that with the rise of science and the attempt to apply scientific principles to all realms of life, things were only getting worse: “The absolute rationalism which remains in fashion allows for the consideration of only those facts narrowly relevant to our experience… In the guise of civilization, under the pretext of progress, we have succeeded in dismissing from our minds anything that, rightly or wrongly, could be regarded as superstition or myth; and we have proscribed every way of seeking the truth which does not conform to convention.” He defined Surrealism, his counterpoint to this Continue reading WEIRD SPECIES II: THE SURREAL