Oct 17 2021

When Nothing’s Not New and Everything’s Always Random


Some Recent Encounters with Surrealism in Contemporary Literature


I recently reread the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), a habit which, it seems, occurs every five to ten years.

So it was fresh on my mind when I reviewed Nicole I. Nesca’s short-story/poem “Child” (2017).

And maybe, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman says, my attention is too “anchored,” too primed and predisposed to see the surreal when reading recent works of prose, poetry, or something in between.

But it can’t be all that. There must be (a little) something more. For, as Kahneman points out, simply being aware of the biases brought on by an anchor is still only half the battle:

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent). (Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) p. 128)


One of the things (I think) Breton is getting at in the Manifesto is that surrealism existed long before he (or anyone else) gave it a name. Breton, moreover, didn’t let himself be lured by the temptations of Originality. He knew he didn’t invent surrealism. Nor was he afraid to list his precursors on the subject:

Swift is Surrealist in malice,

Sade is Surrealist in sadism….

Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid…

Poe is Surrealist in adventure.

Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality.

Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.

Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

And, as I discussed in the Nesca review, part, but not of all, of the “game” (Breton’s word) of surrealism is radical juxtaposition. Let’s let Breton explain again (and admit his unoriginality again):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)….

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

This radical juxtaposition, however, at least in my (mis)understanding of surrealism, brooks no endorsement or herald or call for absolute randomness, á la pseudo-Dadism, anarchism, nihilism, the Voynich manuscript, etcetera. For if surrealism is a “game,” then it must have certain rules. Games remove a certain amount of randomness from any situation. If a game contains so many rules that it (theoretically) removes all randomness from (or within) the game itself, the situation is no longer a game: the situation is a machine: it is completely predictable and repetitive in its outcomes. Or, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson once put it, “Without the random, there can be no new thing,” (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) p. 147).

On the other hand, as Bateson elsewhere pointed out, pure randomness, whether in literature or natural science, can only be achieved via infinite means across an infinite amount of time:

It may well be that any particular pattern (or redundancy) in the method of search will necessarily blind the searcher to certain possible patterns in the universe; and that only RANDOM search can ultimately catch all possible regularities. This ideal will be achieved, however, only by a searcher with infinite time and in a universe which makes available infinite series of data.

(“The Message of Reinforcement” (1966) in A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp.141–42)

Part of this is because of the difficulty of defining the word “random”:

In both the theory of evolution and the theory of learning, however, the word “random” is conspicuously undefined, and the word is not an easy one to define. In both fields, it is assumed that while change may be dependent upon probabilistic phenomena, the probability of a given change is determined by something different from probability…. The word “random,” upon which all of these explanations turn, appears to be a word whose meaning is hierarchically structured, like the meaning of the word “learning.”

(Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 254–55)


All this is to say that the game of surrealism strikes a balance between pure randomness and absolute predictability. Surrealism, at its best, offers moments of such balance, often through radical juxtaposition, as Margaret O’Brien has recently pointed out:

It’s an odd one, this painting but I’m around long enough to know that when something gives me that little tingle, that draws me back even though I might be perplexed, I know I ought to pay attention. So it is now with The Listening Room. Look at it. It’s either an oversized apple or a very, very small room. Its surrealism stretches my thinking, as Magritte no doubt playfully intended. 

Some recent encounters with surrealism in literature I’ve had include the following emboldened quotations:

The world is a broken lightbulb / no one cares enough about to sweep up. / Please, Marshmallow, lick the glass/ until your tongue bleeds sunlight.

(Austin Davis, “Marshmallow,” Some Houses Are Built with the Wrong Bricks, Massachusetts: Moran Press, 2020)


At first he is ecstatic and brings in his wife who is overjoyed at the lively giant baby. The joy turns to panic soon when they realize the baby is still growing at an alarming rate. After an hour young Philbert is too big to hold. After his nap he is to [sic] big for the house and eats his parents. By the time for “One Life to Live” he had gone through the beach homes of the rich and famous, and working on the western half of Fire Island. By the third rerun of the “Simpsons” he had devoured four million people including the staring back line for the Islanders.

(James Thornton, “Tony Randall vs. the Giant Baby Who Ate Long Island,” Meaty-Ochre no. 1, Austin, Texas: Self-Published, 2019)


Cool sea water sweeps away his jetlag for the time being. Dried off, we eat ice-cream and return to the airport.

(Anthony Rudolf, “Pedraterra,” Two Fables: Pedraterra, Angleterre, (Les Brouzils, France: The Fortnightly Review, 2021) p. 5)

Aug 2 2019

Meditations of Being a Writer no. 02

book spines

As a writer, I read something and hope to get something out of it: new ideas, ways of thinking, better understanding—I hope to get something.

Nine years before Edward Young (1683–1765) penned his questions on how broad reading affected Shakespeare and Milton differently, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), though twenty-six years younger than Young, recognized the dangers of excessive hope. Johnson counsels readers as well as writers, to rethink the “anticipation of happiness”:

The understanding of a man naturally sanguine [courageous, a delight in bloodshed], may, indeed, be easily vitiated [spoiled or corrupted] by the luxurious indulgence of hope, however necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent, as some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun which gives life and beauty to the vegetable world….

Perhaps no class of the human species requires more to be cautioned against this anticipation of happiness, than those that aspire to the name of authors. A man of lively fancy no sooner finds hint moving in his mind, than he makes momentaneous excursions to the press, and to the world, and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, and prognosticates the honours to be paid him, when envy is extinct, and faction forgotten, and those, whom partiality now suffers to obscure him, shall have given way to the triflers of as short duration as themselves. [1]

Would-be authors imagine the titles of books they want to write but fail to realize the contents such books must contain. I have a problem of too much planning, an over-abundant need to pre-read things before I write. Too much sun leads only to cancer (ask Icarus). Instead I might need to start doing less planning, more writing. As the esteemed Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky teach us:

Biases in the evaluation of compound events are particularly significant in the context of planning. The successful completion of an undertaking, such as the development of a new product, typically has a conjunctive character: for the undertaking to succeed, each of a series of events must occur. Even when each of these events is very likely, the overall probability of success can be quite low if the number of events is large. The general tendency to overestimate the probability of conjunctive events leads to unwarranted optimism in the evaluation of the likelihood that a plan will succeed or that a project will be completed on time.[2]

Or as Tacitus succinctly put it: “Our men’s over-confidence might even have led to serious disaster. But Agricola was everywhere at once,” (Agricola XXXVII).

Back to Johnson:

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked….

There would, however, be few enterprises of great labour or hazard undertaken, if we had not the power of magnifying the advantages which we persuade ourselves to expect from them when the knight of La Mancha gravely recounts to his companion the adventures by which he is to signalize himself in such a manner, that he shall be summoned to the support of empires, solicited to accept the heiress of the crown which he has preserved, have honours and riches to scatter about him, and an island to bestow on his worthy squire, very few readers, amidst their mirth or pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind; though they have not, perhaps, expected events equally strange, or by means equally inadequate. When we pity him we reflect on our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts inform us that he is not more ridiculous than ourselves, except that he [Quixote] tells what we [other writers, including Cervantes] have only thought.

In other words, too often writers magnify their advantages for their own advantage, never considering how such magnification distorts the goal of actually writing something that is worth reading (and rereading). I see advantages in pre-reading before writing. But I magnify those advantages, and like ants at the mercy of children, get burned by the magnification.



[1] Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, no. 02, Saturday, 24 March 1750. Johnson’s line of—“As some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun”—might be compared to Hamlet being “too much in the sun,” (I, ii, 67).

[2] Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science 185 (1974) in Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 428.