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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Come Into The Light: Getting Mindfucked by Surrealism

Chicken a la Croix, the dish we'll be making here on Surrealist Baking.
Surrealism is weird.

Wait, sorry, that's a totally banal way of starting a conversation. It's like saying discomfort is uncomfortable, or water is watery, or your chair is now my chair; it's basically inherent in the definition.

Or is it?

"Surreal"certainly tends to be used by folks nowadays as a simple synonym for "weird." I don't think anyone would balk at describing that image above as surreal--it's certainly a weird image, and that, in and of itself, seems to be enough to merit the use of the term "Surreal". I wouldn't balk at using the term here either, but not just because it's a strange image. No, I'm interested in using the term because it doesn't just fit the typical connotation of weird, it also fits the more specific artistic and literary definition. In fact, the video that the previous image is from, the Scissor Sisters' song "Invisible Light," is an absolute masterpiece of surrealism, a wonderful blend of early 20th century methods with 80s symbolism. 1880s, that is: see, the video is--

Well, hold on, I'm getting ahead of myself.

See, I can't start explaining how the video works until I talk a little bit about what makes Surrealism tick as a method of making art. Part of what makes Surrealism weird is that its resistant to normal forms of criticism. It's not the kind of thing where you can simply jump from symbol to symbol and directly read the secret message. In fact, you shouldn't do that ANYWAY, but it's something you have to be particularly careful of here, since it's so tempting. There's so many strange objects here! you might think. They have to stand for something. And if they don't, well, it's just a mindfuck, the author didn't give me anything to work with, and there's no point in exploring it further!

Surrealism is weird in two ways, then. First, it's weird because the images and juxtapositions are weird. Second, it's weird because if you try to untangle those images the way you might be used to, you'll get totally snarled up in the surrealist web. You've got to learn to navigate surrealism with something more than your intellect alone.

See, surrealism asserts that there are realms that can only be realized through techniques designed to make the unseen visible. You need a kind of amber spyglass or thermal goggles to see into this realm. What's more, this reality is more real than reality itself--a surreality--and it exists closer than you might expect.

It is the reality within the unconscious mind.

The surrealist project emerges from the idea that art can express what is locked away deep within the human unconscious. It comes, conceptually, from the birth of modern psychoanalysis in the late 19th century. The surrealists adored Freud, in particular, because they saw, in his analysis of dreams and his ideas of sexual and death drives, a mirror that they could hold up to the, if I may be so bold, totally fucked up mess that was Europe in the 20th Century.

Have you ever tried to navigate through the realm of dreams? Or, for that matter, have you read Alice in Wonderland or watched Jim Henson's The Labyrinth? These aren't strictly surreal works, I wouldn't say, but they should give you a sense of the underlying irrationality of this kind of art. You can't attack it the way you would other art, because it is resistant to conscious interpretation the same way dreams are resistant to normal world logic.

Want an example?

Think of Dali, one of the absolute masters of surrealism. He had all kind of clever symbolism in his work, all sorts of recurring signs for various ideas, and his work was all capable of being unlocked by studying it as a whole and reading his autobiography.

Except that his autobiography was all bullshit.

Dali lied through his teeth constantly.

And that makes perfect sense for surrealism! Because you're essentially trying to force the unconscious mind to the surface by confusing the crap out of the surface mind, through automatic associations outside of your control, through the emerging patterns in an inkblot test, the patterns created when you drizzle glue on paper, the Exquisite Corpse, and so on. And the more you can fuck with your audience, the closer to their own hidden thoughts and desires they get. Ever had a Freudian slip, where you try to say something banal and blurt out something dirty instead? Yeah, that's your Id--the deep animal desires--making itself known, and it's a proto-surrealist act.

In accident, in chaos, in confusion, in hallucination, in the juxtaposition of elements, in the twisting of reality, the warping of perspective, the blending of night and day... in all of this lies the Surreal.

So, how do we tackle the Surreal critically?

The same way you do Inception.

You've got to go deeper.

Before we begin, I should warn you that this video is:

So, what makes this video surreal?

Well, for one thing it's using a bunch of stuff straight from an older Surrealist film--Dali's An Andalusian Dog:

Now wasn't that just a thing?

But did you catch some of the similarities?

The image of the Stigmata in the hand, for example?

I actually made these wallpaper sized, in case you want a closeup of the ants going in and out of the dude's hand

Yeah, that's culled straight from An Andalusian Dog, and it's a good sign that the creators of this video were thinking of surrealism when they put it together. We can also note things like the fact that the female lead is undergoing hypnosis as a sign that the creators of this video may just possibly have had Freudian psychology on the brain. You know, maybe.

But there's a deeper similarity. Sure, they share the use of grotesque, bizarre, and at times impossible or fantastic images (like the crucified chicken thing at the beginning of this article, for example) but these images aren't presented just on their own. Rather, they're presented within a system of juxtapositions.

Remember the eye-slitting part?

Yeah, you'll remember that for a while, I suspect.

But there's something really interesting going on in that shot. It's not just a sequence of someone slitting an eye, it's a sequence of the eye slitting juxtaposed with a cloud traveling across a moon:

It's actually a cow's eye, but I bet you didn't realize that at first, did you? Hehehe.
What we've got there is a juxtaposition of different concepts, and it's up to the viewer to piece together what--if anything--that juxtaposition means. Now, personally, I'm at a bit of a loss here. I'm not exactly an expert in dream interpretation, and I suspect that without a dialogue with the artists here we wouldn't get far, anyway.

I do have a better idea of what to do with this juxtaposition, though:

And that's what the NSFW image was for, folks.
Ever heard someone talk about being made to feel like a piece of meat?

Ayup. This is about as literal as you can get--it's the transformation of a human into a sexual object--and here, literally, a piece of meat, very similar to the plucked and crucified bird in an earlier image (which itself calls to mind the woman chained to the wall, no?).

Except here there's a sense of the repressed sexuality coming not just from without but from within--it's the Id breaking through to the real world. What's more that chicken is constantly used to suggest--not to represent, exactly, but to bring to mind--a violent sexuality that is at once threatened by the wolf--or, perhaps, the powerful man--but also lusts after that wolf. It is the burning bed, the wild beast kept in a cage within the daughter's room, it is the screaming creature in the cage.

But there's another beast prowling around--a horse. Not just a horse but a stallion, a stud. As the female figure fears and lusts after the fierce masculinity of the wolf, she also seeks the free, forceful masculinity of that horse. But, not only does that horse carry connotations of the free spirit (and escape, perhaps, from the cage that is Civilization?), it also is an animal that can be trained... broken... and ridden.

There's other ways of fighting back against these urges, though. One of them is hinted at in the band's name: Scissor Sisters. It's a reference to the idea of Scissoring--a lesbian sex act--hence the band's logo of the woman's legs becoming sheers. And what weapon does the female character wield in an effort to protect herself from the violent masculine wolf's sexuality? That's right. Scissors.

Now, I just typed that out through free association. You'll note that I didn't say any of those images stood for the ideas I'm bringing up, I'm just wandering through my own associations and what I'm inclined to see in the piece. In a way, this is a deeply personal analysis, because I'm really exploring my own unconscious mind. And my mind is, apparently, Full Of Fuck. Isn't that an interestingly Freudian bit of slang in and of itself? It's very similar to how surreal pieces of art are often described as a Mindfuck--we're associating the confusion of the images with the confusion and chaos of sex. As the Ego and Superego lose their way, the Id asserts itself and our primal desires come out.

And that's really what a lot of surrealism ultimately is: you're "opening up your joy and letting the sailors climb the walls"--you're spilling the seed of your unconscious mind on the ground, as it were. Surrealism is ultimately the intrusion of that hidden space into our reality, and it's something that ultimately you have to personally experience. I suspect that the best way of going about a surrealist analysis would be to embrace Reader Response criticism and the idea of the Gestalt--you're muscling in and filling all the gaps (sorry, is this getting to be excessive?) with your own innermost drives.

Surrealism is, for that reason, far more than just weirdness. It's not something you can just immediately dismiss if it doesn't make sense. It may never make sense. It doesn't matter. What matters is that you're engaging in it, and through that engagement you engage with your own deeply cloistered mind.

Surrealism is a light that is invisible, intangible, but that leads you to an internal vision that your conscious mind could never condone or imagine.

Come into the light.

Into the light.

The Invisible Light.

There are SO MANY DOUBLE ENTENDRES in this article, and not all of them are deliberate! That's Freud, always sticking his... nose into other people's business! That dick. You can follow me on Google+ at or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.


  1. Gotta be honest, for a while my penis didn't know how to react to the Scissor Sisters video.

    The way I have previously understood art is that the artist puts something of their own self into the work, and then the reader/viewer/etc does the same when they read/view/etc it. The way that I've sort of understood your explanation of surrealism appears to have cut the authorial intention out of the equation. Is that an apt understanding of what's going on?

    1. Surrealist stuff tends to have that effect on people. :P Are you turned on? Or grossed out?

      And yeah, I mean, authorial intent tends to be a bit shaky to begin with, and surrealism tends to really lend itself to straight up reader response--which basically ignores the author--because a lot of the surrealists literally made shit up as they went along. They were interested in things like automatic drawing, and randomized composition, and, like I said, picking out images in ink blots.

      Obviously, there's some authorial intent, but since a lot of what they do is meant to obfuscate rather than clarify, it's probably more useful to use it as a way of exploring your own perceptions. That's what I would suggest, anyway.


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