Our current situation lives up to a word that had lost all meaning.
Not since irony has a concept been as abused in popular usage as surrealism. Once a calculated attempt to escape the logic that produced the mechanized horrors of a world war, “surreal” now roughly means “strange.” Typically it is used to describe what it feels like to be on television.
In part, this is a measure of the movement’s popular success. Through figures like Salvador Dali, surrealism became a brand — like Warhol’s pop art — that came to mean simply “out of the ordinary.” When the expected is exceeded in ways we cannot immediately describe, we grasp for the next level. The 11 on the reality scale. This is surreal. That’s what we say.
Surrealism as a proper movement wasn’t just about non-reality, however. It was about something, a statement we can make with confidence since it said what it was about, usually via manifesto. As Andre Breton wrote in one of these, it aimed to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” The attempt at this resolution followed quickly, and inevitably, on the purely negative moment of Dada, in which Breton also participated. Like most negative movements — from Socrates to the Sex Pistols — Dada was exhilarating but unstable. Anti-foundationalism leads to a hunger for foundations. Surrealism found this in the Freudian unconscious, which was meant to represent the just beyond, the out of sight. (Or, perhaps, the noumenal.)
Is being on TV surreal? I don’t think so. The reality show contestant is saying that they are having an experience that is different from their everyday life, certainly, and it is likely heightened — or “super” in some sense — but there is no indication that this heightening points to anything deeper, except in the trivial sense that all human experience is either an acknowledgement or evasion of death.
How about New York in the days after 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy? Closer, I think, particularly in the case of 9/11, where it was for days unclear if other attacks were coming. But still, I would argue, the displacements were relatively intelligible. The reeling mind had to struggle to cling to the reality — which exceeded past experience — but it was there. Things had happened in the world — the planes, the storms — that explained everything.
But the last two weeks in New York have been different. We have been assailed by an invisible enemy that is not just unseen but unseeable, since it is an abstraction. I’m talking about the Curve.
The Curve, as nemesis, creates a situation that is properly surreal. The Curve is real, make no mistake. But it is simultaneously more and less than the mundanely real. Less because it is not an object and — if it follows a certain path, already impossible in New York — nothing actually happens. It would (but will not) be as if the Curve, which dominated our actions, never existed. But it also more, because of its dominance and command over every aspect of life. It commands attention, like the nothingness in Richard Oelze’s 1935 painting “Expectation.”
Even as I write, this moment — which I call properly surreal —has passed in New York, as the Curve condenses into real events, from deaths to institutional collapse. Just as the virus will be unevenly distributed, so will the persistence of surreality. Where death arrives, surreality vanishes. Where it does not — in the individual city or home — it persists. The moment of the surreal, where we have been living these past two weeks, is limited to that pause in reality before the battle, when Krishna councils Arjuna about the deepest structure of things.