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The Surrealist Way

Surrealism is mostly known as an art movement and art style. However, I will argue, that it is much more than that. Surrealism was and is most importantly a philosophy. From this philosophy contained within Surrealism, a way of living can be synthesised which I call The Surrealist Way. Personally, it has given me a graceful answer to the question of agency; whether or not we have free will is deeply related to the question of how to live, or more specifically, how to live an intentional life.

In his first manifesto, Breton defined Surrealism as follows:

SURREALISM: n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. [1]

Breton himself insisted that Surrealism is not an aesthetic movement. The reason he adamantly argued against that conception is because Surrealism to him was an all-encompassing world view. He lived like a Surrealist in all areas of his life, not just in his career as an artist. The way he interacted with people in his personal life was as influenced by Surrealist notions, as his way of writing poetry. Art for Surrealism is a way of living, a way of engaging with the world.

The Surrealist Way is one of consciously giving up control, offering oneself up to the world and the random insights that we might gain from being in it, without any expectations or any will to govern over it. It is a humble marvel at the constant beauty that is created in this world. It is interested in how the world interacts and communicates, and in the outcomes it produces.

Surrealism doesn’t suggest that something is of lesser beauty or significance on the pure basis of whether it is a result of absolute free will or not. Rather than seeking to control these outcomes or obsessing over one’s own agency and control, The Surrealist Way offers an invitation to PLAY.

To play “the surrealist game” [2] of revealing, uncovering and being curious of any outcomes you might encounter and receive.

And if we think about other games we play or have played as children, it easily proves how absurd our desire for absolute agency is. Given most conditions of games, trying to achieve full agency, when playing a game that is almost entirely based on randomness obviously makes no sense. And yet, we still play those games, and we can still find a sense of meaning in playing them, despite knowing that much of it is out of our control. Surrealism asserts that we can do the same in our daily lives.

Here are some examples of playing like a Surrealist:

1. Using instruments of randomness and playfulness to make choices.

Let a die decide a small and seemingly mundane choice of the day and see where randomness will take you. It’s about letting go of the control, committing to whatever outcome you may receive and then continuing from there.

2. Talking to strangers.

Deciding to engage with another human being, who is in their existence completely random in your life, of whom you have no information, and have no anticipation of how your interaction might shape your day or week or life.

3. Expressing yourself. Putting yourself out into the world.

As a kind of reversal of point 2. Instead of approaching people directly, you openly put yourself out there in random places (online and offline) so that people can decide to approach you. For example, starting a blog about Surrealism or leaving notes in books that you enjoyed reading in the library and that you know someone else will eventually pick up again, surprised to find your note.

4. And lastly, collaborating with others.

By creating and collaborating with others, you are inviting the randomness that they are, and the randomness that you are to create something new. But the decision of uniting exactly these combinations of randomnesses, is not random. Collaboration is like playing a game. One of the favourite games involving random collaboration that the Surrealists played was called Cadavre Exquis.

Surrealism and Free Will:

The free-will debate has often vilified indeterminacy and randomness as the antithesis to free will much like the undesirable other side of the coin: determinism. However, Surrealism offers a better interpretation of and interaction with randomness and indeterminacy. Firstly, randomness is not something rigid and impenetrable; randomness is the opposite, it's highly malleable and almost discursive. By ‘playing’ with randomness you are interacting with your life, and interaction implies some degree of agency. Maybe not the kind of agency that incompatibilists in the free will debate have hoped for. You will not receive absolute agency. But perhaps we have been led astray with our desire to find ‘absolute agency’ anyways. With absolute agency there would be no surprises in life. And so, interactive agency is a more desirable agency in my opinion. By choosing to engage in that moment, in that specific way, you are influencing your life’s story.

Interactive agency also means willingly and happily giving up control and shifting your perspective from seeing free will as this individualistic necessity, to seeing it as a compromise. Every time we decide to play a game, any game, we choose to commit to the constraints and rules or the randomness involved in playing. We commit to compromise. To be able to compromise with something or someone is beautiful and surreal. In its etymological sense it means to “make a mutual promise”. And the etymology of “promise” derives from pro "forward, in front of, before" + mittere "to release, let go; send, throw.” To compromise is then, a mutual coming together and a mutual letting go, in advance, without knowing how the cards will be shuffled in the future.

Similarly, by letting go of this strange conception of free will we were trying to fight for, it allows us to fall in love with the randomness of the world and our ability to interact with it. We can rediscover that:

Fear, the attraction of the unusual, chance, the taste for things extravagant are all devices which we can always call upon without fear of deception. There are fairy tales to be written for adults, fairy tales still almost blue. – André Breton

[1] André Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism, p.26. [2] André Breton, First Manifesto of Surrealism, p.30.

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