Reading is an unnatural act. Unlike the appreciation of aural and visual arts, reading requires conscious effort even before deep interpretations are sought. Children see, smell, touch, hear, and learn to speak, before they master the written word. It’s the hardest form of basic communication. Harder still if it courts the edge of the expected by riding upside down on the underbelly of unnatural beings while holding onto its senses by the seams of its straightjacket. Hardest of all, possibly, if it’s …
Dali flashes before the mind. But, that’s not what I mean: the visual mind sees, then interprets or doesn’t. Reading surrealist literature, however, is an act of spike-studded iron will (and no little amount of curiosity for the quaint that you hope no one else ever finds out about).
Forget drinking from a firehose—firehoses gush at you, and it’s just water. Think instead: a fountain spouting body parts, balloons, beetles, bronze tables and acid blue jackets floating between the blessings and the bronchitis, and you roll up your trousers, step over the rim into this bizarre potpourri, get dragged down by something slithering in the water, but continue sitting in there with water up to your chin, collecting random floating objects and putting them together like legos—creating your very own Frankenstein. Occasionally you pluck up a memory or a scar. Occasionally you cut yourself.
Who said that exploring the unexplored within the safety of a book was good practice?
I’m not trying to be off-putting.
Actually, I am: if you’re not the kind to throw yourself into the aforementioned fountain out of curiosity (or spite, or kink, or whichever particular personal quirk), I would recommend fishing out only choice morsels and grappling with them on dry land.
You might discover you’re developing some odd tastes.
Today’s rather tame Quote comes from The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. She died in 2011 at the age of 94, and was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s. This is how she opens her short story called The Royal Summons.
I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.
The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.
I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.
“I did it to grow mushrooms,” he told me. “There’s no better way of growing mushrooms.”
“Brady,” I said to him, “You’re a complete idiot. You have ruined my car.”
So, since my car was indeed completely out of action, I was obliged to hire a horse and a cart.
(Translated from the French by Kathrine Talbot with Marina Warner)
According to the information you have, where is the car? Take a guess.
What makes the Quote quiver?
My best guess is that the car is two feet underground, sporting rootlets, rabbit burrows, and a novel type of ferrous-flavoured auto-truffle.
In other words, my guess is as good as yours.
The plain delivery of the dialogue, the matter-of-fact explanation of the car’s absence, the justification, and the protagonist’s acceptance of said fact as truthful (my chauffeur has no practical sense, I was obliged to hire a horse and cart) all imply the same thing—it’s much easier to take the Quote at face-value then trying to pin some deep interpretation onto it.
Or is it?
You’re free to hold the Quote as a question mark in memory and proceed through the story looking for a constellation of signs, looking for meaning. But …
… there are too many such question marks to bear in mind, so after a while you take what is being said literally and think of yourself as a peripatetic in a mini picaresque story, where every paragraph, sometimes every phrase is a new image, a new idea, a new place.
I wrote that Anne Carson made the bizarre beautiful and meaningful in verse-novel Red Doc>. But even through the distorting veil of a poetic license, her work is not raw and uncensored on a micro level—anything but: it’s compact, smooth, and polished, like a cabochon. You learn to expect elegance after ever line break.
In surrealism you learn to expect a random word generator and are surprised it’s not as bad as that.
What is at the core of the Quote?
The Quote smells of metaphor to me. But try as I might I make nothing of it. Worse, I tell myself there are no metaphors in surrealism, not the way you’d expect, and then I stumble at the first next incongruous statement. It’s like an itch I’ll never be able to scratch, but I keep trying anyway. A few more direct quotes from the same story:
- The queen was in her bath when I went in; I noticed that she was bathing in goat’s milk. “Come on in,” she said. “You see I use only live sponges. It’s healthier.” The sponges were swimming about all over the place in the milk, and she had trouble catching them.
- The queen called me to her office. She was watering the flowers woven in the carpet.
- “Head colds are easily cured, if one just had the confidence,” the queen said. “I myself always take beef morsels marinated in olive oil. I put them in my nose.”
- “But bronchitis is more complicated. I nearly saved my poor husband from his last attack of bronchitis by knitting him a waistcoat.”
Have you visualised all of that?
For a metaphor to work, the reader must first detect its presence, and in particular, note that a literal interpretation is inappropriate. For example, saying, Charming, that’s just what I needed now, moments after your wallet was stolen, or, He’s an animal when he’s drunk, are probably not meant to be taken literally.
But may I ask the obverse question: what is needed for an utterance to be interpreted literally?
Ideally, it ought not to trigger the search for a metaphor: it has to make sense in its obvious form. Alternatively, it’s like the Quote: it triggers the search, but there’s no suitable metaphorical explanation.
Searle provides a neat diagram delineating basic ways to interpret an utterance (I paraphrase, and give my own examples in italics):
- Literal interpretation (it is what it is): The sky is blue.
- Metaphor (the meaning is deeper): The sky is an ocean.
- Irony (the meaning is opposite to the statement): Yup, the sky is definitely blue!, when you’re caught in a thunderstorm, after the weather forecasts said blue skies.
- Dead metaphor (meaning has shifted over time): He is blue, when you’re looking at the guy and he doesn’t have blue face-paint on, rather, he’s sad.
- Indirect speech act (meaning is both literal, and deeper): At least you can see a patch of blue sky from your cell, used to say both you can physically eyeball it, and it gives you a view into freedom.
I would suggest that an honorary member is missing from the list:
- Metaphorical itch (meaning is literal, even though it feels it ought to be metaphorical): I tied the car to a weather balloon and sent it into the blue sky. I did it to seed rain clouds. There’s no better way to seed rain clouds.
And oh look, it’s raining!
(How can anybody be a person of quality if they wash away their ghosts with common sense?
—Leonora Carrington, Waiting)