The Unknown Unknowns and the Surrealists

Dreams as the undiscovered country.

Posted Jan 22, 2020

We all know that there are things we don’t know (the known unknowns), things we do know (the known knowns), things we know but don’t want to know (known unknowns) and finally, things we don’t even know that we don’t know (the unknown unknowns).

In times of deep personal, societal, or existential crisis, the only way out may be to explore the known unknowns (things we have hitherto suppressed or excluded from our awareness) and especially the unknown unknowns—things we don’t even know that we don’t know.

Creativity lies in the land of the unknown unknowns.

But how on earth do we discover things that we don’t even know that we don’t know? We have absolutely no awareness or concept of the things that we cannot even conceive of knowing. But because these things, this information may be the only way out of a catastrophic situation Mother Nature has given us a way to discover the unknown unknowns. What way is that? Dreams.

This is what the early and mid 20th century Surrealists realized, and then, like giddy kids who have discovered buried treasure, proclaimed the news in every way they could, in paintings, books, films, photos, tracts, fashions, manifestos, theater, events, pranks, games, and even their love lives. Many of the founders of the Surrealist movement had fought in World War I and the massive senseless slaughter of that war made them realize that world culture (the West in particular) had entered an apocalyptically-scaled crisis and thus needed to use drastic measures to find a way out. The same old ideas and ways of doing things could not be trusted and were therefore obsolete. Something brand new was needed. It was at that cultural moment, at the opening of the world cultural crisis that was to be the 20th century, that the dream was re-discovered simultaneously in the sciences and in the arts as a source of true creativity. The Surrealists ran with it.

Who were the Surrealists? They were mostly writers and visual artists, including Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia,  Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Alberto Giacometti, Valentine Hugo, Leonora Carrington, Méret Oppenheim, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Philip Soupault, and Antonin Artaud, among others.

In the center of the whirlwind that was the Surrealist movement stood the writer Andre Breton. He must have had an extraordinary charisma as he elicited intense devotion and intense hatred from all who knew him. Most importantly, however, he seemed able to keep this extraordinary group of eccentric artistic geniuses focused on dreams as a source of creativity. His criterion of beauty was that it had to be “convulsive” and point to something combining the real and the dream-like; i.e. the uncanny surreal. You could tell that an artist succeeded in accessing the surreal when upon encountering the work, you felt a window open onto what Breton called the “marvelous”. " Surrealism," he said, “ is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought." (Breton, A., Surrealist manifesto, p. 19, 1924) 

The Surrealist did not merely paint their dreams. They looked for ways to combine dream logic with daytime realities. They often juxtaposed two disparate or incongruous images/concepts (e.g. “exquisite” “corpse”) to create something new and marvelous or nightmarish. The "exquisite corpse" later became the name of a game where groups of Surrealists constructed sentences from dream images where each contributor could not see the other words in the sentence. They would construct “dream objects” from their dream images and then place these objects into social circulation by depositing them everywhere, such as workplaces, libraries, washrooms, subways, courtrooms, etc. They refashioned the tarot card deck to emphasize dream images. They created illustrations and books that used dream images to update the Kama Sutra, inventing whole new sexual positions for lovers. These new dream-inspired sex positions supposedly triggered all kinds of new ecstatic cognitive and spiritual illuminations. They created new forms of theaters where dream narratives created the play within a play. They staged art exhibitions, fashion shows, rallies, happenings, seances, methods to induce psychic automatisms, sleep fits, automatic writings, comic public events and all kinds of juvenile pranks and games.

But were the Surrealists successful in uncovering the unknown unknowns? Did we learn anything new about dreams? Did their focus on dreams yield anything at all to assist the world in overcoming the horrors of the 20th century? My own sense is that when they were exploring the “known unknowns”, that is the stuff we want to forget or repress, the Surrealists were just like everyone else….some works were great but most were juvenile, silly and uninspiring. There is, after all, a lot of very banal and unsavory stuff buried in the unconscious.

On the other hand, when the Surrealists listened to Breton and focused on uniting dreams with reality in the synthesis they called the surreal, the uncanny and the “marvelous," they were able to occassionally access the “unknown unknowns." And this access yielded some real gold. Where is this gold, you ask? Look at their pictures, texts, objects, and legacies. It is there waiting to be mined.

The thing they taught us about dreams is precisely the fact that we need to turn to dreams when we wish to wander into the undiscovered country of the unknown unknowns.