“. . . why bother to get in a car and pretend you are going a different place . . .” (James Tate)

Concrete surrealism?

Concrete surrealism?

On the floor of the parking garage between the stairway and my car is a penny. The penny has been there for several days. It appeared the day before the city of Mosul in Iraq was taken over by the “militants,” the “terrorists,” the “Sunis,” or “ISIS”—whoever they are. I’m pretty sure most Americans think they know who they are, depending on their political party.

The penny may have fallen from my pocket when I pulled my keys out of my pocket. It may be someone else’s penny. It doesn’t matter. I check the penny when I go to my car to make sure it is still there. Last night it was.

I could describe my thinking about the penny several ways. Serendipity. Absurdity. Chance. Fate. Funny. Weird. Perhaps Surreal.

André Breton (1896-1966), the first proponent—at least the first explicator—of Surrealism in art, described it as “thought expressed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.” Although he was describing a movement in the arts, I can play with the idea. Make it as concrete as—well—as a penny on concrete.

Surrealism is most likely best known through the paintings of Salvador Dali. “The Persistence of Memory.”

I’ve been thinking about that penny on the parking garage floor. My thoughts have no “control exerted by reason,” and the penny is certainly outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.

What can be moral about a penny on a slab of concrete? I know, I know. It’s not art.

Just now a bird that had been sitting on the sill of the window of my fourth-floor apartment took off flying and hit a wing against the window. My three cats ran to the living room.

The United States should destroy all pennies. No one cares about a penny. A penny saved is apparently not a penny earned. Restaurants have changed their menus these days to read $12 instead of $11.99. The penny is headed toward obsolescence.

When I next go down to my car, if the penny is gone, does that mean someone has finally decided a penny earned is important? Does it mean the ISIS forces have relinquished their hold on Mosul? Does it mean the bird on my window sill has returned and the cats are under the bed?

Imagine a town where, on the 27th of June every year, the citizens gather to draw lots from a black box a hundred years old. The person who draws the slip of paper with a black dot on it is stoned to death without remorse or questioning on the part of the citizenry. It is done every year because it has always been done. No fuss, no guilt, no excitement. Mrs. Hutchinson is stoned to death before lunch, and all go back to their daily activities without another thought.

I’m working with some young men who are, to an extent, illiterate—“showing lack of culture, especially in language and literature” (dictionary.com). They can read but they have not, through no fault of their own. Never during their education has anyone challenged them to figure out, for example, a short story. And so, they read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and cannot figure out what is happening.

I helped the young men understand the facts of the story—that Mrs. Hutchinson is going to be killed randomly and unapologetically, that everyone will participate in killing her—and the young men understand it completely. What, I hardly need to ask, in their experience is done simply because it has always been done with no thought of the consequences?

The young men I work with are black.

I will ask them—now that they understand the story—what they think of the news this morning about three executions carried out in the United States in two days.

". . . free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason . . ."

“. . . free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason . . .”

Obviously, I am not writing in the style of Surrealism because—in case you can’t tell—I am not expressing my thoughts “outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.” We use “surreal” to refer to actual events as well as a style of art; that is, “having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream; unreal; fantastic” (dictionary.com).

The execution of three men in two days is “surreal”—and can be carried out only by ignoring “all moral and aesthetic considerations.” I know exactly what the push-back against my thinking will be. It will be akin to the thinking of the townspeople in “The Lottery.” That is, ultimately, no thought at all.

The three executions will join the penny on the pavement, the bird against the window, Americans’ dangerous lack of comprehension of the situation in Iraq, the illiteracy of five young men who have high school diplomas, and more of the common ordinary unquestioned realities of our day-to-day.

André Breton was doctrinaire and uncompromising. He

aimed for . . . a total transformation of the way people thought. By breaking down the barriers between their inner and outer worlds, and changing the way they perceived reality, he intended to liberate the unconscious . . . and free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason which thus far had led only to war and domination (“Surrealism.” Encyclopedia of Art History. visual-arts-cork.com. Web.).

Perhaps we need to break down the barriers between our inner and outer worlds so we can “find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit.” Or at least begin to understand that a penny on pavement, another war in Iraq, a bird flying against the window, and executing black men are not the ultimate, but they may lead us to the ultimate if we can ever get over thinking we are acting reasonably when we are not.

James Tate, an American poet influenced by Surrealism, is the poet “. . . of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous. . .” according to his friend and fellow poet, John Ashbery.

“South End,” by James Tate
The challenge is always to find the ultimate
in the ordinary horseshit why bother

to get in a car and pretend you are going
a different place to live each day as if

in ignorance of each other’s desires
betrayals are not counted Saturday night

when it was real warm read the paper and fell
off early in a hot flea-infested building

one must pass by the simple objects suitcase
coffee cup tennis shoe to take account of

life which passes by I sit here and stare
watch a ball game or tease the crazy kid

sunday afternoons are worse everything is
closed nobody drops in they all have

families and places to go so I walk
a straight line from this chair to

that table so what I paid fifteen dollars
for that table the dues and still

I’m foiled in every dream some folks
sit out on the front stoop all night

slowly they roll through the dead plum
trees and fill the air with a numbing moan.

Our best-known work of surrealism.

Our best-known work of surrealism.

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