November 03, 2006

All Eyes on Surrealism

by MARIANNE F. KALETZKY, Crimson Staff Writer

I want to ask Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Professor of Comparative Literature Susan R. Suleiman about Stephen Colbert, and I’m not quite sure how to go about it.

We’re perched on stools in a little nook to the side of the main auditorium in the basement of the Carpenter Center, having just watched four films as part of a Harvard Film Archive series entitled “Adventures in Surrealism,” and I’m desperately looking for a reference to support my assertion—that many people who’ve never really learned about surrealism are still familiar with aspects of it that have been copied or parodied or popularized somehow.

I can’t stop thinking about this moment in an episode of “The Colbert Report” I watched over the summer. But something about traditional distinctions between high culture and low culture seems to warn me against bringing up a television show—whose most substantial legacy thus far has been coining the word “truthiness”—at my first meeting with a scholar of 20th century literature and art as prominent as Suleiman.

So I’m relieved when Suleiman, who also teaches Literature and Arts C-55, “Surrealism: Avant-Garde Art and Politics Between the Wars,” laughs and says “of course” in response to my question about whether she knows of “The Colbert Report.” I press onward.

“So he was talking about European troops in Lebanon and how he didn’t think that the governments had made an adequate commitment and he said ‘Ceci n’est pas un peacekeeping force,’” I explain.

“Oh, that is good,” she answers. I feel vindicated. Yet perhaps I should have known that, in this particular context, traditional distinctions of any kind don’t mean much. As Suleiman points out, surrealism itself was about subverting any notions of authority, whether moral or artistic.

“The surrealists were not just interested in art,” she says. “It wasn’t just a style. They wanted to change the world. Even Luis Buñuel in ‘Un chien andalou’ and in his other films, you know, he writes about how what he wants is to wake up the audience because they have a tendency to let themselves be lulled into quietness and sleep. So there’s a kind of anarchist tendency in Surrealism but also just an impulse to question and to contest authority, which is probably not such a bad thing in certain times.”

Even better, Suleiman notes, it’s also entertaining. “I love anything that has humor in it. And surrealist work, even while it’s shocking sometimes, violent…there’s always this sort of explosive humor,” she says.

This is perhaps helpful to bear in mind considering the fact that the most well-known of the four films we’ve seen, “Un chien andalou,” also contains one of the most notoriously disgusting images in all of film.

Very close to the beginning of the 28-minute silent film, Buñuel, who directed the film with Salvador Dalí, stands calmly behind a seated young woman with a razor in his hand. Lifting the razor, he draws it swiftly across the surface of her eye, making a piece of the cornea fall away.

Suleiman explains that viewers revolted by the violence of the image are not alone: Buñuel himself claimed to feel sick for a week afterwards despite the fact that the eye was not actually a human one, but rather a calf’s eye he had bought specially for the film. Even so, she says, the scene is remarkably rich and thought-provoking—more so because Buñuel is a part of it.

“First of all, it coincides with the moment when the cloud slices the’s kind of a statement about associations and metaphor, cutting an eye is like a cloud slicing the moon,” she says. “And then it’s also about filmmaking. You can argue that the cut is what filmmaking is about. So Buñuel puts himself in it I think partially as a commentary on film. Film is a cut. And also he had a theory that film should be a kind of violence and a provocation to the viewer, you know, it’s supposed to wake you up.”

She pauses and smiles.

“And if that won’t wake you up, well, I don’t know what will.”

—“Adventures in Surrealism” runs through Nov. 21 at the Harvard Film Archive.

—Staff writer Marianne F. Kaletzky can be reached at


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