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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Rene Magritte: The Horror of the Surreal

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian surrealist whose bizarre, but often humorous, paintings do not seem, at first, to depict images that a viewer might regard as horrifying. However, a second look suggests that his paintings often do suggest elements of horror. The horrific in his work derives from his own idiosyncratic application of surrealism’s challenge to common-sense realism and the categories of existence and understanding that support this worldview.

We have eyes, but we do not see, because, most of the time, we take ourselves and the world around us for granted. We feel that we have learned enough about the subjective and the objective, the fantastic and the real, to make sense of things in general and to draw valid inferences and to make sound assumptions about things about which we don’t know as much. As long as we can find the similarities and the differences between the two, we believe that we can make the necessary leaps of inference.

Art is metaphorical by nature, suggesting, always, that one thing is also another or, at least, is, in some way, like another. Using Freudian terminology, the other may be called the "latent content" (i. e., an attitude, a belief, a concern, an emotion, an image, a motif, an object, a sensation, a value), to which the "manifest content"--the literal, superficial, or direct image--is juxtaposed. Usually, the manifest content is familiar to us; the latent, unusual.

Many of Magritte’s works play upon the dichotomies of subjectivity and objectivity and of fantasy and reality. In everyday experience, the subjective usually aligns with the fantastic and the objective with the real, but Magritte sometimes turns the tables upon the tendency to associate these categories in these ways, so that, instead, the subjective corresponds with the real and the objective with the fantastic. His point in doing so seems to be to indicate that categories, whatever they might be, are invented, not natural, and are, therefore, to some degree, arbitrary and subject to change or misinterpretation.

People do not perceive reality the same way; their perceptions and their interpretations are a form of art, and the question, especially for surrealists, as to whether art is, or can be, representational is open ended. One of Magritte’s paintings, La Clairvoyance, seems to have been created to express just this point. An artist (Magritte himself?), seated at his easel, observes a bird’s egg. However, he paints not the egg that he studies, but its eventual potential result--a bird in flight. Where one sees what is, another, looking at the same thing, may see, instead, what could be. The former sees being; the latter, becoming. An egg is more than an egg; it is what the egg represents in the mind of its perceiver.

In another of his paintings, Attempting the Impossible, a male artist (again resembling Magritte), dressed in a brown suit and holding a palette onto which only a few colors have been dispensed, is painting the upper arm of a three-dimensional nude female figure whose countenance closely resembles the artist’s own. She stands in a posed attitude, rather stiffly, head high, staring straight ahead, her weight upon her right foot, her completed right arm along her side. Her left leg is slightly bent at the knee, its foot resting upon its toes. She has the look of the professional model, but, one wonders, might she be more? Could she also be the artist’s feminine aspect, or anima? If so, in creating her, is he not also creating part of himself? If she is also his model, in creating her, is he also not creating the subject of his work, giving shape--even life--to his art? Where does the self and the other begin and end? The figure’s left arm is incomplete. In fact, the artist has only begun to paint its upper extremity. The viewer has no idea what the painter will paint as he continues to portray his model. Will her arm lie alongside her other flank, as its mate does? Will it gesture? It could choke the artist to death. Absurd? Magritte is a surrealist, one must remember, for whom anything is possible. This painting seems to reflect the truth that both the viewer and the artist, together, create the meaning of a piece of art, for what the artist encodes with his paint and brushes and canvas, the viewer must decode according to his or her own beliefs, views, attitudes, and feelings. An unfinished painting allows any number of possibilities, and, again, people do not perceive reality the same way; perceptions and interpretations are a form of art, and the question as to whether art is, or can be, representational is open ended. Therefore, the model in progress could, upon her completion. choke the artist to death or do nothing more than continue to pose.

The ideas suggested by Magritte’s paintings--that reality and fantasy are not necessarily always separate and immutable polarities and that subjectivity and objectivity may, at times, become confused or even blend, both with themselves and with the real and the fantastic--can be amusing, but a little thought suggests that these ideas can also be horrifying. They can be terrifying. Moreover, if these categories are more fluid than supposed, might not others be, also? There may be a much finer line--or no line at all--between sane and insane, kind and cruel, life and death, heaven and hell. If one polarity can be negated or fused, even temporarily, why couldn’t all other polarities also be negated or fused? And, if they can be negated or fused temporarily, why can’t they be negated or fused permanently? There is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to Magritte’s work, and it, like Lewis Carroll’s novel, has a disturbing as well as a charming aspect.

Many of Magritte’s paintings are landscapes (bizarre landscapes, to be sure), but many others are portraits, always more or less (usually more) off kilter. The depiction of landscapes is a shorthand way of depicting the objective, if not always the real; the painting of personal portraits is a shorthand way of depicting the subjective, if not always the subjective. Let’s tale a look at an example of each.

In Blank Check, a horsewoman is seen riding through a woods. As she passes through a stand of trees, she and her horse are segmented. The front of the horse overlaps a tree, as it would appear to do in passing in front of the tree. However, the next segment of its body, is missing. Where the animal’s shoulder and thigh should be, only background foliage and grass can be seen. Then, the midsection of the horse, upon which the woman sits, and its lower left hind leg appear, overlapping the next tree, but its knee is shown against an empty space occupied by background foliage. The right rear leg of the horse and its rear end are shown as they would normally appear, against the backdrop of a third tree. It is as if, in passing the stand of trees, the horse and rider are sliced by the landscape into segments, some of which overlap foreground, and others background, elements of the scene. The painting is something of an optical illusion that, in playing with perception and reality, comments upon them both, suggesting, once again, that the dichotomies between subject and object and fantastic and real are sometimes tenuous at best.

In another painting, The Collective Invention, a strange hybrid creature has washed ashore. The upper half is that of a fish, while the lower portion, from the waist down, is a woman. The image is so bizarre that it takes the viewer a moment to realize that it is an inversion of a more familiar figure--that of the mermaid, whose upper body, to the waist, is that of a woman and whose lower body is that of a fish. The mermaid may be bizarre in her own way, but she doesn’t seem quite as bizarre as Magritte’s fish-woman. The reason for this seems to be that the mermaid retains the woman’s face, or identity, and there is, within her head, a human brain. In other words, the figure retains the essence of humanity. Magritte’s painting of his fish-woman, on the contrary, retains the essence of the animal or, one could argue, represents the sexual aspect of the human as its essence, since the figure does not include face and brain, retaining, instead, the woman’s legs, buttocks, and genitals instead as the human parts of the hybrid’s anatomy. Once again, Magritte suggests the ambiguity and, above all, the arbitrary nature of the categories we create to order perception and experience and to make them, and the knowledge derived from them, manageable and meaningful. The world need not be as we represent it to be and, in fact, could easily be the opposite.

Surrealism is not representational. It only seems to be, at times, and, even then, only in part and for a moment. A closer look shows the dissolution of the subjective-objective and the fantastic-real polarities. On second thought, the neat categories of existence, which are products of consciousness and communication as much as of reason and science, may not be all that neat. Magritte’s art provides this second look at experience as it is generally perceived and understood. His paintings make viewers look again at their perceptions and understandings of themselves and the world (which result from their common-sense realism). Therein lies the horror of the surreal in general and of Magritte’s work in particular. In the final analysis, the world, both the inner and the outer, are imaginary and fluid, which is the reason, it seems, that Magritte said, concerning his work:

My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?'. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.
For another article in this blog that discusses the horror that can result from violating categories of perceprual and understanding, visit "The Horror of the Incongruous."

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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