- Luminous Road
Surrealism is often associated with an absurdist worldview and the gloomier aspects of the larger movement of existentialism. Yet André Breton’s defining 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism is playful and hopeful in tone about the power of the human mind and art. Breton uses the word “luminous” twice in the manifesto, first by imagining himself to be living in or visiting the “romantic ruins” of a castle on the outskirts of Paris, a place occupied and enjoyed by the artists, writers, and philosophers he feels blessed to know, who reach that castle by means of a “luminous road.” He recognizes that this is just a fantasy but asks rhetorically “why not” imagine that one might live in such a place. In the second passage he refers to the “luminous phenomenon” of how the mind works and how the spark between two ideas—the association of ideas—can lead to beauty and meaning. In Breton’s thinking and in the larger movement, surrealist ideas arose from new views about both the conscious and the unconscious aspects of the mind and its creative potential.
Elements of the surreal find their way into almost every phase of literature in the last century, including modernism, existentialism, Beat writing, and postmodernism. Recently I have noticed an upsurge of belief in the power of the unexpected and the unconscious and of somehow finding new realities through the larger engagement of the whole mind. The surrealist idea of taking elements out of their usual contexts and associations—whether they be persons or settings or objects—is a simplified and resilient model of the broad subject of creativity itself, whether in the arts or sciences. Surrealism believes in the power of the [End Page 5] unconscious or attendant mind and of finding new realities within the dream. Pocket watches don’t hang from trees or have liquid properties, yet such an image may be, in some unpredictable way, exactly what inspires a poet or a scientist toward an important new idea or solution.
Over the past century, the practical arts have made widespread use of surreal and expressionist methods. This issue’s Curio Cabinet, “Stage Pictures: Jo Mielziner and the Art of Set Design,” opens with a detailed note from Tennessee Williams regarding the set for his new play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to open on Broadway in 1955. Williams and Mielziner had previously worked together on A Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Mielziner’s minimalist approach emphasized one or two key images within the play, which perfectly expressed Williams’s lyrical realism. Yet the playwright encouraged Mielziner to push the designs for Cat into the realm of the metaphysical, asking that Maggie and Brick’s bedroom be “roofed by sky” to suggest the mystery of the cosmos. Williams also provided the designer with detailed notes on the huge console—the combination radio, phonograph, and liquor cabinet—that dominates the room as an objective correlative for “all the comforts and illusions behind which we hide,” with the overarching cosmos as a powerful commentary on those illusions. Mielziner’s sketches from the archive at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts demonstrate his skillful interpretation of Williams’s requests. They also show an expressive talent that sustained a fifty-year career and helped transform set design from craft to art.
Cat Powell’s powerful story “Manifold Northeast Life and Trust” is about an isolated middle-aged widower working for a once thriving insurance company now in such decline that its multistory office building is scarcely occupied. In his isolation, he notices fantastical changes in his workplace. A pond appears in one of the offices, fish populate it, and then a forest starts to grow. He does less and less of his regular work and more and more tending of the forest and dismantling the offices to make room for it. Later, ghostly shades of dead former colleagues start to appear and populate the building, going about the business of work and interacting with each other. The narrator seems to have made the transition from the necessary labor of supporting self and family in the real world to tending a...