The Marvelous

Submitted by John E. Drabinski on Monday, 10/3/2011, at 12:36 PM

The concept of "the marvelous" is critical for surrealism and its idea of a new relation to self and world. The marvelous is a metaphysical concept - it is concerned with the ultimate meaning of reality. Surrealism begins with a rejection of reason and rationality as first principles of self and nature. That is, surrealism contests the idea that to be human is to be rational, a position that opposes itself to one of the oldest ideas of the human person in Western philosophy. Aristotle, for example, defined the human person as a "rational animal" in the fourth century B.C.

For Breton, however, it is precisely the West's emphasis on rationality, reason, and order that has led to the alienation of the present age. Rather than fulfilling our nature in a rational culture, modern life's orderliness and reasoned character has only estranged us from ourselves and nature. Surrealism aims at overturning that estrangement by accessing the subconscious, through techniques of automatic writing and automatic drawing, in order to express self and nature in an original sense of wonder and transcendence. In so doing, the subconscious accesses "the marvelous," which is that part of the self, nature, and the relation between the two lying beyond the reach of reason and rationality.

Breton sought to liberate Europe from its self-imposed prison of reason. However, when he began reading Aimé Césaire's poetry, then traveled to the Caribbean, Breton was convinced that the colonized possessed a sort of natural or immediate contact with the marvelous. This contact comes in part from a natural suspicion of reason, given that rationality was used to establish the "superiority" of the colonizer and, finding the colonized "lacking" reason, also the "inferiority" of subjugated peoples. As well, Breton noted the wonder of the Caribbean landscape as itself a form of vivid marvelousness. Since surrealism gains access to the marvelous through an immersion in the senses, landscape suggests more than just one occasion for the marvelous among others, but an exemplary and natural case of the senses exceeding rational control of them. Lastly, Breton's musing on Césaire suggests (though does not explicitly say) that he believes blackness itself to contain a surrealist impulse, beyond landscape and historical suspicion of reason and rationality.

René Ménil appropriates and transforms Breton's notion of the marvelous. Key to this transformation is...