A Trip To, and At, the MET

“Surrealism Beyond Borders” the exhibit read. White text against sky blue. Entering the space, a galaxy revealed itself, each painting its own world against the space-black walls. A wardrobe whose wooden doors, just ajar enough to peer past them, fail to conceal the impossibly vast landscape contained within it. A fireplace, whose smoke is generated by a miniature train charging out of it through the air. A phone whose handle is a lobster. A murder scene in a hotel hallway, the victim a human-sized sunflower. Each world with its own unique physics and logic. This fact, a key. Unlocking the entrance to plunge into each’s world.

It was, we decided, time to enter into just one, and live in it. Walking further, evaluating entrances, we were stopped — arrested, actually. Standing 5ft 6in tall, spanning 8ft across, Coups de bâtons, signed “Mayo,” held us in place. At 6 full steps from the canvas’s surface, the painting was greedy, taking for itself most of our field of view.

A tie. A shoe. Cigarettes. A chair. These came first, objects whose form had evaded the unique physics and logic the rest of the painting prescribed. Objects whose physics and logic adhered to the world of the observer looking in. They were the handrails leading us down into the pool. A semblance of grounding on unstable footing.

10 minutes and 51 seconds since being arrested. One step closer. Next came the forms themselves. These, surely of this new world. Exploding constantly, unfolding out of themselves, they grabbed one another — or were they all one?. A tangled pastel mess. Sophia, equally as determined to step into the painting, said one word to bring the forms into focus: “Bones.” Immediately the painting changed. The explosion, now frozen, became able to be absorbed. The forms, once yellow, pink, blue, and purple mear moments prior became white. Further absorbed in Mayo’s physics, color became the impossible quality of light that hit the white bone. Blue became pink’s shadow, and purple yellow’s, as though the light-dark binary of our world became saturated. Did we, in this flat physics on our world, ever make it past black and white?

22 minutes and 23 seconds since being arrested. One step closer. Next came the sky, and in it two floating rocks. One bigger, one smaller. A thought emerged: that perhaps they were in fact the same size, and that in that area between them, the space was receding. From this, layers broke loose. Far from flat now, the canvas revealed its closeness and its farness. The rocks as markers.

58 minutes 36 seconds since being arrested. One step closer. Next came the bicycle. Just barely there, but no doubt so. If not looking hard, which we certainly were, you’d miss it. “Why a bicycle?” “Why not?” Now only two arm lengths away from the canvas surface, wholly immersed in it, there was no need to question the new logic we were a part of, but rather only to live in it.

One hour, 18 minutes, and 21 seconds since being arrested. Finally, some validation for our efforts. A woman, having observed our observing an hour prior, seeing us now an hour later, asked how in the world we were still looking at the same painting. The answer, simple: “there is a lot to see!” The table, the shadows, the fence, the tie, the sticks, the trees — The more we found, the more that appeared.

One hour, 42 minutes, and 32 seconds since being arrested. One step closer, our shins now touching the demarcating wire. Our eyes just inches from the canvas surface, the painting became mear atoms of itself. The texture of the brush strokes, a winding maze to follow. The forms, now too large to be seen in their entirety, were angles, shadows, highlights, and colors. The pigmentation cracks, all 84 years of them, filled the beige dessert with authentic texture.

2 hours, 1 minute, and 4 seconds since being arrested. Slowly, we stepped back out into our world. Like an astronaut returning from space, the ground felt familiar yet strange. Needing depressurization to function, the three of us stood quiet, our backs turned to the painting. 14,386 words we had spoken over the course of our observation according to the audio transcription. How incredibly far from greedy, and how incredibly generous.

We looked at Coups de bâtons (Baton Blows) by Mayo, painted in 1937, for two hours, and never once read the contextual text affixed on its right. As I thought it necessary to do so given our lengthy analysis, I did eventually investigate the paintings ‘art history:’ Mayo was an Egyptian artist part of the surrealist Art et Liberté (Art and Liberty) group working in Cairo. At the time he painted the work, Egypt, while not formally a British colony, was still under British influence. Labor and student unions would frequently protest the British diversion of Egyptian resources. The painting, as the title suggests, depicts the unfortunate yet common scene of the cruel dispersal of a crowd at a cafe by police. Ultimately, however, I am not interested in any of this context. The canvas contained within it, from the start, a whole other world, and certainly not 1930’s Cairo. 

“One must be receptive, receptive to the image at the moment it appears” (Bachelard, 1). Walking through the exhibit, glancing to the left, we were stopped. Importantly, what struck us was not raw beauty, contextual connections, or intellectual intrigue, but rather an entrance made accessible to us despite no prior knowledge of the painting. In fact context, when meditated on for any length of time, can quickly turn such illusive entrances opaque. The three of us, on December 4th, 2021, from 5:10 pm to 7:08 pm, were indeed submerged in a new reality. We all agreed: the experience was endlessly interesting, full of life, and overwhelmingly positive. However such experiences are elusive. In this essay, I will attempt to explicate the mechanisms behind the experience we had and ones like it. I have come to believe that Coups de bâtons, along with a number of other surrealist works, transport viewers into their own unique universe by operating in the space between ours and theirs. I will develop this idea using Bachelard’s conception of the “poetic image,” through the framework of “phenomenological and affective hesitation” afforded to us by Al-Saji. I will leverage the theory of affect largely in line with that of Silven Tompkins, which I will quickly explain as to lay some groundwork for the more complex theoretical structures being built atop it.

Feelings are predefined and demarcated. Happiness —a feeling— is happened, an ends. Affects, then, are the forces that precede feeling. They are the instantaneous reaction to stimuli that are prior to consciousness and emotion. They are presubjective. There are no ‘types’ of affect, because no boundaries can be drawn around them-they exist outside of categorization. Furthermore, an affective experience is an unconscious (and preconscious) one. Affect is automatic. It is a bodily reaction rather than one of the mind. It is not processed but had. Affect In essence, is the gut reaction one gets when they hear a particularly beautiful melody before they even know they were having a gut feeling. It is the ‘feeling’ before the feeling.

The affective realm serves as the seeds and soil from which the logical and rational grow. Thus, in all of its primacy, it has the power to deeply inform experience and perception — both positively and negatively. As Al-Saji argues, in the case of widespread implicit racism, for example, it is the affective realm that specifically requires reform, as its primacy is precisely that which makes it so ingrained, and dangerously invisible. However, the affective realm is also responsible for any number of indescribably positive experiences. Being in love, being among nature, and seeing particularly moving art are all easy candidates to point at. It is here where we may leverage Bachelard’s “poetic image” to more fully understand the affective realm’s involvement in Coups de bâtons, and in so doing art generally. 

Bachelard sees poetics as uniquely existing within the affective realm. “Forces are manifested in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge” (Bachelard, 6). For Bachelard, poetry is a unique opportunity to live in the affective state. Upon reading a poem, one does not, like a novel, derive meaning, grab hold of a narrative, or understand it. Rather, a poetic image is derived: 

“The image, in its simplicity, has no need of scholarship. It is the property of a naive consciousness; in its expression, it is youthful language… To specify exactly what a phenomenology of the image can be, to specify that the image comes before thought, we should have to say that poetry rather than being a phenomenology of the mind is a phenomenology of the Soul” (Bachelard, 4).

The soul, in this case, being yet another word to describe the indescribable affective. The non-poetic word of most literature ‘points’ to meaning. Akin to Husserl’s natural attitude, the non-poetic word is passive, giving the reader a prescribed definition. It is cold, dead, and had. The poetic image, for Bachelard, is a distinct opening up of newness. It leverages the imagination to create, become, and live. Outside of previously prescribed definitions, the poetic image makes new realities. Indeed, “such poetry is rare!” (Bachelard, 15). 

Though Bachelard believed it was poetics alone that had such active potential, applications to Coups de bâtons and other visual art generally appear to me to be a natural progression. Bachelard held the poetic word as sacred because of the new imagined realities which it opened. Representational art, by which I mean art that portrays something an artist saw in our word, visualized, through the means of any number of artistic mediums, what they saw to the extent that it can be deciphered by a new viewer given no context, would be in some ways analogous to the non-poetic image. Though perhaps stylized through any number of movements — impressionism, cubism, romanticism, ect. — the content of the image is defined, an ends. André Breton, in his Manifesto of Surrealism, notes of non-surrealist art that “[Our] imagination which knows no bounds is henceforth allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility” (Breton, 4). This is not to say that other artistic movements are not artistic, valuable, or worthwhile, but rather that they are not emblematic of the poetic image. However, it is precisely that which surrealism offers. 

Viewing Coups de bâtons, our imaginations ran to the forefront of our minds. There was no understanding of ‘what’ we were looking at, the words were stripped of their definitions. Given only a point to jump from — a bottle, cigarettes, a table — (the comparison here being the actual words of the poetic poem themselves) to look hard at the painting was to look through the lens of our imagination, one not fogged by “arbitrary utility.” The strange forms, unique colors, and confusing chaotic scene served to charge our imagination forth, but it was the unique physics, logic, and very fundamental rules which governed that new universe that fully opened up the poetic image. “The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams” (Bachelard, 37). The successful surrealist work refutes the rules of our reality to such an extent as to make the poetic image inevitable. In engaging with it, our minds, unable to make meaning, are held in the affective — an imaginative overflowing. 

However, the anomaly of Coups de bâtons goes one step further. Affective experiences generally end as soon as they begin. Affect precedes meaning and emotion, though turns into them almost instantly. In an attempt to understand itself, the mind analyzes the state of the body after an affective experience to determine which emotion it should trigger. The poetic image, though indeed a markedly pre-conscious, affective, experience, is incredibly fragile. If one looks too close, it vanishes. “To verify images kills them,” (Bachelard, 108) for “images that are too clear become generalities, and for that reason block the imagination. We’ve seen, we’ve understood, we’ve spoken. Everything is settled”(Bachelard, 140). Like a snowflake, the poetic image is both incredibly beautiful yet ephemeral. When one inevitably reflects, attempts to preserve, and especially analyze the poetic image, it ceases to exist. The contextual text affixed on Coups de bâton’s right — a crime!

Our experience — 2 hours —  is evidence of some elusive poetic durability. To be sure, one can indeed preserve the poetic image to an extent by means of discipline and will. “[The psychoanalyst] explains the flower by the fertilizer,” (Bachelard, 14) “the phenomenologist does not go that far. For him, the image is there, the world speaks, the world of the poet speaks to him” (Bachelard, 14). It could be seen that in the case of myself, having taken 15 weeks of phenomenologically intensive coursework, that my analytical and phenomenological dials had been tuned. However, Riya, studying business, having no background in the phenomenological method whatsoever, being, as she describes herself, analytically minded, had her poetic image preserved as well. How?

Stepping into Coups de bâton was stepping in between our world and its. A tie. A shoe. Cigarettes. A chair. The painting, with its own distinct logic, gave us a jumping-off point for its poetics to unfurl. Then, having been realized, the poetic image froze-as even any attempt at rationalizing further proves fruitless. There is simply no more that can be understood. Mayo entices us in, shows us an entrance, and beyond it, we are held, at no “risk [of] relapsing into literal meaning” (Bachelard, 243). Surrealism, as I conceive of it, asserts our complete nonconformism clearly enough so that there can be no question of translating it, at the trial of the real world, as evidence for the defense” (Bachelard, 47) (my emphasis). It is the absurd, made ingestible — in-between worlds — where the poetic image is born, and able to propagate. From this, there emerges two ends of a spectrum, one which Coups de bâton stands at the intersection between. The aforementioned representational art is dead before it has any chance of opening. In contrast, we may take other surrealist works, who so embody their unique physics and logic as to provide no apparent entrance. In this way Coups de bâton is a sort of Goldilocks, able to hold our poetics in hesitation, frozen, for us to explore fully without any analytical fogging. The poetic image itself is given a house to dream in.

To help further explicate this unique circumstance of the poetic image further, we may find clarity in Al-Saji’s Phenomenology of Hesitation. In it, Al-Saji argues that the racializing vision, which, in spite of any apparent reason, prescribes racist characteristics to one’s existence on the basis of their skin color, has its roots in the affective realm.

“Though affect is pre-intentional, on the phenomenological account, it can provide the motivating and material support for the projective intentionality of  racializing percep-tion, and, hence, is implicated in naturalizing its reactive directionality. Affect and perception form two sides of the same phenomenon, linking that which is seen as racialized to its immediately felt effects on the racializing body” (Al-Saji, 140).

Building on this, Al-Saji proposes a unique solution: a phenomenological hesitation. The affective realm held open, in hesitation, is destabilized, able to self correct, allowing for more to come. Though taken far outside of its intended use case, we may leverage this framework to explain the poetic durability of Coups de bâton. 

“Newness, in other words, arises not only from the openness to the future but from the way the past is remembered in hesitation; memory and invention are here intertwined” (Al-Saji, 143) (my emphasis). Coups de bâton precisely embodies this in-between space. Its newness coming forth at the intersection between the new world it creates, and the held memories and familiarities of ours. Phenomenological hesitation for Al-Saji is something to be practiced, a strategy for repair. The poetic surrealist work holds us in hesitation, it is not so much of a thing to do as it is a thing being done to us. The framework though, still holds. “Phenomenologically speaking, it can be said that hesitation puts the immediacy of  affect in brackets, while allowing affective experience to continue” (Al-Saji, 147). This is precisely how we were able to not only enter through the door of Coups de bâton, but moreso sit down, observe our surroundings, and be. The poetic image, freed from its built-in timer, is thus allowed to flourish. 58 minutes 36 seconds since being arrested. One step closer. Next came the bicycle. “Why a bicycle?” “Why not?” wholly immersed in it, there was no need to question the new logic we were a part of, but rather only to live in it. An immersion takes time. One can not, in the case of the painted poetic image, have “the sudden image, the flare-up of being in the imagination” (Bachelard, 2) that Bachelard experiences with the written one. Equipt with more time, we are able to explore exponentially more, as “affect is not a completed reality or atomistic thing, but a process always open to further elaboration, forking, and becoming” (Al-Saji, 143). The longer we are able to affectively hesitate, the longer we are able to delay the brain’s “incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known”(Breton, 9), and the more we may be rewarded in otherworldly experiences.

I would argue, along with André Breton, that these are the experiences we must strive towards. Our world is limited, yet there exists infinite poetic possibilities through such art. Why limit ourselves? Let us explore, as to be sure, “Existence is elsewhere” (Breton, 47).

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