Dr Shun-liang Chao - Surrealism Guest Lecture (University of Tokyo, 15 June 2017)
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"Humour as a Moral Attitude: Surrealist Laughter and Childhood Nonsense"
Department of English, Dictionary Room University of Tokyo (Hongo Campus)
Thursday 15th June, 1pm
This paper explores the structure and strategy of Surrealist humour as a moral attitude. Morality, prima facie, is anathema to Surrealism because André Breton grounds Surrealism on psychic automatism, a ‘disinterested’ play of thought ‘exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’ (Manifeste du surréalisme). Surrealism, however, is arguably the only Modernist art movement that incubates a major moral sentiment, one that seeks to revolutionise life by unchaining the mind from all bourgeois ideological values. Humour is a, if not the, most effective approach the Surrealists, led by Breton, adopt to realise psychic freedom.
In humorising their verbal and visual images, the Surrealists, I suggest, engage fundamentally with pseudometaphor, a radical form of nonsense that, theorists of humour like Francis Hutcheson and Schopenhauer would say, belongs to ‘folly’ rather than ‘wit.’ A pseudometaphor emerges, for example, when Breton announces that ‘A tomato is also a child’s balloon—Surrealism, I repeat, having suppressed the word like’ or when Dalí creates a typical Surrealist object by turning a lobster into the handset of a telephone.
Born of accidental partial similitude, Surrealist pseudometaphor wipes out sense through nonsense and laughter, and chimes with early childhood cognition that triggers an orgy of identification. Taking a cue from Freud, who valorises humour and artistic creation—both tied to childhood—as two ways of rebelling against harsh reality, the Surrealists invest art with liberating laughter to empower the ego to indulge itself freely in pleasure in nonsense and restore childhood euphoria to life.
Shun-liang Chao is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan. He earned a PhD in Comparative Literature from University College, London.
His interests cover literature and visual culture from the 18th to 20th centuries: he's the author of Rethinking the Concept of the Grotesque: Crashaw, Baudelaire, Magritte (2010), awarded an Honourable Mention for the 2013 Anna Balakian Prize by the International Comparative Literature Association.
He's currently co-editing a book on humour in the arts for Routledge and working on a project on the embodiment of pain in Tetsuya Ishida's paintings in relation to sentimentalism.