Monday, February 20, 2012

Metaphorical landscapes

Companions of Fear by Rene Magritte

In a recent post, Landscape as Metaphor, I attempted a creative writing exercise to show the parallels between the bleak and brown world of February in central Illinois to my occasionally bleak and brown response to the news, received two weeks ago, that I had been laid off. Granted, the news was not entirely unexpected; mine was only one of a long series of terminations. Neither was the news entirely unwelcome. I had been miserable for quite some time, so much so that my first reaction, upon hearing the news, was to shout, "Thank you!"

But here's the thing. As much as I find our current paradigm to be flawed and wanting, as much as I decry the concept that an individual's worth is synonymous with his or her paycheck, I found it difficult not to take the whole thing personally. I had been judged, and deemed unnecessary. I had been cut loose upon the world, with no title or job to call my own. My blog is a labor of love; I receive no revenue for it. I am a writer who shies from submissions, a birder whose love of birds is a mostly solitary pursuit. In the eyes of our consumerist society, where does that leave me?

As the bleak winter landscapes dogged my birding pursuits (OMG, will this winter ever end?), it put me in mind of metaphorical landscapes by the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy.

Actual landscape at Green River Conservation Area

Metaphorical landscape by surrealist painter Yves Tanguy

Yves Tanguy, even more than the other surrealists, is the painter who symbolizes an entirely bleak internal realm for me. In a rough draft of one of my manuscripts, I compared the dissatisfaction of one of my characters to his stark and unfeeling landscapes, a world so bleak and barren that the figures are mere approximations of any living thing, set against a landscape devoid of perspective or any true semblance of life. I mean really, what is this? Was Tanguy totally depressive, or is that just my interpretation?

By Yves Tanguy

Surrealism, and its forerunner, dadaism, present images of absurdity in the face of an even more absurd world: the two world wars, a society collapsing inwards upon itself. In the face of the disintegration of Western Europe at the advent of the first world war, the dada movement presented its aggressive image of "anti-art" to the world; with the second world war, the surrealist movement had an even more horrible issue to confront.

Max Ernst, "L'Ange du Foyer"

Max Ernst, "The Eye of Silence"

And where would any discussion of the surrealist movement, no matter how cursory, be without Salvador Dali?

Salvador Dali, Dissolution of the Persistence of Memory

Again, in a rough draft of my manuscript (I left these details out because how many people are, like myself, art history geeks?), a character thought that she didn't like Dali's work, because it left a sticky and unpleasant residue on her brain. I guess that's how I feel about it, too, which is why I gave the impulse to my fictional character. These surrealist landscapes are downright unpleasant. But that doesn't mean that we should look away.

I get impatient with those who think, like Ayn Rand in The Romantic Imagination, that we should only focus on uplifting or inspiring images. Is that what the world is really like? Or,in the real world, do people get laid off due to no fault of their own? Do these people then pull back from the brink of wallowing by realizing how nice they have it compared to others around the world? Do we live in a place in which violence, war, greed, genocide, and the threat of mass extinctions exist, or not? And if this is the world that we live in, why should we demand an obligatory chipperness from its citizens? To put it in Gen-X lingo, why should I be positive if everything sucks?

Rene Magritte, Pleasure

The above image was painted in 1927 (I think); almost 100 years later, can we find a better indictment of consumerism? And yet, can I exonerate myself from the charge of equal shallowness?

Today, I received a job offer from a doctor's office in Decatur, at a salary not too horribly off from what I had before. Callooh, callay! 'Twas brillig and the slimey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe!

By Rene Magritte

And thus, a happy ending? In some ways, of course. I am no longer unemployed, and really, I have only been looking for a week! It is right to be happy, of course, and I any more real, more validated, than I was yesterday, when the landscape looked so bleak?

The surrealists mean a lot to me. To paraphrase a quote from the book A Small Furry Prayer, the term is now obsolete. The surreal has become everyday life.

So, is there an artist who illustrates your metaphorical landscape? If so, who is she, or he?


  1. A lot of food for thought, here! I find these images frightening to look at. Although Pollyanna was so sweet and chipper she made me feel ill, for myself, I can only find the energy to act when I'm feeling happy and hopeful. Otherwise, I feel like telling the Ostrich to move over; I want to stick my head in the sand next to his, and not see. (If I don't see it, I don't have to deal with it!) Mom PS Wonderful news about your new job!

    1. Of course as individuals we should try to stay hopeful even through the most dire times, if only because that's better than wallowing in despair, but I was thinking more of the purpose of art. Art should be a reflection of what is, and therefore good art will make people uncomfortable. Surrealism makes me uncomfortable, but looking at the context of the world at the time the movement started, shouldn't be pretty.

      Because there are also beautiful things in the world, there's a place of Monet's water lilies, too, but there is a trend in popular thought, which in its extreme actually becomes magical thinking (e.g., The Secret), of enforced chipperness that I really have an issue with. (Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Bright-Sided" is a good critique of enforced positivity.) And don't even get me started on Thomas Kinkade....