Off the Cuff: Surrealism

We were at the art gallery tonight, in what turned out to be a semi-insane attempt to attend a gallery talk on Surrealism and Science. Because two or three hundred other people seemed to have the same idea (go figure: Tuesdays are pay-what-you-will). So there we were crammed into the nooks of a gallery exhibit. Hot and crushed and part of a very real swarm of art enthusiasts. But once the lecture started, it all faded away.

Surrealism may be my favourite artistic movement. The subversion of it. Reinvention and reordering. Disorder and absurdity that isn’t nonsense. It turns sense on its elbow and I like that. Although I’ve tried out cultivating order, rationality, and logic in my daily interactions, they aren’t my native tongues. I feel at home in the images of Surrealist works. Bizarre and unsettling and chaotic as they sometimes seem, they remind me that not everything is understood scientific or rational terms.

That’s where it all began to resonate; the Surrealists movement was a reaction to the rationality and scientific emphasis they had been raised with in the context of dealing with World War I. These concepts were (to them) inadequate tools for deciphering the psychological aftermath of the war. So they pushed into myth and subconscious and attempted to recreate understanding by reassembling the known and unknown outside of reason.

In listening to the talk, I realized I often place too much emphasis on making sense of the world using tools that are mostly foreign to me. Like handing a mitre box to a weaver and expecting a brilliant charcoal sketch. I try to use reason to process and communicate my world; I don’t intend to dismiss reason and logic, but I need to recognize that I don’t live in those spaces. I live in the soaring rustle of crows’ wings, the crunch of gravel under bicycle tires. In rain falling through the trees outside my front window. In the sweep of colour against a stranger’s skin. A laugh, a phrase, a perfectly timed exchange passing through my hearing. Goldfish in all the wrong-but-right places.

I knew this. But I had forgotten. I will likely forget again. And this is ultimately what art is for: to come inside and kick around the furniture we thought we had placed so perfectly. Remind us of all the cubby holes where we tucked ourselves away.

Soundtrack for a Memory

You may have one. THE ALBUM. THE SONG. It may not have been good then, when it was new, and it may not have aged well. But its sound is a time machine. The moment it takes you to is far back or deep down, and the memory aches in a way that makes you smile. That’s the whole reason you sometimes pull the CD out of its case and pour yourself a glass of something — maybe wine, maybe whiskey — and remember.

My album is Hard Candy by Counting Crows. I don’t remember why I bought it, but for the fall of 2002, it had a near permanent home in my car’s CD player. Beginning to end and end to beginning. The songs were a strange intensified echo of what was going on in my life.

These are the circumstances: I thought I was trying to be in love with two men at the same time. The real situation, in retrospect, was that I didn’t realize I wasn’t in love with my boyfriend of four years, and I found myself desperately infatuated with someone else. Inevitably, without being technically unfaithful, I was lying to everyone, myself most of all. My boyfriend had to have been willfully ignorant (he was pretty smart except when it came to me) because not one of my friends was fooled by anything I claimed. Hence, the comfort of Adam Durwitz’ voice cracking on emotion that melodies could not contain.

The intervening years (and the influence of my husband) have changed the way I listen to music. Reactions are still viceral, but the depth of the experience flows more from the music itself, and less from outside associations. So a couple of weeks ago, I started wondering how I would react to this album if it came into my life now. Because of those few months, a bloated emotion experienced within a negligible duration, I have a relationship with these songs that colours any objective evaluation of their merits. But the real question is does that matter? Do I need to be able to extricate the music from the memory to evaluate it in terms of present experience?

As a mini-experiment, I put Hard Candy into heavy rotation on my iPod (listening from start to finish once every few days) to see if the separation was possible. For the first few listens, the memory was so vivid the experiment seemed like misplaced nostalgia. I could recall the roads I drove, the texture of the air: late autumn, late night sharpness spiced with fallen leaves drenched in late season rain and early frosts. And of course, each song had underlying harmonics of emotions that had absorbed too much of me for too long.

I should have known it was all related to Pavlovian conditioning: the dogs eventually stopped salivating at the sound of a bell. Each time I listen to the album now lessens previous associations. By asking the question, I began being able to evaluate this one album on its own terms. Eureka. Or something. Because it isn’t quite that simple. Complex neural patterns have been established in my brain; I still enjoy the memories and want to maintain some aspects of their intensity while understanding that none of those people really exist in present terms. Weakening the link is valuable only if I want, on occasion, to enjoy the music itself.

I’m not sure these questions will have any long-term effect on my relationship to music in general, but I’m glad I took the time to explore. I know now that Hard Candy appeals to me on a level beyond objectivity. Guitar riffs, lyrics, over-dramatic production burrow deep into my skin and feed me on a level deeper than analysis. The memories can slide in and out of the experience as they please. I’ll just pour myself another glass of wine. And listen.