The British press reports that the original Surrealist Manifesto, written in 1924 by Andre Breton, sold at auction for more than $5 million.
The Surrealist Manifesto praised automatic writing, it urged us to see in dreams a much more marvelous reality than the reality of everyday life, which is constrained by rational thought, by logic.
While this idea may seem wrongheaded and utterly irrational at first, it is no more than a plea for the value and power of imagination. “The marvelous is always beautiful; everything marvelous is beautiful. Nothing but the marvelous is beautiful." These two sentences from the manifesto provide a key to its intent: it is a rebellion against the routine daily life, against a thinking that is always counting up profit and loss, seeking advantage, getting ahead, and being "realistic." Against that the Surrealist Manifesto praises the unexpected, the incongruous, the unplanned and spontaneous. A more marvelous reality is revealed in dreams than in team meetings in the boardroom.
But now the crabbed imagination of the accountant, the stark realism of the high priced auction room has won. The document praising the unexpected, the uncalculated, has become a commodity. $5 million paid not for the content of the document, not for the thoughts of Andre Breton and his fellow Surrealists, but for a piece of paper that is famous and unique because it is the only copy existing. What was once an effort challenging our sense of reality, is now a piece of paper carefully preserved in the museum to be gawked at by the public.
Imagine the Constitution and Bill of Rights completely ignored; no one caring any longer about what they say, both documents now commodities traded in auctions of rare documents. The world would surely be impoverished by such a scanario.
So is the world impoverished when the Surrealist Manifesto no longer counts as an important intelle4ctual and moral challenge but only as a very expensive document, when its ideas are no longer hotly debated but only its market price.
One must be completely blind not to see here one more skirmish in the age old war over the nature of human existence. On the one side is the reality of mundane life -- the reality of profit and loss, going to work, paying your bills, making sure your kids don’t forget to take their lunch to school. Nothing else matters. Dreams, in that world, must be validated by proving their practical value. The novel idea that spawns an invention, a new industry and tremendous profits is valid. The dreamers who lose their shirt are mere dreamers and deserve ridicule. The most common advice in that world is to be "realistic" to have small aims, to put one foot in front of the other -- and in the end to wonder whether it is all worth while.
Arrayed against that so-called “realism” are the defenders of the dreams. Going to your day job, remembering to buy milk and diapers,--this slightly dreary routine of everyday life is only redeemed by dreams, by the marvelous, by hope, by the unexpected, by the blinding beauty of what cannot be counted, planned, laid out rationally and sold for profit. This is the world of poets, of artists, of political radicals who think about a different world, as well as of some conservatives who see the present as the betrayal of a mythical past. Here we do not constantly ask: what is it good for? but try to open our souls to a reality that is at times truly miraculous. In this world there are, at least, moments where we are not even tempted to ask whether it is all worthwhile, because the experience of the marvelous, of hopes and dreams is blindingly precious.
Look around your life to find the places where meaning emerges from the unexpected, where dreams comfort and hope brings you joy, and make sure that the pressure all around you to be sensible and realistic, to plan, to stay firmly anchored in of the the predictable will not make your life routine and pointless.