What we are to our inward vision, and what man appears to be… can only be expressed by way of myth.
Myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science.
from Defining irrealism: scientific development and allegorical possibility
Dean Swinford, University of Florida
… The specimens I have collected are connected by Irrealism, a term which I would like to define as a peculiar mode of postmodern allegory… The shortcomings of classification reveal the attraction and validity of attempts to define Irrealism as a prominent mode of expression characteristic of the postmodern.
While cultural materialist analytical methods demonstrate the connections between a single text and a surrounding cultural discourse, perhaps Irrealism accounts for the role of the artistic product in relation to a natural world transformed by primarily economic factors. Irrealism provides a means by which to account for the extent to which artistic products respond to a culture whose economy seemingly depends on the mutation and usurpation of the natural at a scale previously imaginable only on Dr. Moreau’s isolated island.
The attempt to define Irrealism as a literary and artistic mode allows for an analysis of a current of contemporary cultural development without overloading the already cumbersome narratological critical vocabulary. Irrealism is a term which does not define an entire genre, a single species or family, but a group of characteristics adapted by different cloth-bound creatures to accommodate for widespread variations in their increasingly unnatural habitat. To define a new genre is an impossible project because, to some extent, each individual text is its own genre, and each specimen a species…
Furthermore, these works which I classify as Irreal, such as, among others, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, and the paintings of Remedios Varo, are themselves interested in patterns, puzzles, classification.
The term Irrealism signifies principally as an indicator of postmodern allegory. Irrealism, then, is a tool which enables theorists to understand why, both narratologically and phenomenologically, allegory, conceived by the Romantics and Moderns as outmoded and reactionary, resignifies as a dominant mode of expression. The purpose of an examination of Irrealism is not, then, to collect and codify a series of texts. Instead, an investigation of Irreal characteristics in a literary text or other cultural product will reveal an allegorical scaffolding indicative of, as the prominent Marxist critic Fredric Jameson has best termed it, “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.”
… I’d like to examine two paintings by two artists: Hieronymous Bosch and Remedios Varo. I choose Bosch to demonstrate the influence of the allegorical as a prominent mode of medieval artistic expression. While many critics seek to imagine Bosch as a proto-modern painter, Bosch’s paintings utilize the familiar alphabet of symbols derived from Christian tradition…
The figures of Bosch’s The Conjurer, for example, are derived from Biblical sources and common symbols, motifs apparent in other works such as the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Cure of Folly as well. This work is deceptively simple, particularly in comparison to more ornate works such as The Last Judgment, which forms “a complex symbolism in which each color conveys a message and the whole reveals itself as a highly complex pattern of interlocking, superimposed, and overlapping signs . . . [which] relate to Christian legendry, primitive ‘analogies,’ the ethical theories of Ruysbroeck, the secret doctrines of alchemy” (Delevoy 104).
…. Now, consider a treatment of the same subject by Remedios Varo, a Spanish-born artist who associated with the Surrealists and settled in Mexico. In The Juggler, Varo creates a personal allegorical system which relies on the predetermined symbols of Christian and classical iconography. But these are quickly refigured into a personal system informed by the scientific and organized like a machine.
The work features a host of symbols familiar from Christian iconography and demonology: the lion, the owl, the goat, the pentacle- shaped juxtaposition of the Juggler’s magician hat and eerily forked facial hair. But this system is disrupted by personal symbols which recur throughout Varo’s work. Who is the girl in the Juggler’s cart? Why the horde of identical observers all wrapped in a single cloak? In the Irreal work, allegory operates according to an altered, but constant and orderly iconographic system. Or, as Octavio Paz states in Visiones y desapariciones de Remedios Varo, “the secret theme of her work [is] harmony . . .. lost equality” which produces “a mirror-image painting. Not the world in reverse, but the reverse of the world.”
Consider the reemergence of the owl in another of Varo’s paintings, The Creation of the Birds. While the owl recurs through Bosch’s work as an indicator of the Satanic, the significance of Varo’s owl is developed in this painting. Here, the owl-like features of the artist-scientist recall Minerva. But this Minerva is also a juggler, a conjurer, skilled in the use of a triangular magnifier, similar to the triangular prism used by another Conjurer, Newton, to divide light into the colors of the spectrum. Unlike Newton, however, and revealing her owl nature, our artist-scientist refracts moon beams.
This interplay of spiritual and scientific reveals the extent to which the allegorical system of Irrealism is distinguishable from that which undergirds Christian allegory. For Varo, even destiny is described in mechanistic terms. In a passage which echoes the philosophical system established by G.I. Gurdjieff in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, destiny is a hybrid forged from the mystical and the mechanical: it is, as Varo describes in a personal letter, “a complicated machine from which come pulleys that wind around . . . and make [people] move.”
Allegory exists as an attempt to understand the natural world, to decipher metaphysical reality. But science and technical culture have changed perceptions of the natural world, have significantly changed the natural world itself, thereby altering the vocabulary of symbols applicable to epistemological and allegorical attempts to understand it. The symbolic vocabulary of allegory must also accommodate new signification caused by scientific developments.