Beauty is like a Train: Perpetual Motion in the Works of the Surrealists and Proto-Surrealists
Artists intrigued by paradox often address the ideal of perpetual motion, and many inventors’ futile attempts to achieve it. Motion is integral to the artistic revolution of Surrealism, with its periodic emphasis on violence and change. However an object in perpetual motion might as well be frozen, because that motion is a permanent state. That is, the object’s condition never changes, even while its position continually does. In addition, the components of a classic perpetual motion machine, anchored in one place so that the construct might be harnessed for work, move in a circuit but can never escape it. This combination of the dynamic and static is confronted mock-scientifically and mock-mechanically by predecessors to the Surrealists, and proves a crucial metaphor for the tenets of Surrealism.

At the dying end of the Victorian era, the year 1903 still saw applications for patents on perpetual motion machines crossing desktops at the British Patent Office (Ord-Hume 178). Less than decade later, Alfred Jarry’s published his posthumous ’pataphysical masterwork, The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician. The science that Dr. Faustroll studies and practices is a method of synthesis, through which exceptions are never incompatible with the rules they flaunt. The novel sets a precedent for tweaking otherwise sacrosanct laws of science, straight-facedly subverting them to meet artistic creations such as Dr. Faustroll’s “boat which is a sieve”, watertight through the actions of surface tension (15).

Jarry’s novels, Dr. Faustroll as well as The Supermale, feature the evolution of organic into mechanical. This motif can be seen in its inception in the former work, when a semantic twist turns a lobster into a “little automobile can of potted meat” (67), or when a heart pumping its terminal cycle of blood is juxtaposed with a ticking watch (87). But The Supermale reveals the culmination of this trend to be a consummate mechanization, in which the sexual act, debatably conceived as so essentially human, is reduced to a repetitive motion. Thinking sex unimportant, “because it can be performed indefinitely”, the novel’s protagonist Marcueil proves his sexual prowess with 82 consummations in 24 hours, as well as his athletic prowess, beating a train and a five-man bicycle team in a “Perpetual Motion Race” (Ch. 5). He is in the process utterly dehumanized, reduced to a soulless machine (McGurn), and dies at the hands of a contraption designed to imbue him with humanity.

Alfred Jarry was himself often compared to a machine for his relentless torrent of thought (Lennon 30) and his manic speech (62). His machine humans find their mirror image in the personified machines created by Marcel Duchamp, a Dadaist artist turned engineer who, with an unknown amount of seriousness, once signed a letter “Pataphysically Yours” (Anastasi). In the same year that John Phin published The Seven Follies of Science, cataloging the human obsession with “strange, difficult, and dangerous” pursuits such as perpetual motion (Ord-Hume 219), Duchamp compiled his first readymade, the “Bicycle Wheel”, its title object mounted hopelessly immobile on a wooden stool. The work traps a wheel, that simplest icon of movement, within a framework of frozen motion, stripping it of any utilitarian function.

Duchamp’s “Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” is even more kinetic. The sculpture cannot be seen to move, but this is a technicality arising from its being viewed only in an “instantaneous state of rest” (Duchamp 27). And in fact, the artist’s notes for the work make clear that it is conceived a perpetual motion machine, with that scientific impossibility made possible by minor adjustments to the laws of physics, by the addition of epiphenomenona such as the inversion of friction (56) involved in a sleigh’s backward and forward masturbatory motion (Dalrymple Henderson 158), and the oscillating density of a rising and falling phallic hook (Duchamp 60-61). Both of these innovations derive strongly from recurring delusions among more earnest inventors of real perpetual motion machines, who mistakenly dealt with friction “as a constant to be contended with” (Ord-Hume 58) or unconsciously assumed that an object might conveniently be heavier when falling then when rising (64). “The Bride Stripped Bare” also contains a water mill, the chain engaged on its axle (Duchamp 60) evocative of the Archimedes screw used to raise the water driving Medieval and post-Medieval closed cycle mills.

Duchamp’s preoccupation with energy over aesthetics in the creation of machine art is duly noted by André Breton (Marcel Duchamp 20; Genesis and Perspective 290), who maintains that Beauty could only exist once the relationship between an object in rest and the same object in motion had been reconciled (Mad Love 214). Perpetual motion resolves these two conditions because even though the object is not in rest, it experiences no net change, and motion only continues by virtue of the fact that the machine can periodically return exactly to its original configuration. In this way, the sleigh in the Large Glass moves from A to B, from B to A, ad infinitum, trapped in what the artist calls a vicious horizontal circle (Duchamp 56). It might as well not be moving at all, which in fact- if we can hazard to label one of many subjective realities as “fact- it is not.

In the declaratory closing passage of Nadja, Breton, as it were, catches Duchamp’s sleigh at the instant of its first departure, before it has been sentenced to repeat its brief round trip forever. In this heady moment he finds a metaphor for the Shock that the Surrealist conception of Beauty provides (160), frightening with its unexpected juxtapositions and confident visions. He compares Beauty to a train, which in the inception of its movement jolts its passengers out of their inertia, that is, their unwillingness to move or to be moved. Stronger and more adamant than Louis Aragon’s quiet frisson, Breton’s Shock conveys Surrealism’s inherent violence and danger.

Connected to this violence is what Breton reveals to be his own obsession with the strange, difficult, and dangerous, and motifs of speed, sexuality, hallucinations and fear intertwine in Nadja. For instance, the title character interrupts a kiss with Breton, terrified to see some person or creature outside of the window (107). The fact that in this case the man that she saw was real is irrelevant, as for the duration of the time that she saw him and nobody else did, he was effectively unreal. And Breton looks back almost longingly to the time when Nadja almost killed them both, smothering him in a kiss while bearing down on the gas pedal of their speeding car (152-3). Had they died, they would have achieved a momentary “common recognition of love,” confronting their desire for one another within the context of the modern machinery of movement. Their passion for movement is self-destructive, like the constant human intention to create a machine so empowered, that it could run perpetually, without the need for input from its creators.

However, in Nadja, people are at least as capable of perpetuity as machines are, if not for a Supermale sexual and racing endurance, than for their constantly effervescing ideas. In Nadja’s world, nothing is still; everything is either rising or falling (135), like the fountain whose water she compares to thoughts, surging and receding indefinitely (86). As an ideal Surrealist, as well as a supposed convulsive, her mind is fevered and busy and spilling over with a flow of images. In this way she is like Alfred Jarry, who Breton hails in his first manifesto as “Surrealist in absinthe,” experimenting in his writing with “the dream state” and other “concrete manifestations of the unconscious mind” (Lennon 91-92).

Another Surrealist citing Duchamp as an influence is René Magritte (Thrall Soby 11). Both artists reveal a terminal obsession with objects, Duchamp by exhibiting readymades and assisted readymades, and Magritte by painting such recurring characters as chairs, tubas, and pipes. But as opposed to the works of Duchamp, Margritte’s paintings and sculptures generally do not emit any immediate energy- they are placid and glassy, and any human figures portrayed within them are expressionless. Yet according to Breton, Surrealism “is the cuckoo’s egg laid in the nest (whose brood is lost) with the complicity of Rene Magritte” (Rosemont 496). Magritte typically juxtaposes images of items close and familiar to create situations that are calm and frightening, like a cuckoo’s egg invidious in the nest of another species.

While the Beauty that Breton aspires to reach is simply a means to Shock, Magritte’s artistic intentions have more nuance. Specifically, “What is important is not that people be shocked by something, but rather that they be shocked at being shocked” (Magritte 9). The fact that a viewer might be shocked by a work of art is the result of that viewer’s own prejudicial bias towards a hard and fast reality. If the viewer is made self-aware of his or her own complacency, then a greater victory is been achieved than in the case of Breton’s nebulous Shock, as it represents the first step in the direction of a greater openness towards the frightful Marvelous.

Towards this end, Magritte paints a disjointed Surreality, bizarre enough to Shock and yet focused, bizarre in one aspect only and in every other respect utterly commonplace. Two of his works return to the paradox of perpetual motion, or the frozen instant of motion. In the painting “Time Transfixed”, a train emerges from a normal fireplace in somebody’s normal living room. And in “The Wrath of the Gods”, Magritte’s recurring Lost Jockey appears in typical racing form (Gablik 23), but contrasted with the much more capable automobile. It is worth noting that the passenger in the car below the horse appears, as a quintessential Magritte bowler hated man, to be calm. He cannot be jolted, even by hoof beats on the roof of his vehicle, so long as he experiences no direct change in velocity.

When applied to a human context, the option of unceasingly repeating a discreet action is viscerally horrifying. The assumption that the only difference between a man and a machine is that a man can chose not to repeat himself (Sanouillet 5) is often challenged by the contingencies of modernity. And yet the Surrealists found within the troubling image of a motion’s eternal inception a symbol for a state of defiant change. Like Breton’s Guinean mask, loved and revered for its crest resembling a railway signal (122), Surrealist work combines themes of motion and fear, themes which have arisen periodically in ensuing decades. Nadja’s vision on a train recalls a nearly identical plot for the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 feet”, with the exception that a creature is glimpsed outside of an airplane instead (White). And her communion with Breton in a hurtling car brings to mind Tyler Durden attempting to shock Jack out of his bowler hatted bourgeoisie status and into enlightenment via hyper-reckless driving in the film Fight Club. Modern machines have are not yet self-powering, but they still harm human beings, or rather, they provide a means for human beings to harm and awaken themselves.

Works Cited:
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  • ---. Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1923. Oil paint, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass plates (cracked), each mounted between two glass panels in a steel and wood frame, 272.5 x 175.8 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  • ---. “The Green Box.” Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp. Eds. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
  • Fincher, David (Director). Fight Club (Film). Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1999.
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  • ---. Time Transfixed, 1938. Oil on canvas, 147 x 98.7 cm. Art Institute of Chicago
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  • Thrall Soby, James. René Magritte. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1965.
  • White, P.D. “The Twilight Zone – Episode Guide.” 21 Mar. 2002

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