Re-Draw the Map, Re-Write History and Re-Invent Reality

Sur_Map[1] The Surrealist Map of the World 1929 Variétés

Several odd features immediately strike the viewer of this 1929 map first published in a special issue of the Belgian magazine Variétés.  As this is a Surrealist Map of the World perhaps this is to be expected.

The most obvious of the divergences is the equatorial line that instead of holding to a straight line wavers and snakes all over the place. Then there is the fact that the Pacific Ocean is the centre of the map instead of the traditional Atlantic. However these changes are only scratching the surface. On closer inspection we find an even more radical re-invention of the world.

Looking at the place names we find that North America now consists of four countries, Alaska, Labrador, the Charlotte Islands and Mexico. The United States and Canada have simply vanished. A smaller South America is reduced to a single country: Peru. Greenland survives pretty much as is. Moving over to Europe a picture begins to emerge of the purpose behind the map. Ireland looms menacingly over a Britain which is now little more than a speck. France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, those colonial powerhouses have been wiped clean away from the map. Paris survives, (one of only two cities mentioned, the other being Constantinople) ironically as the capital of Germany. Germany and Austro-Hungarian Empire divide  up Western Europe, Eastern Europe has been absorbed into a truly gigantic Russia. In Asia  we find that India has dwindled and Afghanistan, that graveyard of imperial ambition, then and now, has doubled in size. The rest of the map is mainly populated by oversized Polynesian and Pacific islands, most notably a rather cute bear shaped Easter Island, home of the statues so beloved by the surrealists, that is almost the size of South America. In contrast the continents of Africa and Australia have shrunk in proportion.

At first glance the Surrealist Map of the World may seem an innocuous  piece of whimsy, however a careful study soon reveals it’s political purpose, re-envisioning the world as if Western civilisation had never been exported to every corner of the globe Preference is given to indigenous cultures, especially to the native cultures that Surrealism felt a special affinity towards, Polynesia and the Americas, and to countries that had experienced recent revolutions, notable Russia and Mexico.

Criticism has been levelled at the Surrealist movement from both the right and the left, and this map of what orthodox Surrealism conceived as the ideal world is certainly no exception. Taken in conjuration with quotes like the following, it is not hard to see why the map has drawn the shocked ire of conservatives:

Even more than patriotism – which is a quite commonplace sort of hysteria, though emptier and shorter-lived than most – we are disgusted by the idea of belonging to a country at all, which is the most bestial and least philosophic of the concepts to which we are all subjected.. Wherever Western civilization is dominant, all human contact has disappeared, except contact from which money can be made – payment in hard cash.”

Whereas the left has criticized the Orientalizing and romanticizing tendencies of Surrealist doctrine towards native and indigenous people. Frida Kahlo’s annoyance at Andre Breton’s attempts to co-opt her as a Surrealist while she was struggling to forge a recognizable Mexican artistic identity is more than understandable.

However none of the charges against Surrealism take into account the genuine commitment to internationalism and anti-colonialism that most of the major Surrealist showed throughout their careers, and the impact it was to have in the Caribbean and on the Négritude movement.

Surrealism had many flaws and of course it failed in many of its major objectives, however as they wanted nothing less than a completely redrawn map and re-invented reality what chance did they have in succeeding?

36 thoughts on “Re-Draw the Map, Re-Write History and Re-Invent Reality

  1. This reminds me of a book I read a long time ago – The Years of Rice and Salt. It proposes an alternative reality in which the great plagues of the dark and late middle ages wipe out the population of Western Europe, leaving the globe free from European colonialism. I forget the specifics of the story, now, but it was an interesting concept.

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    1. Thank you…of course it is just a piece of surrealism whimsy but it has a serious purpose. As good Marxists they would have been aware of his contention that the most important in history was the meeting of Cortes and Montezuma, because it opened up the commercial possibilities of the whole globe, and the following colonialism, imperialism, modern era slavery and of capitalism.

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      1. I believe that is one of history’s pivotal moments. But if not Cortes then someone else… yet if Europe had suffered some catastrophe, preventing its domination over the rest of the globe, well then… Perhaps the rise and ascendence of the Muslim world? They were actually very very progressive in science and medicine at the outset. Or what of the Meso-American empires? It is a fascinating thread to contemplate. 🙂

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      2. It is…the Muslim world was in decline by the 15th century, the scientific achievements of moorish Spain was threatened by internal dissident and the eventual reconquista by Ferdinand and Isabella which led to the creation of the first truly modern nation state…if China had used its technological knowledge in an expansive aggressive fashion the world would have been very different as well. If Europe had suffered a catastrophe this would have eased population pressures and the expansion might not have been pursued with such fervour. They is dozens of novels to be written!

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  2. That first set of italics poses some menacing questions, especially today of all days. I always loved the map of the world that had the South Pole at the top! It’s always good to shake up our preconceptions and our sensibilities.

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    1. Thank you Roger… the quote is from Rene Crevel, a very good friend of Dali (in fact it was Dali who found him just before he died at his own hand). The view seems almost impossibly quaint as nationalism is now the flavour of the day. All well, here’s hoping.

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  3. First of all, Rapa Nui, moai, thank you for that! It’s there anything you don’t know anything about?
    In regard to your last sentence: yes, it might seem a feeble attempt, just re-naming regions, it is the thought initiative manner of a project that makes it a gem. And I can imagine them surrealists sitting at a table, having fun, breeding this idea…

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    1. I have always been charmed by the Surrealists sense of play…they were serious but to a child is there anything more serious than playing games? I really must post about Une Semaine, Ernest’s collage novel.

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    1. Marx thought that the meeting of Montezuma and Contes was the most important point in history. Amazing that with the resurgence of nationalism that this still seems as pertinent and relevant today as when it was first published in 1929. History is a nightmare from which we are yet to awaken from.

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    1. Indeed where would we be? They were undoubtedly ahead of the curve in a lot of respects…and quite woke but in some aspects they would be heavily criticized on the left. As for the right well that goes without saying.


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