Surrealism, Anthropology and Mental Health


A Friend of Order – Rene Magritte (1964)

A few weeks ago, I found myself unable to determine with any real certainty the existence of either myself or the outside world. More specifically, I felt that I could not trust my memories. I have learned latterly that this is called “depersonalisation” or “derealisation”,  and it formed the anxious nadir of my generally-poor recent mental health. For an anthropologist and an ethnographer, losing trust in memory is deeply troubling. While I have books of field notes, my work calls upon my memories more than perhaps I would like, the ineffable qualia of the field fading the longer it has been since I returned. Memory is evidence for reality, and reality is, as some sort of scientist, what I am supposed to be studying. Not being able to trust that impression of reality is discomfiting. A certain absent-mindedness, or a problem forming short-term memories, is a byproduct of the constant fight-or-flight state in which the anxious brain resides. When one’s brain thinks it is within second of being eaten by a tiger, it seems dinner plans, for instance, are not filed as “important”. The derealisation, however, was a new and frightening development, that was set into motion by the tiniest of kinks in the order of things. I have learned since that it is a defense mechanism put into place by a brain under siege from cortisol, adrenaline and other stress chemicals, and not, happily, a sign of psychosis. I visited the doctor nonetheless.

I am relaying this because it is important for academics to write about the problems that they experience with mental health, being as a third of us will experience mental health problems over the course of our PhDs. It can often feel like we are going through our issues alone, or that they are some sort of personal failing, that we are “not cut out for this sort of work”. This is not the case, and writing about it brings us closer to an academic environment when the mental health record of its apprentices is not so poor. Ending the stigma associated with mental health issues in the academy is vital, however I have sat on this post for longer than any others out of concern for how this advertises me as an academic and an anthropologist.

Now safely being treated, I am left to ponder on what I should take from my experience with anxiety-induced derealisation. Reading James Clifford’s On Ethnographic Surrealism (1981) and revisiting my own fascination with the unreal in art seems to provide some level of insight as to what it might mean for my work. Unlike the reactionary nature of derealisation, surrealism was transgressive, and transformative, in its unreality, rebelling against the traumatic mechanism of the First World War to call for a new conceptual frame through which to look at the world. Clifford sums this up by quoting Walter Benjamin:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside that remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath the clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body (1969)

This feeling of trauma as a result of European degradation and barbarism seems to mirror a mind at constant war and tension with itself. Just as the human mind eventually detaches from the conventional assessment of reality, so too do the people in a broken continent eventually call for a reassessment of what constitutes “real”. In the surrealists’ Europe, this generation of Benjamin’s were hostage not to the events themselves, nor even to the trauma that they caused directly, but to the implications of the reality drawn up by the war, namely the fragility and brutality of so much of human existence.

In rejecting that reality, the surrealists were taking charge of their perceptions, rather than “checking out”, as a derealising mind does. The surrealist embraces unreality actively, rather than languishing in it passively. Seeking out unreality and luxuriating in its possibility, using the Other (in this case, the unreal) as a lens, surrealists are making decisions about reality. The valorisation of dreamscapes, as you might find in a Magritte painting, was an active decision to look somewhere else. Finding their fetish objets sauvages in “exotic” cultures, surrealists found unreality through the reification of a geographical, cultural Other, from browsing the Marché aux Puces, or from absconding to other places and directly using other cultures as tools for examining our own. The lines of similarity to ethnography are clear here, as are the clear orientalist assumptions that early 20th century scholarship is saturated with.

My own work in the field has done the job of “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange”, not least because it is anxiety over the writing up of findings that has lead to a temporary detachment from reality in the first place. But it takes a deeper and more autochthonic tone than this. Necessity leads me to adopt full-time work outside of academia, as it does for many of us, and the language used about it often takes the tone that I work “in the real world”, intensifying the unreality of the work I conduct in my spare time, the work to which I have “belonged” for so long. Does the implication that I only now work “in the real world” mean I belonged in the “unreal”? This is a scary thought, much like a derealisation experience.

We have, in true anthropological style, a Levi-Straussian dichotomy of the “real, mundane, profane ” work of the day to day, the humdrum, the nine-to-five, set against the “unreal, esoteric, sacred” work of the thesis*. One makes the other feel unreal. At no time is this clearer than now. I have just come back from a four-day excursion back to Cologne for a small conference, in which much to do with cultural mapping and decision making was discussed, and I had the privilege of taking part in some wonderful exchanges of ideas with people whom I enormously respect. Now that I have returned, the conference’s location a plane trip away from my day-to-day existence reinforces the feeling of “unreality”, and my desire to prove that it exists. Academic life for me is in a different country from the one in which I live; another place or, perhaps more correctly, an Other-place.

Like the surrealists, I too have been holding on to my own objets sauvages , totems and reminders of Other-places in which I have lived. The most mundane objects from Namibia: strings of beads I wore, a t-shirt long past its wearable state; even trash from Japan: a chopstick packet from my favourite pub, an unreadable stained fortune, a train ticket. They are proof that either the “reality” or the “unreality” of my life as an anthropologist exists, not to show others, but as evidence that what happened was somehow “real”, so far away does it feel. It is a tension that breeds great stress, as well as mono no aware, or the gentle sadness of things. The same drive that causes some to repair pots with gold leaf to celebrate the passage of time, causes me to hang on to the most mundane of items from the past as evidence for my own memories. However, by following the surrealists, and by actively embracing this feeling of unreality, by confronting and examining it, the question of “what is real?” becomes not an objective right or wrong one, but instead a choice. The question becomes not “do I belong in the real world?” but simply “where do I belong?”, a happy question because it is one of the few to which I know the answer.

Surrealism, perhaps, teaches us that by taking control of and critically examining both reality and unreality, we can deal with the inevitable breaking down that happens when our reality becomes somehow traumatic (even if we have suffered no explicit traumatic incident). Our world can certainly seem traumatic, but research on the media bubbles in which many of us ensconce ourselves shows that our realities as informed by our news media are becoming ever more polarised, and different from one another, making it hard to know what is “true”. When all of our information conflicts, it is difficult to insist upon an objective reality. Instead, we should take control of our collective and conflicting unrealities, and explore the edges and boundaries of them to find new insights. Reading the meta-message is how we now are supposed to know the news.

day and night

Day and Night – MC Escher (1938)

Taking control is the primary drive in most anxiety-related behaviours. Frustration, irritability or even anger at a perceived lack of order is a manifestation of the will to control anything that one can in world perceived to be chaotic, disordered and untrustworthy. Escher seems to encapsulate this feeling in some ways. Even in nonsensical situations, such as in Day and Night, all feels ordered, everything fits. I always interpreted Escher not as hewing order from chaos but, like Franz Kafka, seeing the order in chaos and the illogicality and chaos that can be buried within order. The bureaucracy taken to its illogical conclusion expressed in The Trial seems to echo the inherent strangeness of the tessellations in Escher’s Day and Night and Encounter when they are brought out into the more “real” perspectives. Working now in something of a Kafkaesque situation, the order/chaos tension and harmony speaks to me even more profoundly than before.


Encounter – MC Escher (1944)

Where am I going with all of this? The feeling of unreality one has upon returning from the field has been touched on before, but deeper in this is the question of how anthropologists think about how we relate to the world outside our discipline, and how we adapt to living in it. This has sometimes been a story of a failure to adapt, born of a desire to belong to something we conceptualise as “the real world”. This desire is, like most desires, misplaced, and the source of great suffering and anxiety. Interrogating the notion of order, control, and the desire for both, is part of dealing with this, and unreal art forms a wonderful lens through which to examine it. Tied up in all of this is the lesson which the surrealists have to teach us: that our perceptions of reality and unreality are shaped by the choices we make as well as our feelings and experiences. By embracing the feelings of unreality and critically and academically examining them, we can have a hand in shaping our own engagement with what happens to us. This is a valuable insight in a world in which “reality” feels more unpleasantly flexible than ever.



“On Ethnographic Surrealism”, James Clifford, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1981), pp. 539-564

*Durkheim laughs at me once again as I even now refer to academia as “the Temple” and somehow sacred in arguments about the profit motive in university, annoying even those who agree with me in fiery wine-fuelled diatribes about the small minds of businessmen, and the casting of the moneychangers from the actual temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:12).


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