The Surreal Days of the Plague?

Are we living surreal days? Hunkered down within four walls. Suspicious of every package at our door. Cleaning and cleaning some more. Gross monopolies mediating all our communication. And constant worry that the elders in our lives will die of COVID19.

Are these surreal days? The popular usage of the word has devolved to mean strange. What’s strange about these days? The silence punctuated by bird song in city centers? Or the clean air? Or walking in auto-free boulevards and ignoring stoplights—now flashing ornaments, not sentinels to obey. These delights are strange only to those who are unable to imagine another way to live.

A more sophisticated synonym for surreal is unreal or fantastic—references to dreams, or nightmares And here we approach the word’s origin with Surrealism, the movement of artists and writers who formed a movement in France in the 1920s. Dreams, or rather, nightmares did preoccupy the surrealists, who as youth during the First World War experienced days that were horrific. Hardly strange. These were days of nationalism infecting the leaders of Europe. Unfortunately, the spores of their hate took their toll on nine million soldiers, mainly youth, slaughtered fighting an insane trench war over a few hundred yards of real estate.

Towards the end of the war, another infection took the lives of soldiers who had managed to dodge the bullets and bombs—a viral infection. In Europe, it was called the Spanish Flu, as a xenophobic slur. Spain during this period was poor—the peasant backwater of Europe. Guatemala, to Americans today. The flu’s origins are contested. America, where it is called the 1918 flu pandemic, was more likely a candidate than Spain. American troops, carrying the virus from boot camps, landed at Spanish ports, on their way to battle, and may have introduced it to Europe.

The fear that the virus would interfere with the Allies rush to end the war, now that American reinforcements arrived, motivated a cover-up of the flu’s high mortality rates. As a consequence, millions of non-combatants also died with the gruesome generals opportunistic decision to win a decisive victory over the Axis Powers. The self-assured and privileged priorities of the bourgeois gerontocracy filled the cemeteries.

As the banking capital of Europe, Switzerland was neutral during the war and many hundreds of political refugees and dissident artists flocked to its cities. The political rebels, often considered traitors by their respective countries, weren’t deported or imprisoned by the Swiss since they were harmless in exile and easy to surveil by the large contingent of spies that frequented the same haunts as their prey.

The young draft dodging artists and poets were so inconsequential that no one spied on them. Free to express themselves, their anarchical frenzy of poetic outrages became known as Dada and influenced Europe, and beyond, with an historic legacy at least on a par with the political habitués of their cafés and cabarets.

When the war ended, the artistic rebellion decamped to various capitals of Europe. The most notorious scene was in Paris. Along with an influx of the disaffected from Switzerland, French youth, as combatants and medical personnel during the war, participated in scandalizing the leeches of a cultural apparatus that was subservient to the malodorous status quo. All cultural terrain was their playground: from obscure cafés to ornate, gold-leafed concert halls, from private parties to international conferences, the old order, that reeked with the stench of a corpse, was ridiculed with passion.

At the turn of 20th century, steel and speed promised a future of progress. The senseless slaughter of millions in the muddy battlefields dashed the confidence of youth that the future promised anything other than capitalist terror. But the bourgeoisie, impervious to the catastrophe that decimated the working class, retained a semblance of their old, pre-war exhilaration sublimated as consumerism, a leisurely pastime to allay their boredom. And for the degenerate remnants of the old cultural enterprise, the writers and poets, they persisted in composing panegyrics to Progress, Capitalism, and High Culture, as if the hollowness of their efforts could be ignored so long as they devoted themselves to elaborating a form that had long ago proved rotten. The entire assemblage of patrons and artists consisted of a performance of roles that had no substance but artifice.

For the rebellious youth, they had at first no recourse but to satisfy their outrage by systemic ridicule and provocation of the cultural cadaver of the establishment. The abominations were in plain sight: the mechanistic rationality of the 19th century sciences still imposed its stupidities, the exploitation of human and natural resources by the captains of industry continued apace, and the priests were still secure on the altars. Only a tsunami of critical theory and practice would sweep this rubbish from history.

And the deluge came: science underwent a total transformation with the enigma of quantum physics and string theory, psychoanalysis cracked open skulls, the workers fought the depravity of the work ethic, literature finally severed its bonds with predictable fiction, music smashed the system of tonal hierarchies, and Benjamin Peret spit at a priest. Never before in history did so many columns of the temple of culture collapse.

Predictably, given the lapse of time and the seductions of the market, the engineers of repression rebuilt them. And, to be certain that rebellion would be smothered, they constructed temple annexes for electronic mass media, starting with radio broadcasts and culminating today with the i-Watch, the fashionable shackle of consumerism.

Today a seismic event has fractured the edifice of commercial and political conformity and may foreshadow its total destruction, if we rise against it. If we take advantage of the suspension of quotidian control before it returns under the watchful gaze of authority repositioned ostensibly for our benefit. Previous rebellions, though all brutally crushed, were never successfully erased from the historical record. They can be the starting point for a contemporary upheaval. The agenda of revolution never needs to be rethought. From the beginning, it has been posted for all to see at least since the German peasant’s rebellion in 1524. Five hundred years of smoldering ashes! Recurring flareups throughout the centuries perfected the demands for freedom. Notably next year we will be celebrating 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871—the program and practice of which was a thorough refinement of the agenda of revolt, and could be revived today with little change.

Let’s be clear about this. Down with jobs that waste our lives! Down with those who impose their will upon us! Down with a way of life that elevates Value above Humanity!

Bernard Marszalek was a member of a Chicago printing cooperative in the 60s that printed for The Living Theater, the Yippies, anti-war and labor groups. He retired as a member of a Berkeley printing and publishing collective, Inkworks Press, after 18 years. He is the editor of a selection of Paul Lafargue’s essays—The Right to be Lazy. And his rants are archived at Read other articles by Bernard.