Surrealism and Indian Aesthetics: Beauty in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou

by Indah Lestari

In this article I would like to compare Andre Breton’s Surrealism and Indian aesthetics. Then I will use the two traditions to approach Luis Bunuel’s film Un Chien Andalou, one of the best-known surrealist films of the avant garde movement of the 1920s.

Traditionally, art seeks to represent the beauty of nature. Aesthetics, both Western and Eastern, theory attempts to answer the question ‘What is Beauty?’ Beauty is an inspiration in the works of art, it is a subject. Beauty is represented in many kinds of medium, including drama, poetry and film. Anandavardhana argues Nature, when suggested, is more appealing than when plainly stated (in Krishnamoorthy 6). As we will see, Surrealism proposes unconventional concepts of beauty. The quest of beauty in Indian aesthetics deals with what is termed as alankara. It is the body of all art whose invariable property is beauty. Meanwhile, in Surrealist aesthetics the normative idea of beauty is undercut. Surrealism attempts to integrate primordial forces into our waking state in order to transfigure and enhance the way of our perception, communication and response of reality. The dream logic presents loosely related scenes, especially in film form.

Surrealism began as a literary movement in French, with its icon André Breton. In Le Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1924 Breton wrote that logic and reason can only be applied to our secondary interests. we actually filter knowledge based on our experience. even in modern era our minds are still clouded by superstition and myths. Under the light of Freudian psychoanalysis we view our mind as much deeper than « summary realities ». This is where imagination is a significant part of our selves. Breton calls on to capture what is hidden in our mind and then to bring it under rationalism.

Breton very much owes to Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud investigates into DREAMS as it is considered to contain our repressed desire and knowledge. In dreams these elements are represented with less obstruction and interference. Breton argues that in waking state humans succumb to their memory. In memory, dreams are vague and obliterated. dreams are secondary to human life. being the primary element, memory has the power over dreams. our will determines the distinct representation of realities. However, Breton sees that dreams are also a source of important reality. Furthermore, the waking state is interference into the suggestion of dreams. Dreams are freer and more expressive than the mind. It is also subjective. dream is constricted by moral values. In a dream humans can do anything even that is not imaginable in real life. They are released from identity and responsibility. Breton aims at the unification of dream and the mind, which he calls « a surreality ».

Surreality can be compared with Indian aesthetics in terms of words. Apart from dreams, another version of reality can also be represented in a waking state but under different mental state. For example the lost of control over speech in war victims due to trauma. Babble can also produce something expressive. Since it takes the form of words, it is related to literary aesthetics.

There was the illusion of an extra- ordinary verve, a great deal of emotion, a considerable assortment of images of a quality such as we would never have been capable of achieving in ordinary writing, a very vivid graphic quality, and here and there an acutely comic passage

The words are full of « immediate absurdity ». The coinage of the word surrealism–which Breton also defines–is an act to propose a new mode of pure expression. Anna Balakian quoted by Rattray said that « surrealism is in fact intoxication » (161) The “word” for Breton is a hallucinatory stimulant, apart from people, objects, nature’s manifestations. Images are opium. Liberating language paradoxically results in becoming enslaved by it. The poet is a mere vehicle of the words in the shaping of poetic images. Surrealism opens wide the doors of the unconscious. The energy within the unconscious is freed and thus creates poetic intoxication. Watching a surrealist film can be seen with Indian aesthetic theory in terms of the function of the poetic language. As proposed by Bhattanayaka, in addition to abidha or primary meaning, poetic language also functions as bhavakatva, or  freeing oneself from vibhava and sthayibhava, and bhojakatva, or consuming the emotion in the performance/text (Kapoor 22).

Words, or images in a surrealist film are less interconnected. There is hardly continuation from one image to another. Surrealism is driven by automatism and its expression manifests in verbal or written. It relies on free association and the play of thought. Meanwhile, the notion of word is the subject of Bhartrhari’s sphota theory (5th century AD), which posits linguistic sign as an abstract reality (Kapoor 12). The difference here from Surrealism is that there is “fixity in the power of the words” (“Vakyapadiyam of Bhartrhari” 9). The words have eternal relation with their meanings.

The opening scene of Un Chien Andalou

We shall see the relation between sphota and surrealism in the film. Un Chien Andalou (1929), a 17-minute film, is the most analysed film ever. It is surreal as the stories are disjunctive. It brings up the themes of desire, androgynous gender and the unconscious. Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel wrote the film together based on their dreams. Bunuel states that in writing the script, they did not « accept any idea or image that might give rise to a rational, psychological or cultural explanation » (quoted in Russell). The disconnectedness between the word and the meaning can be seen in the movie for example in the image of razor. Razor, by dictionary, means an instrument with blade. In reality it is used to remove unwanted hair from the face or body. However, take a look at the opening scene of Un Chien Andalou, A man (Buñuel himself), smokes a cigarette while sharpening the blade of a razor. He steps onto a balcony and stares at an unobscured moon before prying open woman’s eyelid. A cloud slides across the face of the moon as Buñuel’s razor cuts into the woman’s eye. So the razor has a totally different function, beyond our expectation. Here Buñuel demands that we look at the world with what Vigo calls « a new set of eyes. » This scene may not be pleasant. It induces the viewer both to want to look and not want to look at the same time. We know that the man is about to cut the eyelid as camera goes close-up. It is also beyond our expectation that the woman seems calm as if nothing is going to happen, or the cutting is something ordinary and regular. As the cutting goes on, we may expect to see blood. Yet, what comes out is the transparent jellylike tissue that fills the eyeball behind the lens. This is something very technical and it may be a new knowledge for common audience. Yet, we can still feel beauty in this horrible scene. How the cutting is juxtaposed with the movement of harmless clouds in front of the moon is a creative metaphor that only an artist with pratibha can do.

Disconnectedness also comes to the devices of the film, such as the text that says “Huit ans après” (Eight years later). This information is meaningless because it is irrelevant with regard to the following scene. The same woman is there, with normal eyes, but the scene does not suggest continuity from the previous one. A slim young man bicycles down a calm urban street wearing what appears to be a nun’s habit and a locked box with a strap around his neck. The woman is in the house, not wearing nun’s habit.

ants on palm

Basically most of the images in this surrealist film are disconnected from each other. Their existence appear to be forced or coincidence. The actions are absurd. All this leaves the viewers in confusion, or even delirium. For example the scene where the man is looking at his hand. Ants are emerging from the hole in his palm. A cinematic device of transition is used to suggest the resemblance among the ants, an armpit and a sea urchin. Also the scene where the man drags two pianos by ropes with a dead donkey on top of each and two priests are also tied.  Buñuel has said that Un Chien Andalou was the result of conscious automatism. However, the film is less a dream than an abstraction of a dream filtered through the logic of reality. The symbols in the film can be interpreted in as many ways as the viewer. Automatism contradicts Indian aesthetics in terms of subjectivity. The transfer of rasa from the poet and the director (scriptwriter, etc) to the reader or spectator presupposes dharanikarana, or universalization. They have shared experience (Krishnamoorthy 42). If surrealist images come from personal experience, their meaning are unlikely to be conveyed. The images of the nun, the priests and the Bible are subject to each viewer’s interpretation. From the side of the director, Buñuel was sickened by sex in general. His cinema is a spiritual fetishes. He wrote: « Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths. Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance. » Buñuel’s surrealism became the cinematic vehicle for both Marxist ideals and Freudian psychoanalysis. However, the dual function of language in surrealism is paradoxical. The images and words would impact the viewer’s imagination in unpredictably. As words are in free association, they are no bearing in the viewer’s imagination. As the viewer attempt to deduce meaning the torrent of images floods his mind. The images, beyond the laws of reality, cause the viewer to be disoriented because he applies logic. Therefore surrealist images demand imagining consciousness in the grasping of meaning in reality.

If we see the dreamlike images in the film from the perspective of Indian aesthetics, the goal of rasa assumingly cannot be reached. This is because the lack of verisimilitude is one of the obstacles to the realization of rasa (Gnoli 62). The real is opposed to the dream. In Bharata’s Natyasastra (2nd century BC), the rasa theory is important to aesthetics. Rasa is primarily beauty in art. It is the soul of aesthetic emotion or sentiment. Furthermore, rasa can transform ugliness into beauty and give form to the formless (Krishnamoorty 12). There are nine rasa, including srngara, karuna and raudra. At the level of spectator, their emotion and feeling is called bhavas, which is important to perceive the rasa. The circumstance of time and place in the background is called vibhava. Then the strongly felt emotion is externally manifested, which is called anubhava. The durable emotions evoked are sthayibhava, while the auxiliary emotion that reinforces the main emotion is sancaribhava. Despite the binary opposition of the real and the dream, we can still apply the rasa theory to the film. In the opening scene we may identify the sancaribhava such as vitarka (trepidation), nirveda (indifference). The abhinaya can be angika, the body movement of the man and the stillness of the woman. The sattvikabhava is stambha, or paralysis. The sthayibhava may be jugupsa (disgust), bhaya (fear) or krodha (anger). Finally the corresponding rasa would be bibhatsa (odious), bhayanaka (terrifying) and raudra (wrathful, terribleness).

To come back to the inquiry of beauty in art, we recall that art of literary composition is aimed at giving pleasure by evoking some states of mind. It must have good aesthetic quality. Art is also about the representation of the state of mind. Art is deemed as successful if it can move and affect the viewers. This is linked to Indian aesthetic concept of kavyadosa, or fault (Kapoor 93). The faults are listed in Bhamaha’s Kavyalamkara. Surrealist film is not desirable and thus violates many dosas. These include contradictory meaning, redundancy, doubt, nonmaintenance of correlated sequence, and counter-factual. This is still linked to the issue of verisimilitude of artistic works.

Another feature that is comparable is religious and moral values. Kavya, or literary composition, is valued not for sabda (form, sound) nor artha (content), but rather the manner of expression. Kavya is even regarded as the fifth veda in Natyasastra, as it is expected to give guidance of life and serious thoughts to common people. thus it is also a means of knowledge (Kapoor 84). Philosophically surrealism also provides solution to the problems of life. This is because of the history of surrealism itself. The birth of Surrealism is due to the devastation of World War I and the revolution in science and technology. According to the Surrealists, the dream contains meaningful symbolic representations, and its analogical method of communicating truth is best approximated within the aesthetics of film. Thus, the Surrealists embrace the cinematic potential for channeling and reproducing the omnipotent “dreamlike” mysteries of life. Within film, much like the dream, the contradictory aspects of the universe intermingle, as life is at once death, illusion is truth, night is day, and opposites coexist in a state of unified tension, and all this without facing the tribunal of “logic”. Thus, the ninth rasa, santa (tranquil) can be also be achieved in a complicated way. This is because rasa experience is regarded as a cognitive process. Rasa theory is deeply rooted in the empirical human reality. And surrealism apparently can be the means of rasa realization.

Anandavardhana’s dhvani theory in Dhvanyaloka (9th century AD) is about verbal symbolism. Dhvani is the resonance of meaning that remains in the mind of the hearer, causing the continuous recovering of new meanings from the text. This theory poses that the indirect meaning of literary works, or suggestion, is the characteristic that distinguish the literary works from rational discourse. There are three levels of meaning: abidha, laksana and vyanjana. These are, respectively, literal meaning; socio-cultural meaning, and the meaning determined by situation, propriety, and form. In addition to the context, this tertiary meaning is also shaped by linguistic factors such as intonation, gestures and sounds. The poetry of suggestion becomes the highest kind of poetry (Kapoor 21). The departure from rational discourse in dhvani theory is also found in Surrealism. Surrealism rejects the ratio and produces images with so many layers of meaning. Meaning from artistic works becomes knowledge. In Indian aesthetics, what constitutes the knowledge of literary work is the understanding of bhava. Bhavas derive from the experience of events. No meaning is possible without rasa. Experience in a literary composition (rasa-bhava) is the structure of the states of being. As being comprises emotional conditions, the rasa theory is based on the non-opposition between emotion and reason (Kapoor 103). Thus surrealist art can evoke rasa as it blends the two factors, emotion and reason. The artist may be subjective in presenting the images, but the viewers can also select out of the images. The object of literary works is the emotional effect of human experience.

The comparison between surrealism and Indian theory may also be seen in terms of the objects in Nature. In Indian perspective, the object is imbued with Brahman. The artist’s mind attaches itself to the object in reverence and love. The creative process is yoga, the system of altering/heightening/unifying consciousness by freeing all cognitions through intense mental concentration that merges the subject-object and eliminate the sense from the process of knowledge (Kapoor 81). In Surrealism, the artist also frees himself from cognition. The difference is the emphasis of dreams.




Alquie, Ferdinand. The Philosophy of Surrealism. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1965.

Gnoli. R. The Aesthetic Experience According to Abhinavagupta. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1985.

Kapoor, Kapil. Literary Theory: Indian Conceptual Framework. New Delhi: Affiliated East-West Press Private Limited, 1998.

Koller, Michael. « Un Chien Andalou”. Senses of Cinema. 8 May, 2011.

Krishnamoorty, K. Indian Literary Theories: A Reappraisal. New Delhi: Meharchand Lachhmandas Publications, 1985.

Rattray, Jacqueline « The Hallucinogenic Power of Language: Jose Maria Hinojosa’s Textos Oniricos » André Breton: The Power of Language. Ed. Ramona Fotiade. Exeter: Elm bank Publication, 2000.

Russell, Dominique. « Luis Bunuel » Senses of Cinema

Waldberg, Patrick Surrealism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), pp. 66-75.

Vakyapadiyam of Bhartrhari

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