Jan Švankmajer: Ways of Redemption

Few days ago, I wrote an email to Jan Švankmajer, whom I have the privilege of knowing. I wrote because I wanted to know what he thinks about the current situation of the pandemic and in particular, its effect on art and culture. Through some personal conversations, as well as through having read his book Cesty Spasení (Ways of Redemption, a very darkly humorous dystopian novel, a collection of automatic writing, dream diaries, philosophical reflections and fictional narratives), I am well aware of some of his existing opinions. In particular, his view on the “humanity’s progress”, which he expects to either move along an evolutionary spiral, ending in a return to nature and primitivity (with man no longer as its master, but as a returning prodigal son) or, in a much darker scenario, returning simply back in a circle.

In the prologue to his book, Jan Švankmajer talks about a vision he once had, when he woke up, suddenly knowing the state of the world to come. He saw a world where our social system returned to a kind of feudalism with large corporations forming “shires”, where ordinary citizens dream of being serfs. The rich and mighty have by now taken over genetic research (by financing it) and through this ensure that their descendants become a superior race. But this superior race may also have a superior sense of morality and justice. The new super-humans may therefore start to question their superiority, seeing it as an injustice. (JŠ, Cesty Spasení)

In terms of art, Jan often talks about the repeating cycles of romanticism and classicism, the latter one being the period we find ourselves in, right now. Classicism is governed by rationality and is threatened by what Jan sees as authentic art, which is much closer to primitive arts and magic. Surrealism falls within the irrational arts category. Its key motivation is a quest for freedom, unencumbered by constraints of our society (as expressed in Jan’s feature film Lunacies). Surrealism is not interested in aesthetisation. Its principles are closer to tactile art, so appealing to Švankmajer, because tactility has not been over-aesthetised, hence remains more free. In contrast, this is not the case for audio-visual arts (film in particular), which have been hijacked by advertising, making our eyes and ears “spoilt”.

This is some of the background to our ongoing dialogue and the ongoing inspiration I take from Jan’s work.

Below I am sharing a brief translation of his latest email answer to me. I wanted to include this small section, because I am desperately trying to make sense of what is happening right now and its impact on people engaged in artistic practice. What will be the impact of the crisis? What can art do to remain free of the forces of ruthless consumerism? While Jan’s views here remain characteristically dark and one could say pessimistic, they are also consistent and unflinching, hence an inspiration to me and no doubt many others.

“It seems that the world has one more prospect about which I have not written in Ways of Redemption and that is extinction [of the human population]. It’s now standing on crossroads: either sacrifice economy, or humans. Particularly the old and sick. Not for a moment do I doubt that it will ultimately sacrifice people. Economics and on it dependent profits, are sacred. When those who are old and sick get killed off, the state at least saves on mandatory expenses. This is a rational consideration, and there is now an enormous pressure on its implementation from all sides. It is called herd immunity. Everything else are just little dances to calm down the public. Those in power will eventually welcome it, it’s better than a so called pure atomic bomb, because Covid 19, like the bomb, destroys only humans, but does not destroy property. In some way the coronavirus is the best solution for liberal capitalism, more useful than World War. I began to draw a little again. The drawing is called “State of Emergency”, and I added it to my collection of scatology. Authentic art will have to retreat into esoteric sects. Already Breton, in his second manifesto, writes about the necessity of occultisation of surrealism. Now with coronavirus it will be even more topical.”

And a small addition/clarification from a later message from Jan:

“The most terrible thing is how mankind is losing its instinct for self-preservation due to its vision of profit. Old civilisations have been much better at suffering similar disasters and did so with more dignity, for they were not built on economics but on some sort of spiritual foundations. The pressure to lift all protective measures that hinder business is enormous and can lead to further escalation of the infection, which will no longer be possible to stop until it passes through all of society. For the elderly and sick, this would be destructive. Humanism is only a word in capitalism. What Breton meant by Occult was a certain concealment of Surrealism. The opposite is profanation and exhibitionism.”

Photo: Jan Svankmajer, Tereza Stehlikova, Czech republic

Text and translation by Tereza Stehlikova, London, 2020

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