Surrealism’s Children

     Back when I was an idealistic young soul, I enrolled in a PhD program in French and Comparative Literature, intent on making a career in academia. Those were the days when New Criticism and Semiotics held sway, and texts were to be read without interference from outside influences. The approach we were taught, boiled down, was that all a reader needed to know about a poem or a work of prose could be found on the page, without reference to historical context, authorial biography, or any other distractions. In class after class, we dissected poems by Ronsard and Rimbaud, the Symbolists and the Surrealists, peeling back layer upon layer of manifest and latent meaning. It was intoxicating stuff, but I couldn’t escape a nagging question: What was the point of it? Wasn’t it all a bit too removed from life? Wasn’t literature supposed to tell us about more than just its own internal machinery? Unable to resolve these questions, I handed in my Master’s thesis and said goodbye to all that.      One effect of having left academia prematurely is that I spent the following decades still grappling with the appropriate balance between art and life, and the role that literature, literary studies, and the humanities in general have to play in our dealings with this fraught and confusing world — a world that, increasingly, seems resistant to the kinds of challenges and provocations that art and literature are best suited to pose. Is literature meant to reinforce our convictions, or to destabilize them? Should art be a safe space or a dangerous space, and what does that mean? What is the role of the off-putting, the upsetting, the offensive, and the shocking in our study and consumption of the humanities? Can art still be shocking in

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