Today, as Boston and suburbs were under “lockdown” (more technically “shelter in place”), after one gun battle last night and another to come this evening, Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster (@KoryStamper) observed on Twitter that surreal was one of the top lookups, and that it “always spikes during times of inexplicable tragedy.” Robert Lane Greene (@lanegreene) noted that “This is awful, but not exactly droopy clocks hanging over trees,” and reckoned, “‘surreal’ is coming to mean ‘intense’, and we’ll have to explain the original meaning to art students one day.”
Or more likely art students are the only ones who will still know the original meaning. Kory Stamper speculated that “people who use it are connecting with the connotation of intense or dreamlike irrationality.” There may be some of that, but I suspect that it’s also because unreal somehow doesn’t seem quite right anymore. Unreal is a widely used word, but it’s also a little semantically bleached – it’s used for too many things that are not all that out of the normal – and it’s sometimes used with a strong positive tone: “The way that kid plays the guitar is unreal!” It feels wrong to carry that tone into seeing SWAT teams crawling over your neighbourhood.
The reason, I think, that all these things seem not simply awful, horrible, shocking, etc., but something beyond, is that they seem so much like things you normally see only on TV or movies. Jordan Fifer, @JordanFifer, tweeted, “No, the #Boston #manhunt is not ‘like something straight out of a movie.’ Movies are like something straight out of life.” Which is true in that movies are based on life, but they generally heighten things somewhat, and, more to the point, most people have no experience of such things from real life, only from movies and TV. For distrurbances of a slightly lesser order, people sometimes say it’s like something from the evening news. The evening news is from life, of course, but not from your life.
So when people are saying something is surreal in these circumstances, what they mean, I would say, is that it’s something they associate only with the subjunctive worlds of fiction and the dissociated worlds of the news. It is to reality as whiskey is to beer or brandy is to wine: an intense distillate of mainly the same basic materials. It is a rupture in their normal schema of life and they have not assimilated it fully yet. It doesn’t have an exactly dreamlike quality; it looks like real reality but going by a different script, one not associated with the reality one actually experiences. So it’s not exactly unreal, though it just doesn’t feel like real reality. But it’s not really actually surreal.
We don’t know precisely when and where unreal came into being, but an early sighting is in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Hence horrible shadow, Unreal mock’ry hence.” Milton used it, too; here’s from Paradise Lost: “Th’ unreal, vast, unbounded deep Of horrible confusion.” I like T.S. Eliot’s “Unreal city, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,” from The Waste Land. All of these describe things that seem not quite part of reality – perhaps eerie, eldritch, or unrealized, or from art.
Surreal did in fact come from art. But a surreal thing is a thing that has the qualities of dreams. We know just when surreal and surrealism came into the language. The art movement Surrealism began in France around 1920, guided chiefly by André Breton; the term surréaliste appeared first in the preface to Guillaume Apollinaire’s play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, written in 1903 but first performed in 1917. The word, had it been invented by an anglophone, would have been superreal; the sur means ‘on top of’ or ‘above’ and is the sanded-down French descendant of Latin super, which English borrows undigested. The surrealists wanted to go above the merely quotidian real; they sought to access the unconscious; they believed in the value of automatic writing and sought to unlock the associations of dreams and the unconscious without being suppressed by reason and use them to revolutionize the way of seeing and acting in the world.
So if you were to see a fish dance past your window with a blowpipe in its paws, that would be surreal. But most events now described by people on news shows as surreal are not, in the original (and, in the 1920s, strictly enforced) sense surreal. But is unreal the best word?
There is another word that comes to mind. It has also been given to us by a Frenchman (they do do this sort of thing well and by habit). It is hyperreal. This word is actually macaronic: it mixes bits from two languages. The real is the same real as in the others, from Latin realis, but the hyper is from Greek. And, as it happens, hyper comes from the same Indo-European root as Latin super, and means about the same thing: ‘above, beyond’. It has also come to be used to mean ‘extremely’. But where surreal aims beyond the real by going into the mind and the unconscious, hyperreal goes into the subjunctive world of the media, the representations of reality, the distillations, the representations of a reality as envisioned conditioned by representations that are envisioned conditioned by representations that are envisioned conditioned by… The hyperreal, as Jean Baudrillard explained in Simulations, is “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.” It is a map that precedes the territory and survives the territory. In the world of semiotic reference, it is a hall of mirrors, it is turtles all the way down. Life looks like television, but television has not based itself on life. Our reality, as conditioned by these simulations, becomes them: “It is a hyperreal, the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.” (Read that as many times as you need or want. Baudrillard’s philosophy is a form of drug, I think.)
It is tempting to say that this is what people were experiencing today: a sense that what they were seeing was not a reality, not a dream, but a version of life based on the simulations of life seen in TV and movies.
But no. It may have seemed hyperreal, but when real bullets fly, and people and property are really hurt, and real human minds feel real torsions and vortices and myriad motivations, this is not simulation. And it is not a dream. It’s real. Exceptional, yes, and difficult to assimilate as a result. Hard to believe. Comparable to a simulation. But inescapable in its actuality. In the end, no un, sur, super, hyper. Just real.