Have a Blue Fish Day (Using Surrealism in Your Writing)

When I was younger, sometimes I would declare that such and such a day was a blue fish day, meaning it had that ethereal quality as if waking from a dream.

What I later learned, was that I was utilizing the the paranoiac-critical method to unlock my unconscious mind. It might just sound like I made those words up. I didn’t. Salvador Dalí did. He was fascinated by the unconscious mind and dreams. (He plagued Freud with letters begging for an audience).

Paranoiac-Critical Method
Typically we’re taught to associate rational cause and effect explanations to events in our lives. Dalí wanted the reverse. A sort of stream of consciousness where irrational thoughts could be attached to events. He described the paranoiac-critical method as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.”

Ballerina in a Death's Head is an example of the paranoiac-critical method. Do you see a skull or a ballerina?

In short, this is the ability of the viewer to perceive multiple images within the same configuration. All of us practice the paranoiac-critical method each time we gaze up at clouds in the sky and imagine different shapes. In fact all those sighting of Jesus on a slice of toast or a stucco wall are simply the Paranoid Critical Method in action.

A great introduction to Dalí and the whole surrealist world comes in the short film “The Death of Salvador Dalí.”

But you don’t have to sit idly by to create these associations. There are certain games you can play to help activate this irrational side of your brain.

Exquisite Corpse
This is a game played often by the Surrealists. In this, each person writes part of a sentence, and then folds the paper over so that the next person has no idea what was written. In this fashion, a collage of words creates a bizarre sentence. The name derives from the first playing of the game: “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”)

The game was also played with pictures. One person might draw the head and then fold the paper over so that only a few connecting lines could be seen. This would continue until a total figure had been created.

4-part Corpse drawing; Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miro, Max Morise

Cut Ups
It seems the surrealists did have their limit as to what they’d accept. At a surrealist rally in the 1920s Tristan Tzara built a poem from scratch by pulling words out of a hat. A riot broke out and wrecked the theater. Andrè Breton expelled Tristan Tzara from the movement.

Not until forty years later did this technique reemerge. Brion Gysin, a painter and writer, noticed that he’d sliced though the New York Herald Tribune on his cutting board. The cut sections lined up and could be read across. He loved the idea so much that he fashioned and essay called, Minutes to Go. Here’s an excerpt.

“Sickle moon terror nails replica in tin ginsberg. Replicas of Squareville — grey piebald pigeons — pointedly questioned, mimic each other.”

I used this technique to write the opening line to my first published short story. I was stuck and wanted a jarring image to pull the reader in. Sitting in a coffee shop, I picked up the newspaper and started tearing (I didn’t have scissors). I had to do two or three tries until something decent came up, but I think you’ll agree, the technique works.

Unfamiliar puddles of light lurked in the crevices like cancer.

So the next time you’re stuck with a scene or a character or even an idea, turn to the Surrealists for help. As your rational brain gets stuck in rut, unwilling to deliver words on the page, kick it in the but by unlocking your irrational side. Make your day a blue fish day and see what happens.

Tim Kane

Is the Steampunk Mechanical Hand a Reality?

Rasputin's Steampunk Hand

Okay, so the mechanical construct Rasputin wore in the first Hellboy movie was actually a glove, but it illustrates the dream of steampunk aficionados everywhere: The Mechanical Hand. With today’s robotic technology, we should have Luke Skywalker hands. Right? But what about the heyday of the Victoria? Could gears make the cut?

Victorian Prosthesis

It turns out there was a macabre looking Victorian prosthesis on display in the London Science Museum. This construct of steel and brass articulates at the elbow via a spring, and the wrist joint rotates and moves up and down just like the real McCoy. The fingers curl up to grip items. This was the actual appearance, so the arm was most likely concealed with a glove.

This doesn’t offer much support for the mechanical arm. Yet, if you travel back another 400 years, you’ll find the legendary Gottfried von Berlichingen (aka Götz of the Iron Hand).

The German "Iron Hand" Mercenary

This German mercenary lost his right hand from a cannonball in 1504. He commissioned a custom mechanical hand that connected to his elbow. This remarkable feat of engineering contained spring mechanisms, buttons, and levers that allowed the fingers to operate with amazing dexterity. It earned him is nickname: “that one of the iron hand” (mit to der eisernen Hand).

Strap on super gauntlet

Gottfried’s iron fingers were controlled with ten mechanical wheels. These were sensitive enough to grip a sword (for terrorizing wealthy nobles), or clutch a quill (to write those ransom notes).

Medieval Skywalker hand

So there you have it. Looking back at Army of Darkness, the machination banged out for Ash looks pretty plausible now.

Give me some sugar baby

My question, why don’t we have more cool mechanical prostheses? If a German noble could bang it out 500 years ago, why can’t we? This historical precedent bodes well for all those steampunk constructs.

Tim Kane

Did the Greek Gods Eat Mini Marshmallows?

Ambrosia. The word either inspires dread or joy from the coconut and marshmallow concoction. But the origin of this word leads to a recipe for immortality.

Now, why the interest in the snack food of a defunct pantheon? Besides the fact that mythology is plain cool, I’m doing research for a new novel. What better way than to blog about it. Now, I’ve really dug how Rick Riordan handled the Greek gods in Lightning Thief. But I feel he could have done more with ambrosia and nectar. (Maybe he has in subsequent books). So, I’m here to explore these mythical foods, as well as what makes a god immortal.

It seems that the Greeks interchanged ambrosia and nectar. Ambrosia could be eaten or drunk. Nectar was mostly drunk, but sometimes eaten. Me, I always thought of ambrosia as the food (maybe because of the fruit salad) and nectar as the drink.

There’s little information on how ambrosia and nectar are made. Apparently doves carried the food to the gods on Olympus. Ambrosia is described as being nine times sweeter than honey and its fragrance guards against disagreeable speech. I take this last part to mean that arguments won’t break out over the dinner table—good idea when you’re dealing with the Olympian family dynamic. (My guess, they weren’t serving Ambrosia when Eris plunked her golden apple on the table.)

What is clear is that eating the stuff makes you a god. Right after Apollo had been born, he climbed up to mount Olympus (a stunning feat for a newborn) where he received ambrosia and nectar to make him immortal.

A version of the Tantalus myth has the fellow dining at the table of the gods. Tantalus slips some nectar and ambrosia in his toga, and then shares the stuff with his friends on Earth. Not a cool move. Sure you get immortality, but is that really going to help you when Zeus hurls a thunderbolt at your butt?

My first exposure to the stuff (not literally, but in literature) was with the 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth by H. G. Wells. In this story these scientists, Bensington and Redwood, create a new chemical food called Herakleophorbia IV, which makes things grow to ginormous size. Being responsible nineteenth century scientists, they feed this stuff to their kids and the result is 40 foot babies. Kind of a weird story, but it falls in line with the Greek myths. The gods and titans were supposed to be gigantic.

The interesting thing I stumbled on was the gods’ blood, or lack thereof. It seems that the Greek gods bleed ichor. I only knew this stuff from Dungeons and Dragons and H. P. Lovecraft, so in my mind, I saw this black oily liquid. However, the ichor of the gods is a golden and resplendent. The theory goes that since the gods do not eat mortal food (food that rots and dies) neither do they. After all, the word ambrosia derives from the root of mbrotos, meaning mortal. Add the prefix “a” prefix to get “not mortal”. The food won’t rot, so neither will the consumer.

So what happens when these immortal gods don’t get their food fix? Well, they can’t die. Instead, the godly ones lie down, breathless, and sleep. They loose all power until they get more ambrosia and nectar.

Now eating (or drinking) ambrosia changes mortals. I’m assuming a human’s blood would transmute to ichor. I don’t know how much you need to ingest. Did Tantalus eat enough? Who’s to say.  After Achilles died, Thetis anointed him with ambrosia to destroy the human side he inherited from his mortal father, Peleus. This implies that simply rubbing the stuff on your skin transforms you, killing your mortality.

Bottom line, you start sipping from the nectar cup, there might be no turning back. It’s like the forbidden apple. One taste is too much. No wonder the gods were irked when someone stole the stuff. There were too many bickering brothers and sisters in Olympus already. Why add a few interlopers?

Ambrosia serves as the ultimate class division between mortals and immortals. Gods have it. Men yearn for it. And no, the recipe for immortality does not include marshmallows.

Tim Kane