Jun 24, 2012

What can Max Ernst teach you about writing?

“All good ideas arrive by chance.”

What is surrealism? What is it for? Should we even ask such questions?

Max Ernst (1891-1976) was a German painter, sculptor, poet and – you won’t get this from Wikipedia – magician. OK, so he didn’t banish himself to the fringes of polite society the way Austin Osman Spare or Aleister Crowley did… Does it always matter how you get there? Max himself noted that “when the artist finds himself he is lost.”

Third of nine children, Max was born in Brühl, now home to an amusement park called Phantasialand. Fitting, don’t you think, that Brühl should be known for two things – Max Ernst and a ‘Land of Fantasy.’ So few charming coincidences in the world, eh?

I’d like to tell you that Max rode his little broomstick to the witches’ Sabbath at the age of four and there pledged allegiance to Ronald McDonald in exchange for demon painting skills, but the truth is far more interesting. Max’s father was a strict disciplinarian, a convenient authority figure to rebel against.

Max Ernst studied psychiatry and visited asylums where he studied paintings by crazy people (bear in mind that ‘crazy’ is not a clinical term). He fell in love with and even married more women than maybe he should, including Peggy Guggenheim. While he did that, he founded dada, surrealism (Yes! All by himself! *wink wink nudge nudge*), and delved into philosophical alchemy.  

Max Ernst with Leonora Carrington.
Leonora was smitten with Ernst before they even met. He didn't
treat her all that well.

She was a gifted, visionary painter.

So, what can Max Ernst teach you about losing yourself/finding yourself and writing something good in the process?



“Art has nothing to do with taste. 
Art is not there to be tasted.”

Art is there to subvert and change minds. Paintings are spells.

The truth of it is, you believe in magic. Some of us fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t. Aleister Crowley once pointed out that every act of will is an act of magic, which feeds straight into Emerson’s discovery that everything you do is a form of prayer.

Art & magic work through symbols and need you to surrender to those symbols; otherwise, they won’t have an effect on you. What is a national flag, if not a sigil charged with the willpower of millions to create and sustain thoughts of community? The respect you feel for your flag – where does it come from? It is not natural. Maple leaves would still turn red in the fall despite the wishes of presidents and kings.

So art, carrier wave to the hidden language of symbol, only has the power it takes from you. This is why barbarians torch books and demolish statues of the Buddha with rocket launchers. They laugh, unconquered, at the meaningless fetishes that they trample underfoot.

But what is all this to you? Magic? Symbols? ‘Paintings are spells?’

You ask: How does any of that translate to my reality? It’s a great question.
Whatever you are working on right now, regardless of length or surface intention, is itself an act of magic. Language is a spell-weaving tool; hard to tell where language ends and magic begins. What you do when you write is an attempt to capture and maybe even seduce the indifferent, to turn them into believers.


Strong magic attracts loyal believers. Note that strength has nothing to do with numbers – not all popular incantations stand the test of time. I mean, who reads Anne Radcliffe or Horace Walpole anymore outside academia? Yet in the 1790s readers couldn’t get enough gothic rammed down the gullet. Most forgotten gothic literature is unreadable dreck, however; it all devolved into formula quicker than you can say Castle of Otranto.

When you write, you focus all your energies and self-control, hoping the universe will repay you for the effort. This is the lesson magic teaches: Great results come at great cost.  


“Painting is not for me either decorative amusement, or the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation.”

‘Weird’ is a label we use as self-defense. I don’t like this, I don’t understand this, this makes me feel insignificant, I can’t explain it, therefore I explain it away: it’s weird.

As I sit here typing this I’m playing Three Voices for Joan la Barbara, by Morton Feldman. It’s the kind of music a great many people would pay not to listen to. Well, I’m not writing for them.

The artist is an explorer in search of his or her vocabulary. Art, and writing is art, starts with the acceptance that the world is not as it appears. What follows is the wish to go beyond appearance and into the deep roots of reality. Basically, if you’re not exploring, you’re not creating art. Period.

There’s no roadmap to success nor a guarantee that success will meet your expectations; no promise of happiness; only the pleasure of coming face to face with the timeless crowds that live inside of you.

Listen, nobody knows where characters come from, or whether these characters will sell a million books. It’s no use to set your sights on commercial success because the market is fickle and it lumbers ever forward like a blind mammoth. You can borrow someone else’s magic and ride the mammoth or hack your way into the jungle ahead of it and blaze a new trail. Obviously, friends and rivals will say that you’re weird.

I’ve made my choice. How about you? 


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What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

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