What Julio Cortazar's Blow Up can teach you about the Surrealist Dialogue

One of the most nagging and eternal questions creatives face is from where do artistic ideas originate? Julio Cortazar's short story, Blow Up, provides at least part of that answer. The story is a mere 23 pages, but is a rich resource for thinking about both surrealism and the role of the artist. This article assumes that you've read the piece (which, in addition to being available a part of a newly released collection of Cortazar's works, is also available as a PDF online.)

The story begins with a struggle to define artistic expression itself. The protagonist, Roberto Michel, attempts to explain why he needs to write down his troubled thoughts and ultimately reaches the surrealist answer, which is the impulse to create:
All of a sudden I wonder why I have to tell this, but if one begins to wonder why he does all he does do, if one wonders why he accepts an invitation to lunch (now a pigeon's flying by and it seems to me a sparrow), or why when someone has told us a good joke immediately there starts up something like a tickling in the stomach and we are not at peace until we've gone into the office across the hall and told the joke over again; then it feels good immediately, one is fine, happy, and can get back to work. For I imagine that no one has explained this, that really the best thing is to put aside all decorum and tell it, because, after all's done, nobody is ashamed of breathing or of putting on his shoes; they're things that you do, and when something weird happens, when you find a spider in your shoe or if you take a breath and feel like a broken window, then you have to tell what's happening, tell it to the guys at the office or to the doctor. Oh, doctor, every time I take a breath. . . . Always tell it, always get rid of that tickle in the stomach that bothers you.
Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, Blow-Up, We Love Glenda So Much, at 664-665.

Humans all have a need to consume as spectators, We also all have a need to create and to share. These needs do not exist at a high level—they are as natural as any other daily activity, but they do not come to us as a result of conscious endeavor. Instead, they appear as feelings, impulses, motivations, none of which is easily explained, and all of which are satisfied in the doing of it. Any attempt to explain the motivation to create sounds as absurd as trying to explain breathing or putting on shoes because in the act of explanation, the motivation vanishes.

Roberto Michel spends little time trying to explain the impulse and gets straight to engaging with it in the only way that works: by following the mind. He starts simply "with a large appetite to walk around, to see things . . . . [to] tell[] a truth that is only my truth." Blow Up at 665.

This process is the second step in the surrealist path. Michel has no defined goal—he is merely motivated to observe, and has the will to go out into the world and observe. Rodin says:
Now, to the great artist, everything in nature has character; for the unswerving directness of his observation searches out the hidden meaning of all things.
* * *
To any artist, worth of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book, all the inner truth.
Art, 46-47.

As creatives, and like Michel, we therefore begin with the principle that all in nature is beautiful, and that whatever it is which draws the artist's attention is sufficient in and of itself and worthy to be captured.

With this foundational principle in mind, it is immediately clear that the photographer's interference is not only unnecessary, but destructive to the inherent beauty of nature. The artist's role is not to attempt to improve upon nature, and the artist will fail every time that approach is taken. Again, Rodin:
I take from life the movements I observe, but it is not I who impose them. . . .
I will reproduce only what reality spontaneously offers me. . . .
I obey Nature in everything, and I never pretend to command her. My only ambition is to be servilely faithful to her. . . .
 . . . [T]he only principle in Art is to copy what you see.
Art, 30, 33.

And so Michel sets out on his day, wandering the streets, observing the birds, the clouds, the wind, reciting bits of Apollinaire. In short, Michel is engaging in the surrealist dialogue: allowing his mind to wander, putting his conscious attention on no particular thing. This process of letting the thoughts of consciousness fade into impressions makes the artist able to quickly react when something in particular draws the mind's attention.

Even when he winds up on Isle St. Louis, he doesn't narrow his mind. He is attentive, but engages in no particular thing with his consciousness. Indeed, he engages in efforts to keep is mind free by busying himself with the mundane:
A leap up and I settled on the wall, and let myself turn about and be caught and fixed by the sun, giving it my face and ears and hands (I kept my gloves in my pocket). I had no desire to shoot pictures, and lit a cigarette to be doing something. . . .
Blow Up at 667.

It's this process of diverting his consciousness that allows him to engage again in the surrealist dialog with himself which leads to his conception of what it is he wants to photograph: "As I had nothing else to do, I had more than enough time to wonder . . . . " CITE Michel notices an older boy with a woman, and he engages in a narrative of what might be taking place between them. He imagines their conversation, their motivations, and the likely outcomes, concluding "This biography was of the boy and of any boy whatsoever," and, like all surrealist art, it is autobiographical. Michel is not unaware that his musings are fiction:
Michel is guilty of making literature, of indulging in fabricated unrealities. Nothing pleases him more than to imagine exceptions to the rule, individuals outside the species, not-always-repugnant monsters.
Blow Up at 671.

But this is a necessary part of surrealist thinking. In order to create, the artist must orient. In order to orient, the artist needs a structure to understand that which is being perceived. The structure is always autobiographical and most often projected, but necessary for any observation to be made. As Michel observes about himself:
I think that I know how to look, if it's something I know, and also that every looking oozes with mendacity, because it's that which expels us furthest outside ourselves, without the least guarantee . . . .
Blow Up at 668.

But the fiction the artist creates about the perceived reality is not mendacious. Instead, it is an expression of the deeper, surrealist self. Observations of unlikely confluences aren't untrue—their recognition is simply specific to that observer's life, experience, and subjective interpretation. Art is not about the pursuit of truth, for objective truth is the thing which is "furthest outside ourselves" because no thing can be perceived the same by two people. "Perception" is dependent on the unique observer, art requires it, and there is no reason not to engage in it. Indeed, as Michel knows, it's not an impulse that can be resisted and he creates a complex narrative of the visual events unfolding.

In discussing the artist's act of creating, Marcel Duchamp is succinct:
To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.
If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.
* * *
In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane.
The Writings of Marcel Duchamp at 138.

Moreover, the spectator is not part of this process. As explained by Walter Benjamin:
In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an "ideal" receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art . . . . Art . . . posits man's physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture of the beholder, no symphony for the listener.
The Task of the Translator, in Essays and Reflections, at 69.

Accordingly, the artist is always unaware of the reasons underlying the creation and should not (and cannot) be concerned with the reaction of the hypothetical audience, but necessarily must have a subjective context in which to create the work.

Participating in this creative process, after his extensive musing Michel forms a concrete version of what he believes he is perceiving and is then moved to make an image:
Why wait any longer? Aperture at sixteen, a sighting which would not include the horrible black car, but yes, that tree, necessary to break up too much grey space... . [sic]
I raised the camera, pretended to study a focus which did not include them, and waited and watched closely, sure that I would finally catch the revealing expression, one that would sum it all up, life that is rhythmed by movement but which a stiff image destroys, taking time in cross section, if we do not choose the essential imperceptible fraction of it. 
Blow Up at 670-671.

The act of capturing the image is a significant part of the surrealist dialog: it is the kinesthetic realization of the moment recognized by the mind. Once that act is executed, the mind processes that moment in the context of the whole and eventually moves on to the next observation. Later, in the developing phase, the loop of the artistic process concerning that moment will close. In photography, developing an image is the process of uncovering the creative impulse that led to the image being taken. Cartier-Bresson wrote:
During the process of enlarging, it is essential to re-create the values and mood of the time the picture was taken; or even to modify the print so as to bring it into line with the intentions of the photographer at the moment he shot it. It is necessary also to re-establish the balance which the eye is continually establishing between light and shadow. And it is for these reasons that the final act of creating in photography takes place in the darkroom. 
The Mind’s Eye, at 39.

Tapping into the surrealist part of the mind is a delicate thing, easily disturbed. Michel suffers such a disturbance as soon as the image is taken:
I got it all into the view-finder (with the tree, the railing, the eleven-o'clock sun) and took the shot. In time to realize that they both had noticed and stood there looking at me, the boy surprised and as though questioning, but she was irritated, her face and body flat-footedly hostile, feeling robbed, ignominiously recorded on a small chemical image.
Blow Up at 671-672.  An argument ensues which breaks the state of Michel's thoughts, putting him back into his consciousness. He is so perturbed that he does not develop the film for several days. Eventually he makes an enlargement which he puts on his wall.

Significantly, Michel works as a translator. Art itself is the process of translating the nature anyone can experience into a specific work, subjectively perceived by the artist. Again, Benjamin explains:
The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect {Intention} upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet's work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, at its totality, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual aspects. Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. . . . The intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational. For the great motif of integrating many tongues into one true language is at work.
The Task of the Translator, in Essays and Reflections, at 76-77.

Translation is a different mode of surrealist thinking because "the original is important to it only insofar as it has already relieved the translator and his translation of the effort of assembling and expressing what is to be conveyed." The Task of the Translator, in Essays and Reflections, at 78. In other words, the message is already provided by the original, and the translator's task is only to draw out that message—not to create a new one.

It is in this mode of thinking that Michel confronts his image anew, and slips into the surrealist aspects of being a spectator. The image animates in his mind and he forms a new conception of the events it represents:

I looked at it between paragraphs while I was working. . . .  I had just translated: "In that case, the second key resides in the intrinsic nature of difficulties which societies . . ."—when I saw the woman's hand beginning to stir slowly, finger by finger. There was nothing left of me, a phrase in French which I would never have to finish, typewriter on the floor, a chair that squeaked and shook, fog.

Blow Up at 674-675. In the role of spectator, Michel confronts the narrative he created when he made the image and dismisses it, making a new reality based upon the scene captured in the photograph:
. . . I understood, if that was to understand, what had to happen now, what had to have happened then, what would have to happen at that moment, among these people, just where I had poked my nose in to upset an established order, interfering innocently in that which had not happened, but which was now going to happen, now was going to be fulfilled. And what I had imagined earlier was much less horrible than the reality . . . .
Blow Up at 675.

The experience of viewing his own work as a spectator is emotionally crushing to Michel. Although his new projection of events ends positively, he is shaken:
 . . .  and I shut my eyes, I didn't want to see any more, and I covered my face and broke into tears like an idiot.
Blow Up at 677.

The creative experience is a demanding one. It requires us to bring our whole selves to bear on a single thought and moment in time, and to do so in such a way that we are not even consciously aware of the process. Confronting that process is likely impossible, and often emotionally unsatisfying. In the case of Michel, it was devastating. In describing the "efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions" the artist must go through to create, Duchamp makes clear that the artist will never be able to fully communicate to the spectator:
The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of.
Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap which represents the inability of the artist to express fully his intention; this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal "art coefficient" contained in the work.
In other words, the personal "art coefficient" is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.
. . . . The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation; through the change from
inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place, and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.
All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. 
The Writings of Marcel Duchamp at 139-40.

Being an artist and being a spectator are separate roles. An artist's purpose is to create—not to evaluate. Whenever an artist attempts to take on the role of spectating the artist's own work, catastrophe results. Accordingly, stick to your creative role: produce. Let the audience conclude what it will, as it will.