This month we watched as the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by a lone gunman on camera in response to what is being called a “complete meltdown of humanity” in Aleppo. We witnessed the continuing slaughter of “innocents” in that city as the Syrian civil war continued to claim the lives of civilian men, women and children. We read the headlines as another terrorist attack claimed the lives of a dozen people just going about their daily lives in Berlin as we remembered last year’s attacks right here at home in San Bernardino. This month we discovered we are living in a nation so divided that we have some states threatening secession and others challenging the very foundation of our democracy and election process.
So many of us are ending this year more anxious than we began it, in an mystified reality that – much like Lewis Carroll’s iconic literary heroine Alice – has us feeling as though we are still tumbling down the rabbit hole and bouncing our heads off the walls on the way down.
From Surrealist painter Salvador Dali's 1969 illustration of the book Alice in Wonderland "Down the Rabbit Hole".
I’m not surprised that “surreal” is Merriam-Webster’s 2016 word of the year. It was selected for two reasons: the high volume of online searches and the most significant year-over-year increase in look-ups. Spikes occurred after some of the most surreal incidents in modern memory: a giant truck that tore through a crowd killing almost a hundred people during a Bastille Day celebration in France; the failed coup d’état attempt in Turkey where the world watched as soldiers took the country’s military leadership hostage; and after Donald Trump’s stunning presidential win in the U.S., which experienced the largest search surge of them all. The surreal, in fact, became our new reality.
The word, traced back to the Surrealist Art Movement, first appeared in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1967 to define the feeling of the “intense irrational reality of a dream.” Art of the surrealism cultural movement presented illogical scenes that blurred the line between the real and the dreamlike. And one of the foundational beliefs of the movement was in art as protest against war. Founded shortly after WWI during a time of tremendous nationalism, the global-minded surrealists believed in the individual’s power to reveal the contradictions in the world and spur a revolution.
Much like the forces that sparked that movement, we are witnessing a return to the same nationalist ideologies that the surrealists created art to protest. Now that we are living in a “surreal reality” perhaps it’s time to study the etymology of the word as well as the founding principles of the movement for inspiration and instruction on how to not accept our new normal as normal, point out the contradictions when obvious, and fight against the destructive and regressive ideologies we are now openly facing every day.