Sometimes, despite my best intentions and most optimistic nature, I get the creeping sensation that the problems we face in the world today are insurmountable, impossible to solve. I know in my heart that hopelessness is only a lack of imagination, but sometimes my imagination isn’t up to the task.
The other night, I was listening to an interview with artist and teacher Daniel Mack, the chairman of the Seligmann Center Committee in upstate New York, on Gordon White’s engrossing podcast Rune Soup. I didn’t know much about Surrealism, and I’d never heard of Kurt Seligmann, artist, occult historian, and subject of the episode. Aside from falling in love with Seligmann instantly, I learned something about the Surrealists that moved me to the kind of tears that well up when you hear just exactly what you needed to hear.
While it’s easy to imagine on certain days that we live in the darkest timeline, we aren’t the first humans in history to find ourselves here. During their heyday, the Surrealists were coming to terms with two World Wars, a global depression, and the widespread convulsions of fascism. Not exactly a picture-perfect postcard from the past.
Like me, a lot of sensitive artist types of the time were feeling overwhelmed with despair and a sense of futility, but the Surrealists chose to resist a descent into pessimism and cynicism with something unexpected – absurdity.
Their logic? When a system uses reason to justify environmental devastation, poverty, the oppression of one group for the edification of another, cataclysmic weaponry and the constant threat of war, the only response can be the opposite of reason, right? It makes sense in an absurd sort of way.
When problems seem insurmountable, the solution isn’t to give up or to lather, rinse, and repeat as you’ve been doing for decades, but to respond with revolutionary imagination. All problems can be solved. But they can’t be solved with the same tools and thinking that created them. They require new modes of thinking, thoughts we haven’t thunk before. They require new tools, tools that may be unimaginable right now only because they don’t exist yet.
But as Yuval Noah Harari points out in his thought-provoking book Sapiens, creating things that don’t exist is what we do best as a species. We’ve created rockets to the moon and robots capable of feeding runners tomatoes, for Pete’s sake. Surely, we can come up with solutions to more pressing problems. With a little imaginative thinking.