Jan Švankmajer: Plenty of Reasons to Revolt

TT Journal, Vol.1, ISSUE 1, 3rd November 2020

You said that Insects is your last feature film. Searching for funding always takes several years. What film would you make if you had an unlimited budget now?

I have never considered myself a filmmaker. For me, film is just one (interchangeable) means of expression. Insects was my last feature film. I say it without a teardrop in my eye. There are other means of expression but there is only one form of Poetry.

“Art is almost dead,” you say at the beginning of the film Lunacies. Does this mean that contemporary artists are just necromancers and their creations are zombies?

You said this nicely, we should just somehow incorporate financial “belts and braces” into the concept.

Despite this do you still consider some contemporary makers remarkable?

If I limit myself to film, I would name David Lynch or the Quay brothers, here [in the Czech Republic] David Jařab and Karel Vachek.

In recent years the trend of 3D films has been growing. Do you think that “three-dimensional” films not only have commercial but also creative potential? Personally, I would be more interested in cinematography, which may not be 3D, but is looking for a way to become more haptic, olfactory, able to communicate taste…

Not just film but all art, in my opinion, should look for renewal in synesthesia. In regards to topicality, I believe that our civilisation is drawn more and more towards narrow specialisation, at the expense of a holistic view. Synesthesia, by spilling emotions from one sense to another, introduces the whole emotional potential into our creative process. [this last section has been added by Tereza Stehlikova from an email exchange with Jan, October 2020].

In a recent interview, you identified yourself as a misanthrope. What does this mean in your case?

My misanthropy is not focused on man as an animal species but on his current state.

You also say in your older text, “Giving up on the leading role” that there is also a repression in democracy, because repression is the price for civilisation. How is this repression manifesting itself today?

In that text I refer to Sigmund Freud and his Civilisation and Its Discontents, where he reproaches civilisation for its excessive coercion and suppression of human instincts. He considers civilisation, culture as a whole, to be something that was forcibly imposed by a powerful and rich minority on a poor majority, who are therefore trying to shake it off at every opportunity. During each uprising, it is the symbols that suffer first. For example, now in Paris, it is the Arc de Triomphe, but setting cars on fire is just as symbolic. There is not a more appropriate and more telling symbol of this civilisation than the car. In principle, civilisation was created when labour productivity increased so much so that man was suddenly able to produce more goods than he could consume, thus opening up space for exploitation. Strong and “enterprising” individuals amassed so much wealth that they were no longer able to defend it by physical strength alone. They therefore needed institutions, laws and organisations with repressive powers. Who else, besides them, would still be a fan of such a civilisation?

What are other symbols of this civilisation besides the car?

I think another such symbol is clothes. How is it possible to forget a series of “naked” demonstrations of women revolting against gender discrimination? I think that even the removal of the jersey by football players when they score a goal could be included here. Of course there is something of exhibitionism and narcissism in it but in my view its essence is anti-civilisational, albeit unconsciously. However, the poet has imagination at her/his disposal.

In the older text “Give up the leading role” you also mention that we humans should give up our anthropocentric leading role in the world. Instead, we should return to Mother Nature, to its plurality of species. Do we have any new means for such a return or is it necessary to restore alchemy, magic, rituals?

“Give up the leading role” is a provocative text which should lead the reader to considering the state of this civilisation but it is not a practical guide of what to do. I’m talking about a return to nature along a developmental spiral because otherwise we will just return in a full circle. But not even I can imagine how such a “spiral” would work in practice. I am aware that most people will not want to give up anthropocentrism because it gives even the poorest and most wretched in our civilisation the illusion that they are not at the bottom of the heap and that further down there below them are the animals, insects and plants. For thousands of years, Judeo-Christian religions have been instilling in people that they are superior to other creatures because God their Father created them in his image, encoding it, so to speak, in the human DNA, and unfortunately most atheists have also started to believe it.

But is it possible to stop an environmental catastrophe without the renewal of myths and rituals?

According to neuropathologists, contemporary humans are mentally no different from Neolithic peoples. Evolution is either moving very slowly or perhaps at some point it even “froze” as some biologists believe. The contemporary human is, in essence, as irrational, as devoted to magic, or even as much under its spell as our ancient ancestors were. There is no Homo Economicus. This civilisation goes against human nature. That is why I believe in the new renaissance of the ‘World of Magic’ (here, the Surrealists have a considerable advantage). The world of magic was once the world of the majority. Since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and continuing to this day, superstition has been thrown onto the garbage dump and replaced with a “rational and utilitarian barrenness” governed by the ideology of money and profit.

So the question arises: how to return to Mother Nature, who is also a “gruesome mother” attaining her goals through the act of murder, as Marquis De Sade writes?

One needs to accept that there is no completely straightforward, ideal solution for humankind. We are forced to live in a world ruled by ambivalence. This is why there will always be plenty of reasons to revolt.

In response to ideas about abandoning modern civilisation many will reply “So is the answer to go back to the trees like monkeys?” I think such thoughts are a form of species racism against both monkeys and trees. Shouldn’t we aspire to become even more of an animal or like a plant?

I met with a similar view when I first published my text in the Analogon magazine in the 1990s. Apparently “I want people to share a plate with macaques.” There is no point in responding to such racist views. The human is an animal with a hypertrophied brain just like a giraffe is an animal with a hypertrophied neck, but a giraffe uses that neck for its survival. It is far less clear in regards to the use of the human brain; it even appears at times as if the human wanted to destroy her/himself with its help. (The Church, however, sees it differently. Man was created by God as his favourite creation, in his image and God gave him all of nature for his unlimited use. He thus created the perfect conditions for an ecological catastrophe. When he was sculpting man, he must have been looking into a crooked mirror, because his favourite creation turned out to be a complete brat. I cannot comprehend how something like this could have happened to an omniscient and omnipotent creator. Additionally, the floods and other catastrophes that God is using to re-educate humanity do not work. The giraffe is a different case altogether. Some time ago, I saw an interview on television with a Catholic official who, when asked by the moderator whether God had a sense of humour, replied with a straight face, “Of course. Look at the giraffe.”)

According to you, the delusion of anthropocentrism has also supported the Enlightenment with its “cult of reason”. Despite all efforts of postmodern “deconstruction of reason”, rationalism has, in recent years, spread to other spheres of society. One has to “rationally” plan one’s life, the state and corporations have to conduct “rational management” and there is not much money for the arts because every “rational person” sees them as a loss-making investment… Are there any methods of stopping, bypassing or transmuting this excessive rationalisation?

I do not believe in any one-off, revolutionary solution. To escape the crisis of rationalism one will have to suffer to reach some form of Bachelardian, Bretonian or Effenbergerian surrationalism. A worse option would be for current rationalism to be replaced by some new or even old, religious fanaticism masquerading as a “spiritual” revival. Surrealists, however, view surrationalism as the vanishing point of their efforts.

At the end of last year, Carroll’s Alice was published including your illustrations. You said that there is no “art for children”, that such a category is just a commercial deception. What books, according to you, should young people who are growing up now read at this period when art is almost dead and nature is hanging by a thread?

It would be good to work out something like “A Guide to the Ideas of a New Civilisational Cycle.” These ideas are already here for sure, but we don’t see them or don’t want to see them. They are overshadowed by the decrepitude of the dying cycle. In the 1970s, Czech and French surrealists tried something like this in the collection La Civilization Surréaliste (the collection was edited and presented by Vincent Bounoure and Vratislav Effenberger and published by Payot in Paris). Effenberger, conversely, was convinced that the new cycle of civilisation would be based on the ludic principle*. I only wish this were the case.

*’The ludic principle’ is related to creativity through play; and, in contrast to the instrumentalist principle of rationalist civilisation, it consists of substituting the Superego with analogies rather than identifications. (Editor’s note)

When I was leading a film club, I showed older children some of your films including The Flat and Something from Alice. The kids came fully alive, they began to interpret. It’s as if these films freed them, for a while, from the habit of just being consumers of the audio-visual…

Yes, imagination has the ability to liberate a person from a burdensome reality because it offers an alternative.

‘Something From Alice’, by Jan Švankmajer

But can surrealism still be subversive to this day?

There is no surrealism that is not subversive. Not everyone who calls themselves a surrealist is a surrealist. In particular, don’t trust those who are at the same time bandying around aesthetics and art.

You see the seeds of revolt in dreams. But some of my acquaintances, for example, dream of going to the office, where they wait in a waiting room and ultimately do something with a clerk, like signing a file, and that’s the whole dream.

Your dreams mirror your unconscious. According to Freud, our dreams fulfil our innermost secret desires. Apparently, either your acquaintances don’t have any desires, or these, at first glance banal dreams, are somehow subtly encrypted to allow the Superego to release them into circulation, while in fact they have latent content that is deeply subversive. Psychoanalysis would be good.

In The Ways of Redemption you cite John Gray. I was pleased, I consider him a thinker who is wrongly overlooked in the Czech environment. In addition to Straw Dogs, he also wrote Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. What current ideas (and ideology) do you think deserve heretical provocation – what should we blaspheme against?

Against everything connected with this civilisation, especially ideas that pretend it can be reformed in some way.

Interview – Tvar 1/2019 – questions asked by Lukáš Senft, translated for TT journal by Tereza Stehlikova


Jan Švankmajer (b. 1934, Czechoslovakia) is a filmmaker, writer and artist based in Prague. He is connected with the collective activities of the Czechoslovak surrealist group. He studied stage design and puppetry before beginning to experiment with creative filmmaking techniques at Prague’s Magic Lantern Theatre in the 1960s. The artist has since made seven features including Alice, Faust and Lunacy, and a number of short films, including Jabberwocky. His films often use stop-motion and claymation techniques and combine a surrealist imaginary with black humour. Švankmajer’s works have been influential to a generation of filmmakers including Terry Gilliam and the Brothers Quay.

Photographs of Jan Švankmajer’s work by Tereza Stehlikova, taken during her visit to Jan’s Cabinet of Curiosities in 2018.