By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 22, 1938
“I think,” said Jimmie Frise disgustedly, “I’ll turn surrealist.”
“What are you now?” I inquired sweetly.
“I get so tired,” said Jim, “drawing this mug of yours every week. Sometimes I feel I can’t go on.”
“If you turned surrealist,” I asked, “how would you draw me?”
“Oh, boy,” mused Jim happily, “what wouldn’t I draw. Punkin on a boat. Ripe tomato singing. Pot full of spinach.”
“You could also,” I pointed out bitterly, “do some nice work on yourself in this cartoon. For instance, string bean partly sliced. The theorem of a pair of old scissors. Or nocturne in three pool cues.”
“You’ve got some nice surrealistic titles there,” stated Jim.
“Jim,” I asked, “what in the dickens is this surrealism? And by the way, is that the way you pronounce it?”
“Sur, meaning beyond,” explained Jim, “and realism. Beyond or above reality. That is what surrealism means.”
“It sure is beyond,” I confessed. “The pictures I saw at the Exhibition looked decidedly unreal. I mean, there were faint suggestions of hands, toe nails and things like that in them. But the rest of the picture was just a lot of formless shapes. Why do they put in suggestions of real things? Why not just paint a lot of different colored blobs?”
“Because,” explained Jim, “in all surrealism there is a faint suggestion of reality. Reality left behind. Reality only an echo, or perfume, a lingering, fragile, all-but-gone memory.”
“Come clean,” I coaxed. “Isn’t surrealism just nutty? Aren’t the people who paint these pictures just slightly touched? As well as those who see anything in them?”
“No,” said Jim, soberly. “I read in the catalogue of the Exhibition that surrealism was born of the disillusionment and despair that followed the war.”
“Ah, another war legacy,” I muttered.
“The way everything went cock-eyed after the war,” continued Jim, “affected even art. So the surrealists demand of art that it take into account not only the realities of what we see with the waking eye, but the fantastic and irrational things we meet in our dreams, in our subconscious selves, in those moments, of which there are many, when our minds and imaginations wander loose, detached from the actual world around us, dreaming and thinking idle, grotesque, often mischievous things.”
“We all have those moments,” I confessed. “To myself, I call that going slumming inside myself, and I try hard not to do it. I’ve got myself trained now to always take myself along as professional guide and bodyguard.”
“In order to cope with the eternal mystery of life,” said Jim, “we must know all about life. Art and literature have devoted themselves for countless ages only to the presentation of the better, the higher, the cleaner side of life. Hence we have no knowledge of life as it truly is. Not in other people, mind you; but in ourselves. To arrive at a true and just understanding of life, that eternal mystery, we must face life as it really is, and write about it and paint it and express it. Only when we have all of life before us, can we know about it. In the past, art and literature have merely put on a show, an unreal, pretty and entertaining show; yet on the basis of that show humanity has tried to arrive at a workable understanding of human nature. It can’t.”
“I never read these dirty modern books,” I declared firmly.
The Split Infinitive
“Then that is probably why you can’t ever,” replied Jim, “have any understanding of human nature. You admit that you occasionally, when you are not looking, slip away on a little slumming trip deep within your own nature.”
“Yes,” I retorted, “but I have learned how to take myself along as a guide. I don’t go as often as I used to.”
“You’re forty-five now,” smiled Jimmie.
“To heck with surrealism,” I declared.
“It is the coming thing,” replied Jim.
“It will die,” I claimed, “of malnutrition. Nobody will buy the silly pictures.”
“Thousands of people are buying them,” countered Jim. “Those pictures you saw in the Exhibition are the classics of the surrealistic school and are valued at huge prices by the museums that own them.”
“It’ll die,” I predicted. “A brief and passing fancy.”
“Why,” protested Jim, “I know an artist who is painting surrealist pictures and making money for the first time in his career. For 20 years, he has been painting landscapes and still life and he never sold $200 worth in a year. Yet in the past six months he has made over $1,000 painting surrealist subjects.”
“Let him make it as fast as he can,” I laughed, “for he’ll be back at the still life in another six months.”
“Don’t you ever believe it,” cried Jimmie. “This man has arrived. Inside of a year, the name of Philip Phowler will be known to the world.”
“Phooey,” I argued.
“Listen,” said Jim, “right now he is working on a commission. One of Toronto’s wealthiest old art collectors has commissioned Phowler to paint him a picture called ‘Split Infinitive’.”
“Split Infinitive,” I gasped. “What a beautiful subject for an artist to paint.”
“He’s getting $250 for it,” added Jim.
“Split Infinitive,” I scoffed. “What the dickens kind of a picture could anybody make out of that?”
“It is a tremendously interesting subject to paint,” declared Jimmie. “Absolutely fascinating to the artist and completely fascinating to the person who looks at it with understanding.”
“Split Infinitive,” I muttered.
“Don’t you see the possibilities,” cried Jimmie, “in surrealist technique? What is a split infinitive? It is an error in grammar. It gives away the character of those who use split infinitives, such as ‘to really go,’ instead of ‘really to go.’ It shows them up as incompletely educated persons. It shows them up as slipshod persons who lack the niceties of expression.”
“Sissy,” I submitted.
“Sissy, if you like,” said Jim. “But amongst a very large group of people, a split infinitive is as revealing as seeing a man eating peas with his knife.”
“Did you ever try eating peas with your knife?” I demanded. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to make peas stay on your knife.”
“In this painting of the ‘Split Infinitive’,” went on Jim, “the artist has to catch a suggestion of all the things associated with splitting infinitives. The senses of the superiority of those who know about the split infinitive. A sense of the type of people who do split them. A sense of shock and a sense of ignorance. Some feeling of the great mass of mankind, healthy, hearty and ignorant, who not only don’t know about split infinitives, but who simply couldn’t care about it, physiologically.”
“Some painting,” I agreed.
“The artist, in order to paint this picture,” went on Jim, “has to retreat within his own soul and ponder all the aspects of the split infinitive. The purely technical aspect, the split. The social aspects, that is, the division of human beings into classes, some who care and some who don’t. The aspect of wealth, made or inherited, so that those who inherit wealth and go to expensive schools, are in one class, and those who made wealth belong to another class and who only know about split infinitives by the expressions on the faces of their children. For instance, thousands of people who shudder at split infinitives are the children of people who made their fortunes in a foundry, and who only understand about splitting profits.”
“And how the heck,” I demanded, “could such a painting ever interest the beholder?”
“It all depends,” said Jimmie, “on the intelligence of the painter and the intelligence of the beholder. But that is true also of even the simplest painting. If a painter is not clever and the picture he paints is looked at by a stupid person, it amounts to no more than a surrealist picture.”
An Incredible Canvas
“I’d love to see this picture, ‘Split Infinitive’,” I admitted.
“Sure you can,” cried Jim. “We’ll slip over at noon. It’s not quite finished yet, but that will be all the more interesting. To see Phowler at work on it. He will explain each part.”
“That’s the trouble,” I claimed. “I don’t like pictures that have to be explained. I like a picture that steps right out at you.”
“You would soon get tired,” said Jim, “of mere decoration eternally.”
“In life at its best,” I countered, “the mind should be used as little as possible. And you know it.”
So we went across King St. at noon and upstairs in one of those ancient blocks of business properties dating to about 1860. And on the third floor we found Phowler’s studio, with a queer sign done on it with pieces of lath, blotting paper, a chicken feather and a little cheap paint brush.
“That design,” explained Jim, “spells Phowler, in surrealist terms.”
We rapped. There was no answer, though we could see cigarette smoke coming out the transom.
“Maybe surrealists,” I suggested, “are too far beyond reality to answer knocks.”
So we opened the door and walked in. Phowler was not to be seen. On a little table, made out of broom handles and ornamented with a fringe of curled pipe cleaners, a cigarette burned showing that Phowler was likely not far away.
The studio was an extraordinary mess. The windows were filthy. A big drape of raw burlap covered one wall. There were old boxes and junk of every description, old vinegar jars, a dilapidated baby carriage and an iron hitching post with a horse’s head design standing about; and the place was a complete litter of paper, dirty paint cloths, bits of canvas and pictures hung crooked, upside down and leaning against everything that was solid enough to stand.
“And it smells,” I commented, sotto voce.
On a large easel stood “Split Infinitive.”
It was an incredible canvas. There was a mottled magenta background or sky, across which flew curious geometric objects like pieces of a broken dish.
In the foreground, which was evenly divided between olive drab and peacock blue, were drawn a human hand, with two thumbs, fingers all extended; a lumberjack’s double bitted axe, blue and pink; a human nose, its nostrils curled up in terrible disdain; a can of worms, only the worms were drawn as tiny, elongated human beings, nude, all crawling and writhing, as if in agony.
“I suppose,” I supposed, after I got my voice, “that the box of worms is both the kind of people who split infinitives and the feelings of the better-class people who shudder at such vulgarity.”
“Do your own thinking and feeling,” said Jim. “It doesn’t help surrealism to talk out loud.”
So all to myself I supposed that the magenta sky with the pieces of china flying across it pictured the mental agony of people with finer sensibilities, when they read or hear a split infinitive. The horrible contrast of olive drab and peacock blue indicated the muddy nature of the masses and the blue blood of the classes.
“I don’t like this picture,” I stated emphatically, at the same time stepping backward.
Unknown to me, underneath all the rubbish with which the floor was covered, there was an electric light extension cord. My heel caught it. The cord was also passed under the legs of the easel. As I tripped, the easel received a violent jerk and with staggering suddenness, the easel threw itself sideways and the picture leaped into the air.
“Look out,” shouted Jim.
I made a tremendous leap to catch the picture, a sort of rugby tackle, but my snatch at the edge was miscalculated, owing to further entanglements in the electric light cord. Jim, in his effort to grab the picture, collided with me. I got a ghastly, sticky grip on some part of the picture and as I whirled to avoid it, the picture landed on the floor, butter side up, and I fell on top of it, gliding stickily and greasily across the upper half.
“Oh, good heavens,” moaned Jimmie.
Sense of the Imponderable
We picked up “Split Infinitive.” It was a most sickening sight. Where the seat of my pants had wiped across the upper half was just a smear of old paint and new paint, biliously stippled red and yellow. The broken objects were just dim outlines. Where my hands had clutched at the lower corner, another wavy smear existed, all but obliterating the human nose and part of the worm can.
“Oh, oh, oh,” groaned Jimmie, terrified.
“Pssst,” I hissed.
Footsteps were coming up the hollow echoing staircase of the old building.
Frozen with horror, we stood, staring at the ravished painting.
In the door stepped an elderly little gentleman with a beard, adjusting to his eyes a pair of heavy gold-rimmed glasses on a wide, black ribbon. Behind him came a young lady who turned out to be his daughter, for whom he was purchasing the painting. She was one of those intellectual and dowdy young ladies with her mouth open most of the time.
Without a word, they walked past us and took one look at “Split Infinitive.”
Then pandemonium broke loose. The old gentleman turned and grabbed his daughter ecstatically. They began doing a dance.
“He’s got it, he’s got it,” shrieked the old gentleman, almost insane with joy. “He’s got it at last.”
And they stopped only long enough to take another wild glance at the mutilated masterpiece before going into another barn dance.
“Oh,” cried the old gentleman breathlessly to us, his eyes glistening with joy. “I was so afraid he wasn’t going to get it. That sense of the vague, the imponderable, the unspeakable. I begged him the day before yesterday. I explained and argued. Yesterday, I threatened. I told him, unless you catch that sense of the obtuse, the incongruous, the capricious, I would cancel the commission.”
“But now, father!” cried the young lady. more bedraggled looking than ever.
“But now,” shouted the little gentleman “I shall double the price. Five hundred dollars.”
And lost in speechless admiration, the two clutched each other and stood, rapt, breathing heavily.
And in came Philip Phowler.
He crept in the door, all dirty smock and tousled hair.
When the other two saw him, they ran at him and embraced him. They shouted such words as grandiose, illusion, vibrancy.
I kept turning my back and getting nearer and nearer the wall for fear they should see the seat of my pants.
They drew Phowler around to where he could see the ruined painting.
He never even started. He never even gasped. He never so much as changed his facial expression.
And Jimmie and I excused ourselves, saying we would come back at a more auspicious time.
And I backed out.
Editor’s Notes: This story was reprinted on December 23, 1944 under the title “Finishing Touch”, with very few modifications. The drawing at the end was the one included in the 1944 version.
Eating peas with your knife was a common reference to someone who had no manners at the time. Details on why this is can be found here.