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The Exquisite Corpse: A Creative Game that Reveals the Collective Unconscious


The “exquisite corpse”, a surrealist’s game to explore the unconscious.

There are some who postulate that the history of literature is nothing more than the continual re-elaboration of two or three fundamental subjects. According to Juan Rulfo, these subjects were love, life and death. The different literary creations would be, then, just small fragments of a great work, a single collective work which we unconsciously weave submerged in the illusion of individuality.

That is the fundamental idea of the exquisite corpse. The phrase “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine” was —despite the redundancy— the first exquisite corpse we know of, and to which we owe the enigmatic name of the game. Its artifices: Robert Desnos, André Bretón and Tristan Tzara. Gathered surely in the Café Voltaire in Zurich ––where the outbursts that would lead to Dada and later to Surrealism were forged––, these three men, tired of decadence and hungry for new realities, decided to test one of the most elemental postulates of the new movement: the inclusion of chance in the creative process.

Automatism, which had already been put in practice by Breton and Soupault’s first poetical experiments, acquires a new hue in the game of the exquisite corpse. The premise is simple: on a sheet of paper each of the participants must write down a word or a simple phrase. Next, folding the paper conceals that part, and the next participant continues the phrase with no knowledge of what was written before. As can be confirmed by the result of the foundational experiment, the game revealed the hidden possibilities of language. A type of shared unconscious announced itself in the irrationality of the clauses —Max Ernst came to speak about intellectual contagion between participants.

The exquisite corpse soon spread to other spheres. In drawing, its practice resulted in awe-inspiring images, impossible figures in which the assembly of different imaginations translated into an improbable ensemble unity. Some of the drawings that were obtained in this way, among which stands out one made in 1928 by Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró and Max Morise, remind us of the unlikely figures that swarm in The Garden of Eternal Delights by Hieronymus Bosch.

Since then, the practice of the exquisite corpse has consistently reappeared in the development of the arts. Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca employed it in some poems which they entitled Discurso al alimón (which roughly translates as Collective Speech), in accordance with the bull-fighting practice where a cape is held by two bullfighters. More recently, in the year 2000, filmmaker Apichatpong Weerashetakul carried out a film project that was based on an exquisite corpse. It was titled Mysterious Object at Noon and it surprised everyone for its freshness and renovation of contemporary filmic narrative.

Far from being a practice exclusive to artists or intellectuals, the exquisite corpse can be practiced by anyone, in any circumstances, and, evidently, always in the company of others. The surrealist dream of collective, intuitive, playful and automatic poetry and art —in other words, not dominated by reason— is experienced in the magical moment when the paper is unfolded, and we can observe how the drawing or the phrase, involuntarily composed, is presented with a halo of familiarity. Like the face that Borges dreamt as being one and simultaneously all faces, the exquisite corpse is the expression of hidden creativity that binds us together.

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