Thank God I’m An Atheist: Buñuel’s Last Laugh


“What fascinated me most…was the moral aspect of [Surrealism]. For the first time in my life, I’d come into contact with a coherent moral system that, as far as I could tell, had no flaws. It was an aggressive morality based on the complete rejection of all existing values. We had other criteria: we exalted passion, mystification, black humor, the insult, and the call of the abyss. … Our morality may have been more demanding and more dangerous than the prevailing order, but it was also stronger, richer, more coherent.” — Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh

Part of a Series: Self-Help for Surrealists.

Pot smoke hangs in a low-lying fog bank over the floor of the San Diego Sports Arena, where I’m part of a throng of Bowie fans milling restlessly, eager for our 90 precious minutes in The Presence. This year’s model — the character Bowie plays on the title track of his new record Station to Station (1976) — is the Thin White Duke, a pastiche of ’20s movie idol, Weimar decadent, and Nazi occultist, a Faustian apparition risen from the pages of potboilers like The Spear of Destiny (a book given pride of place on Bowie’s night table, that year). Like many in the crowd, I haven’t quite caught up: I’m wearing a homemade Ziggy outfit, a glittery, skin-tight top with Flash Gordon shoulder pads sewn from a modified Simplicity Pattern by my indulgent mom. When the Duke saunters onstage in a cabaret crooner’s white shirt and black vest, sporting a short-back-and-sides slicked back for that ’20s look, I and countless other Ziggy clones will cringe in mortification, the spiky shag haircuts we’d flaunted as credentials of cutting-edge cool suddenly démodé.

Neither I nor the rest of the crowd know it yet, but we’re in for another, far more jarring shock. When the lights dim, applause erupts in anticipation of Bowie’s arrival. But wait: a black-and-white silent movie, speckled with age, is flickering to life on a screen onstage. It’s Un Chien Andalou, a Surrealist short made in 1929 by the Spanish Surrealist Luis Buñuel, in collaboration with Salvador Dali. It’s Buñuel we see in the opening scene, stropping a shaving razor; his full lips and heavy lidded eyes hint at sensuality, maybe even depravity. With the implacable logic of a nightmare, a series of cinematic non sequiturs flashes by: the man steps onto the moonlit balcony, a wisp of a cloud cuts the moon in two, and then — as one, the crowd gasps — a straight razor slices a woman’s eyeball open, vitreous humor oozing out. Instantly, an arena full of stoned Bowie fans is stone-cold sober.


In his autobiography My Last Sigh, Buñuel casts a mocking eye on the hidden costs of our insistence on the inoffensive; the oppressive cheeriness that puts a positive spin on everything, no matter how irredeemably negative (when did catastrophes become “challenges”?); the pieties and political correctness that deny us the droll charm of our indefensible antipathies, not to mention our perverse affections.

Written (with the help of his “attentive listener and scrupulous recorder” Jean-Claude Carrière) in a chatty, affable style, My Last Sigh, like Buñuel’s Surrealist drawing-room comedy The Exterminating Angel, time-stretches a dinner party, although this one, unlike the one in the movie, is an unalloyed delight: all the other guests have moved into the salon and we’re alone at the dinner table with an accomplished raconteur, mellowed by a martini or three. (Buñuel is expansive on the subject of the martini, a passport to poetic reveries that has played “a primordial role” in his life, fueling imaginative flights that have found their way into many of his movies. He pays tribute to this elixir in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by having a character recite, with scrupulous exactitude, his recipe for the perfect martini.)

In the chapter “Pro and Con,” Buñuel makes the case for the unapologetically impolitic opinion and, implicitly, for the unrepentant embrace of our bêtes noires (not that his pros don’t equal, in number and passion, his cons). “When the Surrealist movement was in full flower, we made very clear distinctions between good and evil, justice and discrimination, the beautiful and the ugly,” he writes. Surrealism, for Buñuel, is as much a moral philosophy as it is an art movement. “We also had certain unwritten laws — books that had to be read, others that shouldn’t be read; things that needed to be done, others to avoid at all cost. Inspired by these old games, I’ve decided to let my pen wander as it will in this chapter, while I engage in the healthy exercise of listing some of my passions and my bêtes noires.” The key words, here, are “healthy” and “exercise”; inventorying one’s likes and dislikes, Buñuel suggests, is a purgative and a tonic.

Likes: “Fabre’s Souvenirs entomologiques,” the 19th-century French entomologist’s work of fabulist naturalism, “which I found infinitely superior to the Bible when it comes to a passion for observation and a boundless love of living things.” De Sade, unsurprisingly (a “proposal for…a sweeping annihilation of culture”) and, equally unsurprisingly, “coming as I do from such an arid region of the country,” cold, rain, and northern climes (“I find nothing so beautiful as vast damp forests wreathed in fog…no sound is lovelier than that of the rain”). He’s fond of early Fritz Lang, and of Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers, and of Russian literature and firearms (“my specialty is the fast draw”) and “all sorts of little tools like pliers, scissors, magnifying glasses, and screwdrivers,” an assortment of which he takes with him “everywhere, rather like my toothbrush.” He has a weakness, he confesses, for “secret passageways, bookshelves that open onto silence, staircases that go down into the void, and hidden safes.” (Yes, he has a hidden safe, and no, he won’t tell you where.) He adores rats, and has kept them as pets: “When I lived in Mexico City, I once managed to collect 40 of them, but I finally had to drive them into the mountains and get rid of them.” Without doubt, the best line in the chapter, and very possibly one of the great lines in Western literature, is, “Whereas my feelings about reporters couldn’t be clearer, I confess to mixed emotions when it comes to spiders.”

Dislikes: Warm climates, predictably. “I don’t like the desert, the beach, the Arab, the Indian, or the Japanese civilizations, which makes me distinctly unmodern.” And decidedly politically incorrect: just like that, it’s the scrapheap of history for three storied and venerable civilizations. Of course, Buñuel isn’t saying he doesn’t like Arabic or Indian or Japanese people, or that their cultures and histories are worthless; he’s simply saying he has no affinity for them, and he’s saying it without all the throat-clearing solicitousness we’re accustomed to.

“Pro and Con”’s mind-slapping frankness is an object lesson in Surrealist etiquette. Buñuel instructs us, by example, in the importance of speaking one’s mind with a certain offhanded insouciance, preferably with martini in hand—a poise that lends even the most outrageous declarations an existential weightlessness: “Now, like most deaf people” — Buñuel had by the time of the book’s writing lost most of his hearing — “I don’t much like the blind. One day in Mexico City I was struck by the sight of two blind men sitting side by side, one masturbating the other.” Don’t get him started: “Jorge-Luis Borges is another blind man I don’t particularly like. There’s no question about the fact that he’s a very good writer; but then, the world is full of good writers, and in any case, just because someone writes well doesn’t mean you have to like him. … Like many blind people, he’s an eloquent speaker, albeit the subject of the Nobel Prize tends to crop up obsessively each time he talks to reporters.” Buñuel is, however, fond of dwarves, if that’s any consolation to the scandalized. They’re “intelligent, thoroughly likable, and surprisingly self-assured,” not to mention possessed of sexual energies that would put a satyr to shame, Buñuel insists, with perfect matter-of-factness. “The dwarf in Nazarin [Buñuel’s 1959 movie, shot in Mexico, which won the international prize at Cannes that year] alternated regularly between two normal-sized mistresses in Mexico City,” he recalls. Come to think of it, “many women I’ve met seem to have a predilection for dwarves, perhaps because they can play both child and lover.” Back to blind people, by which he really means blind men: “Whenever I think of blind men, I can’t help remembering the words of [the Surrealist poet] Benjamin Péret, who was very concerned about whether mortadella sausage was in fact made by the blind. I find this less a question than a statement, and one containing a profound truth at that. Of course, some might find that relationship between blindness and mortadella somewhat absurd, but for me it’s the quintessential example of Surrealist thought.”

Like Lautréamont’s “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella” — the Surrealist example, par excellence, of those unexpected, dreamlike juxtapositions that detonate a depth charge in the unconscious—Buñuel’s conjunction of blind men and mortadella has a certain dream logic. Following, as it does, his aside about the two blind men masturbating each other, the thought of blind men making mortadella assumes a kind of obscenity by association. The phrase itself sounds like locker-room slang for self-abuse; the Freudian connotations of sausage, together with Victorian horror stories about masturbation causing blindness, seal the deal. Jerking off in public, bragging about their Nobel prizes, Buñuel’s blind men are unburdened by inhibitions; because they can’t see us, they seem to assume we can’t see them, an invisibility cloak that gives free reign to infantile or primitive impulses. They’re channeling the id, a role that trades on the mythic association of the sightless with the gift of second sight, as in Tiresias, the blind seer of Greek myth, or the eerie medium in Alejandro Amenábar’s gothic thriller, The Others, her eyes clouded by cataracts.

Then again, perhaps Buñuel, a confirmed atheist who carried the banner for Surrealism’s mordant anti-clericalism into cinema, was just committing tongue-in-cheek blasphemy, mocking the supposed virtuousness of the blind—“the popular belief that the blind are ‘purer in spirit’ than most people, that they are somehow sanctified by their affliction,” as Thomas Harris put it in his novel Red Dragon.

In which case, is his aversion to blind men rhetorical shorthand for a way of seeing the world, in the same way that W.C. Fields’s notorious dislike of dogs and kids was symbolic of a carny’s reflexive contempt for the rubes, a cynic’s eye-rolling impatience with Norman Rockwellian sentimentality? If so, how many of Buñuel’s cons are con jobs—ironic poses, struck to make a philosophical point for which the obscure object of his antipathy is purely metaphoric? The distinction between hating and “hating”—affecting to dislike something, as an ideological provocation or tongue-in-cheek social critique — is a useful one, much neglected in a culture suffering from snark fatigue, where “hater” is an ubiquitous term of opprobrium and Facebook has a “like” button, designed to let you “express who you are” and “round out your profile” and “help friends get to know you better,” but no “dislike” button because the only way we can Express Who We Are, here in the home of incurable optimism and positive thinking, is by Liking Things.

Then, too, if our dislikes (at least, those that aren’t purely visceral) aren’t necessarily about what they appear to be about, aren’t they always about us, whatever else they’re about? Don’t they hint at something circling in the unconscious, for which the fear that blind men are putting something in our mortadella is only a suggestive ripple on the surface of our minds?

Buñuel’s ghost groans. “I don’t like psychology in general. Or analysis. Or psychoanalysis,” he says, in My Last Sigh, though he does concede that his “discovery of Freud, and particularly his theory of the unconscious, was crucial to me.” Moreover, he’s no philosopher, he’s at pains to point out, but “if those who fancy themselves possessed of a philosophical bent smile as they read, I’m glad to have given them an amusing moment.”

Yet Buñuel is a philosopher — a moral philosopher, to be exact, albeit one who makes his case with gleeful, Surrealist savagery, using images dredged from the depths of the unconscious. A sardonic satirist and inveterate practical joker—he once strolled down the boulevard Montparnasse dressed as a nun, complete with false eyelashes and lipstick—he is, at the same time, shadowed by the existential melancholy from which the lapsed Catholic never fully recovers. He loves disguises, and it can’t be mere coincidence that he gets a perverse kick out of passing as a priest. Religion is his abiding theme, there from the first in Un Chien Andalou, in the two priests yoked to the protagonist and dragged unceremoniously across the floor, the dead weight of so much obsolete belief; there at the end in his last movie That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), where the bombing campaign of a gang of absurdist terrorists calling itself the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus is the backdrop to the movie’s May-December romance (itself fairly explosive!).

Little wonder, then, that what fascinates him most about Surrealism is its radical vision of a moral compass whose needle points to a truer north than God, the bearded, bellowing bully in the sky whose word is law, despite his inability to offer any better justification for his farrago of arbitrary, hypocritical commandments than the unconvincing bluster, Because I Said So. “For the first time in my life, I’d come into contact with a coherent moral system that, as far as I could tell, had no flaws,” Buñuel recalls, in My Last Sigh. “It was an aggressive morality based on the complete rejection of all existing values,” by which he means bourgeois morality and arbitrary social conventions.

We had other criteria: we exalted passion, mystification, black humor, the insult, and the call of the abyss. … Our morality may have been more demanding and dangerous than the prevailing order, but it was also stronger, richer, and more coherent. …

Dismissing the “rage to understand, to fill in the blanks” that “only makes life more banal,” he counsels instead that we “find the courage…to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives.” Then, he delivers an atheist benediction: “Somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom.” The imagination, he contends, is beyond good and evil, freed from the drag coefficient of Christian morality. In dreams, there are no crimes. “The concepts of sin and evil simply didn’t apply” to the unconscious, it occurred to Buñuel, late in life, a revelation that freed him “to let my imagination go wherever it chose, even if it produced bloody images and hopelessly decadent ideas. When I realized that, I suddenly accepted everything. ‘Fine,’ I used to say to myself. ‘So I sleep with my mother. So what?’ Even now, when I say that, notions of sin and incest vanish beneath the great wave of my indifference.’”

Buñuel is a priest, after all — a De Sadean priest whose vestments are a nun’s habit and whose sacrament is the dry martini; whose liturgy is the things we mutter in our sleep, in the throes of dreams; whose metaphysical mysteries are “the impulses that spring from the dark side of the soul”; whose credo is “insolence and playfulness and an obstinate dedication to fight everything repressive in the conventional wisdom ”; whose paradise is André Breton’s dream of the future resolution of dream and reality into an “absolute reality, a surreality.” Saul saw the light, on the Road to Damascus, when the scales fell from his eyes; Buñuel’s straight razor reveals the night side of the psyche, slicing open the mind’s eye as a cloud like a knife cuts the heavens in half.

Daily Meditation: I will find the courage to accept the fundamental mystery of my life, resisting religion’s facile explanations and, whenever I can, poking a stick in its all-seeing moral eye. Instead, I will place my faith in the perfect innocence of the unconscious. Animated by insolence and playfulness, I’ll dedicate myself to fighting everything repressive in the conventional wisdom. Freed from the mind cage of Old Testament morality and bourgeois propriety, my imagination will explore the secret passageways of the psyche, down staircases into the void, in search of the obscure objects of my desire. If I stumble onto the hidden safe where all my Oedipal secrets are locked away, well, that’s what my assortment of little tools is for. So what if I sleep with my mother in dreams? What happens in the moonlight, stays in the moonlight.

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