Will Self: A Critical Dictionary

Dr Jeannette Baxter, a senior lecturer in English at Anglia Ruskin University, was one of the contributors to Will Self and the Art of the Contemporary in March, the first conference on the work of Will Self. Here she introduces her Critical Dictionary:

Critical Dictionary: Or My Idea of Fun by Jeannette Baxter

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meanings of words but their tasks.” – Georges Bataille


Surreal” has become something of a standard term for reviewers when describing the writings of Will Self. To give just a few examples: while Great Apes offers up a “surreal satire on the human condition” and The Quantity Theory of Insanity engages the reader in a range of “darkly surreal” scenarios, Grey Area, Walking to Hollywood and Psychogeography map out variously “surreal” intersections of physical and psychological landscapes. Self’s most recent, Booker-shortlisted novel, Umbrella, has also been characterised as being simultaneously “funny, sad, [and] surreal”. What’s not at all clear from these reviews, however, is what we are meant to understand by the term surreal. All too frequently it seems to me, it is used somewhat arbitrarily in discussions of literature, film and popular culture to mean something that is a bit odd, weird or shocking. In other words, surreal has become something of an empty descriptor, and this, I fear, is how it predominately functions in reviews of Will Self’s writings.

Critical Dictionary: Or My Idea of Fun is a creative-critical response to this. Based (very) loosely on the critical dictionary published by the dissident surrealist Georges Bataille, my Critical Dictionary attempts to open up productive ways of thinking about the relationship between Self’s writings and surrealism. However, it seeks to do this by not only refusing to establish or explain any explicit connections between the two, but also by resisting any move to define what surrealism might mean within the contexts of Self’s writings. This is partly because surrealism has always been – and continues to be – caught up within an anxiety of definition. And it’s also partly because the question we should be asking is not what surrealism is, but what are its functions and its effects? Indeed, it’s precisely this line of questioning that fuels the original surrealist critical dictionary, which I’ll now say a few words about.

The Critical Dictionary (Dictionnaire critique) was published in 1929 and 1930, and it featured as a section within the dissident surrealist magazine Documents, which was edited by Georges Bataille and Carl Eisenstein. Across its two-year publication, the Critical Dictionary published, in no particular order, 38 dictionary entries, which range across subject matter as various as dust, architecture, slaughterhouse, materialism, Buster Keaton, camel and hygiene. Some of the entries are made up exclusively of quotations: some of these quotations are attributed, and some of them aren’t, which means that they are left to float freely across the text. Other entries take the form of short, pseudo-essays, which are often fragmented in form and associative in terms of their content. Crucially, what unites these entries is their impulse to parody the traditional, homogenising dictionary format, which strives to organise knowledge and reality into neat and definable terms. Bataille put it well when he said: “A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meanings of words but their tasks.” What’s at stake in this deliberate move away from definitions, then, is a desire to liberate the irruptive forces of language beyond meaning and towards experience.

But it’s not only the irruptive forces of language that the Critical Dictionary concerns itself with. A further irruptive dimension is visual. Most – but not all – dictionary entries are presented in relation to an image of some kind. But, in each instance, no move is made at all to address, let alone explain, the relationship between image and text. Like the textual entries, then, the visual entries are never explained away: instead they exist in tension with the textual passages they ostensibly accompany, while also somehow reaching out to, and forging a strange logic between, the other dictionary entries.

Composed in the spirit of surrealist play, Critical Dictionary: Or My Idea of Fun presents six entries: Death, Metamorphosis, Un/Fold, Insanity, Photography and Scale. And, like the original surrealist text, my Critical Dictionary is incomplete and in process.

To see the Critical Dictionary, go here.