Invisible Sun & The History of Surrealism Pt. 1: Precursors to the Surrealists


(The Black Square. K Malevich. Source)




To begin, I feel I might as well explain 1) what this series is and 2) what this series is not. Just recently a new tabletop roleplaying game called Invisible Sun was released by Monte Cook Games. Composed of four books, many packs of cards, character booklets, and a six-fingered hand figurine, all packaged in a handsome Black Cube, it is one of (if not definitively) the most unique and beautiful tabletop games to be made. Invisible Sun describes itself as a Surreal roleplaying game. And by this, it doesn’t simply mean it’s strange, or bizarre, in the way that the more fantastical elements of, say, D&D (or even other MCG products like Numenera or The Strange) are. Invisible Sun draws upon Surrealism, not only in its imagery – full of swirling clocks, eyes, and distorted figures – but in its writing and mechanics. It emphasizes wordplay and coincidence, it encourages the establishment of a world where things not making sense is the norm, while still maintaining the feeling of a comprehensive, legible world.

My introduction to Invisible Sun occurred in the middle of my research for my undergraduate thesis, which meant that I was confronting an entire surrealist game while reading works from and about figures like Antonin Artaud, Jacques Derrida, and George Batailles. I soon found that my associations were jumping between these subjects like lightning, and I saw an opportunity to connect the realm of theory with something that was not only tangible – but communal. For all the obscurity and difficulty associated with grasping Surrealism and it’s surrounding movements (Futurism, Dada, Poststructuralism, The Situationist International) they are intended to exist in relation, they emphasize the relationships that exist, not only among ideas, but between individuals, groups, and communities. It is hardly a coincidence that many of these movements sought to explore these relations in literature, in art, and especially in games. Which brings me to this project: in this series I hope to lay bare some of the odder, overlooked, or downright bizarre parts of Surrealism, its precursors, and its predecessors so that they may serve as further inspiration for the collaborative experience of Invisible Sun.

Before we start, I feel it is necessary to lay bare a few disclaimers:

  1. My introduction to Invisible Sun was as an intern for Monte Cook Games. So, naturally, I might have some biases. However, while I am a fan of this game, it is not my goal here to suggest I have some sort of “insider’s guide” or special insight into how the game works. This is entirely a personal project with no affiliation to Monte Cook Games. This is just intended to be a bit of inspiration wrapped up in a history lesson.
  2. That being said, it is not my intention to portray Invisible Sun as an “Intellectual’s Game” or as something so fancy and exclusive as to be inaccessible. Invisible Sun may be unique but at its heart, it’s about playing with other people, creating stories, and having fun. I’m writing about things like heterology, deconstruction, and limit-experience simply because they are things that are interesting to me. If they aren’t interesting to you, hey, that’s totally fine, and it by no means implies that Invisible Sun demands an interest in such things to be a great experience.

Those disclaimers aside, and if you’re still reading, I think it’s about time to start our journey. But before we can get into Surrealism proper, we should start with some earlier artistic movements that laid the groundwork for Surrealism to flourish and a couple other Miscellaneous figures whose influence will show up time and time again in the thinkers and creators to come.



“Ha Ha” – The Dogfaced Baboon Bosse-de-Nage

“Doctor Faustroll was sixty-three years old when he was born in Circassia in 1989…”– Exploits and opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician



(Jarry. From Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most obscure figure (and movement) we will be discussing here (and, appropriately, the first chronologically), Alfred Jarry is actually a precursor to even futurism: his major works were produced in the 1890s. His 1895 play Ubu Roi (or “King Ubu”) caused a riot and was banned for its absurd obscenity and depiction of a grotesque, infantile king – the titular Ubu. Satirizing the classic, tragic kings of Shakespeare and Sophocles, Ubu Roi depicts kingship and “Modern Man” as a childish, brutal, disgusting farce. King Ubu would continue on to be appropriated as a kind of symbol for the Dadaists and Surrealists who were yet to come.


(Jarry’s Woodcut. From Wikipedia)

Another major contribution by Jarry, and one that is much more applicable to Invisible Sun, is the idea of ‘Pataphysics (the apostrophe is intentional) – a bizarre field of study introduced in the novel(?) Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician. To describe (much less explain) ‘Pataphysics is… difficult. Certainly, there are a number of useful quotes from the source material that gives a sense of what it might be:

“DEFINITION: Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality to their lineaments.” – Faustroll, 22

“An epiphenomenon is that which is superinduced upon a phenomenon. Pataphysics […] is the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics, whether within or beyond the latter’s limitations, extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics. Ex: an epiphenomeneon being often accidental, pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general. Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one.” – Ibid. 21

While such statements offer a glimpse into Pataphysical thought, it isn’t the whole: what makes ‘Pataphysics so hard to understand is that ‘Pataphysics can only be understood through the lens of ‘Pataphysics itself. It is understood on its own terms. In one sense, ‘Pataphysics is the pursuit of fantasy (often in its most “childish,” “crude,” but still imaginative sense) with a scientific seriousness: “in the pataphysical universe, there should, in theory, be no possibility of an anomaly, since everything is equally exceptional. The pataphysical anomaly, therefore, exists within the rules that it apparently contradicts.” (Hugill, ‘Pataphysics: A Useless Guide, 13). This serious-silliness, a kind of unironic satire, constitutes an important stepping-stone on the path to surrealism: ‘Pataphysics presents itself less as a movement, organization, or aesthetic than as a way of thinking. While ‘Pataphysics remains – by its own nature – an obscure topic, it has remained alive and well and has even seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. Important academics and writers like Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard have contributed to ‘Pataphysics and the College du ‘Pataphysique (the largest organization dedicated to ‘Pataphysical study). The Oulipo (Ouvroir de litterature potentielle, Trans: Workshop of Potential Literature) was originally created by the College and includes writers like Italo Calvino and Georges Perec (The Oulipo may show up again later in this series). Even the Beatles have been influenced by ‘Pataphysics, which shows up in their song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”: Joan was quizzical, studied pataphysical/Science in the home/Late nights all alone with a test tube…

Despite all these definitions and examples, it would still be an impossible task to truly define ‘Pataphysics. However, its influence is notable, and if one looks into ‘Pataphysics enough, it becomes easier and easier to identify ‘Pataphysical thought without needing to explain it. I would highly recommend reading ‘Pataphysics: A Useless Guide to anyone who would like to know more about the history and influence of ‘Pataphysics and the life of Alfred Jarry.

Jarry’s own Dr. Faustroll can also serve as a fascinating reference for inspiration in Invisible Sun: the majority of the book is composed of chapters detailing bizarre islands encountered by the narrator as he travels with the Doctor and their baboon cabin-boy Bosse-de-Nag (who only says “Ha-ha” throughout the story). Almost every location has a character, event, or quality that would fit seamlessly in Invisible Sun: castles on islands of water, reached by taking a boat over a sea of land; a crablike monster called Snout that forms from a mist that emerges from the mouths of a congregation; tandem bicycles for quadrupedal creatures. However, it should be noted that Faustroll does not have much of a plot, and Jarry intentionally includes minute scientific details (the merging of the fantastic with scientific description is a staple of ‘Pataphysics. It is the Science after all) at the expense of clarity. Consider this passage from the chapter “Faustroll Smaller Than Faustroll” where Faustroll shrinks to the size of a mite and encounters a drop of water:

He gave the orb a light tap, as if knocking on a door: the deracinated eye of malleable glass ‘adapted itself’ like a living eye, became presbyopic, lengthened itself along its horizontal diameter into an ovoid myopia, repulsed Faustroll by means of this elastic inertia and became spherical once more.

This is a particularly egregious example, but it highlights some of the difficulties with reading the book.

While Faustroll features plenty of fodder for scenes and characters, the principles of ‘Pataphysics generally provides an interesting possibility for Invisible Sun: the sciences of the Actuality. Generally, there isn’t much information on how Science would work in the Actuality, partially because almost everything is so unique. But ‘Pataphysics, being the science of imaginary solutions, and exceptions could really be The Science of the Actuality. The College of ‘Pataphysics in real life (shadow) does have an outrageous, bureaucratic structure with their own publications, saints, and calendar (which includes imaginary days) that seems a perfect fit for Invisible Sun. The idea of people studying particulars (as opposed to generalities like science normally does) could be fascinating. Imagine a Professor in the Actuality who studies a single plant. Not a species of plant, but one particular plant. Or someone who studies a single word. Again, not a word as it is generally used. This person doesn’t just study the word green – for example. They study the word green as it appears in one sentence, on one page, of a particular copy of a book. And in the Actuality these studies would not only be legitimate but would be invaluable. Such researchers could also seek out exceptions to the patterns that seem to determine the Actuality. They could find shortcuts along the Paths of Suns, summon angels and demons that aren’t like others, find creatures and objects that stand out. The ability to produce exceptions in-Universe could be an invaluable tool to a GM.



‘Pataphysics: A Useless Guide – Andrew Hugill

Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician – Alfred Jarry




“`Come, my friends!’ I said. `Let us go! At last Mythology and the mystic cult of the ideal have been left behind. We are going to be present at the birth of the centaur and we shall soon see the first angels fly! We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks! Let us go! Here is the very first sunrise on earth! Nothing equals the splendor of its red sword which strikes for the first time in our millennial darkness.'” – Manifesto Futurista, Filippo Marinetti

“He who does not forget his first love will not recognize his last.”  A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,


(“Train at Lugo Station, Roberto Marcello “Iris” Baldessari, Source)

Italian Futurism

In the perception of the modern world, Italy had always been the realm of the classic: a nation steeped in the history of ancient Republics, Empires, and the Renaissance’s replication of those previous forms. At the turn of the 20th century, Italy was a symbol of antiquity stuck in a time of industrial innovation that seemed to be leaving it behind. Aesthetic changes and experiments through cubism, expressionism, and other avant-garde movements seemed to signal the end of the very traditions that defined what it was to be Italian. In 1907 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto in the French newspaper Le Figero. According to Marinetti, Futurism demanded the destruction of the past through a wholehearted devotion to speed, industry, and motion. Unfortunately, this vision of modern innovation-through-destruction also fetishized mechanical warfare, despised feminism, and would eventually tie itself (after World War One) to Mussolini’s Fascism. While the Italian Futurist movement would forever be shrouded in suspicion and controversy for its connection to Fascism, it still helped ignite a new aesthetic revolution that would resonate throughout many movements to come (more than one of which stood in direct opposition to the Fascist wave that would engulf Europe in the 40s). While Italian Futurism’s unsavory past makes it a dangerous topic to romanticize, it does invoke several themes and aesthetics that might be used as more subtle inspiration in Invisible Sun particularly for the Red Sun’s focus on destruction. For a more serious game, it could also be possible to reflect the dark side of Italian Futurism in the form of antagonists: those that pursue destruction and speed at the expense of everything else.


(Materia, by Boccioni. From WikiArt)



Italian Futurism- An Introduction


Before we move on from Futurism entirely, we should also take a look at another “branch” of Futurism that, while inspired from the Italian movement, had some very significant differences.


Russian Futurism

“all’s well that begins well
And has no end
the world will perish but there’s no end to us!” – Victory over the Sun


(Shemshurin, Burliuk, and Mayakovsky. Source)

Russian Futurism emerged in its most cohesive form roughly after 1912. Like Italian Futurism, the Russian movements glorified speed and motion, and attempted to tear down the pedestals that held up the “great artists” of the past. However, unlike Italian Futurism, the Russian movement was much more interested in literary and poetic experimentation, irony, humor, and play. While they considered themselves anti-establishment, the Russian Futurists didn’t really have a unified political platform. While they decried the glorification of the past, the Russian Futurists were also much more willing to utilize traditional figures, symbols, and allusions in their work and participated in a revival of Russian Folk-Art as an alternative to the traditional, classical art that was usually upheld as the pinnacle of aesthetic expression. To the Russian Futurists, it was not so much that classic works were in-and-of-themselves terrible and to be destroyed, they wanted to tear down the assumptions and establishments that made these works the be-all and end-all. In the Russian Futurist’s eyes the fact that everybody can say that writers like Shakespeare and Pushkin are great, and maybe quote a bit without reading them, showed precisely how the establishment had destroyed what made these artists worthwhile in the first place.[1] Among the most important Russian Futurist works is Victory over the Sun – a “futurist-cubist opera” where humanity wages war on the sun. The theme of the opera is “the necessity to go beyond the visible, everyday order of things to the higher world of the super-rational. This will not be the Italian Futurist world dominated by the machine, but rather, the new world of supermen, rejecting the past and its tradition of logic. Malevich called some of his paintings ”alogical.” Because the sun, in Western tradition, is a symbol of rationality, it must be captured and destroyed.” (Source) There’s an interesting play here: on the one hand, the desire to escape the unreal to the superreal, much like Vislae escaping Shadow; on the other hand, the Sun itself is presented as a symbol of oppression. These two threads reveal a tension that may exist in the Actuality. There are already organizations that suppose there might be another truer world beyond the Actuality (a world to the Actuality what the Actuality is to Shadow), but what role do the Suns play in such a world? Are there elements to the Suns themselves that are a problem? Elements of the Dark that are not evil or destructive? Interesting questions…


(An Englishman in Moscow, by Kazimir Malevich. Source)



Russian Futurism – The Art Story

Victory over the Sun – Aleksei Kruchenykh

Costume Design for Victory over the Sun 




“Dada is a virgin microbe that with the fickleness of air enters all the spaces reason has not been able to overload with words or conventions.” – Tzara 

The occurance of the Great War (Or, as we know it, World War One) in 1914 dealt something of a death blow to Futurism proper. Italian Futurism’s obsession with violence naturally didn’t sound as appealing after a mechanized meat grinder called trench warfare decimated the European countryside. Russian Futurism ended up transforming into a number of other movements – partially due to the Russian Revolution. (In 1915 Kazimir Malevich had an exhibition called the Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 that signaled a move towards non-objective, abstract paintings primarily of shapes. Malevich called this turn “Suprematism” and it essentially signaled the end of the Russian Futurist period).  During the War a new artistic world began to emerge from Zurich that carried on the frantic energy and destructive drive of Futurism, but applied these forces in different directions with different methodologies and ideologies: this movement was Dada. Dada had much more in common with Russian Futurism than its Italian counterpart, emphasizing the humor, absurdism, and wordplay of the former and rejecting the militarism of the latter. To Dada, the devastation of the War was precisely the symptom of traditional western values: an obsession with progress, machinery, rationality, nationality, and general bourgeois culture had led to a world where nations fed thousands of lives to what seemed to be a trivial war. (In a way, Dada was claiming that many of the same values espoused by the Italian Futurists were completely in-line with Western History and not revolutionary at all!) So to Dada, rationality had proven itself to be a destructive, evil myth, a myth that had to be dispelled through nothing more than the total destruction of Western Civilization and all of its assumptions. The weapons of Dada included nonsense, randomness, and an inclination for public disruption. Dada was often called (or associated with) “Anti-Art,” and sometimes Dadaists would claim that “Dada is anti-Dada.” Techniques developed and utilized by Dada included cutups; found-art (taking an everyday object and proclaiming it to be, itself, artistic. “The Urinal” is probably the most famous example); plays and performances that glorified the taboo, “primal,” and incomprehensible; and public “hoaxes” that would gather audiences for – ultimately – no real spectacle at all. Dada is definitively identified as the doorway to Surrealism, with many of the Dadaists becoming known as Surrealists. In a way, Dada died because it became Surrealism.

While Dada’s applications in Invisible Sun are more limited (or will be better developed in the Surrealist Movement Proper) there are still some useful ideas to keep in mind. Firstly, Dada can provide an excellent template for a particular kind of Apostate. The War in the Actuality, much like the Great War, has left large swaths of Satyrine devastated. While most don’t remember details about the War’s causes, the effects are still felt, and organizations from before the War are still going strong. Some might be chagrined that the Orders continue to go about as though little had changed – studying spells, making objects of power, summoning beings etc. – instead of considering the devastating effects their magic could have caused, or trying to help those who have suffered. The Dada practice of “Found Art” also appears in the Actuality’s emerging fascination with Shadow Objects. In the Actuality, someone showing off a urinal from Shadow could definitely be received as an artistic statement – something strange and unique. Looking at objects in our mundane lives with this lens – searching for their innate strangeness when separated from our assumptions about them – can help us understand the logic of the Actuality a little more.  Finally, cutups and collage form a very important part of Dada that paves the way towards Surrealism. Two very important Dada artists who would join surrealism include Tristan Tzara and Max Ernst who used these techniques in writing and visual art respectively. Breaking things down, and then rearranging them into something different is a vital tool for creating surreality. Max Ernst’s work is particularly important because of the way he focused on making the objects in his collages feel like they were part of the same world. He intentionally brought together various elements with just enough similarity to come together, but still enough difference to produce a fantastic, otherworldly image. One might consider using the Sooth Deck in such a manner. The game often encourages turning over one card at a time to add magical effects and search for coincidences, but one could also turn over several cards at once and attempt to mesh the elements of the cards (either their concepts or their visuals) to produce a new element in the game.


Tristan Tzara (Source)

Another contribution of Dada that is worth keeping in mind, is that it’s the first attempt at a truly international avant-garde movement. Not only did the Dadaists achieve membership across Europe and in the Americas, but they were one of the first Western modern-art movements to look to non-Western traditions for inspiration. Tzara in particular was inspired by African art and translated African poems for Dada journals. As we shall see later, Surrealism goes even further with this multiculturalism and really breaks away from being just a “European” or “Western” art. But Dada’s breaking away from Western traditions in art should also serve as a reminder that the Actuality doesn’t have to be reflective of just Europe. If Shadow is only an imitation of the Actuality, then all the cultures in Shadow have some kind of source or presence that is even more vibrant and alive in Indigo.

(Poem by Tristan Tzara, translated by Forrest Pelsue. Source)

To make a Dadaist poem

Take a newspaper. 

Take a pair of scissors.

Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Then cut out each of the words that make up the article and put them in a bag.

Shake it gently. 

Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.

Copy conscientiously.

The poem will be like  you.

And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar. 

Tristan Tzara





(Et les papillons se mettent a chanter, Max Ernst. Source)


(Ubu Imperator, Max Ernst. Source)



A Brief History of Dada

Birding with Max Ernst 


[1] I’ll admit that some people may not agree with this interpretation. This reflects my own views that were taught to me by Professor Nikolai Firtich of the Vassar and Yale Russian departments.

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