Downtime

Is This Surreal Life?

Why I put off work—and reality—in the world of surreal memes.

Animation of motifs from the Reddit surreal meme group, including Meme Man.
Lisa Larson-Walker

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

I used to put off writing with a millennial’s standard procrastinatory activities—watching algorithmically curated YouTube videos, finishing that New Yorker feature, replying with an essay-length text. But with those forms of procrastination came a foreboding sense of finality. I’d reach their natural endpoint and the OhfuckIgottagetbacktoworkRIGHTNOW feeling would rise from my gut with the fury and menace of a mushroom cloud.

Not so with procrastinating by browsing the world of surreal memes. Aided by the infinite-scroll and -swipe capabilities of Reddit, Twitter, and Imgur, the internet’s bottomless wells of memey entertainment, surreal memes keep my writing indefinitely at bay. Unlike “mainstream” memes that feed off the media (and vice versa), surreal memes are atemporal, a black hole in which sexist celebrities, heartbreaking news stories, and depressingly relatable real-life scenarios don’t exist. The Surreal Memes subreddit has gone as far as banning political posts and memes with images of public figures. What surreal memes offer me, as someone who spends all day online, is a much-needed respite from internet ephemera tumbling around the news cycle. And the news cycle is never not bad.

Surreal memes often share the text-over-image format of the memes populating BuzzFeed listicles. Their subject matter, though, is entirely different. They can be about anything, really, but they’re always void of context and characterized by alarmingly nonsensical imagery, like a boy masquerading as a squid in space. They’re artistically discordant, like 2D static mixed with 3D renderings of random vectors and objects. They obliquely point to some commonality or absurdity of modern life, like failures of communication or the depersonalizing daily work grind. They make you question reality. They might feature the recurring character Meme Man, whose glossy Voldemortian head is balder than bald, or Mr. Orange, a digital illustration of an orange with reptilian limbs and a thousand-yard stare.

Surreal memes “may be difficult to understand for mere mortals,” the subreddit’s sidebar reads. “T R A N S C E N D,” it urges. Surreal memes whisper to me, ASMR-style, “Escape reality in our unreality.”

Just like bizarrely entertaining video-game glitches and out-of-context infomercial snippets, surreal memes’ comedy lies in their absurdity. It’s funny when someone slips on a banana peel; it’s funnier when that banana is sticking out of a “froont converter.” Surreal memes pervert the rules that govern the world’s rationality, defying the laws of time and space-time, expectations and transformations, the animal kingdom and the workings of Reddit itself. They’re the graphical equivalent of the table-flipping emoticon, with the world as the table. I look at a surreal meme and bemusedly think to myself, “What… the… fuck… ?”

My favorite products of creativity have always been ones that make my emotions compete with one another. Do I laugh or cry? Feel empathy or fear? Cringe or close my laptop and say, “Man, I need to get outside”? I love psychological thrillers in which people aren’t who they seem, time isn’t linear, and odd events unfold in familiar places; black comedies in which death is very much a laughing matter. Darkly parodic social media accounts like Nihilist Arby’s; digital art like Cool 3D World, whose mélange of distorted landscapes, grotesquely deformed characters, and ethereal background music pierced by slasher-flick sound effects forms a digital nightmare.

I find Surrealist art, which “sought to release the unbridled imagination of the subconscious,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so compelling for the same reason. In college, I took a course on early 20th-century paintings. Two afternoons a week, I’d sit in a dark lecture hall and gape at larger-than-life projections of dreamlike works ripe for Freudian analysis, the professor gesticulating wildly as he talked, in his thick German accent, about the unconscious, sex, reality, and the “exquisite corpse”—about Surrealism. Beneath the pixels of surreal memes and the pigment of Surrealist paintings lies the same disorienting undercurrent. Surreal memes feel to me like the crowdsourced, 21st-century analog of Salvador Dalí’s lobster telephone or spindly legged elephants. Like René Magritte’s iconic painting of a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), surreal memes argue, “This isn’t what you think it is.”

Even in the context of the inscrutably weird Reddit community at large, commenters in the Surreal Memes subreddit comprise an alien tribe from an alternate universe. They use the Cyrillic alphabet, little-known Unicode symbols, and Zalgo text that brings to mind Cthulhu. Some comments vibrate, as if trying to explode from my computer screen, or begin with normal text and end with incoherent strings of superscript letters, as if the user’s brain were being sucked up from their head mid-comment. “S U C C” is bad. “B O I” is good. Pillars can’t be trusted.

Or maybe I just love surreal memes because I’m an inquisitive person and they spark so many questions. The people creating these visual non-sequiturs, as elaborate and multilayered as a wedding cake—who are they? What do they do in real life, as a paid job, to be able to devote so much time to photoshopping stock photos and space-nebula images? What do they get out of making incomprehensible memes? How do they make these connections in their brains?

And: Is everyone high? Or is it just me?