Exquisite Corpse: Collaborative Surrealist Literary Fun

Salvador Dali painting of melting clocks and a monster

Here’s a writing game we’ve wanted to celebrate for a while now. We first played it as kids and it results in some pretty absurd, surrealist fun. Gee, we wonder why we love it?

Exquisite Corpse

This thing is so cool even Rick and Morty did a skit on it. Yeah?

This is a game for two or more people (human male or human female), although aliens are also allowed to enter the fray.

The general rule is each participant has no idea what another person has written on the previous sentence. And must then complete a new sentence based off an influencing adjective, verb, or noun.

You can use a sheet of paper for this, folding it over when you’ve written a sentence.

For example, we conducted an exquisite corpse for this feature. The first line our apprentice wrote was as follows:

“The office apprentice was annoyed, and close to quitting, due to the tyrannical nature of…”

So, “of” was played down onto the next line. The apprentice folded the paper and handed it to our esteemed editor (Mr. Wapojif). He then wrote:

“of the sandwiches in the local canteen, which must surely be laced with rat poison and there for the grace of God do I…”

With “do I” on the next line, the office apprentice then scrawled out:

“do I wish that I could stab that bastard editor in the face with an anvil (or other sharp implement).”

As you can see, somewhat nonsensical. Rather absurd (also, a tad passive-aggressive from the apprentice).

And if you drag on for more than a few lines you can end up with something truly special.

It’s great fun for kids and folks such as ourselves who are, let’s face it, basically 10 year olds pretending to be adults. Goo goo, gaa gaa.

Whether that’s the short story, poetry, or artistic form of it—exquisite corpse is very much indeed a creative wonder.

And it’ll tear the screaming little lunatics away from their smartphones for a few minutes, eh?

A History of Corpses

Exquisite corpse also goes by the name of exquisite cadaver. The original French term is cadaver exquis.

It’s not a big surprise French surrealists invented the game. Writer, anti-fascist, and poet André Breton (1896-1966) documented its rise—initially, it was a bit of fun between him and his intellectual mates.

It’s also unsurprising the name came from one effort a bunch of surrealists had:

"Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau." - "The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine."

Thusly, a legend was born. But it had been around before. Surrealists advanced it from a parlour game called Consequences, which had heavy emphasis on the paper folding element.

But it quickly became much more than a short story type fare, as exquisite corpse poems are common.

Plus, artistic pieces became popular as a result of the game. This is called “picture consequences”.

Later in the 20th century, the likes of William Burroughs adapted the game further into the cut-up technique. It’s an aleatory literary approach—basically, “actions that happen by chance.”

Although we can’t remember specifically when, we played this game quite a lot as kids. It would have been the early 1990s—either at high school or with friends and family.

We had no idea it was called exquisite corpse back then, it was just “that word game”.

Along with worry dolls and paper fortune tellers, this game conjures up many memories of being dumb kids yonks back.

Photoshop Tennis

You can trace exquisite corpse’s influence in many photoshop battles online.

Since the rise of the internet, it’s become common for an interesting or embarrassing viral picture to be picked up, photoshopped, and the results shared online.

Often, these become a giant compendium of one (typically ridiculous) incident.

An example here is with the singer Beyoncé. A few years back, some unflattering pictures from a live performance emerged.

Her publicist requested the press didn’t run those pictures of Beyoncé.

Which, naturally, ensured photoshop fans descended on the images to create all manner of mockery.

It’s something of an internet tradition now. As if people are compelled to take part, thousands of entries piling up for folks to guffaw at.

That’s the power of surrealism. Exquisite corpse isn’t dead. It’s just exquisite.


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