walter benjamin – surrealism: the last snapshot of the european intelligentsia (1929)

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Max Ernst – collage from The Hundred Headless Woman (1929).

… There is always, in such movements, a moment when the original tension of the secret society must either explode in a matter-of-fact, profane struggle for power and domination, or decay as a public demonstration and be transformed. Surrealism is in this phase of transformation at present. But at the time when it broke over its founders as an inspiring dream wave, it seemed the most integral, conclusive, absolute of movements. Everything with which it came into contact was integrated. Life only seemed worth living where the threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away in everyone as by the steps of multitudinous images flooding back and forth, language only seemed itself where, sound and image, image and sound interpenetrated with automatic precision and such felicity that no chink was left for the penny-in-the-slot called ‘meaning’.

Image and language take precedence. Saint-Pol Roux, retiring to bed about daybreak, fixes a notice on his door: ‘Poet at work.’ Breton notes: ‘Quietly. I want to pass where no one yet has passed, quietly! After you, dearest language.’ Language takes precedence. Not only before meaning. Also before the self. In the world’s structure dream loosens individuality like a bad tooth. This loosening of the self by intoxication is, at the same time, precisely the fruitful, living experience that allowed these people to step outside the domain of intoxication.

This is not the place to give an exact definition of Surrealist experience. But anyone who has perceived that the writings of this circle are not literature but something else – demonstrations, watchwords, documents, bluffs, forgeries if you will, but at any rate not literature – will also know, for the same reason, that the writings are concerned literally with experiences, not with theories and still less with phantasms. And these experiences are by no means limited to dreams, hours of hashish eating, or opium smoking. It is a cardinal error to believe that, of ‘Surrealist experiences’, we know only the religious ecstasies or the ecstasies of drugs. The opium of the people, Lenin called religion, and brought the two things closer together than the Surrealists could have liked.

I shall refer later to the bitter, passionate revolt against Catholicism in which Rimbaud, Lautreamont, and Apollinaire brought Surrealism into the world. But the true creative overcoming of religious illumination certainly does not lie in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination, ‘a materialistic, anthropological inspiration, to which hashish, opium, or whatever else can give an introductory lesson. (But a dangerous one; and the religious lesson is stricter.)

This profane illumination did not always find the Surrealists equal to it, or to themselves, and the very writings that proclaim it most powerfully, Aragon’s incomparable Paysan de Paris and Breton’s Nadja, show very disturbing symptoms of deficiency. For example, there is in Nadja an excellent passage on the ‘delightful days spent looting Paris under the sign of Sacco and Vanzetti’; Breton adds the assurance that in those days Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle fulfilled the strategic promise of revolt ‘that had always been implicit in its name. But Madame Sacco also appears, not the wife of Fuller’s victim but avoyante, a fortune-teller who lives at 3 rue des Usines and tells Paul Eluard that he can expect no good from Nadja.

Now I concede that the breakneck career of Surrealism over rooftops, lightning conductors, gutters, verandas, weathercocks, stucco work – all ornaments are grist to the cat burglar’s mill-  may have taken it also into the humid backroom of spiritualism. But I am not pleased to hear it cautiously tapping on the window-panes to inquire about its future. Who would not wish to see these adoptive children of revolution most rigorously severed from all the goings-on in the conventicles of down-at-heel dowagers, retired majors, and emigre profiteers?

In other respects Breton’s book illustrates well a number of the basic characteristics of this ‘profane illumination’. He calls Nadja ‘a book with a banging door’. (In Moscow I lived in a hotel in which almost all the rooms were occupied by Tibetan lamas who had come to Moscow for a congress of Buddhist churches. I was struck by the number of doors in the corridors that were always left ajar. What had at first seemed accidental began to be disturbing. I found out that in these rooms lived members of a sect who had sworn never to occupy closed rooms. The shock I had then must be felt by the reader of Nadja.)

To live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence. It is also an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism, that we badly need. Discretion concerning one’s own existence, once an aristocratic virtue, has become more and more an affair of petty-bourgeois parvenus. Nadja has achieved the true, creative synthesis between the art novel and the roman-a-clef.

Moreover, one need only take love seriously to recognize in it, too – as Nadja also indicates – a ‘profane illumination’. ‘At just that time’ (i.e., when he knew Nadja), the author tells us, ‘I took a great interest in the epoch of Louis VII, because it was the time of the ‘courts of love’, and I tried to picture with great intensity how people saw life then.’ We have from a recent author quite exact information on Provencal love poetry, which comes surprisingly close to the Surrealist conception of love. ‘All the poets of the ‘new style’,’ Erich Auerback points out in his excellent Dante: Poet of the Secular World, ‘possess a mystical beloved, they all have approximately the same very curious experience of love; to them all Amor bestows or withholds gifts that resemble an illumination more than sensual pleasure; all arc subject to a kind of secret bond that determines their inner and perhaps also their outer-lives’. The dialectics of intoxication are indeed curious. Is not perhaps all ecstasy in one world humiliating sobriety in that complementary to it? What is it that courtly Minne seeks, and it, not love, binds Breton to the telepathic girl, if not to make chastity, too, a transport? Into a world that borders not only on tombs of the Sacred Heart or altars to the Virgin, but also on the morning before a battle or after a victory.

Max Ernst - Une semaine de bonté [A Week of Kindness]. La clé des chants 1 [The Key of Songs 1] 1933

Max Ernst – Une semaine de bonté [A Week of Kindness]. La clé des chants 1 [The Key of Songs 1] 1933

The lady, in esoteric love, matters least. So, too, for Breton. He is closer to the things that Nadja is close to than to her. What are these things? Nothing could reveal more about Surrealism than their canon.Where shall I begin? He can boast an extraordinary discovery. He was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded’, in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them. The relation of these things to revolution, no one can have a more exact concept of it than these authors. No one before these visionaries and augurs perceived how destitution – not only social but architectonic, the poverty of interiors/enslaved and enslaving objects – can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism. Leaving aside Aragon’s Passage de I’Opera, Breton and Nadja are the lovers who convert everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys (railways are beginning to age), on Godforsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred window of a new apartment, into revolutionary experience, if not action. They bring the immense forces of ‘atmosphere’ concealed in these things to the point of explosion. What form do you suppose a life would take that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone’s lips?

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serge gainsbourg – le chanson de prévert

Oh how I want you to remember,
this song was yours,
it was your favourite, I think
Written by Prévert and Kosma.

And each time “Fallen Leaves
brings back my memories of you,
day after day
the fallen loves
are never done dying.

I abandon myself to other’s arms, of course
but their song is dull
and I grow ever more indifferent,
there is no helping it.

Because each time “Fallen Leaves
brings back my memories of you,
day after day
the fallen loves
are never done dying.

Is it ever possible to know
the beginning or the end of indifference?
May fall pass, may winter come,
and may Prévert’s song,
this song,
Fallen Leaves“,
vanish from my memories,
and on that day
my fallen loves
will be done dying.

And on that day,
my fallen loves
will be done dying.

gilles deleuze, regarding the dreamer’s dream

Gilles Deleuze
Cinema 2: The Time Image
 Chapter III. From Recollection to Dreams: Third Commentary on Bergson
3b: From the Optical and Sound Image to the Dream-Image
[regarding the dreamer’s dream:]
The virtual image which becomes actual does not do so directly, but becomes actual in a different image, which itself plays the role of virtual image being actualized in a third, and so on to infinity: The dream is not a metaphor but a series of anamorphoses which sketch out a very large circuit. [….] When the sleeper is given over to the actual luminous sensation of a green surface broken by white patches, the dreamer who lives in the sleeper may evoke the image of a meadow dotted with flowers, but this image is only actualized by already becoming the image of a billiard table furnished with balls, which in turn does not become actual without becoming something else. These are not metaphors, but a becoming which can by right continue to infinity.
entr'acte
In René Clair’s Entr’acte, the dancer’s tutu seen from beneath ‘spreads out like a flower’, and the flower ‘opens and closes its corolla, enlarges its petals, and lengthens its stamens’, to turn back into the opening legs of a dancer; the city lights become a ‘pile of lighted cigarettes’ in the hair of a man playing chess, cigarettes which in turn become the columns of a Greek temple, then a silo, whilst the chessboard becomes transparent to give a view of the Place de la Concorde.’
Gilles Deleuze, in Cinema 2, 1989: 54c-55, quoting Jean Mitry.

rené clair & erik satie – relâche/entr’acte

Relâche,  ballet instantanéiste en deux actes: un entr’acte cinématographique, et “la queque de chien” is a 1924 ballet by Francis Picabia with music composed by Erik Satie. The title was thought to be a Dadaist practical joke, as relâche is the French word used on posters to indicate that a show is cancelled, or the theatre is closed (and the first performance was indeed cancelled, due to the illness of Jean Börlin, the principal dancer, choreographer, and artistic director of the Ballets Suédois).

Still from "Entr'acte"

Still from “Entr’acte”

Picabia commissioned filmmaker René Clair to create a cinematic entr’acte to be shown during the ballet’s intermission. The film, simply titled Entr’acte, consists of a scene shown before the ballet and a longer piece between the acts. The score was also composed by Satie.

Entr’acte premiered as an entr’acte for the Ballets Suédois production Relâche at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1924. The Dadaists collaborating on the project invented a new mode of production: instantanéisme. Watching the 20 minute film involves seeing people running in slow motion, things happening in reverse, looking at a ballet dancer from underneath, watching an egg over a fountain of water get shot and instantly become a bird, and watching people disappear. The cast included cameo appearances by Francis Picabia, Erik Satie, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. The conductor of the orchestra at the premiere was Roger Désormière. The edition of the soundtrack featured here was conducted in 1967 by Henri Sauguet.

alejandro jodorowsky’s new film

jodorowsky dansaWatch the trailer:

The Guardian review from Cannes 2013 has this to say:

The extinct volcano of underground cinema has burst into life once again — with a bizarre, chaotic and startling film; there are some longueurs and gimmicks, but The Dance of Reality is an unexpectedly touching and personal work. At the age of 84, and over 20 years since his last movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky has returned to his hometown of Tocopilla in the Chilean desert to create a kind of magic-realist memoir of his father, Jaime Jodorowsky, a fierce Communist whose anger at the world — at his son — was redoubled by the anti-Semitism the family faced.

Of course, the entire story is swathed in surreal mythology, dream logic and instant day-glo legend, resembling Fellini, Tod Browning, Emir Kusturica, and many more. You can’t be sure how to extract conventional autobiography from this. Despite the title, there is more “dance” than “reality” — and that is the point. Or part of the point. For the first time, Jodorowsky is coming close to telling us how personal evasiveness has governed his film-making style; his flights of fancy are flights of pain, flights from childhood and flights from reality. And now he is using his transformative style to come to terms with and change the past and to confer on his father some of the heroism that he never attained in real life.

Read more of this review HERE.