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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walter benjamin on reading, telepathy, magic

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Max Ernst (1924).

Near the end of his 1929 essay on surrealism, Walter Benjamin suggests a connection between investigations into reading and into telepathic phenomena, a theme he returns to again, in the context of reading and more ancient traditions of magic, in his 1933 essay “Doctrine of the Similar.”  This connection he suggests between reading practices and the occult is a profound one, both historically and for Benjamin’s own time and work, and not just in terms of telepathy. Some of the earliest practices of reading were not of letters, words, or books, but of stars, entrails, and birds, and these practices had a significant impact on the way reading was understood in the ancient world. And the relations between such ancient magic and reading were still (or again) of crucial importance to the modernists of the early twentieth century, including Benjamin and his sustained interest in what he called ‘das magische Lesen.’

What I will present here is part of a larger project devoted to tracing out the more salient connections in both the ancient and modern worlds between the practices of reading and of magic, and particularly those of magic most closely aligned with practices of divination. I choose to concentrate on those aspects of magic most associated with divination because these seem historically most associated with the reading of both literature and the world, and because I believe that tracing out the often ignored genealogy of this future or fortune-telling aspect of reading reveals one of the most fascinating chapters in the modern reception of antiquity.

Read the whole paper: Eric Downing – Divining Benjamin – Reading Fate, Graphology, Gambling