Nadja constructs for its readers a Surrealist approach toward everyday life. It recalls in its first-person narrative and its forty-four photographs a string of synchronicities and coincidences, life occurring in fortuitous patterns. Breton coasts along on invisible economic means, contemptuous of those who “endure their work” (68). “How can that raise them up if the spirit of revolt is not uppermost within them?” he asks Nadja when the two meet. “No,” he concludes, “it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution” (64). Surrealism is a refusal of work in favor of art and romance. The rest of us, meanwhile, are paying for treatment. Has talking to a therapist helped? Certainly. The more I open up, the more I learn about where and when and how we might exert agency together as Multitude. And we learn this precisely and quite wonderfully through receptivity to chance — or so I catch myself thinking, when what I ought to do is read. When at the end of their conversation Breton asks Nadja, “Who are you?” she replies, “without a moment’s hesitation, ‘I am the soul in limbo'” (71).
I wish I knew more about “Irma,” thinks the patient. Freud should be read alongside those he treated (like the poet H.D.!), just as André Breton’s Nadja ought to be read alongside the life of the woman on which the Nadja character is based. Nadja, the French Surrealist novel par excellence, is based on Breton’s encounter with a mysterious woman: Leona Camille Ghislane Delacourt, a mad patient of the French psychotherapist Pierre Janet. The Surrealists performed events. They embarked on walks and strolls among the cities of France. Art was for Breton and the other Surrealists a way of life. Guided by the Unconscious, they produced an immensity of objects: films, novels, sculptures, poems. They sought revolutionary change of a sort, attempting a brief alignment with Trotskyism in the 1930s. I wonder if I could include Nadja in my course “Rabbit Holes, Time Machines, and Doors in the Wall.” Might it work? The book begins with a question: “Who am I?” The “I” on the page introduces itself through a proverb, claiming to be a ghost of sorts. The “I” that speaks is a Catholic one, a distinctly French subjectivity organized by Catholicism and Descartes, haunted by images of ghosts and eternal torments. As readers, we’re made to wonder. Breton presents language as a site of self-inquiry: Ego in Search of Premise. After a break, the narrator launches into “university discourse”: the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s term for one of four possible formulations of the symbolic network: “Master, University, Hysteric, and Analyst.” The subject of “university discourse,” claims Lacan, is a castrated subject, barred from knowing the world except as it appears in language. Spacey mood, tonight, folks. Chasing after some occulted master signifier. Lacan remains a language. To converse with him, one must learn his terms. Same with Marx, same with Freud. And one never arrives: revelations promised go unrevealed. With Breton and the Surrealists, however, it’s all “sudden parallels, petrified coincidences…harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest” (19). Breton announces early in Nadja his conviction that “psychoanalysis is not qualified to deal with such phenomena” (24).
On these walks each day around my neighborhood, I weigh possibilities for revolution and admire trees and gardens. Yet so much else of the capitalist neighborhood seems distant, alien, preconstituted, practico-inert. Little sense of community other than polite hellos. Nods of the head, the assumption being all of us are “about our business,” do not disturb. This is what it’s like, existentially, to live under the regime of social distancing — while in some more abstract sense, everything around one is the land of Trump. Time to practice drumming and horn-blowing. Noisy, clamorous complaint. Yet the parent in me knows to be quiet so as not to wake the baby during her nap. She’ll wake on her own when she’s ready. Or WE will: into happier times, each day tending toward the better. So too with consciousness. The surrealist revolution attempted a synthesis, an overcoming of dualisms, did a stately pleasure-dome decree: dream-states and pleasure-states reconciled with reality. Or so it seemed as I sat after my walk, mind at play. A student’s paper has me thinking about the politics of “liberation.” By dream or by memory I summon up before me a book from Verso, The Dialectics of Liberation, resting in a stack of books across from me atop Lenore Kandel’s Word Alchemy. What better thing to read? Dialectics of Liberation was a congress held at the Roundhouse in London in 1967. Radical “anti-psychiatrists” like David Cooper and R.D. Laing met with Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse and Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael, among others. Paul Goodman was there, as was Gregory Bateson. A “curious pastiche,” as Cooper says in his introduction. In a kind of “circus poster” at the start of her book Word Alchemy, meanwhile, Kandel announces, “ALL dreams ARE true / THIS is a dream / THIS is TRUE.” Kandel’s poems are funky, wonderful, and witchy.
Travel isn’t quite the remedy I’d hoped it would be, though it rarely is. It rained — and I was still working throughout the day grading papers. Plus the laws, the policies of the state, make it hard to conduct Dadaist and surrealist walks. Urban excursions. Those are the practices that thrill me as a traveler: resolutely following a lack of itinerary. The surrealists called these practices déambulations, their results appearing in works like Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) and André Breton’s Nadja (1928). Strange encounters: a kind of “weird fiction,” though infused more with romance than with horror. An experimental approach to cartography and cosmology, becoming revolutionary (at least in the everyday of a collective reality — tiny, temporary, but at least not boring) with subsequent groups like the Lettrists and the Situationist International. These groups amp up the emphasis on “scientific study” and “rigorous analysis.” There was not among Debord’s circle enough dancing and loving, not enough romance in the group’s theory of the dérive. I prefer the surrealist emphasis on the authorial agency of the unconscious. Prior to all of these figures stands the original urban saunterer, the Parisian flâneur. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” In the 1940s and 1950s, the Beats reinvented this practice for the postwar era, the art of flânerie set on the road, flâneurs now palling around with one another, driving, hitchhiking, freight-hopping: the artist-poet as ecstatic world-tourist and pilgrim.
Birds and squirrels play outdoors, the world outside the window an infinite cosmology, plural worlds within worlds. Sarah sings to me from the next room about the ideas of Margaret Cavendish. World-building. Radical occult ontology. Can these be the way individuals imagine themselves in relation to a cosmos of many beings and worlds? By such means, we could design our own cognitive maps, could we not? Think of these latter as structures similar in scale to Giulio Camillo’s Memory Theatre or Shakespeare’s Globe. Only they’re not grasped as structures. We learn our cognitive maps, we study them as they unfold all around us: the great Happenings of the Multitude. The “cognitive map” is a Utopian object proposed by Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson — a “spur,” we might say, an aesthetic riddle, a challenge issued to artists of the future. The purpose of this object that doesn’t yet exist, Jameson says, is to represent the unrepresentable, so that individual subjects can once again find their way in a global totality that at present “transcends all individual thinking or experience” (“Cognitive Mapping,” p. 353). When I return to André Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism,” I encounter aesthetic interventions of a different sort, ones that place their trust in “the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.” Allow language to air what needs airing, urge the Surrealists. Allow the unconscious to speak, no more cross-outs, just flow. To produce a “Surrealist composition,” one enters a receptive state of mind, allowing sentences to come either spontaneously or through games involving arbitrary constraints. Get weird, bring back the arbitrary, “so compelling is the truth that with every second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard” (Breton 30). Breton’s movement was a response to world war. Reason had led humanity toward destruction and tragedy; perhaps we should live in accord, then, with our imaginations and our dreams. It’s a shocking, scandalous proposal, as Breton the former Dadaist intended. This is, after all, an anti-art. Yet its results are sometimes marvelous and strange. “The words, the images,” as Breton wrote, “are only so many springboards for the mind of the listener” (35) — and each of us, of course, when creating and dialoguing through Surrealist art, gets to play the listener, “reason’s role being,” in this art, “limited to taking note of, and appreciating, the luminous phenomenon” (37).
Instrumentalization of consciousness. That’s the problem, isn’t it? Rule-based ideology imposed upon the many by the few. Where might we apply agency? How might we change the game or rewrite the narrative? Perhaps Surrealism contains the doorway out of this purblind, disaster-bent assemblage. Described by Roger Shattuck as “a sustained artistic adventure extending from 1885 to 1939 and reaching a paroxysm of public demonstration in the Twenties,” Surrealism warded off instrumental reason by juxtaposing amid the latter’s prison reality dream materials, chance as compositional technique, nostalgic reimaginings of childhood, and “acknowledgement of the essential ambiguity of experience” (The History of Surrealism, p. 13). I read with awe Shattuck’s distinction between “two contrasting ways of grasping experience”: one as a realm of continuity and significance, parts held in place by “lines crossing and interweaving’; the other a mere mechanical temporal sequence, where “any effort at insight or sympathy ends in despair” (19). Surely these are the poles between which we vacillate, “blind chance dogging conscious effort at every turn” (20). Between these poles, the Surrealists charted a middle passage into the hidden order of what they called “objective chance.” Shattuck characterizes this latter as “the most reticent of creatures” (21). Yet out it came, with Breton and crew at the peak of their powers juggling “chance and destiny, passive automatism and active revolution, optimistic faith in man’s future and pessimistic doubt over the disasters of civilization, the conviction that ‘life lies right here’ and the conviction that ‘life lies elsewhere,’ the marvelous and the absurd” (22). In juggling these, Shattuck concludes, the Surrealists succeeded where most of their contemporaries failed. They preserved within life a capacity for love and laughter.
American Pop-Freudianism, The Twilight Zone, Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Op art, the psychedelic revolution, the divine paranoia of Philip K. Dick: all of these are approximations at a distance of German Freudo-Marxism and French Surrealism, I convince myself — the concerns, techniques, and affects of the two prior European formations modified through contact with the postwar American culture industry and adapted to suit the conditions of the Cold War. After thinking the matter over, however, I reject this notion of “approximation at a distance,” as it demeans the above phenomena, framing them as if they were mere second-order simulacra. No matter: Famed downtown New York ‘80s DJ Jellybean Benitez gets me dancing, makes me an offer I can’t refuse, with his divine bass-bumping “Wotupski!?!” EP, a copy of which somehow fell into my hands the other day at Goodwill.
It would be a fine record even were it not to include its grand finale, the lavish 8:44 cover of Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican,” a US Dance chart-topper upon the album’s release in 1984. (Note, too, those echoing numbers. A synchronicity, I suppose: a “meaningful coincidence.”) From there, I dig down a bit, I grant myself the supreme pleasure of Bobbi Humphrey’s psychedelic flute-funk freakout, “Fun House.”
And why not? I’ve submitted my grades. I’ve completed the terms of my contract. Out from the realm of necessity, I’ve arrived into the world of summer. The time has come to party. The time has come to get down.