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Reflections on Walter Benjamin 9.

Benjamin and Surrealism.

[No. 9 in a Series.]

By ALAN WALL.

portrait_logoBENJAMIN ENLISTED SURREALISM as part of his programmatic method in describing Paris as the capital of the nineteenth century. So what was it about Surrealism that made it so central to his mode of analysis and display? Surrealism presents us with a world of fragmentation and radical juxtaposition, in which the conscious and the unconscious spear into one another, like potsherds at a burial site. Manikins now police the Vitruvian orders of the city, making anarchic demands, and announcing that there is to be a dance at midnight that will never end. Sometimes they have no faces; but they frequently carry weapons. Inside their chests devices are ticking.

The frame of a Surrealist painting is no longer an aedicule through which we see, perspectivally, a segment of measurable reality – a mimetic vignette. It is instead the encompassing of a vortex in which the conscious and the unconscious whirl around one another like twin planets. What Benjamin sometimes called the ‘aesthetics of shock’ maps the chaotic rearrangements of desire, the sinister intrusions of technology, the magisterial disruptions of dream, and the infinite melancholy of cities. Here, it seems, we might observe the last traces of anabasis. The colonial tribes of culture are departing in their final migration. So what might be seen as salvific in this schema? Why does Walter Benjamin adopt it as a touchstone for his analysis of Paris, the city he has placed at the centre of a century?

germania-grossehallFirst and foremost is the liberation from linearity, that historicist deception which infuriated Benjamin. Historicism imagines that the past can be re-entered, as though the intervening historic changes had never taken place. Ranke had said the task of the historian was to give an account of the past wie es eigentlich gewesen – as it really was. Behind the historicist facades of the Ringstrasse in Vienna, businessmen decided whether or not to support their own Austrian Hitler, a vulgar little man in so many ways, but undoubtedly a bulwark against the Bolshevism that threatened, not merely from the lands of the east but out in the streets of that city right now. The Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders proclaimed that the coming new order would, in effect, be the restoration of an ancient one. In a few years Albert Speer, with Hitler peering over his shoulder, would conceive Germania, the new capital of a resplendent Reich, which would have a hall of the people twice the size of the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. And all in the style which Speer propounded: a classicism so cleansed and antiseptic that it appeared designed to be inhabited solely by uniforms, or perhaps by those manikins envisaged by De Chirico.

Anathema was declared upon any fetishized succession of numbered moments. If ornament, according to Adolf Loos, was crime, then the enshrinement of chronology was deception.

Like Benjamin, the Surrealists said no to all this. The aim was to give desire its passport through the streets of the city. Imagination must now lose its inhibitions and then go on to lose itself (with the aid of maps) in the small hotels and brothels of the urban nightmare, those liminal sites of miscegenation between classes. Degradation appears inseparable from discovery. And, perhaps most importantly, time in Surrealism had abandoned any rigid demarcations between then and now, waking and sleeping, yesterday and tomorrow. Anathema was declared upon any fetishized succession of numbered moments. If ornament, according to Adolf Loos, was crime, then the enshrinement of chronology was deception. It tried to occlude the simultaneity in which all times lived, if they survived at all. In place of mechanical time, we now have Bergson’s durée, time that shapes itself into a meaning that transcends chronology, independent of the calendric, more kairos than chronos. We also have Bergson’s intensive manifold, the vital living complex, rather than the extensive manifold, the mechanical assembly of the repair shed. Even today’s machinery might be abandoning its identity as extensive manifold, in order to join us living beings in the intensive manifold, coaxed into organic life by that nostalgia Benjamin found in all recently outdated technology. All that is discarded by history thereby becomes the imagination’s ally, as the chiffonier in Baudelaire’s verse appeared allied to the poet: they were both after all gatherers of the refuse from official culture.

By smashing any remaining illusion of the continuum of history (another pernicious doctrine, according to Benjamin) Surrealism freed the mind into a simultaneity of revelations. All that ever was is here now, or it has already vanished for ever into the black hole of oblivion. That is the law of the jungle, the truth of dialectics, the inexorable procedure of capitalist development, and it is also the law of art: we either make it new, or we might as well forget it. In fact, we are already forgetting it. We retain what we retain of history in a flash of present perception, a luminous manifold, or it has disappeared into the strata of the unconscionable, which is to say, the pious stacks of archived amnesia. In employing this technique of remembrance and juxtaposition, Surrealism represents not an escape from realism, but rather its vivid enhancement. We should recall that the word started life in Apollinaire’s “Surnaturalism”. It was to include more of available reality, not less.

BENJAMIN PUBLISHED HIS essay on Surrealism in 1929, having written it the year before, so although he had read the first Surrealist Manifesto, he had not seen the second. He knew enough to see that he was witnessing a reconstellation of what had previously appeared fixed stars. A new vault of the visible was being configured. He admired the apprehension of modern times which had configured it, out of a violent collision of desire and disillusion. The disillusion was with the remnants of the Enlightenment. The top-to-bottom order adumbrated by that form of thought had been turned upside down by the Great War: this was what your adoration of reason led to, my lords and ladies – wholesale slaughter, with mechanical assistance. Reason appeared to have become all-too-enamoured of Thanatos. Freud had come to a similar conclusion at around the same time, when he wrote Beyond the Pleasure Principle immediately after the Great War.

Surrealism’s precursor, Dada, had sought to sever language from its world of summonable meanings, and thereby sever the indicative from the expressive. The world of referentiality had recently proven itself a world of death by map and compass. Intoxication helped tear objects from their embededness in expectation and predictability, in order to cleanse the doors of perception; to start anew.

hball_cv16In 1916 in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, war deserters, unemployed artists and dissident students had assembled to jeer at a world which had brought about the Great War. Hugo Ball, a reciter of ritualistic nonsense verse, put the matter succinctly: ‘In these phonetic poems we totally renounce the language that journalism has abused…we must return to the innermost alchemy of the word.’ The attempt to free art from its tawdry implication in a world of murderous mendacity was an early attempt at de-commodification. Art was to have no patron but the sceptical intelligence; otherwise let there be no art at all. Instead anti-art would suffice. When Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal signed R. Mutt to the New York Society of Independent Artists exhibition in April 1917, entitling it Fountain, he was saying that the craft tradition of art had finally come to an end, and not a moment too soon either. His own interest in art he declared to be ‘anti-retinal’. It was the idea of the work that was all-important, not the mode of its assembly, or even the personnel involved in its construction.

Surrealism too engaged in an archaeology of the present, lifting the lid on social appearances, to discover the lineaments of the marvellous beneath. On this reading, the marvellous is a realm of perception which constellates primary objects without any mediation from cultural composure and analysis. The vividness of objects, their unmediated luminosity, crosses the borders of consciousness without a passport. The categoric taxonomies of the encyclopedia have now been demolished.

Surrealism did not follow Duchamp in becoming ‘anti-retinal’, in fact it was frequently and self-consciously crafted. But it most certainly intended itself as a critique of modernity. It was also a celebration of modernity’s speediness and the wonder implicit in certain of its technological revolutions. Photography and film were to be its allies. Insofar as modernity could let you fly, or travel underwater, or see dreams projected on a screen, or stop time for ever with a camera shutter, then Surrealism was happy to celebrate it.

Breton came to wish for two accommodations: one with Communism, and one with Freud. He was unsuccessful on both counts. He had believed, at his most optimistic, that the unconscious, that new dimension of perception and discovery delineated (if a little too analytically) by Freud, could be released into the civic and artistic realm, and that the only new politics capacious enough to manage such a release would be the new socialist state, freed from any crippling bourgeois shackles. All the talk of automatism, dream imagery and so on, was a means of attempting to bypass the controlling ego of rationalist consciousness. It sought to release powers of imagination which rational controls were repressing, and thereby encounter the marvellous once more. The marvellous was the new found land of these artists.

jfamerBENJAMIN WAS OBSESSED all his intellectual life with the concept of constellation. What he immediately saw in Surrealism was the hallucinatory vividness of these depicted objects, detached from their natural surroundings. It was a parallel vividness to those commodities paraded behind glass in the arcades, in a pastiche of the sacred ceremony. In Chapter One of Capital, Marx had gazed in wonder at the commodity; at this mystery of mysteries, which could encompass the whole world in its miniature dimensions, and transmute use value into exchange value in an instant. The arcades employed the same principle of luminous re-constellation as Surrealism; so did department stores and waxwork museums. All of them fascinated Benjamin for the same reason.

We can see the alchemical potency of the constellation even in the titles of Surrealist works. These could be improvised explosive devices, designed to blow up any socialized preconceptions. Such titles could advertise an aspect of reality which the untitled work would never have signified, left to its own devices. Picabia for example drew a spark plug, with the precision of a mechanical illustration, and it ended up being called Portrait of a Young American Girl in a State of Nudity (1915). Hardly a conception the average viewer might have arrived at, minus the title, though the eroticism of the mechanical was never too far distant.

Breton’s devotion to Rimbaud is evident throughout, as is that of so many other Surrealists; it was after all Rimbaud who invented the phrase ‘l’alchimie du verbe’. It is in the poem ‘Bateau Ivre’ that Rimbaud decided that the signifier might at last be severed from the signified. Baudelaire had never engaged in any such severance, even in his deepest hashish trance. It is Rimbaud who is the proto-Surrealist. It is he who understands the profound force of decontextualisation. The new constellation can transmute every object held within its cynosure. In the fourth number of La Revolution Surréaliste, Breton published an illustrated essay on Picasso, in which he spoke of the need for the artist to stop sensible things having their easy way as transparent signifiers. Picasso, he suggested, had done as much as any contemporary artist to help halt such instrumental transparency and facility. The connection with Rimbaud is evident. The world of over-easy signification needs deregulating, if not deranging. Hence Rimbaud’s ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’.

cutbunIn Buñuel’s My Last Breath, the director recounts how Un Chien Andalou came about through the meeting of two dreams, his and Dali’s. He had dreamed of a cloud slicing the moon in half, like a razor slicing through an eye, and Dali had dreamed of a hand crawling with ants. The two images came together and a film began. They only had one absolute rule: ‘No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.’ In fact, the ghost of narrative hovers over Un Chien Andalou, despite the nihilist stance towards any metaphysical notion of continuity on the part of its creators. In the same way, the ghost of grammar haunts the poems of Dada composed by Kurt Schwitters and Hans Arp. However staccato the statement, however fragmented the lines, the chimera of discourse refuses to be banished entirely. Grammar, as Nietzsche understood, likes to assert its droit de seigneur over all our utterances. Visual grammar insists on doing something similar. Any constellation, however anarchic, will contrive to suggest a narrative.


Surrealism sought to render the quotidian occult, and thereby to find a light by which the predictable could freak itself into the defamiliarized.

And so, a revolution in the capitals of Europe was to find its premonition and be ghosted thus: the signifier was to be set free from the signified, to float in a space of its own whimsicality. Such a whimsicality was, in its own way, serious enough, even when carnival turned into fiasco, as it so frequently did. The ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’ was not merely derangement but also deregulation. This was an early form of the globalisation of sensibility that had produced a commitment to chaos, a chaos of the imagination this time, not of the battlefield.

Surrealism sought to render the quotidian occult, and thereby to find a light by which the predictable could freak itself into the defamiliarized. Like Breton, Benjamin hoped for a while that revolutionary energies might be discovered in such intoxicants. Sadly, the fate of Surrealism was to have its electrically disruptive techniques co-opted by the advertising industry.

AS BUÑUEL MAKES clear in his discussion of Un Chien Andalou, some of the most effective Surrealist images are those which are resistant to interpretation. The breakthrough of the unconscious into quotidian existence is not necessarily self-explanatory, despite Freud’s detailed and zealous associationism. There is a kind of Surrealist melancholy in Yeats’s great late poem ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, which lists the objects and detritus which Yeats could never incorporate into his symbolic schema:

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags…

The original urinal which Duchamp signed R. Mutt has long since vanished, possibly tidied away by an efficient cleaner who wondered why plumbers had dumped in the main part of the gallery an object so evidently intended for the oubliette. And at this moment a diminutive robot somewhere in the world is edging towards an improvised explosive device, looking for all the world as though it had been designed by De Chirico.


LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Reviews publishing imprint.

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