Sunday, June 21, 2009

Surrealism and the Impossible

by agraphia

The following is an undergraduate paper I wrote in University. I was writing 'through' my understanding of these thinkers and post-structuralist theory in general at that time, rather than staying true to the work discussed and writing anything meaningful about the polemic; more of a poetic exercise, at points closer to a practice in the surrealist writing it claims to elucidate, than actual, critical discourse. Anyway, here is the essay resurrected:

Surrealism and the Impossible:
The Polemic of A. Breton and M. Bataille

Elements of the everyday are the raw material of dreams, and dreams, with the release of inner passions, can effect the banal disposition of the everyday. This is the condition modern life has forgotten - prohibiting desire with the surplus of thought - the myths of the sacred have been silenced by the demands of the profane, alienating us from what is most rightfully ours. The vehicle of desire's transit is language, bridging the inner experience of the subject with the external world. The language of the real is servile, it works in the name of logic and reason; any word found out of order is to be designated its proper place. The liberty of words, if there is such a thing, would be freedom from the need to make sense, or at least, common sense, communicating the sovereign expression of the poet's desire. Released from the shackles of an author's premeditated project, exempt from any aesthetic concern, words seem to resonate innocently with an organic life of their own and point to dreams unencumbered by the demands of utility and modern life. An automatic slew of words is more analogous to somniloquy than the coherency of waking speech, and can evoke a détourné‚ of the signs and references of the real to the revelation of a powerful dream.

The phantom enters on tiptoe. He quickly inspects the tower and descends the triangular staircase. His red silk stockings throw a whirling light on the slopes of rushes. The phantom is around two hundred years old; he still speaks a bit of French. But in his transparent flesh the dew of evening and the sweat of stars are paired (Breton, Soluble Fish 52).

One can't write total nonsense or they'll screw it up. A sentence void of syntax, punctuation, grammar is botched alchemy and spells nothing. Rational elements are still the basic building blocks of an automatic word-chemist's experiment; "as necessary as the arrangement of knots in a vibrating cord" (Breton 30). Following a simple formula of passive reception and speed, even those signs most disparate can communicate, tracing a labyrinth of interrelations and correspondence easily traversed by the associative mind. "One need only follow, for a short time, the traces of the repeated circuits of words to discover, in a disconcerting vision, the labyrinthine structure of the human being" (The Labyrinth 174). At times, the labyrinth can be dark and monotonous with its sudden disjointed turns - it does not have a plot, it wanders - leading to bewilderment and frustration, a disconcerting vision. Or a chance affinity can occur, a desire suddenly realized, and a right turn can take place opening onto a landscape thick with possibility. What the alchemist strives to avoid are the pitfalls of nonsense, a fizzled out charm; what he strives to create is gold, the moment when heterogeneous elements of base matter finally mix into the ideal substance - affected by the philosopher's stone at the heart of the maze of symbols, offering a Sangraal like panacea of spiritual perfection. At this certain, "privileged point in the mind where contradictions cease" (Breton 123), the pure essence of life reveals its truest form - and the spirit transforms.

The coupling of opposites induces the immediate, communicative shock of an electrical current -- desire. The magi, through poetic intuition, seeks to become "master of the one and only conductive electricity so that relationships that one wishes to establish may truly be of some consequence" (Breton 303). If the fusion is real, and there is a continuous circuit of energy, the uroboros is summoned, consuming its own tail. The uroboros ushers in the transformative power of eternal regeneration, even if only glimpsed for a moment, revealing the merveilleux of the Surréel. The coiled serpent manifests a pair of opposites, the movement of water and a flame like tongue, and is reborn through shedding its skin. Language and the vital use of metaphor transforms reality - desire will go to any length to possess its object, interpreting the world through the whims of subjective perception and obsessive tendencies - the word and world becoming paired, inner desire and outer necessity converge. In modern life this vital link has been broken, the stuff of dreams and the sacred repressed and subordinated by the everyday. The result is narrow passages haunted by zombies, each existing as a servant for the end of production, rather than for itself, for the wonder that is life. The pressure of constrained passions, passions that can never be fully extinguished, can lead to chaotic eruptions, a sudden explosion of somatic delusions, psychotic bifurcations, wars between nations. The absence of myth has left the community fragmented. Gods lie dismembered corpses, abandoned in the hidden recesses of empty temples. The once ecstatic festivals of ancient societies have been reduced to false stories in closed books. It is the fate of the poet, the magus, Blake's visionary Los, to disrupt this stale air with the stark lightning of words, to open the book and return to everyone the gift of life as art - to reconcile the opposites of inner and outer, irrational passion and rational thought, returning man to the lost purity of natural forces and the supreme point of knowledge. Expression is at the origin of everything. The unconscious holds l'art magique of transformative desire; they must be unleashed or we will perish.

The whole point, for Surrealism, was to convince ourselves that we had got our hands on the prime matter' (in the alchemical sense) of language . . . Our coming face to face with the products of this [automatic] writing focused the projector on the region where desire arises unconstrained, a region which is also that where myths take wing . . . Rather than go back from the thing signified to the sign that lives after it (which, moreover, would prove impossible), it is better to go back in one leap to the birth of that which signifies (Breton 299).

Optimism aside, there is always the dire possibility that these black passages of the alchemical labyrinth lead, not to mystic-gold, but to the monster in the night of the labyrinth. We have been warned: "THE UNIVERSAL resembles a bull . . . hurled by the rage of ruin into the void ceaselessly opened before it by a skeletal torero" (The Labyrinth 177). Remember the myth of Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos, who was mounted by a bull, perhaps willingly (taboo -> transgression), and gave birth to the Minotaur. Contraries coupled spawn monsters. To hide this symbol of his wife's mismating, Minos turned to Daedalus, the architect, and asked him to construct a labyrinth that could house the beast. Minos's daughter, Ariadne, in love with Theseus, persuaded Daedalus to give the young hero a ball of yarn, which aided Theseus in finding his way out of the labyrinth, avoiding his sacrifice to the man-bull. King Minos, to punish the architect for his disloyalty, condemned Daedelus and his son Icarus to the maze. Daedelus fashioned two sets of wings from wax and feathers and he and Icarus fled from their prison. We know the fate of the young, wonder-struck Icarus:

Beyond his father's lead: all the wide sky
Was there to tempt him as he steered toward heaven.
Meanwhile the heat of sun struck at his back
And where his wings were joined, sweet-smelling fluid
Ran hot that once was wax.
His naked arms whirled into the wind;
His lips, still calling out
His father's name, were gulfed in the dark sea (Ovid 222).

The charge of opposites certainly induces a solar shock: "full communication resembles flames - the electrical discharge of lightning. Its attraction is the rupturing it is built on and which increases its intensity in proportion to its depth" (Laughter 60). A lightning flash, an edge of stark clarity in contrast with the night, reveals immiscible difference, and after gracing the sky with its transgression, falls silent. "Being attains the blinding flash in tragic annihilation" (The Labyrinth 177). If the uroboros is summoned, it has already consumed itself. The maze of metaphor does not lead to a Surrealist garden, but to a chasm that opens beneath the mortal adventurer's feet and an inevitable fall toward death. The ambition of black magic consumes its user, rendering him mad. The result of the spell, when most vital, is naked exposure to absolute alterity. The uroboros, when interpreted as a symbol of Zarathustra's eternal recurrence, is not the eternal return of the same, but the eternal return of difference. Time, as Aion, is an infinite series of disjunctions; every moment is its division into past and future. The instant is endlessly displaced from its place, a presence deracinated ad infinitum and bifurcated into the disequilibrium of the before and after. The present is the empty cleft of time, the spacing out of difference. The spiritual substance pursued by the alchemist is a myth, the dream-like trance a nightmare. And the word itself is slippery - le mot glissant:

If one now wants to represent, with an initial clarity, the 'grail' obstinately pursued through successive, deceptive, and cloudy depths, it is necessary to insist upon the fact that it could never have been a substantial reality; on the contrary, it was an element characterized by the impossibility of its enduring. The term privileged instant is the only one that, with a certain amount of accuracy, accounts for what can be encountered at random in the search; the opposite of a substance that withstands the test of time, it is something that flees as soon as it is seen and cannot be grasped (The Sacred 241).

An illustration from a sixteenth century alchemical text, the Splendor Solis of Salomon Trismosin, depicts a beheaded, dismembered corpse, representing the destruction of the old Adam, the old Self (fig. 1). A second illustration shows the sun rising above a sleeping town, bringing light into darkness, a symbol of life after death, of inward spiritual illumination and rebirth (fig.2). This second illustration is mirrored by a third: the dark sun (fig. 3). While the high magi of Surrealism, Andre Breton, can be affiliated with the first and second - the rebirth of the social through the reconciliation of the Surrealist soul with the materialist possibilities offered by a communist revolution - the impresario of the Acéphale, Georges Bataille, certainly consorts with the first and third. Like Breton, Bataille reveled in the margins in order to explore the sacred rituals modern society had silenced. The Acéphale is the myth of the headless man that can symbolize the death of god, and consequently, the death of the 'modern' subject. Decapitation renounces tyrannical reason and authoritative power, resulting in an orgiastic déspense of blood, pronouncing the rupture of improbable being and the excess of desire whose ultimate object can only be annihilation. Sacrifice and the festival are the contagious negation of utility - the only answer to the pressures of excess produced and ousted by the solar economy. For Bataille, Breton's Icarian flight of servile idealism, to climb toward this ideal synthesis - The Surreal - and ambitiously place oneself above the system one wishes to displace, expresses an unconscious desire for an inevitable fall (The Old Mole and the Prefix Sur 42). As if flying too close to the sun, experiencing such a privileged instant is the event of a violent, ecstatic déchirer of the subject. The eye is sliced and the sun itself is cracked: one shiny and enticing at the moment of Icarus's elevation, giving to life an excess of energy without reciprocation; and there is a rotten, l'anus solaire of refuse and combustion that melts waxen wings, emanating with the "horror of a brilliant arc lamp" (The Solar Anus). Bataille witnesses catastrophe: "Thought lives the annihilation that constitutes it as a vertiginous and infinite fall, and thus has not only catastrophe as its object; its very structure is catastrophe - it is itself absorption in the nothingness that supports it and at the same time slips away" (Sacrifices 134).

Consciousness, the negativity that separates us from the intimacy of sacred immanence, throws us out of a complete existence - thought can not envision the conditions of its own absence. We can imagine the world without the eye of consciousness as a meaningless night, a superfluous density which consciousness blazes through clearing spaces, difference, meaning - but this poetry falls short of its intent, unable to write the unwritten, failing to incarnate its radical other. To complete ourselves would entail the impossible experience of our own death, to be our non-being, conjuring the presence of an absolute absence. 'Moi', constituted by the movement of a solar excess, desires the transgression of its own closure, defining the limit of the possible, and with the same gesture, the limitlessness that engulfs it. The reconciliation of these opposites is impossible; the image of solar resurrection an unrealizable dream. The soul, like a solar flare, is a potlatch without return, a useless expenditure, continually in a process loss without profit - perte démesurée. The subject is thus left naked, obscene, trembling in ecstatic jouissance at the necessity to exceed itself.

As the alchemic tradition prophesizes: the Edenic world was lost through a woman (Eve) and shall be recovered through a woman (Simone, Nadja). "It is essential . . . to undertake the reconstruction of the primordial Androgyne that all traditions tell us of, and its supremely desirable, and tangible, incarnation within ourselves"(Breton 302). Eroticism, for Bataille, is the simulation of a petite mort, an orgasmic déspense that disrupts productive homogeneity. In the erotic act one gives oneself over, trembling on the threshold of sacrifice, communicating immanent continuity. One loses oneself to the void of the other - eros and thanatos the same inextricable force. The surface of the naked body is holey, opening its depths onto a world that is other, a foreign body that is its own. Through this fissure communicates the liquids of intimate excess, consuming and excreting, violating boundary. The body is lived as contained yet exposed, closed yet overflowing, both retention and ecstatic release - a liquid state. The body orgasms, collapsing in a brief ecstasy, but never filled it ventures on - increasing desire, climaxing loss. In Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil, Simone's orgasmic 'Oui!' is the haunting affirmation of non-savoir, the cri-rire of the joy before death, horrible ecstasy in the face of the impossible. For Breton, Nadja, the mad woman he is madly in love with, is a sorceress steeped in the wonder of the Surréel, and at the same time, a frail ghost on the verge of being lost in the night, absorbed by the other, losing herself completely to her folie. As in automatic writing, the irrational must be tempered with the lucid moments of reason, or the alchemical mind may meltdown, the charm fail. A pair of lover's "reciprocal attraction must be strong enough to bring about perfect unity, at once organic and psychic, through their being absolutely complementary" (Breton 301). This magical balance, for Breton, is supreme savoir (fig. 4) - as for the lowly librarian of the Bibliotheque Nationale: reasoning perte démesurée is a pathology. Thus, the hilarious polemic begins:

M. Bataille's misfortune is to reason: admittedly, he reasons like someone with a fly on his nose, which allies him more closely with the dead than the living, but he does reason. He is trying, with the help of the tiny mechanism in him which is not completely out of order, to share his obsessions: this very fact proves that he cannot claim, no matter what he may say, to be opposed to any system, like an unthinking brute. What is paradoxical and embarrassing about M. Bataille's case is that his phobia about the 'idea', as soon as he attempts to communicate it, can only take an ideological turn. A state of conscious deficiency, in a form tending to become generalized, the doctors would say" (Breton 184).

M. Bataille does reason, but he has a contradictory insistence on reasoning the unreasonable, reveling in the heterogeneous shit and vomit reason expels. For Bataille, the base and vile is the very stuff of the sacred - "manure is salutary for the plant" (The Use-Value of the Marquis De Sade) - God himself is best described as "un cadavre" (Sacrifices). The sacred is bright and dirty. Bataille's 'idea' is paradoxical, it is the improbable i'm-possible, but it is hardly idea-logical, it is the 'non-idea' of non-logical difference, the ecstatic limit of the knowledge of non-knowledge. Breton's ideology is yet another facade of an ascetic priest and the quality of his will to power is corrupt. In the emergency of a self-created hell, the effeminate ascetic castrates the potency of his own will and erects an ideal heaven.

I have nothing much to say about the personality of Andre‚ Breton, since I hardly know him. His police reports don't interest me. My only regret is that he has obstructed the pavement for so long with his degrading idiocies. Religion should die with this old religious windbag. Still, it would be worthwhile to retain the memory of this swollen abscess of clerical phraseology, if only to discourage young people from castrating themselves in their dreams. Here lies the Breton ox, the old aesthete and false revolutionary with the head of Christ . . . the castrated lion (The Castrated Lion 28).

Both Breton and Bataille respond to the emergency of the absence of myth, the fragmentation of social cohesion, and posit a sacred without God (or at least, a sacred marked by many 'gods'). The profane is the territory of order, work, meaning and the sacred is the necessity of dionysian dance, sublime rapture, ecstatic release. For Breton, the sacred is at once a nascent logos and marvelous play - for Bataille, the inassimilable alterity that is the very condition of communication. Breton calls for the coincidence of these poles that would lead to supreme knowledge - the desire for unity - the negation of negation becoming positive, magically healing the wound, the cut, the mad schism. Bataille contests that the solemn plight of savoir is precisely non-savoir - desire for annihilation - negativity without reserve does not preserve what it sublates. If Breton seeks annihilation, it is only the momentary dissolution of being and its transformation "into a diamond, all blind and interior, which is no more the soul of ice than that of fire"(Breton 124). Surrealism decrees a utopia, a communal existence for all, a return to the garden of original purity. Bataille's sovereign experience, he assures us, is not nihilism, but a disturbing peace calling for man's friendship with himself - Now! (The Problems of Surrealism 101). Despite differences, and their tendencies for rage and name calling, they are, at times, sympathetic. However, while sharing in the motive to undermine traditional bourgeois value and the intellectual edifice that supports it, their positions demand a necessary separation - and their writing separate milieus.

"The name must germinate, so to speak, otherwise it is false" (Breton 299). Free association wrests language away from utilitarian usage, to discover its hidden secrets of power, liberating those words that "float like jetsum on the surface of a dead sea"(Breton). Between the conscious expanse of the sky and the unconscious depths of the sea, language streams in "edifying" (The Problems With Surrealism) movements, marvelously avoiding sea-sick neologisms and the cataracts of non-sense. A disinterested play of words can, if chance has it, hold itself together, warding off the annihilation of syntactic dismemberment and the dis-integration of vocabulary, while proclaiming its freedom from the demands of a premeditated work:

Watch out for
the fire that covers
of fair weather

The first white paper
Of Chance
RED will be.
(Breton 43).

Un coup de dés. Language is a wound and poetry hateful. When we return to "the birth of that which signifies" (Breton) we are exposed to that which denies signification. We must exist as the loss of meaning that we are. Thinking loss entails fragmentation of the language that cannot contain it. Each passage of transgression splinters across the undifferentiated surface of the page, and like a lightning flash, exposes difference, then falls silent. The word silence itself is a betrayal. Words are things, and are servile. As the poet passes from pure passion to its written expression, the passion's wild tension is slackened into the ordered march of words. Surrealism, as that which flies beyond the real, becomes a thing as soon as it utters its own name, and is cast into the sea. If "things are what they are only because of the meanings words give them" (Surrealism and God 182), if that which exists exists only through the grace of Names, Surrealism is surely impossible.


Bataille, Georges. "The Castrated Lion", "The Problems of Surrealism", "Surrealism and God". The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism. Ed. Michael Richardson. London: Verso, 1994.

____. "Sacrifices", "The Labyrinth", "Laughter", "The Sacred", "The Old Mole' and the Prefix Sur". Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927 - 1939. Ed. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P., 1985.

Breton, Andre. Manifestoes Of Surrealism. Ed. Richard Seaver. Michigan: Ann Arbor, 1986.

____. Nadja. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Grove P., 1960.

Browder, Clifford. Andre Breton: Arbiter of Surrealism. Geneve: Librairie Droz, 1967.

Cavendish, Richard. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mythology. New York: Crescent Books, 1980.

Hedges, Inez. Languages of Revolt: Dada and Surrealist literature and film. Durham: Duke U. P., 1983.

Ovid. The Metamorphosis. Ed. Horace Gregory. New York: Penguin, 1958.

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