Surrealpolitik: Disruptive Testimonies: The Stakes of Surrealist Experience in Breton and Carrington

Author: Erich Hertz


Quick Summary

Thoughtful piece about how Breton looked to Carrington to revive a fading Surrealism and point the way for its future direction.


There are 10 quotes currently associated with this book.

Benjamin finds Surrealist narrative shifting into a different mode of experience; rather than being a testimony to the facts of a lived experience -- one that reduces the outer world into a coherent realm of identification and sameness -- Surrealist narrative is the disruption of lived experience so that the outer world resists the drive of identification. The younger Benjamin's excitement about Surrealism was precipitated by the movement's celebration of accidental occurrences that revealed everyday life to be a privileged realm of aesthetic inquiry. Benjamin's own rejection of Kantian objective categories is mirrored by Surrealism's premium on the piercing momentary insight that can be achieved through focusing on the particularity of daily experience rather than through the channeling of universal categories. Breton's Nadja celebrates the anticipation of the marvelous in the most seemingly mundane daily moments. (page 90)
Tags: [Surrealism]
[T]here are fundamental ways in which the ahistorical "marvelous" is specifically understood as "la femme." In a lengthy passage from the second point of the manifesto, Breton discusses the premium he places on the dream state over the awakened one. He points out how the dream state always disrupts the awakened state and how the awakened state rationalizes away the effects of the dream state. (page 93)
Tags: [Surrealism, Dreams]
The woman in the car with him (presumably Nadja) raises the stakes for him. Here is a moment: sex and speed and death. But Breton tells us that it is unnecessary to add that he didn't indulge her. In a sense, she should be his epitome of the authentic Surrealist, the kind of Surrealist that Breton wished that he could be. However, especially with Nadja's eventual breakdown, Breton recognizes that to commit fully to what he believes may very well result in self-annihilation. Ultimately, Nadja represents a failed encounter with the marvelous, an encounter from which Breton escapes. And the narrative provides Breton with a platform to elucidate the pitfalls as he learns about them. Regardless, Nadja the actual woman remains merely a placeholder in his Surrealist aesthetic. She begins as an exemplar of the marvelous and comes to represent the writer's failure to follow through with everything he thought he believed about the marvelous. However, even as a marker of failure, Nadja is a feminine representation of Breton's failure and therefore gets recuperated into his conception of Surrealist experience. If at first glance the narrative appears to be about how Nadja the woman provides Breton access to the marvelous, then the dangers of Nadja's experience serve once again abstractly as a feminine warning that the male Surrealist must overcome. (page 97)
Tags: [Surrealism, Everyday Life, Culture, The Other]
It is not surprising, then, that when Breton had to deal with women participants in his own movement, he chose ones that he thinks he can deploy as Surrealist tropes of the female, as women who are stand-ins for the various aspects of Surrealist aesthetics. If Prassinos's inclusion in the Anthologie de l'humour noir can be seen as a token gesture to showcase the Surrealist trope of the "child-woman," then Carrington is obviously introduced as the embodiment of the "femme-folle," the madwoman. (page 97)
Tags: [Surrealism, Everyday Life, Culture, The Other]
Far from a mere factual account, Down Below is a testimony to the recollection of madness and, therefore, subject to Carrington's critical and imaginative eye on later reflection. This is particularly important when we recall that Breton had prompted Carrington to recount it as a Surrealist, and as a Surrealist who had experienced the "real" thing. As Jonathan Eburne argues, Carrington adeptly wrestles with her paranoia and is self-reflexive about the Surrealist nature of her experience. She tells us: "I am afraid I am going to drift into fiction, truthful but incomplete, for lack of some details which I cannot conjure up today and which may have enlightened us". This curiously mirrors Breton's assertion at the beginning of Nadja: Narrative truth is more important than the factual truth. However, the "truth" of Carrington's experience in Down Below is not to be found only in the recollection of what happened where but has everything to do with how Carrington holds that she could no longer maintain the mind/body split within herself and that this rupture led to her projection of her mind and body onto the external world as well. Her body and mind mirrored the outer world of the chaos of Europe in 1940. Rather than the events of the outer world being the sole catalyst for her inner breakdown (like Ernst being taken back to a detention camp), the world itself appeared to become "jammed" (as she calls it) at the same time as her body. (page 98)
Tags: [Surrealism, Truth & Real, The Other]
In several important ways, this is inherently rife with Bretonian Surrealist experience: The inner world is transformed by the outer world. Like in the beginning of Nadja, the outer world inaugurates a drawing out of the self where the encounter with ordinary objects transforms the self. There is no question that this modality of experience can be found here; and yet, Carrington ascribes a different role to the experience by claiming that she and the world mirrored each other.

This is why Carrington's introduction of the body into the Surrealist aesthetic has such important ramifications. Over and again, Surrealists like Breton characterize the nature of Surrealist experience as one of a transformation of the mind, whereas Carrington finds the body and the mind inextricable. (page 99)
Tags: [Surrealism, Truth & Real, Gaslighting]
There is no question that Carrington was in need of some treatment; she had become convinced that parts of Europe were becoming hypnotized by agents of Hitler. Although this doesn't seem very far off the mark for the people who experienced it, Carrington believed that magical forces were at work and repeatedly singled out certain Nazi figures (a man named Van Ghent in Spain, for example) as targets for assassination. She was ultimately committed to an asylum for constantly badgering the British Embassy that Van Ghent should be eliminated. (page 100)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Truth & Real, Fascism, Conspiracy, Madness, Gaslighting, Paranoia]
Carrington's primary concern while ill is the possibility of intervening against Hitler’s influence [. . .]; after her recovery, however, the index that she uses to chart her trajectory into madness is her loss of ability to recognize or to gauge the significance of historical realities. Thus, while Down Below plays quite deliberately with the abstract peculiarities of perspectivism and madness, Carrington remains deeply concerned with the issue of how to perceive and articulate historical and political fact. (page 101)
Tags: [Surrealism, Fascism, Madness]
Carrington posits the subject's capacity for experience of the outer world as a precondition for the propagation of history. The body and mind are not merely cogs in a machine of history but the site at which history itself unfolds. By linking her loss of control over her mind and body with a loss of control over the master narrative of history, Carrington radically undoes the notion that history functions independently of its subjects. The body itself is the locus through which history manifests itself as a narrative, not merely as a useful fiction for maintaining the coherence of the subject, but as a site where temporality itself is reflected. Unlike Breton, who saw the experience of the marvelous as releasing the subject from the grip of history and society, Carrington's Surrealist experience shifts history to the foreground. Through her emphasis on the body, Carrington makes a claim for the subject in an aesthetic experience that registers history and subverts the notion that she is a unified subject in control of either her body or history. (page 101)
Tags: [Surrealism, Everyday Life, Truth & Real, Fascism]
While Breton often locates this disruptive force in the mind's encounter with the feminine, Carrington places the disruptive force in mind and body alike, creating the space for a feminine experience that shifts Surrealist aesthetics away from mere male psychic liberation, while avoiding the trap of a universalized femininity. In so doing, Carrington makes history a central concern for surreal experience. (page 102)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Fascism, Universality, Madness]