Surrealpolitik: Surrealism: the Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia

Author: Walter Benjamin

(1978, first published in 1929)

Quick Summary

Walter Benjamin's critical synthesis of the accomplishments, failures, and direction of surrealism as of 1929.


There are 15 quotes currently associated with this book.

What sprang up in 1919 in France in a small circle of literati—we shall give the most important names at once: André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard—may have been a meagre stream, fed on the damp boredom of postwar Europe and the last trickle of French decadence. The know-alls who even today have not advanced beyond the 'authentic origins' of the movement, and even now have nothing to say about it except that yet another clique of literati is here mystifying the honourable public, are a little like a gathering of experts at a spring who, after lengthy deliberation, arrive at the conviction that this paltry stream will never drive turbines. (page 47)
Tags: [Surrealism]
[I]t was...precisely at the outset that Breton declared his intention of breaking with a praxis that presents the public with the literary precipitate of a certain form of existence while withholding that existence itself. Stated more briefly and dialectically, this means that the sphere of poetry was here explored from within by a closely knit circle of people pushing the 'poetic life' to the utmost limits of possibility. (page 48)
Tags: [Surrealism, Everyday Life]
For there is no doubt that the heroic phase, whose catalogue of heroes Aragon left us in that work [Paris Peasant], is over...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 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 'meanings'. 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. (page 48)
Tags: [Surrealism, Dreams]
I shall refer later to the bitter, passionate revolt against Catholicism in which Rimbaud, Lautréamont 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. (page 49)
Tags: [Surrealism]
Nadja has achieved the true, creative synthesis between the art novel and the roman-à-clef. (page 49)
Tags: [Surrealism]
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 l'Opera, Breton and Nadja are the lovers who convert everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys (railways are beginning to age), on God-forsaken 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? (page 50)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism's Promise, Revolution, Everyday Life, Lead Quote Candidate]
The trick by which this world of things is mastered—it is more proper to speak of a trick than a method—consists in the substitution of a political for a historical view of the past...Apollinaire originated this technique. In his volume of novellas, L'hérésiarque, he used it with Machiavellian calculation to blow Catholicism (to which he inwardly clung) to smithereens. (page 50)
Tags: [Surrealism, Revolution]
And no face is surrealistic in the same degree as the true face of a city. (page 51)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Lead Quote Candidate]
In such passages in Breton, photography intervenes in a very strange way. It makes the streets, gates, squares of the city into illustrations of a trashy novel, draws off the banal obviousness of this ancient architecture to inject it with the most pristine intensity toward the events described, to which, as in old chambermaids' books, word-for-word quotations with page numbers refer. And all the parts of Paris that appear here are places where what is between these people turns like a revolving door. (page 51)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Apathy/Resistance, Everyday Life]
If, however, Apollinaire and Breton advance even more energetically in the same direction and complete the linkage of Surrealism to the outside world with the declaration, 'The conquests of science rest far more on a surrealistic than on a logical thinking' -- if, in other words, they make mystification, the culmination of which Breton sees in poetry (which is defensible), the foundation of scientific and technical development, too -- then such integration is too impetuous. (page 52)
Tags: [Surrealism]
'The thought of all human activity makes me laugh.' This utterance of Aragon's shows very clearly the path Surrealism had to follow from its origins to its politicization. In his excellent essay 'La révolution et les intellectuels', Pierre Naville, who originally belonged to this group, rightly called this development dialectical. In the transformation of a highly contemplative attitude into revolutionary opposition, the hostility of the bourgeoisie toward every manifestation of radical intellectual freedom played a leading part. This hostility pushed Surrealism to the left. Political events, above all the war in Morocco, accelerated this development. (page 52)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics]
Between 1865 and 1875 a number of great anarchists, without knowing of one another, worked on their infernal machines. And the astonishing thing is that independently of one another each set the clock at exactly the same hour, and forty years later in Western Europe the writings of Dostoyevsky, Rimbaud, and Lautréamont exploded at the same time. One might, to be more exact, select from Dostoyevsky's entire work the one episode that was actually not published until about 1915, 'Stavrogin’s Confession' from The Possessed. This chapter, which touches very closely on the third canto of the Chants de Maldoror, contains a justification of evil in which certain motifs of Surrealism are more powerfully expressed than by any of its present spokesmen. For Stavrogin is a Surrealist avant la lettre. No one else understood, as he did, how naïve is the view of the Philistines that goodness, for all the manly virtue of those who practice it, is God- inspired; whereas evil stems entirely from our spontaneity, and in it we are independent and self-sufficient beings. No one else saw inspiration, as he did, in even the most ignoble actions, and precisely in them. He considered vileness itself as something preformed, both in the course of the world and also in ourselves, to which we are disposed if not called, as the bourgeois idealist sees virtue. Dostoyevsky's God created not only heaven and earth and man and beast, but also baseness, vengeance, cruelty. And here, too, he gave the devil no opportunity to meddle in his handiwork. (page 53)
Tags: [Surrealism]
Since Bakunin, Europe has lacked a radical concept of freedom. The Surrealists have one. They are the first to liquidate the sclerotic liberal- moral-humanistic ideal of freedom, because they are convinced that 'freedom, which on this earth can only be bought with a thousand of the hardest sacrifices, must be enjoyed unrestrictedly in its fullness without any kind of pragmatic calculation, as long as it lasts.'...To win the energies of intoxication for the revolution -- this is the project about which Surrealism circles in all its books and enterprises...And the most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance. The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug -- ourselves -- which we take in solitude. (page 54)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics]
'To win the energies of intoxication for the revolution' -- in other words, poetic politics? 'We have tried that beverage. Anything, rather than that!' Well, it will interest you all the more how much an excursion into poetry clarifies things. For what is the programme of the bourgeois parties? A bad poem on springtime, filled to bursting with metaphors. The socialist sees that 'finer future of our children and grandchildren' in a condition in which all act 'as if they were angels', and everyone has as much 'as if he were rich', and everyone lives 'as if he were free'. Of angels, wealth, freedom, not a trace. These are mere images. And the stock imagery of these poets of the social-democratic associations? Their gradus ad parnassum? Optimism...Surrealism has come ever closer to the Communist answer. And that means pessimism all along the line. Absolutely. (page 55)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Revolution, Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]
Here due weight must be given to the insight that in the Traité du style, Aragon's last book, required a distinction between metaphor and image, a happy insight into questions of style that needs extending. Extension: nowhere do these two -- metaphor and image -- collide so drastically and so irreconcilably as in politics. For to organize pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred per cent for images. This image sphere, however, can no longer be measured out by contemplation. (page 55)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Truth & Real, Simulacra/Illusion]