This is a continuation of the piece I started here. For lack of an introduction, I suggest you read part 1 if you haven’t already looked at it.
This post will be looking at the Surrealist movement proper through Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, and Georges Bataille. I will also talk about Antonin Artaud and Walter Benjamin, both of whom interacted with and were inspired by the Surrealists, but mostly worked on the fringes of the movement itself.
While most of this material was written with Invisible Sun in mind, it is not necessary to know the game to appreciate the history of these figures, their ideas, and their influence.
The surrealist circle that is usually referred to when we discuss “surrealism” today (melting clocks, apples in front of faces, etc) is generally the group that surrounded the writer Andre Breton, usually seen as the “founder” of surrealism. One of the main reasons that Andre Breton is considered such a central figure is because of his publications of surrealist manifestos that professed to lay bare the surrealist “project,” such as it is. The first Manifesto of Surrealism was published in 1924, followed by a second in 1930, and a manuscript Political Position of Surrealism in 1935. (The first Manifesto was also reprinted in 1929 with a new preface; and the second had the same treatment in 1946). All of the manifestos, selections from Political Positions and several other related works by Breton are collected in Manifestoes of Surrealism from Ann Arbor Paperbacks, which is one of the primary resources for this post and my main resource for presenting an interpretation of Breton. In the first Manifesto Breton states:
“Those who might dispute our right to employ the term SURREALISM in the very special sense that we understand it are being extremely dishonest, for there can be no doubt that this word had no currency before we came along. Therefore, I am defining it once and for all:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life…”[i]
It should also be noted that Breton’s Surrealism doesn’t call for a complete break from the past in the way that Futurism or Dada did. Breton’s Manifesto even includes a list of precursor’s whose works could be called Surrealist: “Swift is surrealist in malice, Sade is surrealist in sadism… Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality. Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere. Mallarme is Surrealist when he is confiding. Jarry [remember him?] is Surrealist in absinthe…”[ii] and the list goes on. Like Dada, Surrealism also saw itself as an international, global movement: a reorganization of the ways of thinking and the values of the modern world. It is also worth noting that Surrealism is not a single movement, but is ongoing with surrealist groups operating in Chicago, Prague, Bucharest, Buenos Aires, and many other places. Contemporary Surrealist Franklin Rosemont and scholar of African-American History Robin D. G. Kelley write in the introduction to Black, Brown, and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora:
“surrealism does not signify unreality, antireality, the nonsensical, or the absurd. On the contrary, surrealism – an open realism – signifies more reality, and an expanded awareness of reality, including aspects and elements of the real that are ordinarily overlooked, dismissed, excluded, hidden, shunned, suppressed, ignored, forgotten, or otherwise neglected. Surrealism from the start differed radically from the many “avant-gardes” that preceded it. Post-Impressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Fauvism, and Dada were focused almost exclusively on art – or, as in Dada, art and antiart – and to a lesser extent on literature. These avant-gardes were not only white and European, but also, with the partial exception of Dada, openly Eurocentric. Surrealists, however, even before the publication of Andre Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, were emphatically anti-Eurocentric. Even during their brief period as Dadaists (roughly 1919-1922), they were calling everything European and American into question, including Dada. They openly scorned white supremacy, patriotism, religion, colonialism, prudish morality, and respect for the law.”[iii]
This surrealist “open realism” was particularly opposed to the development of an organized, mechanized mundanity in the modern world. Breton called this development Miserabilism: “the depreciation of reality instead of its exaltation”[iv]. To Breton, there was nothing more dangerous than the belief that the world could only be miserable.
This rejection of miserablism, from what is strictly “Useful”, was taken up by many Surrealists. Even before Breton used the explicit term miserablism, it was rejected by surrealists like the Martinican group Legitime Defense:
“We do not admit that one can be ashamed of what he suffers. The Useful – social convention – constitutes the backbone of the bourgeois ‘reality’ that we want to break. In the realm of intellectual investigation, we pit against ‘reality’ the sincerity that allows man to disclose in his love, for example, the ambivalence which permits the elimination of the contradiction decreed by logic […] Contradiction is a function of the Useful. It does not exist in love. It does not exist in the dream. And it is only by horribly gritting our teeth that we are able to endure the abominable system of constraints and restrictions, the extermination of love and the limitation of the dream, generally known by the name of western civilization…”[v]
However, Breton’s personality could be overbearing and controlling, and he had little patience for those who didn’t share his particular political views. Cultural critic Henri Lefebvre, who associated with Surrealist circles in the 1930s and would later be one of their biggest critics from the Left, would later write “I could have become a Surrealist…. if it had not been for Andre Breton’s insufferable personality.”[vi] As we shall see, Breton’s Surrealism will have a number of offshoots and excommunications for varying reasons. Most obvious, in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism Breton outright banishes several figures from Surrealism:
“I had promised myself, as the preface for the new edition of the Manifesto of Surrealism indicates, to abandon silently to their sad fate a certain number of individuals who, in my opinion, had given themselves enough credit: this was the case for Messrs. Artaud, Carrive, Delteil, Gerard, Limbour, Masson, Soupault, and Vitrac, cited in the Manifesto, and for several others since.” [Manifestoes of Surrealism, 129-130] “M. Bataille interests me only insofar as he imagines that he is comparing the harsh discipline of the mind to which we intend purely and simply to subject literally everything… to a discipline which does not even manage to seem more cowardly, for it tends to be that of the nonmind … M. Bataille professes to wish only to consider in the world that which is vilest, most discouraging, and most corrupted, and he invites man, so as to avoid making himself useful for anything specific, “to run absurdly with him – his eyes suddenly become dim and filled with unavowable tears – toward some haunted provincial houses, seamier than flies, more depraved, ranker than barber shops.”[vii]
We shall see more of M. Bataille below.
Dali, Pop-Surrealism, Political Ambiguity
It is almost impossible to talk about surrealism without talking about Salvador Dali. Pointed mustaches and melting clocks (The Persistence of Memory) have become established as prominent symbols of surrealism in the popular imagination, and with good reason: moreso than any other member of Breton’s Surrealism, Salvador Dali knew how to perform in a way that was shocking and memorable. “Dali’s ability to translate his ideas into a variety of different forms, including painting, poetry, essays, film, objects and, of course, life, was one of his greatest strengths[viii]Part of what made Dali’s paintings so fascinating is that he actually employs a detailed style that is reminiscent of classical art, but he applies this detailed, realistic style to fantastic forms. Dali’s style is pretty unique compared to many of the looser, more free-form surrealist works that utilize styles closer to cubism and Dadaist collage that escape any kind of classical realism. Another contribution that Dali brought to Surrealism was Paranoia as a way of viewing the world and producing art. He defined this paranoiac-criticism as follows:
“I believe that the moment is at hand when, by harnessing the paranoiac and active component of our thinking processes, it will be possible (simultaneously with automatic procedures and other passive states) to systematize confusion and contribute to the total discrediting of the world of reality.”[ix]
It was this Paranoia technique that really got him involved with Breton’s circle.
“Dali’s paranoiac-critical method attempted to capture the states of heightened awareness or sensitivity experienced by sufferers of paranoia through the use of double or multiple imagery. In this way one image could at the same time be read as something else, with neither interpretation being more valid… To illustrate the theory, Dali published a postcard showing an African village which, if attuned to paranoiac-critical thinking, can also be read as a head in profile. Breton even interpreted the image as a portrait of the Marquis de Sade. Breton hailed paranoiac-criticism as ‘an instrument of primary importance’ and the exercise of the method became a new focus for Surrealist activity in the early 1930s.”[x]
However, there is also a darker side to Dali’s popularity that highlights some of the divisions that occur within Surrealism. The most immediate criticism is that Dali was, to many Surrealists, a sellout. Andre Breton gave Dali the nickname “Avida Dollars,” an anagram that translates to “eager for dollars.” This goes beyond a simple financial jealousy: Andre Breton was firm in his assertion that Surrealism was allied to Marxism. To Breton, Dali was using Surrealism to promote a bourgeois, capitalist lifestyle that failed to truly critique the issues of a modernized world that had the looming shadow of fascism on the horizon. Surrealism became increasingly suspicious of Dali as he made works like “Enigma of William Tell” and “Enigma of Adolf Hitler” that seemed to provoke Marxism and revealed a developing fascination with Hitler.
When the Spanish Civil War came, Dali seemed to express sympathies with the reactionary Franco regime that was backed by the Nazis.[xi] The degree to which Dali actually supported these regimes is debatable – it could be possible he was more fascinated with the mythic nature of these regimes, or that his Catholicism made him sympathetic to Franco (most of the Surrealists were explicitly atheist and against organized religion). Regardless of his intentions, whether they were truly political or just provocateuring, Dali’s behavior and sympathies started to clearly diverge from Breton’s Surrealism.
“Dali’s perceived commercialism and his growing right-wing sympathies led to his expulsion from the movement in 1940… [from 1942 to 1944] his painting began to move towards academic and classical subjects, and he continued to trouble former allies by supporting Fascist causes.”[xii]
These unfortunate decisions in Dali’s life can provide a useful lesson for Invisible Sun: namely that no aesthetic, idea, creation, or group is incapable of being used towards unfortunate ends. In many games, I find that NPCs who are likeable or player-favorites simply remain likeable throughout. If they turn into villains its usually because they were secretly planning to betray the heroes the whole time, or else they get transformed involuntarily by magic, or mind control, etc. In a world like Invisible Sun, full of secrets, demons, and mysterious organizations, it could be a shock for a friendly, amiable NPC who helps the players slowly become involved with something the players don’t like. The NPC may still remain friendly towards the players, but suddenly their associated with an organization or practice that is dangerous or conflicts with the morals of the players and their characters. Perhaps an organization the players are involved in schisms or excommunicates some members. How do they react? Furthermore, how do we treat art from people who made these kinds of decisions? What do we choose to remember? How might these actions and consequences resonate in a world with actual magic, where all objects have the potential for souls and memories?
Pieces on Dali:
Bataille and the Renegade Surrealists
“It is necessary to refuse boredom and live only for fascination.”
“At the extremes, there’s freedom.
At the extremes, thought ceases to be.”
If the Breton-brand of Surrealism sought to reveal something holy in life – an experience that “takes back” the idealized from organized religion and capitalist exploitation to apply it to everyday life – then Bataille simultaneously sought to reveal a baseness to reality that was inescapable.
“Since ‘all that does not aim at the annihilation of being in an interior and blind radiance’ is vulgar in his eyes, M. Breton seeks only, in sluggish confusion, raising on occasion some sad shreds of grandiloquence, to provoke a panic capable of justifying his willful aberrations….Servile idealism rests precisely in this will to poetic agitation rather than in a strictly juvenile dialectic.”[xiii]
Criticizing Breton, Bataille claimed that the original Surrealists were too idealistic and didn’t have a materialist basis for their theories. (Since Breton and many of the Surrealists were Marxists this was a serious allegation. Calling a Marxist anti-materialist is akin to claiming they aren’t Marxist at all). Bataille developed a theory of Base Materialism as a way to upset the dichotomies that prevailed through the majority of political and philosophical thought, a “theory of the concept of an active base matter that disrupts the opposition of high and low and destabilises all foundations [..] however it defies strict definition and remains in the realm of experience rather than rationalization.” (Art and Popular Culture) This philosophy drove Bataille in some… strange…. directions, much of which is pretty grotesque and disturbing if judged by usual cultural norms. Bataille wrote transgressive, sexually explicit, surrealist stories connecting the experiences of death and agony to sexual pleasure. He wrote essays on the surrealist qualities of large, grotesque photographs of big toes. He wrote poetic, aphoristic tracts equating the Sun to an anus (which could have some pretty severe consequences in a land of nine Suns if you chose to go that direction).
What is important to understand is that Bataille’s “Base Materialism” is composed just as much of laughter, love, ecstasy, and joy as agony, terror, and pain. As Bataille often points out the Sacred is both that which is taboo (base to the point of being untouchable) and pure (the King, the God, the Sacrifice that is untouchable because it is above material life). In many ways Bataille’s thought is an attempt to carry through with Nietzsche’s ideas of the Ubermensch and the search for a morality “beyond Good and Evil” and beyond the “death of God” in a manner that wasn’t detached from the material world. To use an Invisible Sun analogy: if Breton is the idealized path of Suns, then Bataille is about revealing the truths of the nightside path that we might sometimes want to overlook. For Bataille, it is not enough to look at what one side of a sun represents. One would need to look at the material of the Sun itself as a whole. What is it that is shared between the two sides that makes them connected? To a further extent, Bataille would probably have asked what is shared between the Suns and the Dark as well. To him, since both do exist in the same Actuality, they must have material shared between them (perhaps the Invisible Sun itself? Or perhaps there is something that remains should the Invisible Sun ever set?). Nothing is truly mutually exclusive. Of course, this means that Bataille would be suspicious of the “form vs essence” distinction made in Invisible Sun[xiv]. (The Path, pg 11)
While he continued to work with a branch of “renegade Surrealists” like Andre Masson, Bataille’s writings would explore a large number of disciplines. After ending his Surrealist journal Documents he founded a secret society known as Acephale (which translates roughly to “the Headless”) in an attempt to experiment with new types of social organization where individuals could come together to participate in rituals and discussions without any kind of official leadership (or “head”) to limit them.
“Beyond what I am, I meet a being who makes me laugh because he is headless; this fills me with dread because he is made of innocence and crime; he holds a steel weapon in his left hand, flames like those of a Sacred Heart in his right. He reunites in the same eruption Birth and Death. He is not a man. He is not a god either. He is not me but is more than me: his stomach is the labyrinth in which he has lost himself, loses me with him, and in which I discover myself in him, in other words as a monster.”[xv]
Both the Acephale group and its unusual symbol/monster could easily be adapted to fit in Invisible Sun. Acephale had both a “secret” side, where members would reportedly meet near a lightning-struck tree to hold readings/performances of Nietzsche and de Sade (one rumor has it that a human sacrifice was planned. According to Acephale members it wasn’t actually meant to take place. Instead, everyone was supposed to volunteer to be sacrificed while nobody volunteered to perform the sacrifice as a kind of ritual/symbol). The organization also had a “public” side where they published essays and manifestos in a journal with the same name as the organization. After the group fell apart Bataille, other Acephale members, and some other public intellectuals founded the College of Sociology. Over the course of his life Bataille would write scandalous fiction (Story of the Eye, Madame Edwarda), experimental nonfiction (Guilty, Inner Experience, The Impossible), economics (“The Notion of Expenditure,” The Accursed Share), and literary criticism (On Nietzsche, Theory of Religion, Literature and Evil). Bataille’s ideas would prove to be particularly important for the Post-Structuralists (who we shall talk about later) and he had a very close friendship with the important figure Maurice Blanchot (who I have written about before, and will write about next time) that proved to be influential for both writers.
One of Bataille’s most influential ideas is the “limit experience.” Given that Bataille thought that “the fact that these two complete contrasts were identical – divine ecstasy and extreme horror,” his base materialism produced a search for an experience, far down on the horizon, that could wrench a person away from their own subjectivity to see the base material of things, breaking down all rules. While a “true” break with subjectivity cannot be achieved (to do so would require one truly stop perceiving or being) it can be perceived through certain “limits” we experience in extreme pain, fascination, sexual pleasure, madness, artistic confrontations and contradictions, and through the experience of death itself.
Pieces on Bataille
Documentary (Please be aware this documentary does include some disturbing imagery)
Antonin Artaud: Cruelty as Life
“If our life lacks brimstone, i.e., a constant magic, it is because we choose to observe our acts and lose ourselves in consideration of their imagined form and meaning, instead of being impelled by their force.”
“For the theater as for culture, it remains a question of naming and directing shadows: and the theater, not confined to a fixed language and form, not only destroys false shadows but prepares the way for a new generation of shadows, around which assembles the true spectacle of life.”
Though he is often associated with the Surrealists, and did have interactions and collaborations with Breton and his group, Artaud is generally considered a step apart from any movement proper. Artaud suffered from addiction and mental illness at a young age, and his erratic behavior would connect him to (and estrange him from) many strange groups of people. He originally started experimenting with avant-garde theater in the 20s (in the Alfred Jarry Theater) and after unsuccessfully submitting poems to “La Nouvelle Revue Française” he started a correspondence with the editor Jacques Riviere that was published. Artaud was also one of the first people in surrealist circles to begin experimenting with film, writing The Seashell and the Clergyman which would inspire the more famous Un Chien Andalou. Artaud also acted in a couple major motion pictures: Napolean (1927) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), the latter of which is still considered one of the greatest silent films of all time.
In 1928 Artaud wrote the work that made him famous, the manuscript that he is still best known for: The Theater and its Double. Artaud’s manifestos call for a new kind of theater that invokes magic and ritual for a new modern world. This would come to be expressed as the “Theater of Cruelty.” The Theater of Cruelty that Artaud developed wasn’t so much about physical pain or suffering, but about exposing the cruelty of life itself to the audience. Assaulting the senses of the audience instead of protecting them, using material that was shocking and borderline nonsensical material. Artaud was suspicious of “normal” language, and thought that theater had become too focused on conveying ideas detached from action with words. Theater of Cruelty tried to escape this “cleaned up” presentation by expressing itself through the space of the stage and through the actions portrayed thereupon.
“The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.”[xvi]
One of the most important aspects of Artaud’s ideas is that the Theater of Cruelty is supposed to reflect the social conditions of life. This does not mean that the Theater of Cruelty is “realist” in any sense, but that (for Artaud) the world is only “real” because groups of people decide to abide by certain rules that they call “reality.” In this sense, then, Artaud is trying to present a different kind of reality through a new set of rules in his Play. He is asking the question: why do we abide by the current rules, and not try to engage in a different method of reality? Why don’t we accept that there are other realities in play that we hide and ignore? This kind of thinking can apply both to the setting of the Actuality as well as to a way of thinking about the act of playing a game like Invisible Sun. Right in the first pages of The Path the game says “What Invisible Sun is: Escapism.”[xvii] It also says Invisible Sun is “A suggestion that the world is bigger and more wonderful than we can understand.” Of course, the Actuality isn’t a utopia, but it proposes a different kind of living, with different assumptions, agreements, and different kinds of problems that could potentially be much more meaningful to us than those of the world we have today. While Artaud’s visions and alternatives are certainly dark, they are intended to show us a kind of reality that we often look away from. If there is potential for joy, we must acknowledge the current capacities for suffering that regularly play out in our world.
Artaud had a much more explicitly mystical/magical view of his art than other surrealists. Later in his life, particularly while he was confined to sanitoriums, he created “spells” on pieces of paper as a way of communicating to the outside world:
“Strange little pieces of paper, written and drawn upon, often stained and burned, bearing imprecations, the “spells” issued by Antonin Artaud beginning in September 1937, sent from Dublin, Sainte-Anne Hospital, and the Ville-Evrard asylum, are integral parts of written letters and thus constitute, aside from an exercise in magic, actual missives. […] ‘I had made up my mind,’ he would write in 1947, ‘to coax out those forms, lines, outlines, shadows, colors . . . which would create, as it were, above the paper a kind of counter- figure which would be an ongoing protest against the laws of the created object.’ Here the function of exorcism and insurrection is announced, to which all the later “awkward” drawings — “counter- figures” to use his term — correspond; here the necessity of an act of total expression is defined, where writing and drawing, the physical and oral, function together. Messages, testimonies, incantations, imprecations — such would be the large sheets of Rodez, as well as the portraits of the last period filled with glossolalia or graphic expulsions.”[xviii]
While Artaud was certainly a man who suffered from mental issues and drug addiction, and though his art reflects a disturbing element of the human condition, its direct, shocking, and violent qualities are still powerful. These ideas and creations remind us that surrealism isn’t simply novelty, it can be jolting, even disturbing. His life also reminds us that art is ultimately something that communicates, even if sometimes that communication is disruptive, and even if that communication is tragically futile.
Pieces on Artaud
Walter Benjamin & A Theoretical Turn
“The revolutionary strength of Dadaism consisted in testing art for its authenticity. A still life might have been put together from tickets, spools of cotton, and cigarette butts, all of which were combined with painted elements. The whole thing was put in a frame. And thereby the public was shown: Look, your picture frame ruptures time; the tiniest authentic fragment of daily life says more than painting. Just as the bloody fingerprint of a murderer on the page of a book says more than the text. Much of this revolutionary content has gone into photomontage.” – “Author as Producer”
“There is a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been: its advancement has the structure of awakening.” – Arcades Project [K1,2]
“Dream houses of the collective: arcades, winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railroad stations.” – Ibid [L1,3]
Unlike the other figures here, Walter Benjamin was never a surrealist or an artist. Instead, he was a philosopher and a literary critic, best known as part of the influential Frankfurt Circle of Marxist philosophers who developed what is now known as Critical Theory. Benjamin wrote extensively on everything from Charley Chaplin, to hashish, to Goethe, and beyond. His most famous essay, “Art in the Age of Technological Reproduceability” was one of the first in-depth examinations on the way that technologically reproducing images and sounds changed the landscape of art itself. Benjamin was particularly interested in film as a medium. Film was able to be seen by the masses in the way that, say, a painting could not. But unlike live theater, the film was composed ahead of time, accumulated from many different pieces into an edited piece. Benjamin identifies in cinema a tension between contemplation (which usually occurs in looking at static Paintings and Photographs) and distraction (which film produces by its constant motion and shifting of the camera’s position). Benjamin points out that the shocking collages and cutups of the Dadaists was an attempt to produce the effects of distraction through words and static images, but these experiments weren’t able to effect a mass audience until they took the form of film. This distraction isn’t merely a gawking kind of fascination, its a vulnerability on the part of the viewer. While most traditional art provokes the viewer to “enter” the image, says Benjamin, the distraction of film let’s the film “enter” the viewer. While watching a movie, we can simultaneously be viewers and critics. The process of thinking about the movie is merged with the experience of viewing it, and is constantly interrupted in powerful ways through distraction. This means that film has the ability to produce habits, assumptions, and behaviors that other mediums cannot. Watching a lot of gangster movies, for instance, might affect the way one talks, the way one carries oneself, the way one dresses, and one may not be entirely aware of how these are related to the movie itself. For a psychiatric analyst like Benjamin, this means that film is an art of the Unconscious in ways that other arts can never be. Films are, in a sense, collective dreams.
Benjamin’s magnum opus was the unfinished Arcades Project. When he moved to Paris after the rise of the Nazis in Germany (being both Jewish and a Marxist put Benjamin in considerable danger) he became enraptured with the city’s Arcades. The Arcades were early versions of what we now call shopping malls, and were essentially covered streets with shops on either side. Benjamin loved the wild nightlife of the City of Life and regularly walked its streets, meeting all kinds of figures and visiting nightclubs, gambling dens, and brothels. (Interestingly, Benjamin knew Georges Bataille and was even slated to give a lecture for Bataille’s College of Sociology, though he never got to present it. Bataille inherited many of Benjamin’s writings after the latter died). In his mind the Paris arcades were symbols of the city itself, a place where capitalist business, advertising, and social life all intersected. After encountering the Surrealist Louis Aragon’s novel La Paysan de Paris (The Paris Peasant) which featured detailed descriptions of real places in Paris with fantastic events and scenes, Benjamin sought to develop a nonfiction work to uncover the unconscious of Paris, finding its “dream houses.” At over 1000 pages, the Arcades Project features a wide array of notes and quotations taken by Benjamin in his study of Paris, covering everything from the metropolitan works of Baudelaire, to a critique of Jung’s Collective Unconscious, to historical and economic data from Paris records, to thoughts on the Surrealists that he met while living in Paris. In his earlier essay “Dream Kitsch: Gloss on Surrealism” Benjamin reflects on the way that materialism has seemingly degraded dreams: “No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon. The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on things is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality.”[xix] Here, Benjamin is not simply lamenting Dreams themselves, he is wondering how the conditions of capitalism have molded dreams into a cheap kind of kitsch – a world where dreams become merely things. While Benjamin doesn’t embrace the whole Surrealist project, he does see potential and possibility in their methods and ideas. His Arcades Project tries to push for a new kind of world, a new kind of city, that can reinvigorate our dreams and move us beyond cheap kitsch: “The imminent awakening is poised, like the wooden horse of the Greeks, in the Troy of dreams.”[xx]
Unfortunately, the Arcades Project was (like many of Benjamin’s writings) never finished. After the Nazis invaded France, Benjamin attempted to escape to Spain and, from there, was going to go to the United States to join other Frankfurt School expatriates like his friend Theodore Adorno. After being turned away at the border and returning to France, Benjamin saw no alternative but to take his own life. After his death, a manuscript that he kept in his suitcase and guarded while traveling to Spain and back vanished. We still do not know where it went or if it still exists.
One of Benjamin’s most important, and controversial, essays is his “Thesis on the Concept of History.” It is one of his final pieces composed before his death, and it offers a poignant reflection on the nature of history and progress. In one of its most famous passages he writes:
“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”[xxi]
The Klee painting mentioned was very important to Benjamin. He owned the print earlier in his life and saw it as a kind of personal symbol which he reflected upon in some of his earlier, unfinished, pieces and in letters to his friend, the Jewish theologian and scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem. Benjamin’s view of history here is not to strictly say that history is only a disaster. Rather, he is emphasizing that the view of “progress” that we engage with when we historicize does not account for the barbarity and violence that produces such progress: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”[xxii] Exactly what Benjamin is conveying here is ambiguous and a subject of much debate. But what I get from this piece is a need to see the past as something that should be redeemed instead of merely let alone as some kind of eternal, unchanging portrait of “the way things were.” This redemption comes from “blasting” the moments out of the past, seeing them for what they are, and fighting for the memory of what is overlooked and forgotten. Benjamin, drawing upon his Jewish theology, refers to “Messianic Time.” This doesn’t mean simply that a religious Messiah will one day appear and make everything right, it means that the efforts of people who can look beyond the assumptions of progress and history can revolutionize the world, redeem its past, in a Messianic manner:
“There is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance.”[xxiii] In the Actuality, where time really does make itself forewards and backwards, emerging from a single point, perhaps there is a possibility of redemption too. A way of acknowledging the struggles of the past as something other than “what has just happened.” What does it mean, after all, that the past is still becoming itself?
(If you’re interested on some more connections between Benjamin and Roleplaying Games, I’ve written another piece on the topic here)
I decided to end Part 2 on Walter Benjamin for a couple of reasons: first, he represents very clearly the intersection of Surrealism and Theory. From this point on most of the figures I’ll be examining will be philosophers, critical theorists, literary critics, and the like. Secondly, given the shift in focus, many of Benjamin’s ideas and topics of interest will influence a whole range of thinkers. It is much easier to trace the thought of Benjamin through the future texts than it is to trace traditional Surrealists like Breton.
Other pieces on Benjamin
“Walter Benjamin: Culture and Revolution”
“Walter Benjamin and Surrealism”
One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin (Documentary)
[i] Andre Breton. Manifestos of Surrealism, 25-26.
[ii] Ibid 26-27.
[iii] Franklin Rosemont, Robin D.G. Kelly. Black Brown and Beige, 3.
[iv] Breton. “Away with Miserabilism!” Quoted in Black, Brown, and Beige, 6.
[v] Etienne Lero et al. “Legitime Defense Manifesto” in Black, Brown, and Beige, 37.
[vi] From La Somme et le reste, quoted in Critique of Everyday Life: the three-volume text, 856.
[vii] Andre Breton. Manifestos of Surrealism, 181.
[viii] Jemima Montagu. The Surrealists: Revolutions in Art & Writing 1919-35, 98.
[ix] Ibid 96.
[x] Ibid 96-98.
[xi] I will point out that I personally believe the Franco regime cannot be pinned as a Fascist regime in the same sense as Mussolini’s Fascism or Hitler’s Nazism. It is more of a neo-monarchical/theocratical regime, but it’s connection to Fascism is indisputable.
[xii] Ibid 111.
[xiii] Georges Bataille. “The Old Mole and the Prefix Sur” In Visions of Excess, 259.
[xiv] The Path, 11.
[xv] Bataille. Visions of Excess, 181.
[xvi] Antonin Artaud. The Theatre of Cruelty, in The Theory of the Modern Stage (ed. Eric Bentley), 66.
[xvii] The Path, 5.
[xix] Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings Vol 2, Part 1: 1927-1930, 3.
[xx] Walter Benjamin. Arcades Project; K2,4.
[xxi] Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings Vol 4: 1938-1940, 392.
[xxiii] Walter Benjamin. “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’”, Selected Writings Vol 4: 1938-1940, 402.