Summary of Chapter 4: The Ghosts of Paris
In this long chapter, Cohen works to distance Breton’s writing in Nadja from several other representational modes. First off is the monumental history critiqued by Nietzsche:
Breton's Nadja offers no such monumental vision of Parisian historical grandeur. Rather than encompassing the city in a panoramic glance, Breton wanders in among its streets, catching enigmatic glimpses of scenes from daily life or dwelling on places singularly tangential to the great structures of collective memory. (79)
She takes as an example the Vendôme column; when Breton visits this location in Nadja, he is immediately reminded of how it had been torn down during the Paris Commune. In terms of monumental history, the restoration of the column means that the revolutionary moment has been erased and the column now appears as “one more image of the bourgeois state’s eternal reign” (79). For this reason, the non-monumental historiographic project “cannot rely on realist methods of representation” (80) (since these would show the literal, physical presence of the column, and not be able to show its former non-presence). [Though it seems to me this is not wholly true. Breton mentions the former overthrow of the column by Courbet and the communards; the memory of this event is still part of the column, so even as it stands it also lies in ruin, inevitably, to any observer who knows the history. THOUGH C is arguing not about the column as an object having various “real” or “unreal” qualities, etc., but about ways of seeing the column; realism privileges the visual, and it is thus according to realism that the column has only the present, visual meaning, not the past, haunting meaning.] [It’s a bit ironic for Courbet to be used in an argument against realism.]
“In Nadja Breton explores the possibility of writing surrealist historiography by applying a Freudian paradigm of memory to collective events.” [She is making the move I inferred above, though does the connection to Freudianism lessen the ambiguity and productive ambivalence? of the column being both standing and fallen.] She quotes Benjamin’s description, from his Surrealism essay in Reflections, of Breton’s method in Nadja (though he says it is more of a “trick” than a “method” of substituting “a political for a historical view of the past” [by “historical view” is presumably meant something along the lines of monumental history.]
Cohen then explores Parisian panoramic literature of the 1920s, and of some earlier decades, to reconstruct the discourse and [structure of feeling] of the era in which Breton was writing, in order to get a better sense of how a reader of his time would have recognized the various “ghosts” haunting the Paris through which Nadja and Andre travel. She started off doing an exhaustive survey of panoramic literature on Paris from the 20s, but realized this was not necessary as it was all very redundant:
Repeatedly, the same historical associations were identified with Breton's charged Parisian sites, confirming the hypothesis that there did indeed exist a contemporary reservoir of Parisian phantoms that Breton could invoke.
The uncanny effects of Parisian places, Breton suggests, derive from effaced historical memories that continue to cluster around the place of their occurrence in invisible but perceptible form. (83)
Comparing Breton’s text with that of the panoramic literature on the various sites he mentions, C finds that Breton consistently pursues the connections between Parisian bohemia and the history of insurrection at any particular locations; this is “a crucial component to Nadja's attack on orthodox Marxist notions of praxis” (94). Nadja is continuously associated with the side of the revolution that lost out, from the royalists to the Girondins (and Lepeletier, more of a radical, but an early martyr). Acc C, Breton is outlining an opposition to violent revolution, through contrasts or whatever with all these ghosts of failed past revolutions. Reference is made to the Sacco-Vanzetti riots on 1927, which were also failures, because the French Communist party hoped they would spark a more general revolutionary movement.
For in these experiences Breton finds confirmation for a haunting notion of subjectivity which calls into question the possibility of establishing an enlightened and conscious subject outside of ideology in several ways. Posing the problem of whether there exists a self-present subject at all, Breton also suggests the conscious subject as the locus where the reigning ideology reproduces itself. Ghosts endowed with powers of resistance only surge up in moments when the subject's conscious experience is disrupted by forces coming from a mysterious unconscious realm. In addition, the collective uncanny suggests that history is composed of temporal strata layered as in the situations of individual psychic repression at issue in psychoanalysis. (106)
In contrast to mainstream Marxism, Breton focuses on Bohemians and lumpen as the revolutionary class; “ragpicker as revolutionary” (106ff). Cohen recounts Breton’s annoyance at the shiny happy people on the sidewalk shaking hands, etc. which I had found so amusing; C, in contrast, appears to read this as Breton’s distrust of the working class as having revolutionary potential.
Rather, against the Marxist interest in mobilizing the proletariat, Breton stresses the need for individual, tactical disruptions of reigning social orders in what he calls “unchaining.” In doing so Breton disqualifies the class from which orthodox Marxism expects revolution, for he suggests as precondition to praxis the subject’s being freed from the material conditions of industrial production. Socially transformative activity becomes instead the province of subjects who no longer define themselves according to their work: (107)
The key concept Cohen pulls out of Breton’s book is désenchaînement, “perpetual unchaining.” The need for this is his response to Nadja’s insistence that the working class are “good people;” he takes this to mean martyrs for the cause (for work, for the nation in wars, for the CP in revolutionary struggles). It involves an openness to “the marvelous,” “an interest that surrealism itself took over from the Gothic tradition” (107).
Chaîne also means assembly line:
Enchainement is a word resonating not only on the material level but also on the conceptual level, as the enchainement of ideas; the disruption of dominant conceptual structures is an oft-stated goal of surrealist revolution. (108)
If Breton appropriates the Marxist liberatory language of “unchaining,” then, it is to displace Marxism's vision of the working class rising up and casting off its chains.
The inclusion of various lumpen/bohemian characters in the novel is contrasted with Marx’s distrust of this class.
But precisely its marginal relation to capitalist processes of production endears bohemia to Breton. In its Lumpen constitution and practices, bohemia embodies the unchaining of social hierarchies that surrealism seeks. (109)
She discusses Breton’s [détournement] of the word “perverse” into something positive (from Latin pervertere, to overturn, C notes]. This “more closely approaches his flea-market vision of social change than does the word revolution” (110). Breton is also interested in bohemia’s links to the libidinal unchaining of the erotic, which is also traditionally distrusted by mainstream marxism:
In Breton's subsequent theoretical writings he will try to reconcile Marxism with his interest in unchaining libidinal forces, speculating that the seemingly differentiated fields of libidinal and economic production may in fact turn out to be one. (110n58)
C turns to criticisms that mainstream surrealism accorded women a secondary status, stating that there are two ways to put surrealism’s treatment of women in perspective; first, by looking back, Cohen notes that the subordination of women in surrealism, even as they were made into “emblems of its power” goes back to the Jacobin revolutionary tradition (110-1). Second, looking forward, she finds that surrealism had some positive influence on feminist theory, through the concept of “subversion.” C provides some interesting comments on the status of “subversion” for “politicized postmodernism” at the time of her writing in the early 1990s:
After over a decade, subversion is losing its prestige; touting it as a political practice all too often seems like prescribing snakeoil for gaping social wounds. The pressing critical questions, we have started to feel, are elsewhere (nothing is so profoundly anti-erotic as the recently outmoded, Benjamin remarks), for example in exploring the complex relation of the aesthetic to other forms of social production rather than in denying its specificity or simplistically exalting its effect. I suspect moreover that the death-knell of subversion has, at least for the moment, been sounded with the fracturing of the Reagan-Bush right. Alleviating in some measure the academic left’s sense of social and political marginalization, this fracturing removes a key factor in the appeal of subversion to the politically engaged wing of American critical postmodernism throughout the 1980s. (111)
In a discussion of de Certeau’s influences, the distinction between Bataille and Breton is neatly summarized:
But in the case of tactics de Certeau’s view more resembles Bretonian unchaining than the equivalent therapeutic unleashing of the forces of the unconscious onto existing social order prescribed by Bataille. (111)
Bataille celebrates absolute negation and general collapse through expenditure; Breton and de Certeau are more interested in “small-scale moments of intervention” (e.g., de Certeau’s interest in “tactics”). The trouvaille, or lucky find, is dear to both surrealism and de Certeau. She also finds a link to D&G:
I think, for example, of Deleuze and Guattari’s “molecular multiplicities of desiring-production,” which owe much to Nadja’s haunting subjectivity; the trajectory here runs from unchaining to deterritorialization. (112)
Though she notes that “High surrealism is certainly a conspicuous absence in Anti-Oedipus” which prominently cites the Beats and the renegade surrealists of Bataille’s faction.
She raises the issue of aestheticization, or the rendering of workers, bohemians, etc. into aesthetic tools via representation, in a way degrading them and stealing their agency: Breton is opposing aestheticization by traditional Marxism, but he himself risks doing it himself, and navigating this takes up most of the rest of Cohen’s discussion.
Discussing the degraded life of the urban proletariat, Breton points out that to make the worker into an agent of social change is to aestheticize the social realities of the worker’s life. One can certainly argue, however, that Breton’s interest in bohemian practices lends glamour to the dirty business of sifting through society’s trash. … It could equally be objected that Breton glamorizes prostitution and madness. (113)
However, according to C, Breton does not in fact aestheticize these positions because “Breton simultaneously narrates his encounters with Nadja in a fashion undoing the bohemian suggestions for revolutionary practice that he proposes” (114).
[Fanny Beznos, a character from the book who plays a key in this part of Cohen’s discussion, and who Breton recounts seeing at a flea market selling books, later died in Auschwitz].
Cohen’s summary of the plot; Nadja is a stock character from 19th century social novels, the newcomer woman to the city who falls into prostitution:
In this desperate state, she meets a bored, young, married aesthete. Fascinated by her fragile mental health, the aesthete seduces her, driving her to madness; repelled by the sordid details of her life, he eventually abandons her. Later learning that, utterly destitute and alone, she has been institutionalized, he does nothing to help her but only abstractly bemoans her fate. (114)
This somewhat callous ending has disappointed many critics and indeed, readers in general (Breton comes across as so bourgeois in the end); Cohen, however, sees it as part of what makes Breton’s novel actually revolutionary; he is contrasted in particular to the writers of social novels, such as Eugene Sue, and Zola, and she describes how each would have written the story differently, to elicit particular feelings, so as to prompt readers to support social reforms. Breton denies us these nice cathartic feelings, and further complicates his books relation to the social novel by also bringing in elements of the post-Romantic prose poem a la Nerval or Rimbaud, precursors to surrealism.
In valorizing the prostitute, for example, Baudelaire’s prose poem redeems as aesthetically fertile her availability to chance and to the unknown as well as her refusal to engage in the forms of behavior which bourgeois morality defines as work.
Unlike Sue or Zola, Breton’s account of Nadja does not place the reality of prostitution, insanity, etc., under the obligation of communicating “a certain ideological necessity” linked to bourgeois moralizing, like that which Marx criticized in Sue (116). Instead of “replacing the social Nadja with the aestheticized Nadja” Breton problematizes all this with his constant questioning as to “who is the real Nadja?” This also does not romanticize bohemian unchaining, because it can lead to madness, etc. Instead, Breton’s setting up the possibility of unchaining, then showing also its pitfalls, creates for the reader an aporia or aporias, (in the Derridean sense of the word):
Breton’s generic disruption does not offer transcendence or liberation but rather throws the reader into impasse, aporia, and specifically the aporia of oppressive material conditions which destroy the efforts at ideological unchaining necessary to change them.
Nadja’s fate raises the possibility that surrealist désenchaînement may not only fail to undermine the superior force of the ruling order; it may exist only as an effect of the order it thinks to challenge. (117)
[The above implication that romantic désenchaînement might be part of the [spectacle] is not pursued any further in this chapter].
She notes criticisms that B’s attitude toward the insane prisoners of the asylum is patronizing and condescending, tinged with bourgeois moralism.
Many readers have expressed disappointment that Breton does not present his and Nadja’s adventures as heady and intoxicating transcendence. Condemning Breton for his final betrayal of Nadja, they link it to his betrayal of the marvelous series of steps the text sets out to take. It seems to me, however, that such betrayal does not mark the failure of the text’s disruptive power but instead its accomplishment. The disruptive force of the betrayal can indeed best be gauged by readers’ persistently negative reactions to it, which bear witness to their own unexamined needs for texts presenting optimistic schemas of social change. (118)
Interestingly, Cohen’s defense of Breton here could be said to be similar to his approach in the book: she defends him but also allows cracks and doubts in the edifice, so that Breton can be seen as both brilliant revolutionary and failed, un-self-critical bourgeois consumer of the spectacle, at the same time.