Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Profane Illumination, Chapter 3


Summary of Chapter 3: “Qui suis-je?” Nadja’s Haunting Subject

In this chapter, Cohen traces Andre Breton’s relation to Freudianism through his novel Nadja. Breton saw connections between Freudianism and Marxism:

he pursues not only how the Marxist and Freudian forces of deter­mination in the last instance are susceptible to apprehension by each other’s methodologies but also the possibility that they communicate closely (thus the notion of communicating vessels) and may in fact ultimately be indistinguishable. (60)

She traces in particular the concept of the “haunting” self in Nadja.

Breton posits this identity as a sequence of temporally differentiated moments. The I becomes a series of ghosts of its contiguous experience rather than a centered self. (64)

Breton references Rousseau, and C contrasts his writing with Rousseau’s project of portraying himself “as the portrait of an already formed, extratextual subject” in his confessions:

Breton's subjectivity is not any­where fully present but rather must be constructed through narrative; his textual act of representation resembles the process of self-construc­tion characteristic of the Freudian talking cure. (66)

Like an analysand’s discourse, Breton’s narration acquires significance not from the accuracy of any event represented but rather “dans son ensemble,” from the relation among the memories narrated, as the narration be­comes itself the event that generates meaning....

Breton’s text lacks a metalanguage that will comment with authority on the events he recounts. Asserting that his self is constituted by a series of haunting I’s, he refuses to grant to any one I a privileged status as the real Breton.

Breton suggests the subject as the ghost of some sort of unconscious realm, simultaneously implying that this unconscious is individual and that it is related to objective factors. Breton emphasizes the objective character of this realm increasingly as his reflections on its content proceed.

By “objective character,” she means the I as an object:

Alienating the I as the objective myself and then dissociating this objectified self from himself, turning it to “he who from farthest away comes to meet me,” Breton raises the uncer­tainty of his being able to reconstitute such alien material as a unified self at all. With the introduction of an objective dimension into the sub­ject, the possibility exists that the boundary between subject and object will crumble in the direction of contingency rather than recuperation, and this problem echoes in the final question, “Is it myself [moi­-meme]?” (67)

She discusses Sartre’s attack on Surrealist views of the subject, for instance his criticism of automatic writing (which Breton championed) as a sort of eating away at, or erosion of, the subject:

Au­tomatic writing is above all else the destruction of subjectivity. When we attempt it, spasmodic clots rip through us, their origin unknown to us; we are not conscious of them until they have taken their place in the world of objects and we have to look on them with the eyes of a stranger. (Sartre, quoted on p. 68)

Sartre is thus alarmed at the alterity or uncanniness of the self to its self, which the surrealists celebrate. It is interesting to consider why this alarms Sartre (speaking here for the viewpoint of existentialism, and to a degree for traditional Marxism) so much, given that in the traditional Hegelian dialectic, the individual consciousness must in fact go through this phase of becoming an object to itself, in order to become a full “self-consciousness.” The issue, I think, is that the dissolution of subject into object celebrated by the Surrealists such as Breton goes too far, and is not recuperable into the unified and rational self which traditional Marxism desires. Whereas in Marx the worker, for example, sees themself through their product, their own agency mixed with the world, in the case of automatic writing, it is the opposite, some other force intrudes and supplants or replaces our own agency, so our own creations are mysterious and alien to us. [On “action without agency,” see below.]

Sartre reacts with venom to the surrealist representation of the sub­ject because such a subject is ill-suited to carry out the praxis an existen­tialist protocol of engagement demands. (68)

Cohen makes much of Breton’s juxtaposition of a photo of himself with the subtitle referring to his envy for “any man who has the time to prepare something like a book”:

While in a standard documentary photo Breton’s portrait would illustrate the sentence to which it is juxtaposed, Breton constructs this sentence in such a way that he problematizes establishing a one-to-one correspondence between photograph and the textual passage whose ex­traliterary existence it documents. There are, after all, two parts of the sentence to which the photograph could refer. The subject of the photo­graph could be identical with the subject of the sentence, “I.” It could also, however, refer to the object of the sentence from which Breton’s subject here differentiates himself, “every man who has the time to prepare something like a book.” (69)

The photo of himself appears in a sense to refer to some other guy who can more confidently write and finish a book. B had presaged this with an earlier reference to a character from

a film I saw in the neighborhood, in which a Chinese who had found some way to multiply himself invaded New York [actually San Francisco] by means of several million self-reproductions. He entered President Wilson’s office followed by himself, and by himself, and by himself, and by himself; the President removed his pince-nez. (Breton 1960, 34-7)

Breton states that this film “has affected me far more than any other.” Howard translates the French title L'Étreinte de la Pieuvre as The Grip of the Octopus, but the original English title is in fact The Trail of the Octopus (though how often does an octopus leave a trail?). The self-duplication cited by Breton is achieved through a cinematic trick, which Cohen explores through a quote from Barthes on photography, but is interestingly far from the only example of self-duplication in that rambling, semi-coherent, massively trashy and entertaining silent film serial (the plot makes as much sense as automatic writing). First off, the number of villains (various stock ethnic stereotypes, for the most part) in the film start to multiply, ally, bicker, and fight amongst themselves; there is a Monsieur X (evil French guy) who obscures his face with a mask, but soon there are at least three characters wearing the same mask, posing as Monsieur X. Towards the end Wang Foo (the evil Chinese guy, who can multiply himself) rips the mask off the true Monsieur X, only to find he is one of his own (Wang Foo’s) copies!

The full potential of this serial’s accidental surrealism has yet to be taken up by scholars, though some exceptions are Mayer 2017 and Ungureanu 2020. Apropos of Breton’s agenda in Nadja, Mayer uses The Trail of the Octopus to demonstrate that “the detective serial maps a world of action without agency,” observing that “nobody is in control any longer, the police, the detective, the villains and the victims each pursuing their own, often discordant, agendas.” The movie also happens to feature disembodied eyes, such as appear several times in the images accompanying Nadja, and Monsieur X’s mask is similar to that which appears in one of “Nadja’s” (Leona Delacourt’s) artworks.

To return to Cohen’s argument:

This mention of how cinematic reduplication captures a differentiated subject points to a more general similarity between Breton’s ghostly definition of subjective manifesta­tion and what numerous theoreticians of photography have charac­terized as the ghostly nature of the photographic sign. (70)

She gives a quote from Barthes, which she suggests is influenced by a close reading of Nadja:

In the realm of the imaginary, the Photograph . . . represents this very subtle moment where, to tell the truth, I am neither a subject nor object, but rather a subject who feels itself become object: I then live a micro-experience of death (of parenthesis): I become truly a ghost. (71)

Rosalind Krauss had discussed surrealism and photography as index; Cohen notes this but decides to use the related but more Freudian term, trace.

We might term the ghostly mode of presence that Breton’s haunting subject shares with the photographic image trace-like, borrowing from Nadja’s own description of how she will haunt Breton.

Nadja in fact describes herself as a “trace,” in one of her cryptic statements to Breton. C links this to uses of the term “trace” in Freud:

For Freud the term designates a sign that represents the subjective activ­ity that produced it in distorted rather than mimetic fashion. (72)

[We can see how “distorted rather than mimetic” will link back to the previous chapter’s discussion of Benjamin and superstructure.] For Freud, the trace in the dream is altered through displacements to avoid censorship by the conscious ego or whatever.

Extending the term from dream to waking experience, Breton uses trace to designate the indexical fashion in which the ghostly subject haunts the tracks of his own experience.

The subject of Nadja is “the obscure realm of which the subject is a ghostly manifestation.” C notes Freud’s theory of the uncanny, according to which this is all the return of the repressed.

She comes now to a very interesting quote in which Breton distinguishes his own method in the novel from that of psychoanalysis. In Cohen’s version:

I would like finally . . . if I say, for example, that in Paris the statue of Etienne Dolet, place Maubert, has always simultaneously attracted me and caused me unbearable discomfort, that it will not immediately be deduced that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and which I consider to aim for nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and from which I expect other exploits than those of a bailiff. (Breton, quoted in Cohen, p. 73)

Her reading here actually caught me by surprise, as being the opposite of what I had thought on reading the novel; I had interpreted Breton as criticizing psychoanalysis by saying that it “expels a man from himself,” but according to Cohen, he is in fact saying that it should do this but does not, instead locking him in like a bailiff. The issue here is that Cohen has departed from Howard’s translation, something she usually indicates but here does not. Here is Howard’s translation of this passage:

… it will not immediately be supposed that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and whose present aims I consider nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and of which I expect other exploits than those of a bouncer. (Breton, 1960, 24)

The actual word in French is huisser, which can have either meaning, but from the French original we can see that Cohen’s interpretation is correct:

… on n'en déduisît pas immédiatement que je suis, en tout et pour tout, justiciable de la psychanalyse, méthode que j'estime et dont je pense qu'elle ne vise à rien moins qu'à expulser l'homme de lui-même, et dont j'attends d'autres exploits que des exploits d'huissier. (Breton, 1998, 24)

A pun is being made on the word “exploit;” “exploit d’huisser” means a kind of writ which is served by a bailiff or process server. So the “bailiff”/psychoanalyst is neither confining nor expelling the subject, but serving them a writ to appear in court, which could be understood as another metaphor like Althusser’s “interpellation.” [After all, psychoanalysts are priests, as D&G would say.] A vignette of Breton and Freud’s mutually dissatisfactory encounters at the beginning of the chapter had illustrated Breton’s impatience at Freud’s deeply bourgeois agenda; in contrast

Instead of using psychoanalysis in the service of the ruling bourgeois order, Breton is interested in pressing it into the service of revolution, although the distance between his conception of this notion and the event as under­stood by orthodox Marxism remains to be defined. (73)

[Breton has reasonably good leftist cred, but this did make me laugh, remembering a passage in which the narrator/Breton, who repeatedly insists in the novel that he is “not a public person” and wants to disappear, etc., looks at the people of Paris around him, shaking hands and talking on the morning sidewalk, and observes morosely, “No, it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution.” (Breton 1960, 64). Alas! If only it was circa 1991 and I was young, black-clad, and smoking arirangs because they’re too cool for anyone, I could see myself shouldering through a crowd, muttering, “Allons, ce n’étaient pas encore ceux-là qu’on trouverait prêts à faire la Révolution...”]

The novel Nadja is full of contradictions, as numerous scholars have noted and made hay of. To begin with, it is named after the female lead character, but the male narrator begins it by asking, “Who am I?” and this is indeed the primary theme of the book. Breton announces at the beginning his inspiration by Huysmans’ plotless stories, and the novel shares certain features with automatic writing. Much of it revolves around serendipity and coincidence, and the characters wander the streets of Paris in a way that at once evokes the dérives of the Situationalists several decades later, and yet is distinct in that while the Situationalists felt they were exposing and challenging the workings of capitalism and the Spectacle, for their Surrealist forebears it appears to be more about exposing the truly haunting and ephemeral character of the self, or the unconcious. In the light of (for instance) D&G’s discussion of interpellation, Breton’s exploration of the ephemerality of the self, refusing to return it to a unity, and his exposure of its changing nature in relation to Nadja [who serves as his “point of subjectification” in D&G’s terms], seems less like a challenge to subjectification than a cogent understanding, and illustration, of how it works.

I’ll throw in my favorite quote from the book for no special reason; a great summation of life and love in the [second world]:

How does it happen that thrown together, once and for all, so far from the earth, in those brief intervals which our marvelous stupor grants us, we have been able to exchange a few incredibly concordant views above the smoking debris of old ideas and sempiternal life? (Breton 1960, 111)

Breton, Andre (1960) Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard. Grove Press, New York.

Breton, Andre (1998) Nadja. Editions Gallimard, Paris.

Mayer, Ruth (2017) “In the Nick of Time? Detective Film Serials, Temporality, and Contingency Management, 1919-1926" The Velvet Light Trap 79:21-35.

Ungureanu, Delia, (2020) “What Dreams May Come: Marguerite Yourcenar, Van Gogh, Akira Kurosawa.” Renyxa 10:227-44.

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