The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Benjamin, Surrealism, and Paris

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
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André Breton; Arcades Project; Louis Aragon; Omen; Paris; Revolution; Surrealism; Walter Benjamin

This article has three aims. It discusses some of the tendencies within surrealism; then it considers its relation to the city. It discusses Walter Benjamin’s interest in surrealism and relates that to his work on the city, especially in the Arcades Project, and so it becomes also a discussion of Paris, where surrealism was so influential.

Introduction to Surrealism

In his essay “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” (1929), Benjamin names those who created the movement: André Breton (1896–1966), who had begun with Dada as an anti-art movement, Louis Aragon (1897–1982), Philippe Soupault (1890–1990), Robert Desnos (1900–1945), and Paul Eluard (1895–1962).

In his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Breton defines it as “psychic automatism […] by which one proposes to express […] the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” This expression is by word, and art, though Breton was hostile to the rationalizing implications of naming something art; hence, “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected association, in the omnipotence of dreams, in the disinterested play of thought” (Breton 1969: 26).

Since Breton believed in letting writing give way to the unconscious, following Freud’s valuation of the latter, he also believed in the chance encounter, hence his admiration of the Comte de Lautréamont (Isidor Ducasse, 1846–1873), who had come from Montevideo (Uruguay) to Paris by 1867. According to Soupault, Ducasse’s editor, the name comes from Eugène Sue’s novel Latréaumont (1838) and the character from the damned figure in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). In the sixth of the Chants de Maldoror (1868–69):

[…] if you look in the direction where the Rue Colbert turns into the Rue Vivienne, you will see, in the angle formed by the intersection of these two streets, the profile of a character moving with light footsteps towards the boulevards. But if you come closer, in such a way as not to attract the attention of this passer-by, you will observe with pleasant surprise that he is young […] I am expert at judging age from the physiognomic lines of the brow: he is sixteen years and four months of age. He is as handsome as the retractability of the claws in birds of prey; or again, as the unpredictability of muscular movements in sores in the soft part of the posterior cervical region; or rather, as the perpetual motion rat-trap which is always reset by the trapped animal and which can go on catching rodents infinitely, and works even when it is hidden under straw; and above all, as the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table. (Lautréamont 1978: 216–217)

The sense of Paris, just north of the Palais-Royal (IIe arrondissement) at nighttime, as the place of chance encounters, as roads by chance run into each other, produces a writing which seems to work by its creation of chance, though the images are not quite so undeliberated as that: the comparisons made to indicate the boy’s handsomeness vary between the aggressive, the passive, and the suffering: the “sores” are wounds, and the sense in the rattrap is of the power of the machinic. Above all, the comparison between the sewing machine and the umbrella on the dissecting table implies forms of penetration, though the umbrella may suggest both male aggression and female protectiveness.

Lautréamont’s work may be compared with two surrealist novels, both about Paris, Aragon’s Paris Peasant (Le Paysan de Paris (1926)) and Breton’s Nadja (1928). The first writes about the soon to be demolished Passage de l’Opéra, one of the arcades, and fundamental to Benjamin’s project, and thinks of trying to capture what mysteries underpin these places which are the detritus of the modern city:

The disquieting atmosphere of places contains similar locks which cannot be bolted against infinity. Wherever the living pursue particularly ambiguous activities, the inanimate may sometimes assume the reflection of their most secret motives: and thus our cities are peopled with unrecognised sphinxes which will never stop the passing dreamer and ask him mortal questions unless he first projects his meditation, his absence of mind, towards them. (Aragon 1987: 28)

The sphinx recalls Freud, and Oedipus, and is, of course, female; in Nadja she becomes the figure of the prostitute. In Nadja, Breton speaks of his life as being “at the mercy of chance” (Breton 1960: 19) and his “hauntings” (11), which are often on the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle where “I almost invariably go without specific purpose, without anything to induce me but the obscure clue: namely that it (?) will happen here. I cannot see, as I hurry along, what could constitute for me, even without my knowing it, a magnetic pole in either time or space. No, not even the extremely handsome, extremely useless Porte Sainte-Denis […]” (32). The sense of “it” is the demand for something new (note the name of the boulevard, Good News), a significant encounter with an Other, which can be paranoid in intensity. The Porte Sainte-Denis, a relic of eighteenth-century Paris, which Breton shows a photograph of, is, then, an instance of the “sphinx” Aragon speaks of, resisting interpretation, and its significance being in its chance existence (“extremely useless”).

Nadja’s main episodes are built from the chance encounter of Breton with Nadja on a particular October 4th (Breton 1960: 63–64), as every meeting is given a precise date. She, near the end, he learns, is mad – the irrationality is part of what surrealism celebrates – and has to be committed to the Vaucluse sanitorium (Breton 1960: 136). In the same way, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all” (160): a matter of shock, and of the extreme, and the non-static. In the same issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, where this episode appeared, Breton and Aragon celebrated “The Fiftieth Anniversary of Hysteria,” where this was seen as a female condition, and in Nadja, a city condition, because the woman walks the streets, “the only region of valid experience for her” (113). This is comparable with Aragon’s sense of “our cities being peopled with unrecognised sphinxes,” puzzles to be encountered which make Breton say that “life needs to be deciphered like a cryptogram” (112). There is an obvious sexism in all this (see Wilson 1991) and in how Breton identifies the woman with madness, and with his own pursuit of an “illicit sexual rendezvous,” as when he talks about a naked woman walking from one row to another of a cinema (39).

In Aragon, a shop in the Passage de l’Opéra is described in detail and then transforms itself into an oceanic world in which a siren is seen. The next day everything seems normal, except that “in the second window an accident had taken place, unnoticed: one of the pipes in a rack, a meerschaum whose bowl depicted a siren, had broken, as though it had been condemned to be a target in some seedy shooting gallery at a fair. From the end of this pipe’s illusionistic stem there still protruded the twin curve of a charming breast: a little white dust that had fallen on the silesia fabric of an umbrella testified to the erstwhile existence of a head crowned with flowing hair” (Aragon 1987: 38). Here the chance encounter and the strangeness become a gesture toward the marvelous in the real.


Benjamin’s engagement with surrealism appears in an essay of 1925, published in 1927, “Dreamkitsch,” where he argues that the surrealists are “less on the trail of the psyche than on the track of things.” These “things,” as kitsch, surround the child in the bourgeois interior of the nineteenth century, and, far from being a sign of progress or improvement, are a regress to mythic forms of existence, to the nonrational and mystificatory, where people are held by a “primal history” which, in the form of the worship of objects, controls them with the power of the fetish and keeps them dreaming.

Hence, the surrealists “seek the totemic tree of objects within the thicket of primal history. The very last, the topmost mask on the totem pole, is that of kitsch. It is the last mask of the banal, the one with which we adorn ourselves, in dream and conversation, so as to take in the energies of an outlived world of things” (Benjamin 1999a: 4, translation modified). Benjamin sees the surrealist interest in dreams, themselves permeated by kitsch, which is the product of mystified, dream-like thinking, as a critique of the bourgeois and banal world of things. And he also thinks that technology has the power to cut out such banality: “technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell, like banknotes that are bound to lose their value” (Benjamin 1999a: 3). Kitsch is the adornment of things, mere decoration, but it holds a social order in place. Surrealism as revolutionary must begin there.

Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia

The same issues reappear in Benjamin’s 1929 essay on surrealism. There, Benjamin sees it as related to a political and cultural crisis which he calls that of “the humanistic concept of freedom,” held onto by the “intelligentsia”: i.e., by those liberals who believed in individual freedom, and often in art for art’s sake, though this, with its aestheticism, could be seen as the opposite of the intelligentsia’s belief in liberal moralism (Benjamin 1999a: 207). Surrealism had been seen as an attack on a traditional concept of art, primarily, to French eyes, in artistic, or poetic, terms. A German critic, post-1919, could perhaps see more in it. Benjamin calls Rimbaud’s Saison en enfer, with its demand to be absolutely modern, a founding text of surrealism, and sees it as succeeded by developments in 1924; here, language takes precedence before meaning, the latter as something to be thought of as under the control of the humanist self (207). The point is that language precedes the self:

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 seemed worth living only when the threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away in everyone by the steps of multitudinous images flooding back and forth; language seemed itself only 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 ‘meaning’. (207)

Meaning, as something paraphrasable, and “humanistic” if it is considered as abstractable from image and language, is made redundant by these. The importance of surrealism was to create an explosion of images, which cannot be put into other words. We can say that this idea is equivalent to the idea of revolution, which cannot be thought of in reflective, contemplative, terms, but which happens on the instant.

As dreams loosen a sense of individuality, so also does “intoxication” (Rausch: ecstasy, or a state of transport, a Dionysian experience); and for surrealism, intoxication was the fruitful living experience which allowed the self to move beyond intoxication, i.e., to return awakened to the political realities of the world, since surrealism was “concerned literally with experience” (208). But such experience is not obtained merely through drugs, overcoming traditional religious illumination, but resides in a “profane illumination” (209), which Benjamin goes on to discuss through Nadja, and Paris Peasant, which greatly excited him, as he wrote in a letter to Adorno of 31 May 1935. Paris Peasant made Benjamin think about the Paris Arcades and, like the “Surrealism” essay, led to the Arcades Project, on the basis of Aragon’s first chapter, called “Le Passage de l’Opéra.”

We should note, however, that Benjamin was also skeptical of Aragon, because of the latter’s sense of the arcade being the place of the dream. For Benjamin, read the dream differently: “capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and through it, a reactivation of mythic forces” (Benjamin 1999b: 391; K1a,8). He felt that what had to happen was an awakening out of the dream, and not a continuance of it, a point made explicitly in the Arcades Project, when he says that “Aragon persists within the realm of dream” but “the concern is to find the constellation of awakening” which can only happen “through the awakening of a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been” (458; N1,9). This implies a sense of the Freudian unconscious, which surrealism made so much of, as not natural, but historically formed, so that awakening, as a future event, will give a sense of how the present has been constructed.

Paris Peasant is full of a “sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence” (“le merveilleux quotidien”, Aragon 1987: 29), which is a definition of surrealism in itself, and, lending itself to Carpentier’s sense of “the marvelous in the real” (“lo real maravilloso”) in the Prologue to The Kingdom of this World (1949), is oversimplified into “magic realism” (Carpentier 1990: n.p.). But, returning to Benjamin’s overall criticism, the illumination Aragon describes in Paris Peasant derives from ecstasy, as when he writes, “lucidity came to me when I at last succumbed to the vertigo of the modern,” and then, when he feels something “divine” in his meanderings around the city: “the face of the infinite beneath the concrete forms which were escorting me” (Aragon 1987: 129–130). It produced a new romantic mythicizing of the city, giving him a sense of gods who are “the very principles of every transformation of everything. They are the necessity of movement. So I was walking tipsily among countless divine concretions. I set about forming the idea of mythology in motion. It was more accurate to call it a mythology of the modern” (130).

Benjamin wishes to see such “tipsiness,” or inebriation, to be not accepted on its own terms, but seen dialectically, producing that “profane illumination” he speaks of in the “Surrealism” essay, that is, as one that does not need gods, nor mythology, but rather, that looks at the material and political constitution of the city. The spectacular and phantasmagoric nature of experience in the city does not need a further sense of mystery; profane illumination would do the work of disenchanting the mystifying effects of the phantasmagoria. The aim must be to step into the midst of the world of today.

Similarly, Benjamin admires Breton but considers Nadja not yet adequate for revolution. He defines something special in it from Breton calling it “a book with a banging door.” He reflects then on being in a hotel where all the room-doors were kept ajar:

What had at first seemed accidental began to be disturbing. I found out that in these rooms lived members of a [Buddhist] sect who had sworn never to occupy closed rooms. The shock I had then must be felt by the reader of Nadja. To live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue […] it is also an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism that we badly need. (209)

(In passing, Benjamin’s interest in glass houses will recall his admiration for Siegfried Giedion, and the new work with iron, and the new developments in house building associated with Corbusier. In the Arcades Project, “under the bourgeoisie, cities, as well as pieces of furniture retain the character of fortifications. ‘Till now, it was the fortified city which constantly paralysed town planning’” (215; I1a,8, citing Le Corbusier)).

The virtue of Nadja is to have got out of bourgeois “discretion,” which implies living in the glass house. Hence, the discussion of love can also be a “profane illumination” (210). Though Benjamin seems inadequate in his discussion of the sexual relationship in Nadja as regards the woman, his next discussion of love as giving “illumination,” less than sensual pleasure, is interesting, as is his sense of “the dialectics of intoxication” (210) – i.e., that it produces a new sobriety in consciousness as well. Benjamin discusses Breton’s “discovery,” which is that he perceived the “revolutionary energies that appear in the outmoded,” such as the first iron constructions, or, indeed, the Arcades themselves, which were certainly obsolete by the 1920s (see Benjamin 1999b: 540–541; R2,3, and also 458; N1,11). Capitalism depends on creating the outmoded and leaving detritus (cp. 466; N5,2): to find energy to “the point of explosion” in the discarded past requires a dialectical move which comes from substituting “a political for a historical view of the past” (210), and it compares with Benjamin’s sense of the “dialectical image,” which, indeed, is a surreal conception, though not only that.

Perhaps because of its combination of outmoded and new together, the most dreamed-of object in the Surrealists is Paris; and here Benjamin speaks against the paintings of de Chirico and of Ernst as inadequate to confront the city (and indeed Surrealist painting very rarely takes on Paris):

At the center of this world of things stands the most dreamed-about of their objects: the city of Paris itself. But only revolt completely expresses its Surrealist face (deserted streets in which whistles and shots determine the outcome). And no face is surrealistic to the same degree as the true face of a city. No picture by de Chirico or Max Ernst can match the sharp elevations of the city’s inner strongholds, which one must overrun and occupy in order to master their fate – and in their fate, in the face of their masses – one’s own. (211 – emphasis added)

As Ernst’s commentator, Ralph Uhl says, “in the modern city, but not in modern painting, Benjamin sees the possibility of conceiving the future of the subject and that of the collective as a common future” (Uhl 2013: 197). Modern painting would have to approach more the condition of film.

Benjamin sees the photography in Nadja as intervening here, since it injects the “banal obviousness” of streets and squares “with the most pristine intensity towards the events described,” so that “all the parts of Paris that appear here are places where what is between these people turns like a revolving door” (211). As with the Arcades themselves, the image here, like the banging door, implies the breakdown of distinctions between the interior and the exterior, the private and public, which of course cuts at humanistic ideas of freedom. This Paris sets up “inconceivable analogies and connections between events” (211).

Yet Benjamin thinks that the art for art’s sake which surrealism worked against was more complex: it was, indeed, more like surrealism, in that it adopted a cult of evil, in Rimbaud and Lautréamont, which was “a political device, however romantic, to disinfect and isolate against all moralising dilettantism.” And Lautréamont had as his heritage “insurrection” (215). And this is the place where Benjamin sets out his sense of how surrealism works with the separate reality of everything, whether thing, word, or image, and why Aragon’s text, for instance, is so full of city-based graphic images from newspapers or advertising:

This realism, however – that is, the belief in a real, separate existence of concepts, whether outside or inside things – has always very quickly crossed over from the logical realm of ideas to the magical realm of words. And it is as magical experiments with words, not as artistic dabbling, that we must understand the passionate phonetic and graphic transformational gains that have run through the whole literature of the avant-garde for the past fifteen years, whether it is called Futurism, Dada, or Surrealism. (212)

The important point for Benjamin is, in the face of his charge that the Surrealists have an aestheticizing tendency, “to win the energies of intoxication for the revolution” which is “the project about which surrealism circles in all its books and enterprises” (215). It is insufficient to say that “an ecstatic component lives in every revolutionary act” (215). This would be little more than romantic anarchism, i.e., it would have a non-dialectical sense of intoxication, as a good in itself: the dialectical sense, or “optic” [i.e., perspective], in contrast would require perceiving “the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday.” The city, and the realism of the everyday it offers, attains a new significance here. Illumination comes not so much from an intoxicated experience of hashish but from a profane (i.e., sober, non-enchanted) sense of the city, such as the flâneur has, more profane – more everyday – than “that most terrible drug – ourselves – which we take in solitude” (216). Aragon specifically finds his illumination to be engendered by himself, in a romanticism Benjamin resists, in contrast to the activity of “the reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flaneur” (216), figures who imply the brooding of the melancholic classically described in Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), who do not unify experience under the sign of religious illumination, but who see reality in the form of dissociated ruins (the modern example here for Benjamin is Baudelaire).

Technology and Revolution

Benjamin speaks of a poetry which works by the “organization of pessimism.” He takes the phrase from Pierre Narville (1903–1993), who had edited La Revolution Surréaliste and who saw it as the condition for revolution which includes distrust of “reconciliation” (217). He then says that it means to exclude metaphor (where we say that this is like that – a reconciliatory gesture which by making everything sound familiar brings back the category of “meaning” and makes the new image perception assimilable to something already existing). “To organise pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in the space of political action the one hundred per cent image space” (217) − that which cannot be measured by contemplation, detachedly. If Aragon thought that surrealism was the use of the image – singular – since “for each man there awaits discovery a particular image capable of annihilating the entire Universe” (Aragon 1987: 79), so Benjamin needs a plurality of images. As with the joke, which always depends on immediacy of insight, insofar as it has an explosive immediate effect, and not on either meaning or metaphor, the image and the meaning are the same (“the action puts forth its own image,” 217), so what is sought for is not a space for meaning, but an “image space” and a “body space” (the Arcades Aragon describes are both).

Benjamin recalls the image quality which the surrealists brought to language, which cuts out “meaning,” as this as an abstraction threatens bodily experience. As Benjamin conjoins technology with the transparency of glass building (Benjamin 1999b: 465; N4,6), so the technology which produces images is transforming the nature of the human, and it secures the possibility that “all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge” (217–218).

Innervation implies stimulating an organ of the body through the nerves. The “humanistic freedom” Benjamin begins the essay by describing must in modernism and surrealism become something else: where the self does not exist separated from every other, but where the collective body becomes revolutionary discharge. Surrealism has not achieved that, but it has alarmed the senses and organs of the body: changed “the play of human features for the face of an alarm clock that in each minute rings for sixty seconds” (218). This image, transcending paraphrasable meaning – a profane illumination – is an immediate creation of a new perception. As physiognomy for Benjamin is not an intellectual attribution of meaning to a face, so this perception of similarity sets up a new sense of the human under shock; it works as a flash of recognition, as a new image.

Surrealism taps into the energies which are in the city, which themselves yield a “profane illumination,” but Benjamin does not stop with it but in the 1930s passes more to the possibilities of using technology to bring about a new collective power.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK