Notes on: Benjamin, W.  (1979) One - Way Street.  London: New Left Books

[I openly admit that I find Benjamin extremely difficult, for the usual reasons with elite academics. This one, for example, talks about Breton's novels which I have not read. I am not at all sure I have understood this essay that follows.  I've done my best to turn it into something far more vulgar than it was meant to be]

Surrealism, 225-39

[Written 1929-31].  French surrealism is the result of boredom and the 'last trickle of French decadence', but in Germany it is seen as an activist artistic attempt to go beyond mere discussions of freedom.  It was always about a poetic life, and attempted to challenge the view that this was a literary form of existence rather than actual existence [the old project to connect up with life].

There was, however always a problem bridging the poetic and the real.  This either involves a matter of fact profane struggle for power, or turns into a mere 'public demonstration' (226).  The surrealists are just discovering this after the initial phase of conclusiveness and immediacy, seeing the problem as simply affecting the junction between dreams and life, or developing the 'automatic' or spontaneous generation of images.  It was already shifting towards an interest in language rather than meaning.  This, together with the loss of the conventional self through dreams [and freudianism?] led to an emphasis on surrealist experience.  Sometimes, drugs were used to generate this experience.

Surrealism can also be seen as a reaction to Catholicism, a 'profane illumination', or 'materialistic anthropological inspiration to which hash, opium, or whatever else can give an introductory lesson' (227).  Actual surrealists were not always equal to the challenge, however, and some turned to fortune telling and spiritualism.  The profane illumination is apparent in Breton's book Nadja, 'moral exhibitionism' about the surrealist conception of love.  Love became a mystical illumination rather than a pleasure, a general intoxication rather than a passion for actual women (229).

The surrealists aimed to discover 'revolutionary energies' in the 'outmoded', such as the first iron buildings, or early photographs.  'Destitution—not only social but architectonic...can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism'(229).  The gloomy atmosphere can be seen as the revolutionary experience.  However, this involves a 'trick' in the 'substitution of a political for an historical view of the past', and is meant to condemn modern parvenus and so on.  Again this is anti catholic as well.

There is a focus on Paris as the central object, its proletarian quarters, its dirt as symbolic power.  Photographs of the city produce an intensity towards events described in  Breton's novels.  The city becomes a model of the cosmos, producing 'inconceivable analogies and connections between events' as the order of the day.  There are also magical experiments with words: 'passionate phonetic and graphical transformational games' characteristic of avant-garde literature.  This is done partly to recapture the process by which a word comes to stand for a complex entity.  Even science can be seen as following surrealist logic [by Breton that is (232)].  Nevertheless, they are too ready to see machines as an 'uncomprehended miracle'.

Surrealism might have begun with contemplative amused commentary, but it ended with revolutionary opposition.  This was because of the hostility of the bourgeoisie towards any demonstrations of radical intellectual freedom.  The Moroccan War also radicalized them (233) and led to gloomy prophecies of a pogrom of poets.  Surrealists are typical of the 'well meaning leftwing bourgeois intelligentsia'.  They were even pro Russian at the time, and saw themselves as developing 'symbolic illumination', aiming to grasp the Russian Revolution in romantic terms.  There was an idealistic morality which became a kind of political practice [supporting Russia?].  Surrealism revolted against this at least.

Thus Rimbaud's Satanism developed as an attack on moralizing dilettantism.  Themes of horror do this as well.  There was a development of typical anarchistic, at the cultural level, infernal machines in different countries.  One example was Dostoevsky's focus on evil as inspiring, and ignoble actions as all examples of God's work [in The Possessed].  Surrealism's idea of freedom was different from this notion of liberal moral or humanistic liberation, and there were connections with political revolution.  The surrealist goal was 'to win the energies of intoxication for the revolution' (236).  There was also an anarchic element, and this did produce an interest in practical preparation and organization [I'm not sure I've got this right, it looks extremely ironic].  One problem is that intoxication and the notion of art as surprise was still enmeshed in the 'romantic prejudices [such as] the occult [and mysteries] which we only recognize in the every day (237).  Experience was granted a privilege compared to reading, based on the belief that profane illumination was superior.  In reality, thinking is superior, for Benjamin, especially if experience is based on hash!

It is true that politics can be seen as a matter of bad poetry, a matter of images only, a series of poor metaphors.  The surrealist were good at pessimism, demanding the actual conditions of the revolution, for example.  Eventually this led them to shift towards considering external circumstances rather than attitudes, and here, they became close to the Communist line.  Ironically, the official communist party mistrusted everybody, and opposed any kind of reconciliation with artistic or liberal critics, although they were prepared to trust 'IG Farben and the peaceful perfection of the [German] Air Force'(238).

The surrealist legacy is best seen as a matter of style.  Metaphors and images collide above all in politics.  Their organized pessimism did lead to the expulsion of moral metaphors from politics, with the replacement of images instead.  Surrealist images are not supposed to be just a matter for contemplation, but aimed at the overthrow of bourgeois 'intellectual predominance', and were supposed to make contact with the masses.  It was pointless to call for proletarian poets at the moment, since they would emerge only after the revolution.  It was necessary to use artists of bourgeois origins.  Surrealism was interested in jokes as well (238-9).  Surrealism tried to provoke 'jokes, invective and misunderstanding' about common images which are consumed and absorbed.  However, these are still images.  For Benjamin, 'metaphysical materialism [where concepts have a real existence and so can be worked on and explored]…  cannot lead without rupture to anthropological materialism'(239).

Only in technology can bodies and images interpenetrate and produce a revolutionary discharge.  Only then can reality transcend itself.  The surrealists have understood the need for reality to transcend itself, and have at least awakened our consciousness.

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