Volume 11, Number 3 (August, 2014)
Author: Laura Smith
Aesthetic experience is that of something that spirit may find neither in the world nor in itself; it is possibility by its impossibility. Art is the ever broken promise of happiness (Adorno and Tiedemann, 1991: 178).
This essay points toward and further supports the idea that Walter Benjamin’s exegesis of the allegorical in the Baroque, and his exegesis of the surrealist movement of the twentieth century, share a core element; one which elevates these two forms of expression to possessing the crucial, yet rare, awareness of its ability to render a consciousness of the eternal from elements of the material. The difficulty of engaging this core element displays a “deep-rooted intuition of the problematic character of art” (Benjamin, 1977: 176) that is still discussed in contemporary aesthetics. The fact that this core awareness is present in both forms of art that Benjamin examines, yet have not been linked as such, allows for a broadening of understanding in the consideration of aesthetic perspective and expression. Both allegory and surrealism point to the necessity of art’s relationship to “nature-history” (Ibid.: 177) in the privileging of fragmentation (albeit via two different modes) over the traditional emphasis of unity in form.
The (above) quotation from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory sets in motion the idea of irreparable loss and a constant will towards reconstruction. It highlights the fact that the foundational idea evoked by Benjamin reaches a far wider expanse in the implications for the appreciation of art.
This essay argues that it is the confrontation of ‘loss’, which is characteristic of the human condition and that is essential to both forms of expression for Benjamin. Due to the difference in aesthetic approach and the temporal divide between the German Baroque and surrealism, the idea that their core possesses the same “truth content” is ever-more pertinent. Truth content is a term employed by Benjamin, bound up, yet in opposition to material content. Although a work of art begins with its truth content and its material content interlaced, Benjamin determines that time divides them. “Truth content always remains to the same extent hidden as the material content comes to the fore” (Benjamin, 2004: 297). Therefore, truth content and material content act in opposition to one another on the poles of the extreme, while at the same time remain always ‘in relation to’ one another. These terms are essential to the understanding of Benjamin’s investigation of both forms of expression.
The remainder of this essay is in three sections. Section Two explores Benjamin’s conception of the Trauerspiel (German Baroque Drama) in its emphasis on history and fragmentation. Section Three examines surrealism, a much more recent movement that also utilizes juxtaposed extremes (materiality) to point to an ‘elsewhere’. Section Four delineates an example of where these two forms of expression may coincide. This is possible through the illumination of the poetry of Baudelaire, who engages with language and image in both surrealist and allegorical methods. These three sections point to the successful employment of material content that makes way for the presence of ‘an eternal truth content’ (the specifics of which will be further clarified throughout the text).
II. German Tragic Drama; Trauerspiel’s Allegorical Drive
Allegory declares itself to be beyond beauty. Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things” (Benjamin, 1977: 178).
i) Tragedy and Trauerspiel, a history
Walter Benjamin’s work, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, written between 1919 and 1925 and published in 1928, discusses the particular characteristics of allegory in the form of the Trauerspiel of Baroque drama (Ibid.: 7; Rosen and Smith, 1991: 140). Before expanding upon allegory as central to Trauerspiel, Benjamin dedicates a chapter to the comparison of Trauerspiel and Tragedy (the former translated as “play of sorrow”) (Benjamin, 1977: 17). These two types of plays are easy to confound, normally absorbed as one under the umbrella term of Tragedy, although George Steiner in the introduction to the book notes their “radical distinction” from one another (Ibid.: 16). Why does Benjamin want to differentiate between the two dramas and call attention to Trauerspiel specifically? Their difference, uncovered by Benjamin, marks not only that which essentially illustrates the poignancy of allegory found in Trauerspiel, but at the same token, calls for a renewal in approach for literary critique in a broader sense (Iid.: 177). This renewal highlights what lies in the peripheral of critique and is the gift of Benjamin’s project.
Tragedy, Steiner notes is rooted in myth, normally involving heroic sacrifice and transcendence. Steiner notes that Benjamin writes of Tragedy as an inward experience wherein the realization of the hero “that he is ethically in advance of the gods” propels him into silence (Ibid.: 16). The prime example is a Greek Tragedy. This inward experience connotes the emphasis on the subject/individual. Trauerspiel, on the other hand, is understood by Benjamin as reflexive of the situation of its epoch; one of religious and political instability. Trauerspiel emerges during the Baroque period and can be attributed the following characteristics: a play that requires an audience, “ceremonies and memorabilia of grief” (Ibid.: 17). These plays are history-based, public, outward performances rather than inward (Ibid.: 16). Based in the world, they are immanent. Trauerspiel has its more prominent parallel forms in Spanish (notably Calderón) and English (notably Shakespeare) (Rosen and Smith, 1991: 145).
Trauerspiel is often placed in the category of tragedy because of its depiction of the ‘royal hero’; heroism being a key factor of ancient Greek Tragedy (Benjamin, 1977: 61). However, the ‘hero’ of Trauerspiel is more conflicted, contradictory, or one should say seemingly dichotomous, than the heroes portrayed in tragedy as the latter is rooted in myth. It is the royal, the monarch of the Trauerspiel, who is caught between two extremes; the extreme, which Benjamin qualifies as fear-inspiring tyranny and its antithesis- the martyr who inspires sympathy. These two figures become emblematic in their portrayal of the extremes and are revealed to be two sides of the same coin (Ibid.: 69). The implication of this can only point to human nature as catastrophe (referring to its nature as irreconcilable or in the constant state of deterioration), which arises from seemingly mutually exclusive passions. Benjamin notes, these plays do not end neatly with a message of redemption, they end on a secular note despite the “theological- juridical” underpinnings of the Baroque period (Ibid.: 65). Trauerspiel, unlike from Romanticism, although not devoid of emotion, contorts the expectation of the viewers with its refusal of predictable suspense and its focus on action (Ibid.: 74). Benjamin adds a quotation of Opitz’ in a footnote on Trauerspiel: “It deals only with the commands of kings, killings, despair, infanticide and patricide, conflagrations, incest, war and commotion, lamentation, weeping, sighing, and suchlike (Ibid.: 62). Its focus is on often crude events, devoid of the explanation of motives, became fragmented scenes of history, which Benjamin describes as misunderstood (Ibid.: 75). Charles Rosen, in The Ruins of Walter Benjamin, importantly states that up until Benjamin’s work on German drama’s of the seventeenth century, and even still thereafter, Trauerspiel was not a subject that was frequently treated or even known of (Rosen and Smith, 1991: 140). Rosen notes in listing authors upon whom Benjamin draws in his work, such as Lohenstein and Opitz, “[they] were seldom read, and almost never produced” (Ibid.).In contrast, Steiner notes that allegory itself had been studied, althoughBenjamin’s work specifically could be read in terms of the contemporary work of Expressionism.1
Trauerspiel, in its historical, political emphasis on events (therefore immanent undertones), contrasts to tragedy which, rooted in myth, relies more so on the unity of the symbolic. “It is one thing to incarnate a form, it is quite a different thing to give its characteristic expression” (Benjamin, 1977: 57). It is not necessarily a question of the symbolic or the allegorical but a question of the redemption of man as possible or impossible as Idea produced via literature that interests Benjamin (Ibid.: 79).
The level of expression, then, exists as more pronounced in the Trauerspiel’s ability to question convention. This expression can only be understood in its tumultuous time period. Benjamin elaborates, “of all the profoundly disturbed and divided periods of European history, the Baroque is the only one which occurred at a time when the authority of Christianity was unshaken” (Ibid.: 79). This disturbance, despite and because of Christianity, accounts for a turn towards the secular over the employment of Christian eschatology (Ibid.: 66).In order to build a case for allegory, which functions as an expression of the eternal by a surprising ontological-material aesthetic, Benjamin inverts the afore-mentioned properties of the Trauerspiel to gain access to its own historical development. What does this imply?
Benjamin, rather than studying what the Trauerspiel does, primarily focuses on how and why it came to be so; only this contextualization points to its success for the critic. In the early to mid-twentieth century, the idea of allegory was largely dismissed in favour of the idea of the symbol. The latter was seen to truly embody the essence of concepts within its proper image, while the former was dismissed as a “playful illustrative technique” (Ibid.: 162). Benjamin points out the misinterpretation of allegory as a “conventional relationship between an illustrative image and its abstract meaning” by “great artists and exceptional theoreticians (Ibid.). For theoreticians such as Schonenhauer Benjamin notes that the symbol, through pictorial means, actually became its fixed and precise meaning (Ibid.). Benjamin does not disagree that the interpretation of symbols remain locked in the realm of unity of meaning. It is precisely this, which such artists and theoreticians understood as the goal of art, which Benjamin himself denounced. What others denounced as ambiguous in allegory, Benjamin identifies as its strength, capable of illuminating “truth content” through expression elucidated via form.
Allegory sprang up in the medieval ages with a focus on pagan deities that Benjamin understood as ‘old’ allegory. The Baroque, its more ‘modern’ form, retained the representation of medieval characteristics linking the idea of expression as multiplicious (Ibid.: 76). The role of historicity is twofold in Benjamin’s treatment of the Trauerspiel: on the one hand, the plays are embedded in their history; as they have arisen from it they can only be understood as a product of the context through their political and theological placement. Benjamin explores the plays through an investigation into the circumstances and shifts of their time. The true success for the work of art is its ability to stand the test of time. On the other hand, Benjamin renounces the notion of the history of art, which he sees as mistaken in that the work of art, from this perspective, can only act as exemplar. From this point of view something is lost for the work of art if it becomes an example of a theme and not an expression itself. According to Benjamin, works of art should be at the forefront of the investigation of history (Rosen and Smith, 1991: 134).
Within this space between the work of art and general historical recounting, lies interpretation. The critic states: “In the interpretation there arise connections between works of art which are timeless and yet not without historical importance” (Ibid.: 141). In the highlighting of restriction, tension and conflict, the dialects inherent and inescapable of history, time and language are implicated. Rosen notes, “Politics and theology together are implicated in the Trauerspiel’s conception of history as catastrophe” (Ibid.: 143). It is as a result of natural and man-made events that history as tumultuous has unfolded and it is through the inscription of interpretation, the language possible from God and hat the work of art has provided insight to human nature. However, it is important to note that Benjamin carefully distinguishes between a work of art’s truth content (which transcends time) and its interpretation (which is born of a specific time) (Rosen and Smith, 1991: 171).
The Trauerspiel, in its denial (denial of excessive (individual) emotions, of explanation and of convention) blocks the possibility for direct communication. If the element of immediately transmissible communication is lacking, this form of expression aligns itself with language- a form of expression supposedly employable for the ease of understanding yet obviously immanent and manifold, it holds infinite possibilities of misunderstanding. How is language non-communicative while it is clearly understood as a tool of communication? Typical of Benjamin’s investigation, the primary definition of a term, in this case language, is not always the most important element to understand. In Benjamin’s essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”, the element of communication is explored, however, via a philosophy of religion. The concept of language is treated as Benjamin treats his inquiry of the Trauerspiel.
Benjamin recounts that God gave language to man, precisely with the possibility of naming. This, Benjamin declares, aligns language to the act of creation (Benjamin, 1986a: 322). Language, therefore, is first and foremost an endowment of creative potentiality. However, there is a gap between the language possible from God and that of man, which Benjamin notes as “fallen” (Ibid.: 327). This fall insights language to be understood and utilized as a “means” or a “sign”. As noted above, language is often perceived as a tool for communication, but this ignores the possibility of the non-communicated; language’s capacity of inherent creation. Benjamin notes: “We are concerned here with nameless, non-acoustic languages, languages issuing from matter; here we should recall the material community of things in their communication” (Ibid.: 330). Benjamin thus is pointing to the peripherals over the immediate- this suggests a work’s truth content in its element of timelessness.
If one applies Benjamin’s consideration of the history of art (his notion that this perspective reduces the work of art to a mere example of the phenomena), to the all-encompassing categorization of tragedy, the classification of the particulars are highlighted as dangerous for the loss of a work’s truth content. What does one loose with the maintaining of a whole as the position from which one regards the elements within? What is at stake when Benjamin asks for the consideration of particulars over a grouping of what stands out as common? What is to become of the consideration of the particulars that do not fall into the classification of the central theme? What is left on the side-lines becomes a new direction of orientation for Benjamin. The Trauerspiel can be understood as a particularity of the tragedy that Benjamin felt compelled to give due attention.
George Steiner notes in the introduction of The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “Baroque drama is inherently emblematic-allegoric, as Greek Tragedy never is, precisely because it postulates the dual presence, the twofold organizing pivot of Christ’s nature- part god, part-man, and overwhelmingly of this world” (Benjamin, 1977:17). In displaying the historical, often shocking portrayal of human activity, the beautiful emerges through what is common between viewer and art although this is not beauty as understood as harmonious. The secret strength of the Trauerpsiel via allegory is its ability to point to its own historical moment, with reference to its past while capturing the turmoil felt through the religious and political circumstances. Benjamin cites Görres in stating that allegory can be understood as: “a successively progressing, dramatically mobile, dynamic representation of ideas which has acquired the very fluidity of time.” (Ibid.: 165). This fluidity of time allows such ideas to remain, at once unmistakably marked by their particular moment as historical yet remaining, Benjamin notes in the form of ruins (Benjamin, 1977: 177). These ideas, present in the literature of the baroque, unfold through a style of writing that draws on imagination, which will later be understood as housing the beautiful in its ability to span time.
When Schopenhauer criticized allegory as “not essentially different from writing” (Benjamin, 1977: 162)2 he unintentionally agrees with Benjamin’s philosophical standpoint: that allegory is “a form of expression, just as speech is expression, and indeed, just as writing is” (Ibid.). Without understanding what is implicated in writing; its roots in language as the foundation of creativity. Schopenhauer cannot understand the extent to which the allegorical succeeds specifically in light of this connection. Just as writing is informed through history, deeply embedded in the material through continual transformation, so too the expression of allegory is dialectic in its tension between origin and actual.
ii) Death, Ruin and the Idea
This immanence is adorned by the face of nature-history; a two-sided, contradictory yet inextricably linked image not separate from that of death. Benjamin states: “If nature had always been subject to the power of death, it is also true that it had always been allegorical. Significance and death both come to fruition in historical development” (Ibid.: 166). The death evoked here, in relation to nature, points back to Benjamin’s conception of the fall of language in the philosophy of religion. In the slippage between the language of man and that of God, Benjamin notes this accounts for the mournful silence of nature (Benjamin, 1986a: 330). Nature, as named by man, (man’s language as understood in its shortcomings)3 simultaneously points to a multiplicity of “over-naming” (Ibid.: 330) and nature’s inability of expression. This results in a petrified stagnance or immobility of simplification. Understanding the origins (history) as shortcomings (if compared to an idea of religious purity), the fragmented must show itself if it is to last through out time. Benjamin describes allegory’s triumph of elucidating this relationship of time in the following:
In the field of allegorical intuition the image is a fragment, a rune. Its beauty as a symbol evaporates when the light of divine learning falls upon it. The false appearance of totality is extinguished. For the eidos disappears, the simile ceases to exist, and the cosmos it contained shrivels up. The dry rebuses which remain contain an insight, which is still available to the confused investigator (Benjamin, 1977: 176).
The shrivelling of this false appearance points to the ‘reality’ of life as “fallen” thus fragmented. Rather than a declaration to unity, the creative project reveals an amorphous illumination through its fragmentation. Benjamin calls this process that of ambiguity. It takes the display of extremes which occupy the same image to highlight the presence of contradiction inherent in history. “Beneath its extravagant pomp, [ambiguity] is precisely what baroque allegory proclaims, with unprecedented emphasis” (Ibid.). It is important to note here that despite Trauerspiel’s (and we shall see surrealism’s) point towards the secular, the theological or mythical roots remain even in the triumph of fragmentation over unity. In favour of ambiguity, one may turn to Adorno for a comparative note of explanation:
What is deadly about the interpretation of art, moreover, even philosophically responsible interpretation, is that in the process of conceptualization it is forced to express what is strange and surprising in terms of what is already familiar and thereby to explain away the only thing that would need explanation (Adorno and Tiedemann, 1991: 86).
Notes to Literature, a text which discusses the idea of surrealism but one may also apply the idea of this quotation to Benjamin’s work on the Trauerspiel. There are two central points to take away from this quotation. Firstly, the notion of the limited in how one may express oneself. The limited is both due to convention and simultaneously has its roots in the formation of language itself. Secondly, Adorno, chooses his words carefully, using would- “to explain away the only thing that would need explanation.” This of courses indicates the possibility of engaging with an object and/or an idea through other modes than explanation. An alternative to an “over-naming” resulting in explaining “away the only thing that would need explanation” may instead be revealing in a way of looking- which will reappear in Chapter Three’s investigation of Baudelaire.
The element of fate via the stage property is highlighted in The Origin of German Tragic Drama with regards to the successful mode of allegory. Benjamin is referring to the objects that, through representation, take on a symbolic aspect (from their origins of immanent objective things) yet also extend to a direct relation to the human condition. Benjamin is of course accounting for the Trauerspiel, however Rosen gives the example of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (specifically Hamlet’s soliloquy to the skull of Yorick) to illuminate the lesser known German counterpart (Rosen and Smith, 1991: 148). It is Hamlet’s interaction with the skull, which is an object, first immanent, than illuminated with subjective symbolism and finally and decisively, in direct contact with a figure (Hamlet), which makes this interaction one of allegorical suggestion of the human condition and confrontation with death (Ibid.: 148). Adorno’s Notes to Literature, the contents of which will be employed in relation to surrealism, implies this exact relationship between the subject and the object in a moment of “awakening” through the realization that internal/external is simply two sides of the same coin, as seen in the Trauerspiel’s character of the monarch: “The subject’s innermost core becomes aware that it is something external” (Adorno and Tiedemann, 1991: 89).
In the consideration of the reconciliation of two seemingly extremes, Benjamin notes: “And the mysterious externality of this dramatist [the object] does not consist so much in the way the stage property constantly comes to the fore in the twists of the dramas of fate, but in the precision with which the passions themselves take on a nature of stage property” (Benjamin, 1977: 133). This is the key characteristic of the allegorical and it points both to the possibility and impossibility of reconciliation between the subject and the external.
Through the investigation of extremes, Benjamin simultaneously operates on the extreme limits of academic thought. This constant challenging to the status quo, a challenge towards systems often taken for granted, contributed to his posthumous success as well as his expulsion from the institution during his lifetime. What one may grasp from Benjamin’s critique of allegory (as observed through Trauerspiel in the Baroque) are the elements that set this mode of play apart from tragedy, not those with which it has common ground. Through this difference, Benjamin hopes to expound the strengths of an investigation of the peripheral in challenging the system of classification as a whole. The extrapolation of the Trauerspiel (particular) from the whole of tragedy allows one to reconsider what is placed within categories and why. Thus, this allows for a reconsideration of traditional modes of categorization. It is through a new understanding of classification that positioning Baroque Drama alongside twentieth century surrealism will illuminate the forms of expression as triumphant throughout time. Breton notes: “The marvellous [which is the only thing that can be beautiful according to Breton] (Breton, 1972: 14) is not the same in every period of history: it partakes in some obscure way of a sort of general revelation only the fragments of which come down to us: they are the romantic ruins” (Ibid.: 16).
The twentieth century surrealist movement, which sought to radically break with tradition on the most fundamental level of reality-perception, shares characteristics essential to Benjamin’s Trauerspiel. How do the elements observed in Trauerspiel: dialectics, fragmentation and an emphasis on the extremes, come into consideration in terms of surrealism? Despite their obvious difference in time thus leading to many differences in production, materials and presentation, it can be argued that what Benjamin has highlighted as essential in the Trauerspiel is to be found in its more recent manifestation of surrealism. This occurs precisely through Benjamin’s privileging of language in is capacity for creativity and its transposition into image. What these elements, reconciled over and across time periods, may bring forth is the idea that Adorno’s initial quotation highlights: that is the question of the possibility of impossibility that he expounds as central to art (Adorno, et. al.: 2004: 178). Elaborated upon, the idea that what is central to life may in fact be its afore-thought antithesis of death. This is displayed in Benjamin’s notion of the ruin as key for the duration of a work of art (Rosen and smith, 1991: 151). It is in this impossible-to-grasp twisting of space, illuminated by Benjamin, that the magic of the image as displayed in the Baroque and in twentieth century surrealism, may spring forth.
In relation to impossibility, Adorno importantly notes the essential characteristic of cruelty that takes art “beyond the ideal” (Ibid.: 65). This cruelty, he states, “becomes imagination”, which should be understood in its central role of surrealism. Taking imagination as a starting point, the cruelty of this tension between the fragmented and the fulfilled, can be understood as simultaneously its maker and its shadow, never far behind imagination. “It is as something incomplete and imperfect that the objects stare out from the allegorical structure” (Ibid.: 150).
III. Benjamin, Breton and Adorno on Surrealism
The extremes are juxtaposed with little or no mediating comment, and the Idea arises in the silence between them (Rosen and Smith, 1991: 165)4
i) Dreams and Childhood
To gain insight into a surrealist way of thinking, the emancipation of imagination is key. A calling for re-orientation of imaginative thought relates to Benjamin’s pull away from the use-value of an object. Use-value aside, an investment in dreams proves to be of importance in its alternative insights; re-orientation of thought. This would contrast to a rationalistic mode of thought partnered with a limited view of reality. The real, or the expansion of our understanding of the real is central for the surrealists because they hold that dreams are just as much part of one’s reality as waking life. The bias waking life has enjoyed over the workings of one’s subconscious in dreams limits the interaction with one’s own rich resources of imagination. The emancipation that comes along with a surrendering to imagination contrasts with a weightiness present in one’s conception of reality as such. Breton, in his Manifestoes of Surrealism, highlights the distress of uncertainty experienced in reality in contrast to the state of the dream:
The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart’s content. And if you should die, are you not certain of reawakening among the dead? Let yourself be carried along, event will not tolerate your interference. You are nameless. The ease of everything is priceless (Breton, 1972 :13).
Here one may note the thread between Breton’s use of possibility and that of Adorno’s primary quotation exclaiming that art is the possibility of impossibility (Adorno, et. al., 2004: 178). Surely then dream or other states of consciousness may inform one of impossibility through the resource of imagination. Dream is just one possibility. For Adorno, the linkages between surrealism and the theories of Freud or Jung are part of, yet do not constitute all of surrealism’s potential. In “Looking Back on Surrealism”, Adorno compares the state of dreaming with surrealism in an effort to prove that: “surrealist constructions are merely analogous to dreams not more” (Adorno and Tiedemann, 1991: 87). Breton would agree that surrealism does not end with dream, but can learn from it. Surrealism, makes a conscious effort to “batter its own foundations”5 . What does it mean to batter its (surrealism’s) own foundations? The human subject, limited through a conception of accepted social codes, Breton realizes, does not free associate (as automatic writing functions) (Ibid.). Automatic writing, like other forms of surrealism, directly attempts to leave the “individual” out of the equation via the introduction of free-association as occurs in dream. The fact that this does not come naturally (in society as least) attests to the intentionality surrealism requires, which the dream does not. This intentionality (or effort) is the battering of foundations in a positive sense. Adorno notes the subject in dream-state puts no effort into self-annihilation (which is in this case desirable in terms of collective unconscious) while this is not the case in surrealism (Ibid.). Benjamin agrees in his work on surrealism, which proclaims language and image over subject and meaning (Benjamin, 1986b: 179). The elements of spontaneity and surprise in surrealism are reminiscent of what occurs without effort in the dream yet may be attempted in waking life (Ibid.). This lack of explanation refers back as well to the Trauerspiel and Adorno’s quotation from Aesthetic Theory pinpointed in Chapter One. Surrealism refers to the dream and includes the dream as an example of the potential of imagination, however, Adorno notes; surrealism is not stuck as in relation to dream interpretation: “Assessed in terms of their relationship to the unconscious, the symbols would prove much too rationalistic. This kind of decoding would force the luxuriant multiplicity of Surrealism into a few patterns and reduce it to a few meagre categories” (Ibid.). It is the idea of suspension that is key. Surrealism constructions suspend or hold in tension (in relation) what one would normally categorize as separate hence the extremes are questioned extremes, put in relation to one another. It is against rational and logic and thus surrealism proposes something else. Adorno notes: “There is a shattering and regrouping but no dissolution” (Ibid.). What does this imply? Surrealism rearranges objects and creates out of normalcy, out of the common-place, juxtapositions. Nothing goes away, nothing is dissolved, only our preconceived limited classifications. The shattering and regrouping suggests an initial fragmentation and a subsequent-new, or always already present, fulfilment or possibility of fulfilment enabled only through the exchange of subject-object. “The value of the encounter between disparate realities lies primarily in its effects, namely its capacity to “nous dépaser en notre propre souvenir” or disorientate both producer and viewer” (Adamowicz, 2005: 4).
Surrealism acts in the ‘now’, however, through its capacity to “nous dépaser en notre propre souvenir”, it immediately implicates all images lost in one’s individual memory (culminating to the extent of a collective memory) maintained through the image of the ruin. An investigation of childhood helps to conceptualize this type of imaginative project. One’s first conceptions of the self, which Benjamin previously noted, takes a secondary position to the image (Benjamin, 1986b: 179). Childhood is a time when the meaning of the ‘I’ (self) is not fully developed in its later manifestations of self-recognition in all the individualistic qualities this implies. This lack of self-awareness as a ‘self’ is the gap that is left open for free association and engagement with the world that is truly material. Adorno notes in terms of surrealism, “the subjective aspect in this lies in the action of the montage, which attempts – perhaps in vain, but the intention is unmistakable – to produce perceptions as they must have been then” (Ibid.: 88). Hence surrealism does not attempt to be fragmented memories but evokes the sentiment of an experience through expression. This ‘must have been’ clearly implies a look to the past, evoked via temporal fluidity, but this is not a gaze of nostalgia for the old. It is more-so a lesson in the potentiality of perception still to be glimpsed in the now. This draws on the complexity of what is lost and that which has left a mark. Breton explains this through a discussion of childhood: “There, the absence of any known restrictions allows him the perspective of several lives lived at once; this illusion becomes firmly rooted within him; now he is only interested in the fleeting, the extreme facility of everything” (Breton, 1972: 3).
This notion of multiple lives can be found in the multifaceted character of the monarch in the Trauerpsiel, who at once inspires fear and pity in the viewer (Benjamin, 1977:61). With the fleeting, identity is never fixed, as children in a sense shift and change as easily as does their perception of the world. It is imagination which is at the centre of this, the only vehicle through which the multiple can exist at once in the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar. For this, it is necessary to look to the external for an inkling towards the internal and similarly what is eternal. The possibilities of this are very often shocking. The juxtaposition via the evocation of the tyrant/martyr in the Trauerspiel has similar shocking effects. Benjamin notes: “they are the necessarily extreme incarnations of princely essence” (Ibid.: 69).
“What surrealism adds to illustrations of the world of objects is the element of childhood we lost; when we were children, those illustrated papers… must have leaped out at us the way surrealist images do now” (Adorno and Tiedemann, 1991: 88). This shock of something ‘leaping’ out at us, described thus by Adorno, propels us backward into an immediate uncanny recollection. But of what? It is not something specific to the subject, but a general and difficult, if not impossible to place, relationship to the world. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit illuminates the link between interior and exterior: “[Reason] becomes Spirit when it achieves the full consciousness of itself as being all reality. Spirit is the ethical actuality which, when it confronts itself in objective social form, has lost all sense of strangeness in what it was before” (Hegel, 1977: 550). This is shocking and may have an alienating effect as a result on the subject’s notion of his own identity, which has now been proven to be fragmented itself. The dialectic exists here between the malleability of the subject and the determinacy of the external dominance of the subject. It is here that grief and melancholy can be found and as the vehicle of expression of the inexpressible, art absorbs the shock, as Adorno states, in “sacrifice” of itself as whole:
The affinity of all beauty with death has its nexus in the idea of pure form that art imposes on the diversity of the living and that is extinguished in it…That is the melancholy of art. It achieves an unreal reconciliation at the price of real reconciliation. All that art can do is grieve for the sacrifice it makes, which, in its powerlessness, art itself is (Adorno, et. al., 2004: 68).
An investigation into dreams and childhood have helped to illuminate the power of imagination in transforming one’s perspective and thus one’s experience of reality. This is closely bound up with an understanding of the self in flux and in constant relation to the external world. This experience, we have seen, is a relationship of fragments. In order to understand how the perception of this is possible, we turn to Benjamin’s idea of profane illumination.
ii) Profane Illuminations
Similar to the Baroque, surrealism came about in a time of conflict. Born of a “passionate revolt again Catholicism” (Benjamin, 1986b: 179), surrealism also operates around the secular, although perhaps more wholeheartedly than the Baroque theatre as the latter-named was restricted by theological ideology. What the theological brings over into the secular experience of such expressions can be understood as the idea of illumination (this of course maintains a link). When discussing surrealism, Benjamin coins the expression “profane illumination” (Ibid.). Profane referring to the secularity of the illumination itself. This term acts as a crossroads referring simultaneously to the traditional as well as the immediate and extends to Benjamin’s notion of language as historical explored in Chapter One. An illumination that is understood to be secular or profane necessarily relates to its predecessor of the theological kind as we have seen language refers to. This is not only the link of an idea passed along throughout time but also the reliance on language which has a history of its own. Benjamin explains that history is inescapable from philosophy of religion (Benjamin, 1986a: 64).
From here, one may consider the implications of a theory based on fragmentation that is simultaneously confronted with an idea of “illumination” connoting an instantaneous perceptual elucidation. Is it possible that Benjamin can at once privilege the fragmented and at the same time call for the unity inherent in illumination? It is necessary to understand what kind of illumination Benjamin implicates to reconcile these two techniques. Benjamin defines “profane illumination” as “a materialistic, anthropological inspiration, to which hashish, opium, or whatever else can give an introductory lesson. (But a dangerous one; and the religious lesson is stricter)” (Ibid.). The drug references are not necessarily of prime importance since the juxtaposition of surrealist art seems to be able to produce a similar effect, but one may duly note the illumination of which may be at stake via a preliminary usage of conscious-altering substances. This is not that whole which inspires fulfilment via symbolism or eschatology, but rather the possibility for perceptual “fullness” out of the immediate (possibility) of relating fragments (impossible to gather).
“Is not perhaps all ecstasy in one world humiliating sobriety in that complementary to it?” (Ibid.: 181). This quotation, wherein Benjamin wonders if ecstasy in one world is sobriety in another, is his characteristic inversion of models in order to expose the work of art as pointing to a timeless “truth content”. It is important here to remember that Benjamin also regards truth content as outside of all critic and interpretation (Rosen and Smith, 1991: 171). This realization that what one experiences may in fact be compromised in its perceived opposites is a realization at the individual level but also on the greater scale of collective memory, existing elsewhere (outside) and unable to be possessed (Ibid.). The work of art is the vehicle which may point to the possibility of truth, although it is impossible to capture due to its existence across time. In Benjamin’s view, that quality of art is found in allegory and surrealism. This moment is rare, however, and one is not sure where exactly it exists or of the elements necessary for its existence; if it in fact happens or is dreamt of. Adorno would say it is a glimpse at art, the “ever broken promise” that does not in itself exist (this illumination calls for the “making whole of fragments” that only the subject aware of its object-hood can fulfil). Breton would say “existence is elsewhere” (Breton, 1972: 47). This essential gap may only be found in the peripheral as the uncommon rather than the common simultaneously in Benjamin’s Trauerspiel (both within the ambiguous structure of Trauerspiel itself and in relation to Trauerspiel as classified in a detrimental larger whole of tragedy).
Benjamin does not note any sort of illumination in regards to Trauerspiel. This characteristic would link it to a reconciled end rather than a secular end. This is against Benjamin’s immediate point, however, just as he appropriates the term illumination from a theological into a secular pronunciation via the profane, one may grasp the possibility, if not the occurrence, for illumination to take place in backward effect (recalling its roots in the traditional).
How does surrealism functionally achieve this goal of profane (secular) illumination? Looking to André Breton’s 1924 text Manifestoes of Surrealism, the movement is defined as such: “Surrealism, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposed to express-verbally, by means of 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” (Ibid.: 26). The orientation of surrealism towards an imaginative rejuvenation of what constitutes thought does not take such foundational characteristics of art for granted and this is only so due to a re-orientation towards an importance of Ideas over scenarios. It is this willingness to envision art as more than an illusionistic imitation of the world, which allows it to go beyond the impermeable sphere of ‘reality’ understood in its limitations. For this to take place, however, the interest in the self as individual takes the secondary position to the language and image. “Image and language take precedence…Not only before meaning. Also before the self. In the world’s structure dream loosens individuality like a bad tooth” (Benjamin, 1986b: 179).
It may be surprising that an expansion of one’s notion of reality, enabled through a reinvigoration of imagination would be anything but subjective, however this is what Benjamin points towards. Subjectivity remains to the extent of unique participation (interaction with a work of art), however, a limited notion of identity will not suffice for the surrealists. This idea of multitude, within one subject, was recognized in Benjamin’s understanding of Trauerspiel. The relation of the external world towards the subject becomes of prime importance. This inter-relation between subject, collective and external (both part of the collective and separate), which creates a dialectic of language, can be seen in this quotation that Benjamin extracts from Baader in the former’s work on German Drama: “There is good reason for the fact that everything we see in external nature is for us, already writing, a kind of sign-language, which nevertheless lacks the most essential feature: pronunciation; this must quite simply have come from somewhere else and been given to man” (Benjamin, 1977: 184).6
This quotation understands the objective external as language through which one navigates and negotiates, however the question here moves the focus from language as writing, as possibility, to that aspect which is missing: its pronunciation. Baader here posits that pronunciation must come from elsewhere but does not venture to state where. This evokes the earlier problem of language as translated from God to man (Benjamin, 1986a). If it is not from the subject alone due to his dependence on the objective, it must operate in the space between (also referring to its lineage). This is due to that fact of its impossibility of “pure” expression. That which resists form, resists naming, yet simultaneously creeps in via the subject’s desire to fill gaps, usually via works of art. On the theme of expression, one may turn again to Adorno: “If the idea of artworks is eternal life, they can attain this only by annihilating everything living within their domain: This too inheres in their expression. It is the expression of the demise of the whole, just as the whole speaks of the demise of expression” (Adorno, et. al., 2004: 68). The latter portion of this quotation of Adorno’s calls directly for a fragmentation in art (since this is the only avenue toward truth) if expression is to occur. To speak of life, death is necessary; hence the catastrophe of the subject who had understood himself in rationalistic categories. In this way, pronunciation is always negotiating in relation to, an already a priori. Therefore, it is not an impression of totality that is necessary in art but a sort of self-proclamation of art’s capabilities to ‘reflect’ nature (which we can regard as synonymous to death) in such a manner as fragmented itself. Surrealism, then, in its rearranging of forms and positing of extremes, allows the viewer to engage with a work that is both outside himself and uncannily all too familiar. It is this possibility of fragments ‘making sense’ where sense is not that Benjamin understands as a sort of profane illumination.
Benjamin’s essay “Surrealism The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia”, now found in the compilation text entitled Reflections, was written in 1929, four years after the completion of The Origins of German Tragic Drama. The title of the afore-mentioned work already encompasses much to be considered. The last snapshot indicates loss, the loss of an epoch, the loss of modes of experience, which will be brought forward in the works of Baudelaire in Chapter Three. At the same time, the snapshot can be understood as a photographic reference which, although it had been invented the century previous, had not quite yet become as common-place and frantic as it has become today. The last is not separate from the simultaneous technological development (the new), creating a circular relationship of cause and effect never separate from its antithesis. European intelligentsia points to a multitude of possible interpretations based on the moment to which Benjamin refers. Surrealism, in its beginning stages, was esoteric (as is Benjamin’s work), limited to a small group of intellectuals and taking place at the time Benjamin was writing. Benjamin notes: “There is always, in such movements, a moment when the original tension of the secret society must either explode in a matter-of-fact, profane struggle for power and domination, or decay as a public demonstration and be transformed. Surrealism is in this phase of transformation at present” (Benjamin, 1986b: 178). In this case then, surrealism, although necessarily born out of a small group, had to be applicable to the greater collective as part of its philosophy. This initial decay and subsequent dispersal is the only path to its flourishing and referral to a larger collective. The expansion of surrealism beyond simply a secret society has to do with its central belief in surrealism as a way of life, one which is accessible to everyone. Surrealism is a move away from subjectivity and toward an investigation of a collective experience wherein perception and at the root of that, the real, come into question. The idea of a change in perspective reaches beyond the individual to the collective and subsequently, according to Benjamin, becomes implicated in politics. Benjamin understood surrealism first and foremost in terms of a revolutionary project. These last European intelligentsia were the only ones to get this far and to get it right (Ibid.: 189). The aspect of “artistic practice” that in the beginning of his essay is undermined turns out not to be the telos of the surrealists but the mode from which they reach their revolutionary action (Ibid.: 178 [“no excuse for taking the movement for the “artistic,” “poetic” one it superficially appears”].
A point of difference between the Trauerspiel and surrealism is Benjamin’s conception of the latter as primarily revolutionary. Benjamin explains surrealism in the following: “to win the energies of intoxication for the revolution…this it may call its most particular task” (Ibid.: 189). Benjamin notes that there is no revolutionary drive in the Trauerspiel, directly anyway, only a feeling of discontent (Benjamin, 1977: 88). He does, in the same moment, evoke the role of the monarch between tyrant and martyr, stuck as if frozen in indecision. This indecision contrasts to what Benjamin sees in his surrealism essay as “the need for a decision” (Benjamin, 1986b: 177). This political dimension, that Benjamin notes surrealism as necessarily pushed towards, does not detract from its artistic practice, on the contrary, it points towards a mobility of perspective. So too the Trauerspiel– perhaps through its evocation of indecision, points towards a freezing of time for the consideration of time itself. However, nowhere in Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism is this goal blatantly mentioned. It is alluded to perhaps but can attest for less than the main ideas put forward by Breton.
IV: The Convergence of an Aesthetic Mission: The Poetics of Baudelaire
Of this strange awe-inspiring scene
Such as on earth one never sees,
Today the image once again,
Obscure and distant, captures me
(Baudelaire, 1998: 205 [Parisian Dream].
Both allegory and surrealism, due to their “more than artistic” representation, become for Benjamin the exemplar of what constitutes a work of art at its best. Keeping in mind the role of language, history and ruin in allegory, and surrealism’s shock in juxtaposition; where can these two techniques be evoked simultaneously? To illuminate the underpinning that runs through and between these two forms of expression, the specific artistic project of Baudelaire will be examined; a project at once primarily artistic yet much farther reaching in terms of what may be illuminated concerning time and creation.
Benjamin notes that Baudelaire is an allegorist in the former’s Arcades Project (Benjamin, 2002:10) [“This poetry is no hymn to the homeland; rather, the gaze of the allegorist, as it falls on the city, is the gaze of the alienated man”], whilst Breton, in his Manifestoes of Surrealism notes Baudelaire’s quality as a “moral surrealist” (Breton, 1972: 27). By examining the poetry of Baudelaire and the points of entry on which Breton and Benjamin based their claims, the thread between Benjamin’s allegory and surrealism may be elucidated and tied together. The themes of Baudelaire’s work, which will be investigated will include: Baudelaire’s image of Paris and by extension his investigation of the crowd; the idea of shock as central to the poet’s work (this will be examined in terms of experience and the ‘creative act’); and finally, with regards to temporality and a consequential melancholy. This melancholy was explored in relation to ‘nature-history’ in Benjamin’s conception of language.
First, a note of contextualization: Marcel Raymond notes in his book From Baudelaire to Surrealism, that art-developing from and growing beyond religion- took over the role religion previously played, “[tending] to become an ethic or some sort of irregular instrument of metaphysical knowledge” (Raymond, 1970: 5). Here Raymond notes that Baudelaire’s work can be understood as Romantic in inspiration yet his work went farther than the restricted meanings of symbolism. Raymond notes in relation to Baudelaire: “the humblest object reveals the eternal tragedy” (Ibid.). Is this not reminiscent of Benjamin’s stage properties examined in Chapter One? Raymond chooses carefully and fittingly the word reveal which denotes a similar nuance present in the work of Baudelaire as in the work of Benjamin. The above quotation also points to an inescapable theological tie, threaded down to the secular expression.
i) The Face of Paris; The Crowd
In Benjamin’s investigation of Baudelaire in the former’s Arcades Project, two versions of his Exposés are included; one composed in 1935 and the other of 1939. Section five in both versions is entitled, “Baudelaire, or the Streets of Paris”. Benjamin chose or instead of and indicating that Baudelaire in this context is one and the same with the streets of Paris; interchangeable in a way that the streets of Paris are in some way alive or perhaps that Baudelaire through his work is frozen in time, like the freezing of Trauerspiel’s indecision or the freezing of surrealist images of extremes. Either way, an external is given animation and a subject is likened to the external object. The link between the man and the city will prove to be comparable to the link between an actor and his stage property or an artist and his juxtaposed canvas, his automatic writing or his engagement with collaborative projects which reflect a collective unconscious.
“It is the unique provision of Baudelaire’s poetry that the image of the woman and the image of death intermingle in a third: that of Paris” (Benjamin, 2002: 10). This excerpt from Benjamin straightforwardly states what is at stake in this city of lights; the image. This image is not one that is created in an attempt at vraissemblence but is in itself so uncanny, so familiar and yet at the same time unfamiliar that Paris becomes a surrealist object, a face in fact (Benjamin, 1986b: 182). Benjamin mentions that the imagery of Paris is tied up with that of the woman (simultaneously this implies the image of love, the reality and illusion of love and love as both fleeting and eternal) and with that of death (regarded as the antithesis of life however intercedes it continually and unexpectedly; it is both always and never present). In his essay on surrealism Benjamin notes: At the center of this world of things stands the most dreamed-of of their objects, the city of Paris itself. But only revolt completely exposes its Surrealist face (deserted streets in which whistles and shots dictate the outcome). And no face is surrealistic in the same degree as the true face of a city (Ibid.).
The way in which Benjamin understands the role that the city of Paris plays for the surrealists links Baudelaire’s work around Paris to this surrealist “morale” of the uncanny. How is a city a face and a surrealist face at that? It lies in the aspect of possibility of profane illumination, specifically the potential of looking in unexpected ways, referred to in Section III. In order to understand the Paris of Baudelaire, one must take into account a pre-Haussmann epoch, and the subsequent epoch of rapid change to follow. Baudelaire acts as the filter through which Paris as image may be illuminated. The mediated tool that is essentially employed is the ingredient of melancholy via Baudelaire (Benjamin, 2002: 10).
The Old Paris is gone (the form a city takes
More quickly shifts, alas, than does the mortal heart)”
(Baudelaire, 1998 :175 [The Swann]).
The explanatory notes, referring to The Old Paris, indicate the cause of the city’s “departure” to be the actual circumstantial fact of Haussmann’s rebuilding in the middle of the nineteenth century (Ibid.: 371). This no doubt plays a role in the referred to line of Baudelaire’s The Swan, however, there is more to grasp than isolated historical facts alone. This is a starting point, but it is rather how these images are transposed into the fluidity – how does history, in allegorical terms, inform Baudelaire’s poetry? It is precisely the melancholy of a ruin, (always situated in history) which houses not only collective memory but the overarching theme of art as sacrifice illuminated via Adorno. In this way, Baudelaire looks at Paris through the eyes of an artist, its streets are considered as artworks themselves fallen into ruin where they are both fulfilled in their artistic “duty” and mourned in their loss. There is always a sense of mourning in Baudelaire. One does not know where this ‘something’ has gone and if it is in fact forever lost.
If understood in a surrealist mode of thought, the image of Paris, experienced by the subject is simultaneously deeply engrained in the subject yet quick to disappear. This presence and absence remains in “the mortal heart” long after its tangible departure yet may be recalled to the subject through a jog of memory, a moment of illumination; in this case melancholic illumination or an illumination whose consequences are melancholic. This disappearance has ties to surrealist experience while at the same time is explained by Baudelaire himself in allegorical terms creating the convergence of the two. The poem of The Swan further relates:
Paris may change, but in my melancholy mood
Nothing has budged! New palaces, blocks, scaffoldings,
Old neighbourhoods, are allegorical for me,
And my dear memories are heavier than stone
Benjamin describes Baudelaire’s Paris as at once “death-fraught” and modern; the former will be clarified throughout this chapter. In terms of the changes of modernity, Benjamin notes an innovation of the time; the arcades. They may be understood as such: “glass-covered, marble-panelled passageways through entire complexes of houses whose proprietors have combined for such speculations. Both sides of the passages, which are lighted from above, are lined with the most elegant shops, so that such an arcade is a city, even a world in miniature” (Benjamin, 1997: 36, 37).
In his Exposé of 1935 Benjamin notes that the arcades present the image; a dialect image of interior/exterior. This uncanny image, combining the extreme of interior space with the extreme of exterior in one ensemble, acts as a dream-like image through its commodity-fetishization (Benjamin, 2002: 10). With the development of industrialization, the Haussmann project widened the once small and narrow streets. “Just as in the seventeenth century it is allegory that becomes the canon of dialectical images, in the nineteenth century it is novelty” (Ibid.: 11. This desire for the new, Benjamin notes, coincides with a push towards death. This may be understood in the character of the flâneur; a wonderer of Parisian streets. Benjamin notes the home of the flâneur is neither his interior dwelling nor the exterior as part of society per se; the flâneur is elsewhere, on the limits of society, taking notes for the fall out. Immediately the notion of elsewhere evoked in such a manner recalls Breton’s last line of the Manisfestoes of Surrealism: “Existence is elsewhere” (Breton, 1972: 47). In Breton’s case, the elsewhere is the volonté of imagination.
Benjamin goes on to note that the last destination of the flâneur is death (Ibid.). If death is allegorical, in the specific way of understanding death as the disillusioning of illusion, and the flâneur’s last destination is that of death, the flâneur is thus allegorical, and could only have become so in light of the city of Paris. Ripe with commodification, Benjamin presents Paris in a time of standstill (freezing). This standstill is a result of the ambiguity of the epoch born of alienation between subjects and objects; a catastrophe of the epoch and a catastrophe spanning all of history (back to the Baroque and in the contemporary).
Adorno notes that surrealism held at the centre of its approach the destruction of the city of Paris thus revealing its nature as allegorical; an image of imagination, inspiration and living history (Adorno and Tiedemann, 1991: 87). If Benjamin requires of art the ruin, and of allegory, a (two-sided) face, Paris is the culmination of these essentials. Baudelaire draws this out in his poems wherein he never actually describes the city, yet it comes forth through the particulars towards which he points. These particulars come out of an experience based in recollection not description. “They are days of recollection, not marked by any experience” (Benjamin,1997: 139). Breton would agree with Baudelaire’s style of the nondescript as the latter himself in his manifestos points to the failures of description (Breton, 1972: 7 [Breton exercises his anger at ‘descriptive’ writing at this point]. The description is merely an imitation of the real, which, as we have seen will always fall into the category of shortcomings.
Benjamin notes in regards to the crowd, which is a motif not only of Baudelaire but of many poets of the time period, that: “the crowd- of whose existence Baudelaire is always aware, has not served as the model for any of his works, but it is imprinted on his creativity as a hidden figure” (Benjamin, 1997: 120). Thus the importance of the indirect surfaces once more. Furthermore, Benjamin states what he believes to be the significance of this “hidden configuration”: “it is the phantom crowd of the words, the fragments, the beginnings of lines from which the poet, in the deserted street, wrests the poetic booty” (Ibid.: 120). This fragmentation is born of language. The hidden configuration may be elucidated with the attention of the reader, existing not solely within the work or easily found in the world without such a prompt.
Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and the sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive ideal is above all a child of the experience of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations (Ibid.: 119).
The “child of the experience of giant cities” through “the intersecting of their myriad relations” will be explored in Baudelaire’s motif of the shock. Shock directly corresponds with one’s ability to experience and proves to be at the core of the poet’s creative investigation. This element fore-mostly serves as a link between the two formerly investigated forms of expression in the Baroque and via surrealism.
ii) Shock and mémoire involontaire
Benjamin notes in Some Motifs, a section in his book on Baudelaire, that at the centre of the poet’s project is his engagement with shock. To grasp what is at stake for Baudelaire in the idea of shock, Benjamin first examines the parallel theories of experience in the work of Proust, a reader of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. These theories, derivative of Bergson yet expanded upon by Proust, investigate the same question of shock but conclude on a note of disconnect from Baudelaire’s engagement. Benjamin describes Proust’s distinction between mémoire volontaire and mémoire involontaire. The first, refers to the events that may be recalled via memory at the will of the subject. These voluntary memories, are of course fragmented and partial when recalled by the subject. Mémoire volontaire is only possible in relation to consciously experienced events. Theodor Reik interprets memory of this kind as “destructive” since impressions leave the safe-guarded sphere of remembrance and enter into a partial fragmented assembly of memory (Ibid.: 114). With regards to the second notion, that of mémoire involontaire this, Proust exclaims, is left up entirely up to chance. Opposite to mémoire volontaire, mémoire involontaire houses data that has not consciously entered the subject’s experience, therefore it is held in suspension; present yet inaccessible to the subject without a jolt of interruption; a shock. This is inevitably out of the control of the subject to inspire. However, shock may become part of a subject’s consciousness in an awareness of one’s defence towards it. This defence towards shock is directly linked to a move away from experience (an experience in terms of openness to a jolt from mémoire involontaire). Experience itself is a complex term that may be understood in a myriad of ways. We shall investigate experience here as in relation to Baudelaire’s conception of it. The relationship between memory and experience changes depending on mémoire volontaire or mémoire involontaire. Invariably, experience is excluded from mémoire involontaire at the moment of its formation as the latter denies the element of the subject’s purposeful conscious rendering. Benjamin quotes Proust from the latter’s A la recherche du temps perdu: Therefore Proust, summing up, says that the past is ‘somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakeably present in some material object (or in the sensation which such an object arouses in us), though we have no idea which one it is. As for that object, it depends entirely on chance whether we come upon it before we die or whether we never encounter it (Ibid.: 112).
In his poem ‘Le Goût du néant‘, Baudelaire exclaims, “Spring, the Beloved, has lost its scent!” (Baudelaire, 1998: 142). This loss, extending to a loss of individual memory as much as collective memory, is at once possible to be recollected in sentiment yet not in content. Benjamin notes this memory has fallen into the realm of mémoire involontaire, where the experience cannot be recalled as it was not registered (Benjamin, 1997: 143). According to Proust, in order to retrieve this loss a chance shock would be necessary.
Baudelaire, on the one hand agrees with Proust in terms of the latter’s notion of irretrievable loss, however, in regards to shock, his conception is different. The modern man, according to Baudelaire no longer experiences (Ibid.: 134). His movements, with the innovations of machine technology, become repetitive and automated mirroring the machines of industry themselves. With the demise of experience, so too diminishes mémoire volontaire in its capacity to recall or register to begin with (to what degree is unimportant). What is left for the subject in modern times, and specifically for the artist-subject, is the preoccupation with mémoire involontaire in its aspect of lost time. This preoccupationand attempt at evocation is what distinguishes Baudelaire from Proust. Benjamin notes Baudelaire’s engagement with shock in terms of the latter’s conjuring of the image of a duel. This duel, Benjamin claims, “is the creative process itself” (Ibid.: 117) therefore Baudelaire, fighting against the human condition is always fighting against himself. In this ever-present duel, Baudelaire, Benjamin explains, wants to “parry the shocks” (Ibid.) while simultaneously the poet takes on the characteristics of shock himself.
It is not unusual for Baudelaire to occasion fright (Benjamin, 1997: 117). Vallès tells us about his eccentric grimaces; …Pontmartin establishes Baudelaire’s alarming appearance; Claudel stresses the cutting quality he could give to his speech; …Nadar describes his jerky gait (Ibid.).
There is a tension here between shock that excludes experience, as described in Proust’s mémoire involontaire and shock that must be fought against, in the case of Baudelaire. If Baudelaire wants to keep shocks away this implies the poet mourns the loss of experience. Baudelaire depicts experience as lost in modernity with a melancholic tone, however, there is a strange heroism simultaneously. Benjamin indicates that Baudelaire wants the emancipation of experience (Benjamin, 1997: 116) and Baudelaire’s poetry is understood by Benjamin as recollective over experience-based (see page 34). Baudelaire seems to be referring to the possibility of experience as outside time, something unaccounted for by Proust. Of course Adorno has informed us of art’s ever broken promise wherein Baudelaire’s melancholy may be illuminated. Baudelaire’s engagement with shock (whether in defensive mode or not) is central to his works operating on the extremes of the creative process. The poet goes to the root of creativity, rather than falling into the trap of describing the common-place. This will be elucidated further in the investigation of Baudelaire’s writing.
Operating between the extremes of temporality and image, the notion of shock as chance surprise (Proust) and its capacity for the destruction of experience (Baudelaire) co-exist. The co-existence occurs in the emancipated creative process itself, an antithesis to description. This is seen in relation to allegory, which relies on decay for its triumph and in surrealism, which cuts and fragments destructively for the purpose of renewal. This struggle is also examined by Steiner in relation to the Trauerspiel: “with its ironies and pathos, with its agonistic play of stroke and parry [recalling Baudelaire’s parrying of shock in his creative duel], with above all, its declared trust in the capacity of language to image, elucidate and preserve reality, is the very opposite to tragic silence” (Benjamin, 1977: 17). The loss Baudelaire engages and ignites here can be set against the decay of the allegory, which also exists out of the possibility of shock and in light of an embedded history.
The simultaneous operation of extremes comes out of Baudelaire’s heroicization (Benjamin, 1997: 135) of modernity and his feeling of alienation from it. Benjamin notes at the end of his Some Motifs, “[Baudelaire] indicated the price for which the sensation of the modern age may be had: the disintegration of the aura in the experience of shock” (Ibid.: 154). This does not point to a hope for the elimination of shock sensation but rather an awareness of the destructive (without the circumlocutious intentions of allegory) shift from mémoire involontaire to mémoire volontaire. The gap of the mémoire involontaire , which functions outside of time, is the space necessary for the poet’s imaginative creations; a space Baudelaire wants to protect.
iii) Time and Melancholy (Nature-History)
It is that Death, a new and hovering sun, will find
A way to bring to bloom the flowers of their minds!
(Baudelaire, 1998: 279).
These are the last few lines of Baudelaire’s poem, The Death of the Artist. The explanatory notes suggest Baudelaire intended the artist to be understood as a ‘fool’, which occurs earlier in the poem setting the tone. A fool who unsuccessfully tries his hand at art only to be faced with a “shabby substitute”. Baudelaire refers back to “the triumph of antiquity” in the overall goal of engaging with “Nature’s mystic self” (Baudelaire, 1998: 378). These last two lines indicate the necessity of ruin (the nature of nature) in the creative act. The subject of “shabby substitute” appears again in Baudelaire’s The Ideal (Ibid.: 39) [“It will not be these beauties of vignettes,..who satisfy the yearning heart in me”]; and The Mask (Ibid.: 43) [“O, blasphemy of art! fatal surprise!..But no! It’s just a mask, a trick design”]. It is Nature’s mystical self that Baudelaire is looking for and this is not separate from a much wider Idea of the beautiful (which, as one knows, is elusive). The notion of beauty creeps into this discussion in what it may reveal through its manifestations in history and nature. Benjamin notes that for the Romans; to be affected by beauty is synonymous with dying (Ibid.: 140). This is reminiscent of how Adorno relates the subject realizing his core is in direct relation to the external materialism with which he engages. This is both a strange sense of freedom for categorization and a feeling of reaching the limits, death. The escapement of such a sensation of genuine beauty-recognition may be understood in Breton’s following quotation: “Who can say to me that the angle by which that idea which affects it is offered, that what it likes in the eye of that woman is not precisely what links it to its dream, binds it to those fundamental facts which, through its own fault, it has lost?” (Breton, 1972: 13).
Although central to Benjamin is the idea of profane illumination, he does not suggest this comes about through a fulfilment of meaning. One does not accordingly look for meaning and find it within an object. We may think back to the quotation with which this dissertation was begun-precisely that aesthetic experience cannot be found in the world nor in itself. Baudelaire’s poem, The Love of Illusion, helps illuminate this space of emptiness that, void, is the only vehicle of expression.
I know that there are eyes, the finest and most sad,
That hide no precious secrets, neither truths nor lies;
Handsome, like empty lockets, caskets without jewels,
More empty, more profound, than you yourselves, o skies!”
(Baudelaire, 1998: 201).
Or this excerpt from The Carcass…
The shapes wore away as if only a dream
Like a sketch that is left on the page
Which the artist forgot and can only complete
On the canvas, with memory’s aid. …
Ah then, o beauty, explain to the worms
Who cherish your body so fine,
That I am the keeper for corpses of love
Of the form, and the essence divine!
Baudelaire understands this necessity for space in order for his images to appear to the reader unforced. In order to reveal such an unfolding, loss and distance are employed by the poet. Benjamin previously recognized this in the poet’s evocation of the hidden figure. Here the similarities between Baudelaire and Benjamin are striking. Rosen communicates Benjamin’s writing as purposefully including “moments of silence” in order for images to appear themselves (Rosen and Smith: 1991: 169).
An expanded consideration of distance helps to engage with the work of Baudelaire. “Dullness is frequently an ornament of beauty. It is to this that we owe it if eyes are sad and translucent like blackish swamps or if their gaze has the oily inertness of tropical seas” (Benjamin, 1997: 150-51). Benjamin chose this quotation of Baudelaire to illustrate the odd duality of distance and fullness. Typically one searches in another’s eyes for intent, presence, indicating that both parties are “on the same page”, in it together, so to speak. Baudelaire indicates a desire to find dullness, to be in the presence of a distant gaze of the other. Benjamin helps to elucidate this. He states: “The essentially distant is the in-approachable: in-approachability is in fact a primary quality of the ceremonial image” (Ibid.: 148). If it is a ceremonial image which Baudelaire is after, his poems can be understood alongside their predecessor of the Trauerspiel, which was defined in Chapter One as “ceremonies and memorabilia of grief” (Benjamin, 1977: 17). Such ceremonies indicate a move away from the individual and an emphasis on not only the present communal, but an ode to the ritual and tradition that Benjamin finds so essential in The Origin of German Tragic Drama and as well in his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It is the demise of the ritual (an awareness of the origins such was discussed in relation to language) that has left art orbiting in obscurity.
Although Benjamin states that Baudelaire sees “Everything [as] allegorical” in his Exposés of 1935 and 1939, in “Some Motifs” the reference to the allegorical is present but rises to the surface only through the investigation of recurring themes with which Baudelaire is concerned. One such theme, which is also present in Benjamin’s German Drama is time, temporality, and how perception can manipulate and be manipulated by time. Benjamin notes the relationship between art’s goal of the beautiful as hinged on its birth on the “womb of time” (Ibid.: 147). The fundamental aspect of Baudelaire’s time is that it is a time “outside of history”. Thinking about “outside of history” the notion of the individual and the collective surface once more. Benjamin likens this type of time with Proust’s idea of mémoire involontaire (Ibid.: 143). Mémoire involontaire, is conceptualized as unregistered in personal experience. The fragmentation which arises in the attempt to piece back together the past is a conscious (voluntary) action. The most important aspect is that Baudelaire’s work, according to Benjamin, evokes mémoire involontaire, a time “outside history”, not based on experience (recorded by the subject as such). This leads to a presentation of a certain type of “days”. What are these days like? Benjamin notes: “The man who loses his capacity for experiencing feels as though he has dropped from the calendar” (Ibid.: 144). This is Baudelaire; a man outside time understood as such. The poet looking on (in melancholy), neither part of the crowd that is so dominantly his theme, yet belonging to it all the same. He is the flâneur, who Benjamin understood as outside of the crowd (Benjamin, 1997: 128), his last destination is thus death (Benjamin, 2002: 11). Baudelaire’s themes of the masses, the crowd, the city of Paris and modernity as a whole become allegorical precisely because they are caught up in this “outside time”. Outside the realm of time or of possession, unable to be pinned down with critique, this is precisely how Benjamin describes truth content. Thus truth content, though it may be evoked but never owned, is tied up with the allegorical.
“As now of mortals the whole life’s course begins in childhood with games, so does life end in vain games…our brief life is nothing but a poem. A play in which now one man enters and now another leaves” (Benjamin, 1977: 83).
This investigation, spanning time periods from the Baroque to the twentieth century, looks towards Benjamin’s critique of diverse forms of literature from the idea of playwriting to automatic writing to poetry. The hope is to illuminate the continual threading of art’s potentiality across mediums and throughout time. Through a philosopher-critic such as Benjamin, who remains as unclassifiable (Benjamin and Arendt, 1999: 9) as the lines distinguishing between these above forms of expression, the idea of origins of history-spanning from a theological philosophy to a secular intention- comes to the forefront in its possible illumination of the impossible. Through an investigation of language and the necessity of fluidity in time (as exemplar in the object of the ruin) the gap between fragmentation and fulfilment lies in wait of expression. Benjamin examines this space so often ignored or superficially filled.
Hannah Arendt in the introduction to Illuminations, a compilation text of Benjamin’s works, notes Benjamin’s investigation of the world around him as lifestyle. She writes: “He was concerned with the correlation between a street scene, a speculation on the stock exchange, a poem, a thought, with the hidden line which holds them together” (Ibid.: 17). These possibilities for connection may be found in the oddest of places, on the peripheral as it were, outside categorical limitations yet encompassing the greatest of historical traces. Arendt goes on to note these peripheries that often go unnoticed except by the artist (understanding Benjamin as such): “Strongly influenced by surrealism, it was the ‘attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were” (Ibid.).
Benjamin’s alignment with the origins of things links his sentiment to that of Breton, as the latter exclaims in regards to language: “I had begun to cherish words excessively for the space they allow around them, for their tangencies with countless other words that I did not utter” (Breton, 1972: 200. This space is a space housing both irretrievable loss as discussed via Proust and Baudelaire as well as the ever-rejuvenated “attempt” pronounced as “intention” by Adorno in his essay on surrealism (Adorno and Tiedemann, 1991: 88). This cycle of loss, yet renewed attempt, produce Baudelaire’s melancholy linking both a moral surrealism (Breton, 1972: 27) and an allegorical expression.
The following excerpt from Benjamin’s work on German Drama may be understood in light of Baudelaire’s poetry as melancholic linking this idea through space and time: “If the object becomes allegorical under the gaze of melancholy, if melancholy causes life to flow out of it and it remains behind dead, but eternally secure, then it is exposed to the allegorist, it is unconditionally in his power” (Benjamin, 1977: 183).
The roots of this are of course in language. If one understands it as synonymous with the possibility of the creative act, language is a prerequisite for the creation of the image. “The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities” (Breton, 1972: 20 [Breton here references Pierre Revercly]. The extremes, born of fragmentation, are central to allegory and surrealism for Benjamin. The timelessness of ruins are the only possible pointing to a truth content of art. Therein lies art’s potentiality.
About the Author
Laura Smith holds a Master’s degree of Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmith’s University of London. She is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Arts at Leuven University, Belgium. Her research concerns an intellectual history of Walter Benjamin’s idea of “aura”. Areas of interest include the intersections between art and philosophy, changes in the experience and perception of art in light of new media, German and French theory. This paper is based on a Master’s dissertation (Completed in the Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmith’s University London, England). The author wishes to thank Professor Alexander Duttmann for his influential supervision and Thomas Verellen for his editing and support.
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1 – Expressionism, a dominant artistic movement at the time of Benjamin’s work, contrasts to surrealism in its focus on the individual over a collective practice. Because of Benjamin’s interest in history in the wider sense, it is argued that surrealism is more in alignment to his on German Drama.
2 – Benjamin does note on writing that this is language in sign-form (see Benjamin, 1986a: 331).
3 – (Benjamin, 1986a: 328). Benjamin notes, “men had injured the purity of name.”
4 – Rosen notes Benjamin’s work on Baudelaire and the latter’s interest in extremes and shock. This will be evoked in Chapter Three, however, the context around this quotation reveals the interlacing of Benjamin’s work on Trauerspiel, his work on the poetry of Baudelaire, and it will be argued here his essay on surrealism.
5 – The surrealist conscious rejects or fights against the already implicated notion of reality. In dream everything is blurred and reality is not so imposing. It is always already understood as a fixed world of objectivity.
6 – Benjamin cites Franz von Baader in the latter’s Uber den Einfluss der Zeichen der Gedanken auf deren Erzeugung und Gestaltung.