Reading Surrealism: A View of NADJA
~ Andre Breton (1928, trans. Richard Howard, 1960)
"With this system which consists, before going into a movie theater, of never looking to see what's playing - which, moreover, would scarcely do me any good, since I cannot remember the names of more than five or six actors - I obviously run the risk of missing more than others, though here I must confess my weakness for the most absolutely absurd French films. I understand, moreover, quite poorly, I follow
too vaguely." - p. 37
Andre Breton does a great service to the readers of Nadja
, known as one of the great surrealist romances (yes, it is a sub, subgenre), by leaking some mapping strategies that provide ready areas of entry for his seemingly oblique evocation. Understanding Nadja
is not about mentally ordering narrative and desperately recalling character names, but rather akin to a leisurely stroll in a city. The reader benefits from image and text, as photographs are used to accompany the text at certain moments. The "story" is simple: our author meets a mysterious woman named Nadja whom he finds extraoridinary, but she soon leaves it.
My summary is light on details, but for a reason. Breton and the surrealists swear by dream logic. In dreams, linear stories are often impossible to remember once the head is lifted from the pillow. What usually lingers are a bizarre set of details. Thus, Breton fleshes out his tale by emphasizing the powerful emotional intensities that can mean far more than the cut and dry of an event. The road map he leaves is laid out in the openning portion of the book. Rather than launch immediately into his meeting Nadja, the author writes an initial, suspect "auto" biography. Here, Breton's committment is evident. Going to the theatre does not provoke the usual set of meanings, but rather observations like "the ridiculous acting of the performers, who paid only the faintest attention to their parts, scarcely listening to each other and busy making dates with members of the audience, which consisted of perhaps fifteen people at most, always reminded me of a canvas backdrop" (38). The spaces and places of Paris are not significant for their use-value, but rather the way that they "strike": "the statue of Etienne Dolet on its plinth in the Place Maubert in Paris has always fascinated me and induced unbearable discomfort..." (24).
Breton strings incidental phenomena into a narrative, in the process guiding the reader to string the "striking" incidents into their own, puzzling, experience. I found myself intrigued by the phrasing, uncertainty, indeed the mystery of Breton's language at times more than the mystery of Nadja. To illustrate what compells me: Predella of the Profanation of the Host: The Jewish Pawnbroker Roasting the Consecrated Host in the Fire Which Streams with Blood Arousing the Attention of the Bailiffs who Batter Down the Door,
Paolo Uccello, 1468.
At one point during the author's account of his interactions with Nadja, he recalls receiving a letter that contains a photograph of this image. In a footnote, he says "I saw it [the painting] reproduced in its entirety only several months later. It seemed to me full of hidden intentions, and, in all respects, quite difficult to interpret." This passage summarizes the experience of Nadja
for me. The small details, incidental assides, and seemingly unimportant utterances become the real center of meaning. The hidden intentions of Nadja seem to have to do with showing how Breton was able to give his abilities of free association the will to trimuph over convention, and how by following his example, a reader can begin to decode even the most obscure and obscuring meanings that confront them.