Disaster and Renewal: The Praxis of Shock in the Surrealist City Novel





surrealism, psychogeography, situationist, dérive

How to Cite

Mudie, E. (2013). Disaster and Renewal: The Praxis of Shock in the Surrealist City Novel. M/C Journal, 16(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.587
Vol. 16 No. 1 (2013): catastrophe
Published 2013-01-22


In the wake of the disaster of World War I, the Surrealists formulated a hostile critique of the novel that identified its limitations in expressing the depth of the mind's faculties and the fragmentation of the psyche after catastrophic events. From this position of crisis, the Surrealists undertook a series of experimental innovations in form, structure, and style in an attempt to renew the genre. This article examines how the praxis of shock is deployed in a number of Surrealist city novels as a conduit for revolt against a society that grew increasingly mechanised in the climate of post-war regeneration. It seeks to counter the contemporary view that Surrealist city dérives (drifts) represent an intriguing yet ultimately benign method of urban research. By reconsidering its origins in response to a world catastrophe, this article emphasises the Surrealist novel’s binding of the affective properties of shock to the dream-awakening dialectic at the heart of the political position of Surrealism.

The Surrealist City Novel

Today it has almost become a truism to assert that there is a causal link between the catastrophic devastation wrought by the events of the two World Wars and the ideology of rupture that characterised the iconoclasms of the Modernist avant-gardes. Yet, as we progress into the twenty-first century, it is timely to recognise that new generations are rediscovering canonical and peripheral texts of this era and refracting them through a prism of contemporary preoccupations. In many ways, the revisions of today’s encounters with that past era suggest we have travelled some distance from the rawness of such catastrophic events.

One post-war body of work recently subjected to view via an unexpected route is the remarkable array of Surrealist city novels set in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, representing a spectrum of experimental texts by such authors as André Breton, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, Philippe Soupault, and Michel Leiris. Over the past decade, these works have become recuperated in the Anglophone context as exemplary instances of ludic engagement with the city. This is due in large part to the growing surge of interest in psychogeography, an urban research method concerned with the influence that geographical environments exert over the emotions and behaviours of individuals, and a concern for tracing the literary genealogies of walking and writing in broad sweeping encyclopaedic histories and guidebook style accounts (for prominent examples see Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust and Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography).

Yet as Surrealist novels continue to garner renewed interest for their erotic intrigue, their strolling encounters with the unconscious or hidden facets of the city, and as precursors to the apparently more radical practice of Situationist psychogeography, this article suggests that something vital is missing. By neglecting the revolutionary significance that the Surrealists placed upon the street and its inextricable connection to the shock of the marvellous, I suggest that we have arrived at a point of diminished appreciation of the praxis of the dream-awakening dialectic at the heart of Surrealist politics. With the movement firmly lodged in the popular imagination as concerned merely with the art of play and surprise, the Surrealists’ sensorial conception of the city as embedded within a much larger critique of the creators of “a sterile and dead world” (Rasmussen 372) is lost.

This calls into question to what extent we can now relate to the urgency with which avant-gardes like the Surrealists responded to the disaster of war in their call for “the revolution of the subject, a revolution that destroyed identity and released the fantastic” (372). At the same time, a re-evaluation of the Surrealist city novel as a significant precursor to the psychogeograhical dérive (drift) can prove instructive in locating the potential of walking, in order to function as a form of praxis (defined here as lived practice in opposition to theory) that goes beyond its more benign construction as the “gentle art” of getting lost.

The Great Shock

To return to the origins of Surrealism is to illuminate the radical intentions of the movement. The enormous shock that followed the Great War represented, according to Roger Shattuck, “a profound organic reaction that convulsed the entire system with vomiting, manic attacks, and semi-collapse” (9). David Gascoyne considers 1919, the inaugural year of Surrealist activity, as “a year of liquidation, the end of everything but also of paroxysmic death-birth, incubating seeds of renewal” (17). It was at this time that André Breton and his collaborator Philippe Soupault came together at the Hôtel des Grands Hommes in Paris to conduct their early experimental research. As the authors took poetic license with the psychoanalytical method of automatic writing, their desire to unsettle the latent content of the unconscious as it manifests in the spontaneous outpourings of dream-like recollections resulted in the first collection of Surrealist texts, The Magnetic Fields (1920). As Breton recalls:

Completely occupied as I still was with Freud at that time, and familiar with his methods of examination which I had had some slight occasion to use on some patients during the war, I resolved to obtain from myself what we were trying to obtain from them, namely, a monologue spoken as rapidly as possible without any intervention on the part of critical faculties, a monologue consequently unencumbered by the slightest inhibition and which was, as closely as possible, akin to spoken thought. (Breton, Manifesto 22–23)

Despite their debts to psychoanalytical methods, the Surrealists sought radically different ends from therapeutic goals in their application. Rather than using analysis to mitigate the pathologies of the psyche, Breton argued that such methods should instead be employed to liberate consciousness in ways that released the individual from “the reign of logic” (Breton, Manifesto 11) and the alienating forces of a mechanised society. In the same manifesto, Breton links his critique to a denunciation of the novel, principally the realist novel which dominated the literary landscape of the nineteenth-century, for its limitations in conveying the power of the imagination and the depths of the mind’s faculties. Despite these protestations, the Surrealists were unable to completely jettison the novel and instead launched a series of innovations in form, structure, and style in an attempt to renew the genre. As J.H. Matthews suggests, “Being then, as all creative surrealism must be, the expression of a mood of experimentation, the Surrealist novel probes not only the potentialities of feeling and imagination, but also those of novelistic form” (Matthews 6).

When Nadja appeared in 1928, Breton was not the first Surrealist to publish a novel. However, this work remains the most well-known example of its type in the Anglophone context.  Largely drawn from the author’s autobiographical experiences, it recounts the narrator’s (André’s) obsessive infatuation with a mysterious, impoverished and unstable young woman who goes by the name of Nadja. The pair’s haunted and uncanny romance unfolds during their undirected walks, or dérives, through the streets of Paris, the city acting as an affective register of their encounters. The “intellectual seduction” comes to an abrupt halt (Breton, Nadja 108), however, when Nadja does in fact go truly mad, disappearing from the narrator’s life when she is committed to an asylum. André makes no effort to seek her out and after launching into a diatribe vehemently attacking the institutions that administer psychiatric treatment, nonchalantly resumes the usual concerns of his everyday life.

At a formal level, Breton’s unconventional prose indeed stirs many minor shocks and tremors in the reader. The insertion of temporally off-kilter photographs and surreal drawings are intended to supersede naturalistic description. However, their effect is to create a form of “negative indexicality” (Masschelein) that subtly undermines the truth claims of the novel. Random coincidences charged through with the attractive force of desire determine the plot while the compressed dream-like narrative strives to recount only those facts of “violently fortuitous character” (Breton, Nadja 19). Strikingly candid revelations perpetually catch the reader off guard. But it is in the novel’s treatment of the city, most specifically, in which we can recognise the evolution of Surrealism’s initial concern for the radically subversive and liberatory potential of the dream into a form of praxis that binds the shock of the marvellous to the historical materialism of Marx and Engels.

This praxis unfolds in the novel on a number of levels. By placing its events firmly at the level of the street, Breton privileges the anti-heroic realm of everyday life over the socially hierarchical domain of the bourgeois domestic interior favoured in realist literature. More significantly, the sites of the city encountered in the novel act as repositories of collective memory with the power to rupture the present. As Margaret Cohen comprehensively demonstrates in her impressive study Profane Illumination, the great majority of sites that the narrator traverses in Nadja reveal connections in previous centuries to instances of bohemian activity, violent insurrection or revolutionary events.

The enigmatic statue of Étienne Dolet, for example, to which André is inexplicably drawn on his city walks and which produces a sensation of “unbearable discomfort” (25), commemorates a sixteenth-century scholar and writer of love poetry condemned as a heretic and burned at the Place Maubert for his non-conformist attitudes. When Nadja is suddenly gripped by hallucinations and imagines herself among the entourage of Marie-Antoinette, “multiple ghosts of revolutionary violence descend on the Place Dauphine from all sides” (Cohen 101). Similarly, a critique of capitalism emerges in the traversal of those marginal and derelict zones of the city, such as the Saint-Ouen flea market, which become revelatory of the historical cycles of decay and ruination that modernity seeks to repress through its faith in progress. It was this poetic intuition of the machinations of historical materialism, in particular, that captured the attention of Walter Benjamin in his 1929 “Surrealism” essay, in which he says of Breton that:

He can boast an extraordinary discovery: he was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the “outmoded”—in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them. The relation of these things to revolution—no one can have a more exact concept of it than these authors. (210)

In the same passage, Benjamin makes passing reference to the Passage de l’Opéra, the nineteenth-century Parisian arcade threatened with demolition and eulogised by Louis Aragon in his Surrealist anti-novel Paris Peasant (published in 1926, two years earlier than Nadja). Loosely structured around a series of walks, Aragon’s book subverts the popular guidebook literature of the period by inventorying the arcade’s quotidian attractions in highly lyrical and imagistic prose. As in Nadja, a concern for the “outmoded” underpins the praxis which informs the politics of the novel although here it functions somewhat differently. As transitional zones on the cusp of redevelopment, the disappearing arcades attract Aragon for their liminal status, becoming malleable dreamscapes where an ontological instability renders them ripe for eruptions of the marvellous. Such sites emerge as “secret repositories of several modern myths,” and “the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral”. (Aragon 14)

City as Dreamscape

Contemporary literature increasingly reads Paris Peasant through the lens of psychogeography, and not unproblematically. In his brief guide to psychogeography, British writer Merlin Coverley stresses Aragon’s apparent documentary or ethnographical intentions in describing the arcades. He suggests that the author “rails against the destruction of the city” (75), positing the novel as “a handbook for today’s breed of psychogeographer” (76). The nuances of Aragon’s dream-awakening dialectic, however, are too easily effaced in such an assessment which overlooks the novel’s vertiginous and hyperbolic prose as it consistently approaches an unreality in its ambivalent treatment of the arcades. What is arguably more significant than any documentary concern is Aragon’s commitment to the broader Surrealist quest to transform reality by undermining binary oppositions between waking life and the realm of dreams. As Hal Foster’s reading of the arcades in Surrealism insists:

This gaze is not melancholic; the surrealists do not cling obsessively to the relics of the nineteenth-century. Rather it uncovers them for the purposes of resistance through re-enchantment. If we can grasp this dialectic of ruination, recovery, and resistance, we will grasp the intimated ambition of the surrealist practice of history. (166)

Unlike Aragon, Breton defended the political position of Surrealism throughout the ebbs and flows of the movement. This notion of “resistance through re-enchantment” retained its significance for Breton as he clung to the radical importance of dreams and the imagination, creative autonomy, and individual freedom over blind obedience to revolutionary parties. Aragon’s allegiance to communism led him to surrender the poetic intoxications of Surrealist prose in favour of the more sombre and austere tone of social realism. By contrast, other early Surrealists like Philippe Soupault contributed novels which deployed the praxis of shock in a less explicitly dialectical fashion. Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris (1928), in particular, responds to the influence of the war in producing a crisis of identity among a generation of young men, a crisis projected or transferred onto the city streets in ways that are revelatory of the author’s attunement to how “places and environment have a profound influence on memory and imagination” (Soupault 91).

All the early Surrealists served in the war in varying capacities. In Soupault’s case, the writer “was called up in 1916, used as a guinea pig for a new typhoid vaccine, and spent the rest of the war in and out of hospital. His close friend and cousin, René Deschamps, was killed in action” (Read 22). Memories of the disaster of war assume a submerged presence in Soupault’s novel, buried deep in the psyche of the narrator. Typically, it is the places and sites of the city that act as revenants, stimulating disturbing memories to drift back to the surface which then suffuse the narrator in an atmosphere of melancholy. During the novel’s numerous dérives, the narrator’s detective-like pursuit of his elusive love-object, the young streetwalker Georgette, the tracking of her near-mute artist brother Octave, and the following of the ringleader of a criminal gang, all appear as instances of compensation. Each chase invokes a desire to recover a more significant earlier loss that persistently eludes the narrator. When Soupault’s narrator shadows Octave on a walk that ventures into the city’s industrial zone, recollections of the disaster of war gradually impinge upon his aleatory perambulations. His description evokes two men moving through the trenches together:

The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud. Step by step we sank into the thickness of night, lost as if forever. I turned around several times to look at the way we had come but night alone was behind us. (80)

In an article published in 2012, Catherine Howell identifies Last Nights of Paris as “a lyric celebration of the city as spectacle” (67). At times, the narrator indeed surrenders himself to the ocular pleasures of modernity. Observing the Eiffel Tower, he finds delight in “indefinitely varying her silhouette as if I were examining her through a kaleidoscope” (Soupault 30). Yet it is important to stress the role that shock plays in fissuring this veneer of spectacle, especially those evocations of the city that reveal an unnerving desensitisation to the more violent manifestations of the metropolis. Reading a newspaper, the narrator remarks that “the discovery of bags full of limbs, carefully sawed and chopped up” (23) signifies little more than “a commonplace crime” (22). Passing the banks of the Seine provokes “recollection of an evening I had spent lying on the parapet of the Pont Marie watching several lifesavers trying in vain to recover the body of an unfortunate suicide” (10). In his sensitivity to the unassimilable nature of trauma, Soupault intuits a phenomenon which literary trauma theory argues profoundly limits the text’s claim to representation, knowledge, and an autonomous subject.

In this sense, Soupault appears less committed than Breton to the idea that the after-effects of shock might be consciously distilled into a form of praxis. Yet this prolongation of an unintegrated trauma still posits shock as a powerful vehicle to critique a society attempting to heal its wounds without addressing their underlying causes. This is typical of Surrealism’s efforts to “dramatize the physical and psychological trauma of a war that everyone wanted to forget so that it would not be swept away too quickly” (Lyford 4).

Woman and Radical Madness

In her 2007 study, Surrealist Masculinities, Amy Lyford focuses upon the regeneration and nation building project that characterised post-war France and argues that Surrealist tactics sought to dismantle an official discourse that promoted ideals of “robust manhood and female maternity” (4). Viewed against this backdrop, the trope of madness in Surrealism is central to the movement’s disruptive strategies. In Last Nights of Paris, a lingering madness simmers beneath the surface of the text like an undertow, while in other Surrealist texts the lauding of madness, specifically female hysteria, is much more explicit. Indeed, the objectification of the madwoman in Surrealism is among the most problematic aspects of its praxis of shock and one that raises questions over to what extent, if at all, Surrealism and feminism can be reconciled, leading some critics to define the movement as inherently misogynistic.

While certainly not unfounded, this critique fails to answer why a broad spectrum of women artists have been drawn to the movement. By contrast, a growing body of work nuances the complexities of the “blinds spots” (Lusty 2) in Surrealism’s relationship with women. Contemporary studies like Natalya Lusty’s Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Katharine Conley’s earlier Automatic Woman both afford greater credit to Surrealism’s female practitioners in redefining their subject position in ways that trouble and unsettle the conventional understanding of women’s role in the movement.

The creative and self-reflexive manipulation of madness, for example, proved pivotal to the achievements of Surrealist women. In her short autobiographical novella, Down Below (1944), Leonora Carrington recounts the disturbing true experience of her voyage into madness sparked by the internment of her partner and muse, fellow Surrealist Max Ernst, in a concentration camp in 1940. Committed to a sanatorium in Santander, Spain, Carrington was treated with the seizure inducing drug Cardiazol. Her text presents a startling case study of therapeutic maltreatment that is consistent with Bretonian Surrealism’s critique of the use of psycho-medical methods for the purposes of regulating and disciplining the individual. As well as vividly recalling her intense and frightening hallucinations, Down Below details the author’s descent into a highly paranoid state which, somewhat perversely, heightens her sense of agency and control over her environment. Unable to discern boundaries between her internal reality and that of the external world, Carrington develops a delusional and inflated sense of her ability to influence the city of Madrid:

In the political confusion and the torrid heat, I convinced myself that Madrid was the world’s stomach and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring that digestive organ to health […] I believed that I was capable of bearing that dreadful weight and of drawing from it a solution for the world. The dysentery I suffered from later was nothing but the illness of Madrid taking shape in my intestinal tract. (12–13)

In this way, Carrington’s extraordinarily visceral memoir embodies what can be described as the Surrealist woman’s “double allegiance” (Suleiman 5) to the praxis of shock. On the one hand, Down Below subversively harnesses the affective qualities of madness in order to manifest textual disturbances and to convey the author’s fierce rebellion against societal constraints. At the same time, the work reveals a more complex and often painful representational struggle inherent in occupying the position of both the subject experiencing madness and the narrator objectively recalling its events, displaying a tension not present in the work of the male Surrealists. The memoir concludes on an ambivalent note as Carrington describes finally becoming “disoccultized” of her madness, awakening to “the mystery with which I was surrounded and which they all seemed to take pleasure in deepening around me” (53).

Notwithstanding its ambivalence, Down Below typifies the political and historical dimensions of Surrealism’s struggle against internal and external limits. Yet as early as 1966, Surrealist scholar J.H. Matthews was already cautioning against reaching that point where the term Surrealist “loses any meaning and becomes, as it is for too many, synonymous with ‘strange,’ ‘weird,’ or even ‘fanciful’” (5–6). To re-evaluate the praxis of shock in the Surrealist novel, then, is to seek to reinstate Surrealism as a movement that cannot be reduced to vague adjectives or to mere aesthetic principles. It is to view it as an active force passionately engaged with the pressing social, cultural, and political problems of its time.

While the frequent nods to Surrealist methods in contemporary literary genealogies and creative urban research practices such as psychogeography are a testament to its continued allure, the growing failure to read Surrealism as political is one of the more contradictory symptoms of the expanding temporal distance from the catastrophic events from which the movement emerged. As it becomes increasingly common to draw links between disaster, creativity, and renewal, the shifting sands of the reception of Surrealism are a reminder of the need to resist domesticating movements born from such circumstances in ways that blunt their critical faculties and dull the awakening power of their praxis of shock. To do otherwise is to be left with little more than cheap thrills.


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Author Biography

Ella Mudie, University of New South Wales

With a background in visual arts writing and freelance journalism, Ella Mudie is currently undertaking a PhD candidature with the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW in Sydney. Her research focuses upon the literary history of the psychogeographical novel and the role that spatial narratives play in complicating distinctions between fiction, non-fiction, memoir and travelogue.