The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

Walter Benjamin and surrealism

Waiter Benjamin
and surrealism
The story of a revolutionary spell
Michael Lowy

‘Fascination’ is the only term that does justice to the
intensity of the feelings Waiter Benjamin experienced
when he discovered surrealism in 1926-27. His very
efforts to escape the spell of the movement founded
by Andre Breton and his friends are an expression of
the same fascination. As we know, it was this discovery that gave birth to the ‘Paris Arcades’ project.

Writing to Adorno in 1935, Benjamin describes the
genesis of the Passagenwerk, which was to preoccupy
him for the last thirteen years of his life, in the
following terms: ‘It opens with Aragon – the paysan
de Paris. Evenings, lying in bed, I could never read
more than two to three pages by him because my
heart started to pound so hard that I had to put the
book down.’ 1
Benjamin stayed in Paris during the summer of
1926, and again in the summer of 1927, after his trip
to Moscow. It was probably at this time that he became
acquainted with Aragon’s book (which was published
in 1926) and with other surrealist writings. Why the
immediate attraction and the inner turmoil? The insightful account given by Gershom Scholem, who visited
Benjamin in Paris in 1927, sheds some light on the
reasons for what he calls his friend’s ‘burning interest’

in the surrealists: he found in them ‘a certain number
of things that had suddenly come to him over the
previous years’. In other words, he ‘read those periodicals in which Aragon and Breton proclaimed things
that coincided somewhere with his own deepest experience’.2 We shall see later what those ‘ideas’ were.

We do not know if Benjamin met Breton or other
surrealists at this time: there is nothing in his correspondence to suggest that he did so. On the other hand,
according to Scholem (in his Foreword to the
Correspondence), he did exchange letters – now ‘lost’

– with the author of the Surrealist Manifesto. 3 A trace

of this dicovery can – up to a point – be seen in the
book Benjamin published at this time: One-way Street
(1928). So much so that Ernst Bloch thought fit to
describe it as ‘a model for a surrealistic way of thinking’4 – a statement which is both greatly exaggerated
and, in the last analysis, inaccurate.

Benjamin is in fact attempting to escape what he
saw as a dangerous fascination, and to bring out the
differentia specifica of his own project. In his letter of
November 1928 to Scholem he explains that he felt the
need to ‘distance this piece of work from an overostensible proximity to the surrealist “movement.

Understandable and well-founded as it may be, that
proximity could prove fatal to me’. This did not,
however, mean that he refused to take on board the
philosophical heritage of surrealism.

A Gothic Marxism
What does this ‘understandable’ and even ‘wellfounded’ ‘proximity’ consist of? Margaret Cohen’s
recent Profane Illumination suggests an interesting
hypothesis by describing both Benjamin and Andre
Breton as adepts of a ‘Gothic Marxism’ – as distinct
from the dominant version, which has metaphysical
materialist tendencies and which is contaminated by
the evolutionist ideology of progress. It seems to me,
however, that the author is on the wrong track when
she describes the Marxism of both Benjamin and the
surrealists as a Marxist genealogy that is fascinated by
the irrational aspects of the social process; as a
genealogy that tries to study how the irrational
penetrates existing society, and dreams of using the
irrational to bring about social change. s The concept
of the ‘irrational’ is absent from the writings of both
WaIter Benjamin and Breton; it relates to a rationalist
world-view inherited from the philosophy of the

Radical Philosophy 80 (Nov/Oec



Enlightenment, which is the very thing both our
authors are attempting to transcend (in the Hegelian
sense of Aufhebung). The term ‘Gothic Marxism’, on
the other hand, is illuminating, provided that we understand the adjective in its romantic sense of a
fascination with enchantment and the marvellous, as
well as with the spellbound aspects of pre-modern
cultures and societies. We find references to the
English Gothic novel of the eighteenth century and
certain German romantics of the nineteenth at the heart
of the work of both Breton and Benjamin.

The Gothic Marxism common to both would appear,
then, to be a historical materialism that is sensitive to
the magical dimension of past cultures, to the ‘black’

moment of revolt, and to the illumination that rends
the sky of revolutionary action like a bolt of lightning.

‘Gothic’ should also be understood literally as a
positive reference to certain key moments in profane
medieval culture: it is no accident that both Breton and
Benjamin should admire the courtly love of medieval
Provence, which they both view as one of the purest
manifestations of illumination. I stress the ‘profane’

aspect because, for the surrealists, nothing was more
abominable than religion in general and the apostolic
Roman Catholic religion in particular. Benjamin rightly
stresses the importance of ‘the bitter, passionate revolt
against Catholicism in which Rimbaud, Lautreamont
and Apollinaire brought Surrealism into the world’.6
In order to understand the true nature of Benjamin’s
profound affinity with the work of Breton, Aragon and
their friends, we must look closely at ‘Surrealism: The
Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’, which


Benjamin published in the journal Literarische Welt
in February 1929. Written in 1928, this extraordinarily
rich text is difficult, sometimes unfair, and often
enigmatic, but it is always visionary and bejewelled
with strange images and allegories. It is not a piece of
‘literary criticism’ in the normal sense of the term, but
a poetic, philosophical and political essay of prime
importance, and it is shot through with dazzling and
surprising ‘profane illuminations’. Without making any
claims to exhaustivity, let us try to reconstruct some
of its essential moments.

In Benjamin’s view, surrealism is anything but the
work of ‘yet another clique of literati’ – he attributes
that view to the philistine experts he ironically
describes as ‘know-alls’.7 Surrealism is therefore not
an ‘artistic movement’ but an attempt to explore the
sphere of poetry from within, thanks to a set of
magical experiments (Erfarungen) with revolutionary
implications. More specifically, it is a ‘visionary’

movement which is both profoundly libertarian and
in search of a possible convergence with communism.

It is precisely because it corresponds so closely to
the approach Benjamin had adopted over the previous
ten years that the surrealist approach inspired a
‘burning interest’. Inspired by an anarchist sensibility
– or a revolutionary-nihilist sensibility, to use one of
his favourite terms – that has something in common
with Sorel (see the 1928 ‘Critique of Violenc~’8),
Benjamin discovered communism thanks to the beauty
of Asja Lacis in Capri in 1923, and Marxist philosophy
thanks to a reading of Lukacs’s History and Class
Consciousness. Although he decided, after many hesitations, not to join the
communist movement, he
still remained a sort of close
sympathizer sui generis. As
is clearly obvious from the
‘Moscow Journal’ of 192627, his lucidity and critical
distance mark him out from
the typical fellow traveller.

And his critical distance no
doubt springs from the
current that continues to
flow (sometimes underground) throughout his

The libertarian dimension
of surrealism also appears in
a more direct fashion: ‘Since
Bakunin, Europe has lacked
a radical concept of freedom.

The Surrealists have one. ‘9 In the immense literature
devoted to surrealism over the last seventy years, it is
rare to find such a significant formula, or one so
capable of expressing, thanks to a few simple and
trenchant words, the unbreakable kernel of darkness
in the movement founded by Andre Breton. According
to Benjamin, it was ‘the hostility of the bourgeoisie
toward every manifestation of radical intellectual
freedom’ that pushed surrealism to the left, towards
revolution and, after the Rif war, towards communism. lO As we know, Breton and other surrealists
joined the Parti Communiste Franc;ais in 1927.

The tendency towards politicization and growing
commitment does not, in Benjamin’s view, mean that
surrealism has to abandon its magical and libertarian
qualities. On the contrary, it is those qualities that
allow it to play a unique and irreplaceable role in the
revolutionary movement: ‘to win the energies of intoxication for the revolution – this is the project about
which surrealism circles in all its books and enterprises. This it may call its most particular task.’ II If it
is to accomplish this task, surrealism must, however,
abandon its unilateral stance and accept an alliance
with communism:

For them it is not enough that, as we know, an
ecstatic component lives in every revolutionary
act. This component is identical with the anarchic.

But to place the accent exclusively on it would be
to subordinate the methodical and disciplinary
preparation for revolution entirely to a praxis
oscillating between fitness exercises and celebration
in advance. 12

A new romanticism
What is this ‘intoxication’, this Rausch whose energies
Benjamin is so anxious to win for the revolution? In
One- Way Street, Benjamin refers to intoxication as an
expression of the magical relationship between the
ancients and the cosmos, but he implies that the experience (Erfahrung) and the Rausch that once characterized that ritual relationship with the world disappear in
modern society.13 In the Literarische Welt article, he
appears to rediscover that relationship, in a new form,
in surrealism. 14
This argument runs through many of Benjamin’s
writings. The revolutionary utopia implies the rediscovery of an old, archaic or prehistoric experience:

matriarchy (Bachofen), primitive communism, the
classless, stateless community, a primal harmony with
nature, the paradise lost from which we were driven
by the storm of ‘progress’, or the ‘earlier life’ in which
the adorable springtime had yet to lose its scent
(Baudelaire). In all these cases, Benjamin is not

recommending a return to the past but – in keeping
with the dialectic of revolutionary romanticism – a
digression through the past and towards a new future
that can integrate all the conquests modernity has made
since 1789. 15
This is equally true of the modern intoxication of
the surrealists, which can in no sense be related to the
archaic intoxication of ancient times. Benjamin stresses
the distinction between lower or primitive forms of
intoxication – religious or drug-induced ecstasy – and
the higher form produced by surrealism at its best
moments: a profane illumination, ‘a materialist and
anthropological inspiration’. The notion is rich, but
difficult to define. This non-religious form of
Erleuchtung can be found in both courtly love and
anarchist revolt, in Nadja and in the mystery that is
present at the heart of everyday life. A successor to
the philosophical realism of the Middle Ages which
Breton claims as his own in his Introduction au
discours sur le peu de rea lite, the profane illumination
of the surrealists lies in ‘magical experiments with
words’ in which ‘slogans, magical formulas [Zauberformel] and concepts’ intermingle. 16
Whilst our prosaic and limited capitalist/industrial
modern civilization – the world of the Spiesser and
bourgeois philistines – is characterized, as Max Weber
saw so lucidly, by the disenchantment of the world,
the romantic world-view – and surrealism is ·’the tail
of the romantic comet’ (Breton) – is primarily inspired
by an ardent, and sometimes despairing, desire to reenchant the world. The difference between surrealism
and the romanticism of the nineteenth century is, as
Benjamin well realized, the profane, ‘materialist and
anthropological’ nature of surrealism’s ‘magical
formulas’, the non-religious, and even deeply antireligious nature of its ‘magical experiences’, and the
post~mystical vocation of its ‘illuminations’ .17
When he examines the surrealists’ illuminations,
Benjamin pays particular attention to their discovery
of the revolutionary energies that appear in ‘the outmoded’ , in ‘the first iron constructions, the first factory
buildings, the earliest photographs, the objects that
have begun to be extinct, grand pianos’ .18 What is ‘the
relation of these things to revolution’? Benjamin never
explains. Is it a sign of the precariousness, the historicity or mortality of bourgeois structures, monuments
and institutions? Or is it an ironic and subversive
commentary on the bourgeoisie’s pretentions to being
‘new’ and ‘modern’?19 The remainder of the paragraph
appears to take us in a different direction as it deals
with urban poverty and even ‘the proletarian quarters
of the great cities’: ‘no one before these visionaries


and augurs perceived how destitution – not only social
but architechtonic, the poverty of interiors, enslaved
and enslaving objects – can be suddenly transformed
into revolutionary nihilism’,2° Paris itself, ‘the most
dreamed-of of their objects’, is also a source of
revolutionary experience to the extent that ‘only revolt
completely exposes its Surrealist face’ .21 Benjamin’s
argument oscillates between these different approaches; they are not necessarily contradictory, but
nor do they express a univocal criterion. Unless that
criterion is the ‘trick’ that consists in ‘the substitution
of a political for a historical view of the past’, or in
other words in seeing a very ‘object’ in terms of its
future – imminent-revolutionary abolition.

Benjamin does, however, criticize surrealism for
being ‘enmeshed in a number of pernicious romantic
prejudices’ and for being ‘an inadequate, undialectical
conception of the nature of intoxication’ .22 Thus, ‘the
most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will
not teach us half as much about thinking (which is
eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of
thinking about the hashish trance’.23 The criticism is
all the stranger in that the surrealists – unlike Benjamin
(see his ‘Hashish in Marseilles’24) – were never very
interested in experimenting with the use of drugs, and
always took more interest in De Quincey’s Confessions
of an English Opium-Eater than in the actual consumption of that soft narcotic.

Benjamin’s essay abounds in profane illuminations,
but none is more surprising or uncanny – in the sense
of the German unheimlich – than the urgent appeal for
‘the organization of pessimism’ .25

An organized pessimism
In Benjamin’s view, nothing could be more derisory
and idiotic than the optimism of bourgeois parties and
social democracy, whose political programme is no
more than ‘a bad poem on springtime’. Dismissing
this ‘unprincipled, dilettantish optimism’, which is
inspired by the ideology of linear progress, he sees in
pessimism the effective point of convergence between
surrealism and communism. It goes without saying
that he is not referring to a contemplative and fatalistic
feeling, but to an active, practical and ‘organized’

pessimism that is totally dedicated to preventing, by
all means possible, the advent of the worst.

What does the pessimism of the surrealists consist
in? Benjamin refers to certain ‘prophecies’ and to
Apollinaire and Aragon’ s premonitions of the atrocities
to come: ‘Publishing houses are stormed, books of
poems thrown on the fire, poets lynched. ’26 The impressive thing about this passage is not only the accurate


premonition of an event that was indeed to occur six
years later when the Nazis made bonfires of ‘antiGerman’ books in 1934; we have only to insert the
words ‘by Jewish (or anti-fascist) authors’ after ‘books
of poems’ – but also and above all the expression used
by Benjamin (it does not appear in either Apollinaire
or Aragon) to describe these atrocities: ‘a progrom of
poets’. Is he talking about poets or Jews? Or are both
threatened by this disturbing future? As we shall see
later, this is not the only strange ‘premonition’ to be
found in this surprisingly rich text.

One wonders, on the other hand, what can be meant
by the concept of pessimism, as applied to the
communists; after all, their doctrine of 1928, which
celebrates the triumphs of the building of socialism in
the USSR and the imminent collapse of capitalism, is
a fine example of the optimistic illusion. Benjamin in
fact borrows the concept of the ‘organization of
pessimism’ from an essay he describes as ‘excellent’,
namely Pierre Naville’s La Revolution et les
intellectuels (1926). A close collaborator of the
surrealists (he was one of the editors of La Revolution
surrealiste), Naville had recently opted for political
commitment to the communist movement and wanted
his friends to follow his example. He called upon them
to abandon ‘a negative and anarchistic attitude’ in
favour of ‘the disciplined action of class struggle’,
and to ‘commit themselves resolutely to the revo”””
lutionary path, the only revolutionary path: the Marxist
path’. As we have seen, Benjamin adopts the same
broad attitude to the surrealists as Naville, but he
remains much more open to the libertarian moment of
the revolution.

According to Pierre Naville, pessimism is surrealism’s greatest virtue, both in terms of its current
reality and, even more, its future developments. In his
view, pessimism is rooted in ‘the reasons that any
conscious man can find for not conforming, especially
morally, with his contemporaries’, and it constitutes
‘the source of Marx’s revolutionary method’. Pessimism is the only way ‘to escape the incompetence and
disappointments of an era of compromise’. Rejecting
the ‘crude optimism’ of a Herbert Spencer – whom he
charitably describes as a ‘monstrously shrunken brain’

– or an Anatole France, whose ‘vile jokes’ he finds
intolerable, he concludes: ‘we must organize pessimism.’ The ‘organization of pessimism’ is the only
slogan that can save us from death.27
Needless to say, this impassioned apologia for
pessimism was far from representative of the political
culture of French communism at this time. Before
long, Pierre Naville was expelled from the Party: the

logic of his anti-optimism led him to join
the ranks of the left (,Trotskyist’)
opposition, and he became one of its
most important leaders. The positive
reference to Naville and to Trotsky
himself in Benjamin’s article it
appears in the context of a critique of the
concept of ‘proletarian art’ – at a time
when the founder of the Red Army had
already been expelled from the CPSU
and exiled to Alma Ata, is a good
example of his independence of mind.

According to Benjamin, the central
question posed by Naville’s book is
‘where are the conditions for revolution?

In the changing of attitudes or of external
cirumstances?’ He joyfully notes that
‘Surrealism has come ever closer to the
Communist answer.’ And what is that
answer? ‘Pessimism all along the line.

Absolutely. Mistrust in the fate of literature,
mistrust in the fate of freedom, mistrust in the
fate of European humanity, but three times
mistrust in all reconciliation: between
classes, between nations, between
individuals. And unlimited trust only in
LO. Farben and the peaceful perfection of the air
In this passage, which is a striking example of
profane illumination, Benjamin goes far beyond both
N aville – even though he does adopt the same spirit of
distrust and rejection of compromise – and the surrealists. His pessimistic-revolutionary vision allows
him to glimpse – intuitively but with a strange accuracy
– the catastrophes that lay in store for Europe, captured
perfectly by the ironic ‘unlimited trust’. Even though
he was the greatest pessimist of them all, Benjamin
obviously could not foresee the destruction that the
Luftwaffe was to inflict on the cities and civilian population of Europe. Still less could he imagine that, barely
fifteen years later, LO. Farben would become famous
for manufacturing the Zyklon B gas that was used to
‘rationalize’ genocide, or that its factories would
employ hundreds of thousands of slave labourers. And
yet Benjamin was the only one of the Marxist thinkers
or leaders of his day to foresee the monstruous disasters
that could be spawned by an industriallbourgeois
society in crisis. If only because of this paragraph which is inseparable from the rest of the article – this
essay of 1929 has a unique position in the critical or
revolutionary literature of the interwar years.

Jirf Kolar, Ova potahy, 1952

A revolutionary alarm
The article’s conclusion is a fairly unconditional celebration of surrealism, viewed as the heir to Hebbel’ s
‘anthropological materialism’, as well as to Oeorg
Buchner, Nietzsche and Rimbaud – a surprising collection of precursors. According to Benjamin, this new
materialism is not the same as the materialism of Vogt
and Bukharin, which he describes as ‘metaphysical’;
it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that he had
read Lukacs’ s critique of B ukharin’ s materialism,
which had appeared in 1926. Precisely what does he
mean by ‘anthropological materialism’? Benjamin does
not really explain, but he suggests that it means the
realization that ‘The body is a collectivity, too.’ It is
only when revolutionary tension becomes a ‘bodily
collective innervation’ and a ‘revolutionary discharge’

that reality will ‘transcend itself to the extent
demanded by the Communist Manifesto’ .29
What does the Communist Manifesto demand?

Benjamin does not answer that question, but he does
add a commentary that concludes his essay: ‘For the
moment, only the surrealists have understood its
present command. They exchange, to a man, the play
of human features for the face of an alarm clock that


in each minute rings for sixty seconds.’ The assertion
is astonishing in more than one sense: on the one hand,
it seems, despite all the criticisms of their limitations,
to describe the surrealists as the only group to have
come to terms with the demands of Marxism – and to
disparage the role of other Marxist intellectuals
(Bukharin?). On the other hand, far from being identified with Aragon’ s Vague des reves (cited at the
beginning of the essay as a typical example of ‘the
heroic phase’ of the movement in which its ‘dialectical
kernel’ was still embedded in an opaque substance),
the surrealist movement is directly associated with the
dialectical image of the alarm clock and wakefulness.

What is the meaning of this enigmatic allegory of
an alarm clock ‘that in each minute rings for sixty
seconds’? Benjamin is probably suggesting that the
unique value of surrealism resides in its ability to see
every second as the narrow door that allows the revolution to enter – to paraphrase a formula that he would
not use until much later. From beginning to end, the
essay is about the revolution, and profane illuminations
are meaningful only in so far as they all refer to that
ultimate and decisive vanishing point. 30
An analysis of the role of surrealism in the
Passagenwerk would require a separate article. Let
me simply draw attention to one aspect that is directly
related to the conclusion of the Literarische Welt
article. The difference, or even the contradiction,
between the surrealist approach and that of the
Passagenwerk has often been described as a dichotomy
between dreaming and wakefulness. And the first
drafts of the project do contain this assertion:

Differences between the tendencies of this piece of
work and Aragon; whilst Aragon perseveres in the
realm of dreams, my goal here is to find the
constellation of wakefulness [Erwachen). Whereas
there are still impressionist elements in Aragon ‘mythology’ – and whilst it is that impressionism
that is responsible for the book’s many shapeless
[gestaltlosen) philosophemes, my ambition is to
dissolve ‘mythology’ into the space of history. And
that can obviously only be done through the
awakening [Erwekung) of an as-yet-unconscious
knowledge of the past. 3 !

Given that this text was written at much the same time
as the 1929 article, it is difficult to reconcile it with
the image of permanent wakefulness as the quintessence of surrealism. Unless, that is, we take the
view – which seems the most likely hypothesis – that
the criticisms are specifically directed at Aragon and
perhaps the ‘heroic stage’ of the movement, but not
the surrealism of the years 1927-28. Significantly
neither ‘mythology’, ‘impressionism’ nor ‘shapeless
philosophemes’ figure amongst the many criticisms


Benjamin addresses to Breton and his friends in the

Literarische Welt article.

What is more, we cannot reduce the position of the

Passagenwerk to a static dichotomy between dreaming
and wakefulness: Benjamin’s ambition – like that of
Baudelaire and Andre Breton – is to create a new
world in which action will finally become dreaming’s


Translated by David Macey

1. The Correspondence of WaIter Benjamin, 1910-1940,
















edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno,
translated by M.R. and E.M. Jacobson, University of
Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1994, p. 488.

Benjamin published some passages from Aragon’s book
in the journal Literarische Welt in 1929.

G. Scholem, WaIter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship,
Faber & Faber, London, 1982, pp. 134-5.

Foreword to WaIter Benjamin, Correspondence, p. xii.

Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times, trans. Neville and
Stephen Plaice, Polity, Cambridge, 1991, p. 334. For a
pertinent critique, see Michel Izard, ‘WaIter Benjamin et
le surrealisme’, Docsur 12, June 1990, p. 3.

See Margaret Cohen, WaIter Benjamin and the Paris of
Surrealist Revolution, University of California Press,
Berkeley, 1993, pp. 1-2.

Waiter Benjamin, ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the
European Intelligentsia’, in One-Way Street and Other
Writings, New Left Books, London, 1979, p. 227. Ernst
Bloch is no doubt a typical representative of ‘Gothic
Marxism’. He makes no secret of his admiration for
medieval fairy tales and Gothic cathedrals – especialfy in
early works like his Geist der Utopie (1918-23).

‘Surrealism’, p. 225.

In One-Way Street and Other Writings, pp. 132-54.

‘Surrealism’, p. 236.

Ibid., p. 232.

Ibid., p. 236.

Ibid. Benjamin also speaks of binding ‘revolt to
revolution’ .

One-Way Street, pp. 103-4.

Cf. Margaret Cohen’ s comments in her Profane Illumination, pp. 187-9.

On the question of revolutionary romanticism, see Robert
Sayre and Michael Lowy, Revolte de melancolie: Le
Romantisme a contre-courant de la modernite, Payot,
Paris, 1992.

‘Surrealism’, p. 232. Benjamin attributes – wrongly in my
view – this type of magical experimentation to ‘the whole
literature of the avant-garde’, including futurism (ibid.).

And he complains – again, wrongly in my view – that the
surrealists’ inadequately profane conception of
illumination is illustrated by the episode dealing with
Madame Sacco, the fortune-teller evoked by Breton in
Nadja. Annoyed by this ‘humid backroom of spiritualism’, Benjamin exclaims (,Surrealism’, p. 228): ‘Who
would not wish to see these adoptive children of revolution most rigorously severed from all the goings-on in
the conventicles of down-at-heel dowagers, retired majors
and emigre profiteers.’ Like the other figures in Nadja, the
image of the ‘fortune-teller’ is completely profane and has
no ‘spiritualist’ meaning for Breton.

17. An excellent definition of profane illumination illustrated by the way the surrealists look at Paris – can be
found in Richard Wolin, WaIter Benjamin: An Aesthetic
of Redemption, Columbia University Press, New York,
1982, p. 132. Wolin explains that, like religious
illumination, profane illumination captures the energies of
spiritual intoxication in order to produce a ‘revelation’, a
vision or an intuition that transcends the prosaic state of
empirical reality; but it produces that vision without
resorting to dogmas about the beyond. Benjamin clearly
saw the intoxicating, trance-like effect induced by the
surrealist ‘romances’ in which the streets of Paris are
transformed into a phantasmagorical wonderland, in which
the monotony of conventions is rent asunder by the powers
of objective chance. Once we have walked through these
enchanted landscapes, we can never again experience life
with our usual complacency and indolence.

18. ‘Surrealism’, p. 229.

19. Cf. Rainer Rochlitz’s pertinent remarks in his Le
Desenchantement de I’ art, Gallimard, Paris, 1992, p. 156:

‘Surrealism demonstrated how the image could fulfil a
revolutionary function: by describing the accelerated
ageing of modem forms as an incessant production of the
archaic that reveals the real meaning of contemporaneity.

In the ruins of modernization, it revealed the urgent need
for a revolutionary upheaval.’

20. ‘Surrealism’, p. 229.

21. Ibid., p. 230.

22. Ibid., pp. 237, 236.

23. Ibid., p. 237. It seems to me that Rainer Rochlitz is
mistaken when (Le Desenchantement de l’art, p. 154) he
interprets this passage as Benjamin’s farewell to
surrealism: ‘If reading and thinking are also forms of
illumination and intoxication … there is no longer any









justification for surrealist irrationalism.’ Benjamin hopes
to transport the surrealist experience on to alien terrain:

that of effective action. No doubt rightly, Georges Bataille
rejects this fusion: ‘artistic experience cannot be
instrumentalized for political action.’ As we saw earlier,
the concept of ‘irrationalism’ is absent from Benjamin’s
essay, and he displays no desire to reject the ‘magical
experiments’ of surrealism. What is more, Benjamin’s
suggestion – winning the energies of intoxication for the
revolution – is by no means a mere political
‘instrumentalization’ of art.

In One-Way Street and Other Writings, pp. 215-24.

‘Surrealism’, p. 237.

Ibid., p. 233.

Pierre Naville, La Revolution et les intellectuels,
Gallimard, Paris, 1965, pp. 76-77, 100-117.

‘Surrealism’, p. 238.

Ibid., p. 239.

Jacques Leenhardt has some very interesting remarks to
make about the relationship between reve and reveil in
Benjamin, but it seems to me that he is mistaken when he
sees the image of the alarm clock in ‘Surrealism’ as ‘the
image of a certain conception of rationalist thought’ (l
Leenhardt, ‘Le passage comme forme d’experience:

Benjamin face a Aragon’, in H. Wisman, ed., Waiter
Benjamin et Paris, CERF, Paris, 1986, p. 165). It never
entered Benjamin’ s head to define surrealism as a
‘rationalist’ form of thought – the concept is as absent
from the article as its opposite – ‘irrationalism’. The
characteristic feature of the surrealist approach, and that
adopted by Benjamin in this essay, is that it is irreducible
to the ‘classical’ and static dichotomy between
‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’.

WaIter Benjamin, Passagenwerk, Vol. I, Suhrkamp
Verlag, Frankfurt, 1980, pp. 571-2.


Lancaster University
10th – 13th April, 1997


Time-consciousness and the Body
Narrative and Memory
Time and the Political
Tempo and Technology
Nature and Kairos

Speakers include:

Barbara Adam,. Arjun Appadurai, Dede Boden, Mick Dillon, Elizabeth Ermarth,
Sarah Frankhn, Annette Kuhn, Ernesto Laclau, Scott Lash, Alphonso Lingis;
Niklas Luhmann, Michel MatTesoli, John Milbank, Chantal MoutTe,
Peggy Phelan, Richard Roberts, John Urry, Slavoj Zizek.

Details from: June Rye, CSCv, Lancaster University
Bowland College, Lancaster LA 1 4YT
Telephone: (01524) 592497 Fax: (01524) 594238
Email: uk


Download the PDFBuy the latest issue