The Real Nadja – Léona Delcourt
“The Poet should make himself a seer.” –A. Rimbaud
“. . . Poetry was a crystallization of Breton’s own belief that the words and language could change the world, that the mind was the seat of any worthwhile revolution, and that true revolution must first occur in the mind.” –M. Polizzotti
“The revolution for the Surrealists was the victory of desire.” –M. Nadeau
In the early twentieth century, two very different individuals, Surrealist chief André Breton and analytical psychologist C.G. Jung, engaged in imaginative experimentation, tapping into their unconscious minds in search of creativity, freedom from logic and transpersonal psychic discoveries. Both men were very interested in spiritualism, a carry over from the 19th-century, which was part of their cultural moment, and continued to play a role in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet, these pioneering men had very different mindsets and conducted their investigations in very different ways.
In this article, we will first explore these differences relying on Breton’s words in his most famous book, Nadja, and on Jung’s mysterious, yet revelatory, Red Book. In both men’s cases, collaboration with a woman was essential to their creative process. We will see that both men felt, in some way, that they were prophets of the future. A major distinguishing feature of their psychic adventures will be their differing attitudes towards women. ***
Mark Polizzotti points out that Breton, although born on 19 February, 1896, changed the date to the 18th, wanting to be an Aquarian like his revered poet predecessors, Rimbaud and Nerval. Yet, on the cosmic scale, his horoscope showed a highly significant conjunction of Uranus with Saturn, which occurs only every forty-five years. Serendipitously, his compatriots Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard shared the same conjunction, as Breton noted in his Second manifeste du surréalisme (143). Jungian Rick Tarnas spells out the advantages in exuberant terms:
. . . the planet Uranus is empirically associated with the principle of change, rebellion, freedom, liberation, reform and revolution, and the unexpected breakup of structures; with sudden surprises, revelations and awakenings, lightning-like flashes of insight, the acceleration of thoughts and events; with births and new beginnings of all kinds; and with intellectual brilliance, cultural innovation, technological invention, experiment, creativity, and originality . . . Another set of concerns is with the celestial and the cosmic, with astronomy and astrology, with science and esoteric knowledge, with space travel and aviation (93).
Surrealism did revolutionize the poetry and art world of the twentieth century. Breton believed his movement could break down the duality between the self and the unconscious, self and other and self and universe by rejecting rationality. Children, he said, were closest to “la vraie vie” (true life): without adult logic, they could easily access the unconscious and their own imaginations. Oddly, Breton remembered his own childhood as “sad, lonely, and bleak,” with a “blandly ineffectual” father and a “loveless” mother whose strict Catholicism and disregard for his literary interests instilled in him a sense of revolt (Polizzotti, 2003, 2-3).
With the advent of World War I, Breton was drafted into the French artillery as a psychiatric medical officer in the military zone, after some brief training. He and his collaborators-to-be were all profoundly affected by the blood and horror, which engendered their revolutionary spirit and a need to fight against everything. Aspiring to be a poet, not a doctor, Breton was more interested in his patients’ language usage than their medical condition when treating what we now call “post-traumatic stress disorder” (Polizzotti, 2003, 5). Their distant, often illogical, verbal relationships intrigued him.
Breton had also discovered Freud’s theory of unconscious linkages in dreams, which he thought might help explain his own notion of “le hasard des rues” (chance street encounters) that underlies his 1928 work, Nadja. Following Freud, “the mind [became] a seat of literary and artistic wonders” for the Surrealists (Bauduin, 11). Yet, Breton seemed to be describing Jung’s theory of synchronicity in Nadja, i.e. finding deep personal meaning in everyday surprise encounters.
As recounted in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffé, Jung privileged predestination, declaring that “other people are established inalienably in my memories only if their names were entered in the scrolls of my destiny from the beginning, so that encountering them was at the same time a kind of recollection” (5). He was convinced that “the unconscious psyche . . . exists in a space-time continuum,” based on his own subjective experience (see Owens, 115).
From childhood on, Jung split off a dissociative self who had unusual visions and seemed to know vastly more than he did. Later, Jung “recognized” Emma, as the person he would marry on first seeing her when she was only fourteen years old. A dream the night before his mother’s death foretold her loss. A series of frightening visions predicted a bloodbath in Europe before the advent of World War I and others presaged his break with Freud. A dream gave him permission to sleep with Toni Wolff, both patient and colleague, who would come to live in his house as a second wife.
Jung’s Red Book, begun in 1913, but not published until 2009, began as an attempt to work through personal issues in trying times, with Wolff’s collaborative support. He described this inner journey with voices and visions as much more “vivid and colorful” than his outer experiences (Jung, 1961/1989, ix). Even more surprisingly, elsewhere he claimed his inner guru, Philemon, who had manifested in 1914, was the same Master who had come to “Buddha, Mani, Christ, Mahomet” (see Owens, 106).
Dr. Sonu Shamdasani (2009) classified Breton’s and Jung’s psychic explorations as part of their cultural moment, citing Breton and Soupault’s use of works by psychologists Frederick Myers, Théodore Flournoy, and Pierre Janet, who studied trance mediumship, telepathy, and clairvoyance. Breton had a great interest in spiritualism and read parapsychological journals, referenced in his 1933 essay “The Automatic Message” (Bauduin, 26). But he never had voices or visions. Breton needed a medium to reach beyond the confines of his own, probably left-dominant, mind. Jung, on the other hand, with his likely enhanced right mind, used a dissociative method called “active imagination.”
Jung worked in collaboration with Toni Wolff, with whom he was connected in analysis, as lovers, and through shared dream states. For Breton, women were muses and lovers, not intellectual partners, even though women “creators in their own right” did exist in the Surrealist movement, including Leonora Carrington, Valentine Hugo, Meret Oppenheim, Dora Maar and Leonor Fini (Polizzotti, 1995/1997, fn. 524).
There were many differences between Breton’s and Jung’s rendering of their mental explorations. In Nadja, Breton wrote an account of a short period in his life, peppered with black and white photographs rather than verbal descriptions. Jung recorded his imaginary encounters using medieval calligraphy, in both Latin and German, resembling a sacred text. His autonomously produced imagery, as important as the text, spilled out in “allow” mode, but was meticulously rendered in brightly colored Tibetan-style mandalas.
Meanwhile, the Surrealists made cut-and-paste or automatic poems, disjointed or blindly conjoined drawings, called cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), or enigmatic paintings with incongruous or illogical imagery. They were opening their heads, not fitting pieces together, and rejected religion. From a neuroscientific perspective, breaking down their poetry and art into discrete parts lacking a cohesive whole might indicate a left-hemispheric takeover (see McGilchrist, 414). But perhaps this piecemeal approach to art freed the right hemisphere to navigate space, finding meaningful coincidences in the outside world.
Jung remained in place, extracting deep personal meaning from his unconscious, justifying his extramarital love life, while discovering his “soul,” i.e. his inner feminine or “anima,” driven by a desire for wholeness. He distinguished the “spirit of the time” from the “spirit of the depths” in The Red Book, seemingly dividing his mind along a horizontal axis, left versus right, logic versus emotion, and language versus imagery. Jungian psychotherapist Maria Helena Mandacarú Guerra sees The Red Book as the “expression of someone in love, of a poet, in whose consciousness transformed by love metaphors flourish (26).” Jung did not need to fight logic like a Surrealist. A right-enhanced mind, I would say, could confirm Guerra’s analysis, that Jung was naturally open to “the logic of the heart, of images and of metaphors (29).”
Yet, the need for ‘masculine’ logic to be tempered by ‘feminine’ Eros fueled both men’s systems of thought. Each of Breton’s books followed a new love affair. If not for Toni Wolff, Jung’s Red Book might not have been written. Their relationship ended when she did not share his new interest in alchemy.
In 1916, Breton befriended Jacques Vaché, a soldier who was truly mentally ill. Breton considered this chance meeting one of the most important influences in his life. Profoundly affected when Vaché died from an opium overdose, possibly a suicide, Breton believed his treasured friend had been replaced or even reincarnated in Tristan Tzara, founder of the earlier Dada movement. Breton’s attraction to a mind naturally capable of surmounting the wall of logic, may have prefaced his later attraction to Nadja.
In 1918, the Surrealist group formed and their first work, Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), a collaborative effort between André Breton and Philippe Soupault, was published and presented as a scientific experiment. Using unconventional images, their authorial voices were intertwined and barely distinguishable in the inspirational and intuitive style of the work.
Typical of collaborative ventures I wrote about in my book, In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses, the two Surrealists felt they were obeying ‘une dictée magique’ (a magical dictation) as described in their next book, Les Pas perdus (The Lost Steps, 1924). Sentences came to them so fast that they had to resort to abbreviations to get them down, much as James Merrill and David Jackson had reported about their Ouija board sessions. For Breton and Soupault, a chapter ended at day’s end. The duo felt the words had come to them from a universal consciousness, revealing secrets of the cosmos they were specially elected to write down. The words were tumbling out of ‘la bouche d’ombre’, the same Shadow’s Mouth that had ‘spoken’ to Victor Hugo in collaboration with his family and friends through the talking tables, beginning in 1853. Hugo, whom Breton admired, believed that ‘All is One’ in the universe, love is all you need, and man is multiple, containing numerous souls within a single body.
The collaborative effort of Breton and Soupault was the beginning of “l’écriture automatique,” the automatic writing method often used by spirit mediums, in which the unconscious speaks or writes without premeditation. Also known as “la pensée parlée,” or spoken thought, it used a free association of ideas or images. This method led to another means of accessing dissociative knowledge: “l’époque des sommeils,” a hypnotic sleep that produced unfiltered speech proffering revelations and prophecies. Robert Desnos, the specialist in the method, said in La Révolution surréaliste: “Prophecy is within the grasp of everyone, just like memory and, for my part, I see no difference between the past and the future. The sole tense of the Verb is the indicative present (March 1926, 20).”
The “sleeps,” however, devolved into a dangerous method. As Bauduin (2014) reports:
Crevel prophesied that all those present would get tuberculosis and die. To general dismay, some of the participants became ill in the next few days. Desnos proved more and more difficult to wake up and even required the aid of a hastily summoned doctor on one occasion. On another, apparently still entranced, he tried to stab Éluard with a penknife after the latter had resorted to emptying a jug of water over him to awaken him. When, at a certain point, Breton discovered several members of the group in a side room preparing to hang themselves on Crevel’s instigation, it became clear that things were getting out of hand. He put an end to the sessions (36).
Despite these setbacks, the movement was in a constant state of becoming, as the dilapidated walls of logic, religion and family crumbled, allowing newly minted individuals to follow the dictates of their liberated unconscious:
Le surréalisme ouvre les portes du rêve à tous ceux pour qui la nuit est avare. Le surréalisme est le Carrefour des enchantements du sommeil, de l’alcool, du tabac, de l’éther, de l’opium, de la cocaïne, de la morphine, mais il est aussi le briseur des chaînes, nous ne dormons pas, nous ne buvons pas, nous ne fumons pas, nous ne prisons pas, nous ne nous piquons pas et nous rêvons, et la rapidité des aiguilles des lampes introduit dans nos cerveaux la merveilleuse éponge défleurie de l’or.
[Surrealism opens the door of the dream world to those who are greedy for the night. Surrealism exists at the intersection of the enchantment of sleep, alcohol, tobacco, ether, opium, cocaine, morphine, but it is also breaks chains, we do not sleep, we do not drink, we do not smoke, we do not take drugs, and we dream, and the rapidity of the needles of lamps introduce into our brains the marvelous sponge sprinkled in gold (my translation).
In 1924, Breton officially announced his new movement in his Manifeste du Surréalisme:
SURRÉALISME, n.m. Automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.
SURREALISM, masculine noun. Pure psychic automatism by which one can express verbally, or in writing, or by any other method, the real functioning of thought. That is, the dictation of thought, absent from any control exercised by reason, outside of any esthetic or moral preoccupation (my translation).
- Surrealism, Self and the Collaborating Other
Following his own definition, Breton believed he must cease to be who he thought he was in order to understand his “real” self, i.e. the “phantom” living in his unconscious, buried deep beneath social conventions. The Surrealist revolution took many forms. The adherents did not value work; in fact, it was forbidden. Together, they abandoned their studies, dedicating their lives to a search for their true selves via signs from their unconscious minds.
There were precursors in the French literary tradition. The 19th-century French poet Rimbaud famously said, “Je est un autre,” the ungrammatical “I is another,” or “someone else.” He sought his real objective self through a systematic derangement of all the senses. Similarly, Baudelaire, in his poem, “Correspondances,” had said “les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent (scents, colors and sounds correspond).” Breton praised Rimbaud as well as the novelist Flaubert for what sounded like synaesthesia. Flaubert reportedly wanted to give the impression of the color yellow in Salammbô and the color of moldiness in corners where there are wood lice in Madame Bovary. The evocation of colors in unusual ways in typical with synaesthesia and tends to come more naturally to people with atypically lateralized brains (Rogowska, 2015).
But space and time were also part of Breton’s method. He believed he could sink roots into the universal cosmos and find a ghost-like presence, a truly unknown other, with a unique message for the world. In Nadja, he saw himself as condemned to retrace the footsteps of his future self, while learning only a meager portion of what he had forgotten in the transit of time. Was this a poetic insight or a bolder claim? Breton insisted that a grand awakening could only occur through unconscious processes in a world that provided fortuitous, unexpected clues.
Breton felt strongly that Surrealism must remain a collective, collaborative movement whose adherents expressed their individual essences through writing or painting. Giorgio de Chirico could only paint surprised by the chance arrangement of painted objects. Only the unusual could produce poetry, which was the optimal form of writing in search of the self. Breton seemed to know this intuitively; however, poetry is right-hemispheric language, relying on emotion, sound and sight impressions, using prosodic expression and comparative imagery (see Kane, 2004).
For the most part, Breton was transparent about himself, divulging what he considered the most marvelous events of his daily life, all considered to be signals from the self transmitted via the unconscious. He believed that all men were capable of tapping into this underlying force, depending on their degree of liberation from the dictatorship of conscious logic. As a side note, the 20th-century Surrealists may have appeared mentally ill, even when they were not. In the 19th century, great poets and writers often were ill, specifically, bipolar with psychotic features, treated using harsh methods in mental asylums, including bloodletting with leeches (see Murat, 2001).
Finding the Marvelous in the Mundane
Nadja (1928/1964), alternately called a novel or a memoir, was not written as an automatic text; rather, it enumerates, without any pre-established order, the “marvelous” events of Breton’s life that proved (in his mind) the superiority of the surreal. The following rather banal events occur in Nadja:
(1) In the balcony, during the intermission of Apollinaire’s Couleur du Temps (Color of Time), Paul Éluard approached Breton, who was seated with Picasso, mistaking him for a friend he thought had been killed in the war. Later, introduced to Éluard in writing through a mutual friend, they began to correspond. Meeting in person while Éluard was on furlough, they deemed their initial encounter predestination. Breton’s other “marvelous” encounters included Benjamin Péret, Philippe Soupault, Robert Desnos, Jacques Vaché et Louis Aragon. Breton attributed these meetings to magnetic force fields and mental chemistry in the collaborative Surrealist adventure.
(2) Walking with Philippe Soupault, Breton predicted without fail when they would encounter shops selling “Bois-Charbon” (wood-coal). A hallucinatory image of a log presumably guided the way. While returning home, Breton heard a tune playing on a carousel’s “cheval de bois” [wooden horse], feeling he was the log. Later, at home, he was frightened by statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The recurrent sounds and sights beyond the original trigger, along with Breton’s emotional reaction to them, suggest a possible right-hemispheric connection. Breton’s visual and emotional hypersensitivities were also evident when a statue of Renaissance scholar and printer Etienne Dolet made him uneasy. Dolet’s condemnation by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne and burning at the stake may have activated Breton’s sympathetic dis-ease in this instance.
(3) A woman from Nantes recommends to Breton and the Surrealist circle Benjamin Péret, who wanted to embark on a literary career in Paris. Breton remembers that Rimbaud had come from Nantes. He also met Jacques Vaché there during the war. In the 1964 edition of Nadja, Breton speaks of Rimbaud as though he had taken possession of him in a sort of mystical reincarnation, allowing the Surrealist to see the city of Nantes through his poet predecessor’s eyes. Péret’s acceptance seemed preordained. These vague sensations and associative recollections, while possibly indicating a right-hemispheric proclivity, are no match for Jung’s startling precognitions and dreams.
(4) Breton recounts “l’époque des sommeils” (the era of sleeps) in which Robert Desnos could fall asleep, while speaking from his unconscious mind or seemingly channeling someone else. He “borrowed” the personality of the artist Marcel Duchamp, even though he had never met him. Breton insisted that Desnos was an oracle when speaking in this dissociative state of consciousness.
(5) Breton had an inexplicable attraction to the boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle, apparently only a vague intuition, “knowing” that some day something marvelous would happen there.
(6) Les Détraquées, a play in which two female instructors kill one of the most beautiful and gifted students in their school each year enthralled Breton. Thirty years later, Breton learned that a neurologist who had been an intern in medicine with him had been consulted on the play’s premise. In a dream the night of the play, Breton reproduced some of the same images he had seen, believing, in a Freudian way, they were beyond the notions of good and evil.
Acceptable violence may, in part, explain Breton’s admiration for his predecessor poet, Lautréamont. Born in war-torn Uruguay, Lautréamont’s mother died shortly after his birth. War, riots and plague riddled his short life. Not surprisingly, Lautréamont’s two published works, Les Chants de Maldoror (The Songs of Maldoror) and Poésies were grim, the former accenting evil to the point of sadism. Lautréamont’s concept of poetry as a breakdown of logic, religion, and all received notions of the good, while celebrating the virile male to the point of sadism, must have been music to the ears of Breton and the Surrealists.
In general, the 19th century witnessed a bizarre attraction to sadism and Satanism. Breton himself said that J.-K. Huysmans’s Là-bas (Down There), which he was reading at the time he wrote Nadja, seemed to have been written just for him. In fact, Huysmans’s book extolled Satanism, as practiced by renegade priests, and expressed a blatant disregard for women.
(7) In a flea market on the outskirts of Paris, Breton and a friend spotted a complete edition of Rimbaud’s works. An unknown woman, Fanny Besnos, who would later become a member of the group, mentioned her love of Shelley, Nietzsche and, notably, Rimbaud. She also criticized Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (The Peasant of Paris), not realizing she was speaking to the chief Surrealist at that moment.
Breton then formulates his theory of “le hasard objectif” as a natural tie existing between a personal subjective and a universal automatism which allows a man’s unconscious to unite with the unconscious of a city; and, in so doing, evokes occult forces. Instead of letting one’s hand wander on a piece of paper to see what poetic words or images appeared, the Surrealist poet wandered the streets in search of powerful meetings of the collective with the personal unconscious. He meets a woman who called herself Nadja—the beginning of the word “hope” in Russian—a muse who would, for a short time, open more doors of perception than he could have ever imagined alone.
In his book, Breton said that Nadja’s proud strut, mysterious smile and curious eye makeup attracted him. The two strangers believed destiny had brought them together through the power of their unconscious minds (thus resembling the collaborative adventures of Yeats and his wife, Georgie, James Merrill and David Jackson, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The enchanted Breton listened intently to Nadja’s words, only speaking when she mentioned brave working folk. He then launched into a tirade on the meaninglessness of work, which only alienates and devalues life. Unlike war heroes, true heroes (the Surrealists), would lead others to break their mental chains in a Trotskyite permanent revolution.
Nadja seemed to have occult powers. Her hallucinations and premonitions proved true as she and Breton strolled the streets of Paris. The married man and his new muse seemed to meld minds in a joint destiny. Nadja “saw” Breton’s quest writ large: he was progressing towards a star and would write a book about them: “André? André? . . . You will write a novel about me. I’m sure you will. Don’t say you won’t. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us . . . (Nadja, Howard trans., 100).”
During their short time together, Nadja reigned supreme as an enlightening force. Breton believed he had entered her mind and saw through her eyes. Astonished by her power of attraction, he asked, “Qui êtes-vous? (Who are you?).” She replied: “Je suis l’âme errante. (I am the wandering soul).” For a while, they were in the zone where the unconscious reveals its mysteries. Having described himself as a dog seated at the feet of Nadja, his “génie libre” (free genius), Breton nonetheless concluded she was too advanced on her surreal route, as she would even forget to eat or sleep.
On one occasion, Nadja put her hands over Breton’s eyes and her foot on the accelerator of his car, heading for a stand of trees. Resisting her impulse, Breton concluded that this “amour fou” (mad love) was real “madness.” After one night of physical intimacy, he decided he could only witness this love, but not return it.
Indeed, Nadja was soon interned in an asylum for aberrant behavior in her apartment building, claiming to hear men on the roof and disturbing her neighbors. Breton at first maintained that Nadja had been elected to pass through the barriers of logical constraints. By collaborating in her naturally surreal perspective, he had hoped to find his own true self. Yet, he also claimed, naively, that for Nadja there was little difference between the inside and the outside of an asylum (158). Then he asserted that asylums make their internees insane (161) and doesn’t understand why a human being should be deprived of freedom (164). Despite these reservations, he abandoned her.
Consciousness and the Brain
Breton was convinced that paradise existed here on Earth inside the human mind. Indeed, modern research shows that synchronization of the cerebral hemispheres can lead to a blissful sense of being without bodily borders, immersed in the All, with visions of light. However, there is no evidence that Breton experienced an epiphany of this sort. Rather, his words suggest a philosophical invasion of dissociative selves: Who exists inside of me? Is it myself alone? Could other beings inhabit me? Is my true self an unknown phantom?
Updating his early, but prescient, twentieth-century notion of the self with modern consciousness research, we see that Breton was nonetheless on to something: that is, the immense reach of the unconscious mind, which need not be couched in mystical terms:
Que la grande inconscience vive et sonore qui m’inspire mes seuls actes probants dispose à tout jamais de tout ce qui est moi. Je m’ôte à plaisir toute chance de lui reprendre ce qu’ici à nouveau je lui donne. Je ne veux encore une fois reconnaître qu’elle, je veux ne compter que sur elle et presque à loisir parcourir ses jetées immenses, fixant moi-même un point brillant que je sais être dans mon œil et qui m’épargne de me heurter à ses ballots de nuit (180).
May the great living and echoing unconsciousness which inspires my only conclusive acts in any sense I always believe in, dispose forever of all that is in myself. I gladly renounce the possibility of taking back what here, again, I bestow upon it. Once more I want to recognize and rely on it alone and virtually at my leisure wander along its immense piers, staring at some shining dot I know is in my own eye and which saves me all collision with its night freight (trans. Howard 155).
Breton privileged unconscious over conscious experience in a Freudian and sometimes Jungian way; but modern neuroscience shows the working brain as much more complex. French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene contends that, “a staggering amount of unconscious processing occurs beneath the surface of our conscious mind (Dehaene, 13).” Imaging methods have become so precise that neuroscientists can now show exactly where global unconscious processing crosses over into conscious thought. What does pass into the conscious mind is la crème de la crème of what the unconscious proposes to it. Dehaene says, “Unsurprisingly, it turns out that our attentional spotlight is operated by armies of unconscious workers that silently sift through piles of rubble before one of them hits gold and alerts us of its finding (75).” Unconscious processing also explains how mathematicians and scientists get sudden answers to tricky conundrums when stepping onto a bus or shaving or how poets receive a fully formed poem.
Unlike Freud and Jung, Dehaene sees consciousness as a “tipping point” in an “avalanche” of neuronal activity, not a hidden source needing to be revealed. “The frontal regions of the brain are being informed of sensory inputs in a bottom-up manner, but these regions also send massive projections in the converse direction, top-down, and to many distributed areas (140).” The end result is a cerebral web of synchronized areas. Only activation of the prefrontal cortex (top) and the parietal cortex (bottom) in long-distant loops creates conscious experience. Furthermore, Christof Koch has shown that if the brain stem is damaged, consciousness flees (54); yet, “removing much of the front of the cortex causes no apparent major deficit” (58).
By avoiding external work and dedicating themselves to art, poetry, and free love, Breton and his Surrealist coterie were in a privileged position to perceive the “marvelous” through the eyes of a woman, even if her second sight came from trauma, as we will see (137). ***
Near the end of Nadja, Breton suddenly changes his tone as he extolls the woman he now loved, addressing her in the French familiar, “tu.” He had met Suzanne Muzard at the Café Cyrano, where he had read the first two parts of Nadja to his Surrealist friends. Breton and Muzard, who was at the time the mistress of a fellow Surrealist, Emmanuel Berl, had a coup de foudre réciproque (reciprocal love at first sight). The lovers left immediately for two weeks in the south of France. Upon their return, Breton added part three to Nadja, proclaiming Muzard’s genius and his love, concluding that successive substitutions of inspiring women would stop with her.
This experience brings to mind the 19th-century French writer, Gérard Nerval, whose own redeeming female figure took the form of his mistress, then the Virgin Mary and then the Goddess Isis. But Nerval was experiencing an actual bout of mental illness, not amour fou. Nerval famously walked a lobster on a leash and was found naked in the streets of Paris experiencing grandiose voices and visions, as described in his book Aurélia. He was interned in the asylum of Dr Blanche, where the French writer Guy de Maupassant, had also been interned. Mental illness, in an atypically lateralized brain, may well open the mind to poetry, confirming Kay Redfield Jamison’s hypothesis in Touched with Fire, an idea supported by Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel (2012).
The final line of Nadja, “la beauté sera convulsive on ne sera pas” (Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all), is enigmatic. It could refer to successive (surreal) women, the eternal bearers of fresh infusions of the marvelous; a type of beauty that is truly beyond the pail, like Suzanne Muzard’s; or a Keatsian “fresh perfection” of truth and beauty. In Manifestes du surréalisme, Breton said, “il n’y a que le merveilleux qui soit beau (24).” (Only the marvelous is beautiful.) But his search was tenuous as only fragments of messages from the unconscious—signs from the self—pointed towards his true identity. The marvelous, he claimed, would continue to announce itself through petites saccades (little jolts), leading one day to a volcanic eruption—the total recuperation of the forces that exist in “man,” freed from the oppressive forces of society and the shackles of his own mind. For the Surrealists, a revolution of the mind seemed linked to a revolution in the loins.
Karin Cope (2012) claimed that the actual message at the end of Nadja refers to Frances Wilson Grayson, whose plane went missing in bad weather over Nova Scotia. She had planned to be the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic. On 26 December 1927 she radioed “Something Wrong.” Grayson had left a written statement with a reporter in case she did not survive her attempt at flight. In it she said, “Who am I? Sometimes I wonder. Am I a little nobody? Or am I a great dynamic force—powerful—in that I have a God-given birthright and have all the power there is if only I will understand and use it?” As Cope says, this sounds very much like Breton himself, which is perhaps why he cited it. ***
What are we to take away from Nadja, as recounted by Breton? His first books had been anti-literary automatic texts or recounted dreams, including Mont de Piété (Pawn Shop), Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields) and Clair de terre (Earthlight). Each extolled a refusal of logic and a revolt against society. In Les Pas perdus (The Lost Steps), the predilection for chance street encounters was already evident, before he encountered Nadja, as well as the call for revolution. His poems, “Partez sur les routes” (Depart on the roads) and “Lâchez tout” (Let go of everything), recalled his extolled predecessor Rimbaud’s search for liberty by taking off on long fugues. In Le Manifeste du surréalisme, Breton had already denounced the useless and cumbersome descriptions in Romanesque literature, saying it was better to insert a picture, as he did in Nadja.
His notion that personal knowledge rooted in the universal cosmos pre-exists us was also expressed in his Manifeste du surréalisme. Jung also had hypothesized that his mediumistic cousin must have gotten information she could not have known otherwise from the space-time continuum (1977, 125, fn.15). Breton denounced the internment of the mentally ill, who were both victims of their own imaginations and capable of revealing secrets from the beyond, if not medicated, restrained and deprived of liberty. They and we will remain inside our schizophrenic fighting boxes, unless released by revolution. But true love, already touted as the only resource for reconciling man with life in L’introduction au discours sur le peu de réalité (Introduction to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality), was not possible, in his estimation, under a bourgeois regime.
The Real Nadja
Thanks to Dutch writer Hester Albach, pursuing clues in France, we now know much more about the real woman portrayed in Nadja. The Dutch version has been translated into French, but not yet into English. As Philippe Noble, editor of Léona, Héroïne du surréalisme (2009) says, Albach reconstructs the person Léona while deconstructing Breton’s Nadja.
Following the leads in Nadja, Albach sought traces of the real Nadja in present-day Paris, including the hotel in which the young woman had lived. Albach also discovered that letters extending months past the nine days Léona and Breton had spent together were found in his personal library after his death in 1966. At police headquarters in Paris, a record existed of Léona’s arrest, not for transporting cocaine from Amsterdam to Paris as mentioned in Nadja (she was released by the judge in this case), but for psychotic behavior in her apartment building, screaming that men were on the roof. As we saw, this breakdown led to her internment in a mental institution, which Breton mentions near the end of Nadja.
Albach went to the Bar le Dauphin, now a restaurant in Paris called Bis Repetita. Here, she found the same floor pattern in place that had frightened Nadja in the book’s account. With solid evidence of Léona’s reality, Albach visited the graveyard where inmates of the Bailleul asylum, including Léona, were buried during the occupation of France. When she called a florist’s number found on a tag where flowers had been laid on the gravesite, Léona’s granddaughter answered and excitedly invited the researcher to meet with her, divulging the information below.
Léona Delcourt’s paternal grandmother had a business dying textiles, allowing the family to live comfortably. Her mother was a practicing Catholic; her father had an aesthetic predisposition and encouraged his daughters’ educations, inculcating in them an artistic sensibility. Yet, he was emotionally unstable and would beat them for no particular reason and without warning. Her sensitive sister had literally dropped dead from shock when the family learned (erroneously) that their father had died in a bombing of his military unit. Léona was only 13 years old at the time. The family had no food, and she was subject to anxiety attacks.
Furthermore, after a brief liaison with a British soldier and an unwed pregnancy at 16, Léona was forced to leave her newborn daughter with her parents in Lille. She was set adrift in Paris at the mercy of an older man her parents had chosen to be her protector. Given all of these traumas, a mental breakdown with uncanny intrusions into consciousness was understandable. Now in Paris, sometimes lacking funds to pay her rent or even eat, Léona placed herself totally in Breton’s hands, playing the part he called for—an occult muse.
For a short while, Breton was intrigued and even sold a painting so that he could give Léona needed funds to survive. He also lent her two books to read, Les Champs magnétiques and Les Pas perdus. As she lacked a secure sense of self, it is not surprising that she saw herself in his characters. Maurice Nadeau, in Histoire du Surréalisme (1964), claimed Nadja was ‘always, naturally in what the spiritualists call a clairvoyant state, in a constant, perfect state of availability (120).” This “availability” may be attributed to a genetic predisposition as well as to the many traumas she had suffered.
As reported in Nadja, the real Léona continued to surprise Breton with her uncanny ability to predict events. She pointed to a window, saying it would suddenly turn red, and it did. Terrified by events that had occurred during the French Revolution at this same venue, she saw a “blue wind” passing through the trees and heard a voice say to her, not for the first time, “You will die.” The clairvoyance, her identification with the distant past, the synaesthetic “blue wind” and the negatory hallucinatory voice all suggest an enhanced right-hemisphere. She pointed to water in a fountain jetting up and returning to the pond around it, saying to Breton: “Those are your thoughts and mine,” which similarly jet up, fall down, then come back up stronger. Breton was stunned she had somehow described an illustration in a book he had just seen that preceded idealist philosopher George Berkeley’s third dialogue between Hylas and Philonous. She also described Breton’s wife and a pet in a clairvoyant way.
The Eyes Have It
The role of eyes, seeing and being seen, becomes increasing clear in the story of Léona and Breton. Breton was attracted to her alluring eyes, and through his eyes she became a “seer” whose natural inclinations could propel him onto the surreal path his future had dictated. Not just a “seer”, she was also an artist, communicating her thoughts in words and drawings sent to Breton via the post. “You can never see this star like I saw it. You don’t understand: it is like the heart of a heartless flower,” she wrote. Hearts and flowers, hearts with the face of flowers, eyes within the faces of flowers, and mermaids were trademark images in Léona’s very feminine drawings. To her, Breton was a savior, a king, and she was his queen. To him, she was an automatist, not an artist, with a direct hotline to the surreal.
Breton’s mediumship connection
Consulting mediums through the Society for Psychical Research in England and in France was seen as a way to communicate with lost loved ones and get advice about the future in the aftermath of war (Platt 2009). Breton admitted visiting a voyante (seer) named Mme Sacco, who said he would be interested in a woman named Hélène. In short order, he did become very interested in Hélène Smith, the famous Swiss medium studied by Flournoy. Smith had constructed reincarnation fantasies in which Flournoy was both her son and her lover. Knowing he was interested in foreign languages, she used automatic handwriting and drawing to construct a “Martian” language and landscape for him. The Surrealists’ use of automatisms may, in fact, be attributed to this medium’s influence. In her reincarnation fantasies, Hélène Smith claimed a spirit control, Léopold, was actually Cagliostro, an Italian clairvoyant adventurer who had been Marie Antoinette’s lover.
Breton, Hélène Smith, Léona, and Marie Antoinette all met up via mediumship. With merger a saving grace for someone with such a disordered sense of self, Léona promptly proclaimed: “Je suis Hélène” (I am Hélène). While delusions of grandeur are typical in disordered minds, Léona choose to meld minds with a Parisian medium. Traumatic deaths are more likely to later entrain reincarnation claims (Braude); not grandiose, Léona wondered who she had been in Marie Antoinette’s entourage, rather than the queen herself.
In a sense, the brief collaboration of the Surrealist and his street muse was a folie à deux; but only she was folle. Breton was founding a movement, abjuring logic, seeking significant coincidences, and resolving absurd opposites like the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table, the famous line lifted from Lautréamont.
Breton and other Surrealists, including Marcel Duchamp, aka artist and cross- dresser Rrose Sélavy, believed that “Eros, c’est la vie!” (Eros is life!) Based on the lives, writings, and artistic representations of the Surrealists, women were indeed mostly revered as sex objects and muses. In the Manifeste du surréalisme, Breton says, “Puis l’essential n’est-il pas que nous soyons nos maîtres, et les maîtres des femmes, de l’amour, aussi?” [The essential, then, isn’t it that we are our masters, and the masters of women, of love, as well?]. Ileana Alexandra Orlich (2006) got it right when she identified “the impact of Surrealism and its image of woman as a sensual bodily backdrop for the male vision.” The “irrational” feminine complements the “rational” masculine and “might serve as a means for humanity to attain spiritual enlightenment and renewal (215-16),” on one hand; but also, on the other, she is somewhat satanic (220). Jung, quite frankly, held a similar view, saying that the feminine psyche was emotional, dark, and “earth-bound,” whereas the masculine psyche was logical, shining and high. Nonetheless, both were needed for the fullness of being (Wilhelm 82).
Alchemy, French History and the Eye of the Beholder
Breton said, in his Second manifeste du surréalisme: “Tout porte à croire qu’il existe un certain point de l’esprit d’où la vie et la mort, le réel et l’imaginaire, le passé et le futur, le communicable et l’incommunicable, le haut et le bas cessent d’être perçus contradictoirement (1930/1969, 76-77).” [Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions (my translation).]
Finding the names of alchemists Hermes Trismegistus, Raymond Lulle, Nicolas Flamel, Cornelius Agrippa, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Emmanuel Swedenborg and Joséphin Péladan in the online catalogue of Breton’s library, Albach purchased and studied some of them. She became convinced of the alchemical connection in Nadja. La Table d’émeraude (The Emerald Table) by Hermès Trismégiste, the foundation text of alchemy, for one, purports to explain all of Nature in terms of the reconciliation of opposites.
Albach also found that Léona’s letters to Breton, subsequent to their nine-day encounter, did not have much in common with the person portrayed in Nadja, but did have alchemical references. For instance, Léona refers to Breton as “Khephen,” who, in alchemical lore, is the son of Pharaoh, the sun and God, as well as the perfected self. Albach then interpreted drawings Léona sent to Breton, inserted in Nadja, as alchemical references.
In Léona’s medical records, Albach learned that the troubled woman had indeed claimed to be a medium that could predict the future, saying, “Time is a tease.” It can sometimes let us know a slice of the past or the future, statements in synch with both Breton’s and Jung’s beliefs. Léona’s records also indicated her inhumane treatment, showing that she had been rolled up with arms crossed in wet sheets that got progressively tighter as they dried. This abhorrent method had been used in the nineteenth century as well, when Nerval was institutionalized in the asylum of Dr Blanche.
Eventually, Léona’s family insisted she be placed in an institution closer to their home. Able to visit, they witnessed her mental state grow progressively worse under the harsh conditions of her confinement. Her brief weeks of happiness in Paris had turned into a living hell with paranoid hallucinations and no exit. She died in 1945 at only 38 years of age.
While I can neither confirm nor deny Albach’s explanations of some curious facts in Nadja as referencing alchemy or French history, she makes an interesting case. Tracing the footsteps of Breton and his mediumistic muse in present day Paris, she attributes his comment that la Porte Saint Denis is useless due to the fact that kings no longer pass through the threshold, thanks to the French Revolution. Decapitated heads are a theme in Nadja. After Denis lost his, he managed to pick it up and walk, or so the legend goes. Albach later discovered a fresco of Saint Denis searching for his head at the entrance to the Panthéon, making it seem a preordained theme. Marie-Antoinette’s beheading, along with the cyclical killing of young girls in Les Détraquées, the play Breton curiously admired, also fit the theme.
While Breton was attracted to Léona’s eyes, her haphazard ways and precognitive abilities, she was drawing herself dressed in an ermine coat or as the mythic Mélusine, casting a spell on him. Curiously, in one of her letters of entreaty after their liaison ended, Léona says Breton “lui a pris ses yeux.” Albach interprets this as Breton “taking his eyes” away from her, representing the young woman’s sense of depersonalization after losing his confirming look. Without Breton the observer, Léona no longer existed.
Meanwhile other seers had been predicting potential harms. In Léona’s later letters, we learn that when Breton asked Max Ernst to draw a portrait of Nadja, he refused. Consulting the medium Mme Sacco, Ernst had learned that a Nadia or Natacha would cause physical harm to the woman he loved. Breton also visited the medium Pascal Forthuny who, among other things, charged him with plunging a young woman (easily attributable to Léona) into “un cruel drame de conscience (Albach, 185).”
Albach reminds us that alchemy envisioned the universe as a single state of consciousness that brings all of its disparate parts together. Other theorists say that the further consciousness extends, the closer it approaches the divine, distancing itself from the mineral realm where light and consciousness are lacking. The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Books of Life, a work that highly influenced Jung, describes a meditative state so absorbing that the heart opens to “a world of light and brightness (49).” Mystics almost always connect light phenomena to their experiences. Even Victor Hugo interpreted metempsychosis as a transmigration of souls progressing toward the light or regressing to dark unenlightened mineral, depending on actions in their previous lives.
Yet, Bauduin says, and I tend to agree, that the Surrealists where interested in the alchemy of words, not metals, following Rimbaud. The inscription on Breton’s tomb read: ‘Je cherche l’or du temps’ (I’m looking for the gold of our time). But his vision was a poetic, societal, and revolutionary process designed to usher in a new way of being in the world, free from logical constraints. Jung crafted a beautiful, mystical text to save his own mind from what felt like incipient madness and, in so doing, provided posterity with a new form of psychology to integrate the Self into wholeness. Nadja was a poor, traumatized woman seeking support from a man briefly mesmerized by her uncanny powers of perception. Left to suffer an ignoble end, she believed all the while that she was a medium and, indeed, her prediction that Breton would write a book about her did come true.
Carole Brooks Platt
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