Exploring Nadja’s Role in Breton’s Surrealist Revolution
Andre Breton begins his “First Surrealist Manifesto” with this idea: “We are still living under the reign of logic…boundaries have been assigned even to ex-perience. It revolves in a cage from which release is becoming increasingly difficult” (“First Surrealist Manifesto” 1). This idea seems to represent Breton’s impression of bourgeois society’s tendency toward repressing its citizens, while surrealism acts as his response. The goal of his movement is to set free the minds of individuals and the key to this lies somewhere within the unconscious. It is this belief in the power of the unconscious that shapes not only the entire surrealist movement, but also Breton’s later encounter with the woman who inspires his novel, Nadja. Critics like Anita Clej have argued that Nadja’s seductive, dream-like qualities indicate the novel’s function as a surrealist dream-machine or found object, essentially arguing that the novel reveals more about Breton than it does about Nadja. Others, such as Bethany Ladimer, have seen in Nadja an objectification of feminine madness as a means for exploring surrealist ideals. While I see the novel functioning more through the lens of Bethany Ladimer, I agree that the text is more about Breton than it is about Nadja and this is precisely why I would like to explore the role Nadja does take—and by “take” I more likely mean the role she assigned by Breton—in his search for a greater understanding of his own code of ethics.
What is immediately interesting about Breton’s encounter with Nadja is that at first glance, it is presented to readers with all the bells and whistles of a traditional, romantic love story. In the narrative, Breton is immediately captivated and intrigued by Nadja, however it as their relationship plays out, it seems his interest in her stems not so much from sexual attraction or love as it does a desire to quiz her on ideals he perceives to be of common interest. In other words, he assumes that they have similar political ideals and goals because of the nature of their encounter (they were both wandering the streets open to chance) and because she is a woman, he admires her natural (feminine) ability to see the world just as he aspires to perceive it. However, in assuming they have similar political aspirations Breton romanticizes Nadja’s position in the city, and ignores the fundamental reality of what it means to be woman in bourgeois society. While Breton is a flaneur by choice, wandering the streets because he wants to, Nadja wanders the streets because as a woman she has few other options aside from being stuck inside. The work Breton so disdains is not even an option for her. In a similar misunderstanding, he admires that she has no earthly ties, ignoring the fact that she has told him stories of her love for her mother, father, and her illegitimate daughter. In other words, he interprets and analyzes her on his own terms and in doing so, he doesn’t actually see her.
The resulting affect is that Nadja becomes that most desirable of found objects in that she is female and mentally distressed, and therefore, “a visionary; she can answer for [Breton] his questions, tell him who he is,” (Kuenzli 19), while at the same time “provid[ing] the rigorous and revealing test of reality for Breton’s theories and principles concerning … the extrarational or ‘feminine’ mode of thought, including madness,” (Ladimer 179). At this point, it seems pertinent to mention that male Surrealists saw the feminine mind as a direct link to the unconscious and a mode of perception they believed necessary for producing social change. Because Nadja is a woman, Breton sees in her his “mediator with nature and the unconscious” (Raaburg, 2). Needless to say, Breton’s focus on woman as muse and link to the unconscious limits his ability to see Nadja as an independent, active subject, meaning that he believes her actions are dependent on his interpretation. And this is where their relationship becomes problematic. Breton wants Nadja to be the source and object of his desire, his beloved muse, but his actions and his inability to love her prove that he is more interested her mind—and ultimately, her madness—for his own personal gain. He interest in analyzing her stems from a desire not so much to cure her as to gain insight into the possibilities of the feminine mode of thinking, and ultimately, into the possibilities and limits of Surrealism.
The idea that Breton’s interpretation of Nadja is ultimately self-serving is further proven by the fact that readers only see Nadja through a narrator who is assumed to be Breton, which indicates that her subjectivity and the validity of her self expression is determined by that which he can apply to his surrealist ideals. Looking back at his Surrealist manifesto, Breton suggests that
Perhaps the imagination is on the verge of recovering its rights. If the depths of our minds conceal strange forces capable of augmenting or conquering those on the surface, it is in our greatest interest to capture them; first to capture them and later to submit them, should the occasion arise, to the control of reason” (“First Surrealist Manifesto” 1, emphasis mine).
Nadja’s own inability to submit her thoughts to the control of reason is precisely why she fails Breton—or not so much fails him as needs him. While Nadja’s madness enables her to freely express an imagination running rampant, it also what makes her incapable of seeing the difference between imagination and reality, and therefore incapable of interpreting her own ideas. Consider the moment she and Breton are staring down at the Seine, when Nadja sees a flaming hand, “That hand, that hand on the Seine, why is that hand flaming over the water? But what does that hand mean? How do you interpret it? Let me look at that hand!” (Nadja 85). In asking for permission to view the hand, Nadja proclaims her desire for acknowledgment as a subject as well as her ability to interpret her own visions, and yet initially, she asks Breton for meaning, indicating that she understands the nature of their relationship and the fact that he sees her as incapable of either. The fact of the matter is, Nadja’s imagination has become her reality, and in her distress she has allowed Breton to objectify her to the point that she now depends on his ability to understand and interpret that which she reveals to him. This fact, working hand in hand with the fact that Breton only sees her worth in relation to his own surrealist ideals, is what ultimately leads to her institutionalization; because Nadja relies so heavily on Breton, he inevitably grows tired of her. It seems that Nadja can only act as Breton’s muse if he understands where she is coming from, and though he initially encouraged her foray into madness, once she reveals that she has fully let go, her inability to come back to reason proves ultimately alienating.
In an unsettling turn of events, Breton concludes that much like the discarded statistical device, Nadja is ultimately incomprehensible, and he abandons her. One of his final claims proves most revealing. Despite having spent the majority of two months listening to her fall deeper and deeper into hallucinations, Breton claims he never could have “supposed she could lose or might have already lost that minimal common sense which permits [his] friends and [himself], for instance to stand up when a flag goes past, confining [them]selves to not saluting it;” (Nadja 143). Not only did Breton not love Nadja, he clearly did not see or understand her. In reality, all that Nadja was for Breton was an experiment; a walking talking embodiment of his surrealist ethic at its core and most extreme possibility, a woman who provided an in depth understanding of the fine line that surrealists must walk in order to maintain both mental and physical freedom. Remaining too in touch with reason means submitting to the repression of bourgeois society, but letting go completely means running the risk of standing out so much from society that one cannot function within it. Nadja proved herself too far gone; in order to be an asset to the Surrealist revolution, one must maintain “that minimal common sense” and be able to function within society as well as outside of it.
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