Re-Reading Nadja

Days have been rejecting the meanings I have been trying to give them, and have been instead giving me their own.

I have been somewhat unreceptive, trying to choke schoolwork on top of schoolwork down their throats.

Two nights ago, they refused to swallow that stew.

Nightly, my vision floats over my books, a way of recognizing their presence, equally there, available if I need them. I rarely pick one out to actually read, unless it’s for school. But thin little Nadja, all the way on the bottom shelf with my stationary, stood out one night. I picked it up—remembered having read it four years ago in Paris. Having forgotten a lot of the details of the book, I remembered having changed as a person after reading it; I had forgotten why it had changed me because I had forgotten these details—and it was the details, not the totality of the work, that had changed me. I set it on my desk, to read later, with a strange understanding that I needed to read it again, soon, though unable to formulate why.

So, two nights ago, when the night would not swallow the school stew, I sat on a newly-furnished nook in my room and ingested Nadja from cover to cover. This is no great accomplishment: it’s a short book, 1/4 of it photos, and 1/3 of the prose background-setting.

I don’t want to bore you with too much information that you can just Wikipedia on your own, but just to contextualize Nadja: it was written by surrealist Andre Breton, and published in France in 1928. The work is the epitome of surrealist fiction, which some living humans cannot tolerate, but which some other humans live for.

Surrealist writing can be off-putting because it’s not very concerned with making sense, or telling you things you want to read in ways that you are comfortable assimilating. It can seem pretentious, or nonsensical, or just a waste of time to the contemporary appointment-keeping busy-bee. But to some (maybe to me) it’s a kind of diaphanous, beguiling poetic philosophy. Surrealist writing does not aim to needlessly manipulate words, but to free their use as much as possible, in ways that are authentic and progressive. By progressive I mean that it pushes the limits of language, as commonly used, to preserve its original purpose and help achieve its primary goals: communication, understanding, meaning. And all this without a rigid plan to find “truth.”

The surrealists developed a writing method called “automatic writing,” which exemplifies the contradiction of gaining the truest insight from the most nonsensical (and in this sense, stream-of-consciousness) musings. They were very fascinated with Freud and the developments of psychology at the time, claiming that automatic writing was a way of tapping into the subconscious. As far as I know, Freud wasn’t very taken by the surrealists, let alone give them any credibility in the field of psychology. But that’s besides the point: Nadja is certainly not meant to serve as therapy (quite the contrary, actually). It is supposed to be, as I think all surrealist writing is, a potentially unsettling experience. Don’t try to get anything out of it except for what it leaves you with. As a matter of fact, because it does not matter, I will not even give you the plot. What matters to me is the fact that I read this book now, and the details. The details matter.

The details I speak of are the perfectly lucid truths that are speckled throughout the work, the bulk of which is a basement of ponderings. The experience of reading Nadja can be like stumbling around blindfolded, and then hitting your knee upon something that is it! You aren’t looking for “it”s, you’re just trying to see, but you find the “it”s and, blindfolded, realize you can only find them as you are there, blindfolded. You become aware that the “it”s are not to be found in your old reliable ways: they wouldn’t strike you the same way if you could see and were looking for them. You would perhaps dodge them if you could see, walking where the path is clear and the exit in view.

I shouldn’t be plucking out the “it”s from the work as I am about to do, but they’re mine now and, at the risk of sloganizing Breton, maybe I can vaguely frame the “plot” through three poetic passages:

  1. “But that is the way of the world, isn’t it, the outer world, that is—a matter of sleep-walking. That is the kind of weather it is, I wouldn’t put a dog out in weather like this.”
  2. “I have seen her fern-colored eyes open mornings on a world where the beating of hope’s great wings is scarcely distinct from the other sounds which are those of terror and, upon such a world, I had as yet seen eyes do nothing but close.”
  3. “It is by an extreme capacity for defiance that certain unusual people who have everything to hope and everything to fear from one another will always recognize one another.” (This is the best one, and it’s in a footnote).
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