In the course of compiling the second part of the text about Telefon Tel Aviv, three elements in the items I selected to include – namely, the song “I’m on Fire” in its particular significance, Joshua Eustis’ remarks about the role played in his work-process by his own dreams, and the elated announcement on the band’s Facebook page of a sudden artistic breakthrough – seemed to me as though they were closely bound up with one another, in a manner which prompted me to think about them and their interconnections; then in mulling it all over I began to envision another installment that would try to formulate some of them, tentatively yet without straying too far. And so – it’s all very tentative – I’ve essayed the following.*
* To view the slideshow accompanying this essay, click here.
Apparently visual, a dream in the most literal sense of the word seems as if it were specifically addressed to the mind’s eye even though one is in the midst of sleep; yet, listening to Eustis’ account of the very active manner in which he consults his dreams – and, in particular, to his remark that he often strives to remain on the edge of sleep, as it were, so as to be able to interrupt them in a timely manner and then, sufficiently awake, to transcribe some concept he found there – one has reason to doubt whether it is always only so immediately visual an occurrence. For in this case the concepts do not seem only to be meant for the eye; it’s also to his ear that they appeal: his dreams, to take him at his word, are of interest to him artistically insofar as they are aural in nature, and one may infer from what he says that an important part of his artistic method is to record the visual aspect of the dreams for later use in the work of comprehending their aurality (rather than the reverse, the much more common procedure of deciphering what one sees by means of what one hears). All of this is feasible on account of the evident fact that the concepts he encounters in them, fuzzy and indistinct as their sound may be in that acoustic and oneiric realm, are already virtually melodic; as such they call out to be notated on paper, which he goes on to do in a form that suffices for their subsequent musical transposition and elaboration.
Eustis takes care to stress that he has to listen hard if he is to draw out the melodies that are virtually there in that sonic dimension but in a mode that’s less than distinct; and thus the skill this requires could be termed an ability to discern sounds within sound and to carry them back with him as he returns to the waking world.
His statement invites those who are so inclined to reflect on this interior domain of potential inspiration in its specificity as something like an acoustic space, and, as one thinks about it, to consider the various complications one might face in attempting to keep one’s ears pealed while in the midst of it, and also the numerous obstacles and pitfalls one might stumble on as one then moved to extricate oneself from it: and these are just for starters. Not the least of the problems posed is the common tendency (which as a habit has sunk so deep into the mind, on account of its having been repeated innumerable times, that it’s no simple task even to recognize and distinguish its effects as such) to identify some of the modes in which one pays attention or gives thought to something, with operations that are originally visual (such as – precisely – reflection and consideration). The effort required to circumvent this habit of mind and its effects, is an exertion which Eustis knows well, to judge from some of what he says in the interview (or in those excerpts of it that we’ve been given); and, though he swiftly passes over the topic, he also suggests that even when the mind’s ear has been exercised so that it may serve as the primary organ of oneiric perception, one will often find oneself back under the sway of the inveterate habit, relying on the mind’s eye instead, or perhaps – and this would be a more insidious difficulty – running into its perceptual interference, with the result that whatever it is that one ends up transcribing on paper, once one is awake again, somehow does not plausibly seem to correspond to nor express as it should what one had heard or thinks one heard back in the dream.
But even if the obstructions of this kind (the intrusions of the visual) are left to one side – even if one has successfully surmounted them – there remains the disconcerting realization that here the mind is operating on itself by means of transposition; it is transferring, carrying across something in itself that’s akin to or wants to become a sound from its own region or level into a different realm and transforming it into something that is perceptibly distinct and sonorous. The act of articulation this operation involves does not seem to have any close parallel amongst those that are carried out when it is images, visual phenomena, that one seeks to draw forth from one’s dream, if only by reason of their very vividness, which presumably is what attracts one’s oneiric attention to them in the first place – but as an aural procedure it bears a strong likeness to those that occur while we are engaged in discursive thought and concerning whose operations we are alerted every so often, though without being enabled to fathom how they actually work (insofar as they do work); as such, as an analogon, it would tend to strengthen one’s sense that those operations do in fact actively exist somewhere within one’s mind (or perhaps not so much within it as at one of its limits). And conversely: those who have already devoted some thought to the inner operations of the discursive mind might well find it plausible that interior acoustic phenomena would be registered in a similar way.
Just as it can happen that while speaking a foreign language – and here I’m merely summarizing a rather famous thought-experiment* – it’s as though one were first translating from one’s own, or even perhaps from some third one, and then speaking, even though one is not aware of either doing or intending to do any such thing (and one might be startled by the clear linguistic evidence that it’s actually occurring), so too while we are thinking it may at times seem “als läge unserm Denken ein Denkschema zu Grunde; als übersetzten wir aus einer primitiveren Denkweise in die unsre.” It’s clear that Wittgenstein did not mean to assert that these two experiences are isomorphic in all or even in many respects; the analogy was intended to emphasize some features in each without suggesting that they are cognate in every instance; but as long as this proviso is borne in mind, the comparison – and the terms in which it was formulated – strikes quite a few incisive notes.
* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, pt. i, § 597.
Here, to put emphasis on the fact that in bringing back from that more primitive and pre- or sublinguistic level of thinking some thought which one then formulates in words on one’s own, properly discursive plane, one has the sense of moving something from one locale to another, it would be better to translate Wittgenstein’s term “übersetzten” (as this is a thought-experiment the verb is put in the subjunctive mood) not as “translating” – tradurre è tradire – but rather in a more literal manner, as “transposing.” This verb has the virtue of underscoring the dislocation, the distortion, and the disorder (all of which would seem to be unavoidable during – or: prior to, underneath – any discursive thinking) to which thoughts of this kind would be subject, if they are indeed supposed to be transposed from, drawn out of the underworld of one’s mind.
And yet, though just as much in accord with Wittgenstein’s thought-experiment, one surmises that this other level might in some sense be a domain where, as it were, thinking speaks its own language, and does so with far more energy and accuracy than it is able to muster once it is drawn forth into the vicinity of a conscious mind and becomes an individual’s thought. This other level, of whose very existence some linguistic peculiarities would constitute our most direct evidence, would be one, it can be inferred, in which that language would be spoken with great speed and even greater assurance, with an interpenetration of sound and sense that would astound and shock us all, were we somehow (per impossibile) to learn it fluently; and then that lower level must be, as one would hasten to acknowledge, a mysterious and rather awesome realm, if indeed it exists to any real degree at all. (In this connection I should mention that the use of the term “Denkschema” could be taken to indicate that Wittgenstein, for his part, might here have been concerned with what Kant* had termed the “Schematismus unseres Verstandes” and then called “eine verborgene Kunst in den Tiefen der menschlichen Seele,” the art namely whereby particular mental representations are subsumed under their appropriate concepts – a concealed art whose actual operations, he made sure to remark, we will always have great difficulty in discerning, as though to imply: how fortunate it is for all involved (der Natur sei Dank!) that this is and remains so.)
* Kritik der reinen Vernunft, A 141/B 180-81.
Now, if as a result of this thought-experiment (however it’s construed or unfolded) it begins to seem as though this other level undergirding discursive thinking were not all sweetness and light but rather an obscure forbidding zone with a language all its own, would it not also be plausible to go further and suggest that in the part of the mind in which melodies and the other constituent elements of music are first conceived and then emitted in one way or another into one’s consciousness – and it’s into this area that Eustis ventures in his dreams, isn’t it – that in this lower part of the mind the occurrences could well be even more strange, further removed from, and less like all that goes on in the upper region which corresponds to them? And this all the more so, insofar as music is bound up even more tightly with one’s φύσις and as such can take possession of one far more thoroughly and entirely than a discursive thought, or even the very human inclination to discursive thinking as such, ever could?
So, with some suddenness, the idea presents itself: on account of the oneiric principle in its dreamy and disturbing conjunction of sounds, Telefon Tel Aviv’s work may be called Surrealist music. To be sure, it’s a Surrealism whose dreams are shot through with our present-day darkness; yet the term might help to open a few portals on it and perhaps on Surrealism too (Surrealism considered not only as le dernier cri of ninety years ago but also as a force still to be encountered today, if one knows where to look – and to listen).
The Surrealists’ predilection for consulting their own dreams is well-known, of course, and unfortunately the practice has become so popular and widespread amongst all manner of artists, writers, and others, to a great degree on account of the Surrealists’ own example, that the actual consultation often yields only the most insipid results – aggregates of kitsch – and even the idea of turning to one’s dreams for inspiration has nearly been reduced to a low formulaic technique and thus itself stands on the verge of kitschification (pardon the expression); but precisely this development, which represents yet another envelopment of our lives by kitsch (and how much further in this direction have we all gone since the time of the first Surrealists), furnishes a reason why artists may still have a point when they turn to their dreams as a source of images or ideas – or sounds. For what is it that cries out for elucidation even more now than it did back in the twenties, if not kitsch itself.
But it’s not merely any number of artistic practices, new and cutting-edge in years gone by, which now have been nearly engulfed in kitsch; no, just as susceptible to this fate as they are, is the very concept of kitsch, given the rampant overuse, academic vulgarization, and general loss of its specific meaning to which it’s been exposed.
So, what do I mean by the term kitsch? Fortunately, here I don’t need to invent anything; already in the first heyday of Surrealism, in a short text about it composed by an author very much in accord with many of its artistic tenets and philosophical intentions, one comes across a suitable definition – a succinct definition not so much of what kitsch might be in itself (after all, what would be the point of such a static definition, which would probably comprise little more than a compressed itemization of instances?), as of what it is in its intrinsic interconnections to the dream and dreaming on one side, to technology on the other. (The close connection between dreaming and technology is also intimated.) A triangular mode of definition: a very deft choice of approach in this connection, and the definitions offered (even though they are provisional or perhaps simply preliminary) seem to me to suffice, certainly for the time being, although along the way perhaps some slight adjustments to them may be required.
In his essay “Traumkitsch,” which begins with the old dream of “die blaue Blume” (even though the yearning for such a thing represented merely the most exoteric and least essential side of Romanticism and was probably regarded even then, circa 1800, as something of a joke) largely in order to dismiss that Romantic conception of dreams as having become outmoded, Walter Benjamin then provided an up-to-date definition: “Der Traum eröffnet nicht mehr eine blaue Ferne. Er ist grau geworden. Die graue Staubschicht auf den Dingen ist sein bestes Teil. Die Träume sind nun Richtweg ins Banale. Auf Nimmerwiedersehen kassiert die Technik das Außenbild der Dinge wie Banknoten, die ihre Gültigkeit verlieren sollen. Jetzt greift die Hand es noch einmal im Traum und tastet vertraute Konturen zum Abschied ab. Sie faßt die Gegenstände an der abgegriffensten Stelle. Das ist nicht immer die schicklichste: Kinder umfassen ein Glas nicht, sie greifen hinein. Und welche Seite kehrt das Ding den Träumen zu? Welches ist diese abgegriffenste Stelle? Es ist die Seite, welche von Gewöhnung abgescheuert und mit billigen Sinnsprüchen garniert ist. Die Seite, die das Ding dem Traume zukehrt, ist der Kitsch.”*
* The essay was published in Die neue Rundschau, vol. 38, no. 1 (January 1927), pp. 110 ff.
This passage focuses on the point of intersection of a number of trains of thought in a quite clear manner but is also therefore very compact; and so I’ll stretch out some of them just a bit.
Leisure goods manufactured in the nascent industrial civilization of the nineteenth century on the one side, various elements of the architecture of the modern city on the other: these are the “things” that Benjamin mainly had in mind here, although his definitions were framed so that they could also subsume other species of things as well. These things were produced in large runs (the economic demand was great and ever-increasing) and they were made in such a way that their eventual expiration was anticipated from the beginning and as it were built-in; from the outset they were meant to live and die by fashion, their appeal and even their physical exterior was intended to be used up within a definite period of time. During that time, however, their function was twofold: to satisfy certain desires but in an as it were unsatisfying manner, thus keeping them alive, while at the same time working upon the consumers so as to increase their susceptibility to such desire in general, priming them thus to an ever greater degree to make the next purchase – whereupon they themselves might well be discarded. In this more rapid rhythm of consumption, the desires of the consumers made their first acquaintance with the new economic realities of superfluity and obsolescence and then quickly grew accustomed to them; subsequently not only the desires of the consumers but the disposition of their habits generally and, in particular, of their sense of what they could take for granted or routinely expect, were permeated by those realities so thoroughly that in the end, under certain circumstances, many of these consumers would consent and accept their own obsolescence or superfluity as though that condition were nothing but just another fact of nature.
The realm of dreams was the part of the mind in which the things that had already become the victims of this development of the economy lived on, in the mode of an extended farewell. Or at least this was the main characteristic of the dreams by which the Surrealists were most fascinated and which they circled about in their works. In this short essay, Benjamin, for his part, took care to mention the gray layer of city dust deposited on everything in these dreams; all the objects there were decrepit, worn down, used up, and banal: and yet for just that reason they were familiar and dear to these urbanites, which is no doubt why they would be included in the dream at all. It was one’s own hands that had grasped these objects innumerable times from childhood onwards and thus worn them away, though this result had been anticipated and planned for during the selection of the technology to be employed to manufacture them; these were the things to which one was closest back then and which played a great or even perhaps the greatest role in fostering and shaping one’s desires, inclinations, predilections, habits, rhythms, dexterity, skill, etc., etc., – in short, the various constituent elements of φύσις and character. Now, when in the dream these moments of childhood were met with again, associatively, by means of the things from those early years, in order to bid them a long goodbye, the scene might easily have been awash with sentimental pathos: but in the Surrealists’ case, on the contrary, it was a cool encounter, an investigative preliminary to an analysis in which the person would be turned inside out, in some sort of quasi-anatomical inquiry into the constitution and the constituents of one’s individuality.
It is worth noting the insistence with which Benjamin emphasized the tactility of the dream and downplayed its visual aspect. He went so far as to utilize a simile more tactile than visual, when he called attention to what is perhaps the paradigm of manufacturing according to a fixed date of obsolescence, namely, the banknotes that serve as legal tender for a certain period of time if only due to the fact that their printed surfaces will be effaced more and more the further they circulate, as a consequence of their contact with human hands. And that simile is not at all the most tactile element in his account; according to him, prior to bidding farewell to the things one re-encounters in the dream, one touches them for the last time, retraces their familiar outlines, and lays one’s hands on the spots that have been worn down the most by early use and overuse; and these objects present themselves in the dream as though they intend to be handled again in just this way. But in so doing they remind the dreamers of how banal the latter’s interest in them had been – and they do so precisely by a poor attempt to conceal that banality (as though this effort were meant to fail): for in the dream the most worn-down side of these things was decked out with “cheap adages” – Benjamin did not specify whether they were inscribed or if they perhaps were spoken – as though some justification for that use and overuse were required. And that very faulty precaution, Benjamin concluded, amounted to an acknowledgement that the objects encountered from such a side in the dream, were kitsch.
To be sure, this way of specifying what kitsch is – or, not what it is, but how despite itself it might come to be manifest as such – is rather different than any of the common definitions of it which one might come across.
But is this all of any relevance to dreams in which the aural dimension is the most important and the main focus of an inquiry? To me it seems that it might be, as follows. (Please note that the three following points comprise just a very general sketch; no individuals in particular are being addressed or referred to here.)
1.The characterization of leisure goods and of manufactured items more widely that I drew out of Benjamin’s text, is obviously applicable to those that are sonic (just think of the rapidity with which one generation of electronic musical equipment is supplanted by the next): obsolescence and superfluity are overarching considerations in the rationale of these objects’ production and consumption, just as they are in nearly every other economic sector. And it’s applicable not only to the equipment, but to the artifacts as well: the tapes, records, videos, CDs, etc., emitted in myriad editions large and small.
2.How can it be disputed that those aural artifacts have informed many childhoods and, in more than a few, played the very largest role in shaping them – most obviously these young people’s own rhythm and tempo (I mean both the physical disposition and the inner sense thereof), but in all probability the effect has also touched their desires, inclinations, and habits; and likewise the variegated artifacts in which music plays a role, such as all the productions of that “dream factory” otherwise known as the worldwide film industry, all the television programs, the video games, and so on either in infinitum or ad nauseam, as one prefers.
3.As for the music that is kitsch already right when it’s first composed, but also music that at some later point in time becomes kitsch (for instance, to take an especially strange sort of occurrence, a retroactive transformation that is accomplished when pieces of music created subsequently somehow bring about a change in the earlier ones) – doesn’t it seem plausible that a lot of it would have been deposited in some form in that region of the mind that dreams, perhaps as a function of the number of times one heard it earlier in life, and as such could be re-encountered there, audible from its most insipid side, so to speak, but yet perceptible if only one has got one’s inner ear tuned for it?
One of the numerous virtues of Benjamin’s text is the discernment with which he called attention to the literary use to which the Surrealists put some elements of the kitsch they encountered in their dreams: the “cheap adages” – words that once were wise and are now worn out – they found there reappear, perhaps in a modified form, from time to time in their verses, where they often succeed in startling the reader. Whereas Baudelaire* had wanted to “créer un poncif,” the Surrealists utilized the stock-phrases they came across in their dreams – and these are perhaps two only slightly different approaches towards a single goal. Now, without wanting to posit a similar analogy with this or that feature in Telefon Tel Aviv’s own songs, it does strike me that the band’s lyrics evidently encompass commonplace phrases, which have been positioned (as though in frames or within quotation marks) in relation to the music mainly it seems for the resulting musical effect, not on account of any specifically linguistic meaning they might add to the whole.
* Fusées, xx.
It is another of the strengths of Benjamin’s brief essay that it called attention to a couple of salient points in the Manifeste du surréalisme, and in pursuing the references back to those pages I was struck by a certain passage in what André Breton wrote, where the Surrealists’ use of language and their special notion of dialogue were touched on in particular; some of Breton’s ideas – they will be introduced quite selectively in what follows – seem to me to illuminate electronic music such as Telefon Tel Aviv makes, both the intention of the music itself, in its finished form, and also the character of the relationship that this music, as it were, seems to want to develop with those who listen to it: so, here too the term Surrealist music may prove to fit.
The passage began with an allusion to the rather prevalent conception that the very purpose of language is to deceive. “Le langage a été donné à l’homme pour qu’il en fasse un usage surréaliste,” Breton insisted, as though aiming by this parody of a declaration to call to mind the old maxims in which that conception has been most succinctly expressed – that is, either the sentence commonly attributed to Talleyrand, “Le langage a été donné à l’homme pour déguiser sa pensée,” or the remark assigned by Stendhal* to the Jesuit père Malagrida, “La parole a été donnée à l’homme pour cacher sa pensée.” Whether what’s at issue is language as such or the capacity of speech, the point of these two statements is that one’s thoughts are often best kept to oneself and that to achieve this some instrument is required: that was the idea to which Breton was alluding and which he then proceeded to investigate.
* Le Rouge et le Noir, bk. i, chap. xxii.
(While pondering these two bons mots one might well be moved to mischief and wonder who it is from whom “sa pensée” is being concealed linguistically if not “l’homme” himself. And at that point it would not be such a leap to recur once more to Kant’s “verborgene Kunst” operating mysteriously deep within the human mind or soul.)
It is quite clear that Breton did not reject the idea; rather, he explicitly acknowledged that there were many scenes of life where language would indeed be required in order to deceive, or – to speak less pejoratively and more comprehensively – to shield either certain specific thoughts or perhaps something like the inner élan vital of the mind, which but for this mode of protection might come to naught or cease to flow altogether. He had a well-honed sense of what actually transpires in these scenes; and the manner in which, in this passage, he described one of them, that of an ordinary conversation (which he invoked not in its own right but representatively), laying emphasis on its essential antagonism, may be taken as proof that he neither hoped nor feared that this fundamental reality in human nature might somehow simply be abolished. For, in such a conversation, wrote Breton, “deux pensées s’affrontent ; pendant que l’une se livre, l’autre s’occupe d’elle, mais comment s’en occupe-t-elle ? Supposer qu’elle se l’incorpore serait admettre qu’un temps il lui est possible de vivre tout entière de cette autre pensée, ce qui est fort improbable. Et de fait l’attention qu’elle lui donne est tout extérieure ; elle n’a que le loisir d’approuver ou de réprouver, généralement de réprouver, avec tous les égards dont l’homme est capable. […] Mon attention, en proie à une sollicitation qu’elle ne peut décemment repousser, traite la pensée adverse en ennemie ; dans la conversation courante, elle la ‹ reprend › presque toujours sur les mots, les figures dont elle se sert ; elle me met en mesure d’en tirer parti dans la réplique en les dénaturant.”
In the antagonistic mode of usage of language, as Breton sketched it out in this passage, thought is indeed concealed – and in a number of ways. Yet, insofar as it is one of thinking’s conditions of possibility that it be masked by language, it would have neither the right nor a reason to object to its own concealment; and Breton for his part did not do so. But be that all as it may, and leaving the requirements of this activity of the mind aside for the moment: what would life itself be like without these various scenes of verbal sparring, from the most crude or comical to the most serious or sophisticated – what sort of a life would it remain after these variegated interactions were excluded – and what is such an interaction, if not the exchange of two dissimulations and the contact of two reticences?
However, it’s not only conversation and verbal encounters which are shaken and shaped by this linguistic antagonism; something related and just as remarkable takes place in interactions that are conducted in and through writing, and indeed within the most literary of these: the relationship between writers and readers – the better writers and the better readers – is also stirred up by it. To be sure, these writers proceed much more openly in committing their thoughts to paper, while these readers open their minds conscientiously to them; and nonetheless, noted Breton, precisely on this account it is “la grande faiblesse du livre que d’entrer sans cesse en conflit avec l’esprit de ses lecteurs les meilleurs,” that is, those who show themselves to be “les plus exigeants” in their reading. These readers probe further and further into the thoughts of the writers, who, for their own sake and that of their works, but also in order to have something with which they can still keep them interested in their writing, must then continually devise expedients – new linguistic means – for concealing them at the same time; but conversely, as these readers’ minds are filled more and more by these writers’ thoughts, how else will they guard and preserve their own than by erecting some walls – new linguistic barriers – around them within their own minds? Thus, on both sides of this fraught relationship, just as much as it is the case in verbal conversation, language often is and must be used to conceal thought; and once the antagonism has been recognized as existing here as well, but in an even more dynamic manner than elsewhere, what would seem to follow as a corollary is that this relationship between these writers and readers may be called a dialogue. (Yes, in the Manifeste du surréalisme the sense and the reference of this term were each augmented significantly.)
So, this mode of using language is often necessary and justified; but it has its drawbacks too, obviously, and of these Breton was very well aware, so aware and over-aware in fact that while he did put one of the most important of them into words, he included the statement in his text as an offhand remark offered in passing, whereas he could certainly have featured it prominently, even didactically, as standing on a threshold between one line of thought and another: that is why I excised this sentence from the remark quoted above, reserving its use until now.
“Ce mode de langage ne permet d’ailleurs pas d’aborder le fond d’un sujet.”
Those who are caught up in this antagonistic mode of using language will either fall short of “le fond d’un sujet” when they are engaged in ordinary conversation or the like, or pass far beyond it while absorbed in that peculiar kind of dialogue called reading; but they will miss it in either case. But what is this, “le fond d’un sujet” – this idea which evidently was of quite some importance to Breton?
(If, in a very literal frame of mind, one fixates solely on the term itself, in its most common sense, one might well embrace the Wittgensteinian doubt that there really ever can be any such thing as “le fond d’un sujet”; but in Breton’s text it as a concept did not designate any sort of terminus or resting place for the intellect and instead served as a mental stepping-stone along the path from one set of ideas to another: therefore it would be pointless at best to depart here on that other train of thought.)
Because the antagonistic mode of using language prevents those who are accustomed to it from fully fathoming any topic, according to Breton, one may expect that the alternative, the Surrealist mode whose usage he championed would have opened up an avenue in that direction.
It was not only the Surrealists’ consultation of dreams as a source of potential inspiration for their poetry and prose which helped in opening that avenue, but their experimentation with the practice of the so-called automatic writing as well. Here I shall not summarize what was involved in it (for, after all, there are so many accounts of that topic already) but simply register a doubt about its sheer physical feasibility as a practice, given what would seem to be the inherent disparities between the great velocity of the mind and the relatively slower speed of the vocal apparatus and the even less rapid rate of movement of the hands – and also note that this doubt was already addressed and bypassed by Breton himself. “Il m’avait paru, et il me paraît encore,” he claimed, “que la vitesse de la pensée n’est pas supérieure à celle de la parole, et qu’elle ne défie pas forcément la langue, ni même la plume qui court.”
The raison d’être of automatic writing, in Breton’s formulation, was indeed to get to “le fond d’un sujet” – though not entirely in the very same sense of that term. For the experiment with or on themselves that such a practice of writing was (and it was to allow such an experiment to be conducted that the Surrealists insisted on suspending their critical faculties for its duration), was intended to ascertain whether or how well the linguistic mechanisms and apparatus within their minds were still functioning, and to demonstrate what lucidity they could still bring forth into the world.
Breton’s own summary of its rationale was very concise and very clear: “Non seulement ce langage sans réserve que je cherche à rendre toujours valable, qui me paraît s’adapter à toutes les circonstances de la vie, non seulement ce langage ne me prive d’aucun de mes moyens, mais encore il me prête une extraordinaire lucidité et cela dans le domaine où de lui j’en attendais le moins. J’irai jusqu’à prétendre qu’il m’instruit et, en effet, il m’est arrivé d’employer surréellement des mots dont j’avais oublié le sens. J’ai pu vérifier après coup que l’usage que j’en avais fait répondait exactement à leur définition. Cela donnerait à croire qu’on n’‹ apprend › pas, qu’on ne fait jamais que ‹ réapprendre ›. Il est d’heureuses tournures qu’ainsi je me suis rendues familières.”
Bearing in mind the evident fact that the “fond” of this “sujet” could not possibly have been approached directly, but only fathomed by an indirect route, through the various effects deposited in the writing that was the result, one might well conclude that this Surrealist undertaking had been devised in order to put a complex of mental mechanisms to the test, including the one that Kant had called the “Schematismus unseres Verstandes” – and thus that it was intended to be a quite practical kind of thought-experiment.
The fortuitous discoveries the Surrealists made individually, as a consequence of this mode of seeking out the hidden reaches of their minds, were not the only bonus they obtained by employing procedures such as automatic writing; the unveiling of their linguistic capacities also took place in their dialogues amongst themselves, for as Breton put the matter, they came to find that it was “au dialogue que les formes du langage surréaliste s’adaptent le mieux” – and in this connection one might recall that the rapport between writers and readers was also taken to be a dialogue which, as such, would be susceptible to description and analysis (or, at any rate, this is how I’ve understood his train of thought).
The adaptation of the forms of the Surrealist usage of language to the dialogue (and the special emphasis placed upon the concept “adaptation” in the Manifeste du surréalisme is worth thinking about) also aimed to make it possible to reach “le fond d’un sujet” in the quite specific sense that by this adaptation dialogue too was itself being adapted in its structure, reconfigured into a very open or free rapport between the interlocutors (rather than the antagonism in which they were most often entangled) such that some truths or realities, as fleeting as these would surely be, might manifest themselves enticingly to the one and/or the other, though in each instance differently as a consequence of their several vantage-points; thus renovated, dialogue could facilitate a much closer approach to some particular truth or reality, or, alternatively, a much more intense apprehension of the great significance of the latter in its specific situation, though of course in so doing it would at most make it more possible or probable that here some matter (“un sujet”) might be illuminated in its depths (“le fond”): those who here sought an assurance that such an experience would necessarily follow, were seeking it in vain.
Breton characterized the scene of the Surrealist dialogue quite well when, distinguishing carefully between it and the other sort, he asserted that it was the aim of their endeavor “à rétablir dans sa vérité absolue le dialogue, en dégageant les deux interlocuteurs des obligations de la politesse. Chacun d’eux poursuit simplement son soliloque, sans chercher à en tirer un plaisir dialectique particulier et à en imposer le moins du monde à son voisin.” The antagonistic sparring in most dialogues (with the “plaisir dialectique particulier” it might confer) was to be suspended in these ones, in favor of a rapport in which both interlocutors were thus freed to concentrate on truth – or better, on truthfulness – both in speaking and in listening: they could each devote themselves to the moments of truthfulness that might be bodied forth by the other’s discourse (both of them presumably speeding forward with a high degree of automaticity, analogously to the practice of automatic writing) or those that might emerge however suddenly and unexpectedly in the space this sort of dialogue had opened up between the participants.
As for the element which constituted it as a dialogue, rather than simply the concurrence of two soliloquies, the response, for it too a quite distinctive character was sketched out; very emphatically Breton insisted that “elle est, en principe, totalement indifférente à l’amour-propre de celui qui a parlé.” Consideration for persons had made way for the espousal of things – for the Surrealists’ investigation of the old outmoded objects that lived again a last time in dreams, on the one side, and of the nearly mechanical automatisms and infrastructures within body and mind, on the other; it was these things and the effects by means of which they made their existence felt, to which the Surrealists were to listen and respond: and by touching on these things in their response, new energy and inspiration was to flow into and elate them. As Breton put the matter, “Les mots, les images ne s’offrent que comme tremplins à l’esprit de celui qui écoute.” In the Surrealist dialogue, the responses were meant to leap.
Granted, in that sentence the meaning of Breton’s own image (“tremplins”), for its part, was less than obvious; but Benjamin evidently discerned something significant in it, for it then – in its very ambiguity – served him as a jumping-off point for what was perhaps the most interesting moment of thought in his short text. It struck him forcefully that the Surrealists’ usage of language seemed positively to invite misunderstandings and that this was indeed one of their aims, as it was by virtue of these misunderstandings that their dialogues were filled with so much life and truth: and moreover it appeared as though the dialogues they conducted amongst themselves, but also – it may be inferred – those which their works when published entered into with their readers, were vouchsafed whatever durability they might enjoy precisely only under this condition. (Thus it is that they still have surprises to emit, even nearly a century later.)
Benjamin, I believe, got to the crux of the matter when he noted that these misunderstandings themselves, in their aggregate occurrence, followed one another in a rhythm, and that it was through this rhythm that an essential reality entered the dialogue (perhaps even overcoming some resistance as it did so): “Denn ›Mißverständnis‹ heißt die Rhythmik, mit welcher die allein wahre Wirklichkeit sich ins Gespräch drängt.” Now, if what the Surrealists were most concerned with, were the things previously mentioned, the manufactured objects that had affected them early in life so thoroughly as even to have shaped their very sense of time and space, their physical tempo and especially their inner feeling of rhythm, and this to the point that they attempted to ascertain the effects of these early conditions through thought-experiments on themselves carried out mainly by literary means, then – one could conclude – what would this dialogue (insofar as in it language was given free Surrealist rein) comprise if not the encounter of two such experimentalists? But there could have been no guarantee, of course, that they necessarily would have been attuned to one another, that is, that the early influences in fact had had lasting effects which were really congruent or similar in both cases; accordingly it was nearly inevitable that relatively soon the basic circumstance of their different formations (or as Benjamin called it, with obfuscatory over-emphasis, “die allein wahre Wirklichkeit”) would have been heard from: if only, in the most auspicious case, in the rhythm of their misunderstandings of one another and their misunderstanding of one another’s rhythms . . .
“Je wirklicher ein Mensch zu reden weiß, desto geglückter mißversteht man ihn.”
To extrapolate from Benjamin’s point (as I’ve understood and/or misunderstood it): what we commonly call “understanding” may be composed for the most part of moments of misunderstanding, while in “misunderstanding” many elements of understanding might actually be comprised; and thus misunderstanding and understanding would no longer necessarily be contrarieties but could punctuate and interpenetrate one another in measures of spurts and bursts – a lively syncopation of comprehension.
Well, by now probably enough has been said about the Manifeste du surréalisme itself that some of the implications for music may be unfolded, in three compact theses.
1.Many pieces of music are not intended to convey but rather are meant to conceal the thought of those who wrote, played, or sang them; and this (leaving aside the justifications for it which might be proposed and adjudicated in particular cases) is often necessary and desirable, insofar as it’s by virtue of this concealment that the music will sustain its appeal to the ears of current and future listeners, and perhaps also for the reason that it may be required if the inner sources of musical creativity are to continue to flow.
2.Other pieces of music, however, might dispense with that work of concealment and aim instead to conduct a thought-experiment with musical means; they themselves would be just such thought-experiments, as they are at once both the subject and the object of the experimentation, insofar as the experiment is intended to ascertain indirectly something of the state of the mechanisms within the music-maker’s mind that pertain to the sense of tempo, rhythm, melody, and the like – a procedure of indirect indication, from their effects, which here is by definition (just as in the parallel case of those infra-mental schemata which are it was suggested more specifically linguistic in nature) really the sole conceivable approach.
3.Still other modes of musical activity, for their part, may seek to establish a rapport with those who are listening wherein some moment of truth could become audibly perceptible, a rapport that is something like a dialogue in, by, and through music, insofar as during the musical performance all who are involved, and not solely the audience, listen as attentively and (in different senses of the term, depending on their diverse roles and situations) respond as actively and as immediately as they can to what they hear; as for the acoustic truth that might arise in these surroundings, it could just as well stem from the whole quasi-dialogue itself, relate specifically to one or more of the participants, or pertain to the condition of their various mutual attunements – here the possibilities are manifold indeed, for something truthful could also slip inadvertently from an object akin to those with which the Surrealists were most preoccupied.
If there is any such thing as Surrealist music, it might very well constitute just such a thought-experiment or just such a dialogue, or perhaps by virtue of some “rhythm of misunderstanding” it would instantiate the one and the other by turns – or it might even find some way to begin in disguise, as it were, as though it were a piece of the guarded music of the first kind, and then by a metamorphosis open up into something else, something unheard of, startling, and truthful.
On an audience’s side, in the experience of listening to Surrealist music one could well expect truths to raise their voices – acoustic truths that in some manner, even if only by indirection or through misunderstandings or via the frustrating or even the negating of an expectation (for instance, a gap of silence when one was awaiting an actual sound), would extrude something of the character and constitution of habits whose existence we usually don’t even notice as such, and in particular those which are difficult to attribute exclusively either to the mind or to the body, such as the ones that bear on one’s capacity to be still or to exercise patience (while listening to a very quiet or a very long piece of music, for instance), or those that modulate one’s readiness to dance (for instance, even when no one else has stepped onto the floor and yet the music is moving one to start things off), to name just two species of them. As regards habits like these – and it’s astonishing to realize how very many of them there are! – a “Surrealist mode of usage of music” would perform a great service if it were to provoke one to think of both the moment when and the way in which one first contracted them, so that, if need be, one could let go of them.
In this connection, there’s a passing remark in Eustis’ interview in which he alludes to what’s evidently a frequent occurrence when Telefon Tel Aviv takes the stage while on tour: the people in the audience, still vibrating at some early hour in the morning to the music of the previous band, are required by its dark dreamy songs to shift gears and to slow down – although in their excitement they may not find it very easy to do – and when the matter is put this way, it almost sounds, to my ears, as though they were being afforded a chance to become aware of some of their habits as such.
Yet who exactly would find it easy to put aside a habit temporarily, let alone once and for all? And who would be brazen enough to suggest that it is or could be? Not so surprisingly, here one author does come to mind; in one of his aphorisms Nietzsche penned an ode to short-lived habits, “Kurze Gewohnheiten,”* and there he sketched the amiable parting scene on some habit’s last day. “Und eines Tages hat es” – the habit – “seine Zeit gehabt: die gute Sache scheidet von mir, nicht als Etwas, das mir nun Ekel einflösst – sondern friedlich und an mir gesättigt, wie ich an ihm, und wie als ob wir einander dankbar sein müssten und uns so die Hände zum Abschied reichten.” Vale et fave. . . . Yet prose this sweet could incite one to respond mischievously; once precipitated into this mood, what one will quickly begin to hear in his attitude, is the tinny sound of hollow bravado, as Nietzsche himself surely must have understood: and so one might conclude that his aphorism simply wasn’t meant to be taken only at face value.
* Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, bk. iv, § 295.
Furthermore, and precisely because this vision was so idyllic – though even here some “Ekel,” that intense feeling of disgust (and the word itself remains one of the German language’s very most palpable) which wells up before or after the fact or the deed, was alluded to as a possibility, and this prospective “Et in Arcadia ego” moment already furnishes something like a clue – one might suspect that it could have been as it were a photographic negative of another scene that Nietzsche had often reflected on: this antecedent scene would have comprised a dark picture indeed of human beings generally and their inveterate habits, on the one hand, and of the forms taken by their hopes to be released from them, on the other, at a moment when they were already subjected nearly unavoidably to those which the things and the technologies of industrial civilization were installing in them. (Not only the excerpt I’ve quoted but the entire aphorism can be re-read for the picture of which it was just such a photographic negative; the view of his and of our civilization which results from this correction – the idea of which I’ve derived from the procedure that Benjamin, in the first part of his essay “Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire,” introduced vis-à-vis Henri Bergson’s work – and which one then can impute to Nietzsche himself, is illuminating and prescient.)
In short: concealed by the language he used in this aphorism (though also in some manner revealed by it, if a reader consults it with care) may be a set of thoughts which circle around topics that the Surrealists, for their part, would first touch on forty or so years later.
Yet those thoughts have not been the exclusive concern of the various penseurs et poètes maudits. In fact, at times they’ve forced their way onto the pages of writers who were neither – and here it’s even possible that they would have deposited themselves in passages that are both considerably more explicit than those one generally meets with in the writings of the Surrealists and their friends, and also if anything even more disturbing in their very obvious implications.
A striking instance of such an occurrence may be found in one of the long works of Jean-Paul Sartre,* an author whom no one seriously accused of harboring sympathy for Surrealism, published some four decades after that movement had exploded onto the scene; there, in the midst of a lengthy disquisition rehearsing dutifully once again, and rather predictably, the investigation of the ways in which “un destin préfabriqué” is actually experienced and lived out within modern society (this overarching concern of Hegelian Marxism throughout the twentieth century), his attention alighted on a certain matter and all at once, to judge by the sudden change his style underwent, his interest was engaged. “Aux premiers temps des machines semi-automatiques, des enquêtes ont montré que les ouvrières spécialisées se lassaient aller, en travaillant, à une rêverie d’ordre sexuel,” wrote Sartre, and while caught in it “elles se rappelaient la chambre, le lit, la nuit” – or rather it was not they who did so, strictly speaking, as in truth “c’est la machine en elle[s] qui rêvait de caresses,” and this by virtue of circumstances he proceeded to itemize in a prose whose rhythm was for him, or at least for his theoretical writings, noticeably marcato or staccato: “le genre d’attention requis pour leur travail ne leur permettait, en effet, ni la distraction (penser à autre chose) ni l’application totale de l’esprit (la pensée retarde ici le mouvement); la machine exige et crée chez l’homme un semi-automatisme inversé qui la complète : un mélange explosif d’inconscience et de vigilance; l’esprit est absorbé sans être utilisé, il se résume dans un contrôle latéral, le corps fonctionne ‹ machinalement › et pourtant reste sous surveillance.”
* Critique de la raison dialectique, vol. i, bk. i, C, 4.
This vision of human beings subjected to the machines they were operating, remains as shocking as anything to be encountered in Surrealist literature. Both mind and body were taken possession of; in the former, a state of reverie was induced in which it was the machine itself which did the dreaming, presumably in league with and assisted by an array of extant infra-mental mechanisms, while in the latter, sets of habits were being formed by whose nearly automatic functioning the body would acquire more and more of a decidedly mechanical character; and, even apart from the mechanisms and habits it was working upon and even creating in the human beings while they were in that susceptible state, the machine was also inculcating new tempos and rhythms in their bodies and in their minds.
Various constituent elements in this sketch of how the human being was overpowered by the machine, when taken together, could lead one to conclude that what was occurring was not merely the subjection of the former to the latter, but also the reproduction of the latter in the former. These machines of production were reproducing something of themselves in the human beings operating them – this nightmarish vision educible from the Critique de la raison dialectique is even more horrifying than that already quite dreadful condition which, in L’Être et le Néant, Sartre had called “le visqueux.” And with respect to the Surrealists, this vision shines a still darker light on the nature of the powers that once had inhered in those old outmoded things which they sought to encounter again in their dreams and their other enterprises, and, in so doing, it confirms that the route on which they set off to seek them, was not a wrong one.
It is certainly interesting that Sartre should have focused here mainly on female workers; just as noteworthy, though for different reasons, is what he went on to write about their male counterparts. According to him, “les hommes ont, en pareil cas, une moindre tendance aux rêveries érotiques; c’est qu’ils sont le ‹ premier sexe ›, le sexe actif; s’ils pensaient à prendre, le travail s’en ressentirait et, inversement, le travail, absorbant leur activité totale, leur rend indisponibles pour la sexualité” – and already after just a few summary statements one is deep in the grip of several clichés. But perhaps that was precisely where Sartre wanted to leave his readers (assuming, of course, that he had good reason not to initiate an actual inquiry into the question); insofar as it’s unlikely that the readers would be any more satisfied with those poncifs than he himself may be presumed to have been, they, accepting the virtual invitation to reflect further on the matter, might well draw the provisional conclusion that nearly the opposite had been the case: that the male workers too would have been transformed also as regards their sexual and erotic life through their subjection (this term is something of a euphemism) to these machines.
Thus – to come back to Surrealism – on several of its concerns a crosslight is thrown by this short passage in the midst of Sartre’s book. The influence exerted by machines of industrial production on the sexuality of those who operate them is as interesting a topic of investigation as the modes in which, in a dream state, kitsch might disclose both itself and some pieces of the dreamer’s own history or prehistory as well. Nor, obviously, had the Surrealists failed, years before Sartre had even been heard of, to register the centrality of this matter: and here, as one also knows, they did not limit themselves to machines of production, but also took care not to ignore vehicles of transportation when the talk turned to sex.
Perhaps even more than machines of production or their various products, it is mechanical vehicles which have, from the first beginnings of industrial civilization early in the nineteenth century, installed new tempos and new rhythms into the human frame – in some manner reproducing themselves in the process – and thus in consequence altered both the speed and the strength with which inclinations, impulsions, and desires would well up or burst into one’s consciousness and – very possibly, since what’s also at issue is the cumulative inculcation by industrial things of habits that are at once both mental and physical in character – transform it yet again into “un mélange explosif d’inconscience et de vigilance” (in Sartre’s felicitous phrase), with results that could easily be neither foreseen nor (as it’s the acoustic dimension which here interests me the most) foreheard.
The foregoing, it seems to me, is a specifically Surrealist train of thought, and for its part it turns up in some surprising places, far afield from the literary or artistic scenes as we’ve known them and right in the midst of today’s popular music. In Bruce Springsteen’s song “I’m on Fire” it speaks –
At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet
and a freight train running through the
middle of my head
– or rather, it shouts loudly through lyrics which have transposed and arranged the main ideas in that train of thought into a few marcato lines. The one single metaphor in the three I’ve just quoted rings so clear in its significance that it’s shocking: the implication is that the speed and the strength of desire as one experiences it in oneself may be traced back (not perhaps biographically but certainly historically) to the encounter with such a vehicle and, by extension, to the interaction with the things of industrial civilization in general, and may even have stemmed originally more or less directly from them. A more patently Surrealist ἀναγνώρισις is difficult to imagine.
(Please note that here I am talking solely about the mode – the velocity, the rhythm, and the force – by which desires arise into consciousness, and not of the origin of this or that desire in its specific content, a content which can be put into words as though it were a proposition to which one assents or not as one will. What I’m broaching is neither a forensic, nor an etiological, nor a diagnostic, nor a clinical inquiry into the origins of desire per se.)
At the same time, these lyrics are pervaded by an ambiguity which has provoked misunderstandings and even some controversy – a result which itself is a piece of applied Surrealism. For what would the desire “I’m on Fire” sings of, were it to be fulfilled, lead to? Either the molestation of a child, or a torrid affair. Everything hinges on what three words in the first line –
Hey little girl is your daddy home
– are taken to signify; those who believe that they were meant quite literally have at times denounced the song (as though it were then somehow espousing a pedophile desire), while those who aver that those few words were intended figuratively, in accord with what’s said to be their unexceptionable usage in a great many other lyrics, have from time to time denounced the former for imputing any such thing to the song (as though it were they who ought to be suspected of harboring that desire); but rather than get embroiled in this altercation (and both sides do have their justifications), one might instead step back and observe two things: first, the clash itself could be understood as being to some degree an instance of dialogue of the peculiar sort that moves to a rhythm of misunderstanding, as per the notion that Benjamin elicited from Breton, and second, Springsteen’s song for its part continues to fascinate and to live on due in no small measure to precisely this dispute, as per the idea I educed from the Manifeste du surréalisme itself.
Nonetheless, because it seems to me that this song exemplifies one of the ways in which Surrealism may be alive in the present – and also recalling the Surrealists’ own literary investigations of illicit desire and the criminal acts of violation that can flow from it (and it was via this topic that Benjamin, in his subsequent essay “Der Sürrealismus,” illuminated its own lineage back to the dark works of Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, and Lautréamont, as though to suggest that in some strange manner Surrealism were precisely one of the things they had been dreaming of) – I am rather inclined to take these lyrics literally. (Moreover, I also find myself wondering whether those who deny that any such meaning could possibly have been the one intended by “I’m on Fire,” are not engaged, for their part, their own good intentions notwithstanding, in some wishful thinking or in an attempted Verharmlosung of which the results themselves would not be entirely harmless.)
In truth, it seems to me that “I’m on Fire” may be about that inner pedophiliac inclination only and nothing further. For, after all, what does the fellow do or not do with his desire? The song doesn’t say.
If, in the most general of terms, it’s expected of literature, art, or music that it effect a catharsis, one will of course need to acknowledge the actual existence of whatever it is which the work is to rid one or another of.
An interest in catharsis was not foreign to Surrealism, one may surmise, and it might indeed have been one of its primary concerns; but, as one would expect, it was a catharsis bearing little resemblance to perhaps the most well-known definition of that procedure, which, as specified by Aristotle in the Poetics,* served to banish from the soul its stagnant inward states and any emotions that would likewise overwhelm it (evidently the variegated afflictions to which he referred were numerous – “τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων”). No, if there was anything baleful and deserving of banishment, it’s far more likely that Surrealism would have found it amongst the habits which, with their particular tempos and rhythms, industrial civilization had instilled into body and mind, and by which the machine was taking over the human being; or amongst the mechanical desires being created in a similar fashion at just the moment when the passions were being lulled to sleep. And even if the only result of Surrealist activity in this field had been to effect something like an exclusively conceptual catharsis, removing from the intellectual landscape some of the mental trash heaped up over the basic distinction between increasingly mechanical desires, on the one side, and on the other the passions that were somnolent but still spontaneous, that would already have constituted a great service all by itself.
(In the Surrealist approach to this topic one hears a strong echo of Nietzsche’s espousal* of the passions as such and his distrust of the orderly society in which they continued to exist only in a state of slumber – “alle geordnete Gesellschaft schläfert die Leidenschaften ein” – and here, once again prompted to make mischief, one might ask what exactly it was which the passions were dreaming of while asleep, and wonder what a society might be like which was something other than “well-ordered”: doing so even though, or perhaps precisely because one realizes that it is far from obvious how one might arrive at anything like plausible answers to these questions.)
* Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, bk. i, § 4.
But the moment of catharsis in Surrealist practice went beyond the purely intellectual; its locus was that region of habits and perhaps desires whose character was both mental and physical, and the Surrealists were aware of the dangers that any intervention there might expect to run into.
These habits and desires were what Breton seemed to refer to implicitly when he claimed that Surrealism had created new needs in the Surrealists, and in particular a certain need for Surrealism itself. “Le surréalisme ne permet pas à ceux qui s’y adonnent de le délaisser quand il leur plaît,” he insisted in the Manifeste, for the reason that “il agit sur l’esprit à la manière des stupéfiants ; comme eux il crée un certain état de besoin et peut pousser l’homme à de terribles révoltes.” Such needs – one can infer from the prospect of this “révolte” – could not co-exist alongside those habits and desires for any length of time in one and the same subject, and the resultant conflict would precipitate something like an explosion leading to the latter’s expulsion, as perilous as this event could prove to be: much more than the needs which were to be utilized medicinally in this manner, it was these habits and desires themselves which had become such a second nature that their removal might be effected only at the risk of causing something like a terrible withdrawal from an addiction.
For his part, Benjamin also seemed to envision applying a cathartic operation to some portion of the habits already deposited in the φύσις by industrial technology. (Following his thought either in his first very compact essay, or through the second’s several lengthier dithyrambic passages, presents challenge after challenge: and moreover it seems conceivable that in Benjamin’s own case the actual writing of these essays may have brought about a catharsis of the very sort he was circumscribing in them: accordingly I’ve handled both with an especial degree of care and quite selectively.) Yet here the procedure was framed expressly in terms of the body’s power and the objective defined as the latter’s intensification and augmentation: if it were to be increased, something else would first need to be removed – it’s by bearing this conception in mind, whose elaboration Benjamin may earlier have come across in certain works of anthropology, that one will most readily find a way through these two texts which so often speak in a rush of implications, sudden silences, and images. To take but one complex of these: when he circled back to the topic of the role played by kitsch in the dream, doing so not in order to offer any further definition, but to suggest how one might make use of Traumkitsch (the thing itself, not his essay), he couched his idea in rather enigmatic imagery; there he wrote that kitsch “ist die letzte Maske des Banalen, mit der wir uns im Traum und im Gespräch bekleiden, um die Kraft der ausgestorbenen Dingwelt in uns zu nehmen” – and his point in having put the matter so fantastically, one may conclude, was that those who wanted to appropriate for their own activity the power and energy that remained within those things, would first need to change their own habits (as though these were – precisely! – suits of clothing) and specifically to strip away those habits of sentimentality both mental and physical which stand in the closest of relationships to kitsch itself (for they are derived almost automatically from kitsch, this pervasive byproduct of industrial civilization, and it in turn spreads nearly undetectably by their leave).
Now – to leap back into the present – if it is indeed true that specifically electronic technology has a greater share than ever in the formation of habits, especially insofar as these comprise both tempos and rhythms, and that it accomplishes this to a greater degree than ever by aural avenues of influence, isn’t it plausible that music in general and electronic music in particular might be especially well equipped to effect some sort of catharsis and so to help to remove them from someone in whom they’ve been instilled (and who may indeed suffer from them), that is, to extrude them as such into consciousness so that some decision concerning them could be taken?
If that does in fact seem plausible, then in this regard too one has some idea of the way in which electronic music could be Surrealist.
Of course, as is the case with “I’m on Fire,” the question of whether some condition actually exists and then, if it’s admitted that it does, whether it would call for a catharsis, often is overladen and will provoke controversy – and if, as in this instance (as it seems to me), it’s a Surrealist “dialogue” which is filled with such contention between the parties and moves to a rhythm of their mutual misunderstanding (as Benjamin put it), whenever some heated point of dispute happens to be resolved and cleared away and the misunderstanding makes way for an understanding, it will seem as though here too some catharsis has supervened.
All this, it seems to me, is exemplified in Telefon Tel Aviv’s live cover of the song as recorded in the video included in the playlist; there we see the musicians dancing on stage, evidently in an elated mood, and at first it just didn’t seem right that they would, on account of the lyrics as I tend to understand them; the scene made me think that they had misunderstood what the song was actually about: but then, and this is yet another instance of the strange rhythm inherent in a Surrealist “dialogue,” it occurred to me that they must know very well, and far better than I do, how effectively cathartic music in general and their own electronic music in particular can be, when need be – here, to avoid emphatically and as far as possible provoking any misunderstandings on this delicate point, please note that I am not suggesting that in this instance anything of the kind would have been required in their cases! – and thus that it was I who had misunderstood them. Mea culpa.
Putting the entire matter of musical catharsis now to one side, one last question remains to be posed with regards to the practice of consulting one’s own dreams for inspiration. When, in the video interview, he recounted how he first decided that electronica would be his life, Joshua Eustis took care to mention the circumstance that the music which had prompted the decision had encompassed a dystopian vision of the future (and he noted that it was a future wherein humans had been supplanted by robots); this could well lead one to wonder whether the dreams in which he often seeks inspiration for his own music, and then also the music itself, insofar as it too has a dreamy character, are attuned mainly to the past, or whether, on the other hand, they are open towards the future too.
Dreams as dreams of the future: it’s an ambiguous idea, and if the dreams should happen to include dystopian visions, a very disturbing one as well. Does the dream advance into some prospective future, or does some part of future time enter into the dream – or does some other mode of encounter between them take place? And is the dream simply a presentation of whatever one sees or hears within it, or is the dream in some sense a participant in a process whereby its contents may eventually come to be in reality?
Though he did not intend the notes for publication, one nineteenth-century historian did commit some observations on this topic to paper, and they – or rather, part of one of them has since become well-known, due largely to Benjamin’s citation of it; yet, as the entire remark is of interest, and in order to preserve its format, here I shall not quote it, but rather include a picture of it.
The precise mood of Michelet’s remarks – they were occasioned by the death of his wife (and the editor of the periodical notes that it was possible for Daniel Halévy to publish merely a few, and these it seems only the calmest ones, in his biography of the historian) – is usually overlooked by those who cite the “Chaque époque rêve la suivante” portion so enthusiastically (but usually not it seems at first hand), as though it were an incantation.
It would appear that Michelet’s “velle videmur” referred to the passage in the Aeneid wherein a significant comparison makes palpable Turnus’ state just before he is struck down:
Ac velut in somnis, oculos ubi languida pressit
nocte quies, nequiquam avidos extendere cursus
velle videmur et in mediis conatibus aegri
succidimus, non lingua valet, non corpore notae
sufficiunt vires, nec vox aut verba sequuntur
(Just as while sleeping, once our eyes are heavy and we enwrapped in
night’s quiet, to strive onwards although in the midst of the attempt
we’d wither and die, is what we seem to want to do – but yet we
simply cannot: the tongue shirks, the body’s force we made note of
suffices now no more, neither voice nor words will second us)
Situated in such a context,* in the midst of his sorrow, the idea that “Chaque époque rêve la suivante” would itself most likely have been a semblance or apparition: the prospect was consoling and helped to reconcile him to the event, but he was aware that it was probably more illusory than real – that the acts whereby the next age would be given shape could not possibly have anything so specific in view and that they were, as Michelet went on to note, more procreative than articulate and creative, let alone correlate to dreams in any definition of the term.
* Bk. 12, ll. 908-12.
And yet this strange equation “rêver = créer” remains very thought-provoking. Not in the dreams of anything so large as an entire age in the singular (if the dreams that may be attributed to an epoch are anything other than a metaphor), but in those of individuals something of the next age may be announcing itself in advance, and in being dreamed of may already have come to be, albeit only inconspicuously at first . . .
In the meanwhile, and in conclusion, in one of Nietzsche’s notebooks there’s an especially striking thought* which I’ll vary just a bit in order to end on a fitting note:
* Under the heading “Sprüche eines Hyperboreers,” early 1888, numbered 15 (118) in Colli and Montinari’s edition of the Nachgelassene Fragmente.
Das Träumen ist ein mächtiges Stimulans. Nur muß man wach genug für das Stimulans sein.