Friday, February 29, 2008

IV. A Specific Example of Truth and Lies: André Breton’s Mad Love

On the issue of truth and lies as elucidated in the previous section, Breton’s novel Mad Love becomes problematic on two levels. First, it is unclear just how fictional Mad Love really is. Much of it is straight autobiography, and a good portion of this book appears essayistic. One could perhaps argue that it is being true without being a lie. But other sections appear more “traditionally” novelistic, which is to say, fiction – thus, a lie. For this reason, I think we can consider it, in full, a novel, and thus a work of art.

The second problem with Mad Love is Breton’s use of photographs. The novel as a genre creates visual imagery through words (the lies of metaphors), but the use of photographs in Mad Love appears to subvert the language-created imagery in some places in the novel. The photographs show us what photographs can show us – they create, at least in this novel, “true” images. The images in Mad Love appear primarily to act as illustrations to the text. For example, on pg. 16, Breton describes how he uses cards as a way of reading his own fortune. But on pg. 17, we get a photograph by Man Ray showing what Breton has just described (though the black, artificial hand in the picture does make the image strange). Also, after discussing crystals on pg. 11, we see a photograph of crystals on pg. 12. These illustrations – and certainly this latter one – do not appear to add to the text, but appear more to only show us what we have already imagined, or, worse, make it obvious the author does not trust us to imagine the imagery he created in the text in the right way. He appears to be pushing truth rather than allowing his lies to create truth. If this is the case, one could argue that this novel is inartistic. His use of images is much different from the way Carole Maso uses images in her novel the art lover. Aside from the fact that she uses the repetition of many of her images to create meaning (we are reminded of the image each time it is repeated, making us recognize the image as meaningful, since memory makes meaning), she uses images effectively as text (creating a novelistic example of Derrida’s dictum that “everything is text”). For example, Maso has a section titled “The Message on the Machine” (129), which I will quote in its entirety:

“Hi. It’s Steven. Guess what? We’re neighbors. I’ve checked into St. Vincent’s. Doctor’s orders. My number is 427-4410. Give me a call, darling. Bye.”

This is followed by an illustrative image showing a sectional view of HIV. This is one of the most powerful, effective sections I have read in a novel. It works because it says, with the image, something that could not have been said as effectively any other way. It is an effective lie. This conjunction of image with text says something that could not be said any other way, and thus serves the lie, making it more true. I have seen similar illustrations of HIV in textbooks, magazines, newspapers, etc. – but none had the impact it has in Maso’s book. Her use of the image created a complex of emotions that could not have been created if Maso had just come out and said the caller had AIDS.

Breton does not approach this level in the pictures he uses in his novel, though the illustration on pg. 20 of what he means by saying convulsive beauty must be “fixed-explosive” (19) does clarify this phrase in a more helpful way than does the illustrations illustrating what he has already described. One could argue that he gave us the truth that served the lie. However, this method could also be justified as a way by which Breton draws our attention to the disparity between what he was imagining when he was writing (which the photographs supposedly illustrate), and what we are imagining as we are reading. In this novel Breton could be showing us the disparity between the author’s imagination and the reader’s imagination (no matter how well-guided by the author), drawing our attention to the existential space of the novel itself, as the space where two dreams are brought together, the same, and yet different. This, then, brings us to the definition of beauty I have been using: “uniformity amongst variety.” Breton makes disparity in vision (perspectivism) beautiful. He is showing us the lies of our truths – through the use of two styles of art: the novel and photography.

But this novel is not just (or primarily) a collection of photographs illustrating text. Breton also makes wonderful use of metaphor to break up our conceptual categories. If we take a look at an unillustrated scene toward the beginning of the novel (6), we find the following situation: a man enters, who has, Breton believes, loved the women Breton sees seated on a bench. Breton then goes on to describe the man:

He scarcely is at all, this living man who would hoist himself up on this treacherous trapeze of time. He would be unable even to exist without forgetfulness, that ferocious beast with its larva-like features. The wonderful little diamond slipper was headed off in several directions.

What do we have in this section? The narrator first comments that the man has a certain unreality and transience about him (to the narrator): “He scarcely is at all,” and “He would be unable even to exist without forgetfulness.” Is this meant to be understood objectively or subjectively? It is unclear, due to the presence of the first person narrator – but one whose style appears to create distance. There is a shadowiness to this man the narrator sees; but we do not know if the shadowiness is real, or if it is only because the narrator perceives him as shadowy. Or is the shadowiness real because the narrator perceives it?

There is also an ambiguity in who the “diamond slipper” is: is it the man, or is it perhaps some woman the narrator is after? It is difficult to tell from the text at this point in the story, but the fact that the “diamond slipper” is separated by forgetfulness being described as a beast, suggests the slipper could be someone else (the diamond slipper is suggestive of Cinderella). Either way, the narrator’s bringing these three metaphoric descriptions together needs explaining. What does it say about the narrator that these things are brought together this way? Is the narrator mad (as per the title)? Perhaps not. The man on the trapeze of time would swing back and forth in time (from past to present), but he only scarcely exists, even if forgetting were not a problem. Breton shows us with these descriptions just how transient we are to others: we barely register with them, and would barely register with them even if forgetting were not an issue. Breton captures, in this small space, the situation we all find ourselves in amongst anonymous strangers within the modern world, which is filled with anonymous strangers. We each pass in and out of people’s vision, barely registering with them (we get a level of irony here in Breton, since he says the man “scarcely is,” yet is able to register the fact that the man barely registers with him), while hoping we will continue to exist in memory (the “trapeze of time”). But if we are only noticed by someone for a moment, we will be forgotten: forgetfulness will eat away at memory as a maggot does a carcass – forgetfulness, “that ferocious beast with its larva-like features.” Breton metaphorically creates in this scene the situation of non-registry with anonymous others. And the diamond slipper? A reference to Cinderella, who was searched after (remembered). There is someone whom the narrator remembers, and is after; but he does not know (any more than Prince Charming does) where she is (since she was heading off in several directions). The three sentences then deal not with the man, but with the situation of remembering and forgetting, brought together in the same way as, in Lautréamont’s famous (and favorite of the surrealists) phrase, “Beautiful as the encounter of a sewing machine with an umbrella on a dissection table” (Mad Love 123n9). We are forgotten – because barely registered – by most people. It takes something special (a diamond slipper) for us to be remembered. This is the situation we find ourselves in with other people. The Romantics believe “that the loved one is a unique being” (7), but Breton not only tells us that “often social conditions of life can destroy such an illusion” (7), he shows us this with how he himself perceives the man he saw. This occurs in the present day.

Breton creates another Lautréamontean metaphorical conjunction when he describes: “Big bright eyes, of dawn or willow, of fern-crozier, of rum or saffron, the most beautiful eyes of museums open so as to see no longer, upon all the branches of the air” (9). How are eyes either of dawn or of willow? One appears to suggest the beginnings of brightness, the flush of color, leading to blue. The other suggests an airiness (willows tend to be open, airy trees), and light green. Fern-crozier is the curled-up top of a young fern leaf – dark green and brown – spiraling in a Fibonacci spiral. Rum tastes brown (this is something I have noticed, and perhaps Breton noticed too – others have confirmed my observation), while saffron is yellow. So why didn’t Breton just say eyes of blue, light green, brown-and-green (hazel), brown, and yellow? Each of Breton’s images also captures further elements these eyes project, beyond mere color. The sense of beauty and awe we feel at the dawn. The airiness of the willow. The feeling of depth and of being pulled in by the spiraling of the fern-crozier. The liquidity of rum (as well as its warmth). And, the delicacy of saffron. Breton draws our attention to the plurality found within the unity of the eyes (reminding us of Hutcheson’s definition of beauty, which suggests why Breton’s Lautréamontean approach is effective) that could not be captured by his merely using the color names. By exploding the difference into such apparently different things (only four in reality: dawn, rum, museum, and various plants – there is, with the plants, “uniformity amongst variety,” creating two such levels, or a fractal depth in his descriptive words), Breton draws our attention to Hutcheson’s definition of beauty, reminding us of it in the strangeness of the objects in his list. This creates the “only beauty which should concern us . . . convulsive beauty” (Breton, 10), by challenging the categories we place things in. He forces us to wonder what connects things like the dawn and willows, forcing us to reshuffle our categories. He draws our attention to the way we create concepts, questioning our conceptual categories, forcing us to imagine others. If beauty in art is, as Kundera says, “the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said” (AN, 123), then Breton has certainly, in his Lautréamontean descriptions, said “the never-before-said,” which makes his descriptions of the eyes beautiful and, thus, an “unknown segment of existence.” A good deal of work is needed to access what Breton has uncovered – but I think it is worth the effort. So while Breton’s use of “truth,” as facts, in his work does tend to problematize the work, it does so in an artistic way – with lies, lies that tell the truth.

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