Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Haunting Transcendence: The Strategy of Ghosts in Bataille and Breton

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Haunting Transcendence: The Strategy of Ghosts in Bataille and Breton

Article excerpt

An examination of the trope of the ghost in Andre Breton's Nadja (1928) and Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'ceil (1928) [1] enables one to characterize both the political urgency of the authors' aesthetic projects in the late 1920s and 1930s and the public acrimony that erupted between them during that time. [2] The trope of the ghost was resonant for them in part because of its powerful and influential utilization by Marx and Engels, who begin their Manifesto with the declaration "A specter is haunting Europe-- the specter of Communism." They continue: "It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the specter of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself" (8). The publication of the communists' beliefs, which haunted the capitalistic structure of Europe, made the individual communist plain and visible.

Many ghosts circulate in the novels of Breton and Bataille, but neither writer trusts these specters to anchor a Marxist enterprise. Instead, they use the ghost as a way of considering the boundaries of conventional identity. Both find that the economic crisis of capitalism is bound up in sexual and gender factors that are difficult to channel into a single political movement. By examining the definitions, operations, and formulations of ghosts in the fiction of Bataille and Breton, one sees how differently they configure the political value of art. Whereas Breton uses the metaphor of the ghost to dramatize the subject's dissolution as he tries to escape ideology, Bataille uses the ghost to examine the ideological terms through which both subjectivity and the threat of subjective dissolution are realized. The ghosts in Breton reflect a hopeful potential for art to transcend psychiatric formulation and economic ideology. Bataille's ghosts deny transcendence and reflect a trace of the old sense of the word gho st: "to wound, tear, pull to pieces (OED).

Breton formulates the identity of Nadja thus: "Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I 'haunt"' (Nadja 11). Nadja, whom the narrator initially haunts and who eventually haunts him, demonstrates the central points of Breton's manifestoes. In his preface for a reprint of the Manifesto of Surrealism, he writes:

I simply believe that between my thought, such as it appears in what material people have been able to read that has my signature affixed to it, and me, which the true nature of my thought involves in something but precisely what I do not yet know, there is a world, an imperceptible world of phantasms. (ix)

The believing subject is stranded between two ideal points of a cause--effect sequence: the author and the text, or the author's intention and the text in which the intention is communicated. For Breton, the phantoms circulating in the area between the ostensibly stable poles of author and novel afford an ironic self-recognition. Breton's subject becomes a shuttlecock, batted between the cause and effect of the author and the text (or the text and the author). Although the notion of an author and a text may blur in the subject's confusion, this does not reflect merely a reversal of agency, but instead a complication of the preconditions necessary in speaking of Breton's subject. Subjectivity, or the self-recognizing "me," relies on this tension between the "I" (or the public, authoring self) and the text. For Breton, phantoms fluctuating between these formerly stable poles of subjective intent and textual product represent symptoms to be monitored in probing the subject.

This erosion of subjective certainty ironically corresponds with a determination to maintain the subject's autonomy in the face of stifling convention. Breton is not abandoning agency, but instead attempting to reject the drastically determining nature of political, social, and economic ideologies. …

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