…That Point at Which…

Daniel Barbiero
January 2018

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard claimed that the house, with its intimate indoor spaces, provides shelter and occasion for daydreaming. And in many cases it does. But it may be outdoors, particularly the urban landscape, that’s conducive to the waking dream. It may be the public space, exposed to view and the anonymous use of strangers—the atopia in which one is not at home–that allows one to dream, albeit not in peace. Perhaps in a state of unsettled availability, in which the incongruous makes perfect sense and unlikely coincidences appear preordained. Certainly it was in the streets and squares of the city that the Surrealists, and others after them, sought a point at which dream and waking reality met.

Through their walks in Paris, André Breton, Louis Aragon and the other Surrealists modeled a way of pursuing the uncanny coincidence and the chance meeting in an attempt to reach the point of reconciliation of opposites, of the convergence of the dream and the waking state—in short, to reveal the immanence of the marvelous in the mundane. Their project consisted in an interpretive strategy or hermeneutic by virtue of which the world is disclosed as the site of polyvalence, of multiple meanings arising from a reordering of the relationships between things on the basis of the unexpected correspondences between them that the perceiver, having reached a state of openness to seeing them, suddenly grasps.

The mutual permeation of the mundane and the marvelous was thought to show itself in the startling coincidence that seems preordained—in what Breton called objective chance (hasard objectif). Objective chance, which postulated the somehow necessary convergence of objects, people, and events following independent causal chains, reveals the correspondences binding otherwise incommensurable phenomena. Fortuitously running across an object that seems to hold the solution to some problem preoccupying one, meeting a stranger one seems predestined to meet—these and events like them are examples of objective chance, which seems to suggest a hidden necessity in the otherwise apparently contingent.

Objective chance has to take place somewhere; one must be at a certain location in order to keep one’s appointment with the significant coincidence. Thus the Surrealist interest in what Aragon termed the “métaphysique des lieux”—a metaphysics of place residing in the atmosphere certain places create.

The metaphysics of place is the deep ambience one finds in a place, the possibilities it offers, the dimension resident there that is more than the raw matter that composes it or the everyday uses we make of it. It consists in the meanings it holds beyond the superficial meanings it easily can be seen to have, in other words. To the metaphysics of place a location is like a cross-section of a geological formation.  Just as a cut taken into the rock reveals the layered traces of different eras, now all present to each other, a place seen with the metaphysical eye reveals multiple significances, some superficial and growing out of the place’s designated function, but others less apparent and consequently more profound.

In Paris Peasant, Aragon pursued his metaphysics of place in the old arcades by the Paris Opera. Before they were razed to make way for a modernization of the Paris Opera neighborhood, the arcades embodied a certain local color holding over from the old Paris of the 19th century. At one time they may have been non-places—commercial matrices and sites of transient, purely transactional relationships–but with time and their integration into the life of that section of Paris, they became rooted and particular, emblematic of that place and no other, and eventually pervaded by the melancholy of the bypassed.

In our own times, the equivalent of the Paris Opera arcades might be found in similar non-places like malls or train stations, or in overlooked sections of the city.

The pursuit of the marvelous in the context of a metaphysics of place is the pursuit of an atopia—a place in which the ordinary is estranged and made emotionally unrecognizable; a place that feels out of place. An atopia is place as experienced rather than the brute physical site itself; an experience of dis-placement provoked by, among other things, a sense of the uncanny, of the ineffable rising up out of a sudden and unforeseen rupture in the everyday. The Paris Opera arcades were atopic to the extent that they were home to the uncanny; their strangeness was a function of their having revealed the extraordinary within the everyday.

But they were just one historical instance of an atopia. More generally, atopias are anywhere we can find them.

In order to reveal the world as a site rich in meaning and correspondences, one must make oneself available. This state of availability, or disponibilité, as Breton termed it, is a way of disclosing the world and as such represents a way of being in the world that sees in the world the possibility of the marvelous. Disponibilité just is the availability or openness to the unexpected, a susceptibility to noticing the strange coincidence and chance meeting that turns out to be of unanticipated significance. To pursue the marvelous is thus to pursue possibility: the possibility of finding the tangent at which the real and the surreal touch. By being in the state of availability one makes possible the opening through which that tangent can be seen.

To use an awkward but nevertheless telling neologism, availability is a form of ek-stasis—of being projected outside of oneself. In a state of availability one loses one’s self to the extent that one dissolves into one’s surroundings. It is a form of anonymity in that regard, one in which the usual determinations one builds up over time are relaxed to the point where one suspends the skepticisms and habits of mind accumulated over the course of experience and instead consents to see connections and significances which one ordinarily would reject or simply overlook.

Availability requires a kind of suspension of disbelief through which unlikely connections or correspondences are seen not as implausible, but rather as representing concrete possibilities for oneself. Such a suspension calls for thinking analogically rather than logically. And rather than drawing analogies on the basis of perceived similarities between otherwise different things, this kind of analogy instead draws its connections on the basis of the very dissimilarities between them, serving as what Pierre Reverdy in 1918 called “the bringing together of two remote realities.” It is an analogy based on disjunction, a way of creating a totality out of disparate, apparently contradictory elements.

This kind of analogy is more than a literary or otherwise aesthetic device; it is a metaphysical position, an assertion about the nature of the reality underlying the reality grasped by the senses—a deeper reality in which opposites are reconciled and revealed to be, at a certain level of encounter, different sides of the same thing: analogy as a forging of correspondences in which contradictory states lose themselves in identity, no matter how provisional that identity might be. To illustrate the perspective opened up by the convergence of the contradictory, Breton liked to quote Lautréamont’s famous assertion, in the sixth canto of Maldoror, that something could be “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella” (comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d’une machine à coudre et d’un parapluie).

The Surrealist project in which opposites were to be reconciled was in one way a project of totalization, of resolving the contradiction between the real and the surreal and subsuming them into a higher state in which each is immanent in the other. In this regard, Lautréamont’s simile can be understood as the formula for the totalization of objects, events, or states of affairs that have no reason to belong together, this lack of a reason being precisely the reason why they are brought together into a whole derived from mutual illumination. It is a form of totalization based on incongruity—a harmony of discord.

The idea of such a harmony is a perennial one and predates Surrealism by centuries. Perhaps it was stated most succinctly by Heraclitus, the sixth century Ionian philosopher admired by the Surrealists, when he held that “a hidden harmony is preferable to an explicit harmony.” Through analogical reasoning, through the state of availability, through the habitation of our chosen atopias, perhaps that hidden harmony can be recognized and raised to an explicit harmony; perhaps one could then glimpse what it was that Breton ultimately was looking for: that hypothetical point at which contradictions cease to contradict.

Photography: Randee Silv

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