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Holocaust Visions:
Surrealism and Existentialism
in the Poetry of Paul Celan

by Clarise Samuels

Table of Contents

Chapter 3: The Existentialist Aesthetic

THERE ARE DISTINCT SIMILARITIES between existentialism and surrealism, and they correspond to each other in a parallel fashion. For each of surrealism’s ideological beliefs, existentialism provides an underlying epistemological view that examines the individual’s knowledge and perception of reality, as well as the individual’s relationship to society, the universe, and God.

The surrealists placed supreme emphasis on the individual — his thoughts, his fears, and his dreams — and drew upon Freud to use the individual’s subconscious as a source of creativity.1 Surrealism was a celebration of the individual and a creed of nonconformism. The existentialists also extolled the individual, and such values as freedom of choice, individual dignity, personal love, and creative effort were of paramount importance.2 For them, also, individualism meant nonconformism.

By far the most significant relationship between the two systems is the individual’s creative experience of anguish. For Freud the experience of anguish (or Angst) was the key to understanding the mysteries of mental illness, in particular the roots of neurosis. But the surrealists took Freud’s analysis of anxiety to be a creative search for understanding, rather than a scientific one. The existentialists in their turn understood anguish to be instrumental in the analysis of the human condition. The concern with anguish by either the surrealists or the existentialists provides an important bridge between them. Existentialist anguish is comprised of three different types: the anguish of being, the anguish of the here and now, and the anguish of freedom.3

The first type of anguish, the anguish of being, results from the absurdity of being and the meaninglessness of existence and everything it comprises. As a Christian existentialist, Kierkegaard circumvented the anguish of being with a leap of faith that could be generated by intensity of feeling or passion: “Without risk there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty.”4 Kierkegaard’s individualistic leap of faith is not acceptable to most existentialists, nor was it acceptable to the surrealists. Sartre and others were convinced that the anguish of being leads directly to a sense of alienation, a sense of being abandoned by God or utter disbelief in God’s existence. Once man is confronted with his abandonment and his aloneness, the surrealist’s emphasis on the importance of the individual and the creative perspective of the individual becomes crucial. Through this creative expression, rather than belief in a higher power, the surrealist finds meaning in existence and attempts to obliterate the anguish of being.

Sartre views man as having been thrown into the world and abandoned, so that the anguish of being is to be found in the incomprehensibility of the nature of the self, which is derived from the incomprehensibility of all things. Developed from Kant’s theory of the noumena, Sartre’s being-in-itself causes much of this anguish. The in-itself is the essence of being and the essence of reality, existing like a hard center at the core of the universe and at the core of the human self. It stands apart from consciousness and is unfathomable. Man can only gain brief glimpses of the in-itself, whose starkness is frightening and sickening, and causes the Sartrean “nausea.” Our everyday reality exists as a thin layer or a varnish over this more profound, essential reality.5 But the individualism seen in Kierkegaard prevails here as well. For if the essential nature of the universe, the nature of all things, either has no meaning or has a meaning that is incomprehensible to man, then man derives meaning from himself, that is, from his own consciousness, a consciousness that exists for itself and is aware of itself, Sartre’s being-for-itself.

Being-for-itself is a reality that is superimposed by the individual upon the stark essence of an in-itself that is too painful to confront. The creation of the for-itself is the individual’s attempt to deal with that immutable essence by way of a reality that he can control, confront, and manipulate through the approachable world of externals. This places heavy emphasis on the individual as a unique entity divorced from his social context, an existentialist preoccupation that can be traced back to Nietzsche:

Only artists hate this slovenly life in borrowed manners and loosely fitting opinions and unveil the secret, everybody’s bad conscience, the principle that every human being is a unique wonder; they dare to show us the human being as he is, down to the last muscle, himself and himself alone. The human being who does not wish to belong to the mass must merely cease being comfortable with himself; let him follow his conscience which shouts at him: “Be yourself! What you are at present doing, opining, and desiring, that is not really you.”6

The surrealists also exalted the individual, because, like the Dadaists, they sought to create unconventional forms from a highly individualistic and nonconformist perspective. This was furthered by the inclusion of Freudian theory so that artists could have access to a method that helped them explore their own creative impulses, both conscious and subconscious. In this manner the surrealist could explore the meaning of essential reality, having obtained a method that would permeate the superficial layer of reality imposed by society. Once having exposed the superficial for-itself, the artist would gain access to the hard, immutable core of reality, the authentic reality, which is the in-itself.

The second type of anguish, the anguish of the here and now, is also linked to existentialist individualism and the given limitations of such individualism. Because of these limitations, man can never hope to participate in the eternal and immutable nature of things. As human beings limited by our own mortality, we are restricted to our present physical environment and the precise time of our existence, the here and the now. Anguish is produced by our frustrated attempts to rise above the historicity imposed by time, by the transience of our own existence, and by the inability to participate in eternity.

The Platonic theory contends that man escapes the individual confinement imposed by the here and now through the transcendence provided by the mind, which has the power to contemplate eternity and must therefore possess eternal qualities. If that were true, however, the anguish of the here and now would never have presented itself in the first place, says Olson.7 Another alternative, accepted by Breton and, with qualifications, by Sartre, is the escape from the confinement of the here and the now through the identification with mankind, that is, the masses of humanity that will reproduce themselves for eternity. Such an escape can take the form of humanism or the theoretical communism advocated by Marx.8

Breton knew that he needed a working system that addressed the sociopolitical concerns of the creative artist. Freudian theory, with its insistence on the inward examination of dreams and the subconscious, had contributed greatly to the further isolation of the artist. By including Marx and expanding surrealist ideology into the sociopolitical realm, Breton offered an escape not just from isolation and alienation, but from the anguish of the here and now. Existentialism by itself does not offer this same identification with the masses as an escape from such anguish, and contends that there is no real escape from such anguish through knowledge or humanism. Such anguish arises from the physical limitations of space and time; the question of why here and why now is unfathomable.

When Breton made a conscious decision to merge surrealist ideology with Marxist ideology, he gave the artist a chance to transcend the limitations of the here and now by working for the good of the proletarian masses, whose generations would presumably go on forever. He also foreshadowed the same decision that Sartre would make later in the century when Sartre embraced a limited form of humanism in order to conquer the anguish of the here and now.

Though Sartre was a Communist of sorts, existentialism has developed no political philosophy, and most existentialists do not feel any or much sympathy for Marxism.9 There are many irreconcilable differences between the two schools of thought. These include differing views on the meaning of existence, on morality, and on the destiny of man. Existentialism, for example, bases itself on the irrationality and incomprehensibility of the nature of things. Marxism, on the other hand, believes that the universe is based on rational laws, which are accessible by way of scientific investigation. Existentialism believes that moral behavior is developed by making sincere choices based on free will, and limited only by the individual’s awareness that he is responsible for himself and for others. Marxism proposes that moral behavior is behavior that improves the condition of the working classes, and that all decisions must be evaluated in this light. For the Marxist the morality of a behavior is relative and can change according to changing times and conditions. Perhaps most significantly, existentialism remains a philosophy of individualism and nonconformism, while Marxism is an organized movement of the masses advocating revolution.10

Despite these differences, existentialism, like Marxism, is a humanism to a limited extent. It is to this extent that existentialists can find relief from the anguish of the here and now by taking comfort in the eternal aspect of mankind. Sartre concedes that man is part of a humanistic universe. By being humanistic man transcends the here and now by projecting himself, by being outside of himself. Man passes beyond the here and now by seeking fulfillment outside himself and establishing a goal that liberates him from it. This is a process that Sartre calls “existentialist humanism.”11 As humanistic philosophies both Marxism and existentialism are concerned with the welfare of the individual and the individual’s desire to find meaning and happiness in life. But Marxism is more concerned with collective humanity, in particular the working classes, and sees the individual primarily in relationship to the collective. Existentialism places much more emphasis on the importance of the isolated individual, whose relationship to collective humanity is a secondary problem.

Marxism forces the individual to choose what Sartre calls a “project,” a goal which brings meaning and a sense of purpose in life. But for the Marxist it is always the same project, one that will benefit all of humanity. The Marxist project always centers itself on the revolution that will hail the new age of socialism, whereas Sartrean existentialism holds that every individual is free to choose his own project. An existentialist can have the same project as a Marxist, but only because he has chosen to do so.

The existentialist who takes on the Marxist “project” as the fundamental project of being, which Sartre said was necessary for all individuals, has found some relief from the anguish of the here and now, as well as some relief from his existentialist isolation. In support of this, George Novack points out that as a philosophy that centers itself entirely upon the individual, existentialism sometimes drives its adherents to identify themselves with the working classes as an escape from their isolation. Novack remains pessimistic about whether the existentialist can derive the same meaningfulness from such an identification as the Marxist does, because of the existentialist view regarding the ambiguity of everything.12

In this fashion both Sartre and Breton formulated a parallel plan, Sartre from the philosophical point of view and Breton from the ideological point of view, to find a compromise between the individual’s intrinsic isolation and the need for the individual to have a place within a social context. Both Sartre and Breton assigned the individual a project. For the surrealist each person’s project was a creative one and yielded different artistic results. Yet each surrealist was also participating in the Marxist revolution from both an aesthetic and social viewpoint, and in that sense the revolution was the surrealist project. The need for a project was universal since both existentialist and surrealist were very much affected by anguish, whether it was Freudian anguish from repressed thoughts and memories, or the existentialist anguishes of being, the here and now, and freedom. In choosing a project for the surrealists, Breton had unwittingly anticipated what Sartre would later call “existential psychoanalysis,” which was to help the individual find a fundamental project from which he could derive meaning and value.13

William Plank notes the parallel between the anguish of Sartre’s fictional character Antoine Roquentin from the novel Nausea, and that of the surrealists, but feels that existentialist anguish is “a reaction of dread with none of the surrealist enthusiasm.” Nausea, the Sartrean form of existentialist anguish, is, he says, an actual physical sensation of being connected to the in-itself, and realizing that existence is separate from the external world but at the same time one with it. Plank feels that nausea is induced by the existentialist’s confrontation with a bare object that he describes as nontechnological, nonhumanized, and nonutilitarian, much like the stone that Sartre’s Roquentin picks up on the beach when he experiences his first bout of nausea.14

The third type of anguish, the anguish of freedom, provides another bridge between existentialism and surrealism. The anguish of freedom is one that Sartre describes as anguish over the need to make decisions or choices in life, for which the individual then bears the responsibility. This is related to the anguish of being in that the anguish of being is derived from the meaninglessness of life, and our own freedom to make choices is, in effect, our freedom to superimpose meaning upon this essential state of meaninglessness. Anguish of freedom is also related to the anguish of the here and now. Man, through choices, is free to create whatever he may wish to do at any given time or place, thereby ensuring his uniqueness as an irreducible factor. Man’s uniqueness is a function of both his own freedom of choice and the unreproducible specificity of the here and now.15

The surrealist has converted the existentialist’s freedom to make choices into a philosophical aesthetic in art. The surrealist is given complete freedom to impose meaning upon the interpretation of art, upon the definition of what art is. Says Breton:

Man is still free to believe in his freedom. He is his own master, in spite of the old clouds which pass and his blind forces which encounter obstacles.16

The for-itself, which Olson describes as a complex of desires or a pattern of values devised by every individual in the attempt to construe meaning,17 is for the surrealist a pattern of values that challenges society’s traditional artistic values. The surrealist imposes meaning on the absurdity of the universe in an artistic way. In effect, he creates his own reality.

This artistically imposed reality, which corresponds to Sartre’s for-itself, is existential because it circumvents the anguish of being by construing meaning. It deals with the anguish of freedom by allowing the individual to make choices in the attempt to construe meaning. Finally, its uniqueness and originality are ensured by the uniqueness of the here and now, rather than restricted by it. The imposed reality of the surrealist also structures and clarifies the chaos of the unconscious mind, which corresponds to the immutable in-itself. The surrealist has thus destroyed the prevailing bourgeois aesthetic. It has been replaced with an existentialist aesthetic that has psychological and political dimensions outlined by Freud and Marx.

Surrealism, influenced by Dada, continues to be nihilistic in that it does not concern itself with preexisting values and ideals. This nihilism in surrealist art parallels Sartre’s idea of man’s existence as what he calls a “nihilating nothingness.” Nothingness, because the act of striving for some ideal state in the future, which is what the for-itself does in order to transcend the in-itself, can only be evaluated as an entity in terms of its end. This end is a state which never occurs, at least not while the individual lives. As a perpetual means to an end that never fulfills itself, the for-itself, or consciousness, is nonexistent; it is a nothingness. As for the nihilistic aspect of the nothingness, in order to impose meaning upon the in-itself, which has no meaning, the for-itself must negate the very essence of what man is. As Olson put it, “In other words, to exist, man must perpetually transcend himself.”18

The surrealist has transformed the existentialist principle of nihilism into an artistic aesthetic. The artist destroys the essence of the subconscious in order to structure it and impose meaning. The artist’s creativity is his consciousness, or the for-itself, seeking to impose meaning on the chaos of the subconscious, the in-itself. Yet this artistic project can never fulfill itself. It is always in a state of becoming, a state of flux; it is always an action unfurling and leading to some ideal state in the future. Every artistic project is therefore based on nothingness, a nihilating nothingness like man himself. For the surrealist, however, the nihilism is directed toward the destruction of the reality that bourgeois society has imposed on the anarchy of the mind’s subconscious desires and passions. Like Sartre’s confrontation with the essence of the in-itself, which causes anguish, Breton’s Freudian confrontation with the essence of the subconscious also causes anguish. The surrealist attempts to resolve that anguish through the creation of art.

In addition to anguish and nihilism, there are two other concepts of surrealism that are parallel with existentialist premises. Those are the concepts of contradiction and absurdity. The existentialist ontology or theory of being is wrapped up in a fundamental contradiction, that of being-in-itself and being-for-itself. These two aspects of being are diametrically opposed, yet they coexist within every individual, thus making the existential creature a paradoxical one in nature.19 Breton used contradiction as one of the basic characteristics of the surreal image. Contradictions were startling, they forged new relationships that defied the outworn bourgeois forms, and their incongruity produced absurd juxtapositions that could either shock or amuse. The absurdity helped the surrealists to expose the superficial reality imposed by society, so that they could examine the true nature of existence. Breton’s use of absurdity as a surrealist device is linked to Sartre’s belief that existence is essentially absurd, and that “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”20 The surrealists had to reexamine middle-class values carefully because their own efforts could easily be influenced by such, creating for the surrealist a false artistic aesthetic, the existential equivalent of which is “inauthenticity.”

Surrealism’s artistic project and Breton’s search for a state of genuine truth in the form of a surreality parallel the existentialist search for authenticity. It is especially compatible with Heidegger’s existentialist vision of authenticity and inauthenticity. Heidegger defined these as states where man is either inauthentically subscribing to the values of an alienating and mechanized social environment that encourages conformity and pettiness, or authentically seeking his own value system. Heidegger named this inauthentic state a state of fallenness (Verfallenheit) or what he called a state of being-in-the-midst-of-the-world. Heidegger’s state of authenticity is a level of consciousness that subverts the shallowness of social reality, a level that is intuitive and inspiring and much like the world of the artist and the poet.21 Heidegger’s Verfallenheit corresponds to Kierkegaard’s theory of the crowd, to be part of which is to be in a state of “untruth”:

A crowd — not this crowd or that, the crowd now living or the crowd long deceased, a crowd of humble people or of superior people, of rich or of poor, etc. — a crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction.22

Sartre, on the other hand, has a similar but somewhat more complicated view of inauthenticity, which he calls “bad faith.” His state of inauthenticity is derived only to a certain extent from Heidegger’s being-in-the-midst-of-the-world. It is based on the complexity of the perception of the in-itself and the for-itself, and the confusion that arises from the duality of consciousness that exists for the individual and for others in the individual’s life. The individual must accept what he is for others based on his past, and at the same time transcend it and be only what he is for himself, based on what he will project into the future.23 Likewise, regarding his past and future, the individual must admit the irrevocability of his past, but must face the responsibility of the choices he will make in the future, paralleling the in-itself (the unchangeable, immutable past) and the for-itself (the malleable future).

The problem of the individual’s relationship to society leads us to the problem of the Other, a major existentialist dilemma. For Sartre the relationship with the Other is based on conflict, as it is with Freud.24 It involves a respect for each other’s freedom, and at its best it promotes intensity, the ultimate value in existence as advocated by existentialism. Celan was most influenced by the Kierkegaardian concept of the Other developed further by Martin Buber. For Buber the relationship with the Other is likened to a search for God, and disharmony is created by the inevitable knowledge that the Other, like God, is a free agent who cannot be reduced to an abstraction.25

Breton’s aesthetic regarding the artist’s relationship to the Other is in accord with the existentialist value of intensity. The surrealist relationship to the Other, characterized by nonconformism, is an intense conflict based on disharmony and even hostility that the surrealist experiences as a Freudian being. The surrealist inquiry into the true nature of reality is such that the artist is bound to live life intensely, individualistically, and in a state of authenticity.

With these corresponding premises between existentialism and surrealism in place, it becomes evident that existentialism provides a basis for the surrealist in answering the epistemological question “how do we know?” Ideally, to answer such a question, the existentialist applies direct intuition activated by an intense emotion such as anguish.26 To examine the substance of that intuitive experience, the surrealist produces art by searching the subconscious, and tries to express a more genuine reality.

The existentialist aesthetic is developed from the artist’s efforts to do just that. It is an attempt to impose meaning on the in-itself (the subconscious); an attempt to seek authenticity, that is, to avoid the influence of the Kierkegaardian “crowd,” or in Breton’s case, bourgeois society; an attempt to examine the meaninglessness and absurdity of life through art; an attempt to use anguish effectively so that it contributes to the creation of art; an attempt to live life intensely and to capture that intensity artistically; and an attempt to establish the complete artistic freedom of the individual, whose self-realization will help to contribute to the development of an enlightened society.

  1. For the sake of simplicity, in a general context please understand “he” to mean “he or she.” The same holds true for “his” (“his or her”) and “him” (“him or her”).
  2. Robert G. Olson, An Introduction to Existentialism (New York: Dover, 1962), 17-18.
  3. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 30.
  4. As cited in Walter Kaufmann, ed., Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: New American Library, 1975), 117.
  5. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 39.
  6. As cited in Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 122-23.
  7. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 44-45.
  8. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 47.
  9. Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 48.
  10. George Novack, “Basic Differences Between Existentialism and Marxism,” in Existentialism versus Marxism: Conflicting Views on Humanism, ed. Novack (New York: Dell, 1966), 317-40.
  11. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” in Existentialism versus Marxism: Conflicting Views on Humanism, ed. George Novack (New York: Dell, 1966), 84.
  12. George Novack, “Basic Differences Between Existentialism and Marxism,” 334.
  13. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1956), 712-34.
  14. William Plank, Sartre and Surrealism (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1981), 69.
  15. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 52-53.
  16. Breton, Manifestoes, 187.
  17. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 55-56.
  18. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 56.
  19. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 55-56.
  20. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New York: New Directions, 1964), 133.
  21. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 137-38.
  22. As cited in Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 95.
  23. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 144-45.
  24. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 166.
  25. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 169.
  26. Olson, Introduction to Existentialism, 24.

Proceed to Chapter 4...

Copyright © 1993 by Clarise Samuels

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