Our Darkness


All colours disappear in the night and despair has no diary…[1]
Charles Robert Maturin

In his foreword to the English translation of the  first systematic survey of film noir, Panorama du Film Noir Américain, film historian James Naremore remarked that surrealism “had always been crucial to the reception of any art described as noir“. The inauguration of the word noir as an attribute to designate an art form occured with the labelling of  the French Gothic novels as Romans noirs (black novels) around the 1820s.  They were  probably named as such by Pigoreau, a French bookseller and publisher whose books circulated in  cabinets de lecture (a type of commercial rental library which came to rise after the French Revolution).
A first proof for Naremore’s statement can be found in the infatuation of many surrealists  with Gothic novels. André Breton for instance, who avidly collected them, once described them as follows.

… these books were such that you could take them and open them at random, and there would continue to rise from them some fragrance or other of dark forests and high vaults. Their heroines, badly drawn, were impeccably lovely. You had to see them on the vignettes, prey to freezing apparitions, starkly white in those caves. Nothing could be more stimulating than this ultraromanesque, hypersophisticated literature. All those Castles of Otranto, of Udolpho, of the Pyrenees, of Lovel, of Athlin, and of Dunbayne, crevassed with great cracks and eaten by subterranean passages, persisted in the shadiest corner of my mind in living their factitious life, in presenting their curious phosphorescence.
Breton, Communicating Vessels

Breton’s reading of Gothic novels wasn’t limited to a search for stimulation or inspiration. Some of these novels he considered as quite congenial to the surrealist project. The following passage attests that already the prototype of the genre – The Castle of Otranto –  written by Horace Walpole, shows  many similiraties to surrealist automatic writing.

I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate.
Horace Walpole: letter to William Cole 9 March 1765

Although Walpole’s romance was a commercial success in its time, it would soon be criticized for its implausibility and incoherency. And so it took roughly twenty years until someone would follow in Walpole’s  footsteps. De Sade for instance observed that the real fad with the Gothic novel would only start around the time of the French revolution.

This genre was the invevitable product of the revolutionary shocks with which the whole of Europe resounded. For those who were acquainted with all the ills that are brought upon men by the wicked, the romantic novel was becoming somewhat difficult to write, and merely monotonous to read: there was nobody left who had not experienced more misfortunes in four or five years than could be depicted in a century by literature’s most famous novelists: it was necessary to call upon hell for aid in order to arouse interest, and to find in the land of fantasies what was common knowledge from historical observation of man in this iron age.
de Sade, Idées sur les romans[2]

Breton shared de Sade’s opinion. The Gothic novel proved to be for him “the ideal key to this latent content, the way for us to explore the secret depths of history that disappear beneath the web of events.”[3]
Some of the Gothic writers,  Ann Radcliffe for instance, would begin to trace back the  supernatural events in their novels to natural causes. Breton preferred the efforts of M. G. Lewis “who couldn’t be praised more for abandoning himself trustfully to his lyrical exaltation regardless of the final  plausibility of his tale.”[4]  He recognized that the fantastic elements of a novel like The Monk serve as an instrument of cognition, because it is “at a point where human reason loses its control, that the innermost emotion of a human being has every chance to express itself…”[5] Maturin’s Melmoth eventually “possessed the abundance of light, which is necessary to  let appear in it the problem of problems: that of evil[6].

Around 1935 Breton himself would use the adjective in an expression which “only afterward (…) took its place in the dictionary” – L’humour noir (black humour). It was defined by him on the basis of Hegel’s notion of objective humour and Freud’s The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious.  According to Breton it presents a “superior revolt of the mind” against the oppressive aspects of the reality principle. The meaning in common parlance has somewhat shifted as it designates all kinds of comedy that are dealing with a breach of taboo. But Breton was anxious to exclude “stupidity, skeptical sarcasm, light-hearted jokes…” from his definition. Even more important was that black humour had to be devoid of all sentimentality. For him this undertaking was by no means a mere diversion from other activities but an essential aspect of surrealism.

Given the specific requirements of the modern sensibility, it is increasingly doubtful that any poetic, artistic or scientific work, any philosophical or social system that does not contain this kind of humor will not leave a great deal to be desired, will not be condemned more or less rapidly to perish.
André Breton, Lightning Rod, preface to the Anthology of Black Humour

As definitions of humour hitherto proved to be rather elusive, Breton compiled an anthology to illustrate his concept.

The Anthology of Black Humour contains examples by many precursors, kindred spirits and fellow travellers of surrealism. Among the 45 authors who made it into the final selection are Jonathan Swift, de Sade, Lautréamont, Arthur Cravan and Jacques Vaché. Shortly after its publication  in 1940, a period in which Breton  felt its theme situated very well, the German troups invaded France and the book was banned  by a censorship board formed by the  Vichy government.

In 1948 Julien Gracq wrote an essay on André Breton, in which he gets to the bottom of this predilection of  the surrealists for noir, this “magic word, cut off from any real connection to anything tangible, capable of the most disconcerting transfers by its essential adjectival virtue.” Apart from roman noir and l’humour noir he found the following formulas in Breton’s writings: “magie noire, musée noire, lavoir noir, diamant noir, dieu noir, sang noir.”
Gracq whose own works reveal a preference for the black word elaborates further in his essay:

One even feels the urge to name exclusively as ‘epithet of nature’ an adjective, which reveals so openly the emotive core, less that of the object than that of the subject. And probably even more the moral than the emotive core, or more precisely the inclination, the descent, the fatal predestination, which directs all  the manifestations of being and all of its projections and which can only assume its full meaning  from the decisive intervention of the sacred…

In a conference titled The surrealist religion which was held by Georges Bataille in 1948,  he took Gracq’s ideas as a starting point  and emphasized most notably the sacrilegous connotations of black:

It is not simply a matter of black water or black blood, but of a black heart and this black element dominates, carries it off and ensures some sort of tearing away from the world which we once dominated. (…) And in addition to these characteristics, the ideas of breaking with the past dominate the destiny prepared by surrealism for the first time in the perfectly black figure of Sade.
Georges Bataille, in The Absence of Myth

The surrealist’s dismissal of traditional mores based on Christian morality has provoked many scandals. In one of his darker moments Breton claimed that the simplest surrealist act would consist in shooting at random in a crowd. Bataille linked this remark to the Malaysian tradition known as Amok. It is not by chance that Bataille  chose an act for comparison  which is inexplicable by Western standards (or does “culture-bound syndrom” explain anything?). After all he uttered in the conference his belief that “the quest for primitive culture represents the principal, most decisive and vital, aspect of the meaning of surrealism, if not its precise definition”.

The postwar anxieties in France seemingly provided a fertile ground for such a quest, at least concerning popular culture. The French were very receptive to the arrival of the first crime stories of the American school of hardboiled  writers like  Woolrich, Thompson and HimesMarcel Duhamel introduced these and many other authors to the French public in his successful publishing imprint – The série noire, a title suggested by his  friend Jacques Prévert. In  their very loose translations – some were executed for instance by Boris Vian – the bleak contents of these novels and the immoral behaviour of their protagonists  seemed to mirror perfectly the experience of moral ambivalence under German occupation and afterwards. In Duhamel’s description of a typical série-noire-novel  it becomes clear, that his preference goes against whodunnits or deductive reasoning which dominated the crime genre since the renunciation of Walpole’s Tohu wa bohu.

The mind is rarely conformist. The likable detective  does not always solve the mystery. Sometimes there is no mystery. And sometimes there’s even no detective at all. So what? … Instead, there is  action, anxiety, violence – in all its forms and particularly the most abhorrable  –  beatings and killings. As in good movies, feelings translate into actions, and  readers fond of introspective literature should look out  for a completely different  field of  activity. There is also love – preferably of  the brutish kind – inordinate passion and hatred without mercy. In short, our goal is simple: to keep you from sleeping.
Marcel Duhamel (1948)

In the summer of 1946  five films with very similar content and style hit the cinemas in France within a week. These were  The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura, The Woman in the Window and Murder my Sweet. The critic Nino Frank immediately responded in his article L’aventure criminelle to their “dynamism of death” and termed them film “noirs”Raymond Borde and  Etienne Chaumeton, the authors of the aforementioned Panorama du Film Noir Américain (1955), also make no secret of their passion for its “ceremony of killings … one of the richest in the entire history of cinema”. Like Duhamel, who not incidentally wrote the preface for their book, they appreciate the incoherency of the often overcomplicated plots and the gratuitous violence of the noirs. What in their opinion makes  the  films  different  to their literary equivalents, is that the “screen is a magnifiying mirror…and a single act of violence, artfully suggested, has more impact than a text in which the crimes mount up”. This lends to many films noirs an oneiric quality which exceeded in the opinion of the authors mere aesthetics and proposed “a psychology of crime that isn’t without its echoes, in another domain, of that worldly psychology so appreciated at the end of the nineteenth century: both shed light on forbidden worlds”

Borde and Chaumeton brought up the question if the series of film noirs is “an involuntary testimony to a civilization that seeks its equilibrium?”  The need to reenact violent situations in the mind, could it be an attempt to reintegrate parts of the human personality which were disavowed in the wake of a uniliteral Enlightenment?[7] Maybe “black is not that black”, as Paul Valéry said.
Since the Renaissance the task to control our “animal” instincts was transferred from religion to reason. But the total repression of the monsters that the sleep of reason produces seemingly had a contrary effect. Major Dundee a film by Sam Peckinpah, certainly himself an expert in screen violence,  very nicely exemplifies this irony. A dialogue comments on the attack of French troups on a Mexican village:

Potts: Them boys in the pretty hats make the Apaches look like missionaries.
Tyreen: Never underestimate the value of a European education.

But to whom it may belong to accomplish the “equilibrium” of western civilization, to control the controller?  In so-called primitive societies where totemism prevails there seems to be a place for entities like the nagual. The absolute reversal of reality experienced by  shamans, brujos or mystics  seems to belong very much to the realm of noir as Breton, Gracq and Bataille understood it.
I close the post with one of the Fang people in Central Africa relating what might be an experience of our darkness:

When one eats iboga, one makes a short sojourn in the world of beings that are beyond evil. There are no more sexual relations, nor men or women, nor whites or blacks … one sees the past, the present, the future …
in René Bureau, La religion d’eboga[8]

1 Breton used this quote as epigraph for his preface to the 1954 French edition of Maturin’s novel Melmoth the Wanderer.

2 Mario Praz, introductory essay for Three Gothic Novels, 1968.

3 Breton, Nonnational Boundaries of Surrealism, in Free Rein 1995.

4 Breton, preface to Melmoth ou L’Homme Errant, 1954.

5 Breton, Nonnational Boundaries of Surrealism, in Free Rein, 1995.

6 Breton, preface to Melmoth ou L’Homme Errant, 1954.

7 I  lifted the term “einseitige Aufklärung” from Brandlmeier, Thomas: Fantômas – Beiträge zur Panik des 20. Jahrhunderts, 2006. This slim, but very insightful book alerted me once again to the special signification of noir for surrealism.

8I found this quote in Hans Peter Duerr’s Traumzeit – Über die Grenze zwischen Wildnis und Zivilisation.
This book never directly adresses any topics discussed in this post, let alone surrealism. But in my opinion it runs on a parallel track. Centering on accounts of druginduced “flying”, be it from “witches” in the middle ages or from numerous tribes all over the world, it  shows that these people had  a view on “the other” that totally differed  from that of the  finders, keepers of psychology, who would term it the unconscious. Thus instantly relegating it to a role as dustbin of the consciousness just as indigenous peoples under  scrutiny of ethnologists would for a long time only be considered in terms of their purported lack.

Additional references:

Lenk, Elisabeth: Kritische Phantasie
I would suggest that in some of her texts (and even in person) she forges a bridge between Adorno and Breton

The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is by Winsor McCay.

The photo by Nikola Vuco is from www.serbiansurrealism.com



%d bloggers like this: