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  • That Obscure Object of Revolt: Heraclitus, Surrealism’s Lightning-Conductor
  • Jonathan P. Eburne (bio)

We are wrong to consider that we establish the level of a culture through the analysis and critique of the masterpieces of that culture. Already such a classification presupposes on the part of the critic the realization of a hypothesis. The exceptional has no documentary value. What permits us to form an idea of the intellectual reality of a milieu, of a period, that which is the object of critique, is the current thinking, the thinking which is in circulation.

—Louis Aragon, “Philosophie des Paratonnerres” (45)

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In the October 1927 issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, the editors of Surrealism’s flagship journal published a pair of articles which introduce Heraclitus of Ephesus into the group’s pantheon of intellectual precursors, a genealogy outlined in André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) and elaborated in subsequent issues of the magazine. The first of the two articles is a brief biographical portrait of the presocratic philosopher, reprinted from Fénelon’s 1726 Abrégé des vies des anciens philosophes. The second article, a book review by Louis Aragon, is more polemical. Entitled “Philosophie des paratonnerres [Philosophy of lightning-conductors],” Aragon’s review addresses the curious surge of interest in Heraclitus manifested in three contemporary academic books, each of which attempts to derive a solid ideological platform from the few secondhand quotations that constitute the extant body of his philosophy (45). However, as Fénelon’s biographical sketch attests, this is not an easy task, since Heraclitus has always been considered “obscure, because he never spoke except by enigmas” (43). At the same [End Page 180] time, though, Aragon notes that Hegel famously regarded Heraclitus as his precursor in developing a theory of dialectical change. As bewildering as they are influential, the cryptic and often dubious fragments of Heraclitus’ lost work On Nature maintain, Aragon writes, “a prestige which one looks to make serve the most irreconcilable ends” (47). Aragon might as well have been writing about the Surrealists here, for in the years immediately following his review, the ancient philosopher would become a kind of “lightning-conductor” for the group’s own most irreconcilable ends, its fiercest debates, and its efforts to remain relevant as an avant-garde collective.

Just as a lightning-conductor’s usefulness only fully emerges during a storm, at a time of crisis, allusions to Heraclitus begin to appear in Surrealist writings at the very moment when the group entered its tumultuous period of adhesion to the French Communist Party and revolutionary Marxism. However, rather than grounding such dramatic changes in the movement’s structure and purpose within a solid philosophical tradition, Heraclitus’s fragments offer no easy political doctrine. Not only do the fragments suggest a cosmology based on contradiction, fire, and constant transformation, but their fragmentary form is itself rife with inconsistency and internal conflict. Thus exacerbating rather than neutralizing the Surrealists’ polemical energy, the instability expressed in and by Heraclitus’ lost work almost uncannily reflects the Surrealist movement’s own volatility, even fragmentation, at this moment of internal conflict. Indeed, in the years following their initiation into leftist politics in 1926, the Surrealists would dramatically restructure themselves as a group based on a commitment to collective political action, either expelling or alienating members who refused to adhere to such a program. 1 I wish to argue, then, that this Heraclitian instability does in fact “ground” Surrealist discourse in the sense that it redirects the group’s polemical energies toward its own epistemological foundations, revealing the extent to which its attitudes toward revolutionary action are completely shot through with questions about the fundamental constitution of the “reality” against which Surrealism wished to revolt.

In exploring, as he writes, “what life there is in the philosophy of Heraclitus,” Aragon unwittingly identifies the very question that Surrealism would be asking of itself in the immediate future: “what life is there in the philosophy of Surrealism?” In fact, Aragon’s article anticipates how this latter question of the movement’s relevance and solidarity would be haunted by an “object...

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pp. 180-204
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