Monday, March 24, 2014


For a few months in 1926, Andre Breton was mesmerized by a young woman whose perceptions were intense, but irrational. He met her on the streets of Paris, idling near the bookstalls. “She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. A faint smile may have been wandering across her face.”

Leona Camille Ghislain Delcourt
Nadja was a real woman who allowed herself to become part of Andre Breton’s experiments in surrealism, and gave her name to his manifesto Nadja (1928), translated into English by Richard Howard. She had chosen the name Nadja for herself, she said,“because in Russian it’s the beginning of the word hope, and because it’s only the beginning.”

Breton and Nadja meet each day. She tells him stories of “ceaselessly relying on miracle” to get herself from day to day. He tells her about the connections he and his friends are making between their mental perceptions and concrete, actual things and places. Walking around Paris, they attempt to leave their movements entirely to chance, admitting themselves “to an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences, and reflexes peculiar to each individual, of harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest.”

While in a taxi with his wife and a friend, “some sudden vividness on the left-hand sidewalk, at the corner of Saint-Georges, makes me almost mechanically knock on the window. It is as if Nadja had just passed by. I run, completely at random, in one of the three directions she might have taken. And as a matter of fact it is Nadja.”

Traveling together they find that everyone is looking at them. Not just at Nadja, but at the two of them. “They can’t believe it, you see, they can’t get over seeing us together. That’s how rare that fire is in your eyes, and in mine,” Nadja says.

They continue to meet, and Nadja makes several drawings which are reproduced in the text, but she becomes increasingly careless and it becomes more clear to Breton that he can do nothing for her. She is committed to the Vaucluse sanitarium. Breton fears he has aided in her madness, but, he says, “the well-known lack of frontiers between non-madness and madness does not induce me to accord a different value to the perceptions and ideas which are the result of one or the other.” Nadja’s identity has been uncovered by a Dutch writer, Hester Albach, following the clues in Breton’s book and a cache of letters bound up with the manuscript. She was Leona Camille Ghislain Delcourt, who arrived in Paris in the mid-1920’s and died in 1941.

For a long time, I was fascinated by the Surrealists, specifically by their attempt to move from abstract thinking to an understanding of the concrete. As Anna Balakian says in Surrealism: the Road to the Absolute, “one of the basic characteristics of the surrealist mind is its uncompromising will to find a foolproof unity in the universe.” I was looking for that too and I kept returning to the mysterious texts in which Breton and Louis Aragon and others sought, with great honesty, to relate what they were doing.

Balakian pointed out Breton’s vigorous optimism, his protest against Western philosophy’s tendency to rationalize the miseries of the human condition and his intent of world transformation. Breton continued his fight for many years though it may be hard to see today.

Jean Markale, in The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture (a book written with perhaps more intuition than scholarship), describes the race which inhabited most of Europe before they were pushed to its western edges by the Romans and the Saxons. They left no writing, but many artifacts. Nevertheless, Markale says: “All the great endeavours of the Western world can be traced back to the Celtic mind, for behind them there is a dynamic force which seeks always to change, to shatter the narrow confines of arbitrary and unmoving reason.”

Markale notes that Breton saw in his Celtic heritage the light he was trying to pass on. He quotes Breton: “I, too, am part of the moorlands of Brittany. They have often tortured me but I love the will-o-the-wisp light they keep in my heart. Inasmuch as that light has reached me, I have done what was in my power to pass it on: I am proud to think that it has not yet gone out.”

Note to Readers: Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was Nadja, by Andre Breton. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who requests it (in a .pdf format) from lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com.


  1. Hi Connie, I became fascinated with Breton and company back in 1969-70, when I was a student at the Sorbonne. I wrote my mémoire for the diplôme annuel on Nadja. Just this year I have gone back to Nadja and have read Hester Albach's illuminating book as well. My interest when I was living in London was Celtic myth, so I have a copy of Markale's book on my shelves. Could you cite the page number for me? I will send you an email regarding the five books. Cheers, Carole

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Carole, the quote from Breton in "The Celts" by Markale is on the very last page of the book. Thanks for your comment! Connie