I read Nadja for the first time in 1995. I was nineteen and in community college. I found my way to Nadja through punk rock and dada, but in Breton and surrealism I found something very different. Mad love, convulsive beauty, objective chance, surrealist objects. Breton’s ideas reinforced my own developing views about the world. Thinking of the fiftieth anniversary of Breton’s death, I decided to revisit Nadja. It had been over fifteen years since I last read the book, but when reading Nadja today, what I found interesting was the everyday and personal Breton, which really is the one hidden in plain sight.
Much of what is written about Breton revolves around his excommunications and disagreements, but the younger Breton was very community-oriented. Like all of us, he needed like-minded people around him. Nadja is an unusual book because of the way Breton used it to promote the people he believed in. He saw the future in his friends. Benjamin Péret, Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon, Fanny Beznos, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, poets, outcasts, unknowns, people from the underground, all played their part in Breton’s image of Paris. Nadja functioned as a scrapbook of this hidden circle. It’s almost melancholic in how it documented a group of artists and writers as they grew together.
Among those people of the underground was Nadja. She was a damaged person. Breton saw “some obscure distress” in her eyes. She was a person of the streets. She was a mother alienated from her child. She sold cocaine, and maybe her body. She had vague relationships with multiple men, or as Breton wrote, she had “a certain power” over them. And, while Breton seemed to separate himself from the men she was involved with, to me it looks as if he was just another one of those men. Nadja seduced Breton with her helplessness. She was a waif. She made Breton feel powerful and respected, and in return he gave her money and attention. Although his intentions were good, Breton enabled her lifestyle and her problems. Of all the criticisms I’ve read of Nadja, I don’t ever recall anyone labeling their relationship for what it was: codependent.
Toward the end of the book, Breton identified two Nadja’s: the inspirational Nadja, and the troubled, toxic one. He asked himself which one was the real Nadja. I’d like to believe there was room inside of Nadja for both, but due to my own experiences in life, my intuition is at odds with this. The optimist in me wants to believe in the magical Nadja, the one who can predict which windows will light up red. The optimist wants to believe in the wild reckless Nadja, pressing her foot on the accelerator while blindfolding the driver. But the pessimist in me reluctantly believes that Nadja was simply giving Breton what she thought he wanted. The pessimist in me sees Nadja manipulating Breton, like some kind of poor man’s femme fatale. I can’t help but wonder if Nadja even cared for Breton at all, and I’m sure Breton wondered this as well.
In 1999, when reading Nadja in a class on surrealism at Portland State, my classmates were quick to condemn Breton for not visiting Nadja at the asylum. This sort of criticism could only come from those who have never had the weight of loving someone with a mental illness. What more could Breton have done to help Nadja? And, more importantly, how close can someone get to the chaos before they are permanently damaged by it? In this case, Breton did what was right for himself. Sometimes, those like Nadja truly cannot be reached. They get locked up, or maybe they kill themselves, or more often they hurt those around them. Nadja is not a surrealist romance. There is no happy ending where Breton saves Nadja from the asylum. He is not some knight in shining armor, and Nadja is not a damsel in distress.
Thinking of Nadja now, I am reminded of Cass from Charles Bukowski’s story “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town.” Cass was determined to destroy herself. She self-mutilated, sticking needles through her face, and tried to slit her own throat with a broken bottle. Bukowski's compassion was meaningless to her. He couldn’t stop her from self-destructing. It's hard to believe these two men, Bukowski and Breton, could have had anything in common. What they did have in common was their compassion for those shattered and damaged by the world. The official image of Breton is of a stern upholder of “Surrealist Law,” but I think the real world Breton, which has always been right there in front of the reader’s eyes, is the one that gets forgotten in the history books. And I think it’s the Breton I identify with most.