A glance at objective chance

[Extract from The Surrealist Civilization – Payot 1976 – P 284 to 286]

The mechanistic model through which the world has been interpreted for too long, impeached by recent epistemology itself, would no longer calls for adverse mobilization if, in the techniques of existence, it did not persist in justifying the unjustifiable, if its reign was not prorogued in the form of a universal belief degrading in its detail the whole content of human days. The phenomenology of the encounter, which constitutes one of the major contributions of surrealism, which opens up its most persistent questions (1), which raises the question of chance in all its cosmological scope,  is precisely of a nature to ruin, in the order of philosophical reflection, and in the practice of life; the two-headed empire where the objective world and the subjective world oppose, for the lowering of the spirit. When, in the mid-1930s, Breton, taking the measure of “the hesitation that seizes the mind when he seeks to define chance,” rallied to the idea “of modern materialists according to which, chance would be the form of manifestation of the external necessity making its way in the human unconscious”,  and thus ” boldly attempts to interpret and reconcile Engels and Freud on this point “(2). Even when it was published, this way of expressing things, left behind the disturbing question of the perception of the facts of chance, of the degree, of the extent of this perception to which, under given conditions, men appear very differently sensitive. Whether chance awareness exists or not, that is far from being indifferent. Without doubt, “it was about  “, it still is about “the elucidation of the relationship between ‘natural necessity’ and ‘human need’ , and hence correlatively between necessity and freedom” (3). But the nature of objective chance, as it may  be defined by theoretical activity and the concrete upheavals to which it subjects existence, depends on the powers of observation, which bring to light the coincidence of the inside and the outside. Whether sudden and instantaneous, does it matter? The electric arc necessarily  has to throws its real light on the phantasmatic antagonism of the subject and the object and thereby rejects in the shadow the lying reality that it supports. The subject must be one in its coincidence with the object and in the consciousness that it offers to this considerable fact. Certainly, neither the spirits subject to the conventional schemes that regulate the essential of everyday life, nor those who symmetrically take the metaphysical discourses for explanations, are in a position to perceive chance or to attribute to it the superior quality of reality which finally permits to enter the reason of things. 

The mechanistic conception of causality and the metaphysical conception of necessity, both of them coexist in good neighborhood in the same individual, tend to subordinate to each other, according to circumstances and according to the time. The meeting of external causality and inner causality, under one and the other regime, is thus rendered impossible. Deprived of all efficiency in the relations of thought and deed, it remains subject to abstract glosses, either rationalistic or irrationalistic. The socio-cultural regime in force puts out of the reach of current experience the melting temperature necessary for the formation of alloys in the dual system of the conceived and of the lived on the one hand, and of subjective history, and external event of the other hand.

Surrealism in this respect, and in particular because of the intellectual circumstances which rendered the objective chance almost imperceptible around it, remained far from fulfilling the program it had set for itself. In the very delimitation of the territory in which it left its imprints, the vagueness is extreme. Thus, nothing proves that coincidence, observable anyway from a relatively objective point of view, is of the same kind as encounter, which implements the powers of dialogue, juxtaposes two temporal existences and which, in a symmetrical relation, makes of both of them the objects of two conjugated but not superimposable desires. The persistent blur of the optical image, however, does not alter the certainty encountered in conquered country. As soon as it is set in such a way, the problem of chance is enough to open up the prison where, crossing their respective bars, systematic rationalism and subjectivist irrationalism,  lock up living reality and hold it in a squatting immobility. To break such a cage, such is the effort of the spirit in the activities listed by surrealism under the name of daily magic. It is still up to us to better test, if possible, and to their limits, the unsuspected forces that set in motion in the world the short circuit obtained between external causality and the internal process.

Vincent BOUNOURE and Vratislav EFFENBERGER


(1) “A retrospective success  has been made of other inquiries  intitiated by surrealism … but by far, the inquiry about encounter was the most important to me. ” André Breton. Interviews. Paris, Gallimard, 1952.

(2) André BRETON, L’Amour fou. Paris, Gallimard, 1937. Chapter II.

(3) André BRETON, Interviews. Paris, Gallimard, 1952.

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