Benjamin on Nadja

“In other respects Breton’s book illustrates well a number of the basic characteristics of this ‘profane illumination.’ He calls Nadja ‘a book with a banging door.’ (In Moscow I lived in a hotel in which nearly all the rooms were occupied by Tibetan lamas who had come to Moscow for a congress of Buddhist churches. I was struck by the number of doors in the corridors that were always left ajar. What had at first seemed accidental began to be disturbing. I found out that in these rooms lived members of a sect who had sworn never to occupy closed rooms. The shock I had then must be felt by the reader of Nadja)” (“Surrealism,” in Reflections. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978, p. 180).

This has to be one of the best digressions in the history of literary criticism. I think it worth mentioning that the first time I read this essay I misread “Tibetan lamas” as “Tibetan llamas” and so was even more shocked than Benjamin imagines to think about him sharing a hotel in Moscow with a bunch of Buddhist llamas living in rooms with open doors.

I wonder if you’ll experience Nadja with the same kind of shock.

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