Dream Kitsch

[Gloss on Surrealism][1]

by Walter Benjamin

Translated from the German by Edward Viesel

It is difficult nowadays to dream of the Blue Flower.[2] Anyone who awakes as Heinrich von Ofterdingen[3] today must have overslept. The history of the dream still remains to be written. Gaining an insight into the history of the dream would mean using historical illumination to decisively defeat a superstition that believes that dreams solely have their origin in nature. Dreaming is part of history. A statistics on dreams would cross the boundary that confines us to the sweetness of the anecdotal landscape and push forward into the barren landscape of a battlefield. Dreams have ordered wars to start; and from time immemorial, wars have decreed the rights and wrongs of dreams, and their very boundaries.

Dreams no longer provide a view[4] on blue horizons. Dreams have become grey. That grey layer of dust on things is dreams’ highest faculty.[5] Dreams now lead straight into banality. Technology is in the process of cancelling the exterior appearance of things—never to be seen again—in the same way as banknotes, scheduled for invalidation, are cancelled. In a final farewell, our hand grasps the exterior appearance of things in dreaming and runs its fingers over their familiar shape. It touches the things where they are most worn. This is not always the best[6] place to touch things, however: children do not clasp a glass, they grasp it by putting their fingers in it. And which side does a thing present to dreams? What is this most worn place? It is the side that has been worn thin by habit and is garnished with cheap maxims. The side that things present to dreams is “kitsch”.

Landing with a smack, the fantasy images of things fall towards the ground like pages of an accordion-fold picture book[7] titled “The Dream”. At the bottom each page contains a maxim, such as: “Ma plus belle maîtresse c’est la paresse” [My most beautiful mistress is laziness], or “Une médaille vernie pour le plus grand ennui” [A gold medal for the greatest boredom], or “Dans le corridor il y a quelqu’un qui me veut à la mort” [In the hall there is someone who has it in for me]. The Surrealists composed such lines, and the friends of these artists went on to reproduce such figures of speech in picture books. Paul Eluard calls one of these efforts “Répétitions”. Max Ernst drew four small boys for its frontispiece. They have their backs turned to the reader, to their teacher, and to their teacher’s desk and are looking out over a balustrade to where a balloon is hovering in mid-air. A huge pencil balances on the balustrade, standing on its point. The repetition of childhood experience gives us pause for thought: when we were little, the disturbing and constricting[8] protest against the world of our parents did not yet exist. Being children in the midst of our parents’ world, we proved to be superior. Together with the banal, in the event that we embrace it, we will also be embracing the good, which, behold, doth lie so near.[9]

For the sentimentality of our parents, repeatedly distilled, is exactly what it takes to provide the most objective image of our feelings. Bitter as gall, the long-windedness of their speech contracts to form a muddled picture puzzle in our minds; the ornament of their conversation became full of the innermost entanglements. Therein lies deep affection, love—kitsch. “Surrealism is called to re-establish dialogue in its essential truth by freeing both dialogue partners from any compulsion to be polite. The speaker will not be developing a thesis. As for the reply, it is, in principle, totally indifferent to the personal pride of the person who has just spoken. The words, the images are only so many springboards for the mind of the listener.” These are fine insights from Breton’s Surrealist manifesto. They make up the formula for dialogic misunderstanding, or in other words, for what is truly alive in dialogue. Because what one calls “misunderstanding” is the rhythm with which the sole true reality forces its way into a conversation. The more a person is able to talk within such a reality, the more one succeeds in misunderstanding him.

In Vague de rêves[10] [Wave of Dreams], Louis Aragon recounts how the mania for dreaming spread throughout Paris. Young people believed they had found one of the secrets of poetry. But in fact they gave up on composing poetry, just as they did on all the most intensive forces of the time. Before going to bed in the early morning, Saint-Pol-Roux[11] fixed a notice to his door: “Le poète travaille” [Poet at work]. – All this was done in order to push forward into the heart of those things that had been done away with: so as to be able to decode the contours of the banal in the guise of a reversible-figure image;[12] so as to startle a hidden “Wilhelm Tell” from the wooded guts; or so as to be able to reply to the questions,[13]“where is the bride?” Psychoanalysis revealed reversible-figure images to belong to the schemata of dreamwork a long time ago. Armed with such knowledge, the Surrealists are hot on the trail of things, rather than on the trail of the soul. They seek out the totemic tree of objects that lies in the thicket of prehistory. On this totemic tree, the topmost, the ultimate hideous face is kitsch. Kitsch is the last mask of the banal with which we attire ourselves in dreams and conversation in order to absorb into ourselves the power of the world of those things that have died out.

What we used to call art solely begins at a distance of two metres from the body. But today, in kitsch, the world of things advances on the human being. The world of things surrenders to people’s groping, and then, eventually, it forms its figures within them. The new human contains within himself the very quintessence of the old forms. And through engagement with a social environment dating back to the second half of the nineteenth century, in dreams as well as in the words and images of certain artists, a creature is formed that deserves to be called “the furnished man”.


  • 1 This subtitle was used as a heading for the article when it was published in the Neue Rundschau in 1927. In his personal archive, Benjamin made a note that he was unhappy with “Gloss on Surrealism”, however, and specifically noted down that “Traumkitsch” (“Dream Kitsch”) would have been the better title.
  • 2 The “blue flower” (blaue Blume) is a central symbol of German Romanticism. It stands for a sense of yearning and for love and for a metaphysical striving for the infinite and unattainable. It also stands for a yearning to see distant or foreign places by living a life of constant peregrination. The German romantic poet Novalis (1772-1801) was the first to use the motif in his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (see the next sentence of this translation). In Novalis’ novel, the Blue Flower also stands for a wish to achieve self-awareness and to attain knowledge of one’s true self. In a Romantic context, searching for one’s true self usually meant someone searching for his or her own subjective truth.
  • 3 Novalis (real name: Friedrich von Hardenberg) failed to finish his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which was published posthumously in 1802. It tells the story of a fabled Middle High German poet and minnesinger who is mentioned in the 13th century epic about the Sängerkrieg (minstrel contest) on the Wartburg in Thuringia. The novel was also a reaction to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s character-development novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796), which the Romantics came to reject for singing the praise of reason and economics. The novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen begins with the eponymous hero sleeping and dreaming of the Blue Flower. Upon being woken up by his mother, he falls into a mood of dejection.
  • 4 Benjamin’s text does not contain any noun like “prospect”, “view”, or “vista” in the original but only speaks of a “blaue Ferne” (blue distance, blue horizon) being “opened up”. However, “blaue Ferne” is a typical trope of the German Romantic period, denoting a “yearning to see distant, foreign places” or a “yearning to transcend the confines of the here and now” (and thereby experience the as-yet-unknown). The German verb “eröffnen” (to open up) is used elliptically in this sentence, lacking a noun like “view” or “vista”, and should be taken to mean “to provide a view on something”. This metaphorical “looking” would obviously have to be done with the mind (imagination). Benjamin’s doctoral thesis (printed in 1920) was on German Romanticism.
  • 5 The phrase “sein bestes Teil” (literally “his best part”, whereby “his” refers to “the dream”, which is masculine in German) may be an allusion to the following well-known quotation from Goethe’s drama Faust, Second Part: “Das Schaudern ist der Menschheit bestes Teil; wie auch die Welt ihm das Gefühl verteure, ergriffen, fühlt er tief das Ungeheure.” This might be translated as “the shudder of awe is humanity’s highest faculty; and even as the world makes a person pay dearly for indulging his feelings, nevertheless—emotionally moved—he feels the immensity of things deep down inside of him”. The use of “highest faculty” (“bestes Teil”) by Benjamin might be sarcastic, meaning that this fairly inferior faculty of dreams (i.e. coating everything in grey dust) is “the best that dreams can do nowadays”. Translating “bestes Teil” as “best part” loses a sense of “agency”: it might be the current and specific practice of dreaming itself that coats everything in dust. In the present essay, Benjamin repeatedly inserts his own opinion into what are otherwise descriptive or interpretive passages, without marking these insertions out as his own opinion in any obvious way. Benjamin might be using a fairly well-known quotation from Goethe’s Faust to try to imply that the one thing where current (grey) dreams come in handy is where they reveal kitsch for what it is: it concerns itself with old and dusty stuff.
  • 6 The German adjective “schicklich”, which usually means “seemly”, “decent”, or “proper”, is probably simply used in the sense of “good” by Benjamin here. The German expression “das ist geschickt”, which comes from the same word stem, can mean “that is a good idea”. The aspect of “seemly” might have been influenced by the next half-sentence, which speaks about children putting their (dirty) fingers right into their (clean) drinking glasses, instead of clasping the glass “in a seemly fashion” on its outside. Howard Eiland’s translation of “schicklichst” as “most delicate” seems to point in the wrong direction. The whole sentence breaks Benjamin’s fairly objective argument about “time-wornness” in order to insert his opinion about the best way (and, conversely, the most inconvenient or most inexpedient way) of looking at things.
  • 7 An accordion fold, also known as concertina fold, zigzag fold, or z-fold, is a continuous parallel folding of printed material in an accordion-like manner. A leporello binding (the term “Leporello” is used by Benjamin in the original) also has its pages folded in concertina fashion but additionally has front and back boards like a normal book.
  • 8 The German adjective „beklemmend” (literally “clamping”), applied to a human being’s mind or consciousness, can mean both “to disturb the mind of someone” and also “to constrict his or her range of activity” (due to anxiety or worrying). I think Benjamin may have had both meanings in mind here. The term would normally be translated as “oppressive”, which obviously does not fit with someone actively engaging in an act of protest. The use of the adjective is quite surprising in the German original, amounting to an oxymoron, because “to engage in protest against someone” could (on the face of it) be taken to mean the opposite of being in a state of being “clamped down”. The two words “beklemmender Protest” contain a whole psychological concept of the effect that protesting against the older generation has on people who engage in their protest from a weak position. Howard Eiland’s solution, “agonised protest”, is good, but I would prefer “agonising protest” in that case in order to keep a sense of development.
  • 9 I presume Benjamin is quoting a German set phrase that has become banalised over the years. The phrase “Warum in die Ferne schweifen? Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah!” (“Why do you want to go to far-away places? Behold, the good lies so near at hand”), usually only used with the first sentence in order to imply the second (anapodoton), is based on the first two lines of Goethe’s poem Erinnerung: “Willst du immer weiter schweifen? Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah!” The whole poem might be translated thus: “Do you want to continue roaming to ever farther places? Behold, the good does lie so near at hand! Learn to embrace happiness, because happiness is always here.” Benjamin’s use seems to be ironic here. Believing that something that is childish or banal will always have a “naively good” quality about it, is about as true as believing that one will have a perfect life if one bases it on all the cheap maxims one hears every day. The way in which two lines of a “serious” Goethe poem have become a cheap and worn-out everyday phrase proves the point. I think that Benjamin is using the last sentence and its “flowery” turn of phrase to pass ironic judgement on the idea that “the banal or childish or kitschy is always somehow good in an innocent sort of way”. The last three sentences of the paragraph are an interpretation of the Max Ernst picture and a paraphrase of the Surrealists’ stance. Benjamin uses the irony contained in the last sentence to make clear that he believes this stance to be naive. In a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem, Benjamin noted that in “Dream Kitsch” (and in other texts written in 1925) he wanted to critique the “Surrealists’ questionable books” (“die fragwürdigen Bücher der Surrealisten”) and to praise Paul Valéry.
  • 10 Aragon’s essay Une vague de rêves was published in 1924. André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto was also written and published in 1924.
  • 11 Saint-Pol-Roux is the pseudonym used by the French Symbolist poet Paul-Pierre Roux (1861-1940).
  • 12 TThe term “Vexierbild” that Benjamin uses in the German original is narrower than the English terms “rebus” or “picture puzzle”. Benjamin is probably referring to an ambiguous or reversible-figure image; the most well-known of these is cartoonist W. E. Hill’s “My Wife and My Mother-In-Law” from 1915 (previous similar images, however, date from 19th century Germany and France). Depending on the mindset of the viewer, the person depicted can be perceived either as a young woman with her head turned sideward or as an old woman with her head bowed (the “wife” and the “mother-in-law”). In 1930, Edwin Boring introduced the figure to psychologists, whereupon it also became known as the “Boring figure”.
  • 13 The German plural, which does not make immediate sense because there is only one question mentioned (it might also be a printing error; cf. the notes in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. II.I, page 1428), would allow for two different readings of the last part of this sentence. The first reading is provided here. Another translation might be, “or so as to be able to reply ‘where is the bride?’ to any question asked”. This reading would fit with the discussion of “misunderstanding in conversation” contained in the preceding paragraph. Benjamin might even have intended this phrase to be equivocal, like a reversible-figure image. The term “bride” (German “Braut”) is often used for the “wife” or “young-woman” image of the “wife and mother-in-law” ambiguous image. To be able to show where the “wife or bride” is (“to answer the question”) could therefore mean to be able to point to the “positive” aspect of a positive/negative double image.

(Notes by Edward Viesel)