The surrealists first emerged with the upsurge of the avant-garde in Paris, after the First World War. They felt that the everyday walking journey of the urban dweller could potentially be dictated by the unconscious mind and not just by mundane routine. During this period, two members of the group, André Breton and Louis Aragon, strove to use walking to develop new artistic ideas and write surrealist literature. They explored Paris on foot, using their experiences to produce two of the first novels that helped pre-empt the notion of psychogeography. In the first of the two novels, Paris Peasant (1926) Louis Aragon shows us the secret life of the city by taking us on a tour around two separate areas in Paris, the Passage de l’Opéra and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Aragon’s book was radical in the way he used the city of Paris as a framework where he portrayed his journey by interlacing text with the city’s ephemera: café menus, inscriptions on monuments and newspaper clippings.
In the second of the two novels, Breton’s Nadja (1928), we see the first use of photography and text to depict a surrealist journey. Nadja is partly autobiographical and partly fictional and reads as a diaristic account of Breton’s coincidental meeting with a woman on the Rue Lafayette.The photographs in Nadja add a unique visual support that assists in making the story more believable. The images of locations were taken in a deliberately banal fashion that creates a sense of the everyday. They make the events that happened in the photographs seem extraordinary, emphasising the point that spectacular occurrences can happen within the most mundane locations. Although the images appear flat and unconsidered, it required skill to depict a place with so little character and style.
Ultimately, Paris Peasant and Nadja offer us accounts of surrealist journeys in Paris that were driven by the desire to wander in an environment rife with serendipitous chance. In both novels, we have the prototype for the situationists walking experimentation that would eventually pave the way for the psychogeographers of today.