André Breton, 1896-1966:
French poet and critic, a leader of the surrealist movement.
He was born in Tinchebray, Orne Department, studied medicine,
and worked in psychiatric wards in World War I. Later, as a writer
in Paris, he was a pioneer in the antirationalist movements in
art and literature known as Dadaism and surrealism, which developed
out of the general disillusionment with tradition that marked
the post-World War I era. Breton's study of the works of Sigmund
Freud and his experiments with automatic writing influenced his
initial formulation of surrealist theory. He expressed his views
in Literature, the leading surrealist periodical, which
he helped found and edited for many years, and in three surrealist
manifestos (1924, 1930, 1942). His best creative work is considered
the novel Nadja (1928), based partly on his own experiences.
His poetry, in Selected Poems (1948; trans. 1969), reflects
the influence of the poets Paul Valery and Arthur Rimbaud.
In 1936, as Breton rightly observed in "Nonnational Boundaries of Surrealism," the International Surrealist Exhibition in London marked the highest point of surrealism's influence. Indeed, it would never regain such ascendancy, eclipsed as it was after the war by new intellectual movements and coming under the attacks of such new luminaries as Sartre and Camus. Moreover, ever since he had denounced the Moscow trials of 1936, Breton had made an enemy of the Communist party, a parry pledged to Stalinism and whose sway over the French intellectual scene was to increase for many years after the war. Overshadowed by new intellectual and artistic fashions and discredited by a powerful political organization that gave pride of place to former surrealists such as Aragon and Eluard who had faithfully espoused the cause of Stalinism, surrealism was unable effectively to reenter the struggle for intellectual dominance.
Breton never ceased to emphasize the need for a concurrent revolution of the mind: this was the goal and central focus of the surrealist adventure. His refusal to comply with the subservience expected by the self-proclaimed official revolutionary party was to bring him into direct conflict with that party's minions-at times some of his former closest friends. By chance, his trip to Mexico in 1938 gave him the opportunity to broach this issue with Trotsky and to find in the theoretician of the "permanent Revolution" a supporter of his views. Their discussions resulted in the formation of an International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art, for which they jointly wrote the manifesto. It proclaims the need to establish, as far as artistic creation is concerned, an anarchist regime of individual freedom, against all attempts at harnessing creativity by totalitarian regimes. Indeed, throughout this volume, Breton attacks and derides the socialist realism enforced by Stalinism as the very negation of freedom: that it should have been extolled by someone like Aragon was evidence enough of "true decadence" resulting from a blind allegiance to the articles of faith of a repressive ideology.
Why should surrealism have expended so much energy in trying to situate itself in relationship to communism when it seems that anarchism was its natural ally? That is precisely the question Breton was still asking himself "twenty-five years later," as he confessed in "The Tower of Light," published in Le Libertaire in 1952. No doubt, he answers, because of the lure of "effectiveness." It is apparent, however, in this volume that Breton detached himself even further from the theoretical basis of dialectical materialism and turned increasingly toward utopian thinkers. The idea that the Revolution should aim not only at "transforming the world" but also at "remaking the human mind" became all the more crucial as the major events of that period -World War II and the ensuing cold war -evidenced the suicidal course followed by modern civilization. To pit one cause against another with the illusion that the impending conflict can ensure the triumph of Good over Evil remains entirely nearsighted. Such nearsightedness leads to the repetition of new conflicts in a different guise. This was the error against which Breton warned young people in his address to the French students at Yale in 1942 entitled "Situation of Surrealism between the two Wars." Breton observed that nothing had been learned from World War I. He did not know then that the hopes he was expressing for a different tomorrow after World War II would be shattered and that he would have to reiterate the same observations and issue an even more urgent warning when the cold war added a radically new element: the potential annihilation of the entire human species. This new element, as he pointed out in his major essay "The Lamp in the Clock" (1948), compelled a complete rethinking of the human situation: at stake now was the very survival of humanity.
More insistently than ever, Breton undertook to discredit a rationalist approach based on dualistic thinking. Imprisoned within the framework of the "old antinomies," humanity can only find salvation by transcending them and relying on the life-affirming forces within the human unconscious, hence the central preoccupation with the emergence of a new myth, which surrealism and artistic activity in general must help bring into existence. The primary function of the writer and of the artist is to register the subterranean movements within the id, common to all individuals, to bring to the surface the latent content of the period, to give shape and expression to human desire. Much of Breton's search for great isolated messages "focuses on individuals who stand resolutely apart, detached from any form of social recognition (among whom Germain Nouveau, Rimbaud, and Lautreamont stand supreme) and in whose works can be found novel propositions and harbingers of a new myth destined to reunite humanity.
Nowhere is this concern for the therapeutic value of artistic and literary explorations more evident than in the major theoretical statement "Ascendant Sign" (1947), in which Breton asserts that the analogical method is governed by a vector directed toward well-being, thereby making it clear that the aesthetics of surrealism are indissociable from its ethics. This primacy of the ethical sense is central to Breton's attitude in political and artistic matters and drives most of the enthusiasms as well as the vituperations that are omnipresent in his work.. Breton ... emphasizes the proper attitude of receptiveness toward great artistic works: love comes first, understanding and interpretation later. For all its merits, exegesis amounts to naught if it is not inspired by a communion with the work, provided of course that the work in question is one that has the intrinsic power to meet the as yet unrevealed deeper aspirations of those who encounter it.
A recurrent theme in Breton's work ... is that of revelation: whether they be contemporary or the products of an age-old tradition artistic works worthy of our reverence are those that at the onset claim our passionate adherence, giving the sense that they contain a secret vital to human destiny.
Of greatest value are those works that enable us to experience the "marvelous," a concept Breton opposes to that of mystery in an essay on symbolist poetry. While the marvelous is the result of dazzling coincidences in life, in art it can only emerge from those combinations of words or visual images which are spontaneously created by the human mind through the automatic process. In them is realized the conjunction of perception and representation, the synthesis of inner and outer realities, whereby we find ourselves simultaneously at one with ourselves and with the world, thus recovering the sense of the sacred. All art forms, including music and the cinema, have the potential to open up such paths of illumination.
Breton's prose is often
discursive and convoluted, sometimes obscure, always replete
with literary and philosophical allusions. Because it introduces
numerous novel ideas and ascribes special meanings to words that
can only be properly understood by referring to his other writings,
it requires constant interpretation.
*from Mary-Ann Caws' Introduction
to André Breton's volume of essays entitled: Free Rein
Contrary to prevalent misdefinitions, surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine, not a philosophical system nor a mere literary or artistic tool. It is an unrelenting revolt against a civilization that reduces all human aspirations to market values, religious impostures, universal boredom and misery.
Specialists in revolt: the surrealists thus described themselves in an early tract. Born of the appalling conflict between the inexhaustible powers of the mind and the impoverished conditions of everyday life, surrealism aims at nothing less than complete human emancipation, the reconstruction of society.
More specifically, surrealism aims to reduce, and ultimately to resolve, the contradiction between sleeping and waking, dream and action, reason and madness, the conscious and the unconscious, the individual and society, the subjective and the objective. It aims to free the imagination from the mechanism of psychic and social repression, so that the inspiration and inspiration and exaltation heretofore regarded as the exclusive domain of poets and artists will be acknowledged as the common property of all.
Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautremont, whose influence on surrealism has been profound, fore-defined the surrealist ambition with an incomparable maxim: 'Poetry must be made by all. Not by one.'
Inaugurated by a series of experiments with language, surrealism achieved its first victories precisely in the realm of poetry. It was soon propelled, however - by its own dynamism no less than by the force of events - far beyond traditional aesthetic categories. It refuses to accept rigid definition, boundaries assigned by conventional rationality, or academic compartmentaliza- tion. In its half century and more as an organized movement, surrealism never has ceased to expand its researches into every form of human expression. Even its enemies admit that the whole range of problems associated with psychic automatism, love) objective chance) inspiration, language, dreams and madness has been illuminated and clarified by surrealist exploration.
More particularly, on the scientific plane, surrealism has been greatly influenced by the discoveries of Freud and his co-workers; for many years, indeed, it was amusingly misdefined in a popular US dictionary as a 'literary movement closely allied with Freudianism. But recognition of the validity and significance of Freud's work by no means makes of surrealism an 'offshoot' of psychoanalysis. Whereas psychoanalysis leaves untouched, or even widens, the chasm between dream and action, surrealism dismantles the barriers between these contradictory states and strives toward their dialectical resolution.
Although its poetry
and painting alone are enough to situate surrealism among the
most vital revolutionary artistic currents of this century, it
would be an error to presume that surrealism is concerned primarily
with art or literature. Indeed, when a Stalinist litterateur
tried to lure the surrealists with the promise of an 'artistic
renaissance', Breton responded decisively. 'What does this artistic
renaissance matter to us?' he demanded. 'Long live the social
revolution, and it alone!' Surrealism can be deemed as far beyond
the categories of art and literature as the historical materialism
of Marx and Engels can be deemed beyond sociology and philosophy
- and for much the same reasons.
Historically, the advent of surrealism constituted a qualitatively new basis for exploration along and beyond the lines formerly delimited by art and literature. This epochal achievement, comprehensible only within the framework of world revolutionary development, is roughly analogous, on the poetic plane, to the theory of permanent revolution, Freudian psychoanalysis, general relativity theory, quantum mechanics and other revolutionary developments of twentieth century thought. The old antinomies survive only because the old autonomies are relentlessly persecuted, dispersed, driven to the wall and slaughtered. In this massacre, all traditional conceptions of art, philosophy morality, science, disinterested scholarship, are subject to far-reaching convulsions. Unable to remain above the fray, their innermost spirit completely transformed, these anachronistic forms are hurled in spite of themselves into the terrifying drama of the reproduction of everyday life. To fail to recognize the new stage of development is to re-enact tragedy as farce. Ours is a fiercely partisan age: those who pretend not to take sides merely play the existing order's game according to the existing order's rules. Surrealism is irrevocably on the side of the integral human personality against all the retrograde forces of atomisation and alienation kneeling at the cross of commodity fetishism.
Art and antiart are imaginary solutions; surrealism lies elsewhere. We who have taken up the surrealist cause do not delude ourselves that surrealism has yet advanced much beyond a certain preliminary stage. Its incontestable merit is that from the very beginning, with everyone else preferring to look the other way, surrealism has focused its attention on the extreme precariousness of the human condition and moreover has devoted itself without restraint, and with all the clarity of despair, to confronting this precariousness head-on: that is, to the revolutionary task of changing life. I hope no one seriously expects surrealism to have any positive meaning except to those who are aware that the existing order cries out to be negated and transformed. That there is no solution to the decisive problems of human existence is,for surrealism, a first principle that is beyond argument. Nothing would be more difficult than reconciling surrealism to bourgeois culture. Immobilized beneath a seemingly inflexible net of counterfeit hopes and fears - hopeless and fearless at the same time before a destiny that could hardly be more ruinous to the free development of the human personality - men and women go on fabricating illusory foresights and pitiful afterthoughts as if nothing more important were at stake than the price of cigarettes. But in this grim charade, fortunately, nothing is foolproof. A split second is sufficient to say no, to let the lions escape, to open the wounds of reality, to stop the assembly line, to set out for the unknown. Accidents do happen. With surrealism the phoenix of anticipation emerges unfailingly from the ashes of everyday distraction, rising defiantly on wings of vitriol and amber, putting to shame the musty compromises that provide the glue with which the existing agony adheres to any passing thoughts. Dispelling the mirage of futility, traversing the mirror of fatality, surrealism is resolved to stop at nothing..
It cannot be emphasized too strongly: Surrealism, a unitary project of total revolution, is above all a method of knowledge and a way of life; it is lived far more than it is written, or written about, or drawn. Surrealism is the most exhilarating adventure of the mind, an unparalleled means of pursuing the fervent quest for freedom and true life beyond the veil of ideological appearances. Only the social revolution - the leap, in the celebrated expression of Marx and Engels, 'from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom' - will enable the true life of poetry and mad love to cast aside, definitively, the fetters of degradation and dishonour and to flourish with unrestrained splendour. Vainly will one search in surrealism for a motive inconsistent with this fundamental aspiration.
'Human emancipation', wrote André Breton in Nadja, 'remains the only cause worth serving'. For the surrealists, surrealism remains precisely the best means of serving that cause.
From its inception as an organised movement) in 1924, surrealism has endured the misrepresentation that is the lot of every revolutionary tendency. Professors of comparative literature have been eager to seal it up in scholastic formaldehyde; to 'classify' it, once and for all, between symbolism and existentialism, as a 'mode' in modern French literature. Historians and critics of art undertake a similar interment in their own sphere. Writers for the Sunday supplements continue to depict surrealism as gimmickry, as a sensational hoax, as a frivolous intellectual diversion.
Surrealism is not a peculiarly 'French' movement; it is not essentially a 'style' of painting or poetry; it is not substantially the same as the Dada movement that preceded it; it is neither a historically delimited movement and has already run its course; its function was not merely to introduce 'fantasy' into art and literature; it is not a form of 'escape' into dreams; it has nothing to do with the publicitary antics of that venal and reactionary charlatan Salvador Dali. And so on. Disseminated by television, newspapers and textbooks, these misconceptions may be regarded as the 'vulgar' reinforcement of the anti-realist confusion which would seem to constitute, today, a component of all repressive ideology. When most critics pretend to see in surrealism only a peripheral, relatively unimportant, certainly 'refuted' and 'obsolete' current of ideas - this must be regarded as a mechanism of defense and a symptom of a morbid intellectual process calculated to maintain a delusion. The subversive essence of these ideas requires that the hucksters of bourgeois Ideology distort, slander, obfuscate and otherwise attempt to do away with them as efficiently as possible. When the American poet Ted Joans wrote, in a letter to Breton, that surrealism was the weapon he had chosen to defend himself against the 'abject vicissitudes' of a racist society, he expressed with admirable candour an elementary truth that has none the less escaped a long succession of dabblers, dilettantes, professional critics and highly esteemed scholars.
It should yet be understood that surrealism is a far-ranging and constantly renewable current of thought and action which cannot be assigned rigid historical limits, much less confined to the destiny of a single individual.
Octavio Paz has written,
'It is impossible to speak of André Breton in a language
that is not that of passion.' This testifies to the great force
of Breton's ideas and to their undiminished capacity for provoking
heated controversy. As for dolts who persist in designating Breton
the 'pope' of surrealism, who gabble about his alleged 'dictatorial'
personality, and who are obsessed with what they call excommunications'
from surrealism, let us leave these fools to their folly. Just
as he was viewed as the very incarnation of Lucifer by those
infected with conformism, André Breton had an inestimable
moral authority in the eyes of everyone guided primarily by revolt.
Earned by the zeal and integrity with which throughout his life
he defended the triple cause of poetry, love and freedom, this
moral authority was freely acknowledged by the immense number.
Associating such an exemplary quality of the spirit with the
petty etiquette of dictators is so false, so hypocritical, that
only self-seeking apostates, and their accomplices the professional
literary critics, could be guilty of attempting it.
from Franklin Rosemont's Introduction to