The Autobiography of Surrealism
From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema
André Breton thought that the historical success of failure of surrealism could be judged only by its efficacy in provoking a grave and generalized crise de conscience. Undoubtedly it failed in this respect, but the criterion is odd, since the vast crise de conscience known as modernity was well under way by the time of the first surrealist manifesto (1924), and in any case the surrealists could hardly provoke something of which they themselves were so plainly a symptom.
The world they wished to shake had already half crumbled, and it is because they don’t appear to have realized this that many surrealists seem provincial. John Berger memorably says of Magritte that “he hated the familiar and the ordinary too much to turn his back on them.” The surrealists could not turn their backs on the bourgeoisie. They were masters of insult and invective, always arraigning public men and addressing open letters to figures of authority. They wanted the prisons opened and the army disbanded. “All that is doddering, suspicious, infamous, sullying, and grotesque,” Breton wrote, “is contained for me in that single word: God.” Paul Eluard called Cocteau a swine and a stinking beast, and remarked. “Being careful never prevented anyone from being vile.”
Walter Benjamin, in an early article, pointed to the elements of bluff and provocation in all this, but he also thought the surrealists were the first people since Bakunin to have a radical conception of freedom. They perceived the world as caught up in an ecstatic conspiracy of respectability, and according to Benjamin they saw through the “unholy coupling” of idealistic moralizing and fierce political practice. There was nothing philosophical about their skepticism; it flared up with the sense of betrayal which was so large a legacy of the Great War. Like many others, of quite different ages and temperaments, the surrealists felt they had been fed on deception, that the very notion of truth was a casualty of the war. Ezra Pound spoke of “old men’s lies” and “disillusions as never told in the old days.” “Surely it must be realized,” Louis Aragon wrote, “that the face of error and the face of truth cannot fail to have identical features.”
There is an element of naïveté in this outrage, of course, particularly in France, where artists had been railing against the supposed ideals of the bourgeoisie for nearly a century. But a certain naïveté is inseparable from the surrealists’ energy. “Nothing is revolutionary except candor,” Robert Desnos wrote. When they were no longer shocked by the hypocrisy and fatuousness of their comfortable contemporaries, they were no longer surrealists.
Marcel Jean’s Autobiography of Surrealism lays out the brilliant literary and painterly pedigree the movement claimed for itself: Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Jarry, Apollinaire, Reverdy, Chirico are all rounded up and nicely quoted, along with Breton’s friend Jacques Vaché, a soldier-dandy and nihilist who said he objected to being killed in time of war and died from an overdose of opium in 1919. Jean traces surrealism mainly…
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