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Liberation Then

Manifestoes of Surrealism

by André Breton, translated by Richard Seaver, translated by Helen R. Lane
University of Michigan, 304 pp., $8.50

Selected Poems

by André Breton, translated by Kenneth White
Grossman, 110 pp., $1.50 (paper)

A Bibliography of the Surrealistic Revolution in France

by Herbert S. Gershman
University of Michigan, 57 pp., $4.50

The Surrealist Revolution in France

by Herbert S. Gershman
University of Michigan, 255 pp., $8.50

The Philosophy of Surrealism

by Ferdinand Alquié, translated by Bernard Waldrop
University of Michigan, 196 pp., $5.95

An Anthology of French Surrealist Poetry

by J.H. Matthews
University of Minnesota Press, 203 pp., $4.75

The word “surrealism” is by now comfortably integrated into most people’s vocabularies. It seems to provide a useful term for a quality of fascination inherent in the systematized irrationality that has, for example, always been a component of visual comedy, and is now a part of a general awareness of life. But is such generalized usage to be condemned as the extension of a term which is the exclusive trade-mark of an officially constituted aesthetic movement? That has always been the attitude of the movement’s exegetes, and the complaint by J. H. Matthews in the Introduction to his Anthology of French Surrealist Poetry is not untypical. In a passage that presents the surrealists, in emotion-laden terms, as the victims of “misapprehension, incomprehension and misrepresentation,” he states:

Many of the techniques the surrealists have proposed and practised lend themselves to imitation, and tend in this way to become stripped of meaning. Proof that this is the case is offered in the word “surrealism” itself which has become a commonplace, so mishandled and distorted by usage as to have lost much of its significance for the general public.

If it is true that the word “surrealism” has been blunted by willful misuse, how sharp was its original point? For one thing, it was not André Breton, the originator of the movement, who invented the term; Apollinaire coined the phrase “drame surréaliste” in 1917 as a subtitle for his comedy Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Apollinaire’s explanation of his new word was characteristically woolly:

I decided that it was time to return to nature, but without imitating it in a photographic manner. When man wanted to imitate walking action he created the wheel, which bears no resemblance to a leg. He thus did something surrealist without knowing it.

The play—a curious romp with a vaguely anti-Malthusian plot—proved unmemorable; the word “surrealist” had to wait six years for Breton to resuscitate it, and then for more serious purposes than its creator had envisaged.

During that same year, 1917, Apollinaire introduced Breton to another potent word, “Dada.” It was at Apollinaire’s apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Germain that Breton saw copies of the first two issues of the review Dada, sent from Zurich by its editor, a young Roumanian named Tristan Tzara. Apollinaire, a patriotic foreign volunteer in France’s cause during the war in progress (his active military career was forcibly terminated by a shrapnel wound, while fighting on the western front), was far from sympathetic toward the spirit of these furious effusions, and had already, in 1916, declined Tzara’s invitation to contribute to Dada, on the grounds that as a serving officer he could not permit his name to appear in a magazine that numbered Germans among its collaborators (a reference to Hans Arp, no doubt).

Breton, a young medical student completing his war service as an intern at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, had no such scruples. By the following year, 1918, he was in touch with this international assortment of young writers and artists whose revolutionary or pacifist convictions had led them to flee their respective countries and take refuge in neutral Switzerland:

It was in April 1916 that Tzara and his friends, while sitting in a Zurich café, consecrated their mocking non-allegiance by picking the word “dada” out of a dictionary. But it was not until the beginning of 1919 that their angrily nihilistic message made an impact in Paris. Tzara’s “Manifeste Dada 1918,” published in the third issue of the group’s review, was, as Breton later described it, “violently explosive”; the manifesto proclaimed art and literature’s liberation from logic, expatiated on “dadaist spontaneity” and “dadaist disgust,” and warned of the “great spectacle of disaster, conflagration and decomposition” that they were preparing. Such inflammatory talk had an immediate effect on Breton, Aragon, and Philippe Soupault, whose own recently launched avant-garde review Littérature had hitherto confined itself within limits of aesthetic experimentation that earned it the active approval of Valéry and Gide.

Tzara’s arrival in Paris at the end of 1919 was the chief challenge to Breton’s leadership of the embryo avantgarde which was beginning to develop there in the wake of the war. Tzara was invited to join Littérature‘s editorial board, and under his impetus the review soon swung into a direction of uncompromising dadaist provocation. But this show of solidarity preceded an inevitable clash. Tzara’s irrepressible anarchist temperament proved basically incompatible with Breton’s humorless dogmatism. And there were more important, less personal considerations to divide the two. The Dada point of view that Tzara had brought with him from Zurich was essentially attuned to the political awareness that in the case of the German dadaists (Huelsenbeck, Haussmann, Baader, etc.) made it natural for them to plunge actively and noisily into the revolutionary situation then developing in Berlin. Dada’s Paris recruits, on the other hand, were more interested in promoting a spiritual liberation: the automatic writing and trance-induced “sleeps” with which they were all busily experimenting derived directly from Breton’s discovery, while studying psychiatry, of Freud’s investigations into the workings of the unconscious mind and the significance of dreams.

After initiating a correspondence with Freud in 1919, Breton had paid the psychoanalyst a visit of homage in 1921, returning from Vienna more than ever convinced that automatism was to be the key with which the forces of the human imagination were to be unlocked. Eager that his group should begin to assert a responsible voice in social and intellectual matters, and anxious to eliminate the destructive Dada spirit of “scandal for the sake of scandal,” Breton decided to force the issue.

An article, “Lâchez tout” (“Let go of everything”), published at the beginning of 1922, took the first step toward a break by including Dada among the things to be dumped (wives and mistresses were also, rather rashly, included in this proposed holocaust, as Breton was to be reminded to his discomfiture in later years). The following year, having paid a sentimental debt to the memory of Apollinaire by adopting the word “surrealist” as a label for the group centered around his review Littérature, Breton felt strong enough to make a frontal assault on the last dadaist hold-outs from his leadership, particularly on their chief publicist Tzara. In December 1924, the publication by Breton’s group of the first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste marked both the end of Dada and the beginning of Surrealism as an organized movement.

It was a long way from the dadaists’ self-mocking slogans of “Dada is the biggest swindle of the century” and “Dada is always wrong” to the sonorous “We must work towards a new declaration of the rights of man” adopted by the surrealists as the motto for their new review. Breton had already staked out the movement’s proposed territory two months previously in his Surrealist Manifesto, a fascinating document which is now available in English.

Manifestoes of Surrealism, in a translation by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (who deserve high praise for their valiant efforts to transform Breton’s mandarin prose into literate and accurate English), contains, along with this first and most important of Breton’s manifestoes, an assortment of later polemical pieces up to 1953. A comparison of these texts throws a good deal of light on the way Breton gradually built his concept of Surrealism from its diverse origins.

Through a triumph of Oedipean reticence, the still-warm corpse of Dada is not mentioned once in the First Manifesto, nevertheless this is still essentially a neo-dadaist document. Breton consolidates his recent routing of Tzara and his allies by incorporating their “spirit of contradiction” within “serious” theory. In so far as this theoretical argument is sustained at all, it is based rather tenuously on the basic premises of psychoanalysis: Freud’s teaching concerning the functions of the dream process is, however, transformed into a grandiose principle of universal application. In particular, the central idea expressed in the Manifesto that the adoption of an hallucinatory psychic automatism would reveal “the actual functioning of thought” must be considered as wholly alien to Freud’s own concept of his theories.

Apart from this insistence on “the omnipotence of dream” and the necessity for man to incorporate the dream process into his waking state, the Manifesto remains almost entirely uninformative, in the best Dada tradition. Painting is mentioned just once, in a laconic footnote. As for literature, “if one is to judge them only superficially by their results, a good number of poets could pass for surrealists, beginning with Dante and, in his finer moments, Shakespeare” (the translators miss, here, the slightly contemptuous tone of Breton’s “dans ses meilleurs jours“; “better” rather than “finer” is indicated).

The striking feature of the First Manifesto is the total absence of politics. None of the later heroes of Surrealism—Hegel, Marx, Trotsky—has as yet appeared (Hegel had been unceremoniously dismissed in “Lâchez tout“: “I prefer the animated existence of the humblest little whore to the sight of Hegel sleeping on his laurels”). Things have changed, though, by the end of 1928, and the Second Manifesto marks Surrealism’s entry into French left-wing politics. The Dada spirit has entirely evaporated, to be replaced by a tone of querulous intolerance as Breton slashes away in several different directions to mark his newly acquired revolutionary consciousness: he settles scores with such old comrades as Soupault, Artaud, and Vitrac who had dropped out or been kicked out of the movement, and he even reprimands figures as near-sacrosanct as Duchamp and Picabia for remaining aloof from active involvement. But, above all, Breton attempts the impossible task of reconciling the surrealists’ declared adhesion to the Communist Party’s political program with their insistence on retaining freedom to pursue their own spiritual path toward a parallel “surrealist revolution.”

The dilemma seems tragi-comic in retrospect. Breton reproaches the communists for doubting the purity of the surrealists’ revolutionary devotion, while almost in the same breath he invokes Rimbaud’s “alchemy of the word” as a call to arms for “the profound, the veritable occultation of surrealism.” Astrology and clairvoyance are to be studied “with a minimum of mistrust” (Breton boasts that he himself was born under a particularly favorable astrological conjunction), and surrealist “parlor games” will provide evidence of the reality of psychic phenomena. No wonder the communists looked askance at these strange recruits!

The later texts included in Manifestoes of Surrealism carry Breton gradually further away from direct political involvement and closer to a platform based loosely on Hegelian philosophy, Freudian psychology, and a curiously unselective mysticism. The 1935 pamphlet “On the Time when the Surrealists were Right” fires a final broadside at the Communist Party for “Stalinist conformism,” while “Surrealist Situation of the Object,” published that same year, introduces into the surrealist enterprise two main planks that are as esoteric as could be desired: “objective humor” (the “dialectical resolution” of “the two forces which by turn tended to dominate art in the Romantic era…; the force that made the accidents of the outer world a matter of interest on the one hand, and on the other hand the force that made the caprices of personality a matter of interest”), and “objective chance” (“that sort of chance that shows man, in a way that is still very mysterious, a necessity that escapes him, even though he experiences it as a vital necessity”).

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