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Liberation Then

At the end of the 1942 “Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not,” Breton marks his intrusion into science fiction with a suggestion that beings he calls “the great transparent ones” perhaps exist “above” man, on the animal scale, beings “whose behaviour is as strange to him as his may be to the mayfly or the whale.” And by 1953 and “On Surrealism in its Living Works,” Breton appears to have jettisoned his Marxist convictions in favor of a return to the harmlessly dotty utopianism of the early-nineteenth century sociologist Charles Fourier.

Can the confusing multiple image presented by the Manifestoes of Surrealism be brought into anything like a clear focus? A sympathetic commentator, Jules Monnerot, referring (in his 1945 La Poésie moderne et le sacré) to what he describes amiably as Breton’s “ecumenical generosity,” has shrewdly compared the syncretism of Surrealism with that of second-century Alexandrian gnosticism (the pseudo-Christian philosophical theology of Basilides and Valentinus):

The Alexandrine era and our own are both times of syncretic exploration, gnosticism and surrealism being typical products of this type of era. Just as the [different sects of gnostics] mingled Babylonian, Phrygian, Phoenician and Greek myths with allegorically interpreted Biblical stories and with neo-Platonic philosophical speculation, so the surrealists claim kinship simultaneously with Gérard de Nerval and Marx, the Marquis de Sade and courtly love, Feuerbach and Huysmans, Robespierre and clairvoyance, dream and psychoanalysis, Hegel and wall-slogan agitators, romantic agony and the Illuminati, Lenin and the Gothic novel. If quantum theory, Husserl’s phenomenology, Heideggerian “ontology” and Jaspers’ “existential” philosophy have eluded them it is only because when these ideas became fashionable the imaginations of surrealism’s founders were no longer as thirsty as they had been at the beginning.

Herbert S. Gershman, the author of The Surrealist Revolution in France, is by no means unaware of the perplexing problem of identity which faces anyone attempting a serious analysis of surrealism (at one point he permits himself the exasperated parenthesis that “the supply of well-preserved medieval ideas in surrealism is close to inexhaustible”). But he skirts around it by underplaying the intellectual contradiction inherent in Breton’s intuitive-emotional approach and placing his main emphasis on the thread that runs through all those multiple enthusiasms—the search for revelation by whatever means it might be procured.

Most of Gershman’s first chapter, “Toward a Definition of the Surrealist Aesthetic,” is an impassioned exploration of this very special kind of materialistic mysticism through which the surrealists sought to discover eternity in matter itself. Indeed, his tussle with the surrealist mystique of a materialization of the infinite through revelation leads him to a definition—“Surrealism was born of a desire to wrest from the unknown knowledge born of revelation, le merveilleux“—that itself glows in an aura of ambiguity.

The chief frustration facing anyone who hopes to acquire an understanding of surrealism’s aims by consulting the views of the movement’s best-intentioned interpreters is just this ambiguity of expression, the use of ill-defined abstractions applied (in the manner of Breton himself) intuitively rather than logically. The word “revelation” is one that has been tossed around with particular insouciance. Consider the following contradictory interpretations offered by Gershman and Matthews, both equally well-disposed toward Surrealism:

The surrealist aesthetic can be reduced to one theme: the attempt to actualize le merveilleux, the wonderland of revelation and dream,…not le mystère, the willful introduction of obscurity into art and life,…but the lucidity that is a product of conviction and which will bind men together in a faith against which reason must falter and ultimately succumb. [Gershman: The Surrealist Revolution in France, I.]

Surrealists measure their distance from the conventional critic when they condemn lucidity as “the great enemy of revelation.” They accept that the bridges of communication between the poet and his fellow-men may be cut during the poetic adventure. Thus they see it is the surrealist poet’s privilege to have to “exculpate himself before no judge.” All rights are his alone. He is free from blame when the public does not understand him. [Matthews: Surrealist Poetry in France, Conclusion]

Although one might perhaps reproach the authors of the above passages for indulging in grandiose generalizations which tend to evaporate under close analysis, at least their incompatible conclusions are couched in fairly comprehensible language. As much cannot be said for the discussion of the same problem by Ferdinand Alquié, a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne as well as occasional contributor, since 1933, to surrealist publications and symposia. In The Philosophy of Surrealism (written in 1955 and first published in English translation ten years later), Alquié succumbs to the traditional hazard of his profession, bringing a regrettable obscurity of style and thought to his exposition of basic concepts such as “revelation”:

Surrealism is semirevelation, or if you prefer, revelation of a night into which one may not altogether enter, in the midst of a day whose brightness cannot satisfy us either and which, besides, would lose its sense of day if it ceased to light up objects whose being is not light but opacity.

One of the noblest tasks of the translator is his ability to transform gobbledygook of this kind into clear English, or at least through judicious editing to ameliorate the more glaring deficiencies. In this instance, Bernard Waldrop’s translation is so execrable that it serves only to render yet more impenetrable the darkness of Alquié’s thought. Indeed, the translator clearly has only a limited knowledge of French. At one point, he even succeeds in making Alquié say the exact opposite of what he has in fact written, thus effectively sabotaging two key paragraphs about Breton’s attitude to literature: “Breton n’en renie pas moins la plus grande partie de la tradition littéraire” (“Even so, Breton repudiates the greater part of literary tradition”) becomes “Neither does Breton renounce the larger part of the literary tradition”!

The separately bound Bibliography of The Surrealist Revolution in France, being unselective (and laudably comprehensive), rightly and obviously includes Alquié, but Gershman goes beyond the call of duty in recommending The Philosophy of Surrealism as one of “the two most rewarding studies of surrealist ‘philosophy.’ ”

Aside from the question of intellectual competence, muddled critical writing about Surrealism originates largely in the mistaken view that Breton’s Manifestoes and other ex cathedra pronouncements can be used as infallible guides to the meaning and purpose of Surrealism’s products, its poetry, its imaginative prose, its art. They should, on the contrary, be treated warily. A perceptive comment on Breton’s method of developing his ideas has been made by Marcel Jean in his authoritative if over-Freudian History of Surrealist Painting (a mild reproach, here, to Gershman for failing to mention in his Bibliography that this essential work has been available in English translation since 1962). Discussing Breton’s 1926 essay “Le Surréalisme et la peinture,” Jean remarks that Breton’s “most persuasive ‘reasonings’ draw their power of conviction from their sheer incantatory quality, from a rhetoric closely resembling the long sentences of [Lautréamont’s] Chants de Maldoror, and from a syntax which seems designed, curiously enough, to cast a spell over the mind’s logical tendencies and to glorify, though surreptitiously, the disorientation of thought-processes.”

It is doubtful, for example, whether even the most subservient of the surrealist poets or painters paid much heed to Breton’s decree, in the Second Manifesto, that “the activities of the surrealists” shall be motivated solely by “the hope of finding and fixing” a mythical “point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived contradictorily.” Yet this near-meaningless program is constantly being quoted seriously as a valuable pointer to the intentions of surrealist poetry or art (Matthews is no exception: he does just that in the Introduction to his Surrealist Poetry in France).

The exegetes would save themselves a great deal of tortured rationalization if they accepted the fact that the best of the surrealist poets and painters were entirely selective in their attitude to surrealist theory. In general, they retained from the theoretical apparatus, and adapted to their individual requirements, the basic mechanisms proposed by Breton as the means of liberating the psyche from its enslavement to “reason”: hallucinatory and irrational thought associations and recollected dream images. But however effective the formulas for “jogging” inspiration, especially—in surrealist poetry and painting alike—the juxtaposition of disparate images, they can only feed an immanent inspiration. Only by exercising his intuitive intelligence and innate sensibility can the poet or painter select images whose confrontation will spark the magical transformation into surreality. Second-rate surrealist painting is easily recognizable by the banal or theatrical relationship between its constituent elements. The comparable vice among surrealist poets is a rudimentary automatism, involving the stringing together of endless non-rational associations.

Breton himself, as a poet, made only half-hearted attempts to practice this kind of writing. His 1923 Clair de Terre comprises exuberant and perfectly conscious exploitations of dadaist inconsequentiality. On the other hand, his only extended exercise in pure automatism is unconvincing: the sixty-page text, “Soluble Fish,” which he appended, as a sampler of the riches of automatic writing, to his First Manifesto, is heavy-handed and self-conscious. Although he continued with varying degrees of obstinacy to recommend automatism (“this magical surrealist art”) as a sort of universal panacea, Breton preferred to modify his own prosodic habits thereafter. As may be seen from his Selected Poems (a bilingual edition with the French text facing accurate if unexciting translations by Kenneth White), Breton relies mainly, in his post-1930 poetry, on the development of sequences of slenderly related sense-impressions and surprising analogies. At its least successful, this method produces deserts of ponderous syntax. At his most inspired, however, Breton succeeds through the sheer vigor and visual splendor of the images he conjures up: his finest, and most celebrated, poem, “L’Union libre,” is a veritable catalog of erotic compliments paid to his wife.

Unfortunately, this catalog method has been imitated endlessly by his epigones, and must be considered the most abused of all surrealist instant recipes. It is difficult to take seriously the statement Matthews makes in Surrealist Poetry in France that surrealist poetry “imitates nothing and is, by its very nature, inventive,” when even a cursory glance through his 1967 Anthology of French Surrealist Poetry (for which his new work provides a critical commentary) reveals much that is both imitative and uninventive, and patently derivative of the “L’Union libre” formula. The catalog-type poems by Maurice Henry, Jean Malrieu, Jehan Mayoux, and Benjamin Péret are all pretty sad stuff. What must strike one, in reading the Anthology, is that the poems which do prompt immediate and instinctive response are those which conform least to the textbook requirements spelled out ploddingly in the Introduction, and recapitulated at greater length in Matthews’s subsequent volume. The impact of poems such as Aimé Césaire’s “Ton Portrait” or Eluard’s “Sans Age” derives from the exquisite control which the poet has asserted over his material.

To be fair, Matthews does remark somewhere in Surrealist Poetry in France that “the fruits of automatic writing have no sacred virtue in themselves” and “are subject to critical examination.” But he seems reluctant to initiate the critical process himself. In his essay on Benjamin Péret, whose “freedom in poetic expression” he awards the cachet of “the admiration of his surrealist friends,” he quotes with obvious approval lines as pointless as:

A bear was eating breasts
Having eaten the sofa the bear spat out some breasts
Out of the breasts came a cow

The most coherent thinker among the founder-members of the surrealist movement, Aragon, had no truck with such permissiveness. It is worth quoting what he had to say about automatism in 1928 (in Traité du Style):

Human beings…think by proxy. Words that once struck them come back to them. They use these words as would someone humming an unconsciously remembered melody. Thus, the poets and the thinkers contribute to the cretinization of the word…. The ideas of an era cluster crudely around certain automatic crystallizations. It is this that constitutes the historical development of the intellect. [pp. 66-7]

Words…carry meaning in each syllable, in each letter…. Consequently the substance [le fonds] of a surrealist text is of the greatest importance, since it is that substance that gives the text a precious revelatory quality. If you write dreary idiocies following a surrealist method they will remain dreary idiocies. Without possible excuse. And especially if you belong to that lamentable category of individuals which is ignorant of the meaning of words, it is probable that the practise of surrealism will bring to light nothing more than this crass ignorance. [pp. 191-2]

It was Aragon, too, who, in his 1926 surrealist “narrative” Le Paysan de Paris, produced a succinct definition of surreality that is a good deal more useful than the high-flown abstractions of the First and Second Manifestoes:

Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction. The marvelous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.

Unfortunately, surrealism lost Aragon to the Communist Party in 1930. His departure deprived the movement of the only activist who had been a match for Breton in toughness, fluency, and intellectual originality. There were still Tzara and the remarkable René Crevel. But both disappeared in 1935: Tzara joined Aragon in the ranks of the Communist Party, Crevel died by his own hand. In 1935, too, the surrealists were outmaneuvered and routed by the Communist faction that gained control of the Writers’ Congress for the Defense of Culture; their last hope of active revolutionary involvement on the political front was shattered. Thereafter Surrealism moved rapidly away from such entanglements, and concentrated on activities of primarily aesthetic concern (luxury art-publications, large-scale international exhibitions), while Breton’s intellectual preoccupations became increasingly abstruse. Occultism may be said to have finally gained the ascendancy over subversion.

But one should not underestimate the movement’s aesthetic achievements. The works that Surrealism originally intended as weapons in a struggle for the revolutionary transformation of consciousness have turned out, after all, to be subject to the same cold scrutiny of bourgeois value judgments that other, non-surrealist, works have to undergo: but it is remarkable how much of the poetry and painting has survived in its own right, and still glows with an authentic revelation of the marvelous that is “the eruption of contradiction within the real.” And if the word “surrealism” has legitimately become public property now (despite the lamentations of those with a vested interest in the title), the acquisition shows the powerful appeal exercised by the concrete evidence of the movement’s activities.

It is equally remarkable that three successive generations of poets and artists were inspired by Surrealism’s fundamental concept of the liberation of the imagination from the control of reason to produce work that, at its most inspired, influenced the thinking of the world around them. No revolution, certainly, but a more insidious achievement: the widespread popularization of an awareness that reality is a far more complex concept than had generally been thought—at once more exciting, more alarming, and more entertaining.

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