The Dada-Surrealist Expedition: Part II

The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp

by Arturo Schwarz
Abrams, 650, 700 illustrations, 75 color plates pp., $55.00

Unlike most literary men of the twentieth century, Breton was loth to reminisce…. He rejected the memoir as a literary genre…. Entretiens is the story of a mind rather than of a life; and none of Breton’s commentators has complained of the lack of intimate details and introspection because the substance of the mentally and sensually active life is the work itself, candidly laid before us, available but often undecipherable as a cryptogram. [P. 16]

Thus Professor Balakian lays out the lines of her study, André Breton: Magus of Surrealism. Later she quotes Breton himself on the “infinitesimal interest” of an author’s life as compared to “the message.” Balakian has gone on to write an honest, healthily partisan, well-informed book that sometimes stays too close to its subject but at least tries to come to terms with a powerful mind. (The subtitle seems inappropriate; she treats Breton essentially as an intellectual hero:)

The book moves in chronological order and mixes basic biographical information and interpretation with discussion of the texts. The brief remarks on Breton’s solitary upbringing in Brittany, between a dark northern countryside and the sea, have real pertinence. Balakian never pauses to ponder whether Breton (like Anatole France and Charles de Gaulle) may have found his initial vocation in his name. Breton threaded the needle of his life through the magic year 1913, when he was a medical student in Paris. A little later he wrote to and began seeing the two major poets of the era: Apollinaire and Valéry. After the war, which he spent primarily in hospitals and psychiatric centers, came five years of tentative, intermittent activity in Paris as a young poet and editor of the review Littérature.

His “Surrealist” experiments with automatic writing never really meshed with the Dada campaign of general decontamination. After two very difficult years Breton wrote a manifesto, launched a movement, and began publishing again. He had in fact made his reputation well before he was thirty. Although Balakian considers Breton primarily a poet, she gives long attention to his four Surrealist narratives (only Nadja has been translated) and briefly explains the political squabbles of the Thirties. A chapter toward the end of the book describes Breton’s unflagging work as a literary critic—both his astuteness as an interpreter and his influence in establishing a new canon of literary classics. Balakian’s summation proposes that Breton’s contribution was “a new humanism.” His reconciliation of conscious and unconscious is seen as an effort to “remake human intelligence,” and his position as having finally a “moral basis.”

Balakian compresses a great deal, too much really, into 250 pages. For several reasons we should be grateful to her. For instance, in the third chapter, “Medicine, Magic, and Mathematics,” she documents the genuinely scientific orientation that Breton, more than anyone else, brought to Surrealism. To my knowledge she is the first (except for a brief mention by Soupault) to recognize Pierre Janet, professor of psychiatric medicine and author of …

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