The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp
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 a volume called L’Automatisme psychologique, as a direct formative influence on Breton’s thinking about unconscious processes.
But she stops too soon. One generation further back lies an even more fascinating source that Balakian does not mention: Taine. In a book that still makes magnificent reading, De l’intelligence, Taine comes to the conclusion that “exterior perception is a true hallucination,” thus linking all forms of dream and unconscious to what we finally call “reality.” De l’intelligence is the first book Breton mentions in the Manifesto, and he comes back to it in a later work, Surrealism and Painting. Taine solicited many of his firsthand reports on an artist’s capacity to hallucinate from Flaubert; the revealing letters are all published. In a world where everything connects, Flaubert becomes the first Surrealist. Even scrupulous scholarship is drawn into the vortex.
It is also useful to find Breton taken seriously as a poet. Balakian concentrates almost all her attention on his imagery, which is obviously the most striking aspect of his work. But Breton had a finely tuned ear for free verse that leaned toward the orotund. I cannot concur that “his words are harsh, unpoetic, because many of them have never been pronounced orally” (p. 127). He observed that great poets are auditory and was so himself. His own diction fares best in short poems, which is good reason to doubt that “Breton also developed a new genre, the modern epic.” His long poems become bombastic; the modern epic, such as it is, took shape elsewhere.*
I have two further reservations about Balakian’s critical position. She wraps six of Breton’s prose works together and calls them a new genre: “analogical prose.” But two of the six are early automatic texts. The last four do hang loosely together, not as a new genre but as an outgrowth of the autobiographical, reflective, semi-journal form called in French the récit. Breton drew heavily on both Nerval and psychoanalytic case histories.
My other reservation is more serious. At the beginning of her discussion of automatic writing, Balakian severely reduces her critical maneuverability by accepting as true two of Breton’s main premises. “The absence of critical intervention in writing, which is Breton’s definition of automatism, precludes mechanical coupling of words by the deterministic function of the mind….” Yet, as I have implied earlier, without self-criticism the mind may well be victimized by all kinds of external determinism and built-in trivialities.
She also writes: “Breton’s notion of language is closely akin to that of present-day structuralists. If, as he believes, ‘The speed of thought is not greater than that of speech,’ then language is the concrete realization of thought.” Now we may have discovered the speed of light, but the speed of thought remains one of the great unknowns. The real interest of automatic writing lies in its exploration of the limitations of speech, not in its demonstration of the omniscience and omnipotence of that faculty. The possibility that the structuralists share some of Breton’s views on language does not prove anyone right or wrong. Because she accepts these two ideas, Balakian fails to get a purchase on Breton’s shortcomings as a thinker.
There are at least nine full-length books on Breton in French and English. The best of them are intellectual and literary studies; a few are fragmentary memoirs. Almost every writer of and on Surrealism speaks of it as a state of mind, a way of life, a liberation of the total sensibility. “Take the trouble to practice poetry,” exhorts the First Manifesto—meaning both to write it and to live it. “Dada and Surrealism stand for a total, absolute disavowal of anything literary,” writes Jacques Baron, one of the early participants. One writes, Breton says, to find other men. And Balakian, modifying some of her earlier statements about message and mind, chimes in: “Even in his most active years [Breton] had considered writing second to the creation of human contacts and to the search for the comprehension of the symbols of the human labyrinth.” Where, then, is one to look for a record of this wonderful Surrealist life?
In spite of the first paragraph I quoted, we have circled back to a very old and very powerful belief: human greatness achieves its fullest meaning when it belongs not to a set of detachable works but to the sustained quality of a man’s life. For this reason, a searching, comprehensive life of Breton is something we very much need. He exerted remarkable powers of leadership on an impossible crowd of artist types. He had the almost magical power to be “un flâneur, qui travaille toujours“—an idler, who is always working. His willfulness carried him to extremes of thuggery and violence, yet gave him a strong sense of self-preservation. As I know from having heard one of his talks, his voice and sheer physical presence made up a large part of his secret. His dignity allowed him an astonishing projection. Charles Duits describes Breton reading poetry.
He had no shame. He didn’t even know that one could be ashamed. He was the way he was, and put himself on display. There was something great about it, as well as something pathetic. He was naked. Naked among all those distressed people, who lowered their eyes, fiddled with their ties, coughed. [André Breton a-t-il dit passe, p. 44]
It is this sense of Breton the man that I fail to find in Balakian’s “semi-biographical book.” She makes his life congruent with his writings and seeks out little that he does not report himself. Even from a semi-biography we could hope for an account of how a man spent his time—not only in public but also alone, or in private. Or does the Surrealist life stop there? The question is crucial. It may not be necessary to document, for example, the details of Breton’s love-making. But as it happens we do have an earnest, occasionally comic discussion of sexuality published in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1925. In it a number of Surrealists (including Breton) supply a few facts about their sex habits and beliefs without yielding to exhibitionism or embarrassment. Kept in perspective, such details have a place in the account of a man’s life, along with his habits of work and sleep, eating and relaxing. If we are concerned with practicing poetry, these items are no more beside the point than a man’s philosophy or imagery. In fact Breton’s prose narratives record a large number of such details.
Or take the depression that afflicted Breton between 1921 and 1924—an interlude of doubt and hesitation about his own future and his role on the Paris literary scene. Balakian passes over it, unexamined and unexplained, in eight lines. She does not even mention a significant interview in the Journal du peuple in which Breton stated he was preparing one last statement, after which he would abandon writing completely.
What changed his mind? Duits reports an astonishing conversation, one summer night in 1943, in which Breton questioned the wisdom of his attempts to turn the “pure revolt” of Dada in the direction of Surrealism, toward transforming the conditions of existence. “Since Dada…basically, we haven’t done a thing.” Apocryphal? I should like to know, for there lies a personal and intellectual dilemma. Documented fully, but not therefore indiscreetly, Breton’s biography would provide a remarkable instance of a man setting out resolutely to live his life and discovering how his life lives him.
The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp is a book of another color. It examines the second of the two great figures of the D-S expedition—and is dedicated, to boot, to Breton. Arturo Schwarz’s book belongs to the same all-out format as William Rubin’s Dada and Surrealist Art, which I discussed in the previous issue; I shall not repeat the vital statistics. Though a sustained effort has been made to list, illustrate (seventy-five in color), and exhaustively annotate every (anti-) art object touched by Duchamp’s hands, this large volume does not contain Duchamp’s written texts. Therefore the title is misleading. For, after 1912 (the year he “stopped” painting), Duchamp’s work became increasingly verbal.
No one can have all his facts straight. Balakian falls into the trap of making Tzara four years older than Breton. They were the same age. The political question had not really "been with the surrealists from the beginning" (p. 78) but fell in on them before they had gotten their feet under them. Breton never published Trotsky's life of Lenin in his magazine but reviewed it. It is far from accurate to call what happened in Paris in February, 1934, "the Nazi Putsch" (p. 166).↩
No one can have all his facts straight. Balakian falls into the trap of making Tzara four years older than Breton. They were the same age. The political question had not really “been with the surrealists from the beginning” (p. 78) but fell in on them before they had gotten their feet under them. Breton never published Trotsky’s life of Lenin in his magazine but reviewed it. It is far from accurate to call what happened in Paris in February, 1934, “the Nazi Putsch” (p. 166).↩