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The Breton Expedition

In response to:

The D-S Expedition: Part I from the May 18, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

Returning from abroad, I found belatedly the series of reviews Roger Shattuck had done on Dada and Surrealism [NYR, May 18 and June 1]. I am shocked and astounded at the “holier than thou” attitude with which he treats a large body of informative writings that are the first flowering of long delayed scholarship on a major intellectual movement of the twentieth, century. These are pioneering works, dealing with writings only recently reissued after being out of print for several decades; many of these critical and scholarly books, products of American academics, are written in English about works not yet translated from the French or German; they have to make themselves expository and informative, therefore, to readers unfamiliar with the primary sources and not in a position to receive or sustain or contend evaluations of the works in question. It is not an exaggeration nor a deprecation to state that most of the “in” people in American literature and criticism do not yet have surrealism in their frame of reference.

The fact is, simply stated, that surrealism did not become available, except as a form of plastic art, in Anglo-Saxon countries. (It is a forceful source of inspiration in Latin America.) It came across to North America as heresay, and it generated myths, miscomprehensions, and prejudices. Mr. Shattuck is one of few American critics, known beyond the academic audience, who is knowledgeable about Dada and Surrealism. One is, therefore, the more astonished to find that he has to use mockery, quotations out of context, and other lowly devices to discredit or denigrate the work of fellow critics and scholars.

In the case of my own book, André Breton, Magus of Surrealism, published last year, I would like to correct a number of fallacious and prejudicial statements, made by Mr. Shattuck. I am a well weathered and thick skinned writer, long alone in a field of criticism treated with hostility, and now rejoicing to find so many co-workers. I have never before protested publicly against what I may consider unfair criticism, for tastes are not disputable, and it is the reviewer’s privilege to like or dislike a book. But as a scholar I cringe at the sight of inaccuracies in print and for this reason alone do I make the following observations.

One of my objectives in spending twenty years of my life to study and write about the work of André Breton was precisely in the hope of setting the record straight on a great number of misapprehensions. It is, therefore, agonizing, after patient verification of data to find a statement such as this: “Balakian falls into the trap by making Tzara four years older than Breton.” I am afraid that it is Mr. Shattuck who has fallen into the trap by assuming that vital statistics given in literary histories and encyclopedias are necessarily accurate. It was very important in my comparative analysis of these two leaders to ascertain their age differential. I, therefore, undertook an exhaustive search, strong in the Cartesian belief that one should not take anything for granted that one has not verified himself. I went to Tzara’s correspondence, which thanks to Michel Sanouillet is now available in the appendix of his Dada à Paris. And there, in a letter dated March 5, 1919, Tzara wrote to Breton that he was twenty-seven years old: “puisque cela vous intéresse, j’ai vingt-sept ans…” (p. 442). At the time, Breton, born in 1896, was twenty-three years old, and as I pursued my study of the interpersonal relationship between the two young men, the age factor loomed considerably important, and threw light on the hero-worship character of Breton’s enthusiasm for Tzara in that stage of his life when four years represents, academically speaking, a difference of generation.

On another point, Mr. Shattuck accuses me of having said that Breton published Trotsky’s biography of Lenin in Révolution Surréaliste. He read me a little too fast; I never mentioned Trotsky’s biography of Lenin. Besides, as the freshest neophyte in surrealist studies knows, the issues of Révolution Surréaliste, irregularly published, never ran beyond a thin sized volume; how could they possibly contain the publication of a biography?

In connection with Breton’s endeavors to initiate protest action against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany, I referred to the shock of young writers such as Breton against the Nazi Putsch. Here is my sentence: “When the Nazi Putsch occurs in 1934, Breton organizes an all-night protest on February 6.” I continue to explain the manner in which Breton and his colleagues attempted to protest against Nazi tyranny in Central Europe. It is unbelievable to read in Shattuck’s text the following: “It is far from accurate to call what happened in Paris in February 1934 ‘the Nazi Putsch.’ ” It is amazing that a person of Shattuck’s age (he was at Yale during World War II) should not know that the expression referred to the German invasion of satellite countries, which in fact catalyzed World War II.

It is too bad that Mr. Shattuck had to treat my book as one of nine books on Breton. It happens to be the only one that tried precisely to trace the “sustained quality of a man’s life,” and the only one which has to date examined the work in its continuity. Mr. Shattuck accuses me of not having given enough details of Breton’s daily life; an earlier reviewer complained that there were too many. I gave only what was directly pertinent to the clarification and situation of the work, which was my primary concern. I had met Breton three times, each time for a brief moment; our conversation had been on an abstract level; he was an extremely discreet man (the antithesis of Dali) and he has left no scatological details about his love life. The kind of flamboyant biography Breton deserves—for he had a flamboyant life—will not be possible, as I explained in my introduction, until after the year 2016 when, according to his last will and testament, the personal documents and letters will be made available. But I doubt that even then the kind of savory details Mr. Shattuck longs for will surface.

I am surprised that Mr. Shattuck shows so much concern over a biography “manqué.” Could it be that despite his cavalier treatment of my work I may have convinced him of the stature of Breton, whom previously he was inclined to denigrate as have done so many American critics in general? This is true mostly because Breton is a Yeats kind of poet, closely tied to the mystical nature of his soil, and of its legends, and is virtually inaccessible in any but his own language. When Mr. Shattuck advises me to look to Taine and Flaubert for Breton’s inspiration, it becomes apparent that the kind of rational mind exemplified by these two nineteenth-century writers, who were the antithesis of Breton, is of a nature to make Mr. Shattuck more intellectually comfortable.

In another “reservation” of Mr. Shattuck about my work, he says: “She wraps six of Breton’s prose works together and calls them a new genre: ‘analogical prose.’ ” Mr. Shattuck had too many books to review at once and he read them too fast. Chapter V is entitled “Automatic Writing: Les Champs Magnétiques and Poisson Soluble”; and the classification of “analogical prose” does not come up until Chapter VIII and includes in the classification the four other works, which paleolithic critics may well call “récit.” I stated in an effort to show the progression of Breton’s work that the “groundwork” for this type of writing “had been prepared” in the two previously discussed works.

In appraising my discussion of Breton as a poet, Mr. Shattuck takes a quotation out of context to make a point. He quotes me as saying: “…his words are harsh, unpoetic, because many of them have never been pronounced orally.” He goes on to say—without quoting what he has borrowed: that Breton observed that great poets are auditory and was so himself. The fact is that I was the one to draw attention to that observation, which no one else had previously noted. Of course the context of my page shows that I used the word “unpoetic” in its traditional sense, and I explained why people may consider him “unpoetic” by comparing Breton’s verse with Richard Strauss’ music: “The fact that Breton’s poetry does not flow gently does not mean that it is not good poetry, just as Richard Strauss’ music, which has its own sonority and tonal pattern, does not depend for its value on comparison with harmonic standards of a past era. In fact, one needs a revision of critical lexicon to be able to speak of Breton’s poetry.”

Finally, Mr. Shattuck wants to leave the impression that I wrote a small book compressing vast materials. I have never been one to waste words; I have always been concise of expression, but it happens that this book is over 150,000 words, which my publisher saw fit to compress into long and tightly printed pages, with no leading and no spacing; that was my hard luck and over that miserly feat I had no control. I am sure that the difficult reading format contributed to Mr. Shattuck’s rapid reading activities.

In conclusion I would like to suggest that it is not wise to submit so many books to the judgment of one person, no matter how well qualified. Mr. Shattuck has written well about the threshold years of the twentieth century; as far as surrealist studies are concerned his bibliography is slim, his stature as an expert in the field based largely on an introduction he has written to the English translation of Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism, a piece that contains a number of the misinformations that I have tried to dispell.

Anna Balakian

New York University

Roger Shattuck replies:

Let’s leave to some dedicated third party the matters of my alleged holier-than-thou attitude, my cavalier treatment of the books under review, my status as an expert in the field, and my bibliography. Even Professor Balakian’s ardent claims about her own book are better left undiscussed here. But I am eager to pick up the three “inaccuracies” which make her cringe, along with several other criticisms I glean from her letter.

1) Tzara’s age. Tzara was falsifying his age in the letter Professor Balakian cites. Otherwise he was falsifying it all the rest of his life, even in volumes of which he was himself a joint editor (e.g., Die Geburt des Dada, Zurich, 1957, which gives his birth date as April 4, 1896). Both charity and scholarly evidence support the former alternative. As a professional Dada with printed stationery to prove it, Tzara was prepared to lie about anything according to Dada principles and the best interests of his career. He invariably exaggerated attendance figures for his performances. He announced brazenly that Charlie Chaplin would appear in one of the Paris Dada demonstrations. When in 1919 Tzara, already notorious, wrote from Zurich to Breton, still a little known poet, he was trying to impress his French contemporary and assert himself as leader of the international avant-garde. Breton had written Tzara that he was twenty-two. Tzara simply added five years to his age, thus establishing his seniority by—yes—almost a generation. No one could fault him—then. Vital statistics given by ambitious poets about themselves are not necessarily accurate. Later he corrected his dates. If I haven’t, Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson will help convince Professor Balakian that Breton and Tzara were the same age. Someone might even track down the Roumanian birth certificate.

2) Trotsky’s biography of Lenin. Can Professor Balakian maintain in good faith that “I never mentioned Trotsky’s biography of Lenin”? Here is her sentence on page 80: “When in 1925, eight years after the Soviet Revolution, Trotsky’s work on Lenin reached Paris, Breton had it published in La Révolution surréaliste.”

3) The Nazi Putsch of 1934. Professor Balakian apparently believes that Hitler’s Germany invaded some satellite country in 1934. She is so far at sea that I hardly know how to bring her back. The events about which Paris writers protested in February, 1934, did not happen in Central Europe. They took place right on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. On February 6 street riots that took several lives had been organized by fascist groups supported by some communist factions. My original objection was to the word Putsch as too strong. Historians like M. Beloff have recently demonstrated how poorly coordinated the riots were and how far from posing a threat to the government. Professor Balakian, having revealed a distressing ignorance of French history during Breton’s lifetime, goes on, for no good reason, to provide misinformation about my personal history. I spent World War II not at Yale but in pilot training and in the Southwest Pacific.

Now for the more general criticisms.

1) By my lights the current crop of scholarly books on Surrealism is not “long delayed” but just about on time. They deserve careful criticism and evaluation. I see no reason to believe that the “in” people (ouch) in literature and criticism have more misconceptions about Surrealism than about Expressionism or Romanticism or most other isms.

2) My remarks about Professor Balakian having scanted Breton’s private life pertain not to savory details I hope will surface later but to items Breton himself furnishes in his frank autobiographical writings and in texts like the droll and touching discussions published as “Recherches sur la sexualité” in La Révolution surréaliste, no. 11. The author even of a “semi-biography” should reckon with these easily available materials.

3) Professor Balakian classifies Taine and Flaubert as “rational” minds, as opposed to Breton whom she does not label. If my experience has taught me anything, it is that intelligences as powerful as these three leave far behind any neat categories of rational-irrational, order-disorder, reason-imagination. Breton, in many respects a Magus and seer, never lost his scientific, logical bent. Flaubert’s letters provide us with the log book of a mind creatively divided. “There are literally two fellows inside me: one given to wild outbursts, lyricism, great eagle flights…and another who explores and excavates the truth as much as he can.” Yes indeed, Breton (though he despised the novel form) learned from Flaubert and Taine, as well as from Hegel and Poe and Valéry. Denouncing nineteenth-century rationalism will not advance our cause.

4) Professor Balakian says I read too fast, yet she has trouble remembering her own writing. At least she slips when she says that her classification of “analogical prose” doesn’t come up until Chapter VIII. The remarks she objects to in my review are based on a passage in Chapter V, page 61, where she discusses “analogical prose” (line 14) and goes on: “Six of Breton’s works can be classified in this category: Les Champs magnétiques, Poisson soluble, Nadja, Les Vases communicants, L’Amour fou, and Arcane 17” (lines 24-26).

5) Possibly Professor Balakian and I could agree for once that the poet is the person who transforms the unpoetic into the poetic. We both seem to feel that Breton was primarily a poet of sounds. It is for this reason that I wanted to point out an inconsistency between her comments on page 234 about auditory poetry and the earlier implication on page 127 that many of his words were “never pronounced orally.” The point is that he chose them for pronunciation.

In fine, though I was convinced of Breton’s stature long before Professor Balakian’s book, her chapters have extended my knowledge and my appreciation. My review discusses her work with what was intended to be measured respect. I am sorry to say that her letter diminishes my opinion of her critical and scholarly competence.

(One correction for my review. I stated there that Professor Balakian was the first to have singled out Pierre Janet as an important source for Breton’s ideas about automatism. Meyer Schapiro has just written me a gentle letter stating that in the Forties he discussed this influence “year after year” in his lectures on Surrealism at Columbia. One of his students did a Master’s essay on the subject. Professor Balakian was presumably first in print with the information.)

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