The Autobiography of Surrealism
From Enchantment to Rage: The Story of Surrealist Cinema
André Breton thought that the historical success of failure of surrealism could be judged only by its efficacy in provoking a grave and generalized crise de conscience. Undoubtedly it failed in this respect, but the criterion is odd, since the vast crise de conscience known as modernity was well under way by the time of the first surrealist manifesto (1924), and in any case the surrealists could hardly provoke something of which they themselves were so plainly a symptom.
The world they wished to shake had already half crumbled, and it is because they don’t appear to have realized this that many surrealists seem provincial. John Berger memorably says of Magritte that “he hated the familiar and the ordinary too much to turn his back on them.” The surrealists could not turn their backs on the bourgeoisie. They were masters of insult and invective, always arraigning public men and addressing open letters to figures of authority. They wanted the prisons opened and the army disbanded. “All that is doddering, suspicious, infamous, sullying, and grotesque,” Breton wrote, “is contained for me in that single word: God.” Paul Eluard called Cocteau a swine and a stinking beast, and remarked. “Being careful never prevented anyone from being vile.”
Walter Benjamin, in an early article, pointed to the elements of bluff and provocation in all this, but he also thought the surrealists were the first people since Bakunin to have a radical conception of freedom. They perceived the world as caught up in an ecstatic conspiracy of respectability, and according to Benjamin they saw through the “unholy coupling” of idealistic moralizing and fierce political practice. There was nothing philosophical about their skepticism; it flared up with the sense of betrayal which was so large a legacy of the Great War. Like many others, of quite different ages and temperaments, the surrealists felt they had been fed on deception, that the very notion of truth was a casualty of the war. Ezra Pound spoke of “old men’s lies” and “disillusions as never told in the old days.” “Surely it must be realized,” Louis Aragon wrote, “that the face of error and the face of truth cannot fail to have identical features.”
There is an element of naïveté in this outrage, of course, particularly in France, where artists had been railing against the supposed ideals of the bourgeoisie for nearly a century. But a certain naïveté is inseparable from the surrealists’ energy. “Nothing is revolutionary except candor,” Robert Desnos wrote. When they were no longer shocked by the hypocrisy and fatuousness of their comfortable contemporaries, they were no longer surrealists.
Marcel Jean’s Autobiography of Surrealism lays out the brilliant literary and painterly pedigree the movement claimed for itself: Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Jarry, Apollinaire, Reverdy, Chirico are all rounded up and nicely quoted, along with Breton’s friend Jacques Vaché, a soldier-dandy and nihilist who said he objected to being killed in time of war and died from an overdose of opium in 1919. Jean traces surrealism mainly through the magazines where it blossomed and quarreled and flirted with communism and fell—Littérature, La Révolution surréaliste, Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, Minotaure, VVV—and allows the writers and painters to speak for themselves.
He had originally planned, he says, “an anthology of writings by surrealist painters,” but the book gradually turned into “an anthological history of written surrealism,” a complement to Jean’s own History of Surrealist Painting, published in French in 1959 and in English in 1960. There are texts by Breton, Eluard, Aragon, Soupault, Ernst, Desnos, Péret, Artaud, Leiris, Queneau, Magritte, Buñuel, Dalí, Duchamp, Tzara, Crevel, Picasso, Arp, Motherwell, Leonora Carrington, and a number of others. The last word is given to Breton, but the next-to-last word belongs to the rebelling Paris students of 1968, who brought surrealism to the walls of the Sorbonne, where they quoted Breton and scribbled assertions like “Dream is truth” and “Any view of things that is not strange is false.”
The last phrase makes a fine echo to Chirico’s suggestion, quoted early in the book, that we should “live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness,” but the implied vindication of what Jean calls “timeless surrealism” doesn’t quite come off. It was not surrealism that drove the students to the barricades in 1968. Surrealism, along with many other sources, offered an attractive rhetoric, and we may feel, with the sweep of hindsight, that surrealism was above all a rhetoric. It was not exactly an aesthetics that yearned to a politics, as Susan Sontag shrewdly guessed. It was an overreaching politics that could not leave the realm of romance.
And yet. There is a good deal to be said for rhetoric and romance if they are all you have. If liberty is a phantom, as the title of a Buñuel film suggests, it is essential to talk about it. Its return to reality may depend upon our familiarity with the idea. “The very word liberty,” Breton wrote, “is exalting. I think it is capable of preserving, indefinitely, the old human fanaticism.” And again, prophetically enough: “It would be wrong for man to allow himself to be intimidated by a few monstrous historical failures: he is still free to believe in his freedom.”
There is a certain negligence, even callousness, in such remarks (“a few monstrous historical failures”), but, there is also a fine fidelity to a battered belief. Breton saw the imagination as the only index of possibility; wanted the “already thought” to make way for the “thinkable”; waged pitiless war on the shabby reality he found all too many of his contemporaries settling for. He could be vague and superstitious on this subject, but it is usually clear that he wants more reality, not less, or even a different one. “The admirable thing about the fantastic,” he said, “is that it is no longer fantastic: there is only the real.” The fantastic is not an escape from the world. It is a promise, a hint of what a larger, less constricting world might be like, since a life that can be imagined can also be desired. It is in this sense that we should understand the surrealists’ insistence on dreams and automatic writing, their quest for the marvelous in everyday life, their canonization of chance and love. Il a peut-être des secrets pour changer la vie? a timid voice says in Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer. The surrealists thought they had the secrets.
They didn’t. But surrealism was not only a program, it was also a set of practices, notably a fund of disruptive techniques like collage or willed hallucination. Max Ernst spoke of “forcing inspiration,” and Dalí’s notion of critical paranoia meant frankly reading the world in the light of an obsession, “tangibly transferring the world of the delirium on to the plane of reality.” When Picasso, in Seated Bather, paints a woman’s head as a pair of vertical jaws mounted on a sort of anvil, it doesn’t much matter whether we call the result a piece of surrealism or not. Picasso’s relations with the movement were casual, and Breton pictured him as “hunting in the neighborhood,” not as a member of the surrealist house-party. But it is clear that in this painting, as in others of the same period and even some time later, a creature of the mind has invaded the seen shapes and spaces of cubism.
Equal rights for mental realities was a consistent feature of surrealist practice: fantasies and nightmares were painted or photographed or written about as if they had the status of objects or landscapes. Some very thin painting resulted, and some vacuous poetry. But the practice also gave us Miró, Eluard, Buñuel, Magritte. And the striking thing about the work of these men is not its escape into some realm of the arbitrary and magical but on the contrary its constant, embattled engagement with things as they are, its pursuit of an intricate human truth. Respecting Breton’s dream of freedom, they managed to stand it on its head. It is because freedom finally is impossible that it is indispensable to dream of it. “Surrealism,” Buñuel told Carlos Fuentes, “taught me that man is never free yet fights for what he can never be.” This strikes me as rather too absolute in its abandonment of hope, but Buñuel, to paraphrase John Berger, hates captivity too much to think of living anywhere else.
It is true that the cinema offers particularly obvious hindrances to imaginative freedom. The surrealists talked a lot about film, admired Dr. Caligari and early serials like Fantomas and Les Vampires, and beat the comparison between movies and dreams to death. But the production of a dream, however complex and ancient its causes or content, is a simple affair: one goes to sleep. A film takes time, money, calculation, technique, and the surrealists, with the exception of Buñuel, only played at cinema, wrote scripts and criticism, and liked the idea. The cinema for them, as Steven Kovács writes, was “an exquisite toy and nothing more.”
Kovács’s From Enchantment to Rage is not a sophisticated book (Dali’s fixation on the womb is a rather pronounced one.” “Being so close to death, members of the Dada-Surrealist circle had to indulge in black humor as a safety valve”), but it is substantial and it is historical, does not go questing for timeless surrealism. Kovács gives an account of the surrealists’ attitudes to film; examines Robert Desnos’s scenarios and criticism; writes at some length about Picabia’s and René Clair’s Entr’acte; closely studies Man Ray’s four films; discusses Artaud’s scripts and pronouncements; and looks at Buñuel’s and Dalí’s Un Chien andalou and L’Age d’or in detail.
It has become customary to attribute the excellences of these last two films to Buñuel, and the failed jokes to Dalí. Kovács bravely tries to set the record straight, rather schematically crediting flair and image to Dalí and structure and morality to Buñuel. In fact, as Kovács himself comes to see, there are only two things to be said about this collaboration: Dalí and Buñuel were close friends at the time of writing, each eagerly accepting the other’s suggestions, and many of the images in the films (donkeys, ants, orchestras, priests, paintings) can be seen to belong to the repertoire of both; and Buñuel directed the films, converted whatever there was in the scripts into movies.
L’ Age d’or was first shown at Studio 28 in Paris, in 1930. It shared the bill with a short comedy and an animated cartoon, and it was described as a film parlant surréaliste, a surrealist talkie. But it was also a film which spoke surrealist, as one speaks French or jabberwocky, and members of the Anti-Semitic League and the League of Patriots didn’t like its style. They bombarded the screen, smashed some furniture, and wrecked an exhibition of surrealist paintings in the foyer of the cinema. Showing of the film were then suspended by the police because it “caused disorder.”