Liberation Then

Manifestoes of Surrealism

by André Breton, translated by Richard Seaver, translated by Helen R. Lane
University of Michigan, 304 pp., $8.50

Selected Poems

by André Breton, translated by Kenneth White
Grossman, 110 pp., $1.50 (paper)

A Bibliography of the Surrealistic Revolution in France

by Herbert S. Gershman
University of Michigan, 57 pp., $4.50

The Surrealist Revolution in France

by Herbert S. Gershman
University of Michigan, 255 pp., $8.50

The Philosophy of Surrealism

by Ferdinand Alquié, translated by Bernard Waldrop
University of Michigan, 196 pp., $5.95

An Anthology of French Surrealist Poetry

by J.H. Matthews
University of Minnesota Press, 203 pp., $4.75

André Breton
André Breton; drawing by David Levine

The word “surrealism” is by now comfortably integrated into most people’s vocabularies. It seems to provide a useful term for a quality of fascination inherent in the systematized irrationality that has, for example, always been a component of visual comedy, and is now a part of a general awareness of life. But is such generalized usage to be condemned as the extension of a term which is the exclusive trade-mark of an officially constituted aesthetic movement? That has always been the attitude of the movement’s exegetes, and the complaint by J. H. Matthews in the Introduction to his Anthology of French Surrealist Poetry is not untypical. In a passage that presents the surrealists, in emotion-laden terms, as the victims of “misapprehension, incomprehension and misrepresentation,” he states:

Many of the techniques the surrealists have proposed and practised lend themselves to imitation, and tend in this way to become stripped of meaning. Proof that this is the case is offered in the word “surrealism” itself which has become a commonplace, so mishandled and distorted by usage as to have lost much of its significance for the general public.

If it is true that the word “surrealism” has been blunted by willful misuse, how sharp was its original point? For one thing, it was not André Breton, the originator of the movement, who invented the term; Apollinaire coined the phrase “drame surréaliste” in 1917 as a subtitle for his comedy Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Apollinaire’s explanation of his new word was characteristically woolly:

I decided that it was time to return to nature, but without imitating it in a photographic manner. When man wanted to imitate walking action he created the wheel, which bears no resemblance to a leg. He thus did something surrealist without knowing it.

The play—a curious romp with a vaguely anti-Malthusian plot—proved unmemorable; the word “surrealist” had to wait six years for Breton to resuscitate it, and then for more serious purposes than its creator had envisaged.

During that same year, 1917, Apollinaire introduced Breton to another potent word, “Dada.” It was at Apollinaire’s apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Germain that Breton saw copies of the first two issues of the review Dada, sent from Zurich by its editor, a young Roumanian named Tristan Tzara. Apollinaire, a patriotic foreign volunteer in France’s cause during the war in progress (his active military career was forcibly terminated by a shrapnel wound, while fighting on the western front), was far from sympathetic toward the spirit of these furious effusions, and had already, in 1916, declined Tzara’s invitation to contribute to Dada, on the grounds that as a serving officer he could not permit his name to appear in a magazine that numbered Germans among its collaborators (a reference to Hans Arp, no doubt).

Breton, a young medical student completing his war service as an intern at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, had…

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