André Breton’s life is practically an intellectual and artistic history of his time, since he knew and interacted with so many of the major figures of his era: Picasso, Dalí, Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky, Aragon, Eluard, Man Ray, Ernst, Duchamp, Magritte, Sartre, Camus—the list is almost endless. Breton’s life is in many ways a microcosm of his entire generation, just as Emma Goldman’s Living My Life is a capsule of the generation before him, or George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia totals up the political lessons of an entire historical period.
Thinking about the historical currents that collided to produce Surrealism in the mid-1920s, I can’t help comparing them to the events of the 1960s, a period so formative for my generation. At both times there was a bloody and unpopular war that was supported by most of the leaders of the parties of the Right and the Left, leaving the younger generation to create their own alternative culture.
World War I was far more immediate to Breton’s peers than Vietnam was to most of mine: Breton was an army doctor during the war and saw the wounded and dying in military hospitals firsthand. The war was fought on his country’s soil, and there were many more casualties. Surrealist automatic writing began when Breton started to transcribe the mutterings of shell-shocked victims of trench warfare.
For the cohort that came of age during World War I, there was the same sense that the hippies had that all of “the establishment” had sold out the younger generation, and that the entire culture that had allowed this endless massacre to occur was tainted. That’s why the absurdity, fantasy, and passion of Surrealism had such an incredible pull for me and my friends in college. Reading Breton in our twenties in the early 1970s, it seemed to us that he had already lived through our time and had found the words and hallucinatory imagery to describe the indescribable reality that we woke up to every day. Breton had, in a sense, done the sixties better than they had done themselves. In his love poem, “In the beautiful half-light of 1934” he wrote:
But the earth was filled with reflections deeper than those in water
As if metal had finally shaken off its shell
And you lying on the frightening ocean of precious gems
In a huge sun of fireworks
I saw you slowly evolving from the radiolarians
(from Earthlight, translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow)
If this isn’t “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” taken to the umpteenth power, then I’m Lyndon Johnson. This prefiguring of our experience was more than metaphorical. Toward the end of this life, Breton actually became one of the first French intellectuals to protest his own country’s involvement in the Vietnam War in 1947.
Breton’s lifelong quest for an independent, progressive path reflects one of the great stories of the twentieth century. Like so many intellectuals of his generation, he tried to create a revolutionary alternative to the stratified society that had caused the tidal wave of blood called the First World War. The Surrealist movement was torn apart, though, partly by disagreements over whether the Soviet Union’s Communist state provided an acceptable model for the new society these young intellectuals envisioned. There was an unbridgeable gap between those who felt that support for Stalinism was the only viable alternative to the growing threat of Nazi Germany, and those like Breton who saw the dictatorship of the Communist Party as just as much of a threat to the psychic freedom that Surrealism celebrated. Breton came to mistrust the Soviet Union and its backers through his attempts to work closely with the French Communist Party, and even through a brief stint as a member, when for some unknown reason he was assigned to a cell of utility employees from a gasworks, itself a Surrealist moment. As Breton aged and saw the search for a new society overwhelmed by yet another world war, he turned increasingly to internationalism and to the rising power of women as solutions to social problems. This new political philosophy is the topic of his prose poem/memoir/meditation, Arcanum 17.
|Breton later in life|
I caress everything that was you
In everything that’s yet to be you
I hear the melodious hissing
Of your limitless limbs
(“I dream I see you endlessly superimposed upon yourself”
from Earthlight, translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow)
It’s very easy to get caught up in the political twists and turns that the Surrealist movement took in the course of its history and to forget its artistic contributions. While Breton tried very hard to play a role as the leader of an independent revolutionary group, he was actually a klutz politically. Inflexible by nature (he was often called the Pope of Surrealism), Breton had no notion of how to compromise or form coalitions. He was so intransigent with even his own followers that he ended up expelling almost all of them from Surrealism in ugly inquisitions that often ended with the victim being jeered out of the room by former friends. This was the penalty for violating the oddly strict norms of freewheeling Surrealism. Members of the Surrealist group were required to attend their café meetings every evening; they could not publish fiction (the poet Aragon was harassed into burning a fifteen-hundred page novel manuscript by his comrades); nor could they make their living as journalists.
Could it be that Breton imposed such stringent commandments on his fellow Surrealists because he intuited that the movement had the potential to become just another artistic style, rather than a force to transform the world? In fact. Surrealism has become the language of commercial music videos in our own day. For all its advocacy of love and freedom. the Surrealist movement was actually a cult. It was a cult, though, whose members were among the most creative artists of the twentieth century.
The more one learns about Breton’s Robespierrist grip on the Surrealist movement, the more one comes to dislike Breton for the pain he caused those he expelled. I believe that Breton deserves credit, though, for being highly principled, for opposing fascism and Stalinism as soon as he saw their natures. And Breton’s extreme anti‑clericalism is refreshing in this decade when everyone seems to be rediscovering the wonders of teaching their kids Bible stories they never believed. But ultimately. to judge Andre Breton on his accomplishments in politics is like judging Bill Clinton on what he has contributed to the art of the saxophone, or to gauge Winston Churchill’s impact on history by his influence on landscape painting. Breton’s legacy is his writings, and he was one of the most radiant and funny and inspiring writers of the 20th century.
Andre Breton’s story is, after all, an extraordinary one. His life began in the provinces as the son of an obscure police clerk and a rigid, self‑righteous mother. Sent to medical school, he still managed to develop an interest in poetry. By age twenty-eight, André Breton had made himself the leader of the most influential art movement in the world.
That story is remarkable enough. But the second half of the plot is, in a way, even more unusual. Having risen to the head of an avant‑garde movement that prided itself on flinging aside all the conventions of traditional art, Breton never caged himself by performing the same dry experiments over and over. With each new work he created new forms. Within a few years of inventing automatic writing, Surrealism’s technique for unearthing the Unconscious, Breton largely abandoned it except as a source for the shattering images that he used in his poems. He finally tapped that source of imagery to write some of the most remarkable love poetry ever constructed. Throughout his life. Breton’s political views continued to develop organically, always in pursuit of his goal that daily life needed to be “re-impassioned.” He was the leading spokesperson of his generation for a visionary transformation of society that would steer the imagination right down the main street of daily life. “The imaginary,” wrote Breton, “is what tends to become real.”
Zack Rogow is the co-translator with Bill Zavatsky of André Breton's collection of poetry Earthlight, and the translator of Breton's book Arcanum 17.
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