Reading André Breton

Context N°11

by Mary Ann Caws

How very hard to run a movement and be oneself. Tristan Tzara somehow managed it with Dada, as long as he did, but then Dada died. As for Surrealism’s André Breton, something about his personality and everything about his style permits the singular endurance of his self and his strong selving (a word borrowed, on my part, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, scarcely a Surrealist icon).

Breton as an individual, with all his failings and all everyone’s usual fallings in and out of love, was—to those who knew him then and those who now read him—unforgettable. Leonine, massive, sure, rhetorically and visually gifted, and famously deprived of any sense of musical tone, Breton’s notions became Surrealism. Not that he didn’t write with others: with Philippe Soupault in the beginning, then with Paul Eluard, or with Eluard and the younger Provençal poet René Char. He was a man who believed above all in the notion of the collective and on the reactions of the group, which he organized: he never wanted to call Surrealism a school, as he once stated in an interview. It was rather a grouping in the sense of Charles Fourier’s socialist cells or groupuscules, based, as Breton insisted, on the idea that all passions are good. Breton refers, in his Interviews, for this idea to Helvetius, writing about “the superiority of impassioned people to people with common sense.”

Breton’s thought was eventually to change along with his life, but the style remains high on itself and intense in its effect. His most high-styled and influential works remain, along with a few very great poems, these: Break of Day (essays 1924-1933); Nadja (1928, revised by the author in 1962); Mad Love (1937); Arcanum 17 (1947); Free Rein (1953); and Communicating Vessels (1955).

In one of the essays published in Break of Day, “The automatic message” of 1933, he reflects back on that celebrated founding technique of Surrealism, with the kind of philosophical regret that will characterize his combination of nostalgia and optimism. The technique of automatic writing had come to him in 1924, when he had heard a phrase tapping on the window, an experience he described in collaboration with Philippe Soupault, in a publication called “The Soluble Fish.” “Man,” he says, “is soluble in his thought. . . .” Perhaps so, but Breton’s own personality never seemed soluble in that or anything else. His is a passionate and impassioning manner, whether he is writing about the “verbo-auditory automatism” in its creation of “thrilling visual images for the reader,” or about St. Teresa, in the same essay:

      Simply by virtue of the fact that she saw her wooden cross transform into a crucifix of precious stones, and that she held this vision to be at once

imaginative and sensorial,

      St. Teresa of Avila can be said to command the line along which mediums and poets take their place. Unfortunately, she’s still only a saint.

That Breton should eventually have been disappointed in the techniques of automatism does not affect his initial excitement over them, or their ongoing importance in the worlds of literature and art. What they unleashed, apart from a remarkable series of writings and events, was in fact a whole point of view recognizably that of a free spirit. That he himself was, but one easily depressed when his pragmatic sense told him his idealistic moves were not working. In one of the most self-revealing pages of Communicating Vessels, Breton avows his despair at the feeling of the epoch, entirely given over to the capitalist mode of the gaining of riches, of an immediate efficacy in “the human effort to produce,” of a value placed on notoriety as opposed to the “problem of knowledge,” which seems to him paramount. His lament marks the extreme limit of his deception with the fate of the great surrealist idea:

      This time I live in, this time, alas, runs by and takes me with it. That crazed and, as it were, accidental impatience in which it is caught up spares me nothing. There is today, it is true, little room for anyone who would haughtily trace in the grass the learned arabesque of the suns.

And yet, listen to Breton’s relentless and finally very moving idealism about human imagination, that basis of the lyric behavior that he would claim for all surrealist believers (for that is what, in the long as well as the short run, it comes to):

      In the clamor of crumbling walls, among the songs of gladness that rise from the towns already reconstructed, at the top of the torrent that cries the perpetual return of the forms unceasingly afflicted with change, upon the quivering wing of affections, of the passions alternately raising and letting fall both beings and things, above the bonfires in which whole civilizations conflagrate, beyond the confusion of tongues and customs, I see man, what remains of him, forever unmoving in the center of the whirlwind.

As with his prose, many of Breton’s uneven but frequently exalted poems, with their alternation of everyday detail and impassioned vision, end on a larger vision. A poem or a prose piece might end, for example, on the natural sweep of a merging universe, where an element from one field crosses over into the next like the elements in surrealist games, which are to be taken not as words playing (“jeux de mots”) but as words making love. Here, the unexpected clash of opposites then marrying their parts works to tie up the closure of the poem, as, in his theoretical writings, opposites merge in a telescoping that is the aesthetic point of surrealism. The poem “Sur la route qui monte et qui descend” (“On the road that climbs and descends”) ends with the convergence of elements:

      Flame of water guide me to the sea of fire.

Indeed, one of his most remarkable poems, beginning with a tale of the marvelous:

      They tell me that over there the beaches are black

 

      With the lava run to the sea. . .

ends in like manner:

      All the flowering appletree of the sea.

Breton’s best writing is able to sum up the dialectical workings of the artistic consciousness, as he takes over from the poet Pierre Reverdy the idea of the poetic image as that which weds opposites with great force and in a flash, thus, the leading of one thing into another, day into night, life into death, all communicating their elements.

The importance of the “communicating vessels,” the swinging doors, and the connecting wires as images of primary importance depends on Breton’s intense and unshakeable sense of the doubleness of everything—these contrasts that can be bridged only by a sort of miracle, or the daily marvelous. About this point sublime, where the contrasts merge, Breton writes to his tiny daughter whom he calls “Ecusette de noireuil” (“Squirrelnut of Hazelmunk”). He can designate the “point sublime,” he says in a letter to her at the end of Mad Love, but he cannot live there, nor can she, nor anyone. We all live in what he termed a “terrifying duality,” which we cannot overcome by wishing, or by the naive scaffoldings and bastings that we are tempted to make, to hide the abyss. Over this chasm of contradiction, such brave (and, some would have it, lunatic) souls as Antonin Artaud have taken their creations without using any guard rails. This is the kind of mental bravery Breton admires.

His own spirit, free but tested, is perhaps at its summit in his poetic treatise about “l’amour fou”—both untranslatable and translated as Mad Love.

      Reciprocal love, such as I envisage it, is a system of mirrors which reflects for me, under the thousand angles that the unknown can take for me, the faithful image of the one I love, always more surprising in her divining of my own desire and more gilded with life.

Mad Love recounts, or rather, chants his love for Jacqueline Lamba, who appeared to him in his habitual café—for her close friend Dora Maar, who met Picasso in just such a way, had suggested both the appearance and informed her of the café. She seemed

      swathed in mist—clothed in fire? Everything seemed colorless and frozen next to this complexion imagined in perfect concord between rust and green: ancient Egypt, a tiny, unforgettable fern climbing the inside wall of an ancient well, the deepest, most somber, and most extensive of all those that I have ever leaned over. . . . This color, taking on a deeper hue from her face to her hands, played on a fascinating tonal relation between the extraordinary pale sun of her hair like a bouquet of honeysuckle—her head bent, then raised, unoccupied—and the notepaper she asked for to write on in relation to the color of the dress, most moving perhaps now when I no longer remember it.

He detects a quiver in the shoulders of the persons present, moving towards him: this quiver, in art and life, he recognizes as signaling the presence of the beautiful.

And yet, when they take their first walk of love, if I can put it like that, panic ensues: the following is the passage that persuaded me (besides my own admiration of and love for the object of Breton’s love, and the subject of this book: Jacqueline Lamba) to translate this book or long poem in prose.

      I see bad and good in all their native state, the bad winning out with all the ease of suffering. . . . Life is slow, and man scarcely knows how to play it. . . . Who is going with me, who is preceding me tonight once again? . . . There would still be time to turn back.

Now Breton’s hope—always present, even in or conceivably because of, this hesitation—lies in the reconciliation of opposites. That optimistic belief in linking relies on the conducting wire leading from field to opposing field, which is surrealism’s characteristic and optimistic way of dealing with the universe. If that optimism is lost, then all surrealist hope is gone. It will not do to say that we are determined by the human condition: Breton is diametrically opposed to our accepting such a paltry state of things, the opposite of the “state of grace” and surrealist vision of what might be possible.

First of all, the muses who can combine the realms of perception are primary. Breton’s notion of the “femme-enfant,” the child-woman who combines in herself opposite ages so that time “holds no sway over her” is important beyond the notion of time. For she is another avatar of the miraculous female principle, which he calls upon in the legendary mermaid Mélusine, powerful against the principle of war (a male principle). In the volume called Arcanum 17, written in North America during his visit here, he extols this ambiguous figure as the one able to undo all ego-based systems, not subject to them any more than she is subject to place or time.

Emotion overcomes contradiction, Breton believes. And it is in an emotional state of grace that the beauty he calls “convulsive” can be properly conceived: it is a dynamic recognition of the “reciprocal relations linking the object seen in its motion and its repose,” thus, a point of view diametrically opposed to any static perception, and readying itself—in a constant state of expectation—for the encounter with the marvelous, that unexpected “surprise, splendor, and dazzling outlook onto something other than what we are able to know,” as he explains the major “key to the fields” (Free Rein). In such objects, which have always captivated him, Breton finds an interpenetration of mind and matter, the overcoming of “the dualism of perception and representation.” What we think of as “Primitive Art,” including that kind of object Breton sees as haloed, for example, those from Oceania that are able to “lay bare the primordial fears that civilized life, or what passes as such, has masked,” and in confronting them, has warred against our staleness “in the battlefield of the mind” (Free Rein). Breton was a dealer in art objects, particularly African, and the Surrealists were all passionate about the kind of bearing an object in the external world could have on their imagination, or on their inner world. (The definition Breton often gave of “objective chance,” or the thing discovered by luck, like the found object, was that it was running across in the outside world of an answer to a question you were not aware of having.) So the Surrealists, wherever they were, would make expeditions to parks, but in particular to flea markets and to antique stores, in order to discover objects with primitive power, able to unleash those passions in their possessors.

The goal of this search for passion was a total reviewing and redoing of the way the world could be changed by the surrealist optimism. That such a goal was of course impossible in no way impeded Breton’s rhetorical flow of style or his high-flying ideas. It was as if the more impossible situations and desires led him to greater heights of rhetoric. From an ordinary human point of view, surrealism as Breton conceived it was vastly over-reaching—but his was not an ordinary point of view. Surrealism was infinitely ambitious, having as its goal the transformation of both life and world, along with human understanding, by what Breton called a “lyric behavior.”

Breton’s self-writing and idea-writing may seem overblown, but they are nonetheless admirable for that. The new mythology he saw himself as participating in depended on his style of assurance. Like the much-admired Gaston Bachelard, a postman turned phenomenologist and professor, and often called the philosopher of surrealism, Breton believed in replacing the idea of perception by that of admiration, the passive seeing of what is in the universe by the active involvement in it. His notion of vision was an assertive one: to be a positive part of what one looked at.

Breton’s great ideas remain powerful in our time: those of the linking of opposites, of the active and admirative vision as opposed to the passive one, of the active participation of the human in the universe instead of the acceptance of the “unacceptable human condition.” His salute to the mermaid Mélusine: that recognition of the importance of the female principle as the combination of two elements—that of the child-woman or the mermaid—as that mixture that can overcome the male competitive syndrome and the bellicose predilections of the male ego surprises still now by its acuteness. “War does not pay,” says Breton.

But beyond the ideas remains the poetry. This, then, from the conclusion of Communicating Vessels, that as an image, as a thought, and as words making love for themselves and for us all, speaks with a voice many of us might gladly claim as our own:

The poet to come will surmount the depressing idea of the irreparable divorce between action and dream. . . . From then on the poetic operation will be conducted in broad daylight. No one will any longer try to pick a quarrel with a few people, who will in the long run become all people, because of actions long considered suspicious by others and ambiguous by themselves, actions they pursue in order to retain eternity in the moment and to fuse the general with the particular. . . . They will already be outside, mingled with everyone else in full sunlight, and will cast no more complicitous or intimate a look than others do at truth itself when it comes to shake out, at their dark window, its hair streaming with light.

Selected Works by André Breton in Translation

Anthology of Black Humor. City Lights Books, $18.95.
Arcanum 17. Green Integer Books, $12.95.
The Automatic Message, The Magnetic Fields, The Immaculate Conception (with Paul Eluard and Phillippe Soupault). Exact Change, $16.99.
Break of Day. University of Nebraska Press, $40.00.
Communicating Vessels. University of Nebraska Press, $12.00.
Earthlight. Green Integer Books, $13.95.
Free Rein. University of Nebraska Press, $50.00.
The Lost Steps. University of Nebraska Press, $40.00.
Mad Love. University of Nebraska Press, $13.00.
Manifestoes of Surrealism. University of Michigan Press, $18.95.
My Heart Through Which Her Heart Has Passes. Alyscamps Press, $13.00.
Nadja. Grove Press, $11.00.

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