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This is a guest post by Clint Sabom.
In 1924, the French poet Andre Breton published The Surrealist Manifesto. Influenced by psychoanalysis and alchemy, Breton maintained a fervent disgust for the institutions of the past that had, in his mind, exercised too much social control. In a revolutionary spirit of subversion, Surrealism presented itself as a new means to transcendence. Dreams still existed as a free space of exploration, as the world of the dreamer was not inhibited by the same constraints as waking life. Surrealism became a new means to capture the very function of thought artistically, as Breton defines in his Manifesto:
Surrealism, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express –verbally by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by though, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern (26).”
His ideas caught quick fire in Paris, and around him gathered a passionate collection of artists. In Spain, too, interest in Surrealism and its theoretical foundations flourished. It has been in the cultural canon ever since, yet Breton’s Manifesto itself is too often excluded from the contemporary discussion of Surrealism. The text is a bizarre and profound guide into the mind of a man, full of odd vignettes and commentaries: part memoir, part poetry, and part philosophical treatise. He maintained loyalty to it throughout his life, never seeing a reason to change or modify his original convictions.
Mystical theologians like Thomas Aquinas, flooded the West centuries earlier with a philosophical attempt to reconcile faith and reason. Breton, discounts reason in the process, yet does not deny its existence; he strives for a faith, a process and practice, that is free of morality. Is such a thing possible? While much of his biography lends one to believe that he steered primarily in the direction of aesthetic and psycho-spiritual transcendence, the principles of the movement grew to take on almost religious forms in some circles. Film scholar Michael Gould point out in his book, Surrealism and Cinema, that Breton’s “friends called him the Pope…” (14).
Another theme for Breton was honoring the sacred madness, much different than the medical diagnostic model of 21st century Psychology. The mad, the insane, became a demographic full of intrigue for Breton, and the problem was not them. “They are honest to a fault,” he maintained (13). Their insanity was not necessarily a failure. Far from that, it was evidence of the work left to do in Western society. The freedom of the man in the dream state was the freedom of the madman, and this was a liberation that won people a seat in societal institutions, poverty, or at the least, ongoing and unjust suffering. Yet this insanity was a mission to explore, to probe what had been left unexamined by those who had come before. Breton continued to probe the depths of human suffering in a search to uncover previously hidden beauty. In him, according to scholar Anna Balakian, “the darkness of anguish was always accompanied by the search for light” (256).
Yet for Breton and for the artist-seeker alike, the limits of time and place ultimately prevail in the search for meaning, as they do in the literal human life. Breton’s optimism up until the end of his life was obvious to all, but there was no doubt the grieving not only of his limitations but of human limitation itself. Breton described it himself as “the flagrant disposition between the breadth of man’s aspiration and the individual limits of human life” (Balakian 249).
The scope of his influence and inspiration remained strong throughout his life. Upon his death, people from far and wide come to pay tribute in a silent funeral. His good friend Benayoun described it as “waves of young men and young girls often in couples, with arms entwined, had come from unknown parts to give tribute. Some came from the provinces; others from foreign lands, and returned immediately to their homes” (Balakian 256).
Passion continued to be the blood that connected Breton to a larger international community. Life here, not the life beyond, moved forward in his mantras with or without him. One of his last poems, Arcade 17, put it like this:
(I am not like so many living men
who make plans to come back
I am the one who goes
They will spare me the cross on the tomb
And they will point me toward the North Star).
- Balakian, Anna. André Breton, Magus of Surrealism. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.
- Breton, André, and Mark Polizzotti. André Breton: Selections. Berkeley: University of California, 2003.
- Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Comp. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. [Ann Arbor]: University of Michigan, 1972.
- Caws, Mary Ann. Andre Breton. New York, NY: Twayne, 1996.
- Gould, Michael. Surrealism and the Cinema: (open-eyed Screening). Cranbury, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1976.
- Polizzotti, Mark. Revolution of the Mind: the Life of André Breton. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995.