André Breton Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A novelist, poet, and founder of the Surrealist movement, Breton embodied the principle that the imagination is the center of man’s definition of reality and that his creativity must be permitted to emerge unencumbered by the constraints of logic and reason.

Early Life

André Breton was born in Tinchebray, Normandy, on February 19, 1896. His family came, though, from Brittany and Lorraine, and he spent his youth in Lorient on the Brittany coast. In 1907, he was sent to the prestigious Lycée Chaptal in Paris, from which he was graduated in 1912. His parents then sent him to the University of Paris to begin his medical studies. Although he was a respectable student, his interests lay elsewhere, specifically in the latest productions of the emerging modernist poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, Le Comte de Lautréamont, Paul Valéry, and especially Guillaume Apollinaire. His formal medical studies were interrupted by World War I, and he found himself serving in the ambulance corps and the neuropsychiatric wards for the war-injured in Nantes, at Saint-Dizier in the Marne and at the Val-de-Grâce in Paris, where he became an intern.

Three important events happened to Breton during these difficult times. One was his participation in the trauma of the war in which he witnessed the slaughter of young men and their precipitation into “a cloaca of blood, stupidity, and mud.” The other was his meeting with two men who became seminal influences in not only the direction of his professional life but also, more important, the formation of his general attitudes toward life itself. The first important influence on Breton was his meeting the poet-dramatist whom he most admired, Apollinaire. Indeed, Breton became this young poet’s protégé in spite of the fact that Apollinaire lay wounded and dying as a result of his war injuries. Although a leading avant-grade figure, Apollinaire tried to move the young Breton away from his innate pessimistic view of life and encouraged him to examine the philosophical relationship between poetry and painting. He also helped him to view the commonplace as an avenue to adventure by encouraging him to walk randomly the streets of Paris.

The other major influence was Jacques Vaché, who could not have been more different from Apollinaire. Vaché was another young soldier dying in a hospital as much from wounds received in battle as from his addiction to drugs and alcohol. He urged the young Breton not only to become more pessimistic but also to approach the absurdity of life with iconoclastic scorn and ridicule; the only approach to the lunacies of the world, according to Vaché, is violence. Vaché became for Breton the embodiment of nihilistic self-destruction, an image that haunted him for the remainder of his life. Apollinaire became a precursor to Surrealism. In fact Breton first heard the word “Surrealist” in Apollinaire’s play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1918; The Breasts of Tiresias, 1961) and used it as the name of the movement he founded in memory of Apollinaire. Vaché became the embodiment and, in a sense, a precursor of the Dada movement even before its inception.

Besides the major influences of these two men, Breton, as a medical doctor and psychiatric student, studied the psychological works of both Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet. Charcot’s studies of hysteria became primary texts for the Surrealists in their search for valid expressions of the unconscious, while Janet’s work in automatic writing became a channel of therapy and a medium of exploring the deepest parts of the psyche. Janet, who was one of Carl Jung’s teachers, treated the writing process as a medium or mediator between the conscious and the unconscious but only if logical rationality were sublimated. Once the logical was deactivated, real progress could be made into the world of dreams, and the energies of the primordial imagination could be tapped.

As a result of the influence of Janet’s pioneering studies in automatic writing, Breton and the young writer Philippe Soupault wrote the first pre-Surrealist automatic text, Les Champs magnétiques (1921; magnetic fields), a work that purported to use Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses”—without using drugs or alcohol—in permitting random expressions to form themselves into their own kind or order. The imagination had to be left completely free and open so the hand could write whatever the words dictated, an exercise that Rimbaud called the “alchemy of the Word.” They published their findings in a journal they founded called Littérature, using that word in an ironic sense because the texts they published challenged conventional literature of all kinds. With the publication of Les Champs magnétiques in his Surrealist journal Breton took full command of the formulation and development of the Surrealist movement, a movement that revolutionized both the writing and the visual arts and brought them into the modern era.

Life’s Work

Although Breton and his disciples became briefly enamored of the emerging Dadaist movement founded by the charismatic Tristan Tzara, the Surrealists disapproved of the Dadaist’s brand of nihilism primarily because they did not view the imagination as the sacred source and energizing force of human expression, an expression that could only take place once the life-denying force of logical reasoning was displaced. The Dadaists proved too iconoclastic and negative for the serious artists of the Surrealist movement. They preferred to record their automatic writing in perfectly correct syntax; the world, not the sentence, was in need of an enfreshened vision.

To clarify the distinction between the aims and purposes of the Dada movement and the Surrealist project, Breton set down in writing in 1924 the text that subsequently made him famous, Manifeste du surréalisme (1924; Manifesto of Surrealism, 1969). In this document, he articulated in marvelous aphoristic maxims the major tenets of the movement whose enemy was rationalistic constraint of any kind. Reason had led mankind to the brink of planetary destruction and had to be replaced with methods and techniques that possessed the ability to tap the energies of the unconscious, the seat of the imaginal realm, and release its healing powers. What is most important, the vehicles for entering into that realm were automatic writing and the dream world. From 1924 on, Breton took formal control of the Surrealist movement he had founded, publicly defending its philosophical and aesthetic purposes and...

(The entire section is 2717 words.)

André Breton Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

André Breton was born on February 19, 1896, in Tinchebray, a small inland town in the old French province of Normandy. The family soon moved, however, to the fishing port of Lorient, in Brittany, on the Atlantic coast of France. This seaside environment was particularly important later in the poet’s life. When Breton first began to write in 1914, his highly imaginative lyrical poems expressed the wondrous abundance of nature and were often filled with images of sea life and other details evoking the maritime setting of his youth—which contrasted sharply with his life in Paris.

Breton was an only child, and his parents seemingly had an unusually strong influence on his personality. His father, who was a merchant, seems almost a prototype of the complacent, self-satisfied bourgeois that the Surrealists were later to attack as the epitome of the social conformity they rejected. Breton’s mother, whom he described as straitlaced, puritanical, and harsh in her response to any suggestion of impropriety, must have also been responsible, to a large degree, for his later hatred of restraint and his provocative attitude toward anything he considered conventional.

Being the only child of a comfortably situated family, Breton had much attention lavished on him, and, naturally, his parents had great ambitions for him. He attended school in Paris from 1907 until his graduation in 1912, entering the Sorbonne in 1913 to study medicine. This contact with medicine was also important for the later development of the poet and is reflected in Breton’s diverse poetic vocabulary. Even more important, however, was the experience which resulted when Breton was sent to work at the neurological center of the hospital at Nantes during World War I instead of into combat. Breton’s experiences as a medical assistant during the war—first at Nantes and later at the psychiatric center at Saint-Dizier, to which he was transferred in 1917—introduced the young, impressionable poet to the bizarre aberrations of mental illness.

During this period, Breton was exposed not only to the diverse forms of mental illness from which the soldiers suffered but also to the theories upon which the practical measures used to treat them were based. Among the most important of these theories were those of Jean-Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud, and Pierre Janet, each of which contributed an important element to...

(The entire section is 981 words.)

André Breton Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The litereary career of critic and poet André Breton (bruh-tohn), like those of many of his contemporaries, was a search for new forms of art. Originally a medical student, he entered the literary world in 1919 as cofounder of the magazine Littérature. Under his leadership, the magazine quickly became a major voice in the Dada movement. Breton became disenchanted and in 1921 officially founded the Surrealist movement. His poetry and critical writings provide the major statements of literary Surrealism. Breton’s three manifestos of Surrealism (1924, 1930, and 1942) gave an aesthetic base to the movement. In his first manifesto, Breton announced his credo: “I believe in the final resolving of these two states of mind,...

(The entire section is 400 words.)