André Breton 1896–1966
French poet, essayist, novelist, critic, and dramatist.
Breton was the founder and primary theoretician of Surrealism, an influential literary and artistic movement dedicated to examining the irrational, paranormal, and subconscious aspects of the human mind. Originated in the 1920s, surrealism sought to replace established moral and ethical concepts with a philosophy of irrationality that Breton described as "exalting the values of poetry, love, and liberty." Accordingly, his poems are experiments in prose, free verse, and automatic writing; they draw upon socialist politics, the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, and such mystical phenomena as alchemy and astrology.
Breton was born in Tinchebray in the Normandy region of France. As a young boy he spent time in Lorient on the Brittany coast, the ocean, shore, and sky of which featured vividly in his poetic imagery. Prior to his literary career, he attended medical school at the University of Paris and became familiar with the ideas of such neurologists as Freud, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Pierre Janet. His psychiatric work in an army medical unit during World War I furthered his interest in the subconscious aspects of the human mind. Following the war, Breton became active in the Dadaist movement (a nihilistic philosophy of art and literature that proposed the cynical rejection of all established cultural values) and produced Mont de piété (Pawnshop), his first collection of poems. Breton soon became disenchanted with the limitations and destructiveness of Dadaism and sought to supplant it with Surrealism. His poetry collection Les Champs magnétiques (Magnetic Fields; coauthored with Philippe Soupault) has been called the first Surrealist text. Between the mid-1920s and World War II, Breton guided the rapid progress of the Surrealist movement, publishing manifestoes and editing Surrealist journals. Breton lived in self-imposed exile in North America during World War II and the German occupation of France. His memoirs (Entretiens, 1913-1952), published in 1952, give comprehensive coverage of his intellectual life, and explain his motives, his enthusiasms, and his often unstable relationships with friends and fellow artists. Breton returned to France at the end of World War II, where he lived until his death in Paris in 1966.
In his early Surrealist poetry, collected in Magnetic Fields, Clair de terre (Earthlight), and Poisson soluble (Soluble Fish), Breton experimented with Pierre Janet's concept of psychic automatism, using a stream-of-consciousness approach
known as automatic writing in which random, subconscious responses to self-induced dreams, hallucinations, and trances are transcribed into written form. Much of his poetry of the 1930s makes use of biological and botanical symbolism as well as contrasts between images of light, fire, and darkness. In the complex theatrical pieces collected in Le Revolver à cheveux blancs (The White-Haired Revolver) and in the ritualistic and erotic love poetry in L'Air de l'eau (Airwater), Breton evidenced a preference for bizarre metaphors and arcane language. The style of his poetic epics Fata Morgana and Ode à Charles Fourier (Ode to Charles Fourier) is considered more hermetic and less automatic than that of his early works and expresses in metaphoric and mythological terms Breton's self-exile during World War II. The prose poems in Constellations, written in 1940 and collected with drawings by Joan Miró, present images of the poet as craftsman, painter, and magician.
Breton's interest in automatic writing, his adherence to surrealism, and his dense and arcane imagery have polarized critical assessment of his poems. Early judgment was particularly divided. Louise Bogan, for example, a poet and contemporary of Breton's, considered his work childish and formulaic; John Berryman dismissed it as ephemeral. Others, such as Anna Balakian and Wallace Fowlie, have seen Breton as an accomplished poet whose instincts were both original and timeless. One consistent focus has been on the complexity of his vocabulary, and the consensus among literary critics today is that Breton's poems deserve close study for the richness of the language they employ and for the way that language lends itself to a variety of critical interpretations.
Mont de piété [Pawnshop] 1919
Les Champs magnétiques (with Philippe Soupault) 1920; also published as Magnetic Fields, 1985
Clair de terre 1923; also published as Earthlight, 1990
Poisson soluble [Soluble Fish] 1924
Ralentir travaux [Slow Down Construction; with Rene Char and Paul Eluard] 1930
L'Union libre 1931
Le Revolver à cheveux blancs [The White-haired Revolver] 1932
L'Air de l'eau [Airwater] 1934
Fata Morgana 1940
Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares: Jeunes cerisiers garantis contre les lièvres (bilingual edition) 1946
Ode à Charles Fourier 1947; also published as Ode to Charles Fourier, 1969
Le La [The Tone Setting] 1961
Signe ascendent, suivi de Fara Morgana, les Etats Généreux, Dex Epingles tremblantes, Xénophiles, Ode à Charles Fourier, Le La 1968
Selected Poems 1969
Poems of André Breton: A Bilingual Anthology 1982
Oeuvres Complètes 1988
Other Major Works
Manifeste du surréalisme; Poisson soluble (manifesto) 1924
Les Pas perdus (essays) 1924
Nadja (novel) 1928
Le Surréalisme et la peinture (criticism) 1928
Second manifeste du surréalisme (manifesto) 1930
Les Vases communicants (novel) 1932
Qu'est-ce que le surréalisme? (lecture) 1934
Du temps que les surréalistes avaient raison (pamphlet) 1935
Position politique du surréalisme (lectures, speeches, and interviews) 1935
L'Amour fou (novel) 1937
Arcane 17 (novel) 1944
La Situation du surréalisme entre les deux guerres (lectures) 1945
Les Manifestes du surréalisme, [suivis de] Prolégomènes à un trosième manifeste du surréalisme ou non (manifestoes) 1946
Yves Tanguy (essays, poems, and photographs) 1946
Entretiens, 1913-1952 (interviews) 1952
La Clé des champs (essays) 1953
Manifestes du surrealisme (manifesto, complete edition) 1962
What Is Surrealism?: Selected Writings 1978
SOURCE: A review of Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, in The New Yorker, Vol. XXII, No. 39, November 9, 1946, pp. 121-23.
[Bogan was an American lyric poet whose darkly romantic verse is characterized by her use of traditional structures, concise language, and vivid description. Bogan was also a distinguished critic known for her exacting standards and her penetrating analysis of many of the major poets of the twentieth century. In the following review, she accuses Breton's poetry of exhibiting the "student childishness" she finds typical of surrealism.]
It is extraordinary how vital and adult the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, who passed with the speed of a comet through the French literary world between his sixteenth and his nineteenth year (1870-73), now appears. Beside it, the poetry of the Surrealist André Breton, one of his successors, who was born in 1896 and has worked all his life as a literary experimenter, seems much more the work of an adolescent. This season [November 1946], we are able closely to compare the works of the young innovator and of this successor. View Editions has published a volume of André Breton's poetry, Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, translated by Edouard Roditi (with drawings by Arshile Gorky and a cover designed by Marcel Duchamp), at the same time that New Directions has published a new translation, by Louise Varèse, of the prose poems from Rimbaud's Illuminations. The comparison brings out the truth that there are no short cuts to the world of the imagination. Rimbaud, in spite of occasional big talk about control over his subconscious processes, knew that he was only an instrument for them. ("It is wrong to say: I think. One should say: I am thought.") Breton has consciously applied every known method to get at "le...
(The entire section is 760 words.)
SOURCE: "Miró and Breton," in Yale French Studies, No. 31, 1964, pp. 52-9.
[Hubert is a poet and scholar. In the following excerpt, she analyzes Breton's surrealist technique in Constellations, a volume consisting of twenty-two prose poems that parallel paintings by the artist Joan Miró.]
Breton's Surrealist technique, unchanged since Poisson soluble, is very much in evidence in Constellations. An animated spectacle unfolds, several events happen simultaneously, and this multifarious animation provides the only unity. "Le Lever du soleil" suggests a solitary child's crossing of the threshold leading into a world of fantasy, legend, and heraldry....
(The entire section is 1191 words.)
SOURCE: "Metaphor and Metamorphosis in André Breton's Poetics," in French Studies, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1965, pp. 34-41.
[Balakian is an author and educator who has contributed many articles and reviews to language and literature journals. She has also published several book-length studies on Surrealism and Breton, including Breton: Magus of Surrealism (1971). In the excerpt below, Balakian explores Breton's poetical representation of the hermetic belief in metamorphosis and differentiates it from the theory of transcendentalism, two ideas that she feels are "too often and too carelessly… linked as part of a continuous chain in the history of poetics."]
(The entire section is 3108 words.)
SOURCE: "Breton's 'Rano Raraku,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 40, No. 4, Summer, 1982, pp. 50-2.
[Knowlton is an American critic, translator, and educator. In this essay he stresses the importance of reading the poems in Xénophiles within their original context—as part of a catalog published for an exhibit of Oceanic art objects, and related directly to the objects and myths they describe. Within this context the critic interprets "Rano Raraku" as a statement against war.]
Que c'est beau le monde
La Grèce n'a jamais existé
Ils ne passeront pas
Mon cheval trouve son...
(The entire section is 1097 words.)
SOURCE: "Savage and Civilized," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4230, April 27, 1984, p. 450.
[Cardinal is an English educator who specializes in French studies, surrealism, symbolism, and psychopathological creation. In the following excerpt, he assesses Breton's poetry as a brilliant exploration of the power of language.]
Towards the end of his life, André Breton published a tiny book as his poetic testament. Le La consists simply of four enigmatic sentences which popped into Breton's mind while he was on the verge of sleep. Such samples of preconscious language are presented as touchstones of the poetic, inasmuch as they spring unmediated from the...
(The entire section is 892 words.)
SOURCE: "Semiosis and Intertextuality in Breton's 'Femme et Oiseau,'" in The Romanic Review, Vol. LXXVI, No. 4, November, 1985, pp. 415-28.
[In the essay below, Bohn relates "Femme et Oiseau" to its corresponding Miró painting in order to demonstrate that the poems in Constellations are not descriptive but rather they represent Breton's subjective reaction to Miró's paintings.]
In 1958 André Breton wrote twenty-two prose poems inspired by a series of gouaches that Joan Miró had created nearly twenty years earlier. Collected the following year in Constellations, each poem was juxtaposed with the appropriate painting in a mathematical progression based...
(The entire section is 6053 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to Dada/Surrealism, No. 17, 1988, pp. 1-11.
[This excerpt was taken from Balakian's introduction to an issue of Dada/Surrealism that was devoted entirely to Breton. Balakian offers an overview of Breton's major poems and his best-known poetic techniques.]
Viewed in its totality, the work of André Breton falls into three categories: the theoretical and philosophical essays, his narrative prose, and his poetry. The last two facets of his writing substantiate his modernism, which the first category announces. In a somewhat gothically constructed eighteenth-century prose, the theoretical texts belie automatism; they are sometimes a rebuttal...
(The entire section is 2156 words.)
SOURCE: "The Communicating Labyrinth: Breton's 'La Maison d'Yves' as a Micm-Manifeste," in Dada/Surrealism, No. 17, 1988, pp. 111-20.
[Below, Zuern reads Breton's poem "La Maison d'Yves" as a surrealist manifesto.]
André Breton's "La Maison d'Yves," in which Breton pays tribute to Yves Tanguy, presents itself as an inviting venue for the exploration of the surrealist aesthetic both in literature and the visual arts. The poem's interest lies not only in its testimony to Breton's enthusiastic support of the work of fellow avant-garde artists, but a careful reading reveals that in "La Maison d'Yves" Breton's tribute to Tanguy develops into an expression of the...
(The entire section is 4046 words.)
SOURCE: "Graphemic Gymnastics in Surrealist Literature," in The Romanic Review, Vol. 81, No. 2, March, 1990, pp. 211-23.
[In the following excerpt, Metzidakis analyzes Breton's extraordinary use of language in Poisson soluble.]
Although the term "surrealist" has come to be applied to many different kinds of writing—from the bizarre to the fantastic—the term itself was first defined and used extensively by the founder and eventual "pope" of the Surrealist movement, André Breton. For him the word referred specifically to the type of texts that he and his cohorts were producing automatically, beginning in the period that directly followed World War I. While...
(The entire section is 6094 words.)
SOURCE: "The Leading Surreal Light," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 18, 1993, p. 5.
[Merrill is an American poet and critic. In the following review, Merrill presents an overview of Breton's poetic achievement.]
How many Surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? The answer—a fish—is at once inoffensive and to the point: Andre Breton and his friends wanted to reinvent man's relationship to life itself, and what better place to begin than with a simple mechanical operation? Illumination was their theme, humor their favorite means and the only problem with this joke, they might have said, is that it is not offensive. After all, these were the...
(The entire section is 763 words.)