The main goal of André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism is to free one’s mind from the past and from everyday reality to arrive at truths one has never known. By the time Breton wrote his manifesto, French poets—including Breton himself—and artists had already demonstrated Surrealist techniques in their work. In this sense, Breton was intent on explaining what painters and poets such as Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Robert Desnos, Max Ernst, and Breton himself had already achieved.
As a medical student in Nantes, France, before World War I, Breton became interested in the theories of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, now known as the founder of psychoanalysis. Later, during the war, Breton was an ambulance driver in the French army and found Freud’s ideas useful in helping to treat the wounded. Eventually, Breton and his literary and artistic colleagues contributed to the acceptance in France of Freud and his theories of psychoanalysis, even though Freud’s written work itself would not be translated into French until the late 1930’s.
In his manifesto, Breton alludes to Freud’s ideas about the meaning and significance of dreams and what Freud called the “psychopathology of everyday life,” those apparently inadvertent slips of the tongue and other behavioral “mistakes” that can be traced to states of the subconscious mind. Freud’s theories interested Breton largely because they refer to a subconscious life that, Breton believed, constitutes a resource rich in visual and intellectual stimulation.
In Breton’s view, one can learn to ascend to perception of a higher reality (the surreal), or more reality, if one can manage to liberate one’s psyche from traditional education, the drudgery of work, and the dullness of what is only useful in modern bourgeois culture. To achieve the heightened consciousness to which Breton wants humanity to aspire, those interested can also look to the example set by children, poets, and to a lesser extent, insane persons.
Children, Breton suggests, have not yet learned to stifle their imaginations as most adults have, and successful poets have, similarly, been able to break down the barriers of reason and tradition and have achieved ways of seeing, understanding, and creating that resemble the free, spontaneous imaginative play of children. On the other hand, as one grows up, one’s imagination is dulled by the need to make a living and by concern for practical matters. Hence, in the manifesto’s opening paragraphs, Breton calls for a return to the freedom of childhood. Furthermore, if the “insane” are, as Breton suggests, victims of their imaginations, one can learn from the mentally ill that hallucinations and illusions are often sources of considerable pleasure and creativity.
Because of Freud, Breton says, human beings can be imagined as heroic explorers who are able to push their investigations beyond the mere facts of reality and the conscious mind and seize dormant strengths buried in the subconscious. Freud’s work on the significance of dreams, Breton says, has been particularly crucial in this regard, and the manifesto contains a four-part defense of dreams.
Breton believes that Freud has shown that dreams must be respected as coherent sources of truth and of practical assistance in life. Indeed, despite what is often believed, it may be reality that interferes with dreams rather than the reverse. Hence, Breton recommends that one give oneself up to one’s dreams, allowing oneself to be satisfied by what is received from dream states instead of applying the criteria of reason to dreams. Here, Breton’s analysis takes on the language of religious fervor when he insists that if one reconciles dreams and reality, one will attain an absolute reality: surreality.
It is important to note, however, that the “surrealist consciousness” about which Breton writes is not uniquely the tool of artists. He believes, to the contrary, that ordinary people will be happier and will be able to solve heretofore...
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