The strength of the surrealist movement can be attributed in large part to one man, French poet André Breton, who helped found the movement after World War I in France. Surrealism was a reaction to Dadaism, which was itself a reaction to the “logic” that dadaists believed had caused the war. Surrealism, however, sought a more constructive way to rebel against rational thought than the more negative Dadaism. Drawing on the psychoanalytic studies of Sigmund Freud, the surrealists tried to expand the mind’s potential by reconciling the apparently contradictory states of dream and reality. In a series of sometimes dangerous experiments, Breton and others attempted to put themselves in a hallucinatory state, in which they believed they could tap directly into their subconscious minds and extract pure thoughts, untainted by the conscious mind and its rational constraints. Since the surrealists prized individual revelation over conscious forms, themes varied among the poets, although many wrote about some form of love or nature.
While Breton and Phillipe Soupault wrote The Magnetic Fields, considered by many to be the first truly surrealist text, in 1919, it was not until 1924, when Breton published his Manifesto of Surrealism, that the movement was officially founded. Breton ruled the group like a dictator, and his strict adherence to surrealist principles led to many expulsions and defections from the group. Nevertheless, the surrealists, who also included Paul Eluard and Robert Desnos, flourished for the next two decades, until the outbreak of World War II. Although the majority of the group’s members were poets, some tried their hand at prose as well. Breton’s novel Nadja was one of the most successful attempts. Surrealism inspired related movements in painting, sculpture, drama, and film, and has had a lasting influence on the creative arts as a whole.
Neoclassicism was a movement whose artists looked to the classical texts for their creative inspiration in an effort to imitate classical form. The writers in particular drew on what were considered to be classical virtues—simplicity, order, restraint, logic, economy, accuracy, and decorum—to produce prose, poetry, and drama. Literature was of value in accordance with its ability to not only delight, but also instruct.
Although the terms Classicism and Neoclassicism are somewhat interchangeable (and often used as such), Neoclassicism refers strictly the specific literary periods in history that produced art inspired by the ancients, which, of course, excludes the ancients themselves. It is usually more specifically defined as a Classicism that originally dominated English literature during the Restoration Age and which lasted well into the eighteenth century.
What these writers longed for began as a reaction to the Renaissance. Neoclassicists believed in Greek ideals, in restraint of passions, and valued communication as an exchange rather than individual self-expression. The Renaissance celebrated human potential, individualism, imagination, and mysticism. In contrast to the Renaissance, neoclassicists saw humans as being limited in potential and imperfect in form. They distrusted innovation and invention and believed in exercising restraint in personal expression. The efforts of the neoclassical writers resulted in the creation of a polite, urbane, and witty art form that was as instructive as it was entertaining.