André Breton

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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...

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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 procedures and producing works that adhered to its principles with dogmatic consistency.

With the publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism, Surrealism became not only the first anti-intellectual intellectual movement but also, and more important, a way of life for the select members of his coterie, which included such writers as Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Antonin Artaud, Robert Desnos, and Benjamin Crevet. Many notable artists also participated in the strange exercises that Breton devised to help them free themselves from the chains of logical training. These activities consisted of, besides automatic writing, dream interpretation and transcription, hypnosis, aleatory (random) walking through the streets of Paris, psychic automatism in both painting and writing, and attempts at accurate simulation of verbal communication of the insane. Some of these artists eventually attained worldwide fame and became synonymous with the avant-garde of the 1920’s and 1930’s: Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Marc Chagall, Matta, and Yves Tanguy among others. For writers and painters alike, these spiritual exercises became attempts on their part to return to a form of radical innocence that viewed the world with a childlike sense of the marvelous. The purpose of such Surrealist activities was a revitalization and recuperation of the redemptive powers of the imagination that had been displaced by the abstractions of rationality. They viewed the imagination not as the opposite of the real but, rather, as its center.

Breton himself began a series of books that demonstrated his absolute adherence to these principles and beliefs. Surrealism may be a composite of a number of mysterious traditions, but there is no question that Breton was reformulating also the basic tenets of Romanticism at its most basic level—that is, that human utterance and expression, unencumbered by societal rules, is at all times “truth” in its purest form. So-called objective truth is a fiction, and the only truth available since Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1838) is subjective truth.

Breton began a six-year unsuccessful flirtation with Communism that ended in the mid-1930’s. His first major text, Nadja (English translation, 1960), appeared in 1928. The work is unapologetically autobiographical; it studiously avoids plot in any traditional sense. Indeed, Breton hoped that new works such as Nadja would destroy the traditional novel, which nurtured logical and naturalistic techniques and overly descriptive styles. The technique used not only in this novel but also in his other three major prose works is that of the interior monologue. The autobiographical elements are portrayed by actual photographs of sites where the action takes place. He used photographs because he wanted to eliminate any form of extraneous description. He also wanted to rid his novels, as he states in his first Manifesto of Surrealism, of all situations that do not directly influence the destinies of the characters’ souls or the meaning of their lives.

Breton’s next prose works, Les Vases communicants (1932; communicating vessels) and L’Amour fou (1937; mad love), explore further and in more detail the topics that he had theoretically proposed in the first Manifesto of Surrealism. In Les Vases communicants, Breton analyzes his own dreams and their relationship to the waking state in the hope of establishing some sort of “conducting wire” between them. For him the unconscious and its spokesman, the dream, do not consist of bipolar opposites or mutually exclusive polarities. The dream establishes a relationship or communication between the interior and exterior worlds, extinguishing dichotomies such as “real” and “imagined” or “subject” and “object.”

In L’Amour fou, Breton continues his journey into the possibilities that life offers him and their relationship with what he calls “objective chance.” He finds, by chance, the great love of his life, Jacqueline, who in real life was Jacqueline Lamba, who became Breton’s second wife and mother of his only child, Aube. These forces of the marvelous depicted in this trilogy of antinovels were consistently favorable toward its searching protagonist, Breton. Indeed, the energies of the unconscious as presented by Surrealist artists were usually benign, whereas the Dadaists prefered to demonstrate their destructive and nightmarish aspects, a philosophical orientation that separated these two schools early in their development.

In Arcane 17 (1944), Breton moved from Europe to western Canada, specifically the Gaspé Peninsula. He attempted to play down any novelistic techniques in this work and stressed a documentary format intermingled with fairly obvious mythological patterns. Elisa Bindhoff, the woman whom Breton subsequently married, is viewed as a modern embodiment of the Celtic Goddess, Melusine, but she also mirrors his own alienated condition from his European roots. This antinovel is Breton’s most alchemical work and takes its title from the seventeenth card of the Hebraic-Egyptian tarot pack representing the reign of love and intelligence that takes place after the fall of Lucifer. This is Breton’s most consciously mystical book, but his mysticism is grounded in the optimism of the redemptive and transfigurative power of love itself, the greatest of all mysteries. Love, as embodied in the form of Melusine-Elisa, succeeds in the alchemical reconciliation of opposites, turning darkness into light by its power. Ironically, the years in which this strange work was written were not only his own but also Western civilization’s darkest.

True to Breton’s penchant for formulating his philosophical ideas prior to specifying them in his literary work, his Second Manifeste du surréalisme (1930; Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1969) had reoriented his prose works toward conception of the world as a monistic entity rather than a battleground of dualistic, or bipolar, opposites. In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, he quite consciously sought models or analogies taken from classic studies of the occult and the alchemical, as Jung himself had done in the mid-1930’s. Indeed, his poetry had always presented love as the unifying point of vision and desire, but it is in his later and more structured long poems that clearly articulated alchemical motifs are used as both metaphors and physical entities. In L’Union libre (1931; Free Union, 1982), L’Air de l’eau (1934; the air of water), and Fata Morgana (1941; English translation, 1982), he intermixes romantic-erotic love and the four elements into a hermetic-alchemical text that only the initiates of love can decipher.

In his last major poem, Ode à Charles Fourier (1947; Ode to Charles Fourier, 1970), he moved away from the difficult hermetic texts of the war years and turned toward the figure of the Utopian sociologist Fourier as an example of a conciliator of opposites in a very literal sense. He also abandoned his adherence to free verse and unashamedly produced an ode, which he justified by stating that its subject, Fourier, was worthy of such a dignified literary form. After the war, Breton returned to France and found himself hopelessly out of style and replaced by the dark existentialism of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. His brand of optimism and Romanticism held little or no interest for a Europe that had been nearly decimated by the war and the holocaust.


Although renowned for his many innovative prose manifestos and anti-novelistic novels, André Breton will be remembered most for founding the last clearly defined artistic and literary movement, Surrealism. He is certainly one of the last great spiritual leaders in the history of Western aesthetics. In short, his philosophical works, novels, and poems became artistic embodiments of the theoretical discoveries of two of the twentieth century’s most original thinkers, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. His application of automatic writing and dream material evolved directly from Freud’s pioneering research into the unconscious, while his later attempts at an archetypal and alchemical reconciliation of opposites and a redefinition of reality as a monistic entity rather than a dualistic contest were a direct result of Jung’s lifelong study of occultism and alchemy.

Because of Breton’s influence on virtually all the major visual artists and many writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s and their utilization and adaptation of the principles of Surrealism as a viable aesthetic program, the entire intellectual thrust of Western thought was redirected away from the cold abstractions of logical positivism and reformulated according to a new and deeper consideration of the tenets of Romanticism. Because of Breton, the imagination as central to man’s attempt to define reality was once again restored to its primary position.


Balakian, Anna. André Breton: Magus of Surrealism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. The most intelligent, comprehensive, and scholarly treatment of Breton’s entire career. Balakian treats all aspects of Breton’s intellectual and spiritual development, stressing his romantic roots and orientation. Her superb explication of the highly complex hermetic-alchemical motifs in his later work are especially helpful. All of the French quotations are translated.

Caws, Mary Ann. André Breton. New York: Twayne, 1971. Caws brings the full force of her considerable intelligence to bear on Breton alone in this work. Though not as philosophically acute as Balakian, her emphasis on practical analysis of individual works makes this book an excellent beginner’s text. The French is ably translated into readable English.

Caws, Mary Ann. Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard. The Hague: Mouton, 1966. Caws’ study is limited because it stresses the literary and philosophical affinities between these two intellectual giants so that only their common interests are highlighted. The advantage to this approach is that her perceptive comments on Bachelard often uncover aspects of Breton normally left unexamined. The French texts are left untranslated.

Gershman, Herbert S. The Surrealist Revolution in France. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969. The treatment of Breton is not flattering, but Gershman does place him within an intellectual context. His history is accurate and his discussions of the aesthetics and philosophical underpinnings of Surrealism are cogent.

Matthews, J. H. André Breton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967. Although very short, this book pulls together in a very readable way a coherent reading of Breton’s major prose and poetry. Matthews places Breton within a tradition of Romantic and modernist aesthetics and presents him as a genuine hero of the modern sensibility.