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.)