André Breton Additional Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

André Breton was born on February 19, 1896, in Tinchebray, a small inland town in the old French province of Normandy. The family soon moved, however, to the fishing port of Lorient, in Brittany, on the Atlantic coast of France. This seaside environment was particularly important later in the poet’s life. When Breton first began to write in 1914, his highly imaginative lyrical poems expressed the wondrous abundance of nature and were often filled with images of sea life and other details evoking the maritime setting of his youth—which contrasted sharply with his life in Paris.

Breton was an only child, and his parents seemingly had an unusually strong influence on his personality. His father, who was a merchant, seems almost a prototype of the complacent, self-satisfied bourgeois that the Surrealists were later to attack as the epitome of the social conformity they rejected. Breton’s mother, whom he described as straitlaced, puritanical, and harsh in her response to any suggestion of impropriety, must have also been responsible, to a large degree, for his later hatred of restraint and his provocative attitude toward anything he considered conventional.

Being the only child of a comfortably situated family, Breton had much attention lavished on him, and, naturally, his parents had great ambitions for him. He attended school in Paris from 1907 until his graduation in 1912, entering the Sorbonne in 1913 to study medicine. This contact with medicine was also important for the later development of the poet and is reflected in Breton’s diverse poetic vocabulary. Even more important, however, was the experience which resulted when Breton was sent to work at the neurological center of the hospital at Nantes during World War I instead of into combat. Breton’s experiences as a medical assistant during the war—first at Nantes and later at the psychiatric center at Saint-Dizier, to which he was transferred in 1917—introduced the young, impressionable poet to the bizarre aberrations of mental illness.

During this period, Breton was exposed not only to the diverse forms of mental illness from which the soldiers suffered but also to the theories upon which the practical measures used to treat them were based. Among the most important of these theories were those of Jean-Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud, and Pierre Janet, each of which contributed an important element to...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The litereary career of critic and poet André Breton (bruh-tohn), like those of many of his contemporaries, was a search for new forms of art. Originally a medical student, he entered the literary world in 1919 as cofounder of the magazine Littérature. Under his leadership, the magazine quickly became a major voice in the Dada movement. Breton became disenchanted and in 1921 officially founded the Surrealist movement. His poetry and critical writings provide the major statements of literary Surrealism. Breton’s three manifestos of Surrealism (1924, 1930, and 1942) gave an aesthetic base to the movement. In his first manifesto, Breton announced his credo: “I believe in the final resolving of these two states of mind, dream and reality apparently so contradictory, in a kind of absolute reality, of sur-reality.” The poet’s insistence upon narrow limits to the concerns of Surrealism, however, ultimately proved too restrictive.

During the 1920’s Breton embraced communist political ideology and was, for a number of years, its chief artistic spokesperson. He broke with communism in 1935, however, and his critical work Position politique du surréalisme, stated that propagandistic and didactic aims defeat artistic impulses. He took refuge in the United States from 1940 until 1946, where he wrote the third manifesto of Surrealism, in order to defend his movement from charges that it was an old-fashioned and outmoded remnant of a past epoch.

Breton’s poetry, like his critical writings, is marked by his determination to promulgate the principles of Surrealism. which were to overthrow all traditional values based on reason in a “revolution” of rethinking reality which would include exploring the unconscious and admitting the supreme importance of “desire.” His early medical training in Freudian psychology led to a reliance upon poetry written at the prompts of the subconscious, unformed and unshaped by any conscious effort on the part of the writer; it was often, in fact, composed by several Surrealists working simultaneously. Other paths to the new knowledge were through dreams and experiments in the occult.

In 1928 Breton published his only novel, Nadja, a story of consuming love (always of great importance to the Surrealists), in which the beloved Nadja possesses occult powers and finally goes insane. The action is marked by coincidence, another element important to Surrealist expression. Although he was lionized in his later years, Breton’s importance as an innovator lies in his poetry and in the influential criticism written during the 1920’s and 1930’s.