André Breton 1896–1966
French poet, essayist, novelist, critic, and dramatist.
Breton was the founder and primary theoretician of Surrealism, an influential literary and artistic movement dedicated to examining the irrational, paranormal, and subconscious aspects of the human mind. Originated in the 1920s, surrealism sought to replace established moral and ethical concepts with a philosophy of irrationality that Breton described as "exalting the values of poetry, love, and liberty." Accordingly, his poems are experiments in prose, free verse, and automatic writing; they draw upon socialist politics, the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, and such mystical phenomena as alchemy and astrology.
Breton was born in Tinchebray in the Normandy region of France. As a young boy he spent time in Lorient on the Brittany coast, the ocean, shore, and sky of which featured vividly in his poetic imagery. Prior to his literary career, he attended medical school at the University of Paris and became familiar with the ideas of such neurologists as Freud, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Pierre Janet. His psychiatric work in an army medical unit during World War I furthered his interest in the subconscious aspects of the human mind. Following the war, Breton became active in the Dadaist movement (a nihilistic philosophy of art and literature that proposed the cynical rejection of all established cultural values) and produced Mont de piété (Pawnshop), his first collection of poems. Breton soon became disenchanted with the limitations and destructiveness of Dadaism and sought to supplant it with Surrealism. His poetry collection Les Champs magnétiques (Magnetic Fields; coauthored with Philippe Soupault) has been called the first Surrealist text. Between the mid-1920s and World War II, Breton guided the rapid progress of the Surrealist movement, publishing manifestoes and editing Surrealist journals. Breton lived in self-imposed exile in North America during World War II and the German occupation of France. His memoirs (Entretiens, 1913-1952), published in 1952, give comprehensive coverage of his intellectual life, and explain his motives, his enthusiasms, and his often unstable relationships with friends and fellow artists. Breton returned to France at the end of World War II, where he lived until his death in Paris in 1966.
In his early Surrealist poetry, collected in Magnetic Fields, Clair de terre (Earthlight), and Poisson soluble (Soluble Fish), Breton experimented with Pierre Janet's concept of psychic automatism, using a stream-of-consciousness approach
known as automatic writing in which random, subconscious responses to self-induced dreams, hallucinations, and trances are transcribed into written form. Much of his poetry of the 1930s makes use of biological and botanical symbolism as well as contrasts between images of light, fire, and darkness. In the complex theatrical pieces collected in Le Revolver à cheveux blancs (The White-Haired Revolver) and in the ritualistic and erotic love poetry in L'Air de l'eau (Airwater), Breton evidenced a preference for bizarre metaphors and arcane language. The style of his poetic epics Fata Morgana and Ode à Charles Fourier (Ode to Charles Fourier) is considered more hermetic and less automatic than that of his early works and expresses in metaphoric and mythological terms Breton's self-exile during World War II. The prose poems in Constellations, written in 1940 and collected with drawings by Joan Miró, present images of the poet as craftsman, painter, and magician.
Breton's interest in automatic writing, his adherence to surrealism, and his dense and arcane imagery have polarized critical assessment of his poems. Early judgment was particularly divided. Louise Bogan, for example, a poet and contemporary of Breton's, considered his work childish and formulaic; John Berryman dismissed it as ephemeral. Others, such as Anna Balakian and Wallace Fowlie, have seen Breton as an accomplished poet whose instincts were both original and timeless. One consistent focus has been on the complexity of his vocabulary, and the consensus among literary critics today is that Breton's poems deserve close study for the richness of the language they employ and for the way that language lends itself to a variety of critical interpretations.