Breton, André (Vol. 2)
Breton, André 1896–1966
A French poet and novelist, Bret on founded the Surrealist Movement in the early 1920's. His best-known work is the novel Nadja. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
As a poet, [André] Breton spoke with authoritative tones. So much so, indeed, that a malicious observer might be inclined to attribute special importance to his respect for Victor Hugo. From the moment when Breton's poetry began to evidence self-assurance, it was characterized by a tone which has done much to lend support to accusations that he assumed the role of pontiff. Breton's unshakable conviction that his was a privileged voice underlies many of his statements which lend themselves to misinterpretation. It is displayed even better in an innate respect for language patterns and an intuitive command of their capabilities. These qualities would strike a discordant note of harmony in the calculated cacophony of early surrealist writing were it not that Breton possessed to an uncanny degree the power to persuade us that mediation is, in his case, not a self-imposed role but a natural gift. In a way that sets his verse notably apart from his companions' in the surrealist venture, Breton undertook to give language in his poetry the function surrealism attributes to it: "to make cognition take a long step." (p. 37)
J. H. Matthews, André Breton, Columbia University Press, 1967.
In Nadja, though less systematically than in Manifestes du Surréalisme, the author expresses his estrangement from an existing order and the necessity of finding a new direction. As protagonist of his own novel, Breton not only denies by his attitude and behavior any tangible form of coherence, but he refuses to adhere to any schedule or subject himself to any occupation, and he proudly asserts that he differs from the slaves who leave offices and factories towards the end of the day. Even as a writer he claims to flee discipline or effort and advocates a receptive form of passivity….
It is through poetry (reciting Baudelaire's poems, examining Jarry's texts) that Nadja and Breton reach their most intense moments. Nadja offers love letters written by her former suitors in the hope that Breton will decipher her message of love, thus revealing the continuity of love, superseding the separation of lovers. After her disappearance the heroine sends him personal love letters which he will read not as letters but as poetry. Through her encounter with Breton, Nadja's poetic conscience manifests itself—it is to be inferred—more intensely than in the presence of her former lovers, while Breton himself accedes to a higher reality after her departure in his unabated pursuit of the same enigmas and revelations. In this expanded universe he attains or utters poetry which can be defined as an aspiration to the realm where water and fire, day and night, self and others can unite.
Renée Riese Hubert, "The Coherence of Breton's Najda," in Contemporary Literature (© 1969 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1969, pp. 241-52.
The importance of André Breton shows signs of being endless. The virtual Surrealist revival that has been upon us in the last decade is not the first, nor is it likely to be the last recrudescence of that poet's vision. For, as John Ashbery has observed, we are all Surrealists now: "It is becoming plainer every day that Breton's 'future resolution of the states of dream and reality' is no longer just around the corner." Yet Breton remains perhaps the least widely read modern poetic preceptor. Indeed, in America he has scarcely been read at all; he continues to influence through the diffusion of his ideas, while his poems remain largely in French and/or out of print. Which is not to say that the embargo affects only him. Better poets than he—Reverdy or Desnos, for instance—have fared even worse on these shores….
Breton's context is not ours, though he prophesied ours. We may all be Surrealists, but...
(The entire section is 1,654 words.)