Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1654
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 we are Surrealists in our bones, whereas Breton, having invented the idea, was one in his head. What with the extreme types of abstraction currently rife in all the arts, poetry included, this poet's écriture automatique is now little more dismaying than Lewis Carroll's "nonsense." Thus our admiration for Breton takes on a degree of reverence that undermines the aggressions of his work. He is simply a hero, like Napolean, like Rimbaud, and the smoke has cleared from his battlefields. But he remains a splendid poet, too, and his admission to the official Pantheon should be conducted immediately, with due public pomp and articles in the Times, if only to give us a balanced view of what's been happening in this century.
Peter Schjeldahl, in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1971, pp. 262-64.
André Breton can never accept the nihilist's view of reality. Throughout his life, he chooses eroticism over obscenity; he prefers the affirmative….
Breton designates Les Champs magnétique, (1921), as the first Surrealist work. Co-authored by Soupault and himself, the work makes bold use of dream, hypnosis, and automatic writing. These buried activities of the psyche provide a focus of exploration and dissent for writers as different in temperament as Aragon, Eluard, Crevel, Desnos, Péret, and for such painters as Ernst, Picabia, Chirico….
The ambiguities of the Surrealist revolution in the mental and physical, in the poetic and political, spheres are never resolved. Breton opposes Communist interference with the inner life, and moves unsteadily toward a form of utopianism that permist him, in later years, to include Trotsky among the elect: Marx, Freud, Lautréamont, and Rimbaud….
The Romantic ideas of genius, madness, and imagination define the basis of liberty in Surrealism, the total freedom of thought. With Freud, the unconscious is finally acknowledged as a larger part of mind, and dreams join the waking state to make what Breton chooses to call "surreality." His first manifesto provides the slogan: "SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism … the actual functioning of thought … ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought." Implicit in the slogan is a magical view of the universe and of its invisible correspondences. Breton's second manifesto identifies the quest of the Surrealist poet with that of the alchemist; the search for the philosopher's stone gives the human imagination a dazzling victory over the world of things. In their common quest, men stand equal in the democracy of the subconscious and recover, each and everyone, the forgotten language, the subliminal message….
Breton's Nadja (1928) [is composed of random] meditations, recollections, coincidences, and dreams [to make] a work that opens with the ancient query: "Who am I?" We are taken into a world of transparencies, an enchanted universe of glass where the visible and invisible melt: "I rest at night on a glass bed with glass sheets, where who I am will appear to me, sooner or later, graven in diamond." Into that world drifts a strange, visionary creature, Nadja, who is the wandering soul. Her agony is the agony of love and terror in a realm of perpetual contingencies. Subject becomes object; the author blends into his creature; the reader dreams and is the dream of anima mundi. Breton asks: What are the hidden laws of the universe, its occult powers, its correspondences? We move in "the kingdom of silence." Word and act seem to exchange a meaning none has previously understood. Beauty shudders as the self meets itself walking down the street. Yet the reader of Nadja finally feels constricted. He emerges from a claustral realm, over-determined by unknown forces, in which psychotics obey dark compulsions. In denying the norms of "Literature" and the limits of existence, Breton ends by enforcing the strict rules of the invisible.
Ihab Hassan, in his The Dismemberment of Orpheus (© 1971 by Ihab Hassan; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 69-78.
Most of Breton's best poems, and those of the other Surrealists, show the "Free Union" he extols between the poet and the woman, between the poem and the universe it mirrors, between the poet's perception and his representation. And this union is the possible union of all his work, of the hermetic and the clear: "to make the windows fly open." (pp. 89-90)
If there is one quality which sets Breton apart from his contemporaries and his predecessors, it is [an] intense energy which comes through all his writing and seems to have pervaded his life as well. His desperate optimism, his striking refusal of the ordinary ways of thinking he found limited for the search of the fil conducteur to link all the limitless fields he has opened, his personality (usually described as "magnetic"), all these are uncompromising, dramatic, and, at their best, contagious. Breton, and Surrealism as he conceived it and guided it, stand out as unique examples of total involvement and complete passion, a fact which is probably responsible for the adverse judgments passed on Breton, on the Surrealists, and on Surrealism as a movement. Passion may look ridiculous to the dispassionate, and complete involvement childish to the uninvolved. (p. 118)
Mary Ann Caws, André Breton, Twayne, 1971.
There was a kind of driving discipline in [André] Breton which was at odds with his aspiration to total freedom. He was also a fundamentally serious man, and so was soon disenchanted with the frivolity of Dada and the unprincipled opportunism of Tristan Tzara. He did not see surrealism as an esthetic. For Breton art was never an end in itself. His intention was "to put poetry at the service of the great work of the rehabilitation of man in the modern world."… Hence he ceased to revere writers he had formerly admired—Apollinaire, Gide, Valéry—because they limited their efforts to the esthetic.
Donald Schier, in Carleton Miscellany, Fall/Winter, 1971–72, p. 134.
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