André Breton Breton, André (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Breton, André 1896–1966

Breton was a French novelist, essayist, and poet. The founder of surrealism, Breton viewed himself as the infallible pontiff of the movement and instituted surrealist publications, symposiums, and expositions in France, Mexico, and the United States. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Roger Cardinal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To behave irrationally, amorally, and therefore purely, was one of the ideals of early surrealism. No one was so adapted to living an authentic surrealist life as the madman, saluted on many occasions by the surrealists as the guardian of man's integrity. Associating this heroic figure with that of woman, equally prized as a source of revelation, André Breton and Louis Aragon joined in 1928 to do homage to the female patients of Charcot who had been victims of hysteria, now seen as a glorious and magical state of vision. Already in 1920, Breton had anticipated the doctrine of amour fou when he wrote 'On peut aimer plus qu'aucune autre une femme insensée.' It is therefore not surprising that Breton should have been immediately attracted when he first met a mentally disturbed girl calling herself Nadja on the Place Lafayette on the 4th October 1926. At once concerning himself with the girl to the apparent exclusion of all other preoccupations, Breton embarked on a relationship of a more than casual significance [which he related in the book Nadja].

What was it about Nadja that attracted Breton? He tells us that he was intrigued at first by her exaggerated eye-shadow, which is obviously intended to stress that she is different from other people. Breton soon gets to know in what way she is original. Nadja lives thoughtlessly, even amorally, delighting in an irresponsible way of life devoted to caprice and a certain frivolity (légèreté), which Breton begins to think might be nothing less than an unmistakable sign of true liberty. (p. 185)

Breton sees in Nadja a source of revelation …, a fairy around whom there is always an aura of magic. She is a perfect catalyst for his surrealist sensibility, and therefore the type of woman he likes most. He compares her to Mélusine, who symbolizes the Romantic ideal of woman as intermediary between man and the secret forces of life, about which he was to write at length in Arcane 17…. She impresses him as a kind of ideal surrealist woman…. (p. 186)

Behind the enigmatic marvels offered by the sibyl, behind the delightful tricks of the fairy, there looms at last the plain fact that Nadja is going mad. Breton may have realized as much at a fairly early stage…. [Was] Nadja more than an object of passionless curiosity to Breton? Was he involved in the development of her madness? Could he have helped her; did he let her down? Should he have intervened when she was put in the asylum? Finally, are his actions defensible on conventional, or again on surrealist terms? (p. 187)

[Breton] is a dispassionate observer who later writes up his observations with solemn pretentions to clinical objectivity. Breton is far from falling in love with Nadja in the manner prescribed in L'Amour fou or in Arcane 17, where he employs the language of mediumism in speaking of 'l'entrée en transe' inseparable from total commitment to love. Faced with what ought to have been an irresistible combination of madness and beauty, he remains detached, his curiosity being almost scientific. Without losing his lucidity, he humours Nadja in her surrealist utterances: he copies down what she dictates…. [So] intent was he on noting down her statements as a kind of objective poetry, that he failed to realize their significance as pathetic appeals from a subjective being. (p. 190)

In the course of the book Breton asks himself whether Nadja is lovable, and concludes frankly that what attracts him is less her person than that which she reveals to him…. He is interested in her for what she can teach him about the nature of surreality; she is only the medium, without attraction per se. Furthermore he cannot, as it were,...

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Jean-Pierre Morel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From at least three viewpoints, quite as inseparable as art and life usually are for the surrealists, Breton affirms the importance of dreams: to the poet, painter, or sculptor, dreams furnish the models—procedures and products—of an activity which is unencumbered by the constraints of realist representation; to the explorer of daily life they indicate by analogy how spaces and events which initially appear disconcerting are organized among themselves; to man in general, that "definitive dreamer," the analysis of dreams provides the most vivid sense of all the possibilities which existence offers him. Apprehending his dreams, man would in the same breath apprehend the "natural necessity" which governs all life….

Despite important reservations, [in Les Vases Communicants] Breton borrows from Freud the essential elements of the notions presented in The Interpretation of Dreams: wish-fulfillment, manifest and latent content, the mechanisms and the processes of dream-work, the method of "free association."… (p. 18)

[The] method of interpreting dreams opens a considerable breach in the defensive system of surrealism. Breton recognizes that the method is valid and necessary not only for understanding night-dreams and certain phenomena of the wakeful state but also for explaining the activity, in literature or the plastic arts, of the surrealist. The 1924 Manifesto kept open, in the domain of dreams, the possibility of several investigations that would be neither competitive nor dependent on one another, including those of the analyst and the poet. Les Vases Communicants, however, would at least appear to support a very different hypothesis: the poet has followed in the footsteps of the scientist, has borrowed from him the tools, if not the spirit (but is such a division possible?) of his research. It has even been possible to write that after spending ten years producing "material" (texts, paintings, collages, diverse games and experiences) surrealism inaugurated a new period with Les Vases Communicants: that of the interpretation of this material. Thus we are led to ask whether this text indicates that Breton is abandoning the ideas which have governed the organized activity of surrealism since 1922 in favor of recognizing the results achieved by the science of psychoanalysis, still in its formative stages, or whether he is trying to develop the earlier intuitions of surrealism in another way. And in the latter case, what would be the import of the borrowings from Freud? We cannot attempt to answer these questions without recalling, if only in a very summary fashion, the focal points of André Breton's undertaking.

First of all, a fundamental relationship unites man with the universe which surrounds him. Thus the knowledge of subjectivity is the best preparation for apprehending the world through human understanding. Inversely, all dogmatism and all oppression are based on the refusal to consider the individual being in his subjectivity. Now, in this area, there is no phenomenon so important, and until now so poorly understood, as "the constant exchange which must take place in thought between the external and the internal world, an exchange which requires the continuous interpenetration of the activity of wakefulness and of the activity of sleep."… On this point, the discoveries of psychoanalysis seem fundamental, for they will make it possible to answer several questions which, as is usual with Breton, have been raised "by life" itself: what is the relationship of dreaming to external reality? what criterion makes it possible to distinguish between the former and the latter? in what way does this relationship affect the emotional life of all men? Following the example of Freud, Breton analyzes, in the first part of Les Vases Communicants, two of his dreams, and in the second part, a period of his life (three weeks of April 1931) that he likens to a daydream (rêve éveillé). The results of this self-analysis can be restated under three headings:

(a) All the elements which compose the nightdream come from lived experience…. [His analyses lead] to complementary conclusions: the dream is formed solely with the elements of wakeful life; but also in the state of wakefulness it can happen that the human mind functions no differently than it does in dreaming. Whence the metaphor of the "communicating vases": the fluid which runs through them is desire.

(b) This force of desire, and the identity of the transformational processes to which it subjects its raw material, "whether in reality or in dreams,"… do not act at the expense of external reality. Dreaming never abolishes in man the faculty which recognizes that the external world exists outside of him and independently of him. Only madness, idealist philosophy, or religion allow and keep alive such a confusion. As a consistent materialist, Breton tries to show that space, time, and the principle of causality are identical in dreams to what they are in reality, i.e., laws or objective forms of existence, and not properties of our mind…. In dreams, the wish transforms reality without investing it with new properties which might change its nature.

(c) This conclusion is crucial because...

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Anna Balakian

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Regardless of what other surrealist colleagues have done with the basic premises of surrealism, Breton's own major statements were without ambiguity, and he adhered to them very closely throughout his life. Surrealism's major hypothesis was that man, in his status as everyman, was naturally endowed not merely with a grain of opium but with a psycho-sensory mechanism of utmost flexibility, which modern civilization had reduced more and more to rigor and uniformity of performance, thus adding to the insufferable human condition of brevity and mortality the burden of conformity and tedium. If it was futile to rebel against the mortality, he could confront the tedium of human experience….


(The entire section is 1951 words.)