André Breton Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

André Breton published many experimental works during his career, some of which were written in collaboration with friends. Les Champs magnétiques (1921; magnetic fields), the first Surrealist text to employ the technique of “automatic” writing, was done with Philippe Soupault. L’Immaculée Conception (1930; immaculate conception), an attempt to simulate the thought processes of various types of insanity, was written with Paul Éluard. Among the basic Surrealist documents were several works by Breton alone, such as Poisson soluble (1924; soluble fish) and Les Vases communicants (1932; the communicating vessels), which mixed lyrical elements with philosophical speculations cast in the form of prose, as well as the numerous polemical manifestos such as Manifeste du surréalisme (1924; Manifesto of Surrealism, 1969) and Second Manifeste du surréalisme (1930; Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1969). Breton’s numerous essays were also collected in three volumes: Les Pas perdus (1924; the lost steps), Point du jour (1934), and Perspective cavalière (1970). Convenient selections from Breton’s prose in English translation have appeared in Les Manifestes du surréalisme (1955; Manifestoes of Surrealism, 1969), translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, and What Is Surrealism? Selected Writings (1978), edited by Franklin Rosemont.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Above all, André Breton will be remembered as the founder and leader of the Surrealist movement. Of all the avant-garde movements which rocked the foundations of the arts at the beginning of the twentieth century, Surrealism has had perhaps the greatest and longest-lived impact. Surrealism, created in Paris in 1924 by André Breton and a small group of friends, was the last inheritor of a long series of “isms,” including Dadaism, German expressionism, French and Spanish cubism, Italian Futurism, and Anglo-American Imagism and Vorticism, which attempted to transform modern man’s conception of the world through artistic innovation. Under the leadership of Breton, Surrealism became the most mature expression of this developing sensibility, not only because of its relatively well developed underlying philosophy—which was both far-reaching and systematic in nature—but also because it eventually came to have the greatest international scope of all of these movements and because it stimulated the production of a vast body of work of great diversity in all the major artistic genres—poetry, fiction, drama, philosophy, painting, sculpture, and film.

Power of Imagination

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Breton’s faith in the liberating power of the human imagination, although suggested and influenced by his contact with modern psychoanalytic thought, especially that of Freud on the operations of the unconscious, goes far beyond the notion of simply releasing the bound or “repressed” energies which is the therapeutic basis of psychoanalytic practice. For Breton, the unconscious is not an enclosed inner space, or reservoir, of trapped energy; it is, rather, the way out of the everyday world of material reality into the realm of the surreal. According to the Surrealists, this realm—where human reason and imagination no longer struggle against each other but function in harmony—is the ultimate reality, and man’s goal in life is to seek out continually the signs of this reality, which, when directly experienced, is capable of transforming the life of the person. Although Breton envisioned the realm of the surreal as accessible to all men who seek it, it was especially important for the artist, whose goal was to capture the fleeting traces of le merveilleux (the marvelous) in his writing.

The Surrealists recommended a number of different methods for attaining this experience. Two, in particular, are frequently used and referred to in Breton’s work: the surrendering of the person to the hasard objectif (objective chance) of the universe, and the evocation of the “primary processes” of the unconscious through such procedures...

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Utopian Ideal

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Not only did Breton believe in the power of the creative imagination to transform the life of individual men, but also he believed in the possibility of transforming society itself into a Socialist utopia, and he came to believe that the Communist International movement was a means to that end. Breton’s association with the Communist Party, which began about 1930, was an increasingly divisive force among the French Surrealists. Many who were willing to accept Surrealism’s aesthetic and philosophical premises did not believe that this view of life could ever transform the material world of nations and societies. Breton saw this resistance against political involvement as an indication of insufficient commitment, while those who resisted engagement countered by emphasizing the restrictive nature of the Communist Party, its repressive disciplinary practices, and its hostility to artistic activity that did not directly further the interests of the Party itself. Regardless of the problems it created for him, Breton never gave up this utopian faith, as the choice of subject for his last major poetic work, Ode to Charles Fourier, makes clear.

Transformative Power of Love

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The third key idea that informs Breton’s poetry is one which, like his belief in the liberating power of the imagination, was shared by many of the Surrealists: the belief that romantic love was the means by which man might establish an enduring link between the mundane world of material reality and the limitless, eternal world of surreality. At times, the mere presence of the beloved is enough to evoke such a response, and some of Breton’s most moving poetry deals with this experience. The idea is expressed in two principal forms in Breton’s love poetry. The first is the belief in woman as muse: The beloved becomes the source of contact with the realm of surreality, where, Breton’s friend Paul Éluard (the greatest of the Surrealist love poets) wrote, “all transformations are possible.” This belief is clearly expressed in two of Breton’s best poems: the famous “catalog-poem” Free Union, which celebrates the magical connection between the poet’s beloved and the unspoiled world of nature, and Fata Morgana, which celebrates the ecstatic elation of the poet at the advent of a new love. The second form taken by this belief in the magical power of love is the equation of poetic creation itself with sexual love, as in “Sur la route de San Romano” (“On the Road to San Romano”): “Poetry is made in a bed like love/ Its rumpled sheets are the dawn of things.”

It was these three ideas—together with the support of countless writers, scattered across the world, who identified themselves with the Surrealist ideal—which sustained Breton throughout a career that lasted more than fifty years. Although Breton died in 1966, the beliefs that he helped to formulate and that he expressed so brilliantly in his own poetry continue to exist.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Aspley, Keith. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Updated with a new introduction. A critical history of Surrealist literature.

Balakian, Anna. André Breton: Magus of Surrealism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. A biography by an expert in Surrealist art and literature.

Benedikt, Michael. The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. With introduction, critical notes, and translations.

Breton, André. Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism. Translated and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti. New York: Paragon House, 1993. Collection of interviews with Breton.

Carrouges, Michel. André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism. University: University of Alabama Press, 1974. Biography and an introduction to Surrealism with bibliographic references.

Caws, Mary Ann. André Breton. New York: Twayne, 1971. Caws brings the full force of her considerable intelligence to bear on Breton alone in this work. Though not as philosophically acute as Balakian, her emphasis on practical analysis of individual works makes this book an excellent beginner’s text. The French is ably translated into readable English.

Caws, Mary Ann. Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard. The Hague: Mouton, 1966. Caws’ study is limited because it stresses the literary and philosophical affinities between these two intellectual giants so that only their common interests are highlighted. The advantage to this approach is that her perceptive comments on Bachelard often uncover aspects of Breton normally left unexamined. The French texts are left untranslated.

Polizzotti, Mark. Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A thorough biography of the artist and poet highlighting his lifelong adherence to Surrealist principles even at the expense of personal relationships. With an extensive bibliography and index.