Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1808

A medical student before World War I began, André Breton was conscripted in 1915. After spending a short time in the artillery, he was attached to a French army psychiatric unit and seems to have become interested in Freud and psychoanalysis at that time. During the war he was to come into contact with two other poets, Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, who for some time were collaborators in the elaboration of Surrealist doctrines. Some parallels between Breton and Guillaume Apollinaire might also be traced back to the years of the war. After corresponding with the author of ALCOOLS and CALLIGRAMMES for some months, Breton went to see him in 1916. The very term Surrealism seems to have been invented and first used by Apollinaire about 1917.

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By 1925, André Breton was firmly established as the recognized leader of Surrealism and had shown himself quite capable of exercising a strict control over the movement. To his functions as a leader were added those of a theoretician. Indeed, it was Breton who over the years largely worked out and established the fundamental Surrealist doctrines. He was continually to assert the completeness of the Surrealist philosophy, its quasi-religious character, its demands, and the permanent effects it had on its adherents.

Although Breton had considerable sympathy for Communist ideals, he maintained that Surrealism could not acknowledge any outside political control. This advocacy of complete liberty with regard to the Communist Party was eventually to bring about a split between Breton on the one hand and Aragon and Eluard on the other. The latter were both involved in the French Resistance in one way or another. Breton, at the time of World War II, fled to the United States, where he met some of his old friends or collaborators, among whom were Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson, and Marcel Duchamp.

When Breton died in 1966, at the age of seventy, he was still a controversial figure in France; the very mention of his name could provoke a variety of emotional reactions, with the possible exception of indifference. Thousands of students followed his coffin and silently paid their last respects. The slight attention that this event attracted in England and the United States seems strange and indeed regrettable.

Too often, the disparity between what Breton set out to do and what he in fact accomplished has been stressed. He did not change the world, though his intentions were to do so. Although his literary ambitions were only a small part of his total philosophy, it is probably for his influence on the course of literary history and for the intrinsic value of his better poems that he will be best remembered. In spite of his polemic activity in connection with or in opposition to the Communist Party, or his ideas about conscious objectors and the war in Algeria, Breton will probably never be given any substantial place in the history books. Even from a purely literary point of view, one might almost regret that Breton’s interests were not more exclusively literary. In addition, it would be difficult to identify any single poet whose production could be classified simply as Surrealist. Yet, after all the objections have been raised, it must be stated that Breton could be an outstanding poet, that his ideas did affect a large number of excellent poets, from Aragon to Eluard, Cocteau to Queneau. Perhaps the full extent of his influence is not yet properly appreciated. He does seem to have continued a liberation of poetry which began with the Romantics and was pursued by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, and Apollinaire, among others.

Rimbaud, in “Sun and Flesh,” and elsewhere, had pointed out the inadequacies of the human reason in any attempt to acquire a true comprehension of the world. Breton was to develop this claim into one of the bases of Surrealism and of his own poetry. For him, realism in its traditional sense was a contradiction in terms. He insisted that the logic apparent in the outside world was an illusion: the imposition of a view from the outside which quite ignored the world’s very real richness and complexity. One of the first tasks of the poet as Breton describes it in WHAT IS SURREALISM? would be to reveal the true confusion at the base of all reality. The proper attitude of the poet wishing to perceive and communicate this reality would be one of naive impressionability, a preparedness to be new in every circumstance, to allow the object viewed to impress itself upon him in all its fresh irrationality; he would not attempt to impose a false order, to regularize the vision so that it might be accommodated within his poem; rather, the language would have to accommodate itself to the vision.

In his best poems, Breton does achieve a remarkable free association of images which attains to a pristine freshness and originality without unduly shocking the reader; in them, too, the analogies and metaphors, though varied, and hard to explain rationally, seem to depend upon each other, and contribute to a total, unified impression: to achieve, in other words, a form of pure poetry for which Breton has not received sufficient credit.

In COMMUNICATING VASES, Breton declares that poetry may be found everywhere, and especially in the strangest of places, involving objects once held to be most alien to the art. Breton also affirms that poetry can exist without literary expression. Apollinaire had already suggested a similar idea, though in less cogent terms; and since the time of Marcel Duchamp, it is a belief which has opened up enormous possibilities of inspiration in painting, sculpture, and music. For Breton, one of the major objectives of the poet would then be to bring about a coincidence of his view of the object and of the poetry latent within it. The necessary degree of receptiveness or openness had, according to him, been inhibited or stifled by most forms of conventional education; the latter had taught the individual objectivity, accustomed him to a separation of subject and object, whereas all of Surrealism must tend toward a belief in the essential unity of the world.

In his FIRST SURREALIST MANIFESTO, published in 1924, and in SECOND SURREALIST MANIFESTO, published in 1930, Breton lays down guide lines for the individual who wishes to start on a sort of apprenticeship to change or enrich his view of the world. The study of so-called mental sickness will offer many possibilities. The Surrealists were even to try to simulate conditions of insanity. Implicit in this aspect of Breton’s pursuit of a new vision is the belief that the classical distinction made between mental health and sickness may no longer be safely assumed: they are complementary aspects of human, mental activity. Breton likewise refused to accept any dichotomy of the conscious and subconscious mind. He insisted on the value of automatic writing—an uncontrolled flow and free association—claiming that it not only allowed the poet to grasp the workings of the recesses of his mind but also let him perceive that its texture and movement were no different from those of the outside world. Breton was frequently called upon to defend his faith in automatic writing, and he did so with conviction.

In addition to the investigation of mental sickness, and of automatic writing, Breton pointed out the usefulness of the study of dreams, with a view to the reconciliation of conscious and unconscious activities, as part of a greater plan to unify inner and external realities—dream and reality—into one absolute reality, or surreality.

Breton, needless to say, was attributing to the written word an importance that it had never before received. He was acutely conscious of its value as a kind of sixth sense, giving information about the world; he pointed out that it was not necessarily a simple, transparent symbol for the reality to which it referred. Endowed with an appeal to the eye as well as the ear, capable of unpredictable reactions in association with other words, it had a life all of its own, less innocent than was generally believed.

In substance, the ideas which Breton expressed in his manifestoes and elsewhere had already been proposed, or at least hinted at, by authors before him: Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Apollinaire. This fact does not detract, however, from his originality, for Breton codified these ideas, insisted upon them with more intensity than that shown by any poet up to his time, made their investigation his life’s work and even his religion. He was quick to point out the need for a form of discipline and even asceticism on the part of the poet.

In his attempt to integrate or to re-integrate man into his proper place in the world, Breton was also proposing a philosophy of independence in the face of any type of rational control. His attempt at liberation was perhaps the most ambitious ever undertaken by a poet: for through poetry, in the wide sense that Breton conceived it, there would be a complete change in thought processes, in the way in which man looked at the world, and in his very relations with it.

According to Breton, our normal, ordered, rational view of life was an illusion and a distortion. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that Breton would refuse the title of mystic and would assert the Surrealist’s independence of any god. He placed his ideal categorically inside the world, not outside it. Paradoxically, though deeply aware of the mystery of life, he was anti-mystical. Though seeking unification, he did not seek one with God or a supernatural reality. Surreality involved for him a psyche-material or psycho-physical re-unification which would confirm and strengthen man’s bonds with the earth, rather than loosen them.

In a literary context, Breton might understandably be criticized for not having been sufficiently concerned with literary values and considerations pure and simple. He was far from careless in the presentation of his poems: indeed, sometimes they seem so polished as to be cold. Nonetheless, it does seem that Breton can scarcely avoid the charge that some of his works lack the very direction and control which he was unwilling to impose upon them.

Through his intransigent advocacy of complete liberty, Breton cut himself off from the world of active commitment and positive action; for in these domains some compromise with existing conditions is required. Aragon and Eluard were only able to engage themselves physically, effectively, by severing their ties with Surrealism. In final analysis, Surrealism seemed condemned by its very ambition and purity to remain a literary or artistic expression.

When Breton’s real influence, as opposed to his aspirations, is measured, it will perhaps be realized outside of Continental Europe, as well as inside, that Surrealism should not be comfortably ignored or dismissed without any real consideration of the ideas it helped spread.

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