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.
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...
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