André Breton is not well known outside his native land, even though the example of his work and career inspired one of the most significant artistic movements of the twentieth century. Except for an unhappy exile in New York City during World War II and excursions to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Czechoslovakia, Breton spent nearly all of his life in Paris, arrogating to himself a circle that engendered and promoted Surrealism. Indeed, he was often designated the “pope” of Surrealism, because he zealously defended its aims, proclaimed its superiority to other movements, such as existentialism, and vigorously recruited converts and excommunicated apostates, holding court in the world of Parisian cafés.
It is a signal achievement of Mark Polizzotti’s biography to show how Breton’s background and personality perfectly meshed with his conception of Surrealism. Above all, Surrealism rejected the literary establishment; it attacked the Western bourgeois status quo; it undermined a faith in reason; it celebrated the imaginative as a subversive force for good, liberating human aspirations and recognizing originality. Surrealism accepted no authority except the creative urge; it sought spontaneity and innovation; it proclaimed itself the enemy of the European, classical tradition and of the religious beliefs and institutions that developed in the throes of the Roman Empire’s decline.
These Surrealistic tenets derived from Breton’s reactions against his conservative, provincial upbringing. He detested his mother Marguerite’s rigid Catholicism and his father Louis’ timid bourgeois values. The unfeeling Marguerite came to symbolize the societal authority that repressed the young André, who was quickly drawn to literature yet reluctantly pursued a medical career—doing it only as a means of retaining monetary support from his parents, who disapproved of his literary activities.
Breton sought surrogate fathers in the poets he admired—especially in Guillaume Apollinaire, whose resort to automatic writing, black humor, and exploration of dreams provided André with the basic elements that he would transform into what became Surrealism in the 1920’s. Yet Apollinaire, like virtually all of Breton’s masters, was eventually found wanting. Ultimately, Breton could not brook any authority other than himself. He seems to have been unconscious of just how closely his own authoritarianism resembled his mother’s. Having rejected the Church and all conventional forms of authority, Breton set himself up as the sole arbiter of Surrealism, which (he thought) would be everything society was not, but which in his hands became a kind of renegade Church, a black mass that parodied rather than truly overturned society’s structures.
Breton would have been outraged by such a characterization of his movement. Indeed, he would even have rejected the idea that it was a movement, for then Surrealism would be merely another artistic trend, living and then dying as it gave way to other artistic programs. For Breton, Surrealism was a sort of counterculture, a frame of mind that opposes the mainstream and refuses to be co-opted by institutions such as colleges, galleries, and publishing houses. Surrealists might give college lectures, publish, and show their work in galleries, but they should not be dependent on such institutions and, above all, should never be permanently employed by them. Only dire economic necessity forced Breton, for brief periods, to seek employment.
Polizzotti is sometimes so focused on documenting Breton’s career that the outrageous fun of Surrealism and its absurdist elements become obscured. The biography really comes alive when characters such as Salvador Dali appear. Until he offended Breton, Dali was Breton’s quintessential Surrealist. For example, Dali’s invention of a dinner jacket studded with shot glasses full of milk captures the silly but subversive and inventive side of Surrealism. It was an art that depended on reversing expectations and deflating the conventional. For Dali, any aspect of society could be mocked; anything could be toyed with, deprived of its usual meaning, and reconstituted as a Surrealistic object. Yet Dali went too far for Breton and his followers when he adopted Adolf Hitler as a Surrealistic fetish. Dali was drawn to Hitler’s magnetic force—a response that was not the same thing, the artist maintained, as becoming a fascist. On the contrary, Hitler...
(The entire section is 1824 words.)