Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997
Louis Aragon (1897–1982)
Louis Aragon was born October 3, 1897, in Paris, France. As one of the leading proponents of Dadaism and Surrealism, Aragon helped Breton and others to inspire creative freedom in the arts. Like many other surrealists, Aragon’s poetry was initially published in the journal Litterature, which Aragon helped found and edit with Breton and Soupault. However, Aragon’s most famous works are his novels, including Paris Peasant. Aragon and the other surrealists joined the French Communist Party in 1930. Although the surrealists left the party five years later after witnessing Stalin’s bloody atrocities, Aragon rejoined the party, renounced Surrealism, and produced mainly political works for several years. He attempted to write other works later in his career, but at that point, most critics only knew him for his politically oriented fictions. Aragon died December 24, 1982, in Paris.
André Breton (1896–1966)
Although he had help founding the Surrealism movement, in many ways André Breton acted alone. Born February 19, 1896, in Tinchebray, France, Breton was a medical student when he was drafted into World War I. There he served in the psychiatric wards, where he began his studies in neurology and psychology. Disillusioned by the horrors of war, Breton joined the dadaists at the war’s end but left to start the surrealist movement, which he saw as a more constructive response to the war than Dadaism. He experimented avidly with automatic writing and other self-induced hypnotic and hallucinatory states attempting to reach the subconscious mind. Although he had founded and edited the journal Litterature with Aragon and Soupault in 1919, it was not until 1924 that he published his first of three manifestos of Surrealism. In the first manifesto, he laid out the rules that would-be surrealists should follow to tap into their subconscious. Breton was the movement’s main promoter and he ran the group with a dictator-like control, expelling anyone who did not play by his rules. With his influence, surrealist painters like Dalí achieved greater recognition through exhibitions. In 1930, Breton led the surrealists in joining the French Communist Party, although they did not stay long once they saw the atrocities Stalin was committing in the name of communism. When World War II broke out, Breton was interrogated by the Nazis over his activities, at which point he moved first to the French colony of Martinique, then to the United States, where he spent most of the war years. Breton died of a heart attack on September 28, 1966, in France.
Robert Desnos (1900–1945)
Robert Desnos was born July 4, 1900, in Paris, France. He was published as a poet in his teens, but as an adult, he originally worked as a journalist before joining the surrealists in the 1920s. Of the entire group, Desnos was recognized as having the best ability to put himself in the trance required for automatic writing, a fact that Breton noted with pride in his first Manifesto. Desnos, like some other surrealists, pursued a flamboyant lifestyle that included sexual promiscuity and experimentation with drugs. He was also in love with a well-known singer, Yvonne George, and he wrote about her in various romantic poems. However, he is most remembered for his novel Liberty or Love!. Following the publication of this novel, Desnos began to pursue a more stable life. He got married, reduced his involvement with the surrealists, and even wrote his own manifesto in an attempt to win control of the surrealist movement from Breton, attempting to break Breton’s formal structure. The coup failed, Desnos was expelled from the group, and he went back to his former job as a journalist. He also began writing essays, radio scripts, film critiques, and even more traditional forms of poetry, which were looked upon with disapproval by the surrealists. Desnos died of typhoid on June 8, 1945, in a concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia.
Paul Eluard (1895–1952)
Paul Eluard, the pen name of Eugène Grindel, was born December 14, 1895, in Saint-Denis, France. Eluard contracted tuberculosis as a child, and spent two years in a sanatorium, where he started writing poetry. When World War I began, Eluard joined the French military, first serving as a hospital orderly, then fighting in the trenches. After the war, Eluard met Breton and others in the dadaist movement and helped to develop Surrealism. Eluard was extremely prolific, publishing more than seventy books in his lifetime. However, it was his early volumes of poetry, including Capital of Sorrow, published in 1926, that helped to establish his reputation as a poet. After the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Eluard’s writings became more political, and by World War II, he had adopted a pro-socialist attitude. After the war, Eluard followed the lead of Aragon, denouncing Surrealism in favor of communism. His devotion to Stalin was so strong he wrote a poetic tribute to him. Because of his political affiliations, Eluard was denied a United States visa. He died November 18, 1952, in Charenton-le-Pont, France.
Phillipe Soupault (1897–1990)
Phillipe Soupault was born August 2, 1897, in Chaville, France. After serving in World War I, Soupault joined forces with Breton. Although the surrealist movement was not officially founded until 1924, in 1919, Soupault coauthored The Magnetic Fields with Breton, a work considered by many to be the first surrealist text. It is unfortunate that many people remember him for this achievement alone, since Soupault was one of the most active members of the group. Soupault was one of the coeditors on the journal Litterature. Also, while he still embodied the ideas behind Surrealism and incorporated juxtapositions of bizarre images into his work like the other surrealists, Soupault’s poetry was noticeably more structured. Soupault left the group in the mid-1920s and traveled and wrote until 1938, when he moved to Tunisia. In the capital city of Tunis, he worked in radio and was outspoken against Hitler and the Nazis, which got him fired. Four years later, he was arrested in France for disseminating antifascist propaganda and was sentenced to six months in prison, where he wrote a psychological study of his fellow prisoners. Soupault died March 11, 1990, in Paris, France.