Surrealism was a movement that sought to abandon all organized systems that normal literature followed, so it is tough to criticize the works as literature. Critic Mary Ann Caws notes this in the introduction to her book, The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism: “Dada and surrealism, which consider themselves literature’s opposite, cannot be (or should not be) theorized about, exemplified, and handled at an efficient arm’s length.” In addition, Caws observes that Breton himself was against criticism from outsiders: “Breton firmly believed in the principle of internal criticism, and on several occasions he brilliantly demonstrated it.”
To make matters more difficult, Surrealism was intended to be a movement of individual revelation for each writer. As a result, the writings were widely different in theme, style, and form, making it hard to criticize the movement as a whole. Because of this, critics have tended to follow one of two paths. Either they have commented on the ideas behind the movement itself, or they have commented on the individual surrealist writer.
The ideas behind the movement were expressed formally in Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism. As David Gascoyne reports in his A Short Survey of Surrealism in 1935, it was not well received: “It is not in the least surprising that Breton’s manifesto should have aroused a considerable sensation. A great deal of animosity and blind opposition, also.”
Gascoyne discusses how Breton’s absolute adherence to the rigid ideals of Surrealism further alienated him personally, not just from critics, but also from members of the surrealist group, who were “unable to maintain the standards of disinterestedness and non-conformity that surrealism demands.”
As for Breton’s writings themselves, Balakian notes in her entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography that even though he was an able poet, most people “associate him chiefly with his work, Nadja.” Breton’s intent with this work was to undermine novels which, as he states in his Manifesto of Surrealism, “are nothing but so many superimposed images taken from some stock catalogue, which the author utilizes more and more whenever he chooses.” Still, as Balakian observes, “instead of destroying the novel as Breton had hoped, he contributed strongly to the shaping of the antinovel as a form.”
Breton’s contemporaries have received a mixed bag of criticism about their works. In the case of Phillipe Soupault, one of the original and most famous surrealists—even though he was not with the group as long as others—the criticism has been very one-sided. J. H. Matthews, one of the foremost surrealist critics, notes the peculiar situation surrounding Soupault, who in 1919 was the cowriter of The Magnetic Fields, considered by many to be the first truly surrealist text: “[Soupault] is remembered as having written, with Breton, a book cited by many but read by few. Meanwhile, his other surrealist publications have not been subjected to scrutiny.”
The most critically acclaimed of the surrealists, at least in poetry, was Paul Eluard. Georges Lemaitre writes in his book From Cubism to Surrealism in French Literature that Eluard was “certainly the most richly gifted poet of the whole surrealist group.” Lemaitre points out that the themes in Eluard’s poetry focus on two contradictory ideas, loneliness and love: “Love is viewed by him as a mystic center of blazing forces, a fiery nucleus of passionate vibrations, diffusing energy throughout the whole world in ardent and pulsating waves.”
Lemaitre is not so praising of Desnos, in whose works, “One would search vainly . . . for the abstract metaphysical quality which characterizes most of Eluard’s productions.” Lemaitre goes even further, criticizing the poet’s use of particularly perverse forms, which “aroused from their heavy slumber, twist and turn ignominiously, releasing in their convulsive spasms an acrid and suffocating stench.”
The poetry of Aragon has also commonly been viewed as negative, due to its use of particularly violent words and its spirit of protest. These elements became especially strong when Aragon committed himself to the causes of the Communist Party.