Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1796
In his definitive work Manifesto of Surrealism, published in 1924, André Breton set the guidelines that future members of the surrealist movement would follow. Breton maintained tight control over these guidelines and promptly expelled any writer who did not observe them. Although the list of expelled members would eventually include Paul Eluard, who abandoned Surrealism for communism, Eluard was originally one of Breton’s favorite writers, and one whom Breton thought exemplified the Painting Catalan Landscape: The Hunter, by Joan Miró, is of the surrealist style principles of Surrealism. In addition, of all the original surrealists, Eluard is the one poet praised most often by critics. For these reasons, Eluard’s poetry serves as a good example of Breton’s concepts. In one case in particular, the poem “First in the World,” Eluard’s imagery illustrates the central goal in Surrealism—the attempt to reconcile the dream world with reality.
“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” With these words in his Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton introduced a concept built upon both the dream research of Sigmund Freud and Breton’s own self-induced, hallucinatory experiments. Over the course of his manifesto, Breton defines the various tools the surrealists used to achieve this new “absolute reality,” the most important of which is the surrealist image. Although Breton admits that there are “countless kinds” of these images, he places a repeated emphasis on the words themselves: “Words, groups of words which follow one another, manifest among themselves the greatest solidarity.” In other words, the words in a surrealist poem are connected, and follow a pattern. However, the greater meaning derived from this pattern does not always resemble reality. As Frederick Brown notes in “Breton and the Surrealist Movement,” these poems create “a locked, reflexive universe where language exists, to suppose the impossible, on its own terms . . . conveying no feeling, no experience, no image felt, experienced, or imagined outside itself.”
Inside the microcosm of the poem, the images themselves define the characteristics and boundaries of the poem’s world. Like a dream, these rules often differ from the natural laws of our own world. Eluard’s poem “First in the World,” originally published in his collection Capital of Sorrow, draws conspicuous attention to the surrealists’ plan of merging the dream world with reality, a transformation that takes place over the course of the poem itself. In the first stanza, or group of lines, the poem describes the real, human world:
Prisoner of the field, frenzied in agony,
The light hides on you, see the sky:
It closed its eyes to attack your dream,
It closed your dress to break your chains.
The “prisoner” is the reader, the person to whom the poem is addressed. By addressing the poem directly to the reader, Eluard grabs the reader’s attention and lets him or her know what he is about to discuss is of vital importance. In this case, the poet is informing his readers that they are enslaved in the real world, and he does so in a sermon-like way. Through his words, Eluard invokes images of slavery and freedom. The prisoner is “of the field,” which is a common area where slaves have toiled in the past, and is “in agony,” a common condition for slaves. The hiding “light” that used to be in “the sky” would in many traditional poems mean daylight or the sun, a traditional sign of goodness. However, in this surrealist poem, the meaning is skewed, and the light becomes a symbol for reality, in which the prisoner is enslaved. When viewed in this context, the slavery imagery throughout the rest of the first stanza makes sense.
In the third line the poet discusses the “dream” of his readers, which is that the ideal life can be found in the real world. When reality retreats, however, it attacks this notion. Although this is a violent change for the prisoner, it is nevertheless for his or her own good, because the absence of reality redeems prisoners, by breaking the “chains.”
In the absence of reality, or light, the poem and reader descend into the dream world, reality’s opposite. As the second stanza shows, the characteristics of this world are strange to the prisoner:
Before the tied wheels
A fan laughs out loud.
In the treacherous nets of the grass
The roads lose their reflexion.
In this dream reality, all of the familiar hallmarks of civilization are gone. The “tied wheels” referred to in the first line of this stanza invoke the image of a car that cannot move. In the next line, the poet informs the reader that somebody or something— the word fan can mean either the device used for cooling or a person who is fond of something— is laughing, presumably at the car that is stuck. In the third line, the stuck car is revealed to be located in the “nets of the grass” that inhabit this world. This “treacherous” grass also swallows up the roads, which are now buried and so cannot reflect images or ideas.
The composite, surrealist image created by these four lines is one of nature replacing technology. In this dream world there is no place for modern technology like cars and roads—which Eluard’s readers would find a comforting part of their reality. Instead the prisoner, now a dreamer, must adapt to a new set of rules and must throw out the familiarities that he or she is used to if the prisoner wants to make the most of this new world. Eluard’s depiction of a disoriented dreamer who has just arrived in an imaginary world follows closely with Breton’s observations about most of society, which he expressed in his Manifesto. Says Breton, “I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams.” In Eluard’s hands, the uncomfortable dreamer, like society, is yanked out of the reality of everyday life, and forced to accept the strange reality of the dream world.
After the dreamer arrives in this imaginary reality on earth, one of the four elements, the poet next summons images of another element, water:
Can’t you take the waves
Whose barges are almonds
In your warm coaxing palm
Or in the ringlets of your head?
In this stanza, the poet begins to challenge his readers, taunting them with the powers they could have but currently do not possess. Unlike the poet, his readers cannot harness the sea—in which another symbol of technology, the barge, or ship, has been replaced by almonds—and coax it into their hands or their hair. Without letting go of technology and the familiar reality of the logical waking world, Eluard’s readers will not be able to attain the godlike powers that the poet seems to possess. These prisoners, trapped by their familiarity with the established systems of logic and reason of the waking world, fail to see that worlds where almonds float on the sea like ships and oceans can be contained in the palm of one’s hand are nevertheless valid and can be dominated. In her book Twentieth-Century French Avant-Garde Poetry, 1907–1990, Virginia A. La Charité observes that in Eluard’s poetry, “while the image may defy reason and logic in its absurdity, it is not incomprehensible and so becomes both reasonable and logical.” In other words, the images that Eluard describes create a picture in readers’ minds that is definable, and so is imbued with its own sense of reason and logic.
In the next stanza, Eluard continues to taunt the reader, moving to the next largest, natural arena to demonstrate his powers, the heavens themselves:
Can’t you seize the stars?
Stretched on the rack you resemble them,
In their nest of fire you dwell
And your light multiplies from them.
The dreamer still has not mastered the peculiar reason and logic of this imaginary world, which allows for the seizing of the stars themselves. Be- cause of this, the dreamer is still a prisoner. In this stanza, Eluard says that the prisoner is being tortured on “the rack,” a situation that once again implies captivity and domination. Like the stars in this world, which form a “nest of fire,” the prisoner is immobile and therefore can be dominated by people like the poet, who have accepted and embraced the possibilities of this dream reality. In fact, lacking the ability to cope with this world, the reader becomes one of the stars, and the reader’s reality, “the light,” begins to be defined by them. In other words, over the course of four stanzas, the reader has traded a prison in the real world for one in the dream world, failing to recognize the possibilities that the latter has to offer.
With this stanza, Eluard completes the pattern he set up in the dream world. He starts out small on land, then goes to the ocean, which can be contained in the palm of his hand, then expands to include the universe itself. He does this in a dreamlike fashion, without any transition other than the spaces between the stanzas. While the imagery is rather bizarre, it still follows a general pattern, an idea that demonstrates another of Breton’s observations about dreams, from his Manifesto: “Within the limits where they operate . . . dreams give every evidence of being continuous and show signs of organization.”
In the first part of the last stanza of the poem, Eluard brings the reader back out of the dream world into reality, although it is a struggle:
From the gagged dawn only one cry wants to rush out,
A turning sun streams under the bark,
It will be imprinted on your closed eyelids.
The waking reality, which is beginning to return, is “gagged,” although it wants to “cry” out to the dreamer, and begins to slowly exert its influence, marking the dreamer’s “closed eyelids.” However, as Eluard notes in the final line, “Sweet one, when you sleep, night mingles with day.” With this pronouncement, the poet announces to the reader that the two realities—dreams and real life—are intertwined. The “night” of the dream land will mix with the “day” of reality into one surreality. In this way, Eluard states that the ultimate goal of surrealists—to reconcile dreams and reality—has been achieved, and that by fighting it, one will only end up imprisoned, either in the real world or the dream world.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Surrealism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2927
Three great systems of exclusion and division allow the human word to lay claim to purity: the play of prohibitions, the strongest of which is the prohibition of desire; the division between reason and madness; and the will to truth.
We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like; not just anyone, finally may speak of just anything. We have three types of prohibition, covering objects, ritual with its surrounding circumstances, the privileged or exclusive right to speak of a particular subject; these prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other, forming a complex web, continually subject to modification.
These prohibitions certainly surround the act of speech in a very powerful way. Moreover, added to them is the obligation to say only what is reasonable, and according to the codified modes of “non-madness.” If pre-nineteenth-century Europe sometimes discerned signs of lucidity and marks of portent in the speech of the mad, this was another way of reinvesting that speech through reason, of denying its absolute difference. More subtly, too, as Michel Foucault shows, the very opposition between true and false defines a constraint on truth involving power. “Certainly, as a proposition, within a discourse, the division between true and false is neither arbitrary, nor modifiable, nor institutional, nor violent.” But there is a will to truth, which takes different forms according to the various historical periods in the West, and which tends to exercise on other discourses, such as literature, or on other forms of expression, “a sort of pressure, a power to constrain.” If we just think about the references to “verisimilitude” in Western art and literature until the naturalist period and probably beyond, we can measure its indirect force.
From the time of its foundation in France in 1919, Surrealism responded to these games of division by revolting against them. Surrealists saw these divisions with a lucidity and a violence sharpened by the postwar despair and a sense of there being no reason to go on living. After the rupture and bloodshed of World War I, in opposition to the clear conscience of Europe, which was reshaping and healing itself, the movement launched a wave of global contestation and wove a network of other differences. In its most far-reaching projects, Surrealism claims to mingle desire with human speech, and eros with human life—not just to tell, or to describe, desire and eros. It claims to abolish the notion of incongruity or obscenity, to let the subconscious speak, and to simulate different pathologies of language. It claims to overturn the quest for the probable in art by making an astounding bet on the imagination, presented as the central power of the human mind, from which emerges a whole lifein- poetry. In this life-in-poetry the improbable, the extraordinary, the incongruous would grow in abundance; sincerity would no longer have an absolute referential value; what would be sought for its own sake would no longer be truth but living, living otherwise than in everyday mediocrity, living outside the track to which society assigns each of us.
This displacement of the system of moral and intellectual values on which centuries of Western culture were based has been and still is sometimes perceived as a perversion, or a biasing of human activity: an antihumanism.
Now that we can define it more clearly, differentiating it from other poetic movements that arose in Europe at the same time, the French Surrealist project once again makes possible and legitimizes all sorts of of behaviors and practices which are not completely new, but which had tended to become marginalized or encysted in the tissue of social life and poetic practice. Surrealism preaches the reversal of this tendency and the totalizing assumption of responsibility for all human behavior. Human violence had indeed been marginalized and neutralized by social life, by the norms of bourgeois capitalist society, but still rose up unpredictably and found an outlet in wars: in the example of the “just” war, as the French saw it, that was the butchery in Europe from 1914 to 1918. Surrealism proposes a recognition and a taking of responsibility for human violence in revolt, in every sense. It is on this very general if not symbolic level that we should understand the proclamation of Andre Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surrealism:
one can understand why Surrealism was not afraid to make for itself a tenet of total revolt, complete insubordination, of sabotage according to rule, and why it still expects nothing save from violence. The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.
But also, and without any contradiction, Surrealism tried to channel this potential energy, until then burning away “in the open air,” into an action at once inventive and concerted:
Once again, the question here is the whole problem of the transformation of energy. To distrust, as people do out of all proportion, the practical virtue of imagination is to be willing to deprive oneself at any cost of the help of electricity, in the hope of bringing hydroelectric power back to its absurd waterfall consciousness.
Also marginalized were eroticism and the powers of love in French society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Surrealism struggled constantly against the ruling hypocrisy on the double front of eroticism and the recognition of love. An article on “research into sexuality” appears in the eleventh issue of La Révolution Surréaliste (1928); daringly, clinically accurate for a time when Robert Desnos and Kra, his publisher, were brought into court for supposedly pornographic passages of La liberté ou l’amour! (1927). And there was a recognition of love’s power to disturb the mind in the same issue of the review in which appear the answers to a “Questionnaire on Love,” written in a tone of intense but unidealistic urgency. In the sixties, with no contradiction, Breton discounted “sex education” as a force for liberation in order to preserve love’s power to disturb (Jean-Claude Silbermann, 1964, Le surréalisme et la peinture). Marginalized, too, were the practice of automatic writing and the use of dreams as the springboard of “inspiration”—both of which had fostered the writing of all sorts of great texts (from Horace Walpole’s dream to Mallarmé’s resonant obsession, “The penultimate is dead”), but neither of which had ever been explicitly advocated as a systematic exercise. In twentieth-century society, all sorts of magical behavior was veiled which the Surrealist group was to concentrate on exhibiting.
Surrealism therefore presents itself to us as a machine for integration—having refused the cultural divisions we have discussed, even the division between true and false, that have been the basis for language in the West since the nineteenth-century industrial and scientific revolution. This movement of integration implies a reversal in the manifestation of a function hitherto marginalized both in social life and in literary and philosophical tradition: I am referring here to the imagination. All Platonic philosophy shows the human being as a chariot guided by the intellect and carried along by the will, while imagination, the lead horse, tries to make the team run off its course. Before Surrealism, the “classical” and rationalist philosophical tradition in France, while insisting on the infinite character of will and its primary importance in defining human liberty, had thrust imagination to the side of life, of animation, of warmth, of vivacity, and thus “prepared our minds to recognize the primacy of the imagination, from the moment when life appears no longer as a secondary fact, but as a primary, primitive fact and as an indivisible energy.” The meaning of the Romantic revolution (to which Surrealism is connected, from this point of view) was to give imagination a cognitive function.
But Romantic philosophy is a philosophy of being, in which imagination can rediscover paradise lost. The implicit philosophy of the French Surrealists, playing on the level of existence and not of essence, of beings and not of being, gives imagination a leading role: not to recognize something that had previously been veiled, but to give existence to its own unprecedented forms. The power of (poetic) imagination becomes, by definition, practical. The play on words must become its own object (Duchamp), dreamed forms must be materialized in a tangible object (Breton, Introduction au discours sur le peu de réalité.)
But if Surrealism is a machinery for integration, it is also, in the same impulse, or perhaps from another point of view, a machinery for negating. Surrealism negates everything implied by the divisions and prohibitions on which the majority cultural structure is founded: negating ready-made “orders,” denying the pertinence of codes (social, but also stylistic, linguistic, and even logical). Surrealists therefore suspect everything that organizes the sense of things, the direction of things, in space and in time, especially any kind of taxonomy and any presentation of evidence that has signification for us. Various games take shape: one consists of trying to capture the meaning of time, or of space, or of language, in the moment of their arising—in a kind of original space, with mythical evidence. The practice of automatic writing or drawing is a response to this intention: “to create a universe of words [or of forms, I should add] in which the universe of our practical and utilitarian perceptions will be completely disoriented.” Is this a question of either refusing ready-made meanings or creating the conditions for the epiphany of a new meaning? What we have here is rather the two intentions at the same time, the first being the reverse side of the second. Another game (Bataille’s own game, but, at one time, also André Masson’s or Hans Bellmer’s and the particular form eroticism takes in them) consists of negating the meaning of space and of the human body, by the introduction of all possible meanings in a dionysiac investment of space, even at the price of tearing apart and scattering the human body. The absence of “meaning” can also be seen in the practice of exhibiting as equivalent the two sides of things and of manifesting the plurality of meanings of signs: as if one had to show that “meaning” could be transparent, or that things and signs had the same value as their opposites. This is Marcel Duchamp’s enterprise. For example, the Female Fig Leaf is the printed stamp, the “negative” of a feminine sexual organ, so that hiding the masculine organ—the role of the fig leaf in classical statuary—or exhibiting the feminine organ amounts to the same thing. In the realm of signs and letters, this is also the enterprise of Robert Desnos. And to this practice we must add the use Surrealism makes of the reverse of cultural content. I am thinking not only of Paul Eluard and Benjamin Péret’s collection of updated proverbs (152 proverbes mis au goût du jour), but also of the reversal of the content of myths. In Au château d’Argol, Julien Gracq turns the myth of the Savior into a myth of the ambivalence of the mediator. Savior? Perhaps, but condemner as well.
This is a great attempt to demolish the sense of reality, stigmatized in 1947 by Jean-Paul Sartre, who put Surrealist thought in the same class as the (eternal) current of scepticism, emphasizing certain manifestations which he interprets as idealist. According to him, the Surrealists preach, particularly through automatic writing, the dissolution of the individual consciousness and also, by the symbolic annulment of “object-witnesses,” the dissolution of the objectivity of the world.
But Surrealism responds to this threatening spread of idealism steadfastly with two firebreaks. One is political action, whose sparks we will see fly with some regularity in the historical part of this work; the other is the attempt, in the very heart of practical activity (ethical or artistic), to make another sense emerge, discovered by some people in and through pleasure and by others in and through the seizure of a projective desire (that is “objective chance”). Pleasure on one side, in which the body rediscovers its sense and sensibility rediscovers its comforts; on the other side, a new ethic of desire, in which time rediscovers an undeniable orientation.
Thus, the massive denial of prohibition, as it functions in Surrealism, is also a game of displacement. The aim—to take back the move that implicates human conduct and language in prohibitions and power structures—is turned upside down and becomes an immense confidence in “pure” desire, in “absolute” revolt, in the powers not of society but of the word. Now on the one hand this involves mythical terms (“pure” desire, “absolute” revolt), which function as the horizon of an ever-disappointing quest, or as its completely fictional premises. But more especially, in the order of speech, this voice, which the Surrealists originally gave in its full strength to everyone (“Secrets of the Surrealist Magical Art,” in the first Manifesto), has been appropriated by a few. Is this the necessity of experimentation or the displacement of prohibitions? It is the ineluctable ambiguity of Surrealism finally to have reinforced the privileged right of the speaking subject within an already privileged group. Surrealism has reinvented, in fact, as the privileged place in which the “miracle” arises, the group constituted around a dominant personality. This elective constellation reproduces, with its rites of initiation, exclusion, and rehabilitation, the characteristics of a microsociety ruled by magical thinking:
The group never presents itself here as the picture of an open community, swollen with uncontrolled contagion; on the contrary, it is rather the idea that seems to have imposed itself on Breton from the beginning: the idea of a closed, separate order, of an exclusive companionship, of a phalanstery which tends to be shut in by vaguely magical walls (the significant idea of a “castle” is hovering about somewhere nearby).
Membership in the group, in what Jules Monnerot calls the Bund, is a central condition of Surrealist life in its French definition: the place in which sensibilities are exacerbated and creativity exalted. Thus the Surrealist word sometimes becomes collective, or impersonal, and does not de- pend on the power of the speaking object. It replaces this power by that of Surrealism.
Is this displacement of “divisions” and cleavages a perverse effect of preaching liberation, or is it the necessary means? The Surrealist reply is obviously the latter. Moreover, it would be inaccurate to see this displacement as parallel, or the various called-for prohibitions as symmetrical. The prohibitions linked to the functioning of the group life are explicit and artificial. The prohibitions denounced by Michel Foucault, which eternalize their own everyday immediacy, are implicit and even repressed by the communal consciousness. A language and behavior that refuse the division between reason and folly, as between truth and error, in favor of imagination, analogy, and desire are words and behaviors that insert within their process an awareness of their relativity. Their intoxicating liberty and the preciosity of their discoveries are bought by an awareness of their precariousness, which is no doubt very hard to maintain without the structuring, securing interplay of other divisions.
The origin of new hierarchies and new differences thus lies not only in group life but in certain Surrealist “values”: the search for eros, the search for political and social liberty, the search for poetry. But the functioning of these “values” is quite different from what can be seen in a morality of prohibition. It involves, by repeated transgression, reinventing a certain orientation of the world. To be exact, for Michel Leiris, we must reinvent the sacred by transgressing the taboo, “a limit in regard to which things abandon the unoriented, amorphous character of the profane and polarize themselves into left and right.” And Breton, after having incriminated Judeo-Christian religion as both “blood-curdling and congealed,” cannot help but subscribe to Francis Ponge’s suggestion: “Perhaps the lesson we must learn is to abolish all values the instant we discover them.” Value, poetic and practical, is discovered in the same moment in which it is transgressed.
We must therefore be wary of the oversimplified image of Surrealism as the breaker of prohibitions, a word on which Pierre de Massot puns when he calls his homage to Breton “Breton le septembriseur,” the revolutionary: as a “pure” movement, free from any compromise with what has been repressed. But it is also too simple to see in Surrealism, as was fashionable in the criticism of the sixties, a locus for stubborn, confusional idealism, for the celebration of some sorts of vaguely conceived transgression—or, as those who are nostalgic for Dadaism believe, the proud fortress of a coercive morality whose high priest was supposedly André Breton. Some people think that the “fringe” figures and fellow travelers of Surrealism (expressions they use, as I do, in the least uncomplimentary way possible, to refer to figures like Georges Bataille and Antonin Artaud) should be relocated at the heart of the adventure of the avantgarde, lived by them in a more revolutionary way. Others believe that Bretonian hypocrisy must be unmasked, and authenticity tracked down amid the make-believe. Critical distance today permits us to relate the projects of some Surrealists to others without automatically establishing hierarchies and demarcating boundaries within and outside the historical group: in short, to weigh the differences with passion but without projecting preconceived schemas upon them.
Source: Jacqueline Chenieux-Gendron, “Prohibition and Meaning,” in Surrealism, translated by Vivian Folkenflik, Columbia University Press, 1990, pp. 1–8.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5728
Surrealism is likely to occupy a very considerable place in the intellectual history of the Western world in our century. Its significance as a literary phenomenon during the years 1920–1940 is unequalled. Ever since 1940, when powerful and occasionally unfair blows were dealt it by Sartre, as trenchant a polemicist as he is subtle a dialectician, Surrealism has staged a surprising comeback. It refused to concede victory to the Existentialist movement, which was impatient to bury it along with other hollow idols of an antediluvian or pre- Sartrian age. Breton returned from his American exile, shook his lion’s mane in Montmartre, rallied new disciples, excommunicated others as he explained how only the mythical and magical ambitions of the Surrealists could bring any hope of salvation to a decrepit world. The release of Desire and the triumph of Love were the new levers which could move mountains of unbelief and hatred.
Several books appeared in the aftermath of World War II telling the history of the Surrealist group, delving into the intricacies of its successive negations and assertions, assessing the results of its pictorial and poetical achievements. A Surrealist exhibition at the Maeght Gallery in Paris in 1947 was more than a review of twenty-five years of Surrealist revolt; it brought home to many Parisians the tragic gravity which underlay most of the Surrealists’ eccentricities and the bitter confirmation which their blasphemies had received from the war. Surrealism, which has received inadequate attention in this country, is one of the most far-reaching attempts at changing, not only literature and painting, but psychology, ethics, and man himself.
A span of fifteen years, grande mortalis aevi spatium, as Tacitus said of old, was enough to shift the emphasis from the turbulent aspect of the Surrealist movement to its deeper and lasting significance. In 1925, there were few indeed who saw in it anything more than a return to infantilism and nihilism. In 1940, its hoaxes and pranks were almost forgotten; one had to acknowledge that to Surrealism we owed one of the greatest prose writers of our age, André Breton; three or four of the purest poets—Eluard, Char and Desnos; and even an impure but occasionally brilliant one—Aragon; and several gifted painters. Surrealism was always more than a strictly literary and artistic movement; it influenced interior decoration and the film, our sensibility, our imagination, perhaps even our dreams. It left an imprint upon psychology and metaphysics; it spread to five or six European countries and to other continents. It may be that the adjective Surrealist will remain affixed to the whole era between the two World Wars as best describing its boldest ambition. It would be neither more nor less appropriate to that age than the word Symbolist as applied to the years 1880–1900.
For many a name may rightly be associated with Surrealism which never was actually on the select list of the initiates. Several of the early adepts broke away from the sanctum, or were rejected from it. Others, like Reverdy and Michaux, never actually joined the group. But posterity will disregard such fine distinctions. It calls “Romantic” men like Balzac and Michelet who never belonged to any Romantic chapelle, others like Delacroix who vehemently rejected the label and would have nothing to do with Balzac and Baudelaire, others still like Vigny who soon estranged themselves from the cénacles. In spite of their probable protests, which death will some day silence, insuring the triumph of those modest but inevitable victors, the literary historians, we may consider as Surrealists the following men: Breton, Aragon, Soupault, Péret, Hugnet, Desnos, Crevel, Artaud, Naville, Tzara, Eluard, Michaux, Reverdy, Bataille, Prévert, Césaire, Gracq, Monnerot, Leiris. The list is far from exhaustive as J. H. Matthews points out in his article printed elsewhere in this issue. Among the painters are Miró, Max Ernst, Chirico, Tanguy, Picabia, Masson, Man Ray, Magritte, Matta, Arp, etc. And, of course, Salvador Dali—quantum mutatus ab illo! He has, since the heroic age, become the butt of Breton’s most venomous arrows and, among the faithful, has assumed the mock scrambled name of Avida Dollars. Nonetheless, the number of other talents is impressive.
Iconoclasts, in France at least, take good care to find illustrious predecessors who posthumously sponsor their audacity. One of the most considerable achievements of Surrealism was its discovery that many writers and painters of the past had been Surrealists without knowing it: Sasseta, Hieronymus Bosch, Blake, Achim von Arnim, E. A. Poe, and others. They renovated the perspective in which some of the intercessors, or exciters, of Surrealism were henceforth to be viewed. It is now impossible, and hardly desirable, to deprive Sade, Nerval, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Jarry and Apollinaire of the new stature that Surrealism has lent them. They will eternally remain as precursors of Surrealism, as Rousseau is a forerunner of Romanticism and Baudelaire a herald of Symbolist experiments.
Among the ancestors whom they worshipped, the first place belongs to Lautréamont; for, at the beginning, the Surrealists remained strangely reticent about Rimbaud. The rehabilitation of that forgotten prose-poet is one of their durable achievements. “To that man belongs probably the chief responsibility for the present condition of poetry,” Breton declared, implying that the condition was Surrealist, hence admirable. Maldoror, Lautréamont’s hero, was hailed as “the one name flung across the centuries as an unadulterated challenge to all that on earth is stupid, base, and sickening.” From him they learned a lesson of courage, finding guidance perhaps in a statement he had prophetically announced in 1869 before his mysterious disappearance at the age of twenty-four: “At this very hour, new flashes of lightning race through the intellectual atmosphere; what is wanted is only the courage to face them steadily.” With Lautréamont as their duce e signore they descended into vertiginous pits of hell, wandered among devilish nightmares, systematically cultivated monstrous hallucinations. Jarry’s bitter buffoonery took on a new meaning when the Surrealists reinterpreted it as a derision of the old bourgeois ramshackle structure which collapsed with the war of 1914. Ubu Roi was, for Breton, “an admirable creation for which I would give all the Shakespeares and the Rabelais in the world.” Apollinaire’s message, expressed less in his verse than in his Cubist Painters and in a masterly article on “Poets and the New Spirit,” published three weeks after his death in Mercure de France (1st December 1918), was bequeathed to the Surrealists who were the first to divine its significance. The role of the artist is to become inhuman; he must look for what in art has “most energy,” scorn facile charm, leap forward and assert the claims of poetry and painting to explore the world of the future, claims which are prior to those of philosophy, psychology, and science. The enigmatic Jacques Vaché is the last patron saint of Surrealism; his influence on Breton was chiefly through conversation and the strangeness of his personality. For Vaché did not condescend to write anything, except a few striking war letters to his friend; he lived with a woman to whom he never said a word, only kissing her hand in noble silence after she had poured tea; he derided literature as a vain occupation (“aiming so conscientiously in order to miss the mark”) and asserted that all was vain in life. He renounced it in 1919 when, along with two young Americans, he absorbed an inordinate dose of opium.
We shall not be concerned here with the history of the Surrealist sect, with its confused political affiliations, with its painters, nor with any attempt to define the claims of the Surrealists as they would themselves view them or wish to see them defined. We would rather, with the help of a few quotations and some acquaintance with the essential Surrealist texts, endeavor to point out the deeper significance of Surrealism. Eccentricities, excesses, childish mysticism, an obsession with fortuitous coincidences in life, and sheer mediocrity in paintings, films, and poems are to be found in abundance in Surrealism; they will be forgotten. The credit side of the movement is important enough for us to disregard some ephemeral littleness and to forgive some adolescent provocations.
Every literary or philosophical movement may be said to include a negative and a positive aspect. The two are developed simultaneously, but may be envisaged separately for clarity’s sake. The young men who rally under some new banner agree with relative ease on what they negate; their hunger for destruction is all-embracing. They joyfully trample under their feet the legacy of previous generations. It is harder for them to find a common ground for their positive assertions. If they have any personality, they are likely to listen to their own temperaments and to plunge into heresy if a set of positive dogmas is proposed to their literary faith.
The negative side of the Surrealist revolt was stressed by the adepts of the group with a ferocious and systematic intransigence which, in the third decade of the century, caused the hair of many a bourgeois to stand on end. Yet even then it took no exceptional clearsightedness to sense that a desperate search for a new faith lay beneath the vehement blasphemies of Breton and his friends. Their uncommon energy would not long be satisfied by mere fist-shaking. The Surrealist revolt is to be compared to the Cartesian tabula rasa, or brushing aside of previous confused growth in order to lay new foundations for a sounder and more ambitious structure. There always remains much logic behind any French attempt at illogic and an almost immoral passion for morals behind any Gallic denunciation of conventional ethics. The Surrealists are no exception. They are logicians and moralists primarily.
Their revolt, which appeared to be undiscriminating and universal, differed in fact from the nihilism of Dada. It concentrated on three targets which we may define as ethics and religion, the social and political realm, and literary conventions.
In the matter of religion, Breton never wavered; and extremely few, if any, of the former Surrealists ever joined the ranks of Catholic converts. There was the curious conversion to Surrealism in 1926 of the priest, Gengenbach, which provides one of the most ludicrous episodes in the movement’s history. Gengenbach had previously fallen in love with an actress and consequently been unfrocked by his bishop. But the actress found him no longer attractive when he ceased to wear a cassock; the former priest, in despair, went with suicidal intentions to the lake at Gerardmer where he glanced at a Surrealist review and saw the light. This curious individual attempted to reconcile Surrealism and Christianity. He failed, ended by denouncing Breton as Lucifer, and turned again to the faith of his childhood. He is not typical, for the Surrealists’ unconcern with God is even more pronounced than that of the Existentialists.
In an interview, Breton even spurned the Nietzschean phrase “the death of God” as meaningless, since “to die, one should first have existence.” Yet, like many adversaries of religion, like Nietzsche himself in his tragic Ecce Homo, Breton is an impious rival of Christ rather than a negator. His disciple Monnerot did not err when he asserted that Surrealism aims at a total transformation such as had only been attempted by religions; and Breton liked to quote Tolstoy’s words: “What truth can there be, if there is death?” A religious critic, Michel Carrouges, writing in the Dominican periodical La Vie Intellectuelle in November 1945, exemplifies the reactions of several latitudinarian French Catholics when he declares:
Surrealism is no empty hoax; it is not necessarily demoniacal as is sometimes imagined; it is a great invention of the modern world still in its infancy. . . . It is perhaps the most extraordinary movement of the human spirit . . . the most terrible mental explosive in existence.
On the moral plane, too, the Surrealist pronouncements were calculated to shake our complacency; they were occasionally accompanied by determined and perverse attempts at demoralization of the youth—with lamentable success. “Morality, that weakness of the brain,” a line of Rimbaud’s Season in Hell had exclaimed. To the Surrealists, moral censorship practiced against the impulses of our unconscious had to be abolished in order that a new peace, according to Freudian therapeutics, might invade our being, and still more in order to liberate our imagination. Breton and Eluard acclaimed Sade as the prophet of the new ethical crusade. But they were soon to draw the lineaments of a new ethics, far removed front hedonist indulgence and resting on a lofty conception of desire and of love. When Breton broke with the Communists, it was clearly on moral grounds and because “moral sense was undeniably the human reality which their party trampled daily and most gleefully underfoot.” Much earlier, in his volume Les Pas perdus (1924), that immoralist had confessed his love for all moralists, and added: “The moral question preoccupies me. . . . La morale is the great peacemaker. Even to attack her is to pay her a tribute. In her did I always find my most exalting inspiration.”
In the field of politics, the fierceness of the Surrealist protest is best understood if one remembers that it originated during World War I. And in many ways that war shook the minds of men more powerfully than did World War II. For it burst out after a prolonged era of peace and material progress during which Europeans had become accustomed to celebrate civilization and science as undeniably beneficient. Suddenly they were faced with the glaring bankruptcy of science, of logic, of their faith in progress, of philosophy and literature which failed to protest against the great massacre and often undertook to justify it. The Surrealists were impressed by the gaping abyss which separated man’s power to change the world through science and his utter inability to change himself. They became convinced that there must exist, behind what we call reality or behind the conventional layers of our minds, forces which control us. Surrealism would attempt to discover those forces and to liberate them, if they could be harnessed for man’s benefit.
To the Surrealists, and especially to Breton, we are indebted for some of the most moving and intelligent denunciations of war and its glamor. The cure for the monstrous evil is to be sought in the liberation of the imagination, in fulfilling by other means the boundless needs for childhood, for joy, for risk and for play, for intense emotions, which insidiously lead men to consent to collective murder. The Russian Revolution appeared to the Surrealists, as it did to many liberals in Europe, as the great hope for a new era of justice and fraternity. Their disillusion was all the more bitter when that Revolution turned to nationalism and the worship of Stakhanovist efficiency. Their sympathies went to Trotsky, who had proved understanding toward literature and had boldly announced that “the Revolution undertakes to conquer the right of all men, not only to bread, but to poetry.” “Bread and also roses,” Jaurès had, before 1914, demanded for the working classes. From 1930 or thereabout, most of the Surrealists turned against Stalinist Communism and rejected a revolution deprived of idealism and “serving to improve that abominable thing, earthly comfort” (Breton). But they did not desist from their fight against any conservatism, whether it came from the right or from the left. “More than ever do I believe in the necessity of transforming the world in the direction of the rational (more exactly, of the surrational) and of justice,” Breton declared in an important interview given to Une Semaine dans le monde. (31st July 1948).
But it is easier in France to rise in revolt against political institutions, social and ethical conventions, and, of course, against any government, than to be a literary rebel. Most liberals, from Voltaire to P. L. Courier and Anatole France, most radicals, socialists, and anarchists had always remained the most orthodox guardians of the purity of the French language and timid conservatives in matters of taste. Breton, Aragon, and Eluard have not “twisted the neck” of the French language; they have paid frequent tribute to their predecessors and have at times revived among us the shades of the Troubadours or the cadences of seventeenth century prose. But they dared attack pitilessly realism and its platitudinous dullness, eloquence always lurking behind poetical writing, above all logic which, under the guise of the detective novel, has staged an insidious offensive in the last three decades; for the detective novel is naively based upon the assumption that there is a cause or an agent for all that happens, and it banishes the inexplicable and the gratuitous from our world. Against the novel and its attraction for money-minded writers of today Surrealism restored the claims of poetry. Breton saw the novel as a prosaic game of chess with a contemptible adversary, “man, whoever he is, being only a mediocre adversary.” He added scornfully, “the ambition of novelists does not reach very far.”
But Surrealism did more than restore poetry. It rebelled against the very notion of culture and revealed to many moderns the strange beauty of Negro sculpture and of African and Polynesian masks. It ridiculed the concept of good taste which tends to constitute a barrier to any innovation and systematically kills the annexation of provinces of ugliness to the realm of the beautiful. The Surrealists reveled in the epic monstrosities of bad taste— “in the bad taste of our age, I endeavor to go farther than anyone else,” Breton once wrote—and extracted new flowers of evil from that horrifying paradise hitherto reserved for concierges, pompiers, and other philistines. The last stronghold of the élite, which is its conviction that its esthetic values would survive wars, revolutions, and financial loss of caste, that good taste is the one tyrannical evidence before which men will always bow, was stormed in the Surrealist attacks.
“Only the word liberty can still produce a state of exaltation in man.” This famous cry of Breton provides a key to a just appreciation of the positive achievement of Surrealism. Liberty, or rather the pursuit of a total liberation, is the keyword of its doctrinal pronouncements.
Surrealism wanted to liberate the subconscious. Its direction was thus clearly parallel to that taken earlier or at the same time by Freud, Proust, and Joyce. Unlike Proust, however, it avoided superimposing a complex structure of didactic reasoning and of refined analysis upon an attempt to capture those mysterious moments when man, escaping the inexorable flow of time, reaches the “peak of sovereignty.” Unlike Freud, to whom Breton owed much, the Surrealists did not advocate bringing to the light of clear consciousness, and dissipating eventually, the strange growth of complexes in our turgid depths. Much was made, in the early stages of Surrealism, of automatic writing, uncontrolled by reason or by critical spirit, which gave itself out as spoken and written thought seized in its spontaneous immediacy. In fact, the leading Surrealists never abused that perilous device. Their verse and their prose give evidence of elaborate composition, of skillful combination of effects, of a restrained choice made among the riches of the unconscious. But their originality lay precisely in having first proceeded to a courageous clearing of all that was worn out and effete in literature, and in having made a fresh selection from a new and vast accummulation of materials hitherto unexplored. Literature tends to utilize passively only the stones already quarried, hewn and polished by robust predecessors; it must periodically spurn such tempting and neatly arranged materials and carve out its own rock. In so doing, Surrealism occasionally hit upon sparkling gems. Its will to innovate was not a mere effort after originality; it was a resolute attempt to explore a virgin expanse in or under man’s mind and to dig into the hidden layers in which the civilized creature cannot dissemble or lie, as he does in his so-called “ rational,” or diligently controlled life.
The second ambition of Surrealism was to open up to literature the domain of dreams, and even of insanity, strangely neglected but for a few feeble trials by classical and modern writers to depict dreams of tragic characters, Hamlet’s, Hermione’s, or Tasso’s methodical madness. In the dream, the Surrealists respected what Reverdy called “a freer and more uninhibited form of thought.” They reveled in its inconsistencies, in its capricious disregard of causality, in the vividness of its images. They explored its symbolic secrets as revealing remnants of a primitive mentality only imperfectly repressed in ourselves. Not a little of the beauty of Eluard’s and Char’s poetry is due to its dreamlike atmosphere. Breton went farther and resumed Nerval’s centuryold attempt to “direct his eternal dream instead of passively submitting to it.” His volume, Les Vases communicants, contains the most splendid description of fantastic dreams written since Nerval’s record of his madness in Aurélia. Dreams are no longer the privilege of sleep; day-dreams are no longer mild, idyllic reveries. The realms of night and of day, sleep and wakefulness, hold a constant and fruitful interchange; the dream is respected and its luxuriance of images faithfully transcribed, while it is also interpreted and analyzed by a mystic trained in physiology and psychology. “I stand in the hall of a castle, a dark lantern in my hand, and I illuminate the sparkling armors one after the other.” Thus Breton, the former medical intern, describes himself in the opening pages of his Vases communicants.
The twofold liberation of the subconscious and of the oneiric domain leads to a third: the unchaining of the imagination. The Surrealists are the faithful heirs of Baudelaire and Rimbaud and, beyond them, of Coleridge, Blake, Novalis, and Achim von Arnim. They have enthroned the “magical and synthetic power” as the goddess of their works; and to them, as to the English Romantics, the “ renascence of wonder” became the highest achievement of the poet, recapturing the gifts of childhood in adult life.
Through an apparently spontaneous flow of images, Surrealism thaws the crust of blunted perceptions and of deductive reasoning which separates us from our deepest life and from the remnants of childhood buried in our subconscious. It maps out whole archipelagoes long submerged in a sea of dulled habit. It plunges below our intellectual vision of the world and beyond our sensory data; it seems to “see into the life of things” and to forge new and closer links between ourselves and socalled inanimate objects. The normal translation of those uncharted lands into which Blake and Rimbaud had ventured is effected through a new metaphoric langauge. One of the chief claims to greatness of Surrealist poetry lies, in our opinion, in its imagery. That poetry has replenished the threadbare stock of metaphors by which Hugo’s successors and French Symbolists had long been content to live. Reverdy, a poet whom the Surrealists have always respected even though he did not join their ranks, wrote:
An image is a pure creation of the mind. . . It springs from the linking of two realities more or less distant. The more unexpected and just the relations between the two realities thus linked are, the more powerful the image, the greater its emotive force and its poetical truth.
The poetry of Breton and Eluard—and even that of minor figures like Tzara and Hugnet— abounds in rare and fresh images which seem to create the object anew for our blunted senses and to allow a dreamworld to glide gently into our consciousness, first shaken, then voluptuously lulled, by the discontinuous flow of Surrealist metaphors.
The Surrealists’ endeavor to bring about a total renewal of the very mainsprings of literature has nowhere proved more courageous, and more startlingly successful, than in their treatment of love.
Love between man and woman had almost disappeared from literature after 1920. It happened that the leading figures of that literary era—Proust, Gide, Cocteau, and even Montherlant and Julien Green—were only slightly interested in heterosexual relations or in the “promotion of woman,” as sociologists were pleased to call it. The war had, moreover, created many causes of friction or of misunderstanding between the sexes, and the “virile fraternity,” cherished by Malraux and Saint- Exupéry, appeared nobler to many former or future soldiers than any sentimental and intellectual union with women, with whom young men often felt out of tune. An affectation of brutality and of cynicism had replaced the former rhetorical delusions of romantic love. Women, by winning new rights and meeting men on an equal footing in many a profession, seemed to have waived their former privilege as inspirers of artists and of poets.
Surrealism rehabilitated woman and love poetry in our midst. It would be naive to present the Surrealists as Platonic worshippers of spiritual beauty, or as hypocritical enough to conceal eroticism behind romantic adoration. They had read Sade even more than Musset. There is more Petrarchist inspiration, in Eluard especially, than there is Platonism. Yet they have ceased to exile woman from poetry, as Rimbaud and his followers had attempted to do, or to worship and abuse her alternately as a vessel for all the treacheries of Satan, in Baudelarian fashion. Aragon’s war poetry, more faithful to the Surrealist creed than his former friends were willing to acknowledge, sang the most rapturous hymns chanted to woman since the Romantics. Eluard may well rank among the three or four supreme love poets in the French language. His theme is a continuous transfiguration of woman in her body and in her mysterious and dreamy charm.
Toute tiède encore du linge annulè
Tu fermes les yeux et tu boules
Comme bouge un chant qui naît
Vaguement mais de partout
Odorante et savoureuse
Tu dépasses sans te perdre
Les frontières de ton corps
Tu as enjambé le temps
Te voici femme nouvelle
Révélée à l’infini.
(Une Longue Pensée amoureuse)
Breton’s love poetry does not rise to such felicitousness of musical language, but one of his finest prose works, L’Amour fou, is devoted to a triumphant exaltation of love as the great constructive force. He does not indulge in any such mysticism of the flesh as do intoxicated Puritans like D. H. Lawrence and inverted woman-haters like Henry Miller. But he rarely chides men for stupidly despairing of love, for imagining, once their youth is over, that love lies behind them, in their brief adolescent years, while it is there “waiting for them, in front of them.” Desire, or Eros, the old Hesiodic name of the earliest of the gods, must be emancipated and become the level which will achieve men’s imaginative liberation from the mechanical forces which have made him a willing slave to tyranny and to war.
Surrealism, however, was more than an exploration of new literary realms or a rediscovery of the old theme of love. Beyond its literary or pictorial claims, it was and is a metaphysical perception of the tragic sense of human life and a desperate attempt to leap beyond the bounds usually assigned to human reason. In this respect, not only is it parallel to its jealous rival, Existentialism, but it must be linked, willy-nilly, with other significant movements of our age, whether religious (Kierkegaard) or para-religious (Kafka, Malraux, Camus), equally obsessed with the all-pervading tragedy of man’s fate in a world from which man had vainly tried to banish tragedy.
The originality of the French Surrealists lies here in their sincerity. For, behind their youthful pranks and their delight in mischief and mystification, they were in truth passionately intense young men, venturing to the verge of insanity and suicide. One of their former members, Antonin Artaud, who died in 1948, spent years, as did Nerval, in an insane asylum; Eluard, always lucid and one of the most classical of poets, had to take refuge in another insane asylum and to pose as one of the deranged inmates in order to escape capture by the Germans for his activity in the French Resistance. Vaché, a precursor, had ended his life in 1919; one of the young Surrealist affiliates, Rigaut, killed himself in 1929, after writing a last message to his companions: “You are all poets and I am on the side of death.” René Crevel, the gifted and promising author of a disturbing book, Etes-vous fous?, resorted to suicide in 1935 as “the most final of all solution.” Benjamin Péret, one of the earliest inspirers of the group, denounced modern society and lived in solitude. Breton tirelessly branded as cowardice the compromise which accepts the present conditions, social and metaphysical, of our existence. In “Poetic Evidence” (in Donner à voir, Gallimard, 1939), a remarkable essay, Eluard declared: “Somber are the truths which appear in the work of true poets; but truths they are, and almost everything else is lies.”
But Surrealist literature does not wallow in pessimism. It never consents to despair, never delights in reviling man as naturalism and even Parnassian poetry had done. It plunges into the abysses of man’s unconscious only in order to emerge with reasons for living more imaginatively, more authentically. It illuminates whatever may be sordid and animal in us with the rays of poetry and of dream. After opposing an inflexible no to the insidious temptation to accept man’s fate as it is, it attempts to carry man far above his mediocre rational self into an impetuous dash of revolt. The crucial Surrealist assertion of this kind was made in 1930 in the second Surrealist manifesto. It asked man to think outside of and beyond the principle of contradiction, to break the shackles of logic, to bring out of opposite objects and contradictory concepts a deeper unity. Hegelian and Marxist dialectics was not unknown to Breton when he wrote these lines, but he leaped beyond their technical subtleties into the purer regions of poetical faith:
Everything leads to the belief that there exists a certain point in the mind from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, what is communicable and what is incommunicable, the high and the low, cease to be perceived as contradictory. Vainly would one assign to Surrealist activity another ambition than the hope to determine this point.
Again, in Les Vases communicants, Breton proclaimed:
The poet of the future will surmont the depressing idea of an irreparable divorce between dream and action. He will offer the magnificent fruit of the tree with tangled roots and will persuade those who taste it that there is no bitterness in it.
There, in our opinion, lies the deeper significance of Surrealism. On one side, the movement has staged an ardent revolt against all literary conventions, and chiefly against effete images and conventional rhetoric which encumber a great mass of nineteenth century literature. It has striven toward a language deprived of eloquence and of sumptuous draperies, closely molded on reality or surreality. In this sense, Surrealism is only one aspect of the most determined attempt of French literature since Rimbaud and Mallarmé: an attempt to pierce the screen of language and to render words so transparently lucid and pure as to let objects and feelings meet us directly. Eluard, Reverdy, and Char, the supreme poets of Surrealism, have accomplished what critics like Paulhan, Blanchot, and Picon would define as the great obsession of the moderns: the creation of a literature that is nonliterary. In its form, Surrealism is thus far remote from outdated Romanticism.
In its content, however, Surrealism must be regarded as a powerful Romantic offensive. Our age fondly imagines that it has buried the illusions of the Romantics beneath its own positive preoccupations, its cynicism, its resigned acceptance of man as a creature made up of animal impulses. It has only momentarily repressed its Romanticism and is unwittingly preparing a tidal wave of Romantic revolt, which is likely to put an end to all the pseudoscientitic claims of the novel, criticism, psychology, and sociology of the last few decades. The recent evolution of Surrealism is, in this connection, prophetic. Julien Gracq, celebrated by Breton as the most brilliant new recruit of Surrealism, has revived the Romantic novel of the English pre-Romantics. Eluard’s late poetry delights in sensuous litanies in praise of woman which recall the Romantic bards even more than the metaphysical poets, for irony is not among the goddesses courted by the Surrealists. Péret proclaimed Romanticism as the flint great revolutionary movement in poetry. And Breton has become the apostle of mystical union with nature as superior to any knowledge of nature:
Scientific knowledge of nature can only be valuable if contact with nature through poetical, I would even say mythical, ways is re-established. (Le Figaro, October 1946).
Like the Romantics, the Surrealists, obsessed with frantic revolt, with the breaking of all moral and social conventions, occasionally attracted by suicide, have in truth aspired toward a total renewal of man. They have aimed at provoking first a grave intellectual and moral crisis in modern man, so as to shake him out of his complacency. Then they forced the locomotive of the human spirit off the rails of logic and reason and lured imagination to the heights where it can soar freely and meet the unknown, away from the mediocre and dull province of what is known and understood rationally. The impatience of Breton and his friends with ordinary, contented man springs from a boundless faith in the possibilities which man ignores or represses in himself. Their aim is not to create a Nietzschean superman, but to give noble and affirmative answer to the Nietzschean question echoed by M. Teste: “Of what is man capable?” “A man who has never tried to make himself equal to the gods is less than a man,” said the creator of M. Teste. If he is right, the Surrealists have proved to be more than ordinary mortals. They have asserted most loudly in our century man’s ability to change himself, and the extraordinary, almost magical, role that literature can play in effecting that change. To quote André Breton once more:
Human life would not be for many of us the disappointment it is if we constantly felt ourselves capable of accomplishing acts above our strength. It seems that miracle itself can be within our reach.
Source: Henri Peyre, “The Significance of Surrealism,” in Yale French Studies, No. 31, May 1964, pp. 23–36.