Historical Context

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World War I
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, made a fateful trip to Sarajevo, capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he and his wife were assassinated. The occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary led to growing unrest among people in the region who wanted to become part of Serbia once again. The assassination was staged with the help of Serbia, which also wished to reclaim Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Norman Davies notes, in Europe: A History, the quick consequences of the assassination, and the revelation that Serbia was involved. “Within four weeks, the gunshots of Sarajevo brought Europe’s diplomatic and military restraints crashing to the ground,” Davies writes. On July 28, exactly one month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. An extensive system of preexisting alliances swiftly pulled most other European countries into the war, escalating the conflict. Eventually, Europe, parts of Asia, and the United States joined the war, aligning themselves either with the pro-Serbian Allies or with the Central powers, which supported Austria-Hungary.

When World War I began in August 1914, both sides believed that with their modern weapon technologies like hand grenades, tanks, long-range artillery, and poison gas, the war would be over quickly and with minimal casualties. Davies notes the prevailing logic that dominated people’s thinking: “It was going to be over by Christmas. Conventional wisdom held that modern warfare would be more intense than in the past, but more decisive.” In reality, however, the war raged for four years, leading to an estimated eight million dead and even more wounded.

One of the two main lines of fighting, the Western Front, ran through France, which experienced some of the bloodiest battles in the war. The front was defined by the extensive trench that ran along its entire length on both sides. Allied and Central soldiers occupied their respective trenches—which were often close to each other— and with a series of battles, each side attempted to drive their opponent out of his trench and force the line back, with a flurry of grenades and machinegun fire. The results were horrific. Davies observes of the three most bloody battles, “the loss of life could be counted in tens of thousands per hour or hundreds per square yard.”

For years the battle in the trenches was a virtual stalemate, and the body count rose as both sides added reinforcements to maintain the trenches. “Here was a mindless tragedy which no one had foreseen, and which no one knew how to stop,” says Davies.

Dadaism and Sigmund Freud
After World War I, the dadaists tried to fight fire with fire. They believed that logic and other organized systems of thinking had created the horrors of war and responded to the war’s meaningless slaughter with literature and art that was equally meaningless and created intentionally without logic. The dadaist movement, which had been founded in Switzerland in 1916 by a group of European artists and writers, spread to other areas in Europe, including France, where Breton became one of the willing converts.

As a medical student drafted to work in the psychiatric wards during the war, Breton had seen firsthand the effects of war on the human mind and wished to rebel against the logic that had caused the war. However, Breton soon became tired of the negative, meaninglessness of Dadaism, and sought a more positive and constructive means to stage his rebellion. Breton had studied the work of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and was particularly interested in Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind. Drawing on Freud’s...

(This entire section contains 850 words.)

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studies, Breton and others formed the surrealist movement. In 1924, Breton defined the group’s guiding principles in hisManifesto of Surrealism.

Communism and World War II
Although the surrealist movement initially began as a form of literary expression, political unrest in Europe forced many sociopolitical and cultural groups to align themselves with other groups. In 1930, Breton announced the surrealists’s decision to join the French Communist Party in his second Manifesto of Surrealism. It was his hope that the greater Communist Party, which had its headquarters in Moscow in the Soviet Union, would adopt the surrealist way of thinking and apply it to politics, creating a totally liberated society. However, five years later, most of the surrealists left the Communist Party after witnessing the bloody acts Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin perpetrated in the name of communism.

Davies claims many of these acts were part of Stalin’s political strategy: “Innocent victims were rounded up in their homes and villages; others were charged with imaginary offences of ‘sabotage,’ ‘treason,’ or ‘espionage,’ and tortured into confession.” As part of Stalin’s scare tactics, many of these victims were put on trial to discourage others from rebelling against him. Breton and others were some of the first to publicly denounce these trials.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, another dictator, Germany’s Adolf Hitler, invaded and conquered much of Europe. When Hitler’s Nazis invaded France, the surrealists broke up, and many of them fled to other European countries or overseas.

Literary Style

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Automatic Writing
In his Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton laid out the methods of the would-be surrealist, including a technique called automatic writing, which the surrealists used to try to obtain the most pure information, free from the bindings of rational thought. “Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can,” says Breton. He advises people to “write quickly” about whatever comes into their minds, and “fast enough so that you will not re- member what you’re writing and be tempted to reread what you have written.” Breton also notes that of all of the surrealists, Desnos was the group’s best practitioner, and that “Desnos speaks surrealist at will.”

Poets use language in their works to create different kinds of images, in a literal or figurative manner. An image can represent physical objects, emotions, metaphysical ideas, and virtually anything else that can be experienced in the real world through one or more of the five senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing, or taste. A literal image is conveyed in straight language that does not imply a hidden meaning. For example, in Paul Eluard’s poem “What the Laborer Says Is Always Beside the Point,” the second line reads, “A man on a bench in a street who avoids the crowd.” There is nothing ambiguous about this image. As each separate part of the line is read, the image in the reader’s mind becomes more concrete.

Much of surrealist poetry relies on figurative images—images conveyed by metaphors, similes, or other forms of figurative language—all of which employ ordinary words in a manner that imparts a new meaning. For example, from the same poem by Eluard:

There are demolitions sadder than a penny
Indescribable and yet the sun moves away from them singing
While the sky dances and makes its honey.

Eluard’s language has specific meanings when looked at in context. The “demolitions” caused by war are more depressing than a penny, which represents the lowest monetary value in currency, and so is almost worthless, as are these demolished buildings. While the buildings are so destroyed that they are “indescribable,” their darkness does not effect the sun. The sun, a bright object that is usually given positive connotations—in this case it sings—continues to move away, or rise and set, as it always has, taking no notice of the demolished buildings. Likewise for the dancing sky (also a positive feeling), which continues to make its honey, or rain, as it always has. Eluard uses figurative language to personify—or attribute human feelings to—inanimate objects like buildings and natural objects like the sun and sky, conveying a sense of the inevitable nature of war and its ineffectiveness in the grand scheme of things.

In addition to imagery, the surrealists relied heavily on the positioning of their words to create the effects that they sought. In many cases, poets would place unrelated, often contradictory words next to each other in an attempt to achieve an image that reconciled dreams with reality. This device led to some very bizarre images. For example, in Robert Desnos’s poem “Meeting,” he writes:

A very learned doctor sews the hands of the pray ing woman assuring her she will sleep. A very skilful cook mixes poisons in my plate and assures me I will laugh.

These words are obviously juxtaposed so that they contradict each other. Doctors normally heal, so if they sew somebody’s hands together, that person will likely cry out in pain, not go to sleep. Likewise, if somebody is poisoned, they are not likely to laugh, they are likely to die. However, even though the lines do not make sense, they create images in the reader’s mind and convey a sense of betrayal. The speaker of these lines is being illtreated, although he or she is assured by the respected professionals that everything is going to be all right. One possible interpretation is that the speaker, like those who were asked to support World War I, is being duped by the government— the learned doctors who rely on logic—and being fed poisonous lies that the war will be over quickly and that citizens will rejoice when that happens.

Movement Variations

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Surrealist Art
Surrealist painters and writers shared a number of influences, including Dadaism. However, one of the most important art influences was the early work of Giorgio de Chirico—an Italian painter who helped found a style of metaphysical painting with his famous series of unique, barren city landscapes, which he started painting in 1910. Through his use of contrasting light and shadow and his juxtaposition of objects, Chirico’s paintings suggested a dark, unknown evil.

Breton supported surrealist art as well as literature. In issues of his magazine La Révolution Surréealiste, Breton routinely published illustrations from such artists as Max Ernst and André Masson. The biggest promotion of the surrealist artists, however, came through exhibitions. In 1925, the surrealists staged their first collective exhibition in Paris, which included work from Ernst, Masson, Joan Miró, and Man Ray, founding members of the surrealist art group. Chirico’s early metaphysical work was also included. It was characteristic of surrealist art that each artist had a unique style, as each painter chose to explore the ideas of Surrealism in different, personal ways, leading to many different and exciting works. The exhibition was a success, and more soon followed.

The Surrealist Gallery, a joint venture that opened in 1926, gave many Surrealist artists a permanent exhibition space. In addition to French artists like Max Ernst, André Masson, and Joan Miró, the gallery also attracted the attention of international artists. Like the French surrealist poets, Dalí was influenced by Freud’s writings. To tap into his subconscious, he induced hallucinations in himself before he began to paint. From 1929 to 1937, he created a series of dreamlike, fantastical landscapes featuring realistic objects in bizarre configurations. One of his most famous works is “The Persistence of Memory,” which depicts clocks melting on tree branches in an otherwise desolate landscape. His bleak landscapes are his best-known works. After Dalí switched gears and began creating more traditional paintings in the 1930s, Breton— who expected strict adherence to surrealist ideas—expelled Dalí from his surrealist group.

Surrealist painting flourished until the outbreak of World War II. Periodic exhibitions were later seen in the 1960s and 1970s, as many of the original surrealist artists died and their work was shown in retrospectives. Surrealist art is still exhibited in the twenty-first century, and its influence continues to be seen.

Surrealist Film
The surrealist movement first expressed itself in film in the 1920s. Surrealist films embodied the concepts of its literary counterpart and featured oddly juxtaposed and often contradictory images, which were sometimes disturbing. The most famous film from this time period is Un Chien andalou (An Andalusian dog), released in 1928 from first-time director Luis Buñuel and painter Dalí. One of the more graphic images in the film is that of a woman slitting her eye with a razor. As English surrealist poet David Gascoyne notes in his A Short Survey of Surrealism, the film “caused much scandal and sensation at its first showings.” The first of several surrealist films that eventually achieved widespread critical acclaim, Un Chien andalou continues to be viewed as a classic of surrealist film.

For the next five decades, Buñuel continued making films depicting surrealist images and worlds, culminating in the 1977 film That Obscure Object of Desire. The surrealist influence of Buñuel and others has survived into the twenty-first century. For example, the ideas of Surrealism were modernized in Vanilla Sky—director Cameron Crowe’s 2001 film starring Tom Cruise as a magazine publisher who slowly loses his hold on reality and experiences a number of surrealist visions. At the end, he realizes he has been living in a selfinduced, virtual reality dream.

Surrealist Drama
Although some surrealists wrote plays, their greatest influence was not through their individual works but in the movement’s influence on the theatre of the absurd, a dramatic movement in the post- World-War-II 1950s and early 1960s. The theatre of the absurd, a school informally founded through the works of a number of foreign playwrights living in Paris, was a reaction against the horrors of World War II. Like the surrealists, the absurdists valued dreamlike images over logical, rational thought. Unlike the surrealists, however, who attempted to create a positive and constructive reaction to the horror, the absurdists believed that human life was meaningless and that humans were helpless creatures, having fallen into a state of absurdity. Absurdist plays mimicked this feeling, introducing unpredictable situations or contradictory images that did not seem to make sense. Some of these plays, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, first produced in 1953 in France, are considered classics of world literature. Other celebrated absurdist playwrights include Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee.

Just as Breton did much to promote the surrealist movement in France, English poet and novelist Gascoyne did the same in the 1930s in England. In addition to translating some of the surrealist poetry from French to English, he also wrote A Short Survey of Surrealism in 1935. In this book, Gascoyne analyzes the development of Surrealism, offers commentary on Breton’s first and second manifestos of Surrealism, and discusses the work of other major surrealist poets.

Along with publicizing the movement through his works of history, criticism, and translations, Gascoyne’s own poetry reflects the influence of the surrealists. His book of poetry titled Man’s Life Is This Meat, published in 1936, was one of the most important surrealist works in England. However, Gascoyne was not as interested in the subconscious as Breton and others, instead focusing on more mystical elements. His poems in the late 1930s and early 1940s show his increasing interest in religion, which dominated his later poetry.

Compare and Contrast

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1910s: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to his supporters by the name Lenin, leads the Russian revolution, overthrowing the czar and instituting a dictatorship of the proletariat—or common people—led by himself. Over the next several years Lenin works to build the Communist Party into an organization that can effect worldwide revolution, and tries to get all separate communist parties to commit to the Soviet cause.

Today: Many formerly communist countries, including the former Soviet Union, currently employ democratic systems of government.

1910s: During World War I, in an effort to rally support at home, various countries on both sides rely on printed propaganda and other methods of psychological warfare that demonize their enemy.

Today: After an attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., that leads to war in Afghanistan, Hollywood capitalizes on American citizens’ patriotism by releasing a number of war-themed films.

1910s: American poet John Masefield accompanies the United States volunteer ambulance service in France, sending many letters to his wife that record his graphic observations of the effects of war. His writings are published in The Old Front Line (1917) and other books.

Today: As the United States wages war in Afghanistan, people receive up-to-the-minute updates from on-site reporters, whose video footage and commentary is transmitted to the public through radio, satellite television, and the Internet.

Representative Works

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Capital of Sorrow
Like Aragon, Paul Eluard’s greatest works were written before his writings became more political in nature. Capital of Sorrow, originally published in 1926, is a case in point. Although Eluard had published previous volumes of poetry, this was one of his first volumes of surrealist poetry and it helped to establish his reputation as a poet and bring attention to the surrealist movement. In Capital of Sorrow, Eluard focuses on two, diametrically opposed ideas—love and loneliness—and expounds on each with a passion and intensity for which he became famous. Invoking images of the individual and the universal, Capital of Sorrow was a key formative work in the poet’s career. Of all of the French surrealists, Eluard was praised by critics as the most talented, and works like Capital of Sorrow have continued to receive favorable attention over the years.

Liberty or Love!Liberty or Love!, Desnos’s surrealist novel, was censured by a French court because of its graphic nature and the eroticism inherent in some passages. The novel, first published in 1927, is like other surrealist novels in that it follows a loose structure. The story details a hazy series of events in which two lovers, Corsair Sanglot and Louise Lame, drift in and out of each other’s lives. Characters pop in and out of the narrative as if in a dream. The novel, which was written in very descriptive detail, was noted by critics for its dreamlike qualities. It was first translated into English in 1994, at which time it received favorable reviews.

The Magnetic Fields
The story behind the genesis of The Magnetic Fields is one of intense, and one could say, fanat- ical commitment to a cause. In 1919, Breton and Soupault were performing a number of experiments, attempting to tap into their unconscious minds through techniques like automatic writing. At one point, they induced themselves into a hypnotic trance and began a writing session that lasted eight days. The output, a series of prose poems, was published initially in 1919 in their journal Litterature. The Magnetic Fields, considered by many to be the first surrealist text, was important to the movement’s development.

Manifesto of Surrealism
When Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism was published in 1924, it was met with opposition. The manifesto began by criticizing current forms of writing such as the novel in very abrasive and unflattering ways, so it is no wonder that it was not liked. Although the term “Surrealism” was coined by his deceased friend Guillaume Apollinaire, Breton claimed (in Manifesto of Surrealism) the title for his movement and offered an official definition:

Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

The manifesto featured a grab bag of other items, including a list of names of the people Breton considered surrealists, an in-depth description for how to perform the method of automatic writing, and several examples illustrating what Surrealism is. Breton followed this work with two other manifestos and several other works that further defined the goals and ideals of the surrealists.

Paris Peasant
Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant was originally published in 1926. The surrealist novel employed two of the surrealists’s favorite inspirational locations: a passageway at the Paris Opera and the Buttes-Chaumont park. Paris Peasant was well received, especially by critics, who praised the novel’s ability to mix realistic elements of the Paris locations with the surrealist elements of Aragon’s created world. Much of the critics’ favorable attention stemmed from the fact that they were used to surrealists who did not base their prose or novels on real places—which were harder to produce through automatic writing—and so Aragon’s novel was a welcome change. The novel also contained Aragon’s own definition of Surrealism, which differed from Breton’s definition in his Manifesto of Surrealism. Aragon emphasized (in Manifesto of Surrealism) the use of the image in a random and André Breton, Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara, and Benjamin Peret passionate way and believed that each image forced him “to revise the Universe.”

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Balakian, Anna, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 65: French Novelists, 1900–1930, Gale Research, 1988. pp. 20–28.

Breton, André, Manifestoes of Surrealism, University of Michigan Press, 1972, pp. 7, 11, 14, 26, 29–30, 33, 38.

—, “My Wife with Her Wood-Fire Hair,” in Modern French Poets, edited by Wallace Fowlie, Dover, 1992, p. 153.

Brown, Frederick, “Creation versus Literature: Breton and the Surrealist Movement,” in Modern French Criticism: From Proust and Valéry to Structuralism, edited by John K. Simon, University of Chicago Press, 1972, p. 136.

Caws, Mary Ann, The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism, Princeton University Press, 1970, p. 5.

Davies, Norman, Europe: A History, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 877, 901, 903, 962.

Desnos, Robert, “From Deuil pour Deuil,” in Modern French Poets, edited by Wallace Fowlie, Dover, 1992, pp. 202–03.

—, “Meeting,” in Modern French Poets, edited by Wallace Fowlie, Dover, 1992, p. 207.

Eluard, Paul, “First in the World,” in Modern French Poets, edited by Wallace Fowlie, Dover, 1992, p. 177.

—, “What the Laborer Says Is Always beside the Point,” in Modern French Poets, edited by Wallace Fowlie, Dover, 1992, pp. 179, 181.

—, “You Rise Up,” in Modern French Poets, edited by Wallace Fowlie, Dover, 1992, p. 183.

Gascoyne, David, A Short Survey of Surrealism, City Lights Books, 1982, pp. 57, 91.

La Charité, Virginia A., Twentieth-Century French Avant- Garde Poetry, 1907–1990, French Forum Publishers, Incorporated, 1992, p. 83.

Lemaitre, Georges, From Cubism to Surrealism in French Literature, Harvard University Press, 1947, pp. 212–13.

Matthews, J. H., Surrealist Poetry in France, Syracuse University Press, 1969, p. 17.

Further Reading
Caws, Mary Ann, ed., Surrealist Painters and Poets, MIT Press, 2001. This book offers a large selection of reprinted texts from surrealist painters and poets, including some rare letters and essays that are hard to find elsewhere.

Levitt, Annette Shandler, The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Levitt places Surrealism at the center of modernism and explores the philosophical stance of Surrealism, the creative rebellion that was more than a new way of looking at things.

Rose, Alan, Surrealism and Communism: The Early Years, Peter Lang Publishing, 1991. At one point, Surrealism was linked with communism. Rose explores this link between the two ideologies and how it was established and broken.

Walz, Robin, Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century France, University of California Press, 2000. Walz focuses on the little-known influences of French Surrealism, which include fantastic popular fiction, and sensationalistic journalism—part of the darker, more rebellious, side of mass culture.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide