1. History and Surrealism
The Crisis of Culture
Surrealism belongs to one of the terminal phases in the crisis of culture. In unitary regimes, of which monarchy based on divine right is the best known example, the integrative power of myth concealed the separation between culture and social life. Artists, writers, scholars and philosophers, just like the peasants, the bourgeois, the wielders of power, and even the King himself, had to live out their contradictions within a hierarchical structure which was from top to bottom the work of a God, and unchangeable in its very essence.
The growth of the bourgeois class of merchants and manufacturers meant the moulding of human relationships to the rationality of exchange, the imposition of the quantifiable power of money with mechanistic certainty as to its concrete truth. This development was accompanied by an accelerating tendency toward secularization which destroyed the formerly idyllic relationship between masters and slaves. The reality of class struggle broke upon history with the same brutality as the reign of economics, which had suddenly emerged as the focus of all preoccupations.
Once the divine State, whose form constituted an obstacle to the development of capitalism, had been done away with, the exploitation of the proletariat, the forward march of capital, and the laws of the commodity, by everywhere bending beings and things to their will, became cumbersome realities susceptible neither to the authority of a divine providence nor to incorporation into the myth of a transcendent order: realities which the ruling class, if it was not to be borne away by the next revolutionary wave already incontestably foreshadowed by the Enragés and Babouvists was now obliged at all costs to conceal from the consciousness of the proletariat.
Out of the relics of myth, which were also the relics of God, the bourgeoisie sought to construct a new transcendent unity capable of using the force of illusion to dissolve the separations and contradictions that individuals deprived of religion (in the etymological sense of a collective bond with God) experienced within themselves and between each other. In the wake of the abortive cults of the Supreme Being and the Goddess of Reason, nationalism in its multifarious guises - from Bonaparte's Caesarism to the gamut of national socialisms - came to the fore as the necessary but increasingly inadequate ideology of the State (whether the State of private and monopolistic capitalism or the State of capitalism in its socialized form).
Indeed, the fall of Napoleon marked the end of any prospect of reinstituting a unitary myth founded on empire, on the prestige of arms or on the mystique of territorial power. All the same, there is one trait common to all the ideologies that evolved either from the memory of the divine myth, or out of the contradictions of the bourgeoisie (liberalism), or by way of the deformation of revolutionary theories (that is, theories thrown up by real struggles which feed back into those struggles and hasten the advent of a classless society by remaining necessarily opposed to all ideology). That common trait is the same dissimulation or distortion, the same deprecation or misapprehension, of the real movement that arises from human praxis.
The radical consciousness cannot be reconciled with ideology, whose only function is to mystify. What the acutest eighteenth-century consciousness perceived for the most part, in the void left behind by the ebb tide of divine consciousness, was the suffering of separation, isolation and alienation. Disenchantment (in the literal sense of the end of the spell cast by a unifying God) thus went hand in hand with an awareness of contradictions that had no chance of being resolved or transcended.
As all sectors of human activity proceeded to break apart from one another, culture, just as much as the economic, social or political spheres, became a separate realm, an autonomous entity. And as the masters of the economy gradually built up their hegemony over society as a whole, artists, writers and thinkers were left in possession of the consciousness of an independent cultural domain which the imperialism of the economy would be very slow to colonize. They turned this domain into a citadel of the gratuitous, but they acted as mercenaries of dominant ideas as often as they raised the flag of rebellion or revolution.
Victims of the unhappy consciousness, despised by those concerned with finance, trade and industry, these creators tended in the main to turn culture into a replacement for myth, into a new totality, a reconsecrated space starkly opposed to the material spheres of commercial transaction and production. Naturally, since the area they governed was no more than a fragment, irreducible to economic terms and cut off from the social and the political, they could not aspire to any genuine resuscitation of the unitary myth: all they could do was represent it - and in this respect indeed they were no different from the more astute minds of the bourgeoisie, seeking to build a new myth by resacralizing all those zones where the economy did not intervene directly (no attempt would be made to consecrate the Stock Exchange, for instance, but the cult of work was an attempt to sanctify the factory).
The "spectacle" is all that remains of the myth that perished along with unitary society: an ideological organization whereby the actions of history upon individuals themselves seeking, whether in their own name or collectively, to act upon history, are reflected, corrupted and transformed into their opposite into an autonomous life of the non-lived.
We shall understand nothing of Romanticism, nor of Surrealism, if we lose sight of culture's entanglement with the organization of the spectacle. To begin with, everything new thrown up by these movements bore the stamp of a rejection of the bourgeoisie, a refusal of everything utilitarian or functional. There is no artist of the first half of the nineteenth century whose work was not grounded in contempt for bourgeois and commercial values (which of course in no way prevented artists from behaving exactly like bourgeois and taking money wherever they could get it Flaubert is a case in point). Aestheticism acquired ideological force as the contrary of commercial value, as the thing which could make the world worth living in, and which thus held the key to a particular style of life, a particular way of investing being with value that was diametrically opposed to the capitalist's reduction of being to having. Within the spectacle, it was culture's task to supply validating role models along these lines. Gradually, as economic rationality created a cultural market, transforming books, pictures or sculpture into commodities, the dominant forms of culture became ever more abstract, eventually calling forth anti-cultural reactions. At the same time, the greater the sway of the economy, and the more widely it imposed its commodity system, the greater was the bourgeoisie's need to update its spectacular ideological free market as a way of masking an exploitation that was ever more brutal - and ever more brutally contested by the proletariat. After the Second World War, the collapse of the great ideologies and the expanding consumer market, with its books, records and culturalized gadgets, brought culture to centre stage. The poverty of the mere survival imposed on people accentuated this development by encouraging them to live abstractly, in accordance with models whose universal fictions, dominated by stereotypes and images, were continually in need of renewal. Surrealism would pay the price here, in the coin of a co-optation which its heart, if not its intellect, had always refused.
Culture, however, was not a monolith. As a separate sphere of knowledge, it inevitably attested to the splits that had been brought about; it remained the locus of partial forms of knowledge that claimed to be absolute in the name of the old myth, which, though irremediably lost, was forever being sought after. The consciousness of creators underwent a corresponding evolution, as culture established a parallel market of its own (around 1850?), so giving rise to 'units' of prestige which in the spectacular system replaced profit, or refined it, and in any event interacted with it.
Creators who failed to burst the bubble in which they were usually content to generate endless reflections of themselves risked becoming mere producers of cultural commodities or functionaries of the ideological-aesthetic spectacle. The man of refusal, so defined by the scorn poured upon him by the world of commerce, could very easily be transformed into a bearer of false consciousness. When reproached by the businessman for not having his feet on the ground, the artist tended to appeal to the life of the mind. Surrealism bore the traces of this absurd antagonism between mercantile "materialism" on the one hand and Mind (whether in its reactionary or its revolutionary form) on the other.
All the same, the more lucid or sensitive creators succeeded in identifying their own condition more or less clearly with that of the proletariat. The result was a tendency that might be called "radical aesthetics" exemplified by Nerval, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Keats, Byron, Novalis, Büchner, Forneret, Blake, etc. for which the quest for a new unity was expressed through the symbolic destruction of the old world, the provocative espousal of the gratuitous, and the rejection of commercial logic and the immediate concrete dimension which that logic controlled and defined as the only reality. Hegel would come to represent the historical consciousness of this attitude.
Another tendency, extending "radical aesthetics" into a "radical ethics", arose from an awareness of the separatedness of culture, from the consciousness of thinkers and artists, hitherto alienated in the pure impotence of the mind, who now developed creativity as a mode of authentic existence welded to the critique of the commodity system and of the survival imposed universally by that system. Marx and Fourier were this tendency's main voices.
Lastly, there was a third current which, without grounding itself as firmly in history as Marx or Fourier, made its basic principle the abolition of culture as a separate sphere through the realization of art and philosophy in everyday life. This tradition runs from Meslier to de Sade, and thence, via Petrus Borel, Hölderlin, Charles Lassailly, Ernest Coeurderoy, Joseph Déjacque and Lautréamont, to Ravachol and Jules Bonnot. It is in fact less a tradition than a somewhat serendipitous tracery of theories and practices constituting a kind of ideal map of radical refusal. Though thrown up by history, and reinserting itself into history, often in violent fashion, this was a heritage with no clear consciousness of its power over that history, no effective knowledge of its actual potential. In the years between 1915 and 1925, however, as history took its revenge upon all its ideological travesties, these isolated voices were revealed as eminently harmonious, called forth as they all were by the pressure for human emancipation.
Dada embodied both the consciousness of the crumbling of ideology and the will to destroy ideology in the name of authentic life. But Dada in its nihilism sought to constitute an absolute and hence purely abstract-break. Not only did it fail to ground itself in the historical conditions by which it had itself been produced, but, by deconsecrating culture, by mocking its claims to be an independent sphere, by playing games with its fragments, it effectively cut itself off from a tradition forged by creators who in fact shared Dada's goal, the destruction of art and philosophy, but who pursued this goal with the intention of reinventing and realizing art and philosophy once they had been liquidated as ideological forms, as components of culture in everyone's actual life.
After Dada's failure, Surrealism for its part renewed ties with the older tradition. It did so, however, just as though Dada had never existed, just as though Dada's dynamiting of culture had never occurred. It prolonged the yearning for transcendence, as nurtured from de Sade to Jarry, without ever realizing that the transcendence in question had now become possible. It curated and popularized the great human aspirations without ever discovering that the prerequisites for their fulfilment were already present. In so doing, Surrealism ended up reinvigorating the spectacle, whose function was to conceal from the last class in history, the proletariat, bearer of total freedom, the history that was yet to be made. To Surrealism's credit, assuredly, is the creation of a school-for-all which, if it did not make revolution, at least popularized revolutionary thinkers. The Surrealists were the first to make it impossible, in France, to conflate Marx and Bolshevism, the first to use Lautréamont as gunpowder, the first to plant the black flag of de Sade in the heart of Christian humanism. These are legitimate claims to glory: to this extent, at any rate, Surrealism's failure was an honourable one.
Dada and Culture in Question
Dada was born at a turning-point in the history of industrial societies. By reducing human beings to citizens who kill and are killed in the name of a State that oppresses them, the model ideologies of imperialism and nationalism served to underline the gulf that separated real, universal man from the spectacular image of a humanity perceived as an abstraction; the two were irreparably opposed, for example, from the standpoint of France, or from the standpoint of Germany. Yet at the very moment when spectacular organization reached what to minds enamoured of true freedom appeared to be its most Ubuesque representational form, that organization was successfully attracting and enlisting almost all the intellectuals and artists to be found in the realm of culture. This tendency arose, moreover, in tandem with the move of the proletariat's official leadership into the militarist camp.
Dada denounced the mystificatory power of culture in its entirety as early as 1915-1918. On the other hand, once Dada had proved itself incapable of realizing art and philosophy (a project which a successful Spartacist revolution would no doubt have made easier), Surrealism was content merely to condemn the spinelessness of the intelligentsia, to point the finger at the chauvinist idiocy of anyone, from Maurice Barrès to Xavier Montehus, who was an intellectual and proud of it.
As culture and its partisans were busily demonstrating how actively they supported the organization of the spectacle and the mystification of social reality, Surrealism ignored the negativity embodied in Dada; being nevertheless hard put to it to institute any positive project, it succeeded only in setting in motion the old ideological mechanism whereby today's partial revolt is turned into tomorrow's official culture. The eventual co-optation of late Dadaism, the transformation of its radicalism into ideological form, would have to await the advent of Pop Art. In the matter of co-optation, Surrealism, its protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, was quite sufficient unto itself.
The ignorance that Surrealism fostered with respect to the dissolution of art and philosophy is every bit as appalling as the ignorance Dada fostered with respect to the opposite aspect of the same tendency, namely the transcendence of art and philosophy.
The things that Dada unified so vigorously included Lautréamont's dismantling of poetic language, the condemnation of philosophy in opposing yet identical ways by Hegel and Marx, the bringing of painting to its melting point by Impressionism, or theatre embracing its own parodic self-destruction in Ubu. What plainer illustrations could there be here than Malevich with his white square on a white ground, or the urinal, entitled Fountain, which Marcel Duchamp sent to the New York Independents Exhibition in 1917, or the first Dadaist collage-poems made from words clipped from newspapers and then randomly assembled? Arthur Cravan conflated artistic activity and shitting. Even Valéry grasped what Joyce was demonstrating with Finnegan's Wake: the fact that novels could no longer exist. Erik Satie supplied the final ironic coda to the joke that was music. Yet even as Dada was denouncing cultural pollution and spectacular rot on every side, Surrealism was already on the scene with its big plans for cleanup and regeneration.
When artistic production resumed, it did so against and without Dada, but against and with Surrealism. Surrealist reformism would deviate from reformism's well-trodden paths and follow its own new roads: Bolshevism, Trotskyism, Guevarism, anarchism. Just as the economy in crisis, which did not disappear but was instead transformed into a crisis economy, so likewise the crisis of culture outlived itself in the shape of a culture of crisis. Hence Surrealism became the spectacularization of everything in the cultural past that refused separations, sought transcendence, or struggled against ideologies and the organization of the spectacle.
The Break from Dada
When exactly did Surrealism emancipate itself from Dada? The question is badly framed, because it suggests that the Surrealists were reconstructed Dadaists, which is far from certain. Indeed, if we look closely at the beginnings of the earliest proponents of Surrealism, we find that their works are of a personal kind, hostile, certainly, to the dominant tradition, but bearing scant trace of Dada's corrosive spirit.
The good relations maintained by the early Surrealists with Pierre Reverdy, editor of the literary review Nord-Sud, or the poems of Breton, Benjamin Péret, Paul Éluard or Philippe Soupault, are quite adequate testimony to the adherence of these new voices to a certain conception of literature. What the first Surrealists knew of Dada was above all its adulterated Parisian version, the antics of Tzara, and a few clashes between individuals. With Grosz, Huelsenbeck, Schwitters, Haussmann, Jung or even Picabia they were still largely unacquainted.
In 1917 the word "surrealist" appeared in the subtitle to Apollinaire's play Les Mamelles de Trésias [The Teats of Tiresias]. In 1920 Paul Dermée used the term in the review L'Esprit Nouveau, and in 1924 Yvan Goll chose it as the title of a periodical that lasted for only one issue.
As early as 1919, however, the concept had acquired less vague connotations. In that year Aragon produced his first automatic texts. In "Entree des mediums" [Enter the Mediums], Breton sought to circumscribe the notion-a task that he would pursue further in the first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924). From the outset "surrealism" signified a new quest; the word immediately became the label of a new cultural product, clearly reflecting the will to distinguish that product unequivocally from all others. The contradiction between a voluntaristic rigour and the inclination to compromise that was objectively encouraged by Surrealism's fresh embrace of culture created a permanent point of stress and led to endless splits in the movement
The review Littérature, founded in 1919, was so named by antiphrasis, but from the beginning it retained not a few genuinely literary aspects; even in appearance it resembled a traditional literary magazine in many respects. This was the starting point for the Surrealist project of founding a new way of thinking, feeling and living, of creating a new world; and here lay the seeds of the particular way in which this project would be worked out, as of the particular way in which it would fail. In the regressive conjuncture which followed the triple defeat of Spartacus, of Dada and of the revolution of the Soviets in Russia (co-opted by the Bolsheviks), the Surrealists made a promise which they kept: to be the capricious consciousness of a time without consciousness, a will-o'-the-wisp in the night of National Socialism and National Bolshevism.
The first few issues of Littérature included contributions from Valéry, Gide, Leon-Paul Fargue, Blaise Cendrars, Jules Romains, Max Jacob, Georges Auric and Darius Milhaud. The young Breton admired Valéry, Pierre Reverdy and Saint-Pol-Roux, and to the last of these he remained loyal his whole life long; yet he also had a fascination for Arthur Cravan and Jacques Vaché, prime exemplars of Dada nihilism authentically lived out. In a sense Breton's work and even Surrealism itself were the product of these two divergent orientations.
The implications of this double allegiance are clear from Breton's remarks in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1930):
In spite of the various efforts peculiar to each of those who used to claim kinship with Surrealism, or who still do, one must ultimately admit that, more than anything else, Surrealism attempted to provoke, from the intellectual and moral point of view, a crisis of consciousness of the most general and serious kind, and that the extent to which this was or was not accomplished alone can determine its historical success or failure.
The restriction here to "the intellectual and moral point of view" clearly indicates an attachment to culture as an independent sphere, while "a crisis of consciousness of the most general and serious kind" evokes what Surrealism would inherit, albeit superficially, of the Dada spirit.
In fact Dada precipitated the purging of Littérature: it was under Dada's influence that quarrels between littérateurs metamorphosed into a general hostility towards the homme de lettres per se that animosity towards a Max Jacob, an André Gide or a Jean Cocteau came to be justified in terms of contempt for writing as a trade or craft.
In 1920 Littérature's thirteenth issue opened the doors wider than ever before to the Dadaist influence, publishing twenty-three of the movement's manifestos. Simultaneously, however, the break between André Breton and Tristan Tzara was in the making.
Breton's intelligence and discretion undoubtedly endowed Surrealism with a good part of its genius. For Dada, unfortunately, just the opposite occurred: already sorely lacking for revolutionary theorists, it lost much of its rich potential when it came under the thumb of Tzara, the poverty of whose ideas and the banality of whose imagination were only rivalled by his lust for recognition, for celebrity.
Tzara possessed nothing of the critical sense and clear-minded combativeness needed to incite artists to despair of art, grasp hold of everyday life and transform themselves into the subject of a collective work of revolution. And the said artists, indecisive and at bottom more susceptible to the temptation of an artistic career than they cared to acknowledge, quickly discovered that repeating the familiar japes of Dada's anti-art "show", with Tzara as choreographer and star, offered a convenient way of surreptitiously resuming cultural activity without formally renouncing the Dadaist contempt for art: they merely had to pretend to believe that that contempt applied solely to the dominant forms of literature, thought or art. In a sense, Surrealism itself resided in these shortcomings of Dada.
Littérature's survey based on the question "Why do you write?" was not so radical as one might justifiably have supposed at first glance. True, it clearly exposed the general vulgarity of intent and lack of imagination of the makers of novels, the asininity of versifiers and academic thinkers, yet at the same time it laid the groundwork for the "discovery" of profounder justifications for a new art of writing, feeling, or painting and authorized a new form of expression with claims to being authentic and total.
Such a form of expression already existed experimentally. As Breton recalls in Entretiens [Conversations (1952)], "in 1919, I began paying attention to those more or less complete sentences which, when one was entirely alone, as sleep came on, would become perceptible to the mind without it being possible to find any pre-existing reason for them."
The practical results appeared in a joint work by Breton and Soupault, The Magnetic Fields (1920), supposedly written under the direct dictates of the unconscious. The book foreshadowed the later experimental "sleeping" by means of which Robert Desnos, Benjamin Péret and René Crevel sought to express themselves without any mediation by the conscious mind.
By the time Breton took over as editor of a new series of Littérature in March 1922, and even-handedly rejected both Dadaism and the literary brigade (Gide, Valéry and Co.), he already had a clear agenda, in the form of a positive project.
The coming break with Dada was hastened in 1921 by a public event organized by Aragon and Breton: the "indictment and trial of Maurice Barrès". Barrès was a literary anarchist of the "cult of the Ego" variety who sang the praises of nationalism in dulcet tones. He was, in short, the perfect symbol of a fin-de-siecle intelligentsia that now practised the poetry of the bugle-call, thus by their negative example justifying the proponents of a culture free of "intellectual bloodstains".
The trial was held on 13 May. The accused was represented by a carnival mannequin; Breton presided, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes took the role of public prosecutor, and Soupault and Aragon, who had every a priori reason to like Barrès, were his defenders.
No effort was spared in the attempt to ensure that the event would provoke legal action and spark a confrontation which would ratify Dada's seditiousness in the eyes of revolutionary groups. Short of such an outcome, indeed, there was no hope of saving Dada.
Benjamin Péret, whose entire life was informed by an unwavering and intransigent radicalism, testified to great effect at the Barrés trial, speaking in German and playing "The Unknown Soldier". All the witnesses, moreover, waxed eloquent upon the excremental character of veterans, of Barrés and of everything having to do with the nation and its traits. Victor Crastre is right, however, when he insists in his book Le Drame du surréalisme [The Tragedy of Surrealism] that the Barrés trial was a failure:
The absence of any reaction from the right, coupled with the silence of the revolutionary parties, meant that the trial had failed. This failure was echoed by a regression to aestheticism, in the shape of the Salon Dada that opened at the Galerie Montaigne on the 6th of June 1922, and its mediocre triumph. In this connection Breton wrote: "It seems to me that the sponsorship of a series of utterly futile 'Dada' actions is on the point of very seriously compromising an undertaking to which I remain attached." This attachment would oblige Breton to try and save Dada from the sterility that was now threatening it. He decided to convene a congress in order to clear matters up: the "Paris Congress for the Orientation and Defence of the Modern Spirit". This was an ambitious project, aiming as it did to get poetry and art back onto firmer ground than the shifting sands in which they had been caught. And it did not succeed. Writers and artists who had made small reputations for themselves in and through Dada saw little reason to throw everything away for the sake of a venture which seemed to them to have no future, for they had nothing but mistrust for the "spirit" in whose name the Congress was being called.
After this setback Breton and his friends scaled down their ambitions, being inclined to explore the depths while casting their net less widely. They refused all alliances. And, now much reduced in numbers, the group withdrew into itself.
It is notable that Picabia, the most consistent nihilist of the Dadaist group, lent his support to the projected Congress. By contrast Tzara opposed the idea, claiming that such a project was essentially constructive, whereas Dada was by definition pure negation!
The Specificity of Surrealism
The break with Dada became utterly final in 1923, when, at a performance of Tzara's Coeur à gaz [The Gas Heart], the author called the police and sought to have Éluard, Breton and Péret thrown out as troublemakers.
Around a hard core made up initially of Breton, Aragon and Soupault, there now revolved an often disparate group of personalities, among them Éluard, Péret, Robert Desnos, Roger Vitrac, Max Morise, Georges Limbour, Joseph Delteil, Jacques Baron, René Crevel, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst. 1924 and 1925 were to be the pivotal years of Surrealism: until then, the movement was detaching itself from a Dadaist spirit which it had always espoused only with reticence; afterwards, the Surrealists began to seek agreement with communists of one kind or another, from the somewhat marginal Leninists of Clarté to the hard-line Stalinists of the French Communist Party.
This fruitful period saw the conception and publication of Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism, the appearance of a review, La Révolution Surréaliste, and the creation of a "Bureau for Surrealist Research". The Surrealists' interest in dreams and automatic writing, the attention they paid to Freud, their invention of games, their cultivation of the dérive and of chance encounters, and their experiments with spiritualism-all these together constituted a unified set of preoccupations capable of shedding clear new light on human possibilities. Indeed the first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste proclaimed the need for "a new declaration of the rights of man".
The group was soon joined by André Masson, Mathias Lübeck, Georges Malkine, Pierre Naville, Raymond Queneau, Antonin Artaud, Jacques Prévert, Marcel Duhamel and Pierre Brasseur, while in Yugoslavia a Surrealist movement emerged whose prime mover was Marco Ristitch.
At this time, too, Surrealism created a piquant genealogy for itself which included figures whose work cried out for dialectical supersession on the plane of real life (de Sade, Lautréamont, Fourier, Marx, etc.), great dreamers (Nerval, Novalis, Achim von Arnim), alchemists (Paracelsus, Basil Valentine), a motley of impassioned, eccentric and fantastic forebears, poets of black humour, and so on-in short, a whole pantheon that was continually being added to (and occasionally reduced, as in the case of Poe, who was inducted at first, only to be expelled subsequently on account of his contribution to the science of police work). Most important of all, the group appropriated the Dadaist technique of scandal-making and turned it effectively against the representatives of official culture. Two scandals in particular may be said to have thoroughly shaken up the conventional wisdom of the time. These were the publication of the pamphlet A Corpse, hailing the burial of Anatole France, and the events surrounding the Saint-Pol-Roux banquet. Anatole France, as Breton explains in Entretiens,
was the prototype of everything we held in contempt. In our eyes, if ever there was an undeserved reputation, it was his. The supposed transparency of his style left us cold, and his much vaunted scepticism we found repugnant. It was he who had said that "Rimbaud's sonnet 'Voyelles' [Vowels] defies common sense", even if its verses were "amusing". On the human level, we found his attitude as sinister and despicable as could be: he had done whatever one had to do to garner the support of Right and Left alike. He was so puffed up with his honours and his own self-importance that we felt no compunction whatsoever.
This windbag has since been so thoroughly deflated that it is hard today to imagine the rage that those four pages, containing texts by Aragon, Delteil, Drieu la Rochelle and me, were capable of unleashing. According to Camille Mauclair, Aragon and I were nothing but "raving maniacs", and he added that "These are the manners not of upstarts and ruffians but of jackals...". Others went further, calling for legal sanctions against us.
In July 1925, a banquet in honour of Saint-Pol-Roux, who was an idol to Breton and several other Surrealists, offered the perfect opportunity to get rid of the literary trash once and for all. The French ambassador, Paul Claudel, had declared to an Italian newspaper that Surrealism, just like Dadaism, had "one meaning only-a pederastic one". The Surrealists' riposte came in the form of an "Open Letter" printed on sang-de-boeuf paper and slipped under each plate at the Closerie des Lilas, where the banquet took place. Breton's amused account of what ensued is well known:
By the time a rather sad "hake in white sauce" was being served, a number of us were standing on the tables. Things fell completely apart when three of the guests went off and came back soon afterwards with the police in tow. But, as humour would have it, it was Mme Rachilde, by this time at a high pitch of agitation, who in the general chaos ended up getting arrested.
On this occasion, too, Michel Leiris was nearly lynched for shouting seditious slogans from the restaurant window at a passing veterans' parade: "Long live Germany! Long live China! Long live Abd-el-Krim!"
Anarcho-Dadaism was still a lively strand in the Surrealism of this period. For instance, the cover of the first number of La Révolution Surréaliste showed a photograph of the anarchist Germaine Berton amongst members of the group. But there was more provocation here than commitment, for neither Bonnot nor Ravachol were members of the Surrealist pantheon; what is worse, Mécislas Charrier would be guillotined by Poincaré without so much as a peep out of Breton and his friends. All the same, it was the ferment of revolt that they kept on the boil, and the precision with which they continued to denounce the permanent outrageousness of the prevailing organization of society (a precision still very much in evidence in the intervention in favour of Violette Nozières) that would prevent the best Surrealists from reducing their dream of a global revolution, no matter how confused it was, to the mediocre level of Bolshevism. It was these, together with the cult of the passions, and especially of love, that saved the movement from any outright compromise with infamy. (Surrealism's passing alliance with Trotsky, the butcher of Kronstadt in 1921, may be put down to ignorance.)
In the Shadow of the Communist Party
Beginning in 1924 and 1925, the feeling gradually came to prevail in the movement that its aesthetic critique needed political reinforcement. Meetings were held between the Surrealists and members of Clarté, among them Victor Crastre, Marcel Fourier and jean Bernier. This was a group of avant-garde intellectuals on the left of the Communist Party who opposed the conformism of Henri Barbusse, then literary editor of the Party newspaper LHumanité.
There were many Surrealists who felt that ensuring the support, or at any rate the benevolence of the Party was a more decisive way of breaking with the littérateurs than merely playing the barbarians hammering at the gates of culture, a ploy which in any case ran the risk that one day those gates would give way, allowing the barbarians to pitch their tents within the citadel, and thus be coopted. For those who felt this way, and for a few others too, the image of the Bolshevik with a knife between his teeth, much exploited by the Right, continued to be very seductive. What they did not know was that the freshest blood on that knife, fresher than that of the Whites, was that of the Makhnovists and the left opposition, and that before long it would be put to work settling all of Stalin's vendettas.
Only Artaud, ever sensitive to the merest hint of oppression, now distanced himself in clear awareness of what was at stake. As his friends moved closer and closer to Clarté, he stood more and more aloof, and eventually withdrew altogether. Soupault, Vitrac, Baron and a few others opted straightforwardly for literary careers at this point; they thus made their exits by the opposite door to Artaud, duly receiving Breton's farewell in the Second Manifesto as they departed.
In 1926 it was resolved that a new periodical entitled La Guerre Civile would be launched in conjunction with Clarté. That this plan came to naught bespeaks the fact that it was now too late for two autonomous spheres, that of a specialized politics and that of a specialized reanimated art, to fuse into one.
Surrealist activity had nonetheless never before reached such heights. The spirit of the movement was spreading internationally. In Belgium, René Magritte, Paul Nougé and Louis Scutenaire founded a Surrealist group whose inventiveness, style and violence would carry it a very long way before much later on it collapsed into a sophomoric humour punctuated by Stalinist professions of faith.
The game of "Exquisite Corpse", in which a poem or picture is created collectively by players who are unaware, except for the first element, of what the others write or draw, was a successful revival, with increased emphasis on language, of the spirit of Dadaist collage, of the notion of a poetry made by all, of the idea of objective chance. This pastime supplied Surrealism with one of its best and most interesting ways of satisfying its propensity for playfulness.
In 1927 André Breton joined the Communist Party. Assigned to the "gas workers' cell", he set out with a disarming willingness to do his bit, but he was exasperated by the Communists' bureaucratic tendencies (which for the time being were not so much sinister as ridiculous), and before long he left the Party militants to their illusions.
On the Artaud side of things, meanwhile, though without any direct input from Artaud, a tendency emerged in Surrealism which would become preponderant after the Second World War. The voice of this tendency was René Daumal and Roger-Gilbert Lecomte's review Le Grand Jeu, whose first issue appeared in 1928. The possibility of a convergence between this group and Breton's was explored, but proved impossible. Daumal and Lecomte had little taste for the kind of discipline Breton imposed. Furthermore, they had a certain contempt for politics, this at a time when the mainstream Surrealists were hastily becoming politicized, and whenever they were reproached on these grounds, which was often, they would respond by warning of the danger of Surrealism's co-optation. The two groups had a common interest in union, but neither side felt passionately enough about its necessity for it to come about, and as soon as a pretext presented itself, they went their separate ways. That pretext was an apologia for the Prefect of Police, Chiappe, written for a newspaper by Roger Vailland, a member of the Grand Jeu group. Daumal and Lecomte rebuked Vailland for this in the weakest of terms; Breton was not accustomed to tolerating the absence of a violent reaction to a failing of this kind. (Subsequently Daumal moved closer and closer to a Gurdjieffian position, so much so that in 1933 he broke with Lecomte.)
The Second Manifesto, published in 1930, became in effect a general settling of accounts. Among those expelled were Jacques Baron, Georges Limbour, André Masson, Roger Vitrac, Desnos, Prévert and Raymond Queneau. It was Artaud above all, however, who came under attack. Admittedly, he had brought anathema upon himself by calling the police on his friends when they tried to disrupt a performance at the Alfred Jarry Theatre; yet Tzara, after all, had pointed Breton and Éluard out to the police in 1923, and Breton was now reconciled with him.
During this period the Surrealist group was reinforced by the arrival of Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí and René Char. In Prague the movement was riding high thanks to Vitezlav Nezval, Jindrich Styrsky, Karel Teige and Toyen. In 1929 Jacques Rigaut, like Cravan and Vaché a great living exemplar of Dadaist nihilism, killed himself.
On the scandal front, the psychiatrists got up in arms over the calls to murder contained in Breton's Nadja, which were indeed directed at them personally. A new periodical, Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution [Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution], was launched with an appropriate aggressiveness, though the title suggested a marked retreat as compared with that of the earlier La Révolution Surréaliste. If Surrealism was to be in the train of a revolution whose only possible motor was the Communist Party, the fate of poetry not to mention that of the revolutionaries was surely sealed. Happily, the content of the new periodical tended to belie its title. Crevel, summarizing the state of play in the third issue, was able to write:
Surrealism: not a school but a movement; does not therefore speak ex cathedra but goes to see, goes in search of knowledge, of knowledge applied to the Revolution (via a poeticroute). Lautréamont had said: poetry must be made by all, not by one. Éluard's comment on this: poetry will purify all men. All ivory towers will be demolished.
And Crevel adds: "Starting out from Hegel, like Marx and Engels but following a different path, Surrealism ends up at dialectical materialism." Truth to tell, Hegel was discovered very belatedly by the Surrealists, and, even more important, they made barely any practical use of him-not even as a tool for discriminating between the dialectic and the thinking of a Maurice Thorez. Their taste for life made a much greater contribution, and the best of Surrealist thought unquestionably arose from their analyses of lived moments, which revealed the dialectic far better than quotations from Hegel and created poetry far more effectively than any poem.
In response to Breton's diatribes in the Second Manifesto, the excludees issued a violent pamphlet which emulated the tone and borrowed the title of the compendium of insults earlier directed at Anatole France: Un Cadavre [A Corpse]. The "Bar Maldoror" a premature attempt at commercial co-optation was sacked by Breton and his friends. Buñuel's film LÂge dor roused the ire of war veterans and of the Right. One particularly fine expression of anger, an open letter to the top student applicant of the year admitted to the Saint-Cyr Military Academy, exposed Georges Sadoul, one of the signatories, to a three-year prison term. And a critic at La Liberté called for Péret to be shot for having written the poem "Vie de l'assassin Foch" [Life of the Murderer Foch], which dealt with its subject in tones of unparalleled execration.
At this time too, Maurice Heine published his admirable preface to de Sade's Justine. Heine exerted a much greater influence on the Surrealist movement than his natural discretion, and that of his friends, might lead one to suppose.
In 1931 Surrealism's dalliance with the Communist Party took a militant turn. The group signed up with the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, which was controlled by the Party. Was it perhaps by way of a counterweight that at this same time research into "magical" works intensified, spurred on by the revelation of Alberto Giacometti's "objects with symbolic functions"? At all events, the links between alchemy and creative paths to new and sacrosanct relationships was very much in the forefront of Surrealist meditations even as the "Aragon affair" was bubbling up.
This affair began when Breton and his friends, though approving of neither its spirit nor its form, nevertheless took up the defence of Aragon's long poem "Front rouge" [Red Front], written during a visit to the USSR. The embarrassment Breton experienced at thus having to stand behind Aragon, whose text already contained the seeds of the paeans to the fatherland that were to follow, is quite tangible in his Misère de la poésie [The Poverty of Poetry].
In the meantime, Aragon was sending very optimistic reports back from Moscow concerning the prospect of the Surrealists reaching agreement with the Communists. Sadoul, Aragon's travelling companion in Russia, returned to Paris ahead of Aragon himself, who stopped off in Brussels for a few days. Here is Breton's account in Entretiens of the conversation he had with Sadoul on the latter's return:
Yes, everything had gone well; yes, the objectives we had decided to set ourselves had been met, but.... There was indeed a very large "but". An hour or two before their departure, they had been asked to sign a declaration that implied the abandonment, not to say the explicit rejection, of practically every position we had held up until then. They were expected to renounce the Second Manifesto "inasmuch" I quote word for word - "as it is contrary to dialectical materialism". They were supposed to denounce Freudianism as "an idealist ideology" and Trotskyism as "a social-democratic and counterrevolutionary ideology". Finally, they would undertake to submit their literary activity "to the discipline and control of the Communist Party". "And so?", I asked Sadoul brusquely. And, getting no reply, "I take it you refused?" "No," he replied, "Aragon felt that we-that is, you as well as us-would have to go along if we wanted to work in the Party's cultural organizations." That was the first time in my life that I saw a chasm opening up before my very eyes, a chasm that has since widened dizzyingly, in proportion to the relentless headway made by the outrageous idea that truth should bow down before efficacity, that neither conscience nor individual personality are worth heeding in short, that the end justifies the means.
In 1932 Aragon rallied to the Communist Party. The same year saw the publication of Breton's Communicating Vessels and one of René Crevel's finest texts, Le Clavecin de Diderot [Diderot's Harpsichord].
The Break with the So-Called Communist Party
Breton was saddened by Aragon's lack of spine; his friends, outraged, reacted according to the tradition. Several of them produced texts lambasting the author of "Red Front". Éluard, notably, did not hesitate to write:
What was inconsistency has become calculation; what was subtlety has become intrigue. Aragon has become other, and his memory henceforward cannot attach itself to me. To defend myself I have a sentence which between him and me can no longer have the exchange value I so long accorded it, a sentence which has never lost its meaning and effectively passes judgement on Aragon as on so many others: All the water in the sea could not wash away a single intellectual bloodstain (Lautréamont).
This turned out, however, to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. A few years later, Éluard, hand in hand with Aragon, would be a fashionable figure in the Stalinist star system, ever ready to claim that the words party, fatherland and freedom rhymed to perfection. And in 1950, when Breton implored him to intervene on behalf of an old mutual friend of theirs, Zavis Kalandra, condemned to death in Prague, Éluard (though he forgot to quote his favorite sentence) had this to say: "I am too busy with innocents proclaiming their innocence to bother with people who are guilty proclaiming their guilt." Kalandra was executed.
In 1933 the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists announced its first expulsion: André Breton. As Breton recalled later in Entretiens:
The reason for this expulsion was that Number 5 of Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution contained a letter addressed to me by Ferdinand Alquié, a letter written in a libertarian spirit, indeed a most moving letter, in which the writer took violent exception to the civic and moral tone informing the Russian film The Road to Life. Regardless of the opinions Alquié expressed, not all of which I agreed with, the intensity of life and revolt distilled into his letter seemed to cry out for its publication. There was therefore no chance at all of my uttering the retraction that was being demanded of me.
The following year a Surrealist group appeared in Egypt, with Georges Hénein as its prime mover. In Brussels, Documents 34 published a special issue on "Surrealist Intervention" which included a number of contributions remarkable for their violence and uncompromising attitude. 1934 was above all the year of the Surrealists' homage to Violette Nozières. In this young parricide, who had been condemned to death, the Surrealists saluted a symbol of active resistance to oppression by the family. It is hard, though, to explain the failure of the group to raise a similar cry in support of the Papin sisters, servants who around the same time illustrated Swift's Directions to Servants after their own fashion by murdering their mistress and her daughter. It is true that by this time political events were fast gathering momentum.
Relations between the Surrealists and the Communist Party leadership grew ever more hostile. An incident in 1935 was to bring these relations to an end once and for all. About ten o'clock one night, shortly before the opening of the Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, a Stalinist-run event, Breton ran into Ilya Ehrenburg on the Boulevard du Montparnasse. Once again we may rely on Breton's account in Entretiens:
There was a passage I was not ready to forget in a book of Ehrenburg's, Vus par un écrivain de l'UR.S.S. [Observations of a Soviet Writer], which had appeared a few months earlier. Among his remarks therein were the following: "The Surrealists are all for Hegel, all for Marx, all for the Revolution. What they are absolutely against, however, is work. Not that they do not have their occupations. They study pederasty and dreams, for example.... They keep themselves busy consuming their inheritances and dowries...." And so on. So, after identifying myself, I slapped him several times, while he tried pathetically to palaver with me without so much as raising his hand to protect his face. I fail to see what other revenge I could have taken on this confirmed slanderer....
On the eve of the Congress, after exhausting discussions with the organizers over their refusal to let Breton address the gathering, René Crevel took his own life. This gesture, just like Artaud's solipsism, constitutes an immediate, spontaneous, negative response to the problem that Surrealism had posed a false problem, in fact, because its basic assumptions were false. For how was it conceivable, on the basis of independent sectors already objectively stripped of all human values by the depredations of the spectacular-commodity system, on the basis of activities which, though in fact partial, were promoted as totalities (as art, politics, thought, the unconscious, survival, etc.) and presented as positive how was it conceivable that on such bases any unity of the individual, either within himself or with respect to others, might be achieved How could Surrealism, while ignoring the Dadaist quest for total negativity, expect to provide any historical foundation for the positivity and global transcendence to which it aspired?
The Surrealists denounced the Moscow trials. They moved closer to Georges Bataille, whose Contre-Attaque movement defined itself as "a combat group of revolutionary intellectuals opposed to fascism". In Tokyo a Surrealist review was started by Yamanaka. In London Roland Penrose mounted a major exhibition. Benjamin Péret published Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là [I'd Rather Starve] poetry genuinely searching for adequate practical expression with its call for the liquidation of army, police, priests, bosses, money, work and all other forces of brutalization. Péret, who had the courage of his convictions, enlisted with the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution. He was the only Surrealist to participate directly in that struggle; all the others supported the cause enthusiastically, but from afar.
Pictorial concerns, which seemed to come back to the fore after the break with the Communist Party, did not override the Surrealists' continuing embrace of a lesser-evil approach to politics, and before long they rallied to Trotsky and the Fourth International: on a visit to Mexico in 1938, Breton published the manifesto "For an Independent Revolutionary Art" in collaboration with Diego Rivera and the author of The Crimes of Stalin.
Dalí's imbecilic games had finally palled, and he was expelled from the group in 1939. He was thus completely free to develop a "technique", blending obscurantism with the symptoms of dementia praecox, which to this day continues to provide fertile soil for the avant-gardists of the advertising world. Despite the anagrammatic nickname of "Avida Dollars", used by Breton to castigate him, Dalí at least had the merit, in his shameless pursuit of money, contracts and honours, of openly treating art works as commodities, something which the Ernsts, the Miros, the Picassos and all the other Surrealist artists, whether they were talented or not, did only shamefacedly.
Breton now made up with both Artaud and Prévert. Nothing, really, should ever have induced them to part company. Prévert and Péret were cut from the same cloth, and in Breton, albeit strictly controlled, there was a good deal of Artaud. These four waged unceasing war on Surrealism as ideology, on the growing co-optation of the movement. Unfortunately Surrealism had been an ideology in the profoundest sense from the beginning; it was always doomed to be part of the game of old and new in the cultural sphere-and could have avoided this destiny only if, say, the Spanish Revolution had triumphed over both the Stalinists and the fascists and hence made possible a transformation of Surrealism into revolutionary theory. Unaware of this, or refusing to accept it, Artaud, Breton, Péret and Prévert fought to the glorious strains of what sounded very much like a song of defeat. They were the last formation of four, and, having nothing more to lose, they never surrendered.
On the other hand, Salvador Dalí adopted Surrealism at its most ideological on a full-time (and full-space) basis. He espoused fascism, Catholicism or Franco just as Aragon had espoused Stalinism. Éluard took the same road as Aragon. As Breton recalls in Entretiens:
When I learnt, in Mexico City, that poems of Éluard's had just appeared in Commune, which was the magazine of the "Maison de la Culture", I naturally hastened to inform him about the unspeakable methods those people had used against me, nor did I doubt for a second that he would immediately distance himself from them. But I had no reply from Éluard, and upon my return I was stupefied to hear him claim that a collaboration of this kind in no way implied any particular commitment on his part, and indeed that in the last few months he had contributed, just as willingly as to Commune, to various fascist publications (these are his words, not mine) in Germany and Italy. I confined myself to the observation that this attitude of his amounted to a rejection of any kind of agreement that we had ever reached between us and made any further meeting pointless.
In 1940 the deaths of Paul Klee, Maurice Heine and Saint-Pol-Roux three non-Surrealists who nevertheless left a deep impression on the movement in a way marked the end of Surrealism's great period. Breton, it is true, would still have much to say, as would Péret, but from now on these two would be virtually alone as they strove to keep things going. In the summer of 1941 Breton disembarked in New York, soon to be joined by Ernst and Masson. Péret chose Mexico.
The only Surrealism known in the United States was the "Avida Dollars" version. With help from Marcel Duchamp, Breton contrived to produce a review, VVV, in which he published "Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not" (1942).
After 1945 Surrealism began firing its last salvoes. It lived on without achieving clearer definition. The movement turned its attention in a more determined manner towards mysticism and alchemy, while its political effusions betrayed growing confusion and vapidity. In 1946 the pamphlet Liberté est un mot vietnamien [Liberty Is a Vietnamese Word] protested against French repression in Indochina. Inaugural Break (1947) was a denunciation of Stalinism - though in 1956 the Surrealists would express the hope that after the Khrushchev speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party a new broom would be applied to the party apparatus. No sooner had they dispensed this considerate advice, however, than they found themselves obliged to hail the Hungarian uprising in Hongrie, soleil levant [Hungary: The Sun Rises].
In 1960 Surrealists were the initiators of the "Declaration on the Right of Conscientious Objection in the Algerian War" the so-called "Declaration of the 121". Eight years later, whatever residue still went by the name "Surrealist" was singing the praises of Cuba!
Along the way the Surrealists worked with the anarchists of Le Libertaire, and for a time supported Garry Davis's Citizens of the World movement.
Before the war the review Minotaure had been the last real melting pot of Surrealist ideas. Its successors in the post-war world, Néon (1948-49), Médium (1953-55), Le Surréalisme, même (1956-59), La Brècbe (1961-65), Bief (1958-60), and L'Archibras (1967-69) bear increasingly brutal witness to the decay of the movement.
Important Surrealist works did appear in the post-war years; unfortunately they were overshadowed by the fashionable but dismal elucubrations of the likes of Sartre, Camus or Saint-Exupéry. These works included Breton's Anthologie de l'humour noir [Anthology of Black Humour], banned by the Vichy government in 1941 and barely noticed in 1945; Le Déshonneur des poetes (1944), in which Péret hauled Aragon, Éluard and the other patriot-poets over the coals; Breton's Arcanum 17 (1945), a lyrical meditation on sensibility, love and poetry, his very beautiful Ode to Charles Fourier (1947), and his Flagrant Délit [Caught Red-Handed], which exposed a fraudulent attribution of poems to Rimbaud, condemned the imbecility of literary critics in general, and heaped scorn on Maurice Nadeau, author of a History of Surrealism; Péret's Anthologie de l'amour sublime, with its extraordinary profusion of linguistic fireworks; the novels of Julien Gracq and Maurice Fourré; Malcolm de Chazal's Sens plastique; and Jean Markale and Lancelot Lengyel's studies on Celtic art.
Apart from such personal works, however, Surrealism now displayed a great tolerance for rehashes, for mere imitation of the masters, for sorry expressions of mutual admiration. Many Surrealists made their peace with the incoherence of the dominant system. Others fell silent. Yet others followed the example of Crevel and committed suicide; indeed, the decline of Surrealism, the last movement to have held a genuine belief in the purity of art, is peppered with suicides, among them those of the painter Arshile Gorky (1948), the painter Oscar Dominguez (1957), the poet Jean-Pierre Duprey (1959), the painter Wolfgang Paalen (1959), as well as that of Karel Teige, who killed himself in Prague as the police were coming to arrest him.
A pamphlet published on 7 June 1947 by the Revolutionary Surrealists, a dissident Belgian group, had issued a salutary warning to the movement as a whole. Signed by Paul Bourgoignie, Achille Chavre, Christian Dotremont, Marcel Havrenne, René Magritte, Marcel Mariën, Paul Nougé and Louis Scutenaire, it declared:
Landlords, crooks, Druids, poseurs, all your efforts have been in vain: we persist in relying on SURREALISM in our quest to bring the universe and desire INTO ALIGNMENT... First and foremost, we guarantee that Surrealism will no longer serve as a standard for the vainglorious, nor as a springboard for the devious, nor as a Delphic oracle; it will no longer be the philosopher's stone of the distracted, the battleground of the timid, the pastime of the lazy, the intellectualism of the impotent, the draft of blood of the "poet" or the draft of wine of the littérateur.
But, as though to give the true measure of their protest, and certainly exemplifying the grotesquerie which would thenceforward dog Surrealism in its dotage, the aforesaid signatories declared without further ado that they placed their entire faith in the Communist Party!