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2. Changing Life

The Refusal of Survival

It is significant that the first Manifesto of Surrealism starts out by denouncing that mode of existence which, to distinguish it from passionate and multidimensional life, has been called "survival":

So strong is the belief in life, in what is most fragile in life - real life, I mean - that in the end this belief is lost. Man, that inveterate dreamer, daily more discontent with his lot, has trouble assessing the objects he has been led to use, objects that his nonchalance has brought his way, or that he has earned through his own efforts, almost always through his own efforts, for he has agreed to work, at least he has not refused to try his luck (or what he calls his luck!). At this point he feels extremely modest: he knows what women he has had, what silly affairs he has been involved in; he is unimpressed by his wealth or poverty, in this respect he is a new-born babe and, as for the approval of his conscience, I confess that he does very nicely without it.

The only thing absent from Breton's tableau of intolerable mediocrity is history. No doubt the nostalgia for the "chateau life" which always haunted the Surrealist dream contained an implicit reference to the great myth of the unitary society of old, where the individual trajectory of even the humblest of men was inextricably bound up with the cosmic in a mass of fictional realities and real fictions, an atmosphere in which every event was a sign and every word or gesture magically sparked off mysterious currents of mental electricity. The collapse of this myth, and its subsequent co-optation as spectacle by the bourgeoisie, were never successfully analysed by Surrealism. In the end the Surrealist movement never did more than echo the kind of furious foot-stamping which, from Romanticism to Dada, had been the sole response of artists thwarted by the demobilizing combination (supplied courtesy of the commodity system) of a lifeless soul and a soulless life.

Romantic rebellion from Shelley to Karl Sand and Pierre François Lacenaire had given way to the aggressive aestheticism of Villiers de l'lsle-Adam and the plunge into Symbolism, into the mannerism of the theatrical transposition of decadence and death. The bloody comic opera of the Great War was to lend real content to the macabre imaginings of a Rollinat or a Huysmans, as likewise to those baroque decors which paradoxically expressed a taste for great refinement. Nationalism thus contrived to crown the sorry festivities of the fin de siecle with the apotheosis of a great feast of the dead. A few million corpses quickly revived the taste for life. And when the proletariat rediscovered its voice, and the voice of history, in the shape of the call for soviets and the Spartacus movement, the greatest hopes were justified regarding the prospects for a radically different life, for the creation of the only conditions capable of underpinning such a life: the abolition of the commodity system and of bourgeois-Christian civilization.

Dada had not been mistaken about this, though some Dadaists erred less than others. Breton was likewise correct in 1922, in the fifth issue of Littérature, when he wrote: "In fairness to Dada it must be acknowledged that, had its strength not failed it, it would have wanted nothing better than to destroy everything from top to bottom." Yet in general the Surrealists grasped even less clearly than the Dadaists to what degree and in what sense the sailors of Kiel, the Spartacist workers or the members of the first Russian councils were putting into practice the same project that they themselves nurtured.

Once revolution had been crushed from Berlin to Kronstadt, via La Courtine and the plains of the Ukraine, Dada alone continued to demand, unabashedly if confusedly, the global destruction of art, philosophy and culture as separate spheres and their realization in the context of a unitary social life. The guilty conscience of Surrealist reformism is testimony to this global revolutionary project, which the movement rejected only with great reluctance and indeed continued to embrace in a repressed form.

Thus Breton was quite able to proclaim, in Number 4 of La Révolution Surréaliste, that "There is no such thing as a work of art that can withstand our total primitivism", and Aragon could evoke "the paltry political activity that has occurred to the East of us over the last few years". Though both these remarks are accurate enough, the first bespeaks someone who is still lacking in consciousness, the second someone who is already an imbecile. The sequel was to demonstrate, in any event, that these were merely words without practical consequences. The Dada spirit outlived itself as an empty verbal form; Surrealism surreptitiously endowed that form with another content.

All the same, the melancholy of everyday life was the stirrup that enabled Surrealism to take its wild ride through the world of dreams. Contrary to the prognostications of not a few Stalinist thinkers, the movement was not destined to serve simply as a trampoline for escapism and mysticism. On the contrary, it became that focus of despair whence all new hope dérives, even if the road taken was the cultural one.

Arthur Cravan and Jacques Vaché, two great witnesses to mal de vivre, were soon to die. The first put out to sea one stormy evening on the Gulf of Mexico; the second, who had written from the front that it was "tiresome to die so young", killed himself in Nantes no sooner than the War was over. Soon after there would be Jacques Rigaut and Raymond Roussel and, among the Surrealists, René Crevel. Like Artaud, Crevel had been struck by the predominance of non-life in the totality of human affairs, and it was he who, in a text on Paul Klee,- voiced a sentiment that the Surrealists would have done well to pursue further: "We care neither for the asparagus of the poor nor for the leeks of the rich."

Dada held up a mirror to survival as an absence of real life and as a directly apprehended reality, thus "making its shame more shameful"; suicide constituted a condemnation, by way of the negative, of survival's logic of death.

Being an ideology, Surrealism was a strictly static vision whose impression upon history could never surpass the weight which history itself accorded it (as distinct from revolutionary theory, which starts out from history, then returns to history and moves it forward); for Surrealism, survival, suicide and death were the starting point which life was supposed to negate, but which it could not transform without first achieving a state of "absolute deviation". This was the metaphysical conundrum from which the Surrealists were trying to escape when they mistakenly pinned their hopes on Bolshevism.

That is why the first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste is replete with press clippings concerning suicide. In the survey conducted in that issue on the question of why people kill themselves, Artaud's response remains exemplary:

I suffer frightfully from life. There is no state I cannot attain. And without a doubt I have been dead for a long time already – I have already committed suicide. I have, as it were, been suicided. But what would you think of a suicide before the fact – a suicide that made you redirect your steps, but to somewhere beyond being, not towards death.

Artaud's path was already quite clear. Through a nihilism that Dada never attained, though it had sought it as a basis on which to reconstruct the self, life, and social organization, Artaud chose a return to the dissolution of the self in a spiritual totality. The Surrealism of the years after the Second World War would adopt a comparable stance, returning in this way to the movement's starting point, and even transcending it, but it nevertheless avoided the lucidity and the drama lived out by Artaud. Very few Surrealists would ever apprehend their own alienation with Artaud's courage and awareness: "I am unhappy like a man who has lost the best part of himself." Very few would face up so directly to their own fragmented state: "I no longer want to be one of the deluded. Being dead, others are not separated from themselves. They continue to circle around their own corpses. As for me, I am not dead, but I am separated from myself."

For Artaud, in 1924, the hope of a classless society, the hope of a coming reign of freedom, so passionately entertained by Surrealism, had already been dashed. Later, when the unmasking of Stalinism cast a dark cloud over these aspirations in the hearts of Breton and his friends, Surrealism embraced Artaud's conclusion in an intellectual way, and resolved like him to live the drama of every day alienation as a cosmic tragedy of the mind.

In 1924, though, Surrealism was nowhere near that point. Its survey of suicide also addressed the question of life. To the possibility of death were quickly attached all the possibilities of freedom and all the freedoms of the possible. As Breton put it,

It is remarkable how these replies, be they subtle, literary or derisive, all seem so arid; why is it that no human resonance is detectable in them? To kill oneself – has no one weighed the fury and experience, the disgust and passion, that are contained in this phrase?

Surrealism thus recognized the mark of the old world and its oppressive structures in the inhumanity of survival. Though it may have displayed a singular lack of discernment with regard to the ramifications of commodity fetishism, it must still be given credit for having so very rarely failed to measure up (as Breton was wont to say) to the revolutionary ethic of freedom. The Surrealists' denunciation of oppression was well-nigh continual, and the violence of their tone cannot help but arouse our sympathy.

The fact remains that these young people, who ought by rights to have turned themselves into theorists and practitioners of the revolution of everyday life, were content to be mere artists thereof, waging a war of mere harassment against bourgeois society as though it fell to the Communist Party alone to mount the main offensive. It thus came about that targets of great moment were chosen without any deep conviction that they ought to be designated as spheres of oppression towards which the proletariat's anger should be directed; indeed many a flaming brand hurled by the Surrealists amounted to little more than pyrotechnics.

The struggle against Christianity, for instance, by now abandoned by Bolshevism, suffered not a little from this misconceived modesty. Apart from the anodyne imagery of Clovis Trouille, and Max Ernst's Virgin spanking the infant Jesus with her halo, Surrealist painting eschewed the theme altogether.

Responding to an attempt to annex him (by means, no doubt, of one of those miracles for which the Christians are so renowned), Artaud offered the following unambiguous and definitive answer: "I shit on the Christian virtues and on whatever it is that does duty for them among the buddhas or the lamas" (Histoire entre la groume et Dieu [History between Grousing and God]). Ever faithful to his photograph in La Révolution Surréaliste, which bore the caption "Our Contributor Benjamin Péret Insulting a Priest", Péret did much to rescue modern poetry from its tinkliness, and reendow words with the promise of action, when he wrote such lines as these, from "Le Cardinal Mercier est mort":

Cardinal Mercier mounted on a policeman
you looked the other day like a dustbin spilling over
with communion wafers
Cardinal Mercier you stink of god as the stable stinks of dung
and as dung stinks of Jesus

Or these, from "La loi Paul Boncour" [The Paul Boncour Law]:

Men who crush senators like dog turds
looking each other straight in the eye
will laugh like mountains
will force the priests to kill the last generals with their crosses
and then using the flag
will massacre the priests themselves by way of an Amen

The bases of a practical approach to religion were laid down in L’Action immédiate by René Magritte, E.L.T Mesens, Paul Nougé, Louis Scutenaire and André Souris:

We are convinced that what has been done to oppose religion up to now has been virtually without effect and that new means of action must be envisaged.

At the present time the Surrealists are the people best fitted to undertake this task. So as not to lose any time, we must aim for the head: the outrageous history of religions should be made known to all, the lives of young priests should be made unbearable, and all sects and organizations of the Salvation Army or of the Evangelical variety should be discredited by means of every kind of mockery our imagination can devise. Think how exhilarating it would be if we could persuade the better part of our youth to mount a well prepared and systematic campaign of disruption of church services, baptisms, communions, funerals and so on. Meanwhile roadside crosses might usefully be replaced by images promoting erotic love or poetically eulogizing the natural surroundings, particularly if these happen to be grim.

In an article published in Intervention surréaliste (1934) which went scandalously unheeded, Pierre Yoyotte set the tone for a debate that ought by rights to have sparked action of the broadest scope:

The Communists have always officially evinced an extremely unintelligent suspicion with respect to the discoveries of psychoanalysis, discoveries which would in fact have allowed them to combat the emotional processes associated with family, religion and fatherland in a completely informed manner.

Though hardly a response adequate to the seriousness of this project, René Crevel's delicious psychoanalytical account of Jesus in Le Clavecin de Diderot (family and neuroses/family of neuroses/family neurosis) is well worth quoting:

As the masochistic little chickabiddie of the Father Eternal, much given to turning the other cheek, Jesus was not the sort to be satisfied by some brisk return visit to the mother's breast.

On the contrary, he had to go back up into the most private of the genital parts of the genitor, to become one of those parts himself – the right testicle, say – because the Trinity may be, indeed must be interpreted as the tripartite assemblage (in appearance) of the male sexual apparatus: a banana and two mandarin oranges, perhaps – since the Oriental style insists on fruit similes only.

True, the apotheosis of masochism is preceded by a number of smaller diversions, by what the French call diddlings at the door: baptismal badinage with Saint John the Baptist, intimate grooming with perfumed oils at the hands of saintly women, and, above all, the Last Supper with its loaves (long loaves, that is, whose meaning we all know; we also know that not one of the painters who have represented this meal in so many celebrated pictures has ever put on the table the little split loaves that commonly symbolize the sex of the woman).

Dressed in a most elegant white robe, bent under the weight of his cross, Jesus offers his back to whatever blows might be forthcoming. As soon as Pontius Pilate has washed his hands of the accused, the sexual symbolism becomes crystal-clear. Jesus falls, then gets up again: in other words, he has come, and is ready to come again under the whips of the athletic types with their skimpy costumes.

And, just as the young newlywed wife calls for her mother, so frightened is she so of voluptuous pleasure, so Jesus continually calls out for his father.... Then comes the vinegar-soaked sponge, signalling the contempt of the handsomest of Jesus' ruffianly guards for this tatterdemalion yearning to be his pretty boy. In other words, the legionary in question, who can hardly have failed to spot the practised hips of Mary Magdalene among the whores crowding around the foot of the cross, flatly refuses to pay Jesus the homage of even the tiniest drop of seminal fluid, and in effect pisses in his mouth to underline the point. So... no more threesomes. Between the two felons all that remains are two chestnuts - the former juicy divine oranges have shrivelled into a pair of pitiful dried-up conkers, and the Christ is just a pathetic empty vessel.

Before leaving the subject of the critical avenues which were suitable for exploration by Surrealism in its revolutionary specificity, but which were barely entered upon in practice, it is worth citing one quite exemplary demonstration of the popular character of anti-Christian feeling. The Communist paper L’Humanité having reported how a church in flames had been saved thanks to the courage of a few young people, a reader sent a letter of protest to the editors that was published in Number 2 of Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution:

Dear Comrades, I cannot but deplore your reporters praise for the courage of a group of young people when the only result of that courage was the preservation of a building that should by rights have been razed long ago.

After Christianity, and setting aside capitalism, with regard to which the Surrealists espoused Lenin's arguments, the chief target of execration was the family. The trial of Violette Nozières, who had murdered her father, the engine-driver of the presidential train, after he tried to rape her, offered the Surrealists the perfect opportunity to voice their views on this question. The young parricide inspired some of Éluard’s sincerest lines:

Violette dreamed of undoing
And did undo
The frightful viper's nest of blood ties

Another emblematic figure, gleefully pounced on by Péret, was the prodigiously fertile "Mother Cognacq":

Alas she has croaked Mother Cognacq
croaked just like France
From her belly green as a pasture
swarmed record-breaking broods
and for each new arrival
they got a stoker's shovel
No more Mother Cognacq
No more babies coming after eighteen others
every Easter or Christmas
to piss in the family cooking-pot
She has croaked Motber Cognacq
So let's dance let's dance in a ring
round her grave with a turd on the top

Péret was the most enthusiastic member of the group when it came to pouring scorn on the fatherland-on France, on Gallic avariciousness, on the cops and the army. In this vein he produced many eminently quotable lines, among them this one, from "Briand crevé" [Briand Has Croaked]: "Finally this parboiled sperm sprang forth from the maternal whorehouse with an olive branch stuck up his arse...". Or these, from "La Stabilisation du franc":

If the pigs' ears quiver
It is because "La Marseillaise" is being sung
Come on children of the shit bucket
Let's fill Poincaré’s ear with our snot

And let us not forget two classics, "La Mort heroïque du lieutenant Condamine de la Tour"

Rot Condamine de la Tour
With your eyes the Pope will make communion wafers
for your Moroccan sergeant
and your prick will become his brigadier's baton
Rot Condamine de la Tour
Rot you spineless shit

- and "Epitaphe sur un monument aux morts de la guerre" [Epitaph on a Monument to the War Dead], which Péret entered in the literary contest of the Académie Française:

The general told us
with his finger up his bum
The enemy
is that way Move out
It was for the fatherland
So off we went
with our fingers up our bums

In Breton it is possible to find the somewhat scattered makings of a libertarian position. A footnote in the first Manifesto of Surrealism is particularly suggestive in this regard:

Whatever reservations I may be allowed to make concerning responsibility in general and the medico-legal considerations which determine an individual's degree of responsibility – complete responsibility, irresponsibility, limited responsibility (sic) – however difficult it may be for me to accept the principle of any degree of responsibility, I would like to know how the first punishable offenses whose Surrealist character is clearly apparent will be judged. Will the accused be acquitted, or will he merely be given the benefit of the doubt because of extenuating circumstances? It is a shame that the violation of the laws governing the press is today scarcely punished, for otherwise we would soon see a trial of this sort: the accused has published a book which is an outrage to public decency; several of his "most respectable and honorable" fellow citizens have lodged a complaint against him, and he is also charged with slander and libel; there are also all sorts of other charges against him, such as insulting and defaming the army, inciting to murder, rape, etc. The accused, moreover, wastes no time in agreeing with the accusers in "stigmatizing" most of the ideas expressed. His only defence is claiming that he does not consider himself to be the author of his book, said book being no more and no less than a Surrealist concoction, which precludes any question of merit or lack of merit on the part of the person who signs it; further, that all he has done is copy a document without offering any opinion thereon, and that he is at least as foreign to the accused text as is the presiding judge himself.

What is true for the publication will also hold true for a whole host of other acts as soon as Surrealist methods begin to enjoy widespread favour. When that happens, a new morality must be substituted for the prevailing morality, the source of all our trials and tribulations.

This last paragraph is truly extraordinary in its implications. To describe every act condemned by law as Surrealist would serve in the first instance to point up the universality of alienation, the fact that people are never truly themselves but rather that everyone acts for the most part in accordance with the inhuman tendencies instilled in them by social conditioning. It would then become a simple matter, when considering acts that were "reprehensible" from the standpoint of the law, to distinguish clearly between those which indeed obey a logic of death, the logic of inhumanity imposed by the powers in place, and those which by contrast flow from a reflex of the will to live. It is thus surprising on the face of it that Breton should ever have been embarrassed when reminded of his celebrated proposition in the Second Manifesto:

The simplest Surrealist act consists in dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.

This was a quite adequate explanation, after all, of why such an act would simply be a way of making all the workings of an economic and social system which kills human beings by reducing them to the state of objects clear and comprehensible to everyone. For it is true not only that the criminal is not responsible, but also that the hierarchical organization of society, with its batteries of flunkeys – its magistrates, cops, managers, bosses and priests – is itself fully responsible for all the acts that it condemns. But this negative aspect escaped Breton – and consequently he was unable to grasp the positivity involved either. The point of transcendence here was, nonetheless, obvious to him, and he immediately adds a rider:

The justification of such an act is, to my mind, in no way incompatible with the belief in that gleam of light that Surrealism seeks to detect deep within us. I simply wanted to bring in here the element of human despair, on this side of which nothing would be able to justify that belief. It is impossible to give one's assent to one and not to the other. Anyone who should pretend to embrace this belief without truly sharing this despair would soon be revealed as an enemy.

While it is true that extreme despair may arouse limitless hopes, the real site of the struggle still has to be made clear. Once we have arrived at the sort of despair that impels us, following the logic of death that power imposes, to open fire into the crowd, there is only one way beyond this predicament, and that is the liquidation of power in the name of a dialectic of life and of all the hope life embodies. Having reached that point, it behoved Surrealism, as a mirror held up to the power of death, to inaugurate an anti-Surrealism capable of combining in a single practice the struggle against all forms of oppression and the defence of every positive spark thrown up by everyday life.

On such a project, which the Situationists clearly formulated in the early 1960s, the Surrealists possessed but a few scattered insights, and the only cohesion they could achieve here was a lyricism endowing these fragments with an illusory unity.

Here is Breton on Violette Nozières:

In face of your sex winged like a flower of the Catacombs
Students old fogeys journalists rotten bastards fake revolutionaries priests judges
Wanking lawyers
Know full well that all hierarchy ends here

When all is said and done, however, poetry as incitement to practice, and in this instance as action directed towards the abolition of the bourgeois order, is far more apparent in Breton's diatribe against psychiatrists in Nadja:

I know that if I were mad, after several days of confinement I should take advantage of any lapses in my madness to murder anyone, preferably a doctor, who came near me. At least this would permit me, like the violent, to be confined in solitary. Perhaps they'd leave me alone.

Fragments of a Project of Human Emancipation

Any attempt at a total revolution of everyday life is condemned to failure and fragmentation if it does not embody a coherent and global negative critique. What is more, such theoretical and practical inadequacy means that authentic desires for freedom are rendered abstract by ideology, even though they may continue to manifest themselves in the shape of an illusory will to transcendence at the ambiguous level of language.

There is thus a trace, in the Surrealists' striving to circumscribe exceptional or disturbing occasions in lived experience, of a theory of passionate moments. "I pay no heed to the empty moments of my life," wrote Breton, and indeed his entire work revolves around intensely experienced instants. These he celebrates with a lyricism which by no means excludes their critical analysis, but which, since it fails to incorporate them into a generalized social practice, succeeds only in sealing them in the amber of aesthetic emotions. The verbal always carries the day, and, sadly, the only consistency attained by Surrealism was that of its self-justification in cultural terms. These revolutionaries of the heart were fated to carry out their revolution solely in the realm of the mind.

The points at which the old world was crumbling were eminently perceptible to the Surrealists, and they surrounded these areas with an aura that lent them a certain omnipotence. Moments of love, encounter, communication, subjectivity - all were allegedly unified by a shared quality of freedom, yet in reality they remained isolated so long as no heed was being paid to the fact that liberation as a material force cannot be detached from the overall emancipation of the proletariat; so isolated, indeed, that not a single Surrealist resisted the temptation to turn one or another of them into an absolute, so creating an illusory totality.

Love in particular (and justifiably so) was the object of Surrealism's most firmly and consistently sustained hopes. Presenting the "Inquiry" into love in Number 12 of La Révolution Surréaliste (1929), Breton wrote that "If there is one idea which to this day seems to have escaped every attempt at reduction... it is, we believe, the idea of love, alone in its capacity to reconcile every man, temporarily or not, with the idea of life." On every occasion, and at every stage, the Surrealists invoked the desired unity of poetry, love and revolt. "There is no solution outside of love", proclaimed Breton over and over again. Yet, since he had failed to understand that as part of the same process there is no love without a revolution of everyday life, Breton ended up, via the notion of "mad love", promoting a veritable cult of Woman. The Surrealists opposed libertinism in the name of an elective and exclusive form of love, but it is an open question whether these two antagonistic attitudes do not in the end amount to much the same thing, whether a woman elevated to the rank of the Chosen One and a woman fucked lovelessly are not both being treated as objects. Be that as it may, neither Breton nor Péret ever changed their minds, no matter how closely they studied Fourier and his detailed theories on this subject.

De Sade offers a pertinent counterweight to the hint of Romanticism in this conception of love. Marcel Mariën is right to point out, in his Les Poids et les mesures [Weights and Measures], that we should thank the Divine Marquis for "so judiciously enlightening us as to the reality of our nature and for providing us with a basis for understanding love". Likewise René Char, in the second issue of Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution: "De Sade's legacy is a love at long last cleansed of the muck of the celestial, with all the hypocrisy exposed and exterminated: a legacy capable of preserving men from starvation and keeping their fine stranglers' hands out of their pockets." Nevertheless, no matter how often they denied it, the Surrealists were continually (and curiously, for readers of de Sade) drawing the Christian distinction between carnal and spiritual love. Here, once again, the point of view of real practice was never grasped. What could be more Sadean than the dialectic of pleasure in its dual relationship to love on the one hand and insurrection on the other? Even the nihilist Jacques Rigaut acknowledged that any reconstruction of love must follow this path: "I have ridiculed many things. There is only one thing in the world that I have never been able to ridicule, and that is pleasure."

Now it is true that the very same Péret who compiled a superb anthology of "sublime love" also wrote the ejaculatory poems of Rouilles encagées [Caged Rusts - meaning couilles enragées, or "raging balls" - Trans. {available as "Mad Balls" at}]. But where exactly do the two objects of celebration involved here really come into conjunction? That the practical activity of individuals within the Surrealist milieu somehow guaranteed a unity of this kind is a distinctly dubious proposition. Breton, supposed standard-bearer of every freedom, was quite capable of the bald assertion, uttered during a public debate on the issue, that he "found homosexuals guilty of begging human tolerance for a mental and moral shortcoming that tends to set itself up as a system and paralyse every undertaking of the kind for which I have any respect". And he proceeded to confess, after deigning to pardon Jean Lorrain and (nothing loath!) de Sade, that he "was quite prepared to be an obscurantist in that particular area". This way of promoting a personal distaste to the level of a general law or principle (Breton even threatened to walk out of the meeting if the discussion of homosexuality was not abandoned) clearly bespeaks the worst kind of repressive attitude. During the same debate the author of Mad Love evinced deep hostility to the idea of a man making love with two women at the same time. If this was Surrealism's way of according all power to passion, it would hardly take a Fourier to describe it as a very rocky road.

Subjectivity, which Surrealism simultaneously obscured and illuminated, is one of those fragmentary spheres whose flights of lyricism may mask their failure to evolve into revolutionary theory. The very first issue of La Révolution Surréaliste quoted Pierre Reverdy's credo according to which 'The poet must seek the true substance of poetry everywhere within himself." And throughout his work Breton repeatedly emphasizes the irreducible aspect of each individual, the magic of the surrender to chance, the pursuit of adventure real or imaginary, and the revelation of unsuspected desires. "In order to remain what it ought to be, namely a conductor of mental electricity, poetic thought must in the first place be charged up in an isolated environment", writes Breton, while Georges Bataille maintains that "Surrealism is precisely that movement which strips the ultimate interest bare, emancipating it from all compromise and resolutely casting it as caprice pure and simple." Yet neither this prescription of Bataille's nor Breton's meditations on chance (which Nietzsche defined as "yourself bringing yourself to yourself") opens the way to a practical investment of the riches of subjectivity in the collective struggle for the total liberation of the individual. Thus subjectivity and its demands, acknowledged but not realized on the social plane, became a source of artistic inspiration and a measure of expressive value, but nothing more. Nothing more, in sum, than that celebrated "inner necessity" which Kandinsky held to be the one essential determinant of all creation.

Primacy accorded subjectivity in the cultural realm led to the call for a new "way of feeling", a notion that a curious figure like Lotus de Palm would successfully nurture in response to the general enervation of the senses, of thought and of sensation. The Grand Jeu group went ahead of the Surrealists down the mystical road which conflated subjectivity not only with the new way of feeling but also with the myth of old. This was what René Daumal called "the turning back of Reality towards its source", and it focused all hopes on the point described by Breton as follows: "Everything tends to suggest that the mind may reach a point whence life and death, real and imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable, and high and low, all cease being perceived as contradictory." So long as it remained detached from the revolutionary project of the total man, however, this outlook could never become anything more, at best, than an initiatory or hermetic doctrine

So although Surrealism drew attention to each individual's potential for creativity in everyday life, it failed to spur the collective actualization of that creativity by means of a revolution made by all in the interests of all; instead, it invited the individual to lose his way twice over: to engage in a marginal activity which relied on Bolshevism to spark the revolutionary process, and to strive for a strictly cultural overthrow of culture. This de facto renunciation of the possibilities for subjective self-realization, even as these were invoked on the literary and pictorial levels, was accompanied by a call to sacrifice (from Breton on several occasions) - a call, in other words, to the castration which is the lynchpin of all hierarchical power. Those who had wanted to restore art to life thus ended up turning direct experience into just one more value on the art market. What prevented Surrealism from becoming a cultural cattle-trough, after the fashion of abstract art, existentialism, the nouveau roman, Pop Art, or happenings, was the fact that unlike Aragon, Éluard and Dalí - Breton, Péret, Tanguy and Artaud did continue, confusedly and spontaneously, to reject anything in the movement that denied their subjectivity or ultimate uniqueness. In his "Preface for a Reprint of the Manifesto" (1929), Breton put into words what the best of the Surrealists almost certainly felt:

If a system which I make my own, which I slowly adapt to myself, such as Surrealism, remains, and must always remain, substantial enough to overwhelm me, it will for all that never acquire the wherewithal to make of me what I wanted to be, as ready and willing as I might be for it to do so.

The choice of life, if not restricted to the role of nourishing literary or pictorial forms of expression, to the world of images, analogies, metaphors or trick words, is thus apt to lead to an incipient practice, to an embryonic science of man that is stripped of all positivism, as far removed as can be imagined from the specialized attitude of the "scientist", and inhabited by a desire to experiment in every direction, and to document all such experimentation to whatever extent might be required.

Knowledge of the Human and its Experimental Investigation

Paul Nougé of the Belgian Surrealist group puts his finger on a very important concern of the movement when he writes:

We must turn what can be ours to the very best account. Let man go where he has never gone, experience what he has never experienced, think what he has never thought, be what he has never been. But help is called for here: such departures, such a crisis, need to be precipitated, so with this in mind let us create disconcerting objects.

Leaving aside the faith thus placed in the earth-shattering power of such objects, whose transformation into commodities and conditioning mechanisms Surrealism failed to foresee, Nougé proposition has the great merit that it prohibits from the outset any appeal to pure knowledge. Likewise, when the first number of La Révolution Surréaliste reiterated Aragon's formulation, in Une Vague de rêves [A Wave of Dreams], to the effect that "We have to arrive at a new declaration of the rights of man", the clear implication is that nothing that concerns thought, imagination, action, expression or desire must be deemed alien to the revolutionary project. The foundering of this project under the helmsmanship of Stalinism and its attendant leftisms was to reduce Surrealism to a mere generator of what might be called the special effects of the human. From this box of tricks, not altogether unlike a Renaissance "wonder-cabinet", albeit one richer in written testimonials than in actual phenomena, Breton and his companions contrived to produce a shimmering rhetoric, but despite all their efforts they were unable wholly to conceal the insurrectional purposes for which all these discoveries had originally been made.

"We need to form a physical idea of the revolution," said André Masson in La Revolution Surrealiste, Number 3, and here we have both a way of gauging the contribution of the human dimension and the key that in a revolutionary situation will make it possible to loot (while at the same time enriching) the Surrealist storehouse of knowledge.

Before Breton located the moment of revolution in a mythical absolute where individual and collective history were supposed to come together, Guy Rosey, in Violette Nozières (1933), wrote the following lines, resounding like a last echo of Masson's watchword:

Here revealed at last by another inviolate self of hers
is the personality
unknown and poetic
of Violette Nozières
murderess as one might be
a painter

Freud and Automatic Writing

A considerable portion of Surrealism's energy was applied to research into the limits of the possible, into extreme forms, varieties of expression, and the affirmation or destruction of the human phenomenon in its relationships with the world, as seen from the standpoint of a total liberation of the emotions. A multitude of characteristically Surrealist preoccupations arose from this attitude, among them the interest in spiritualism; the taste for Gothic novels; the experimentation with techniques of simulation and critical paranoia; the interest in childhood and in madness; the exploration of the world of dreams and of the unconscious or subconscious; the analytical approach to individual mythologies, as to the mythologies of allegedly primitive peoples (Michel Leiris, Breton, Artaud, Péret); the excursions into Celtic origins (Jean Markale and Lancelot Lengyel); the infatuation with alchemy and hermetic doctrines; and the construction of a new literary, artistic and philosophical pantheon which rescued many very great names from the silence, lies or discredit of official culture, among them Lautréamont, de Sade, Fourier, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Germain Nouveau, Oscar Panizza, Antoine Fabre d'Olivet, Alphonse Rabbe, Christian Dietrich Grabbe, Xavier Forneret, Alfred Jarry, Facteur Cheval, Arnold Böcklin, Monsu Desiderio, Albrecht Altdorfer, Nicolas Manuel Deutsch, Urs Graf, Jean Meslier, Pierre-François Lacenaire, Paracelsus, Basil Valentine, Achim von Arnim, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Lichtenberg, Blake, Charles Robert Maturin, Monk Lewis, Adolf Wölfli, Jean-Pierre Brisset, Douanier Rousseau, Bettina, "the Portuguese Nun", Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Lotus de Païni, and many more.

The influence of Freud, whom Breton visited in 1921, was apparent from the very beginning. When the "Bureau de Recherches Surréalistes" opened at 15 rue de Grenelle, on 11 October 1924, its stated aim was to acquaint the general public with those psychoanalytical methods whereby anyone could attain better knowledge of their darker side and their hidden possibilities. Once rid of its dusty therapeutic pretensions, the art of psychoanalysis, along with the psychoanalysis of an art made by all, would be capable, according to the Surrealists, of laying the groundwork for a radically different form of social behaviour. The failure of this project even before it had been thoroughly clarified was to put the Surrealists at a distinct disadvantage in their attempt to make common cause with the Communist Party. The notion did not disappear entirely, however, for in 1945 we find Gherasim Luca, in his L 'Inventeur de l'amour [The Inventor of Love], proposing a "limitless eroticization of the proletariat" as a general organizing tool and holding it as a self-evident truth that the dismantling of the initial Oedipal position must facilitate the qualitative transformation of love into a universal lever of revolution.

Freud also inspired the Surrealists in their hostility to the psychiatrists, to the inventors of the very notion of madness, to all who held sway over the world of children (those whom Jules Celma would later call "educastrators"). Breton evoked a childhood in which "everything, after all, ought to favour the effective and guaranteed possession of oneself', adding hopefully that "thanks to Surrealism, it seems as if those conditions may be restored". "The liberation of children" – Roger- Gilbert Lecomte would later exclaim – "why, that would be even finer than opening the madhouses!" And here again is Breton, in Nadja: "But as I see it, all confinements are arbitrary. I still cannot see why a human being should be deprived of freedom." These are ideas that have since made headway: even if Celma was met with police repression, even if René Viénet was unable to obtain from the Sorbonne Assembly in May 1968 that a call be issued for the release of all those held in asylums, it is inconceivable that revolutionary movements of the future will fail to place such demands high on the agenda.

In the case of the Surrealists, it was the absence, again, of a practice concordant with the ideas held by the group that effectively downgraded the beginnings of a genuine psychoanalytically grounded social campaign – along the lines, perhaps, of that conducted by Wilhelm Reich, of whom incidentally the Surrealists knew nothing – to a mere technique of revelation and to mere cultural agitation.

This backtracking is already discernible in the Manifesto of 1924. In his "encyclopaedic" comment on Surrealism, Breton writes:

Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

The adjacent "dictionary definition" runs as follows:

SURREALISM, n. 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 importance the Surrealists attributed to automatic writing does little to offset the impression one often gets on reading even their finest texts that the movement gravely misjudged its own potential riches. By and large the practice of automatism, restricted to writing, failed to lead to any analysis of the ego, any uncovering of fantasies or strange drives, or any critique of language as a form of alienation. In short, it never got beyond Breton's original set of directions:

After you have settled yourself in a place as favorable as possible to the concentration of your mind upon itself, have writing materials brought to you. Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of everyone else. Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you're writing and be tempted to reread what you have written. The first sentence will come spontaneously, so compelling is the truth that with every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard. It is somewhat of a problem to form an opinion about the next sentence; it doubtless partakes both of our conscious activity and of the other, if one agrees that the fact of having written the first involves the minimum of perception. This should be of no importance to you, however; to a large extent, this is what is most interesting and intriguing about the Surrealist game. The fact still remains that punctuation no doubt resists the absolute continuity of the flow with which we are concerned, although it may seem as necessary as the arrangement of knots in a vibrating cord. Go on as long as you like. Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur....

What was being proposed, in other words, was a means of renewing the artistic style, which had been in free fall since Apollinaire, and which Dada had turned into spare parts.

The Underworld of Dreams and Paresthaesias

Dreams do indeed constitute that marvellous and unitary world whose immanence the Surrealists hymned. The Surrealists' theory of dreams, however, never progressed to a degree commensurate with the amount of attention they paid to the subject. Just as they left it to the "communists" to advance the cause of revolution, so likewise even their best contributions in this area (those of Breton, in Communicating Vessels and Mad Love, or those of Michel Leiris) were simply applications of Freud's arguments in The Interpretation of Dreams.

La Révolution Surréaliste was content merely to publish accounts of dreams, but it soon became apparent that oneiric inspiration also quickly turned into a literary technique. True, the occasional interpretation would endeavour to show how the beauty of an image can arise from a dream's short-circuiting of meaning, how the poetic spark may spring from a sudden condensation of different emotional significances that the dream contradictorily combines, how the illusion of premonition follows a particular dream pathway, and how, once the space-time of the dream has become identical with the space-time of myth, the signs of past, present and future may come to correspond to one another. Yet here too the absence of any implications of a practical kind took its toll, in this case a retreat into the ideology of "the great transparent ones" and hidden meanings. Confusedly aware, nonetheless, that mastery of dreams would imply mastery of life, and that meanwhile those who control survival, who run the government and the spectacle, need also to be the guardians of dreams, the Surrealists achieved their most concrete defence of the dream when they targeted the psychiatrists and alienists, psychoanalytical reformism, the technicians of social conditioning and all the watchdogs of the mental realm. The half-cocked nature of this campaign, however, meant that they never effectively demanded a society in which the fantasy world of dreams would have at its disposal, for the purpose of its material actualization, the entire technical armamentarium which under present conditions serves only to destroy those prospects. The Surrealists were content to mine dreams in order to renew the images whose interplay so interested them; they failed to appreciate that this was another way for the dream to be co-opted by the dominant mechanisms of deception and fascination (as in the pillaging of dreams by the admen and the manufacturers of "silent majorities").

Much the same may be said in connection with forms of behaviour stigmatized as mad by the logic of profit, by the rationality of the commodity system: the contempt which the Surrealists heaped on torturers in white coats did not inoculate them against a temptation to co-opt attitudes usually treated clinically for purely artistic purposes. Thus, Dalí defined his "paranoiac-critical" technique as "a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the interpretative-critical association of delusional phenomena", and he applied it notably to Violette Nozières, paronymic variations on whose name "nazière" – "Nazi", "Dinazo", "Nez" – inspired his drawing of a long-nosed figure the sexual symbolism of which evoked both the charm of the young woman and her father's attempt to rape her.

Similarly, an attempt was made to achieve a general rehabilitation of certain tendencies judged to be pathological. In 1928, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of hysteria, Number 11 of La Révolution Surréaliste published a beautiful series of photographs of female hysterics under the title "Passionate Attitudes, 1878". Breton and Aragon commented:

Hysteria is a more or less irreducible mental state characterized by the overturning of the relations that obtain between the subject and a moral world to which, in a practical sense, and in the absence of any delusional system, he considers himself to belong. This mental state answers to the requirements of a reciprocal seduction which accounts for the hastily accepted miracles of medical suggestion (or counter-suggestion). Hysteria is not a pathological phenomenon, and it may justifiably be deemed, in every sense, a supreme form of expression.

In The Immaculate Conception (1930), Breton and Éluard composed texts based on the simulation of various types of mental illness.

Knowledge of the wild and repressed aspects of man also came from some who were less preoccupied with the reconstruction of art, among them Michel Leiris and other of Surrealism's fellow travellers, notably Georges Bataille and Maurice Heine.

Heine in particular (the first person clearly to hail the liberatory spirit of the pedagogical de Sade of Philosophy in the Bedroom) was a methodical explorer of the frontiers of human possibility. Better than anyone else, he grasped the hope that Surrealism held out for a real totality and a total freedom. His article in Minotaure, Number 8 (1936), "Regard sur l'enfer anthropoclasique" [A Look at Anthropoclastic Hell], in a sort of contrapuntal echo to the old Surrealist inquiry into suicide, sets forth an imaginary discussion between de Sade, Jack the Ripper, the Comte de Mesanges and Professor Brouardel on human beings as the objects of a long series of refined destructive measures and on the pleasure to be derived from their progressive and systematic degradation. Illustrated with photographs by the forensic surgeon Lacassagne from Annales d'hygiène publique et de médecine légale [Annals of Public Health and Legal Medicine], the text contrasts the transformation of man into an object, as promoted by a hierarchical social organization, with his destruction in the name of human passions. As the negation of slow reification, Heine proposes the project of the total man, a universe in which humanity would paradoxically be reborn from its paroxystic annihilation in the relationship between torturer and victim. The presumption is that this conscious nihilism, which is the nihilism of the great killers, will precipitate the transcendence of all the old world's negativity.

The same nihilistic perspective governs "Notes sur un classement psycho-biologique des paresthésies sexuelles" [Notes on the Psycho-Biological Classification of Sexual Paresthaesias], where Heine seeks to rid the scientific observation of man of the last vestiges of ethical and religious prejudice. He adopts the tern "paresthaesia" in order to eliminate the false distinction between normal and abnormal and apprehend direct experience as a unity despite all its contradictions. Heine's writings - among which "Confessions et observations psycho-sexuelles" also deserves mention - opened a line of inquiry which Bataille was to pursue but on which most Surrealists quickly turned their backs.

Dalí, however, was well aware of the potential for provocation in any attribution of aesthetic value to acts condemned by puritanical laws. For example, in the second issue of Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution, he elected to celebrate a non-destructive and perfectly banal paresthaesia, namely exhibitionism:

Last May, between Cambronne and Glacière on the metro, a man about thirty, who was seated opposite a very beautiful young girl, cleverly parted the pages of a magazine that he was affecting to read, so arranging things that his sex, fully and magnificently erect, was exposed to her view, and to her view only. No sooner had another passenger, an idiot, become aware of this act of exhibitionism, which had plunged the girl into an enormous but delightful state of embarrassment, though without eliciting the slightest protest from her, than the mass of travellers fell upon the exhibitionist, hitting him and throwing him out of the carriage. We must cry out in utmost indignation and express our utter contempt for such an abominable way of treating one of the purest and most disinterested acts of which any man is capable in this effete and morally degenerate age.

However sympathetic one might find this attitude, it was certainly never extended to a general defence of paresthaesias; at best it was subsumed by black humour, at worst incorporated into the stock of images which Dalí used, only slightly in advance of sexually orientated advertising, to test the shock effect of representations of erection, masturbation or defecation.

Similar themes inspired Éluard to produce genuinely charming verse:

In a corner agile incest
Circles around the virginity of a sweet little dress

But even had aesthetic co-optation not dominated the Surrealists' concerns, their lack of the sense of totality that moved Maurice Heine and no doubt also Georges Bataille would have sufficed to reduce any fresh ethical demands on their part – any invocation of a right to free love, incest, exhibitionism or homosexuality – to the role of a mere stimulant to the regeneration of the old order of things. André Thirion had clearly grasped this paradoxical truth when, in Le Grand Ordinaire, he offered a jocular demonstration of how incest can serve to buttress the stability of the family:

"Our miseries are due to the fact that we have forgotten the old ways," declared our friend Moscheles in grave tones as he was getting his circumcised member sucked by his youngest daughter Sarah, who was barely thirteen. "Modern life has devalued the pure joys of home and hearth, and every day the practice of sports takes children a little further away from their parents, and exposes them to a thousand temptations. (No, Sarah! Work on the head-how many times do I have to tell you! And for goodness sake don't be afraid to use your tongue as much as you can!) One only needs think of the extreme freedom of manners, in fact the sheer licence, that permits the horrifying way couples dress at balls, in the street or in public parks. As for the latest, camping holidays, they encourage a quite indecent promiscuity, indeed I can't see how camping differs from vagrancy pure and simple. And have you ever read the columns in some of the women's weeklies? They actually recommend love affairs! Adultery is supposed to be a good thing! Sarah, come on, girl! Don't go to sleep on the job!"

3. Transforming the World