3. Transforming the World
The failure of the Barrès trial, as of all other efforts to equip Dada with a social and political consciousness, led to the adoption of Marxism, as revised and corrected by Lenin, and to the abandonment of Dada's two great enterprises-the quest for total negation and the project of a collective poetry. The latter, had it succeeded, would have evolved into a critical theory in search of its practical self-realization through the overthrow of all the conditions presently imposed on the world and on everyday life. As we have noted, the Surrealist group at its very inception unsurprisingly, in view of the artistic preoccupations of its founders already bore the traces of this twofold renunciation. This was the root, furthermore, of a guilty conscience whose persistence throughout the entire history of the movement manifested itself as a fundamental and unshakeable despair and a continual hankering, in consequence, for self-justifications and exorcisms. This despair of the ego, which in time developed existential overtones, was simultaneously contained and combated by the Surrealists' leftism. Until their break with the Communist Party, they accepted a functional role in the political realm; thereafter that role became a caricature, and remained so until the advent of a completely new official leftism in 1968.
The words that occur most frequently in Surrealist ideology are "revolution" and "love", and it must be said that, no matter how confusedly and abstractly they may be used, certainly no infamy attaches to these words no bloodstains intellectual or otherwise. There is indeed something very touching about Péret and Breton's tireless efforts to keep their ideology pure or, as Breton so loved to say, "immaculate" especially since, qua ideology, it was impure by definition. Frequently this mix of rigour and naivety, produced in a context of pragmatism or tactical manoeuvring, would acquire the poetic aspect of a childish virtue ("childish" being understood in the positive sense that it had for Fourier). Here, for instance, is Breton speaking at the Barcelona Ateneo on 17 November 1922:
There is only one thing that can get us out, if only for a moment, of the horrible cage in which we are trapped. That thing is revolution any revolution, no matter how bloody and to this day I call for it with all my might. I am sorry if Dada did not turn out to be that revolution, but you have to understand that nothing else much matters to me.
Breton made himself even clearer in the collective manifesto "La Révolution d'abord et toujours" [Revolution First and Forever], reprinted in Number 4 of La Révolution Surréaliste (15 October 1925), asserting that "the idea of Revolution is the safeguard of everything that is best and most effective in the individual". We may reasonably take this libertarian sentiment, to which Breton and Péret would always remain loyal (even if Breton occasionally failed to live up to it in practice), as embodying precisely that element of "innocence" which kept Surrealism at arm's length from Bolshevism and ultimately meant that the movement's heyday would be remembered for its attempt (quite rare in history) to create an innocent ideology.
This attitude also accounts for the charming lyricism which compensated for Surrealism's lack of analysis: "I move through a landscape," wrote René Char in Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution, Number 3, "where Revolution and Love together illuminate amazing perspectives and deliver shattering disquisitions."
The very confusion that enveloped the notion of revolution allowed it to encompass the daydreams of subjectivity, the human passions, the will to live, the violence of individual demands - indeed everything that tended to resist being reduced and manipulated by bureaucratic revolutions. But this "everything", sad to say, was just what Surrealism could apprehend only in bits and pieces, in fragments which in their fragmentariness were inevitably inconsequential.
To begin with, sincerity and anger still took precedence over concern with the poetic image. Thus Desnos's "La Revolution, c'est-à-dire la Terreur" [Revolution, That Is To Say, Terror], in La Révolution Surréaliste, Number 3, was able to recapture the finest libertarian cadences of an earlier day:
But what a relief it would be to witness a methodical purge from the population of all founders of families, all doers of good works (charity is a mark of degeneracy), all priests and pastors (let us not forget that crew), all soldiery, all those people who, if they find a wallet in the street, will immediately return it to its rightful owner, all fathers à la Corneille, all mothers of exemplarily large families, all depositors in savings banks (worse than the capitalists), the police as a body, men and women of letters, inventors of serums against epidemics, "benefactors of humanity", dispensers and recipients of compassion - if only all this rabble would just disappear! The greatest Revolutions are born of strict adherence to a single principle; the motive for the Revolution that is coming will be the principle of absolute freedom.
In this admirable last sentence Desnos unequivocally defends a genuine collective poetry against the appropriation of the Revolution of 1917 by the Bolsheviks and their State. As much cannot be said of Éluard's ambiguous comments in La Révolution Surréaliste, Number 4 (5 July 1925), apropos of a public declaration by the Philosophes group:
The optimism of the Clarté people shone in all its glory beneath the hammer-and-sickle sun of a mediocre regime founded, just like the capitalist regime, on the facile and repugnant reign of work. Truth to tell, it barely matters to those who are born revolutionaries that the inequality of classes is unjust.
That Éluard could thus quite rightly condemn the reign of work, and then in the very next breath, with unparalleled stupidity, disparage the class struggle, gives us some clue as to how it was that the Surrealists (always thought of as clowns by even the most primary and least cultivated of Marxists) were able for a time to accept the role of faithful disciples, first to the Communist Party and later to Trotsky.
Three months later, however, Éluard had clearly made progress, for he signed the joint Surrealist-Clarté manifesto La Révolution d'abord et toujours, which included the pronouncement: "We are not Utopians: we conceive of the coming Revolution as strictly social in character."
Unfortunately, the social character in question was that of social oppression, as per the Bolshevik model. Breton, in Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution, Number 2, concluded a discussion of "The Relationship between Brain Work and Capital" with a proto-Maoist exhortation:
There is no need to give house-room to specifically intellectual pleadings which, inasmuch as they have any justification at all, have no business manifesting themselves in the form of vain corporatist campaigns but ought far rather to persuade those who suffer in this way in the present order of things to serve the proletariat's admirable cause unreservedly, and treat that cause just as if it were their own.
The notion of intellectuals serving the people (a watered-down version of Blanqui's theory) was one of the most laughable ideas that the Surrealists ever espoused. Dada had pointed out the congenital impotence of intellectuals as such, condemned as they were to reign over a dead planet and issue decrees with no force in law until such time as the State's real laws assigned these ghosts a role in the general system of appearances and lies. A world away from Dada's radicalism, Surrealism dreamed of a cultural revolution (much like one that would come later) which the Communist Party could turn on and off like a tap. The scandal at the Closerie des Lilas in July 1925 aptly foreshadowed the Red Guards' "storm in a teacup of piss".
Surrealism's leftist critique was not always without merit: an exhibition called "The Truth About the Colonies" (September 1931) was a case in point. But if the Surrealists occasionally became the critical consciousness of the Communist Party, the Communists never gave a hoot for these butterflies and their fascination with that great proletariat-crushing machine, the Party bureaucracy.
In Légitime défense [Self-Defence, 1926], Breton writes: "Upon reflection, I do not know why I should abstain any longer from saying that LHumanité - childish, declamatory, unnecessarily cretinizing - is an unreadable newspaper, utterly unworthy of the role of proletarian education it claims to assume." "I cannot understand," he goes on, "that on the road of revolt there should be a right and a left." "I say that the revolutionary flame burns where it lists, and that it is not up to a small band of men, in the period of transition we are living through, to decree that it can burn only here or there." Conspicuously absent from all this discussion is the proletariat, and René Daumal is right to direct his irony at the supposed Marxists of the Party and the left-wing sects, whose "total failure to comprehend the dialectic makes them infinitely more ignorant than absolutely any revolutionary worker, for whom the very least that may be said is that he lives the dialectic".
Needless to say, merely by imagining that the masses might be reached via the Communist Party, Surrealism automatically prevented itself quite aside from the grotesque nature of such an illusion from speaking the language of revolution or from ever developing a radical discourse. The idea of a poetry made by all, had it ever been properly analysed and carried to its logical conclusion, would have been found to embody the revolutionary theory of generalized self management that "invisible ray", to borrow Breton's description of the surreal, "which will make it possible for us one day to rout our adversaries".
As I have tried to show above, Surrealism did have a theory, albeit a latent, fragmentary one, quickly swallowed up by ideology. It was concerned with privileged moments of life and the quest for such moments, with love and its subversive potential in everyday life, with the analysis of the quotidian and its alienations. It never rose to the level of a critique of Bolshevism, even though Breton was capable, belatedly, of offering an implicit correction to his appalling juxtaposition, in a sentence such as the following, of the author of Poésies and the author of What Is To Be Done?: "Surrealism is part of a vast undertaking, of that reconstruction of the universe to which both Lautréamont and Lenin committed themselves utterly."
When polemics broke out between the Surrealists and their old friend Pierre Naville, the opposition between culture and social organization was addressed by neither side. "Quarrels of the intellect", wrote Naville in La Révolution et les intellectuels (1926), "are absolutely vain in face of this one unified condition [wage-labour]." A few pages earlier, however, he had already exposed the limits of his own intellect and of his thesis, once again bringing up a dilemma that had haunted the Surrealists ever since their failure to understand Dada: "Do the Surrealists believe in a liberation of the mind prior to the abolition of bourgeois conditions of material life, or do they think that a revolutionary mind can only come into existence in the wake of a successfully completed revolution?"
Everyone stuck to their own position, and no critique of social separations was ever broached by any of the parties. Thus Breton held that revolution must concern the facts and the mind, Naville that it must affect the facts before it can affect the mind, while Artaud held out for the primacy of the mind in the genesis of revolution.
It was not long before the Stalinist virus made its appearance. No one blinked when Georges Sadoul, as part of a denunciation of the French police in the December 1929 issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, stated flatly that he would like "to take this opportunity to hail the GPU, a counter-police in the service of the proletariat, every bit as necessary to the Russian Revolution as the Red Army". And barely a murmur was heard when Aragon, in "Red Front" (1931), famously cried "Long live the GPU, dialectical figure of heroism". Only Roland de Renéville, then close to the Grand Jeu group, ventured to point out that Aragon's poem "ends with a hymn to the GPU which, seen from the prophetic standpoint of the mind, becomes simply a hymn to the police".
Later, after the break with the Stalinists, Breton turned more unequivocally towards Trotsky. With Trotsky he collaborated on the manifesto "For an Independent Revolutionary Art" (1938). (At Trotsky's request, Diego Rivera co-signed with Breton in his stead.) Before long, however, Breton was admitting his astonishment that Trotsky could invoke the old Jesuit precept that "the end justifies the means", and he called immediately for "a thoroughgoing critique of certain aspects of the thought of Lenin and even of Marx". He himself never followed up on this.
After the Second World War the political action of Surrealism was intermittent and scattershot. The discovery of Fourier might perhaps have underpinned an overall recasting of the movement, but Breton would always prefer Fourier the visionary, Fourier the poet of analogy, to Fourier the theorist of a radically new society.
Péret and Breton's last successors took Cuba instead of the USSR as the object of their enthusiasm. Echoing the sometime sinister good faith of a Sadoul, Jean Schuster would write, in Batailles pour le surréalisme:
What could possibly be more legitimate than that a revolutionary society, in the process of constructing socialism, should find itself obliged, as Cuba does today, to require a surplus of labour from its members, thus ensuring that work be as fairly shared and equally remunerated as possible?
An Informal Organization
Spurred by its own internationalism and aided by the crisis conditions in all industrialized countries, Surrealism swarmed far and wide. Groups modelled on the French one sprang up in Rumania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, Belgium, Italy, South America, the Canary Islands, Mexico, Japan, Haiti. Direct contacts generally accompanied the establishment of relations between groups. The French group set the tone which meant, most often, that Breton set the tone.
The basis of recruitment, indeed the basis of the group, had much to do, no doubt, with Breton's claim in Les Pas perdus that "One publishes to find people, and for no other reason" an ambiguous statement indeed if one considers how generous, yet at the same time how authoritarian, the author of Nadja could be. Breton was a brilliant thinker, but he was less radical than Péret. The ardour he brought to friendships whether transient or enduring was such as to plunge him now into blind faith, now into wild rage. Even though he was as fond of imposing his views as others were to oblige him in this, the fact remains that the Surrealist group never developed any but the most fluid of hierarchies. Deeper probing would doubtless assign Benjamin Péret a more important role, for, so far from being the second-in-command, the faithful lieutenant that an obtuse view of things has portrayed, Péret was in fact the most independent and libertarian member of the movement. It was thanks to him, in all likelihood, that nearly all the group's decisions were arrived at in a largely democratic way.
Breton was the centre, certainly, but this also made him into a target, and those whom he allowed himself to treat as friends, just as much as those who allowed themselves to put up with him as a friend, rarely lost an opportunity to mock his seriousness, his lack of humour, his tantrums, his tendency to choose people's aperitifs for them. The most serious charges, no doubt, were made by Desnos:
André Breton detests Éluard and his poetry. I have seen Breton throw Éluard's books into the fire. Admittedly, it was on a day when the author of L'Amour, La Poésie had refused to loan him ten thousand francs - that is, unless Breton was prepared to sign a bill of exchange. So why does Breton continue to sing the praises of Éluard and his work? Because Paul Éluard, as Communist as he claims to be, is a property speculator, and the money he gets from selling swampland lots to workers is used for buying the pictures and African art in which the pair of them deal.
André Breton detests Aragon, and never tires of recounting his infamies. Why then does he show him any consideration? Because he is afraid of him, and he knows that a break with Aragon would spell disaster for himself.
André Breton once broke off with Tristan Tzara for the very precise reason that when we attended Tzara's "Evening of the Bearded Heart", the Dada-in-chief had us arrested. Breton knows this very well. He saw and heard Tzara denouncing us to the policemen just as clearly as I did. Why is he now reconciled with Tzara? Because Tristan Tzara buys Negro fetish objects and paintings and André Breton sells them.
In an article of his on painting, André Breton takes Joan Miro to task for having made a little money along the way. But it was he, Breton, who, having bought the painting "Ploughed Land" for five hundred francs, turned around and sold it for six or eight thousand. So Miró may have come across a little money along the way, but it was Breton who stuffed his pockets with it.
As serious as a pope, as dignified as a magus, as pure as Eliakim, André Breton is the author of Surrealism and Painting. It is a curious fact, however, that the only painters who find unconditional favour in his eyes are those with whom he can do business.
What Desnos rightly condemns here, albeit after the fact, is indicative at the very least of a malaise in the Surrealists' interpersonal relationships. What is this concern with the art market, repressed or concealed behind the firmament of ideas, if not history's knowing wink in the direction of those who have been paying it no heed? The basic fraud perpetrated by Surrealism thus emerges quite clearly on the factual plane: the ideology of an art that serves life cannot long prevail over the reality of art and survival being pressed into the service of a spectacular society founded on the commodity system.
In the 19 October 1924 issue of his review 391, Picabia described Surrealism as "nothing but Dada in the travestied form of an advertising balloon for Breton and Co." Surrealism indeed gave the appearance of being above all a scheme whereby Breton sought to establish an objective basis for his subjective choices, tastes or passions. That he should also make business deals under cover of the movement was in the order of things part of the shameful aspect of all ideology. But simply to denounce Breton was not enough: what needed closer scrutiny was Surrealism's unhealthy and suspect defence of the work of art (poetry, painting, object or image).
As soon as art was reinvested with value, the natural arrivisme of the artist, complete with the desire to make a name and promote an oeuvre, was bound to follow. This tendency, though officially condemned by Surrealism, existed within the group itself. Breton may have written, in Pleine marge [Wide Margin] (1940), that "I am not for adepts"; the fact remains that, except for Artaud and Péret, he was never to have anything but adepts, and indeed he took very good care of their proper initiation, so as never to be surrounded by anything but discreet approbation.
It is in the shadow of this particularly distressing kind of behaviour that the question of breaks and expulsions has to be considered. "Without being obsessed by personal rancour and refusing to derive our private anguish on every occasion from the social conditions imposed upon us, we are obliged to turn around at every moment, and to hate" thus Breton in Légitime défense. There is no denying that expulsions and the breaking off of relations are the only arms available to an intellectual group. The problem in the case of the Surrealists was that the struggle against compromise was waged from the standpoint of an ideology, that is to say, from the standpoint of an initial compromise struck with the ruling order.
The Surrealist group expelled quite a few notorious idiots who had been admitted in the first place out of misplaced indulgence. Joseph Delteil, author of a life of Joan of Arc, and Maxime Alexandré , who would later convert to Catholicism under the auspices of Paul Claudel, are cases in point, and there were others. This by no means prevented the Surrealists from making common cause with such mediocrities as Camus and lonesco, or, especially in the post-war period, from keeping company with some truly pathetic characters.
There were expulsions, too, that were utterly well founded: expulsions for political reasons, or on the grounds of irreconcilable differences (as with Artaud), or for attitudes that were repugnant (Aragon, Sadoul, Éluard, Dalí). And finally there were expulsions, at once the most significant and the most questionable ones and the most indicative of the movement's malaise and its need to exorcise it of artists or writers seduced by the appeal of money and acclaim.
Surrealism demanded of its exponents that they not participate in the spectacular and commodity-driven system of which the movement itself partook willy-nilly. When Breton threw Philippe Soupault and Robert Desnos out, accusing them of literary coquetry, he would have done well to heed the already resonant cautionary words of René Daumal: "Beware, André Breton, lest you figure in future textbooks of literary history; remember that the only distinction we ever aspired to was to go down in the annals of cataclysms."
The fact is that Surrealism accepted compromise - up to a point. It was acceptable to deal in works of art, or to achieve distinction by producing such works, but only to a certain degree. And in Breton's eyes the gauging of that degree was his prerogative. "It has often struck me," noted Victor Crastre in his Le Drame du surréalisme, "that active spirits were rare in the group. All decisions were taken by a small directorate comprised of Breton, Aragon, Éluard, Desnos, Péret and Leiris, then accepted without further discussion. Critical reactions were voiced as infrequently among the Surrealists as in any highly organized party."
How could a group with such a passive attitude towards real struggles in the outside world condemn passivity in its own members? How could a group accepting of hierarchies oppose ambition and opportunism? And how could a group whose instincts were essentially cultural be expected to withstand the co-optive mechanisms of a culture that was inexorably falling under the sway of the economy and its representations?