PRINT November 1971

“The Black Pope”

IMPROBABLY, A SERIOUS STUDY OF André Breton, founder and leader of the Surrealist movement, has been crucially missing in spite of all that has been written around the subject. Anna Balakian has essayed this task in a biography* which has taken her over a decade to complete. Essentially it offers an ambitious exegesis of the most difficult texts, and not only clarifies many aspects of the movement but illuminates the complex, extraordinary personality of André Breton. For those of us who knew not only Breton but also his colleagues and followers during the New York phase of Surrealism, Miss Balakian’s book is valuable in itself and opens the way for intelligent study. The New York phase is especially enlightening.

Although the pages of Charles Henri Ford’s View (1940–1947) were open to displaced European artists and writers of the Surrealist persuasion, it was inevitable that Breton would organize an independent publication, The Triple V, to make clear his followers’ position and, above all, his own. Upon arriving in New York, Breton contributed to View: the Nicolas Calas interview, the splendid poem “Full Margin,” the essay for the all-Duchamp issue. Furthermore View Editions published his book, Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, translated by Edouard Roditi.

But it was typical of Breton to pull away from a magazine that represented so many divergent tendencies and interesting that he used as the occasion for his break a small feature entitled “Photograph Your Injuries” showing two different women with facial and leg abrasions received in automobile accidents. This, declared Breton, demonstrated that the View editors were antiwomen since women were depicted in the photos as hideous. Because the Surrealists rejected aspersions cast on “woman,” no further collaborations with View could be possible.

Like Swinburne, Breton identified so closely with women that he had a strangely womanish attitude. He saw no gap between life and ideas, life and art, life and beliefs. Each must be submerged within the other through action, taking sides, or denunciation. What more perfect example of this than the blowup between Breton and Matta? There were many excommunications in New York during this period but here a marital smashup became a major issue. Matta was excommunicated because Breton did not approve of his behavior in relation to Gorky’s estranged wife. Gorky’s subsequent dreadful suicide seemed to confirm Breton’s criticism. The leader who with perfect sincerity was capable of approving Kurt Seligmann’s researches into magic, the art of the insane, or the teachings of the Marquis de Sade could not tolerate a homosexual male in his movement. One homosexual adherent was persuaded by Breton to get married if he was to continue as an aide-de-camp. As Annette Michelson has pointed out, Breton felt no such animosity towards lesbians.

It was in America that Breton’s marriage to the painter Jacqueline Lamba collapsed and in the Larré Restaurant in 56th Street that he met his last wife, Elisa. The Idealization of Woman, a central Surrealist precept, continued for the rest of Breton’s life, as one can discover in the large-scale epic poems, in particular the last prose poem, Arcane 17. The enslaved position of Woman was for Breton intolerable and much of his imagination and polemic was dedicated to Her liberation.

Yet Breton’s commitment to his own conception of sexual freedom is almost the only position which remained unchanged throughout his career. No complete history of Surrealism (Maurice Nadeau’s is at best fragmentary) has been written to date. But should such a document be published it would be made clear how shifting was the Surrealist stance, how many polemics and counter polemics were flung back and forth between Breton and his followers. The political quarrels alone could fill a large volume: the break with the Communist party, the protest against the war in Morocco, the rupture with Aragon, the defense of Trotsky, the Moscow trials, the Spanish war, etc., etc.,—all produced a torrent of articles and manifestos.

In fact, most books dealing with Surrealism written in English are unsatisfactory. They are often rehashes of other books and full of false conceptions as well as factual errors. Their authors have picked and chosen from a grab bag of writings in an effort to explain the “meaning” of Surrealism. Often they fail to understand their evidence in its precise social and intellectual context.

Breton was an inspired assailant of accepted values, but in the light of our disillusionment today with the high minded politics of the last 40 years, on both sides of the Atlantic, his quest for Absolute Liberty seems today largely free of cant and hypocrisy. A professional politician would never agree to such a statement since Breton so often changed positions, contradicted himself, took new positions, broke with old friends, aligned himself with new ones. But a politician might not understand that for Breton one’s first obligation was to make ideas, theories, and beliefs, immediate and urgent. He was a Marxist but could never consent to the social revolution without an accompanying subjective, inner, personal revolution.

“The daytime and the nighttime shall be one.” Nature, Love, The Universe as a source of light, Death—these were the basic preoccupations of the Surrealist chief, a holdover from 19th-century Romanticism. Certainly he was one of the 20th century’s least compromising humanists. The poem “Vigilance” perfectly illustrates this humanism.

A Paris la tour Saint-Jacques
Pareille à un tournesol
Du front vient quelquefois heurter
la Seine et son ombre glisse
imperceptiblement parmi
les remorqueurs
A ce moment sur la pointe des pieds dans mon sommeil
Je me dirige vers la chambre
où je suis étendu
Et j’y mets le feu
Pour que rien ne subsiste de ce
consentement qu’on m’a arraché
Les meubles font alors place à des animaux de même taille
qui me regardent fraternellement
Lions dans les crinières desquels
achèvent de se consumer
les chaises
Squales dont le ventre blanc
s’incorpore le dernier frisson
des draps
A l’heure de l’amour et des paupières bleues
Je me vois brûler à mon tour
je vois cette cachette solennelle
de riens
Qui fut mon corps
Fouillée par les bets patients
des ibis du feu
Lorsque tout est fini j’entre
invisible dans l’arche
Sans prendre garde aux passants de la vie qui font sonner très loin leurs pas traînants
Je vois les arêtes du soleil
A travers l’aubépine de la pluie
J’entends se déchirer le linge humain comme une grande feuille
Sous l’ongle de l’absence et de la présence qui sont de connivence
Tous les métiers se fanent it ne reste d’eux qu’une dentelle parfumée
Une coquille de dentelle qui a la forme parfaite d’une sein
Je ne touche plus que le coeur des choses je tiens le fil

In Paris the tower of St. Jacques swinging
Like a sunflower
Bumps its head at times against the Seine and its shadow slides imperceptibly in the midst of the tugs
At that very moment tiptoeing in my sleep
I veer toward the room where I am asleep
And I set fire to it
That nothing may remain of the promise drawn from me
The furnishings then make way for animals of the same size that look at me fraternally
Lions in whose manes vanish the chairs
Sharks that gobble up in their white bellies the last shuddering of the sheets
At love time and blue-eyelid time
I see myself burning as my turn comes
I see that hidden cove of solemn nothings
That once was my body
Pecked by the patient beaks of fiery ibises
When it’s all over and invisible I pass under the arch
Heedless of the passers-by of life whose dragging footsteps I can hear far away
I see the sun’s rays like fishbones in the rain-drenched hawthorn
I hear the human sheet torn like a great leaf
Under the nail of absence and presence which are mere subterfuge
All crafts fade away of them remains but a perfumed lace
A shell of lace that has the perfect form of a breast
I now touch the heart of things I hold the thread

(Translated by Anna Balakian)

It is interesting that in this first full-scale biography, Miss Balakian has examined in so much detail the character and political, scientific, and philosophical beliefs of her subject. In particular one is struck by the number of pages devoted to Breton’s erotic convictions and his quasi-puritanical morality. By comparison, far less space is devoted to the plastic arts, presumably because for Breton they were only one aspect of a method through which mankind could achieve Freedom.

“Nothing of what surrounds is object, everything is subject.”

Surrealism may be of limited interest to art historians and critics. One cannot imagine, for instance, Clement Greenberg analyzing, except for Miró and Gorky, most of Breton’s favorite painters.

Many contemporary artists have picked up the notes and demonstrations of Duchamp (the last of Breton’s colleagues with whom he did not quarrel). Yet this present-day preoccupation with Duchamp no longer represents a Surrealist point-of-view, since the attitude of the new artists is entirely esthetic and without any conscious ethical and social basis. There is no social or moral criticism that one can detect in Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg or the major Pop artists. The erotic element is missing except as a form of “camp,” and for Breton this was the most execrable of attitudes. He rarely laughed.

Duchamp’s oeuvre from 1914 on conveyed an acid criticism of bourgeois life and values. Through his esthetic of “hazard” he made clearer the notion of choice. One suspects that Duchamp’s exquisite manipulation of “accident” appeared to Breton as a will to freedom, the Unconscious, a liberation of Desire. Breton maintained that Desire was the dynamo of the Will, hence a kind of dialectic could be set up that allows the imagination to achieve greater range and power.

It is ironic that neither the Marxists, as represented by such men as Ilya Ehrenburg, or the psychoanalysts, as represented by Sigmund Freud, could understand Breton’s aims or his passionate commitment to Liberty. Trotsky, of course, took Breton seriously, as did Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Catholic François Mauriac called him his “dark brother,” who hated everything he loved, and loved everything he hated. In the climate of present-day New York, Breton seems either very near or very remote depending on one’s sensibility.

Anna Balakian has managed to organize her narrative so that Breton no longer seems monstrous. His hatred of work, of “capitalism,” of museums, of “success,” his quarrels, his irascibility, his fantastic pride, not to mention arrogance—all seem to have been outdistanced in his last years. In the Balakian biography we get a portrait of a man who eventually let everything fall away. He became a kind of latter-day Goethe receiving the young or the prestigious in the rue Fontaine or at his country house at Saint Cirq La Popie. Love had taken over. He had never ceased to believe as he said in his poem Entretiens: “Man will come out of the labyrinth”—nor had he ceased to feel

“Le vent lucide m’apporte le parfum perdu de l’existence
Quitte enfin de ses limites.”

(The lucid wind brings me the lost perfume of existence
Released at last from its limitations.)

A great poet had used his life to cover up his tracks.

*André Breton, New York, 1971.

Mr. Myers is the director of a New York art gallery.