PRINT December 1983


SURREALISM HAS RIPENED INTO a burdensome, slightly blowsy cliché, mechanically used in much “new” art. Its manifestos have become all too official and academic; the movement has suffered more than most from popular success. Where abstract art derived from Cubism became boring through interminable refinement of the plane, representational art derived from Surrealism became boring by relying on a one-dimensional, overfamiliar, unrefined concept of the unconscious. Only attention to the combative, hypnotic personality of Surrealism’s leader can restore our sense of the complexity and energy of its revolt. Today one turns to André Breton because he reminds us that art is a personal matter as much as an objective phenomenon; it is about the attaining of an attitude to life as much as the making of special, superior objects. If there is anything worth preserving in Surrealism, beyond the clichés of automatism and irrationality, it is the sense, epitomized by Breton, in which it regarded art as a way of establishing an identity in the world yet not of—rather, against—its daily drift. Art for Breton was a way of exploring the sources and resources of identity beyond those given in the ordinary world, which seem wildly inadequate to a sensitive appraisal of the self’s possibilities. Dailiness is the reluctant starting part, revolt the “method” of creating “marvelous,” “convulsive” beauty—of effecting that estrangement and bewilderment that is the necessary if not sufficient condition for the recovery of “psychic force.” But the insecurity of the entire enterprise, the uncertainty of its results, is reflected in the tempestuous daily relations of Breton with his Surrealist group. Under his ministrations, the group itself became a perpetually vertiginous “forbidden zone,” in which identity was an unstable point de l’esprit or point sublime for everyone but Breton. To explore the character of Breton’s relations with his disciples is to recover the Surrealist sense of the absurd, enigmatic character of individual identity, which remains, as Breton himself did to his followers, a seductive ideal.

Victor Crastre describes Breton in 1924, age 28, having just produced the heroic first Surrealist manifesto, as already self-identified as “the Pope of Surrealism!”. The exclamation point conveys Crastre’s astonishment at the aptness of the analogy, despite Breton’s youth. “Spiritual authority emanated from his whole personality,” Crastre continued. He had the “clear, . . . calm eyes of the thinker and of the poet lost in the interior dream.” His whole bearing was calm, his gestures slow and deliberate, the unposed “attitudes of a pontiff. . . . But in the heat of a discussion all the violence of a storm was born in his glance and the blue of his pupils blackened like the water of a lake under a tempest.”1 Despite the partial mystification in this physiognomic reading of Breton, the point is clear: Breton had the hypnotic appeal of the self-important thinker who never doubted the truth of his ideas. He had a narcissism that was immune to the reproaches of self-criticism—he came to depend on the criticism of his enemies for the expansion of his conception of Surrealism, and to create them he regularly turned friends out of the Surrealist court. He had the aristocratic bearing of someone in sure command of hidden resources, entitled to a secret others could never fully share. This air of certainty gave him authority, and made it attractive to identify with him; he seemed personally, almost luridly magnetic, apart from the ideas he represented. It was as though they were so many scents to be picked up on the trail to the enigma of his personality. Yet they were substantial, and his identity as Pope—his infallibility—assured their dogmatic use, their subtle change from theory to ideology, from experimental to categorical. Breton’s pontifical manner also assured revolt; those he had enchanted—converted—sooner or later had to attempt to recover their independent judgment, creativity, and private volition. But there was a paradox in their revolt against Breton, for it was he who had written, in 1926 in Légitime Défense, that “revolt alone is creative.” Did revolt against him confirm this idea, or did it deny the principle of revolt for the sake of revolt? It was not clear whether revolt against him was a personal matter or an ideological matter, only that it was the sign of an identity crisis, as well as a crisis in creativity, in the rebel.

Many of the rebels against Breton were politically motivated. For them, the problem was not simply that his oppressive personality censored their free thought and creativity, but that they had outgrown Surrealism. They revolted not only because they could not grow in his shadow, but because they had a transformed conception of their creativity, and a new will to apply it realistically. Much as Auguste Comte had regarded religion and metaphysics as belonging to mankind’s childhood, so these rebels came to regard Surrealism as a childish attempt to turn painful reality into pleasurable poetry—a naively utopian adventure. They preferred Marxist realism, as the philosophy and faith of maturity. They preferred the “positivism” and collectivism of Marxism to the negative individualism of Surrealism. They had gone beyond their own disillusionment and disaffection with the bourgeois world, and wanted now to change it. They came to view Surrealism as a first, inconclusive revolution; with Marxism they marched confidently, with authentic militancy. In a sense they were beyond art, at least as Breton understood it. They wanted social violence, not poetic license; concrete prosaic action, not fresh speculation on, and expressive formulation of, suffering. Breton, paradoxically, came to seem bourgeois to them, for he appeared to embody the bourgeois world’s worst trait in perverse form: an insufferable sense of its own rightness, a self-confidence that repressed all criticism. Breton may have regarded revolt as the ultimate criticism, but he had made it an Art Moderne. The political revolt against Breton was thus a call for proper action, an ethical response to his estheticization of revolt.

Even more perversely—to keep control in an increasingly uncontrollable situation—Breton welcomed and cultivated (to a point) the Marxist critique of Surrealism, for it forced Surrealism beyond its conventional borders. Breton was determined that it not be reduced to an esthetic insult to the obvious but become a truly comprehensive weltanschauung, in a way that Marxism—which according to him barely acknowledged psychological realities, reducing them entirely to social terms—could never be. The Marxists dismissed Surrealism; Breton encompassed Marxism. In fact, his attempt to synthesize Surrealism and Marxism foreshadows later attempts to synthesize psychoanalysis and Marxism. It has been cynically argued that Breton turned to Marxism to share in its power to convert the masses—Surrealism appealed only to individuals. But one could argue that Breton saw in the synthesis of Surrealism and Marxism the ground for a truly comprehensive, authentic human revolution, one that would restore unreduced experience of being—that exaltation inimical to any kind of reductive, “miserabiIist” attitude.

Breton’s personal relationships clearly had a conventional political aspect, but much more was at stake in them. He was determined to understand the role of intense personal relationships in the social contract, and the paradoxical role of personal revolt in sustaining it. Personal revolt, showing itself initially as the dissolution of these relationships, signified spontaneously chosen society—the voluntarily created rather than involuntarily endured social contract. Complex personal relationships are preliminary to, yet peculiarly inhibit, the lonely experience of pure surreality, which leaves behind the issue of human association. The intensely personal, Surrealist relationships with all the strains and utopianism implicit in them—relationships beyond ideology, yet inevitably relapsing into it—were a second-best measure, de-signed to replace the contractual relations of the bourgeois world with freer, more authentic ones. This idea is like the Buddhist belief in the necessity of caring for others before final individual enlightenment, and the freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth which shows one to oneself as perpetually other, can be attained. The Surrealist personal relationship is difficult to sustain—inevitably it has its discontents, unhappiness, instability—but it must be seen as an attempt to repair the unhappy condition of personal relationships in conventional materialistic society. As a group movement, Surrealism was an attempt to find a revolutionary alternative to conventional social relationships in spiritual personal relationships, “elective affinities.”

Such relationships inevitably collapse when they become self-conscious, i.e., when they acquire a conscious—ideological—rationale. Breton wanted human relationships to be surreal or unconscious in basis, which is partly why he encouraged revolt, which he thought is the most “expressive” or spontaneous manifestation of the unconscious. At the same time, he distinguished between kinds of revolt. The basis for the affinity the Surrealists felt with one another is their revolt against conventional social contract, their insistence on the unconscious basis of all authentic social relationships. Ultimately, personal revolt against Breton—their leader, and their symbol of the unconscious—implied the change from unconscious to the conscious, from the spontaneous to the ideological, and in Surrealist terms was regressive rather than progressive. The attitude toward Breton was necessarily ambivalent, because he represented the power and authority of the unconscious; ambivalence allowed for affinity in the first place, but eventually undermined it. Those who fell out of love with Breton—and love, for the Surrealists, is the “bringing together of two more or less distant realities” (Pierre Reverdy’s description of the Surrealist image)—became positively everyday. They made a Marxist ethical commitment to everyday life, which means, from a Surrealist point of view, that they no longer experienced the alienation of the heterogeneous, its form as distance. Distance collapsed, as though it had never existed. There was no need to elect an affinity to overcome it; indeed, there was no spontaneity—personal unconscious power—to overcome it. The entire structure of alienation and the spontaneity that had (temporarily) eliminated it through love or affinity was replaced by a new positive sense of collective unity, i.e., the false consciousness of homogeneousness, which is potential in the Marxist version of the postrevolutionary world.

In “Sur la route de San Romano“ (“On the road to San Romano”; in Oubliés, 1948), Breton wrote:

The poetic embrace like the embrace of flesh
While it lasts
Protects against any glimpse of the misery of the world.

Breton wrote: “‘Transform the world,’ said Marx; ‘change life,’ said Rimbaud: these two goals make only one for us.”2 One becomes a person by revolting against the conscious social contract—imposing rational, esthetic, and moral limitations on life—and recovering the unconscious, spontaneous roots of human being. Consciousness is misery, Breton seems to be saying; the state of unconsciousness that is poetic is as powerful as the state that is erotic in suspending our ordinary sense of the world, our inevitable unhappy involvement with it. The poetic like the erotic establishes another kind of social contract, establishes the basis for a sublime relationship, a sublime perception of the other. Indeed, the Surrealist point de l’esprit or point sublime, where opposites concur, is exemplified in the poetic love of elective affinity. Love is the spontaneous concurrence of opposites, the coming together of distant or alien human realities.

Of course, Breton himself never totally lost the control of consciousness, never altogether abandoned the conventional social contract, never completely fell in love, never established a truly elective affinity or absolute intimacy, never forgot limitations and alienation. He could not—by the very nature of what it meant to be an alienated artist, by the very fact that alienation was the only way of assimilation in a world where the artist was, if not unwelcome, then not entirely at home, nor expected to be. He was the scapegoat token of the hidden heterogeneousness in everyone, even those who seemed most at home in the world because they were most homogeneous, who blended in because they unconditionally accepted the conventional social contract. Breton realized that contract encompassed and implicitly determined personal “contracts” on which the Surrealist group was built. I think much of the substance of his Marxism was based on this recognition. In what at times seems a Machiavellian way, he played along with both kinds of contract, which was ultrarealistic.

Breton’s “very sinuous path” not only “passes through Heraclitus, Abelard, Eckhardt, Retz, Rousseau, Swift, Sade, Lewis, Arnim, Lautréamont, Engels, Jarry,”3 but, even more intimately, through Jacques Vaché, Tristan Tzara, Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, Antonin Artaud, Pierre Neville, André Masson, Max Ernst. These, too, were living elective affinities that transformed the meaning of the dead social contract. There were many other spiritual ancestors, and many other disciple/friends, members not of a school or sect but of what Breton himself called a “set,” understood as an “aggregation founded upon elective affinities.”4 Their multitude—Breton’s pluralism—is in itself a sign of his ambivalence about affinity, the reluctance with which he accepts his own choices. These supposedly exemplary spiritual relationships were destroyed from within, by their very spiritual—unconscious, spontaneous—nature. Their profundity and transience were inseparable.

Breton repeatedly stated his belief in collaborative efforts, from his early experiments in the “mise-en-commun des pensées” (“pooling of thoughts“) to his later insistence on “la télé-poésie” (“telepoetics”) to create from “a group of individuals a sur-moi positif” (“a positive supra-self”).5 But the Surrealist sur-moi never became positive, not only because its “mise-en-commun des pensées” almost invariably had a content of negative thoughts (as in the exquisite corpses), but because its basic form was negative. This is shown by the most famous demonstration of Surrealist group sensibility, the so-called “‘époque des sommeils’ [‘epoch of slumbers’], a veritable epidemic of hypnotic sleep, during which certain Surrealists . . . were immersed in a sea of dreams.”6 This already ironic group communion/communication—inherently ironic because the group forgot itself, did not know it was communicating, and existed as a group only in sleep, its members knowing their individuality only in the negative form of the dream—ended ironically when, at one seance, about ten Surrealists, led by Crevel, attempted mass suicide by hanging. (It was Crevel who in 1922 proposed hypnotic sleep to the group as a means of access to the marvelous; he committed suicide in 1935. He was the exemplary victim of the ideological group—of two groups, in fact, the Surrealists and the Communists, whose strained relations were enacted in his person. His self-destruction suggests the unresolvable self-contradiction each fell into in electing affinity with the other.) Another time Breton threatened Eluard with a knife.

The problem was that group efforts to achieve autonomy through “pure psychic automatism,” with its “absence of any control exerted by reason, outside of all esthetic and moral preoccupations” (as it was described in the First Surrealist Manifesto, 1924), led not to autonomy but to destructive group dynamics. Individuality came to exist only as the denial of the right of others to exist; it took only aggressive, negative form. Automatism, intended as a critique of the conventional, conscious social contract, became destructive of the possibility of any social contract, including the unconventional spontaneous personal one of Surrealism. Absolute automatist revolt became self-reflexive to the extent of becoming suicidal. Jacques Vaché was the classic example of its folly. It was Vaché who brandished a pistol, threatening to fire on the audience during the premiere of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias: drama surréaliste (June 24, 1917), presumably to show his dissatisfaction with the farce from which Surrealism later took its name. To shoot into a crowd became the exemplary Surrealist act for Breton, although he later repudiated such behavior when it became a terrorist cliché. It was Vaché also, with his notion of “umour,” defined as “a sense . . . of the theatrical uselessness (and joylessness) of everything,”7 who ruthlessly prepared the way for automatism. Vaché’s suicide in 1919—his death was officially regarded as the result of an accidental overdose of opium—was regarded by Breton as a supreme example of “disengagement.” The paradox is that Vaché did to himself what the war—Breton met Vaché when he was recovering from a war wound in the leg, later parading through the streets in a variety of military uniforms—did not. His demoralization by the war led to an insubordinate nihilism whose comic aspects could not protect him from himself, simply because he had become nothing but a rebel. Pure revolt finally meant revolt against the self, without which there was no point to life. Vaché’s brief career, such as it was—and it would have been less than it was if it had not been immortalized by Breton to make a theoretical point—shows the destructiveness of revolt for its own sake.

The “full moment” of the “marvelous,” of the complete commitment to the unconscious, may carry “within itself the negation of centuries of limping and broken history,”8 but it turned out to be self-commitment to a madhouse. Most important, it turned out to be as collective an adventure as history, and perversely as full of “control” as any exerted by reason, with its own esthetics and morality expressed through “life-style.” In fact, Surrealist “absence of any control” turned out to be submission to a more powerful, persistent control, a more dominant collective presence, than any conventional social contract would entail. Poetic and erotic violation of the social contract, which began with the violation of conventions of language and sexual behavior, and reached a climax with the attempt to overthrow the conventional idea that man was a kind of domesticated social animal (presumably the basis of civilization)—to achieve a total de-socialization of man—unexpectedly showed that man was in the grip of unconscious collective conventions he could not violate with impunity. The Surrealists showed that to give oneself completely to these conventions was more personally devastating than to give oneself blindly to social conventions. Moreover, they showed, paradoxically, that the “freedom” from social conventions that came with violation of them—freedom from conventional language and sexuality, a freedom to “feel” and experience in new ways—was nothing of the sort. It was rather a more profound slavery than any repression by convention, and the very tendency to violate convention was an instrument of enslavement to unconscious forces—a sign of the convention of violence or revolt that in a fundamental way structures the unconscious. The autonomy that one realized through revolt was a farce. Revolt against social conventions only tightened the chains of one’s emotional bondage, made one all the more hostage to one’s unconscious, which did not even turn out to be one’s own—to be “personal.”

The Surrealist group, then, came apart because of its own belief in revolt. The group itself, for all the elective affinities that constituted it, became a social contract that had to be violated, a convention that had to be “humorously” undermined. Surrealist revolt becomes poignant because its revolt becomes displaced; the world at large is no longer its target, its own group is. This “shrinkage” of target to oneself shows the result of sustaining negativity or criticality in pure form—as pure revolt. The myth of the possibility of totally changing oneself and the world turns out to be as specious as the idea that revolt is the only way to authentic individuality, which turns out to be corrupting and self-destructive. It assumes that individuality is separable from civilization, above the social contract. Not only are law and liberty only possible on the basis of social contract, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, but so is individuality, which is also a convention. This is a point of view more profoundly pessimistic and accurate than the Surrealist one, which assumes that individuality is rooted in the rebellion initiated by the unconscious. From a Hobbesian point of view individuality is an attempt to make the contract workable. Breton implicitly knew this, which is why he was repeatedly reformulating Surrealist individuality in terms of different groups and ideologies. He allowed complete experience of the absolutism and tyranny of the uncontrollable unconscious to others. He accepted the Dadaist recognition of the absurdity of a social contract perpetually collapsing in war—and the compensatory, simplistic Duchampian recognition that the work of art itself could be nothing but an ordinary object with which we had a personal “contract,” i.e., an unconscious relationship or elective affinity—but he knew there was no real alternative to the conventional social contracts, and the deliberate effort to sustain it.

Breton repeatedly negated his spontaneous, “unconscious” individuality by returning, through Marxism and later occultism, to a rationalized, conscious, socialized Surrealism. Surrealism’s group relations are caught up in this socialization of Surrealism, this demonstration that it is part of the universal social contract. Breton’s perpetual purges and “regroupings” were an attempt to arrive at this universal, nonpartisan Surrealism. To dispense with the disciples associated with a particular manifestation of Surrealism was to further its universality. But this was not necessarily to popularize Surrealism, as Salvador Dali and others, who rationalized Surrealism by showing it to be a manipulation of commonplace meanings and thus a very social art, did. In contrast, Breton showed that it could dissolve all kinds of systems of reason in its own primordial poetry, treating them as forms its own formlessness could feed off and temporarily adopt. This kept it subtly spontaneous and resistant or critical, and kept it from self-destruction by giving it an objective orientation. It was allowed its idealism as the critique of homogenizing realism.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion, in 1947, that Surrealism was “abstract and metaphysical, hence ineffective” and the Surrealists “parasites of the bourgeoisie they insulted,”9 missed the point: the critical idealism of Surrealism. Just as Sartre argued that Surrealism was idealistic, “incapable of action when the moment came,” so Theodor Adorno argued that Existentialism “remained in idealistic bonds” because of its emphasis on “spontaneity” as “the moment which the reigning practice will no longer tolerate.”10 But the possibility of idealistic spontaneity is just the point of Surrealism, which recognized that the social contract had lost its ideality if not its necessity (the lesson of World War I, the reason for Dadaist disgust, masking disappointment with ideals), and must now find a new home in the spontaneity of the alienated individual, who is radicalized by this very spontaneity into authentic heterogeneousness. The Surrealists rehabilitated the sense of the ideal that the Dadaists despised as treason against one’s sense of reality. The Surrealists were restorationists, but in a mental, not a physical, sense. They were faith healers, while the Dadaists took what they thought was an already dead society—and art—and performed “miracles” with its carcass. Romantic infinity made fresh sense for the Surrealists as a perpetual reminder not only of continuing possibility but of unreduced experience. For them experience cannot be reduced to conventional terms, which is what saves it from becoming the basis for a new ideology, or appropriation by old ideologies. It is Surrealism that appropriates old intellectual and social conventions and dogmas and restores their experiential, spontaneous sense, making them sources of individuality.

To “codify” ideality and possibility Breton repeatedly spoke of the “chances for tomorrow,” with the emphasis on “chances,” which makes tomorrow less utopian. Belief in chances for tomorrow is part of that exaltation of reality that surreality enacts—part of Breton’s rebuke against miserabilism, with its “depreciation of reality.” “Chances for tomorrow” are the only way of opening the social contract. They are the ultimate criticism rising up from the unconscious against consciously conceived life. We must praise rather than despise Breton for his idealism, for it remains a concrete threat, however romantic, to the bureaucracy—the formalization and hardening of one particular social contract—that descends even upon revolutionary social contracts, as Adorno noted Sartre admitted of the Communists. We now recognize that Breton’s progress through negativity is a positive process, not because it can be appropriated by the System but because it reminds the System of its insufficiency. His ideality is in this sense an accusation of insufficiency. The Surrealist group, then, never became a social system—could never be allowed to become one, which is why Breton was always changing its constitution, always showing it to be a group-in-process. If it had, it would have become sufficient unto itself, which would have meant it would forfeit its ideal of heterogeneousness, and the possibility of spontaneity that is associated with it. The Surrealist group remained an ambiguous institution.

Breton cultivated disciples to the end of his life. His motives have been disputed, especially with regard to what Claude Mauriac called his “appreciation”—dare one say fetishization?—“of the new, of the young, of the revolutionary.” Mauriac continued:

Having been in the avant-garde, and having been unanimously recognized for its leader, he never stopped being afraid that he might be left behind. Whence his inconceivable indulgence in the face of the most frivolous attempts of an untalented youth, to whom he always tends to give credit, just because it is youth and because it claims to be revolutionary.11

Victor Crastre “contends that Breton’s generosity to movements and persons which might have gone beyond Surrealism in some way” derives from his desire not “to lag behind in relation to some other current of thought,” and is central to his Surrealist attitude.12 But this generous Breton is past the peak of his self-definition, and looking for the renewal of lyrical revolt, or rather, “revolting” lyricism. This is Breton caught up in the ecstatic paradox of his position, the idealist in pursuit of the romantic infinite but also the realist in pursuit of political power, and so identifying with a possible constituency.

Instead, let us look more closely at the less generous, somewhat more particular Breton who excommunicated his former disciples, even assassinated their characters, preferring his place in history to respect for their personalities, for the individuality that Surrealism gave them. This is the Breton of the Second Manifesto (1929), who not only rejects all the “prophets” of Surrealism except for Lautréamont (John the Baptist to Breton’s Christ)—including Poe, whose proto-Surrealist “chemical” conception of “pure imagination” he had praised in Surrealism and Painting (1928)—but who now (and in subsequent years) dismisses most of his colleagues as deserters and traitors. It is as though he is suffocated by his consciousness of his Surrealist colleagues, and must absent them to recover his unconscious spontaneity. In a self-conscious act of revolt he does violence to them, idealistically reconstructing his freedom. Breton was really much better at acts of “free hatred” than those of the “free love” he advocated. The refusal rather than acceptance of affinity really made of Breton a “génie libre.” It was through elective hatred rather than through “mysterious, improbable, unique, confusing and indubitable” love that he made “progress toward the specific.”

Thus, Max Gérard suffers from “congenital imbecility.” Soupault, with whom he wrote the first truly Surrealist work, Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic fields, 1921), is denounced “‘avec son agitation dechantage’ [‘with his ratlike agitation circling the ratodrome, in the journals of blackmail’]; [Roger] Vitrac, a ‘véritable souillon des idées’ [‘a veritable scullion of ideas’]; Jacques Baron, with his ‘grâces de têtard’ [‘tadpole poises’], ‘dans la forêt immense du surréalisme pauvre petit coucher de soleil sur une mare stagnante’ [‘in the immense forest of surrealism a poor little sunset over a stagnant bay’]; Naville, ‘ce serpent boa de mauvaise mine’ [‘that foul-faced boa snake’]; and others.”13 Naville, who had become a “militant Marxist dedicated to political action” and who in 1926 “denied the revolutionary efficacy of previous Surrealist activity,” was accused by Breton of “realizing a selfish ambition by means of his father’s fortune.” This ad hominem attack hardly seems an adequate response to Naville’s confrontation of Surrealist equivocation with a hard choice: “either one believes that the liberation of the human mind is the most pressing concern and acts independently of Marxism, or one sees political revolution as the indispensable condition of all progress and embraces Communism unreservedly.” For Naville, the second was the authentic choice. (Naville had previously caused Breton difficulty when, as one of the editors of La Révolution surréaliste, he had “denied the existence of Surrealist painting and so raised the crucial question of the possibility of a Surrealist art, pictorial or otherwise.”)

Breton also quoted a newspaper account of Desnos’ drunkenness, the same Desnos who was admired for his extraordinary susceptibility to hypnotic sleep and who was so profound a dreamer that he purported to have telepathic communication with Duchamp in New York. Breton described Artaud “comme on eût pu le voir . . . giflé dans un couloir d’hôtel par Pierre Unik, appeler à l’aide sa mère!” (“as one might have seen him . . . slapped by Pierre Unik in a hotel hallway, calling to his mother for help!”). Earlier, in 1926, as a result of one of the movement’s self-examinations—in effect kangaroo courts held by Breton—Artaud, along with Soupault, was officially expelled for “the isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.” Desnos was also criticized for practicing bourgeois journalism. Later, in 1935, Breton slapped the Russian writer Ilya Ehrenberg several times in the face, responding to his assertion that the Surrealists, while claiming the heritage of Hegel and Marx and claiming to work for the Revolution, in fact “study pederasty and dreams,” “study” implying participation. Breton even broke with his old friend Ernst for accepting the Grand Prize for Painting at the 1954 Venice Biennale, presumably putting money before principle. Breton himself had rejected the Grand Prize of the City of Paris in 1950.

Three other events are evidence of the depth of Breton’s aggressive desire to determine what was thought of as authentic. He attempted to obliterate not only the individuality but the being of the inauthentic other. The first was the mock trial of Maurice Barrès for nationalism, a “crime against the soundness of the spirit” (May 13, 1921). Dadaistically, a wooden dummy represented the defendant and the Unknown Soldier appeared, speaking German, The second was the publication, on the occasion of Anatole France’s death (1924), of Un Cadavre, denouncing France for his “stylistic perfection, common sense, ‘génie français,’ patriotism, a serene skepticism, and public honors from both Right and Left.”14 The third was the publication, in 1932, of Paillasse! (Fin de “l’Affaire Aragon”) (What a mess! [end of the “Aragon affair”]), dealing with the complicated end of Breton’s long relationship with Aragon, who, Breton and others felt, evasively and opportunistically became a Communist. Each event was not only a political action against a false prophet asking us to reconcile ourselves with the existing society, or the utopian society to exist, but a critique of the psychology of a person implicitly claiming to be socially exemplary. For Breton, each had falsified Surrealism by identifying himself completely with society. They replaced its absorption in the unconscious with unconditional ideological commitment. This is why they were “liquidated.”

The point is that in Breton’s view Barrès, France, and Aragon failed as artists and thinkers because they never understood their pariah identities, instead proposing themselves as models of socially reconciled and so psychologically integrated selfhood. Their exemplary persons were meant to deny that there was anything eternally self-contradictory about existence. Paradoxically, this new wholeness meant that they had reduced themselves to signifiers of shopworn ideas. They were nothing but purveyors of empty abstractions; Breton’s destructive depersonalization of them implicitly acknowledged this. Presumably beyond self-transformation, they saw no more need to transform the world. Hence their newfound “happiness” and public presence—their positive outlook. They did not really exist, so completely had they identified themselves with their outlook, so completely were they nothing but stable symbols. Thus they could no longer function as society’s conscience, as radical individuality did. Their individuality was no longer a revolution of conscience, a realization of Marx’s call for “plus de conscience.” Breton thought Surrealism was a paradoxical way of creating conscience, for it was an attempt to exist completely poetically. Poetry from the unconscious calls attention to the insufficiency of conscience in society about the mental state in which existence is conventionally lived. This is Breton’s radical social criticism, an antidote to the hypocritical inner harmony of officially great men.

Barrès, France, Aragon each tried hard to be homogeneous, an “ideal” unit of homogeneousness. They had forgotten that the critical task of the modern thinker and artist was to become the pariah who embodied heterogeneousness, an act of dissent in itself. Elisabeth Lenk describes the pariah as follows:

Pariahs, like all people compelled to become members of a community, have no other choice but to share the values of the society which despises them, which considers them unclean and thereby excludes them from the in-group. Here are the origins of their self-contempt, their self-hatred. A process which takes place among everyone in homogeneous society is particularly apparent among pariahs: in order to gain approval everyone must hate the heterogeneous per se, or at least renounce it vigorously. . . . This is what Hegel called ‘bloodless annihilation.’ The individual—viewed from without—does not perish. One need only give up one’s heterogeneousness to be spared that tragic end.15

Breton’s predicament was to retain his heterogeneousness in the face of intense efforts to assimilate him, whether into bourgeois society or into Marxist-sanctioned Revolution. In a sense, his contempt for his associates, his hatreds and purges and calculated irreverence toward all persons who came too close to him, attempting to turn Surrealism into an in-group of intimates, as well as his uneasiness with and eventual break with the Communist Party, were all part of a vigorous attempt to maintain his heterogeneousness. He reaffirmed himself as a tragic pariah by publicly indulging in socially disapproved, unclean, despicable behavior and language, usually kept private in unspoken thoughts. Breton broke the code about the truly ineffable, the heterogeneous which at all costs is usually repressed in order to maintain the conventional social contract that gives the illusion of harmonious homogeneousness. Breton’s personal attacks were revolts against the homogeneous, all the more intense because they were mostly against former Surrealists whose newfound social conventionality indicated abandonment of the project of becoming a pariah, articulating inherently unassimilable heterogeneousness.

Clifford Browder observed that one of the reasons Breton broke with Dadaism, “the arch foe of convention,” was that it was becoming conventionalized, “stereotyped: its scandal, once familiar, amused more than it shocked.” Dadaism’s assimilation became self-evident with the appearance of Jacques Rivière’s article in the August 1, 1920 Nouvelle Revue Francaise taking it seriously, thus “marking the end of the general hostility and a first step toward literary consecration. Under such circumstances the movement could not continue to thrive on gratuitous scandal.” Breton and Aragon “felt it was time to adopt new tactics . . . thenceforth the group was threatened by its own dissensions.”16 Breton was determined to find a new strategy of heterogeneousness. Group dissension was a reserve strategy, to be used whenever the group itself threatened to become homogeneous, conformist, whether because of outside pressure or its own inertia. Soupault remarked that the Dadaists “were a group of friends who wanted to do something scandalous . . . against the academies.”17 When the Surrealists were about to become an academy they had to do something scandalous against themselves, to prevent the process. What better way than to go to the brink of dissolution?

Conventional group conflict—the latest group scandal—came to be crucial for Surrealism as a way of renewing faith in surreality, the living sign of the heterogeneous. It was also a traditional romantic idea, a radicalization of “difference.” Surrealism unexpectedly turned out to be a revival movement, resurrecting an obsolete concept as the basis for a new individualism, dressed in modern clothes and used to make a modern point. Despite the best efforts to homogenize or master existence the heterogeneous is there all along; it must be archaeologically excavated from the unconscious. Surrealism symbolized a virulent new strain of the heterogeneous—the unconscious—in hypocritically and self-consciously homogeneous society. Surrealist group dissension implied dissent from the very idea of the group, the elementary social unit, for the group automatically meant assimilation, homogeneousness. The group meant the stereotyping of identity, which for Breton truly existed spontaneously only in the feeling of solitude that was the most precious—purest—form of the heterogeneous. He renewed this solitude through his conflicts within the elective affinity, his apocalyptic relations with the Surrealist group.

Pariah consciousness inevitably leads to a sense of radicality, or radical self-belief. Lenk continues:

For the pariah, there are only two possibilities: either a radical self-renunciation—the impure ones must permanently subject themselves to purification rituals; only then can they succeed in rising fairly high within the homogeneous social hierarchy—or a return to disavowed heterogeneousness, a rebirth of the (disavowed) convictions—the development of pariah consciousness. As a result of the latter choice, the pariah either begins a radical questioning of the values of the society which has devalued the pariah’s ‘otherness,’ or the values are inverted in a manner distinctly characteristic of the pariah. To the degree to which pariahs have developed religions, Weber maintained, they are inclined to regard themselves and those like them as an elite class and to ascribe a nobler origin to themselves. A good example of this is the ‘elite consciousness’ of the Gnostics, who characterized themselves as sons and daughters of the king of an invisible realm who have fallen into the world as the chosen people of another, unknown god.18

Breton may have been a Pope within the Surrealist group, but in his radical questioning of the social contract that devalued unconscious otherness he acted like a pariah. He also turned Surrealism into a pariah, elitist religion. Indeed, he became sufficiently and explicitly gnostic or occult to believe that “above man in the scale of animals there may exist beings whose behavior is as foreign to him as his own is to the creatures below him—beings, indeed, whose very existence may escape his sense perception.”19 For Breton, art was the alchemical magic of the pariah, a way at once of maintaining personal pariah consciousness of heterogeneousness and of slipping it into society. Or rather, of subtly reminding society of the inherent heterogeneousness of its members, liable to break out epidemically at any moment—in a poetic or erotic moment that spontaneously becomes political, i.e., a revolutionary act. At the same time, art became Breton’s way of rising high in the homogeneous social hierarchy. He lived long enough to see Surrealism become a matter, as he notes, for “school books”—academic—which is partly why he was so generous to the young; Surrealism’s self-conscious pariah character could give substance to their unconscious pariah feelings, and they could revitalize it with their poetic and erotic uncertainty, the source of those feelings. It is also why violent dissension became a purification ritual for Breton; as long as it was violent and unsettled Surrealism could never become completely academic.

Revolt for revolt’s sake became his credo, a tautologization of revolt—a reduction of it to nothing but revolt—which simultaneously stereotypes it once and for all, assimilating it as a caricature of itself, but also declares it the destined way of authentic autonomy. Revolt against the group is the profane form of sacred violence, affirming the internal necessity of eternal heterogeneousness. Breton’s shamanistic violence is a “theatrical performance in which one actor plays all the roles at once.”20 He is both heterogeneous victim of homogeneous society, and homogeneous society reconciling itself with heterogeneousness in symbolic, individualized form. It is a ritual violence with a fixed rhythm of elective dissension and elective reconciliation, making Breton a social system in himself, with all the contradictions of the larger social system. Revolt makes him a microcosm of the macrocosm. Thus the truth of Lenk’s assertion that

Pariah consciousness can only remain intact—or even come into being, for that matter—when a pariah has achieved some measure of individual upward mobility within homogeneous society. Clinging to their pariah status seems to be the only means available for protecting the personality in the contradictory situation in which pariahs, who have risen in a hostile society, find themselves.21

Breton rose in a hostile society because he embodied the secret feeling of being a pariah in the individual unconscious of all of society’s members—the repressed feeling of heterogeneousness that he expressed. But he also rose because of his hostility to his disciples, which made society think he had authority. The Surrealist group had the same authoritarian hierarchical system of subordination as society as a whole, for all the attempts to avoid such a negative system through the achievement of a sur-moi positif, elective affinities. Breton thus perversely rose above the fracas, taking his place in society’s leadership class. He liberated heterogeneousness by conceiving it to be a poetic embrace that transforms its everyday object—revealing that object’s secret heterogeneousness. That made Surrealism redemptive of the everyday, made the conventional tolerable; Surrealism thus proved useful to the controlling class. Breton was allowed admission to it because he showed, in his person, leadership to be “vital.” But he kept alive his autonomy by homogenizing his enemies, as well as society.

Breton’s isolation was profounder than he knew. For it had to do with his own tragicomic assimilation as a utopian ornament of society, and his own convulsive, yet peculiarly conventional efforts—for his revolt mimicked the violence of the society it reflected—to maintain his integrity. Ultimately he could not find the alternative to both standard revolt and standard society, standardized heterogeneousness and thoroughly conventionalized society—he could not find the durable, willed friendship, the unstandardized I-Thou relationship, with its suspension of standardized, rolelike behavior. Elective affinity is not friendship, it is blind transference, whether negative or positive. It involves neither master nor disciple, consciously or unconsciously. Above all, this had to do with his failure to understand personal relationship, for all that he knew about authentic selfhood. The irony of Breton is that he understood homogeneous society better than it understood itself, but he hardly understood himself. He saw the rot in conventional society, and the rot in his disciples who wanted to pass for conventional, and he understood that, rot to be the living form of the homogeneous. He also understood rot perversely: as paradoxically purgative of the very homogeneousness it seems to signal, preparing the way for the heterogeneous without guaranteeing it. But he did not understand the rot in himself—his lack of need for an I-Thou relationship, which is, ironically, the most radical form of heterogeneousness or individuality there is, for it is relationship without rules. In Breton rot took the form of a need for disciples, which shows after all how homogeneous Breton was—how much he was like every other ideologue. Even disciples trivialized, pulverized, thrown out of court, have their value as shadows of the conventional self.

Donald Kusput’s new book of poems is entitled A Wing of Death. He received the Frank Jewitt Mather Award for 1981–82, conferred by the College Art Association for distinction in art criticism.



1. Victor Crastre, “Le Drame du surrealisme (1924–26),” Les Temps Modernes, no. 34, July 1949, p. 54. My translation.

2. André Breton, Manifestes du surrealisme” (Paris: Pauvert, 1962), p. 285.

3. Breton, p. 342.

4. “Une Mine au point d’André Breton,” Le Figaro littéraire, May 19, 1951, p. 3.

5. Quoted by Mary Ann Caws, Surrealism and the Literary Imagination; A Study of Breton and Bachelard (The Hague: Mouton, 1966), p. 74.

6. Clifford Browder, André Breton, Arbiter of Surrealism (Geneva: Droz, 1967), p. 17.

7. Letter of April 29,1917, in Jacques Vaché, Les Lettres de guerre de Jacques Vaché, suivies d’une nouvelle (Paris: K Editeur, 1949).

8. Breton, Manifestes du surrealisme, p. 343.

9. Browder, p. 42. in paraphrase of Sartre. In section IV, “Situation of Writing in 1947,” in What Is Literature? Sartre in effect denied that Surrealism was an engaged literature.

10. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Seabury, 1973), p. 49.

11. Claude Mauriac, André Breton (Pans: Editions de Fiore. 1949). p. 345.

12. Mary Ann Caws, André Breton (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971), p. 16.

13. The quotes in this and the next paragraph are taken from Browder, pp. 21–25, 34, 124, and 168–69.

14. Browder, p. 22.

15. Elisabeth Lenk, “Indiscretions of the Literary Beast: Pariah Consciousness of Women Writers Since Romanticism,” New German Critique, no. 27, Fall 1982, p. 106.

16. Browder, p. 14.

17. Annabelle Melzer, Latest Rage the Big Drum; Dada and Surrealist Performance (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980), p. 184.

18. Lenk, pp. 106–7.

19. Browder, p. 146.

20. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, p. 286.

21. Lenk, p. 107.